Sunday, February 24, 2013

I Confess!

The horrors of the confessional are legendary, according to the testimony of movies, books, and personal anecdotes. While I don’t doubt the veracity of my friends who had unpleasant experiences, I do wonder if the sacrament’s infamous reputation has more in common with a legend than notoriety. That is, I suspect that, like a legend, it has more to do with times past than with our own time, and also like a legend, there’s some fiction or exaggeration involved.
            We’re all familiar with the image of a pendulum swinging from one side to the other, illustrating the human and societal tendency to pass from one extreme to its opposite. This is certainly true in the spiritual life. It’s so easy to stray from the straight and narrow, and then often we overcorrect and end up going right off the path again, this time on the opposite side.
            In times past, even the recent past, there has sometimes been an overemphasis on the fear of God and a focus on sinfulness that led to anxiety, rigidity, scrupulosity, and judgmentalness.
          In our day, our culture has swung way over to the other side on this one. We now have an overemphasis on how much God loves us. Don’t get me wrong—His merciful love is a very important message! But it’s coupled with a crippled sense of sin. The common conception of God is akin to an almighty Santa Claus, who never gives coal to anyone (except perhaps murderers who don’t repent and to bigots). While he wants everyone to be nice, he turns a blind eye to those being naughty—or rather has re-defined naughtiness to mean only downright nastiness.
          While we hear a great deal about how guilt-ridden folks were a few generations ago, we are hard-pressed to feel any sense of guilt today. Our idea of sin is so slim and we see God as so nonchalant, it’s no wonder hardly anyone bothers to go to confession anymore.
          When did guilt become such a bogey anyway? No one enjoys guilt anymore than they do pain, but that doesn't mean that either is useless. Pain alerts us that something is amiss in our bodies; guilt does the same with our souls. It's as dangerous to ignore or deny or deaden the sense of guilt as it would be to do deaden, deny, and ignore the pain of heart disease.
          It may very well be that, years ago, once in a while a priest would upbraid a penitent in the confessional. This may have been because he held Jansenist views, but maybe it was because he perceived a lack of true contrition or understanding in the penitent, or he had rheumatism, or was just having a bad day.  
          At any rate, it’s very rare today. Only once did a priest scold me—but that was twenty-five years ago, and he was old and crotchety, and I deserved it. (Sometimes we do.) And I go to confession fairly often—at least once or twice a month for the past 15 years—and have gone to a wide array of priests: dozens of parish and diocesan priests in various cities and states, as well as retreat masters and those specially trained in counseling or spiritual direction. None of them has ever yelled at me or told me what a miserable sinner I am.
          Much more often, at the parish level, I’m the one trying to convince the priest that I actually sinned than the other way around. Okay, maybe it’s due to “human nature,” maybe it’s very common, maybe I was in a bad mood…but I still shouldn’t have done it. Sometimes it wasn’t a sin; the act was unintentional—I forgot to do something, for instance. But I’m still sorry, and want to apologize to the Lord.  If I accidentally break something belonging to my husband or forget to do something he asked me to do, I don’t say to him, “Well, I didn’t do it on purpose, so get over it.” I’m still sorry, and I still apologize.
          But why can’t we just tell God we’re sorry on our own? This is the other major reason the lines for confession are so short: people think, “I don’t need a priest; I can just go to God myself.”
          Well, you definitely can, and should, tell God you’re sorry for your sins.
          Confession offers a more thorough cleansing and healing means, however. If you’re out in the woods and your hands get dirty—yes, use the hand sanitizer. But don’t disparage or neglect good old-fashioned soap and water when they’re available. The reasons that confession are preferable may be as little known as the superiority of soap and hot water over hand-sanitizer, but maybe we need to trust the experts on both.
           The sacrament of confession is a tremendous gift and offers wonderful benefits. It would be too lengthy in fact to describe them now; that will have to wait ’til next week.

Monday, February 18, 2013

"Bring Me My Weapon"

I can't remember where I found it, only that I thought it was the most beautiful necklace I had ever seen. The glass beads did not merely shine, but, being iridescent, whenever they were moved, they refracted the colors of the rainbow. And the crucifix was ornate and golden.
     I naturally did what many an unknowing person does upon first contact with a rosary—I put it around my neck. 
     When my mother saw me, she said, "No, no. We don't wear those."
     Totally confused, I asked, "Well, what do you do with it?"
     "We used to pray with it. But since Vatican II we don't do that anymore."
     "Why not?"
     She seemed a little irritated. "I don't know. We just don't."*
     This wasn't a very satisfying answer, but she made me very happy by giving me the gorgeous beads.
     It seemed terribly sad to me that this beautiful, holy object was now passé. I didn't know how on earth one prayed with it, but I decided I could at least treasure it myself. Being only about eight or so, I could only use what I had — a shoebox — but couched it with other "holy" objects. (Most of these were missalettes that I'd accidentally brought home from church.)
     Dr. Scott Hahn tells how after his Catholic grandmother passed away, he came across her rosaries ... and tore them apart, feeling triumphant that he was setting her free from such Catholic superstition. (Later, he converted and is now a well-known Catholic speaker and author.)

