Friday, November 22, 2013

Simply Catholic.

I have changed the description of this blog to Simply Catholic. This was inspired by the topic of cafeteria Catholicism written about in the last post. I left a Catholic homeschooling Facebook group recently because of the division and extremism that I witnessed there. Early in my journey to the Catholic Church, I became aware of the controversy around the interpretation and implementation of Vatican II, and the split among Catholics who consider themselves "traditional" or "progressive", or who have adopted the political monikers of "liberal" and "conservative" to describe their brand of Catholicism.

The thing is, Catholicism doesn't come in brands. There are Rites, the major groupings being the Roman, Antiochian, Alexandrian, and Byzantine, each representing an ecclesiastical tradition about how the sacraments are to be celebrated. That's right, not all Catholics are Roman Catholics! And there are various religious orders, such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans. The Mass can be validly celebrated in either Latin or in the vernacular language. There is Sunday Mass and daily Mass, high Mass and low Mass. But it is all one, unified religion. Catholic literally means, universal. "Catholic" refers to the universal Christian Church. Catholic is Catholic.

So why isn't it simple? I suppose it's because the Church is made up of many good but flawed and sinful people. In the cacophony of conflicting opinions, some find it easiest to cling to the rules, laws, and doctrines in the most literal way possible, resulting in a joyless, white-glove-test scrupulousness. Others have decided to just chuck the whole thing and leave the Church. Still others stay and make the best of it, striving to be loyal to Jesus and his Church while keeping their hearts open to the leading of the Spirit and a deeper development of faith that is unique and personal. Among those are advocates for change, which manifests in myriad ways, all wishing for the real Church to please stand up.

A woman in another FB group warned me not to romanticize the Church. "But why not?" I wondered. It all seemed to make so much sense, lovely as a perfect day in May. And I do believe that in Catholicism the fulness of the Christian faith is found. The in-fighting, however, is all too real. I witnessed and participated in a heated FB argument on the before-mentioned Catholic homeschooling forum about whether or not yoga is a permissible practice for Catholics. Come to find out that EWTN, a Catholic TV station, has warned against not only yoga, but aromatherapy, hot stone massage, reiki, and herbal remedies. I also learned that there is even something called a sede vacantist, who is a person that believes that the Chair of Peter is currently empty; in fact, some believe that there hasn't been a valid pope since Vatican II!! But these people still go to Mass. ?????

It's enough to occasionally make me want to run away screaming. But among the thorns I have heard voices of those roses who say, "I am simply Catholic." No divisive labeling, no holier than thou high horse prancing. The hope, for me, lies in determining what about the faith is most important to me and relevant to my life today. I am not suggesting a "take what you like and leave the rest" attitude in terms of Church teaching. I simply want to look at what drew me to the Church in the first place, and what made me decide that it was imperative to become Catholic. Not every doctrine is of equal importance, and not every bit of the Catechism has to be near and dear to my heart.

If you too are a Catholic, or any Christian, who feels disillusioned and discouraged, let's take a few quiet moments to write down what matters to us most. Brew a nice, hot cup of tea, put on some soothing music, light a candle or incense, and meditate upon what the Spirit is trying to tell you. This will not be the same for every person, but for each of us there burns a holy light.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cafeteria Catholics

I often write in order to sort something out in my own mind. Bringing what's tumbling around in my head in an irritating way to the page can bring clarity. So I hope it to be with this issue of "cafeteria Catholics". What does this mean? It is typically used as a derogatory term for those who claim to be Catholic yet do not believe or practice everything the Church teaches. Right away, the use of this term toward others puts one into a "holier than thou" position, which brings about the sin of pride. The remedy to pride is humility. That's why I liked the "Cafeteria Catholics" article from U.S. Catholic linked above. It encouraged in me the impulse to lighten up, to not take myself so seriously, and to detach from the scrupulousness I have been witnessing among certain Catholics and have noticed in myself.

It is understandable that as a recent convert to Catholicism, I would be disturbed by the memory of statements made by RCIA staff members that they do not believe everything the Church teaches, and especially by the claim of one of them that neither does our priest. Maybe people in a leadership position would serve newcomers to the faith best if they did not openly express their doubts. Then again, maybe knowing that even devout Catholics can have a crisis of faith, or experience periods of questioning certain teachings, provides an important role model. It is human, and a natural part of the faith journey, to go through various stages of maturity. I do think that if a leader does express disbelief that he or she should do so with caution, and with a specific explanation given and particular purpose for sharing it.

