Unorthodox Orthodoxy

As many of you know, several of my best posts are based on my responses to things people say to me, either in person or in some online forum. This is one such instance.

As usual, it began innocently enough with a woman commenting that many people who use the Catholic handle (like this blog for example) do not deserve the title because they are not truly worthy of all the title entails. The definition of orthodox, just to put us all on the same page, is: “conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.” So for Catholics this is primarily Church approved Canon and Doctrine.

I’m open to critique, because if I were perfect I’d be ready for heaven and since that day is not yet here I’m sure there’s still much room for improvement. Perhaps one such imperfection is my sass because this woman struck a particular nerve with me through her condescension and I just gave in to my urge to say something. It just really bothers me when people tell others they are not worthy of something because it subtly implies that they are worthy of it (or at least in their “humble” efforts to be worthy they are better than those who don’t try at all/fail in their eyes). So I responded to this woman, “on the other hand many are too proud of their orthodoxy.” This woman proceeded to correct my response by replying, “orthodoxy precludes pride” which, unfortunately for her, completely proved my point (perhaps unintentionally, but still).

I honestly wish that her claim were more true. Because doctrinally, what she said is sound. Practicing Catholics do accept an orthodoxy that rejects pride in all forms, but I have met so many who practice orthodoxy, it seems, not for the love of God but for the love of men, for status in their Catholic and/or intellectual circles.  And this is a tragedy.

Because I’ve met two types of orthodox people in my day. The first kind is usually the model of humility that is fostered by a deep prayer life. They would be the last to mention their holiness and there is usually no need to because it goes without saying. The second is the type that is always eager to showcase their knowledge of their faith and quick to judge others who do not meet their standards of what a good, orthodox faith entails. Call it Club Pharisee, because these people tend to move in groups and be somewhat proud of their exclusivity. 

And this is an extremely sore point  for me with my faith, not just with Catholicism but with Christians in general, and it played no small role in prompting me to write both The Religion Crisis and The Finest Thing I’ve Ever Known. Because true Christianity, true orthodoxy, is not an exclusive club, it is a way of life and judging others has no place in it. If you must judge anything let it be the action, not the person, because if you walked a mile in their shoes you might have done the same, if not more. The grace of God to walk the difficult path of heavenly perfection and keep true to orthodox doctrine is a generous gift, not an accomplishment. And when you presume to judge others based on your opinions of whether or not they are as orthodox or well informed as your own self you take credit for God’s work in you in a most abominable way. And I honestly think that if you kept this up you would lose God’s grace just as much as if you were caught in sin,  because you become, as Jesus said, a “whitewashed sepulcher” a good looking grave, because while it may seem like you uphold the law there is no love in your heart, because nothing drives out love faster than pride. I know this from experience.

And the whole point of orthodoxy for me is not to have it as a checklist that I measure my worth by. It is instead a key to figuring out how to have more of God in my soul because having God in my soul is the only thing that has ever satisfied my annoyingly restless heart. Because my God is love, perfect love. And if you manage to have perfect orthodoxy without also having love what is the point? It’s just a barren branch without any fruit on it because it’s still just you, and the point of religion is to have God in you. 

And it frustrates me when I see this in the Christian ranks. I moved to Pittsburgh from a lovable but extremely elitist town in Virginia where I saw people being seduced by this temptation everywhere. The temptation to strive for knowledge and the accolades that come from having it while forgetting that the purpose of all knowledge is to enlighten us to the truth, a truth that came to life through love Himself.

Because the truth of the gospel, the rich mysteries of the Church, were not made as a merely mental exercise, a truth to be discovered by and shared among only the worthy. The truth of the gospel was meant to be lived and shared indiscriminately due to the very nature of what it is you’re receiving. The gospel is a tremendous gift meant to give us true joy and lasting love, a life with deeper roots, higher thoughts, wider hearts, and bigger smiles because through it we encounter God in our lives, and there is nothing more we need.

And I get tired of churches looking the same as the world. The same cliques, the same judgments, the same excuses, the same buffet tables. I want churches to look different. Because saints always look different from their times and we are all called to be saints.(After all, saints are just born sinners with the audacity to declare that they will not die that way.) I’m not saying that we should abandon all doctrine and declare free love. I’m a firm believer in absolute truth which I believe is revealed through the Catholic Church and its doctrine. We don’t have to agree on that, in fact a fair amount of people who read this blog probably don’t. But in a world where everyone likes to sit comfortably and discuss what’s wrong with other people, I wish they would focus instead on doing two simple things: 1) receiving the love of God 2) sharing the love of God. Because while these things are straightforward they are not always easy. And by letting God love us, we become the change we wish to see in the world, because heaven comes alive in us and, hopefully, when others see it they remember who they are and want to have it too. 