So many misconceptions about this string of beads. Is it merely a string of beads? a necklace? a chain of superstition? Or something else?
     We hear the Gospel passage where Jesus warns against praying like the pagans: "Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Mt 6:7; RSV). Some translations read "vain repetitions" instead of "empty phrases". People sometimes look around at repetitious prayer of their own time and say, "Ah-hah! Those Catholics pray the Rosary, saying 50 Hail Marys — that must be just the kind of vain repetition Jesus was talking about."
     But how many of us know what empty phrases or vain repetitions the Gentiles of 2,000 years ago may have said? For all we know, it may have been "Ohm, ohm, ohm...". 
     At any rate, I don't think Jesus could have been criticizing any and all repetition. (If He was, then even those of us who use spontaneous prayer are in trouble, for it's common to fall into using the same phrases repeatedly.) After all, in the Old Testament, the Lord told His people to keep the words of the First Commandment in their hearts, and the way He tells them to do so requires a fair amount of repetition: "You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deut 6:7).
     And in Revelation, John tells us of the four living creatures: "Day and night they never cease to sing, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'" (4:8).
     In fact, repetition is widely recognized as being helpful in entering into prayer. The Orthodox, for instance, also have prayer breads, upon which they repeat the Jesus Prayer  ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner"). It is a way to obey St. Paul's injunction to "pray without ceasing" that Bishop Kallistos Ware says can be used by beginners "but equally a prayer that leads to the deepest mysteries of the contemplative life."

There's more to the Rosary than merely repeating the Hail Mary over and over again. There are five "mysteries" upon which one strives to meditate during the recitation of the prayers. The mysteries are largely from the life of Christ — from His Incarnation and birth, through His ministry, to His Passion and death, on to His Resurrection and Ascension.
    It is easy in our hectic lives to focus on our day-to-day duties and concerns, and forget about these greater realities. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' book The Silver Chair, in which Aslan charges the children: "Remember, remember, remember the signs!" and tells them to repeat them several times a day, so they won't forget. (They fall out of the habit of repeating the signs, and thus don't recognize them initially when they do come across them.)
     In the same way, the Rosary helps one to remember the significant moments in Christ's life and "ponder" them with Mary, His primary disciple. (See Lk 2:19.) Meditating on the the key moments in Christ's life keeps Him and His teachings and what He did for us, how He suffered for us, from fading from our minds. Then we are less likely to be overwhelmed by temptations of fleeting pleasures, discouragement, resentment, cowardice, sloth whatever.
     The Rosary is also a powerful means of intercessory prayer. Padre (now Saint) Pio — that holy, twentieth-century monk associated with so many miracles had such confidence in the might of the Rosary that when he was ready to use it, he was wont to say: "Bring me my weapon."
       A spiritual battle lies before us; may we remember and utilize this vital force at our disposal.

*My mother, by the way, started praying the Rosary again in the early '80s and has been praying it daily ever since.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Answer the Call—It's Urgent

Prayer and penance are naturally on the minds of Christians right now, with Lent around the corner. God has been keeping them both on my heart ever since November. There is real cause for concern in our country, given the fact that our society is no longer sliding down a slippery slope but rushing toward a precipice. 
     Our religious liberty is being threatened in several ways, and the attack on the foundation of any societythe familyis unrelenting and showing signs of victory.
     Only a miracle can save us.
     Alone we can not hope to change this; only with God's help can disaster be averted. And to bring down His grace and aid we must prayand pray fervently. But even prayer is not enough. Jesus Himself warned us that some evils cannot be removed without fasting too.
     As a Catholic who came of age during the heyday of Medjugorje, I cannot help thinking these days about the warnings of chastisements and wondering if they are coming to fruition. Even if Medjugorje is/was not a true heavenly visitation, the heart of the message is the the same as that of Fatima and Lourdes and echoes the Gospel: pray and make sacrifices for the conversion of souls.
     For months, I've been feeling like the Holy Spirit is calling me to step up the prayers, step up the fasting, and to encourage my family and others to do the same.
    Imagine my delight then to find that the Holy Spirit has inspired the U.S. Catholic* bishops with the exact same message. ("Confirmation!" my charismatic past calls out.)
     They have a five-point strategy for seeking God's help in changing the direction of folly our culture is currently following:
  1. Host or attend a Eucharistic Holy Hour on the last Sunday of each month.
  2. Pray the Rosary every day. 
  3. Abstain from meat and fast on Fridays [not just during Lent]. 
  4. Pray specific Prayers of the Faithful at daily and Sunday Masses. 
  5. Participate in the second Fortnight for Freedom in June/July 2013.
They do not merely list these five admonitions; they also provide lots of links, ideas, and resources. Visit Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty for resources on how to pray a holy hour or set one up for a group, on how to pray the Rosary, suggested prayers, links to the Church's teaching on fasting, information about the Fortnight for Freedom, and more.
     The bishops have done us a great service in calling us to prayer and penance and giving us the means to join together in these efforts. Their plan, however, has not received enough publicity. Help spread the word! Here are some ideas: 
  1. Join the Facebook event and share it on your page: Call to Prayer Facebook Page.
  2. Print out the flyer found on Call to Prayer flyer and ask your pastor to include it in the church bulletin.
  3. Join with others from your parish,  prayer group or school and ask your pastor about hosting a holy hour. Make sure to volunteer to help!
  4. Host an information meeting at your parish, home, or school about the five-point plan.
  5. Start a Rosary group.
  6. Print out the Prayers of the Faithful and ask your pastor to consider using them at Mass.
  7. Encourage others to fast and pray.
  8. Of course, fast and pray yourself!
*For my Christian friends from other denominationswho may have not even reached this point in the blog or may be feeling uncomfortable with all this Catholic stuffplease join us in prayer. These threats affect all of us! 
     You can certainly do numbers 6 and 7 as well as host prayer meetings, etc. You could also use the prayers found at Prayers of the Faithful for Life, Liberty, & Marriage as a springboard for writing your own prayers. I'm sure you can think of other ways to participate in this same call to prayer and action from the Holy Spirit. 

