Saturday, December 11, 2004

Letters to a lapsed Catholic

Letter No. 1
Thanks for being forthcoming about not having been to church since last Ash Wednesday. So where is your relationship with God if you've left His Church out of it? Sounds either very Protestant or very indifferent--which would mean very apostate.

Pascal's Wager might be worth a few moments' reflection here. Regardless of whether we spend time thinking about it, we're gambling spiritually with our lives by the little decisions we make every day, aren't we! As Peter Kreeft once said, there are finally only two kinds of people in the world: saints who know they're sinners, and sinners who think they're saints; or, as C.S. Lewis preferred: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says: "Thy will be done."

If it's disillusionment with the local Catholic parish, I could write a book of my own about that. I find contemporary Catholic practice appalling. There's better music in Anglican and Lutheran churches, and better catechesis in Baptist and Presbyterian churches. The only problem is this little darn thing called truth: it's still the only real Church-- His Church. And I can't pretend to live obediently and garner His blessing apart from His Church. It's a blessing to me, actually, that Peter and Judas both betrayed Christ, not only because I realize that even those Jesus chose to be members of His varsity team were morally fallible, but because it shows me that those whom He placed in charge of His Church (Peter, at least) was morally fallible and yet to be obeyed. If you want a good illustration of that, read the first two chapters of Galatians, which relates the first meeting of Paul with Peter, as well as his later meeting with him. Imagine Paul, the most educated Jew in all Palestine-- the protoge of Rabbi Gamaliel, a Roman citizen, speaker of Latin and Greek as well as Hebrew and Aramaic, a Pharisee by training-- just imagine this Paul, converted independently on the road to Damascus, after three years going up to Jerusalem to submit himself to this head-strong and probably arrogant-seeming Joe Sixpack of a fisherman, PETER, accepting his authority as head of the Church!! A truckload to think about there.
Letter No. 2
One of the chief measures of being Catholic is one's willingness to submit himself to the Church as to Christ, believing those two things can't be separated in matters of faith and morals, doctrine and discipline. I can understand the subjective experience of emptiness in segments of one's spiritual pilgrimage. St. John of the Cross wrote about that in his Dark Night of the Soul, when he refered to those consolations (both sensible and spiritual) that God removes from us in order to help us grow. That has to be excruciatingly painful in some respects. They say that Mother Teresa lacked, for the great majority of her career in Calcutta, any personal sense of reassurance about God's will in what she was doing. And yet nobody--least of all the famished and dying Indians she pulled out of the gutters of Calcutta--would have ever known this: she had to go from day-to-day on sheer faith. This, it seems to me, is what we're asked to do when the externals of our faith life don't seem to "deliver." This is certainly the case for me at the moment, at least when it comes to Sunday Masses. The music and such seem to detract, rather than assist, the ascent of the soul to God.

Something very important to most of us from Protestant backgrounds is our feelings. We want to be personally connected, welcomed at church and experience (EXPERIENCE) the love of God through its horizontal expressions of hospitality and good will from those in the pews around us. I think the Catholic Church has moved considerably, if somewhat lamely, in this direction by its posting of greeters at church doors, it's often prolonged "passing of the peace" after the Our Father, etc., and sometimes Wednesday night church dinners, and such. All of this is well-intended, and I think there is certainly an important place in our faith journeys for interpersonal connectedness with other fellow-travelers. Yet I think these things can facilitate a loss of focus on what is importantly stressed in Catholic tradition: the sheer objectivity of grace communicated through the sacraments. We want to FEEL grace, when in fact all we can feel are either the physical effects of grace in the expressions of affection in those around us, or, worse, their self-induced expressions of enthusiasm. But grace, being supernatural, is incapable of being felt. This is why Catholic tradition has so many books like Ronald Knox's book on ENTHUSIASM-- emotional shows of spirituality-- condemning it.

All of this is both quite simple and quite challenging. It means that God gives us through His Church the objective means of salvation and His own authority and supernatural grace to back them up and make them truly effective. It means that when I believingly receive the Sacrament of His Body and Blood in a state of grace I receive grace objectively whether I feel anything emotionally or not. Furthermore, for Catholics it means that we place ourselves in a state of mortal sin and divine condemnation when we break the precepts of the Church (by failing to keep our Holy Days of Obligation or failing to receive the Eucharist in a state of grace after having confessed our sins) whether we personally FEEL any sense of guilt or not.