Because a friend of mine who happened to catch my exchange with this woman told me “she (the commentator) wouldn’t like me very much” because he also uses a Catholic handle and figured that he too would not be orthodox or worthy enough. And this almost perfectly sums up how many millennials feel about the Christian religion. Just a meeting of Club Pharisee with a lot of boring doctrines that exclude people and can’t compete with the exciting modern world of today with the falsely welcoming embrace of the hazy universalism that is non-judgmental spirituality. And this is a shame because from my own study (which I admittedly wish I had more time for) I can confirm that God does not feel that way about a single one of His children. God is love and love is never about being worthy. Love is a gift, a free gift from a free choice, and Club Pharisee is a bad representation of what I believe is in God’s heart. But how would you know that if you weren’t raised in faith like me? And how would you know that if your only experiences with the Church went like that?… But try and be better than me and have patience with members of Club Pharisee, because it’s a very human fault and they’re learning as they go just as you are.

But I guess if I could change one thing it would be a counter to all the perfectionism of the world and the haughtiness of Club Pharisee. And my way of doing that would be to admit to you that I chose the Catholic handle not because this blog is about Catholicism, has millions of footnotes leading you to Catholic doctrine, or even because I’m worthy of the title. I choose this handle because I am Catholic, it is so much a part of me that it colors how I experience the world, and I am as Catholic listening to my new Pentatonix album (amazing) as I am when I’m sitting at mass (also amazing). To admit that I think the love of God is so profoundly beautiful that you can experience whether you are a champ at kneeling or whether you slouch like I do. To admit that truly following Christ is hard and that it won’t always win you friends or a big fancy house in the suburbs (no matter what Joel Osteen says) but that you can do it anyway by His grace and the people He places in your life at just the right time. To admit even that I am far from a perfect person and that often I find myself in awe of God’s patience with me as I struggle to overcome the same flaws over and over again.

But most of all to admit that, while I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog, there is only one thing I ever wanted it to be: honest. And part of that truth is that I love you tremendously, even if we’ve never met. Because I know God loves you tremendously too in both your strengths and in your weaknesses. And if you believe nothing else I ever write believe that, because reflecting on that simple truth can change your life. It certainly changed mine.

So here’s to love and humility, even if it means a slightly unorthodox orthodoxy.


Tale as old as Time

So today I got to thinking (have you missed that hook? Because I sure have!) that the movie Beauty and the Beast can be used as a perfect metaphor for why I find it so difficult to defend the faith sometimes. Just to be clear this is not an admission to shortcomings in Catholic doctrine- quite the opposite in fact. I find the truth of the Gospel and the rich mysteries of the church so compelling, in such perfect harmony with natural law and what I’ve experienced to be true, that it breaks my heart when others don’t see it too. I guess I should explain that a lot of my debates have been with the well-informed, well-educated, and extremely skeptical (bordering on the cynical and apathetic for some- but not all). They are extremely comfortable in the realm of what can be proven and submit to human authorities like doctors (either of medicine or in the realm of academia), scientists, philosophers, public figures/celebrities and the like. And this path can only get you so far. Herein lies our metaphor for Beauty and the Beast. (I’ll bet you’re really curious now but bear with me I’ll explain in full.)

In Beauty and the Beast the prince and all the other servants of his castle are plunged into a spell when he fails to be kind to an elderly woman seeking his help. (Let’s compare this loosely to the fall of mankind from our spots in Heaven into our earthly exile as punishment for our own sin.) So with our first comparison in place, it’s time for another. In today’s modern age something weird is happening. As our culture becomes more and more wealthy, materialistic, and atheistic we are encouraged to live our curse (if you will) to the fullest, instead of dreaming about the day when we will be free of that curse- which is always the day (if you know your fairy tales) when you fall in love, when you get what your heart desires most of all, above all other things. So what this means for debate is that when I come from my perspective of freedom and restoration or, to continue our metaphor, being “human again” I’m met with arguments of how great it is being a chair or a table. How living in the enchanted castle is pretty sweet (at least it’s rent free!) and having the beast for a master is not so bad. It’s a denial that will ultimately keep them from the thing their heart wants most of all, simply to have the freedom to love and be loved in turn.

To drop the metaphor now, an atheist can tell me that this life is all there is and accuse me that my belief in God is just my way to shield myself and deny the cold realities of life. An agnostic can tell me that they are “spiritual” and like the light, generalized feelings of love, but that the deep, ritualistic and sacrificial love of religion is not worth pursuing. A cynic can tell me in exasperation that I’m neither smart nor discerning and that I believe a pack of lies. A hurting soul or a person with a bad experience of the church can simply let their actions speak and walk away. A person trapped in sin can simply never come at all, believing the lie that they are unworthy of love in the first place. And all I can ask any of them at that point is that they look past the tables and chairs and try, for just a moment, to believe with the heart of a child. To embark on the greatest adventure of all, what I think should be the very definition of life in the dictionary: the process of learning how to love. A difficult, arduous, exciting, romantic, and ultimately worthwhile pursuit because, whether we are willing to admit it or not, whether we have discovered it yet or not, the path of love always leads us to the thing our heart desires the most, above all other things: God.

Hefty, but true. Because when we really try to walk down that path, begging through prayer for the graces to do what we cannot do ourselves, that enchanting transformation begins to occur. Our eyes begin to see, our ears begin to hear, and our hearts begin to soften, and eventually overflow with love. And the further you walk down this path the more you get to experience the greatest gift of joy and freedom possible while still in exile: the opportunity to share everything you have discovered on the path with your neighbors. This is the simple truth of the gospel, the moral of the greatest story ever told.