On fly ashes and flexibility

The Church doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Image:  By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Can we endure the light?

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There was a man who could read people’s souls, and he would sometimes deliver messages from God.

It sounds fishy, but if you saw his face, especially his eyes, you’d believe it. For some reason, he visited my house when I was a teenager. When I came in the room, his dark eyes pooled with pity, and he asked, “Is there anything you would like to ask?” There wasn’t. I was on an ugly, dire path, and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready to turn around yet. So I walked out of the room. Fled, really. I could see that he was very close to God, and I couldn’t stand being that close to him.

It is not enough, you see, to recognize the presence of God. You can identify holiness, but it won’t do you any good if you’ve been living in a way that doesn’t prepare you to endure it.

Herod, for instance, recognized the Christ. Or at least he was well-versed enough in scripture to know that something big was coming, something that could change the world. But when he found Him, his whole thought was to extinguish that light, because it was a threat. Not to be endured.

Herod was a brilliant, powerful, and exceptionally brutal tyrant, who protected his throne by killing everyone who might someday threaten it, including his wife, two of his sons, his wife’s grandfather, her brother, and her mother. You cannot live that way and then suddenly rejoice when your savior comes. You don’t want a savior, when you live that way. It’s not that you don’t recognize salvation; it’s that you hate it.

The magi, on the other hand, also found and identified the Child Jesus, and had (what an understatement!) a different response. Before they ever appeared in the Gospel, they had spent years studying scripture and anticipating the arrival of the Savior. But their studies clearly brought them beyond some academic knowledge of the coming king. Isaiah spoke of glory and brilliance, a “Hero God” — and yet when the magi found Him in Bethlehem, just another poor baby Jew, they still knew who He was — and they rejoiced, and adored, and gloried in His light.

It’s not enough to identify God when you find Him. It won’t do you any good unless you’ve been living in a way that makes you ready to want salvation.

Several years ago, I had a little glimpse of Jesus. He was in the form of another man, someone who served God with every moment of his life. When I walked into the room, he was on his knees on the floor, binding the ankle of a boy who had hurt his foot. The boy was not grateful, not at all. He sulked and pitied himself, but the man radiated love. His posture was a living expression of love. The room shone.

This time, when I saw holiness, I didn’t run away. I stayed and watched, because the light of charity that shone in that room had something to say to me: “Be like this.”

In the first reading at the Mass of the Epiphany, Isaiah says:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.

This is a light that may reveal all kinds of things. It’s not enough for those “nations” (and we are the nations) to recognize and identify God. It’s not enough to be able to realize what holiness is when we see it.

How are we preparing, before that light appears? The magi knew it was coming, and they prepared themselves to welcome and adore it. Herod knew it was coming, and he made plans to extinguish it. Herod acted like exactly like Herod when His savior appeared, and so will we act exactly like ourselves when we meet God.

Just being in His light will not be enough. If we live like Herod, we will respond to Him like Herod, with fear, with loathing. We will see the light, and we will want to put it out.

When the glory of the Lord comes to shine upon you, what will that light reveal?

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Image: “Epiphany” by Gallardoblend via Deviantart
This essay was originally published on Aleteia in January of 2016.

Gender Reveal Parties and the Discernment of Amoral Issues

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A reader writes:

I cannot understand why some practicing Catholics that I know do not agree that referring to a child by his/her gender and name before birth (as soon as it can be known) is MORE life-affirming than not doing so, and is clearly a moral issue because of the inherent dignity of the unborn.

Read my response at the Register.

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Maria Goretti didn’t die for her virginity

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Or she wasn’t canonized just because she managed to remain a virgin, anyway.

Let’s back up. When you think about holiness, do you fall into bathwater thinking?

Bathwater thinking is when you forget the baby — the living, breathing, vulnerable persons in front of you — and instead, you wallow around in that warm, familiar bathwater of your indisputably worthy cause.

Think about St. Gianna Molla.  A good many people believe that this woman’s greatness came in her eager, joyful acceptance of death in order to save her baby.  Not so.  It is true that she was willing to accept the risk of death when she refused the therapeutic hysterectomy that would have killed her unborn child.  And she did end up giving her life so that her baby could live.  But the whole time, she prayed and hoped and longed to live. She wasn’t devoted to being pro-life: she was devoted to her baby.  And she wanted to live, so that she could be with her baby and her husband and the rest of her beloved children.  She was pro-life:  she hoped for life in abundance, including her own.

The same is true, in a somewhat different way, for St. Maria Goretti, whose feast is today.  Over and over, I’ve heard this saint praised as a holy girl who prized her viginity so highly that she was willing to die to defend it.  And she did die as a result of defending her viginity.  But when her would-be rapist attacked her, she pleaded with him to stop because he would be committing a mortal sin, and he would go to hell.  She didn’t say, “Please, please, spare my virginity!” She begged him to spare himself.  

This is what it looks like when someone is close to God:  because they love God, they want to spare the person in front of them.  They are in love with living human beings, not in love with virtue in the abstract.  They are focused not on the idea of morality, but on the person whose life and safety (whether physical or spiritual) are at stake.

In Maria Goretti’s case, she was focused on her rapist — and it was her love for him, and not her blindingly pure devotion to virginity, that converted him and brought him to repentance before he died.  That is how conversions happen.  That is how people are saved:  when other people show love for them.  It’s about other people.  It’s always about our love for God expressed as love for other people.  That’s why, before someone is declared a saint, they have to perform two miracles for people still on earth.  Even after death, it’s not about the cause or the system or the virtue in the abstract.  It’s always about our love for other people.

Ideas like holiness, chastity, humility, charity, diligence, or any other virtue that springs to mind when you think of a saint?  These are bathwater.  These are the things that surround and support the “baby” of love in action.  A bath without bathwater is no good; but a bath without someone to be bathed is even more pointless. God doesn’t want bathwater saints, ardently devoted to a cause or a principle or a movement or a virtue.  God wants us to love and care for each other.  Love for each other is how we order our lives.  Love for each other is how we serve God.

Love for each other is how we imitate Jesus. He didn’t die for the cause of salvation; He died for us, as billions of individual beloved children.

It’s not an either/or: we don’t have to choose between pursuing virtue and showing love. But virtue doesn’t exist in a vaccuum, and the pursuit of holiness doesn’t mean anything unless it’s manifest in love for each other. It’s always about our love for other people. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Giuseppe Brovelli-Soffredini[1]  (Original source of this reproduction is unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published in a different form in February of 2014.