Theology for Beginners is blowing my mind

This past Trinity Sunday, also known as Casual Heresy Sunday, I thought I’d dig up Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed (affiliate link) and read the kids a few passages of Real Theology™  to correct some of the dumb things we heard that day.

We had tried reading it several years ago and got terribly bogged down. The kids were just angry and baffled, and we couldn’t make any headway, so we quit.

I remember thinking, last week, that I knew a lot more about what the Trinity isn’t than about what it is, and this is certainly still true. But after reading only a few chapters of this book, I discovered we also can know a lot more about the Trinity than I ever imagined, and it’s blowing my mind.

So we’re making this our new project, and keeping on reading, a chapter or part of a chapter at night several times a week. We often stop and re-read a paragraph, sometimes more than once; and we keep looking up the beginning of the Gospel of John. It would not be unreasonable to read each chapter two or three times before going on to the next, but I want to keep moving, because we have such a poor record of finishing books.

I’ve been so desperate for something like this — not just for the kids, but for myself. Sometimes your spiritual life is flat and uninspired, and you just have to keep the faith and power through; but sometimes there really is something you can do about it. There may be things you didn’t know about God that you will be very glad to know! Going to Mass, making the sign of the cross, praying a Hail Mary . . . it all feels new and exciting, almost perilous! In a good way. There’s just so much there, and I’ve been so casual about it all.

Are the kids getting much from the book? I’m not sure. Their various responses seem to be more about personality and type of intellect than age. My nine-year-old is completely on fire about it. Damien and I are agog. Even some of the more jaded can’t-we-just-get-back-to-Mario-Kart kids have questions. And I do think that there’s value in seeing that other people are excited about the Faith, even if you aren’t feeling it yourself right then.

At very least, this book puts to rest for good the idea that you can plow through the Baltimore Catechism for First Communion prep and then you know all there is to know. Not by a long shot, hot stuff.

This book is a tremendous gift. Some people think that, when we call some article of faith a mystery, we mean that it’s just too huge and weird, and our brains can’t even handle it, so we just need to let it be. Instead, mysteries are, as my husband says, a deep, deep pool. You can dive in and never get to the bottom, but that doesn’t mean you should just linger on the shore, feeling thirsty and hot like a dummy. Sheed says we have an obligation to try to understand more about the God we worship. Why would we not? What are our brains for, if not that?

I bought the paperback and then the Kindle edition, too, because we managed to lose the physical copy but we need to keep reading. The concepts are incredibly dense but the language is crystal clear, and it doesn’t come across as dated. If you feel that your faith is stuck at an elementary level, I cannot recommend this book enough.

 

THE KING OF THE SHATTERED GLASS is a great exploration of confession for kids

Like a dummy, I misplaced our copy of The King of the Shattered Glass (Marian Press, 2017; affiliate link), but I want to tell you about it now anyway. It would be a great book to read during Lent, and would make a nice Easter present, too.

It’s a picture book appropriate for ages six and up, written by Susan Joy Bellavance and illustrated by Sarah Tang. Basic story: An orphan girl named Marguerite works in the scullery of a medieval king’s castle, when glass is an astonishing novelty. It’s so valuable that the king insists that anyone who breaks his glass must gather up the pieces and bring them to him personally.

Marguerite, an orphan, is a pretty good kid, but on three occasions, she breaks the precious glass — as the blurb says, “through temper, the pride of a dare, and selfishness.” Each time, she has to gather her courage and own up to what she did. It’s not easy, because she’s ashamed, and because she’s afraid of punishment; and eventually, once she comes to actually know the king, and just feels bad that she broke his stuff.

Catholics, you can see where this is headed! The book is a thoughtful allegory for confession; but it works well as a satisfying little story, too.

Marguerite has some penance and growth to do, and eventually the king reveals that he is using all the glass she has shattered to make a gorgeous stained glass window showing himself putting a crown on Marguerite’s head. He then adopts her as his own daughter, and there is rejoicing.

The king, to my great relief, is truly appealing, gentle but strong, and the illustrations successfully suggest divinity (especially Christ as the source of Divine Mercy) without being too heavy-handed. Some of the pictures are more skillful than others, but all are lively and bright, some in black and white, some with deep, saturated colors.

You can download a free pdf of a teacher’s guide, which takes you through the book’s themes:

1. Relationship with God as Father, King and Friend
2. Conscience, a gift to be developed
3. Penance, which brings healing to ourselves and others
4. Jesus, who carries our burdens
5. Adoption and family life; Baptism and Reconciliation.

The King of the Shattered Glass is not the most polished book you will ever encounter in your life, but it works very well, and it’s full of heart and theologically tight as a drum.  Kids will find it memorable and appealing. Recommended!

Bellavance and Tang are collaborating on a second book, to be titled Will You Come to Mass?

 

Does God get off on seeing us suffer?

A Facebook friend posted this status:

Rule of thumb: Use NFP as often as you must forgo Sunday Mass.

His point was this: Just as we have to have serious reasons to miss Sunday Mass without sinning, we should have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy.

First, the obligatory clarification: When he said “use NFP,” he meant “use NFP to avoid pregnancy.” In fact, infertile couples trying to get pregnant may also “use NFP,” and even abstinent women use may “use NFP” to diagnose and treat a whole host of health issues.