I recognize the tight spot you find yourself in somewhat, being the lone Catholic in your family, and so forth. But if you could have a talk with your dear patron saint, St. Ambrose, do you not think he would say, "Dear friend, get to confession and get yourself back to church!"? Furthermore, as to your heretical opinions, do you not think he would tell you, "Dear daughter, do you imagine that Christ established the Church only to undermine it by having her teaching held hostage by the opinions of the masses? Of course everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but do you think that following your own opinions, any more than following one's conscience, can possibly guarantee that one will do the right thing? Have we not the obligation to submit our opinions to the governance of the Church, to let our consciences and opinions be informed by her teaching? What would happen to the Church if we let her path be determined by majority vote or by the public media? Perhaps that is preciesly what is wrong with your American Church these days ... "

As important as feelings are, they can be so misleading and deceptive if not allowed to flourish in their proper place in relation to the intellect. One can feel as if God is smiling upon him when he is embarked upon the silliest and most deluded ventures. Try re-reading C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters. Such fiction, unlike a lot of non-fiction these days, has the power to lead us closer to reality rather than further away from it. Lewis says that the notion of "humanity's search for the divine" strikes him a bit like talking about "the mouse's search for the cat"! I'm much more inclined to suspect Blaise Pascal is right when he says: "Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true." The cure for this, of course, is a more careful and ongoing study of what true religion involves--how it is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

I see little sense in searching for the little experienced "epiphanies" of the sacred in a life divorced from submission to God's provision for us of a Church intended for us for our own ongoing governance, edification, and care. But if one's good is to be found within the precincts of the Church, then I'm all in favor of looking for every possible "sacramental sign" of His grace wherever it can be discerned.

There is so much falsehood about Opus Dei floating around these days, particularly as a result of that marvellously engaging but satanically misleading book by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. But one thing I will always treasure from my involvement with Opus Dei is the Plan of Life they provide [see one description here]. We would never undertake a mundane venture-- such as a trip or the building of a house-- without a plan. But most of us rush headlong through life without any sort of plan for our lives. Our ultimate purpose in life is one thing and one thing only: to get ourselves to heaven. Yet what sort of plan have we for getting there. Instead, we drift ... and then wonder why we are unhappy, confused, and distant from the shore.

Every day we should engage in at least 15 minutes of spiritually edifying reading, by which I don't mean anything New Agey or some secularized version of Christianity like Thomas More might provide. I mean reading that strengthens one's understanding of Church teaching, that builds one's desire to lead a disciplined life, that shows how to do this, and so forth. Most of Opus Dei literature is focused on the virtues, because without the cultivation of basic virtues, such as humility, we can't begin to expect to appropriate some of the most important kinds of knowledge. Scheler understood this principle, at least, when he pointed out how love (far from being "blind") actually opens our eyes to values in those we love (to which others who don't love them remain blind)!

Second--to continue to pick out several more items from the plan--in addition to 15 minutes of spiritual reading daily, we should pray daily at regular times. We should pray upon waking, at noon, and before retiring at night. And some of these should be set prayers, such as the Angelus, which it recommends at noon, or at 3:00pm, or the Rosary.

Third, we should meditate at least 15 minutes a day, by which I don't mean the mind-emptying form of meditation found in Zen Buddhism and other Eastern forms of mysticism, but rather a focusing of the mind upon Christ, an imaginative picturing of Him in some of the scenes the Gospels opens up for us, as well as upon aspects of our own relatedness to Him and to the saints. St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, used to hesitate briefly before passing through every door, because he would mentally allow his own guardian angel to pass through the door ahead of him-- not a bad excercise to remind us of the unseen reality all about us.

Fourth, we should make an examination of conscience every evening before retiring, in which we take inventory of how well we have stuck to the Plan of Life for that day, as well as any sins of commission or omission we have been guilty of that day. This way we will find that we have something concrete to confess by the end of the week, whether it's mortal or merely venial.

Fifth, we should assist at (go to) Mass whenever at all possible throughout the week as well as on the weekends.

Sixth, we should seek to sanctify ourselves and our work and all we do by practicing the presence of Christ throughout every moment of every day. Having a crucifix with you may facilitate this end.