The priest who authored the article speaks a lot about the diversity of Church members. This makes me think of something my grandpa once said: "Everyone sitting in church believes a little bit differently. The important thing is that we go."  I think that stuck with me because of its simple but profound truth. Everyone sitting in Mass is there to worship God to the best of his or her ability, and no one does it perfectly. They are there to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, whether or not they have a complete understanding of, or belief in, the Church's teachings. One parishioner may have theologically or historically valid reasons in mind for why she thinks the Church should allow the ordination of women. Another might be struggling with why the Church thinks contraception is intrinsically evil and may not entirely agree.

When the priest in the article talks about the teaching of transubstantiation being a difficult one for answering a definitive "yes" or "no" in regard to belief, he comes across as potentially heretical. Yet I think he is trying to say that he believes in the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine, but that how this miracle takes place could be explained and understood in a number of ways. In the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6: 47-59, in tandem with the events of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels, the truth of what the Church calls transubstantiation is clear.

Jesus talks graphically about the necessity of eating of his flesh and drinking his blood, and at the Last Supper he establishes the sacrament of Communion, which explicates how exactly we will be able to partake of his body and blood. But this is still a great mystery of the faith, and theologians have used various metaphors for how the bread and wine still looks and tastes the same but has somehow become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus, which he gives us for spiritual nourishment and to conform us to himself in one Mystical Body. Transubstantiation is the official Church teaching, but that does not exclude other notions of the Real Presence, as long as they do not conflict with Church doctrine. Being overly scrupulous can have the effect of taking the awe and beauty out of the great Mystery of Faith.

When it comes to faith, not everyone has to be in the same place, on the same page. Faith is a state of being which lives, breathes, and grows. It can even have its dark nights of the soul. The key here is that we don't judge one another's spiritual path. That we seek to understand another person's view, find the common ground, and engage in compassionate, meaningful dialogue. Yes, I believe everything the Church teaches and submit to her authority in matters of faith and morals. At the same time, I endeavor toward a faith that is personal, that is unique to me.

For example, I believe in the Trinity, the teaching established by the authority of the Catholic Church that there is one God in three divine persons--the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is Church dogma, which all of the faithful are compelled to believe. My personal theology is that in the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity there exists a "feminine" dimension, though of course God is pure spirit, neither male nor female. That God contains the perfection of the qualities of both a father and a mother is official Church teaching. The way I understand the feminine principle of the Trinity doesn't contradict Church doctrine as far as I am aware.

Basically I believe that the biblical character of Wisdom reveals the feminine nature of God, and most expressly the bridal-maternal qualities of the Holy Spirit. It is also Church teaching that the Virgin Mary is the "dwelling" of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, I perceive that Mary is a personal manifestation and especial sanctuary of Wisdom. There have been and are orthodox Catholics who believe in a similar way, such as Thomas Merton and St. Maximilian Kolbe, while there are others who decidedly don't.

The Church does not demand a blind obedience to her doctrines. She does, in fact, encourage intellectual discernment in regard to religious beliefs and the application of the informed conscience in moral considerations.

We do not all need to believe in exactly the same way. The notion that everyone should be the same is actually part of the heresy of modernism, which the U.S. seems especially prone toward, and from whence "political correctness" is derived. Perhaps most damaging is that our sins of pride and our rigid, judgmental scruples will be reflected in our children. We need to accept our differences, even if we strongly disagree. We must try to see Christ in every face; but I'm not there yet, and that's okay. I just need to do my best to follow our Lord. And that's all we can ask of one another. If we truly need to correct a brother or sister in a matter of grave importance, let us do so with humility and lovingkindness.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Contemplative Prayer & Lectio Divina

This link provides a step by step method for practicing lectio divina. In this post I'd like to continue the conversation regarding the married contemplative vocation. Prayer is at the heart of Christian contemplative practice. On my journey to the Catholic faith, I discovered this idea of praying the scriptures. Last year, as Advent was upon us, I asked a Catholic friend what we do especially in this season as we prepare for Christmas. She told me that the Church provides a booklet of daily readings. These little books for particular seasons in the liturgical year give interesting information on Church history on one side, and on the facing page a verse from Sacred Scripture with a reflection.

The practice of praying the scriptures is much different than the more well-known study of the Bible. Verses are not chosen as proof texts to back up one's particular beliefs, or for memorization. It is not done to explore a religious theme or to gain scholarly knowledge, though any of these things may be an indirect result. Rather, lectio divina is a direct communication with God through the Word of God. My understanding is that one opens oneself to the divine Wisdom of the Holy Spirit. The passage is meditated upon, and perhaps a particular sentence will stand out. This is a personal message to carry throughout the day, so certainly it might be memorized as you repeat it over and over again. I am often inspired to journal my response as part of the process. Lectio divina allows a space for private revelation, which if it is truly from God, will not contradict the teachings of the Church. This interior experience of the divine through Sacred Scripture is then followed by spontaneous prayer.