     May all the people of God join together in praying for His protection for these precious gifts from God that are threatened in so many ways and for His intervention in healing the blindness of our fellow countrymen and changing their hearts so that all may love and follow His beautiful Way. The best Way, the only Way, to happiness, to human fulfillment, to eternal life.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Do You Love Me More Than ... ?

"Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" (Jn 21:15).
      Not much attention is usually given to this line; more is naturally given to the passage that follows: the question repeated twice more, Peter's three replies, and the Lord's threefold directions ("Feed my sheep," etc.)
     If the verse receives any attention, "these" is usually interpreted to mean "these disciples." I've always felt uncomfortable with that; it doesn't seem to me that Peter was chosen to be leader of the disciples because his love for the Lord was the greatest. After all, "the beloved disciple"—who alone of the Twelve accompanied Jesus to Golgotha —was sitting there too.
     If Jesus did mean "these disciples," then perhaps He intended in part to humble Peter, without explicitly mentioning the denial. After all, Peter had declared that even if all the other disciples deserted Jesus, he wouldn't—which could be seen as a claim to love Him more than the others did. When Peter shows his humility and sorrow in his response, Jesus repeats the question twice more, but without the phrase "more than these".

     Only once did I hear a homily in which "these" was proposed to refer to the fish. I remember thinking,"Uhhh...more than the fish? Come on, Peter wasn't that shallow."

      But that interpretation, upon further reflection, is worth some consideration. Whether or not that's the primary meaning of the passage, this other reading can also bear spiritual fruits. 
     For most of us, there is no contest between fish and Jesus. But Peter was a fisherman. And he had just made a HUGE catch. This was his career, and those fish represented Success.
     Plenty of people have trouble putting Jesus ahead of their career, ahead of success, ahead of prosperity, and security. Plenty of people don't love Jesus enough to put Him first, if doing so means jeopardizing one of these.
     Even those of us who have put Him first in those areas do fall sometimes elsewhere. Any time we put off our prayer to watch a TV show, eat more than we should, any time we choose ease or pleasure instead of our duty, we are in fact failing to love Jesus more than these.
     This is the essence of sin: putting something—anything—before God.

     It could be discouraging to reflect on all the stupid things we have, for all practical purposes, loved more than God. But think how gently He treated Peter, who, in denying Jesus, loved his own life more than his Lord. 

     Peter has gone back to fishing. And Jesus repeats the miracle with which He started off His relationship with Peter: a tremendous catch of fish. Then He asks him if he loves Him more than these, which could be seen as asking, Will you make the same choice—to drop your nets and follow Me—this time? It's as if Jesus is giving Peter a chance to start over.Then He asks him the threefold question; the threefold answer is Peter's chance to reverse his threefold denial.
     And He gives us the same chance to start over and to reaffirm our love, and to follow Him, even if it means we too shall be taken "where [we] do not wish to go" (Jn 21:18).
     When you're reaching for, say, some chips that you really shouldn't haveand even though it seems so hard not to, and it's so easy to rationalize that it's no big dealit can be helpful to ask yourself, Do I love Him more than these?
     The little things do matter. It is being faithful in the little things that prepare us to be faithful in the larger.

      Lent is around the corner. It's a perfect time to prove to Him (and ourselves) that we do love Him more than these—whatever "these" or "this" might be in our individual lives. 

PS After reading this, a friend wrote me, saying that another possible reading is, "Do you love me more than these fish, who willingly gave up their lives for me?"