Seventh, we should seek to sanctify others through our work. As they say:
Sow a thought, reap an act;
Sow an act, reap a habit;
Sow a habit, reap a character;
Sow a character, reap a destiny.
Then there's what C.S. Lewis says:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal,and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit-- immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
Letter No. 3
You wrote:
There comes a point, though, when things are spewed out of one's mouth, quite involuntarily. Things that don't belong. Even churches.
I'm not sure I follow what you're intending here. It seems to me that one could involuntarily spew out of one's mouth some things one had intended to swallow, like vitamins, getting them confused with cherry pits or something (heh ...). On the other hand, your use of the word "belong" raises the question of what you may be assuming as a standard of judgment as to what does and what doesn't belong. Christ doubtless has His own standard, which neither of us is in a position to question, when He spews the lukewarm church of Laodicea out of His mouth in Rev. 3:14-22. But I wonder also whether any of us is in a position to assess whether Christ's Church warrants spewing out of our mouths, if that's what you mean.
Letter No. 4
Well, let's get away from the theme of getting sick "when things are spewed out" and vomited up, which I doubt is pleasant to anyone. Let me affirm a point that's important to you, however, namely your point about body wisdom, what your heart and body tell you. I think that's important too. Often our hunches represent intuitions that come from engrained habits of virtue. That's what allows the G.I. to throw himself on a grenade in a foxhole and save his buddies' lives at the cost of his own. He doesn't even have to think about it. It's instinctual.

Even more basically, I would agree that we can't help believing what we believe to be true and right, because it's what we really believe is true and right, after all. We can't will ourselves to change what we believe if we don't believe it's true. What is within our control, however, is to do our best to conform our ACTIONS to what we know in our heart to be honest and good and true-- to shun evil and selfishness, be generous and kind, to seek truth, to care about what is right and good, and to do what we can to seek the realization of these things. This in itself can allow us to see more clearly what is true, so as to avoid deluding ourselves, in case that could be happening-- and I include myself here along with anyone else.
Letter No. 5
It's always good to hear from you. I'm glad my email kept you thinking, as you put it. Just as C.S. Lewis said about reading, one cannot be too careful of one's thinking these days ... It could lead one kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God, the most reluctant convert in Christendom.

You comparison of sickness to God was interesting-- submitting to that over which one has no power.

In another vein, you mention The Church that Forgot Christ as a book that has influed you away from the Church. I've just purchased Goodby, Good Men, by Michael Rose, which is a nitty-gritty expose of the sexual scandal, but one which sees the scandal as a symptom of a much deeper underlying malady, which has to do not merely with slack discipline but unbelief on the part of many bishops who are supposed to be the "shepherds" of the flock. Horrible. The evil you mention is real. The temptation that Satan would want us to succumb to is that of thinking that we could find security by absenting ourselves from church and cutting ourselves off from the sacramental means of grace, of course. Here's where we're called upon by the Lord to be wise as serpents, and not merely innocent as doves.

Our battle, as Paul says, is not against flesh and blood, ultimately; but against powers and principalities in high places. This means that the real battle is taking place in the unseen world-- part of which is the world of the intellect, the world of ideas. Some of this shakes out in the "culture-wars" that divide our nation politically, in odd ways. Other parts of it manifest themselves in intellectual trends and fads. You mention having been exposed to "much anti-Christ is very subtle ways ...." This is doubtless true. It always is. But what if the subtlety is subtler than you'd ever guessed, and some of the ideas that have influenced us under the guise of a loving "peace," "equality," "embracing diversity," "empowering the marginalized," and so forth are actually a web of half-truths being spun by Screwtape to lead us to perdition?