The Rosary is the contemplative prayer par excellence. It was through the Rosary that I not only developed a personal relationship with Mary, but was led to a renewed relationship with Jesus. I felt a little uncomfortable in the presence of my Lord, understanding him with a greater reverence as I experienced the fullness of the Christian faith in Catholicism. Coming before him in the Rosary was facilitated through the maternal intersession of his Blessed Mother. Now I saw Jesus' life through the eyes of Mary, and my faith deepened with each encounter of the Mysteries, which are the stories of his birth and childhood, his saving mission, and his death and resurrection. When I was initially learning to pray the Rosary, I would read the entire Bible passage related to each Mystery, until I knew the story by heart. I still revisit those stories to keep them fresh in my mind, and I always use at least one piece of scripture for each meditation.

As a Protestant I had known Jesus as a friend and a savior, but not as Lord and King. I did not have the awe proper and necessary to worship of him. I was penitent in having been away from him for so long, and in treating him more like a genie that grants my wishes and solves my problems than with the honor that he deserves. That is not necessarily the fault of the Protestant churches I attended; it is simply my experience.

Another traditionally Catholic type of prayer is the Novena, a prayer said for 9 consecutive days, which may invoke the help of God directly (ie. Jesus, the Father, or the Holy Spirit) or through the intercession of Mary or one of the saints. Novenas often reflect a particular devotion, such as praying to Our Lady of Consolation in a time of great sorrow. If I am remembering correctly, the tradition of 9 days comes from the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts, when St. Peter led 120 disciples of Jesus in prayer for 9 days, leading up to the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Having all of these modes of prayer available to me has enriched my prayer life inestimably. I have never before been such a prayerful, scripture reading person. Prayer is centering and comforting, it can be meditative, and it is ultimately transforming. Prayer defines relationship with God. There is no one, right way to pray, and in the Catholic Church I have found mediated such gifts and blessings as go beyond words. For those moments when I don't have the words, I can rely upon Sacred Scripture and those prayers of holy people of God whose inspiration echoes throughout the ages.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Upon pondering the vocation of the contemplative mother, it seems that the subject of belief is a natural place to start. As Catholics, it is our duty to know our faith. Here is the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son,
our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended into hell.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand
of God the Father Almighty; from there he shall
come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen.

I typed that from memory. I prefer this over the Nicene Creed, because it is much shorter and easier to memorize. The Apostles' Creed is also recited at the beginning of the Rosary. Either creed is a simple statement of faith from which all of the Church's teachings flow.

Recently I have been looking for a definite answer to the question, Must we believe everything the Church teaches? Certain experiences I had in RCIA were nagging at the back of my mind, perhaps because I was aware this fall of the beginning of the new class of students interested in becoming Catholic. I had heard from a couple of staff members the statement, "I don't believe everything the Church teaches." This was even said of our priest, but he never said such a thing himself. I did take the question to another priest, because I was concerned about what seemed to be a case of the "cafeteria Catholic", who picks and chooses which teachings he will follow from the buffet. To my surprise, I was assured that there aren't that many teachings that we must believe, so in that respect it would be okay to be a cafeteria Catholic!

Still not satisfied, I sought clarification from our priest on the particular point of birth control, and from the RCIA director regarding the general statements made about not believing everything the Church teaches. I was assured that the program was completely in line with the Church's Magisterium. Some small "t" traditions, which are changeable by the Church to best serve the current needs of the laity at whatever point in history we are at, were cited. Also referred to were the "levels of faith" that one may progress through on one's faith journey, with the result at higher levels of a lesser need for rules and regulations. I was left wondering if the only teachings which Catholics are absolutely required to believe are those items labeled as definitive dogma.

Through this whole experience I felt like I wasn't being given a straight answer. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit will often help us get to the truth in an indirect way, through what is sometimes called synchronicity. In other words, there are no coincidences. Everything is connected, and sometimes we see with uncommon clarity a solution to a problem, or we are led in a particular direction, by a series of events or encounters with people. This is what happened in this case.