That being said, the statement he made is technically true, but disastrously misleading. Here’s what I mean:

We have an obligation to go to Mass on Sundays unless there’s a serious reason not to do so. The catechism says:

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

We go because we are obligated to go; and we are obligated to go because it’s good for us to be there. Okay.

But some people believe that you must be at death’s door before you’d even consider foregoing Mass, and it never occurs to them that it’s selfish and wrong to drag your germy, spluttering, sneezing, infectious self into a building full of babies and old people. You shouldn’t skip Mass because you have a slight headache or you’re not in the mood; but you shouldn’t force yourself to go to Mass if your physical presence would be bad for other people. Some of your fellow parishioners are medically fragile, but, unlike you with your flu, they won’t be stronger next week. For their sake, out of respect for their desire to be at Mass, you need to consider staying home for now. If you make a decision in good faith to stay home, then you are not sinning by skipping Mass, even if you could physically survive the hour.

In the same way, choosing to forgo conception is not just about your personal willingness to suffer. You have to take other people’s legitimate needs into account. You may be willing to have another baby now, but is it just and fair to the rest of the people you’re responsible for? If one of your other kids in in crisis and needs attention badly, is there anything holy about deliberately becoming barely functional for several months? Can you ask your already-overburdened husband to unwillingly take up even more slack, and call that “being one flesh?” Or can you ask your already-exhausted wife to unwillingly do even more than she’s already doing, but somehow call it “generosity?”

Sometimes selfishness masquerades as piety. I’m not afraid to suffer! Well, that’s nice for you, but what about the suffering you’re causing to other people as you pat yourself on the back for your selfless heroism?  You don’t live alone in a hermit’s cell. Your choices affect other people, and you’re not allowed to ignore them because it strokes your spiritual pride. You’re not entitled to be generous with other people’s lives. You can ask them to be adaptable (and oftentimes, that’s all that another baby requires: adaptability); but their lives are not yours to sacrifice.

So that’s the first complication to what seems like a tidy little aphorism. It’s true that we need a serious or just reason to postpone pregnancy or to skip Mass, but those reasons are not all about us.

The second problem is that the “Try harder! Suffer more! Lemme see you sweat!” approach has to do with how we perceive God, and goes beyond NFP. The “agony = holiness” approach assumes that God is only truly pleased when we’re in horrible pain all the time, and the only way to tell if we’re following God is if we’re falling apart. If life is tolerable, we must be doing something wrong.

This is, if anything, worse than the first problem. The first problem shows that we don’t have sufficient love for other people. The second problem shows we don’t have sufficient love for God.

The second problem, the “agony = holiness” approach, portrays God as barking, sadistic drill sergeant of a deity, hellbent on whipping us into shape by smacking us down the minute we blink like the sniveling, puling weaklings we are.

God.
Is.
Not.
Like.
That.

He doesn’t despise us. He’s not out to get us. He’s not itching to see us squirm between the screws of the torture device He calls “morality.” I understand that the 21st century is not chock full of Catholics who are too strict with themselves, but neither is it chock full of Catholics who truly look to Christ as the source of love and solace in our sorrow.

God is not a sadist. God doesn’t relish watching us torment ourselves. He sometimes lets us fall into suffering — and make no mistake, pregnancy, or going to Mass, can be a form of suffering!  But when we do fall into dark times, He jumps down into that pit with us, to help us dig our way out, to help us become stronger, and to keep us company while we’re there. He doesn’t stand at the edge looking down, jeering and cheering as we writhe in pain below. He is the Lamb who was slain, not the drill sergeant who gets off on pain.

We must be willing to suffer, but we’re not required to seek suffering out. We’re not required to constantly ratchet up our own pain. 

We are required to seek love out. We are required to constantly ratchet up our desire to see God in everyone and everything.

And guess what? Sometimes God looks like joy. Sometimes God looks like peace. Sometimes God looks like prudence. Sometimes God even looks like contentment.

So be obedient, pray often, and seek God and His love in obedience, rather than focusing on the rules themselves. If God is giving you a way to take care of yourself and take care of others, whether that’s making a spiritual communion while drinking tea at home, or whether that’s looking prayerfully at your family and thanking God for the size it is right now, then you are pleasing the Father who loves you.

Reassess your decisions as necessary. But don’t assume that the thing that appeals to you must automatically disappoint God. Obedience doesn’t always bring agony. Sometimes it brings relief. Be content to be loved.

What are you doing for catechism this year?

All right, YOU catechise this, if you’re so smart.

For the older kids, in 7th, 8th, 10th, and 11th grades, I give up. Wait, no, that’s not what I meant to say out loud. What I meant to say is that we haven’t found either EDGE or LifeTeen to be a good match for our family, and every time I try to read something aloud to the kids, or do a pre-packaged curriculum with them, something happens to capsize the whole endeavor.  It’s some combination of the kids being in three different schools, and me and my husband working four different jobs, and the kids having this dumb idea about having social lives, and me falling into a prenatal coma around 6:00 every night, that just makes it difficult to keep up with the diligent inquiry into beginner’s theology that I always imagined enjoying in the soft quiet of evening with my older kids. And no, we can’t do anything in the car. I don’t want to explain why. We just can’t.

Read the rest at the Register.

At the Register: A Little About Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

I’m working on a fuller article for the future, but here is a little introduction to one of the greatest gifts we’ve encountered in our parish: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.