"GOD" means no more than "DOG" apart from an apostolic tradition that can define Him who was revealed for us in Christ. Try reading Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, again. You will be glad of it. He's one of those authors who is not only a tremendous comfort, but offers some profound conceptual insights to back it up. You've probably seen Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger in the movie Shadowlands about his short-lived marriage to Joy Gresham, who already had cancer before they were married and died shortly afterwards. It's based on his posthumously published book, A Grief Observed.
Letter No. 6
You shouldn't fear reading Lewis' Screwtape Letters, I shouldn't think. I don't know of an author better equipped to bring us to that place where we're safest-- at the "center of God's will," as Corrie Ten Boom's sister put it. You're correct about Lewis not having been Catholic, even though he believed in Purgatory and went to weekly confession, which is more than one can say for most Catholics these days. At least (possibly 3) books have been written about Lewis and his relationship to Catholicism. One is by Christopher Derrick, whose father (I believe) was converted by G.K. Chesterton. Another, I think, is by Joseph Pearce (though I could be mistaken). But I think there's also one more. They all suggest that Lewis could have quite naturally gone on to become a Catholic had it not been for a couple of major cultural barriers, like the fact that his father had been an Ulsterman, which would make it about as hard to become a Catholic as it would be if you were a member of the KKK and were asked to consider joining the NAACP or Black Panthers. I LOVE the Sheldon Vanauken book, which you mentioned, A Severe Mercy. If you've never read it, there's at least one chapter in the sequel, Under the Severe Mercy--the chapter called "Crossing the Channel," which is well worth reading. There's also an article that was published in the New Oxford Review just before he died that's very touching, about his meeting with Davy's child that she had out of wedlock before they were born: he met her after Davy died, when her daughter was a young woman. He mentions the fact that Davy rejected the notion of having an abortion and how the two of them met in Virginia, and went and knelt and prayed in the church that Davy had attended while she was living. Very moving. Even if you do not 'hope to turn again' (pace T.S. Eliot), I will continue to keep you in my prayers as I have every morning since first hearing from you back when M. introduced us, and pray that God continues to enfold you with His grace and bring you to the place where you're confident, contented, and convinced that you are in His holy will.

(No, God is not male. He embraces both male and female. How could he not, since we're both--male and female--made in His image? Then why do we call Him "Him"? Because in relation to Him we're all feminine, and in relation to us He's masculine. We are His bride, the Church (which makes even us men feminine in relationship to Christ), and He is our bridegroom. Imagine what that does to those of us macho types for whom that conjures up images of ourselves in drag!)
Letter No. 7
Although you say that in relation to us God is also feminine, that overlooks the difference between metaphor and simile, in that God is never said to be a mother hen, although He is said to be like a mother hen, whereas He is said to be a Father, and Jesus obviously is not only masculine in relation to us metaphorically, but actually a man, and, if we are to believe the creed and hold that He is ascended as to His flesh, then He is still a man, as well as God.

There is a lot of reading about the female's experience of Catholicism that I find highly edifying-- for example, Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, or St. Edith Stein's work, Essays On Woman (Collected Works of Edith Stein). But if you mean the dour writing of embittered females who think that a patriarchal hierarchy is something "oppressive" to women, I find that sort of writing animated by an ideology entirely foreign to the spirit of Christianity and Catholicism. It blindly buys into an ideology developing in the West since the Enlightenment, writings of Rousseau, and the French Revolution, that has gone to seed in contemporary expressions of gender feminism that has, in my view, completely lost touch with what it means to be a human being. The notion that men and women share a common human 'nature' is dismissed as Aristotelian "essentialism," and in its place is foisted the notion of woman as a bundle of autonomous interests whose end lies in a sort of quasi-Nietzschean self-realization. Here are some secular examples of where this kind of thinking has led (though Catholic religious examples, like Mary Daly, are even further out). Note in particular the nobility in which they hold the traditional role of mother and homemaker, traditionally celebrated in Christian tradition:
  • "[A]s long as the family and the myth of the family and the myth of maternity and the maternal instinct are not destroyed, women will still be oppressed.... No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction." ~ Simone de Beauvoir, "Sex, Society, and the Female Dilemma," Saturday Review, June 14, 1975.
  • "A parasite sucking out the living strength of another organism...the [housewife's] labor does not even tend toward the creation of anything durable.... [W]oman's work within the home [is] not directly useful to society, produces nothing. [The housewife] is subordinate, secondary, parasitic. It is for their common welfare that the situation must be altered by prohibiting marriage as a 'career' for woman." ~ Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949.
  • "[Housewives] are mindless and thing-hungry... not people. [Housework] is peculiarly suited to the capacities of feeble-minded girls. [It] arrests their development at an infantile level, short of personal identity with an inevitably weak core of self.... [Housewives] are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps. [The] conditions which destroyed the human identity of so many prisoners were not the torture and brutality, but conditions similar to those which destroy the identity of the American housewife." ~ Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963.
  • "[Housewives] are dependent creatures who are still children ... parasites." ~ Gloria Steinem, "What It Would Be Like If Women Win," Time, August 31, 1970.
  • "Feminism was profoundly opposed to traditional conceptions of how families should be organized, [since] the very existence of full-time homemakers was incompatible with the women's movement.... [I]f even 10 percent of American women remain full-time homemakers, this will reinforce traditional views of what women ought to do and encourage other women to become full-time homemakers at least while their children are very young.... If women disproportionately take time off from their careers to have children, or if they work less hard than men at their careers while their children are young, this will put them at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis men, particularly men whose wives do all the homemaking and child care.... This means that no matter how any individual feminist might feel about child care and housework, the movement as a whole had reasons to discourage full-time homemaking." ~ Jane J. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, 1986.
Letter No. 8
When you say you "guess the lack of a female voice is universal, in all subjects," I'm not sure what you mean. If you mean the world seems to lack religions in which the accent is on femininity as opposed to masculinity in the deity, I know that simply isn't true. Judaism was unique among all the religions of the Middle East at the time of its appearance in holding to a deity that was portrayed in masculine terms. This mascuilinity (God entering mother earth from outside of it, later in Christianity impregnating the Virgin in order to Incarnate His Son, etc.) speaks of God's transcendence-- His being beyond, other than, independent of the world He creates. All the other Canaanite religions and religions of the Middle East held feminine conceptions of divinity-- implying that their gods emerged from mother earth or the cosmos, or what the Greeks called 'Gaya,' rather than having created it. So I would suggest, if anything, that the "male voice" is the minority voice in the history of world religions, if by "female voice" you mean female conceptions of the divine. Only in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, & Christianity) is God portrayed as an all-transcendent deity in masculine terms, as far as I know.