I called another homeschooling mother whose child was visiting at my house to get directions to bring her child home. One landmark given was a Catholic church the location of which I had not previously known. I told her how happy I was that I would now know how to get there, so I could visit that church for Mass. It turned out that the other mother had grown up Catholic and was even confirmed, but she is now Protestant. As you can imagine, this conversation was very interesting, and she asked me an unexpected question. Very simply, "Do you believe all of it?" For a brief moment it seemed like a funny question. After all, why would I have converted if I didn't believe everything the Church teaches? So my answer was, without reservation, "Yes".

The subject of the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the real body and blood of Christ came up, and I shared that it was the Bible that actually led me to believe this was true. I cited the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6. I think that this was the first time since I've become Catholic that I have been a witness of my faith to a non-Catholic. I am certain that it was the Holy Spirit, speaking through my friend, who was asking me point blank, "Woman, do you believe?" Wow, what an amazing experience!

Sure, there are those things about which the Church allows varying opinions. And certainly our faith will deepen, our understanding will grow, and we will have doubts along the way. But even if we don't understand or fully agree with an official teaching, as Catholics we are bound to accept the authority of the Church. Must we believe everything she teaches? The answer is yes. It isn't a question of some arbitrary "levels" of faith, which by the way, is not a teaching of the Church. It's a matter of obedience to Christ through obedience to his Church. Is this the Church which Jesus built upon the rock named Peter--to whom he gave the keys to the Kingdom--against which he said the gates of hell would not prevail (Matt. 16:18)? Is this indeed the Church that Jesus called "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1Tim. 3:15), to which any disputes about the Christian faith must be taken?

When I came to believe that the Catholic Church is the Church that Jesus founded, the Church which traces its history (and it is a matter of history) back to the 12 apostles, then there was no other Church to which I could belong. And if I can't answer, Yes, I believe everything she teaches, then I know I've got some serious soul searching to do.

St. Peter

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Contemplative Mother

St. Anne and the Virgin Mary

I have at times half joked that if my husband ever died, I wouldn't remarry. I'd become a nun. The funny thing is, I wasn't Catholic at the time! I still don't think I would become a nun, because of the hours they keep (very early risers, prayers in the middle of the night) and the wardrobe. Of course I would do it if God called me to it, but he would have to call really, really loudly.

When most people think of contemplatives, they imagine a cloistered religious life. Having read Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics by Marsha Sinetar, I know that one can receive a similar calling without being a monk or a nun, or even a hermit. Married women raising children, such as myself, can have mystical experiences and be drawn to a sacred silence and solitude. If I am being called to a contemplative vocation within my marital vocation, a lot of things would make sense. Experiences like spiritual restlessness, dark nights of the soul, a desire to withdraw from the world, a highly developed empathic sense, and sensitivity to Beauty. I think that this blog came into being as a result of a deep need for contemplation combined with the calling to write.

For about nine years before I got married, I lived by myself in the same apartment. I spent hours journaling and writing poetry, and reading spiritual books. I always worked, and I kept thinking that I just had to find the right career in order to feel fulfilled, and for everything to fall into place. I knew that there was something that I was created to do. Unfortunately, it can take a long time to earn a living as a writer, if it ever happens. At the age of 30 I went back to school and became an esthetician. I finally had the lucrative career I wanted, making more money than I needed and using many creative skills. Then I got married at 33, had my baby at 35, and became a Mother. This has been my highest calling so far.

The urge to simplify life as a wife and mother, to live organically and authentically, and to find deeper meaning in everyday routines has underpinned our goal as a family to live life by our own lights. Every small choice contributes to a more abundant life: not having television; being vegetarian; eating locally grown and organic food, and growing some of our own; learning to bake bread and pizza dough; homeschooling; having only one (very small) car; buying much of our clothing from thrift stores; using safe, natural personal care products; recycling and composting, etc... What if all of these things are directly related to my being undeniably drawn toward contemplation? I always felt most like myself when I was reading those spiritual books, journaling, and creating religious ritual.

Today I once again unsubscribed to various websites, blogs, and advertisements. I simply can't keep up with reading everything in my inbox. I am even considering deactivating my FB account, or at least hiding it. I find myself spending too much time wrapped up in group conversations with people I don't personally know. While there are blessings to be found in belonging to an online group of people with shared lifestyles and interests, I want to concentrate more of my time on my own family and friends, and keeping in touch with people via the telephone (not texting, but actually talking) and letter writing. It is crazy to imagine that some day soon younger people will no longer be able to read and write in cursive, so it will be like a secret code!

My joie de vivre project certainly stemmed from this longing for the contemplative life, and I want to re-concentrate my efforts in that direction, being brutal in cutting out all nonessential elements in my daily round, not just in my wardrobe. For now I am contemplating of what the married contemplative life would consist for me and how I will order my days in light of that spiritual focus.