As to the Hebrew name for God, "El Shaddai," I grant that the linguistic associations you suggest (with "breast") exist embedded among the other meanings. The upshot, it seems to me, is that God is to be understood as all-sufficient, as providing for every conceivable need; and certainly God is. He embraces the male and famale, since both genders are created in His image. In fact, Pope John Paul II has a remarkable notion of the image of God in which he suggests that we've been mistaken to think of this image in purely individualistic terms. Rather, he suggests, the fact that the human body is male and female, and that these forms bear the immanent teleology of being designed for one another, suggests that the body has a "nuptial meaning" and a "language of the body," entailing that the image we bear is one in which only male and female together is a complete image of God. Interesting, huh?! In fact, there's a huge development in orthodox Catholic reflection on the Catholic tradition stemming from the realist phenomenological tradition of which Pope John Paul II is a member, along with Dietrich von Hildebrand, Edith Stein (who wrote a dissertation On the Problem of Empathy [Collected Works of Edith Stein, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Discalced Carmelite, Vol 3] under Husserl, before being martyred at Auschwitz), and still living philosophers such as John Crosby (left), Josef Seifert (right), Kenneth Schmitz , and others. A popularizer of the Pope's theology of the body is Christopher West, who has out a number of very good books I've recommended to my kids. Excellent, really; even revolutionary, in terms of overcoming the pervasive cultural drift, which is anything but healthy. [For more on this, check this link.] I don't even think 'dating' is anything near healthy as practiced today. What animals we've become!
Letter No. 9
You write:
Right now I am busy at work. I am giving considerable thought about going back to regular attendance at Mass; I do think about it often, but, as I implied before, "something" (my body in particular is not cooperative) stops me.

I really feel stuck, in other words.
I'm trying to get rid of this image of your soul trying to pull your body towards you car, saying, "C'mon, body, let's drive to church!" and you body, reclined in a comfortable chair, stubbornly resisting. A nice Manichaean or Cartesian dualism, that.

Sometimes I find myself talking to my body (no longer as young as it once was) and using the language of St. Francis of Assisi, saying: "C'mon, brother Ass, move along now, like you should!"

Anyway, I think if you used the Skeptics' approach in going to confession and church, God would reward your faith (... you know ... as in the skeptic's prayer: "Oh God, if there is a God, have mercy on my soul, if I have a soul!") Which is to say that experience seems to show that God rewards the smallest tokens of faith, even has he tests us in other respects.

As to the external banalities of Sunday worship, trust me: I know. Each time we leave church we say to one another how glad we are to be done with that. It's a 'heroic' endurance just to go, because of all the external distractions and inanities, and such. But two things hold some help here: (1) the fact that there are often good souls in the precincts of the local church who can become wonderful spiritual friends, and, even more: (2) the knowledge that Christ is Himself there in His physical Body and Blood to meet our battered souls amidst the braying asses (I'm thinking of contemporary music) of His stable. (By the way, you've read Thomas Day's wonderful book, Why Catholics Can't Sing: Catholic Culture and the Triumph of Bad Taste (Amazon link), haven't you?)