Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A really cool message

I was going to write a post about a recent study (mis)reported in HuffPo, about how religious education affects the ability of 5- and 6-year-olds to make distinctions between the possible and the impossible. In fact, I had several paragraphs written; it was really quite thoughtful, if I do say so myself.

And ... then I ran into a technical glitch with Blogger such that, to get out of it, I ended up losing everything I'd written.

So I started over again. And then I checked the clock — well past midnight. So I took a quick trip through Facebook to see if anybody needed a response from me before I called it a night. And among the new items was a cheer from my friend, Catholic Stand editor-in-chief Dr. Stacy Trasancos:

"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:4-7)

We Catholic bloggers really have no clue how people may or may not be affected by our witness. Sometimes I look at things other Catholic writers and I have published and I wonder how many people get completely turned off, not because of ideology but because of how ugly we sometimes talk: "If you are an example of what I might become if I convert, then no thank you, sir; you can shove it up your six!" I especially think about this when the "circular Catholic firing squad" loads up with bullets and blows up the blogosphere with another stupid blue-on-blue engagement, or when some writer tries to make his tribe the reference point for Real Catholicism.

By no means am I taking anything away from Stacy. But then, she claims no credit for his conversion, either. Even when we do the best we're able, write persuasively of the reality and goodness of God, and speak with grace of the wisdom and beauty of the Catholic Church, at the end of the day each person makes his own decision and his own peace with God. We'll probably never know what, if anything, Stacy may have said to put a crack in his/her atheist shell. That s/he thought enough of Stacy to inform her of his/her conversion is not conclusive evidence, but it does suggest she played a role.

Who cares if some journalist misread some minor piece of research? A lost lamb has been found! A prodigal son/daughter has returned — kill the fatted calf!

What's worse than a Trekkie? A Catholic Trekkie
who's barely Latinate!
You see, I find myself stressing the hard truths of the Faith because it sometimes seems that, as George Orwell once wrote, we've reached the stage where stating the obvious is the first duty of a writer. If you think anything were obvious, it ought to be the reality of sin and human concupiscence, a fact Chesterton said is "as practical as potatoes", or the need for repentance. And, indeed, many people will readily agree to the existence of sin; they just don't agree on what acts are sinful.

I stress the reality of Hell and of final judgment because asserting that everyone goes to Heaven denies God's justice and diminishes His mercy. When people try to reduce Jesus to a first-century César Chavez, a champion of underdogs and marginalized persons, I try to remind them that Jesus' stated reason for dining with sinners and tax collectors was, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. ... I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:12-13) And it's well to remind those who go all "Buddy Jesus" on us that "gentle Jesus meek and mild" was fully capable of opening up a can of whup-ass on moneychangers in the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13; cf. John 2:13-17), and condemning the self-righteous Pharisees as a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 23:33).

But as true as all this is, it sometimes misses the point of the evangelion, the "good news". God gave us free will so we would love Him freely, not from compulsion or fear, and return His love by loving others. Eternal life isn't a "premium" we get for loving Him; it's what we were created for. Sin is futile, but we are not condemned to sin if we truly desire to be free of it. We are called to convert others because Heaven isn't intended to be an "exclusive club" in the sense our detractors mean. When St. Paul says, "And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Galatians 4:6), Abba! is actually closer in sense to "Daddy!" It is a word full of childlike love and trust, not fear and remorse!

Near the end of his life, Abraham Lincoln told his longtime friend Joshua Speed, "After I am dead, I want it said of me that I always planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow." Right now, I feel as though I've spent more time picking up rocks and showing the ugly things underneath them than in prepping ground for putting in marigolds or crysanthemums. I don't want to hock Catholicism as some sort of panacea like a sideshow huckster. I want to paint it for you as Van Gogh painted the stars, or sing it for you as Gabrieli composed his "O magnum mysterium":

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cuius viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Mysterium, the hidden operation of God in the world, and sacramentum, its manifestation in our midst: "The Absolute in swaddling clothes, /Omnipotence in bonds." "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling [lit. eskēnōsen, "tented"; "set up his tent"] among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)

That is the really cool message. That is why the HuffPo writer's analysis of the study is all wrong: The real is not limited to the natural; it includes the natural. As big and as wonder-full as the material universe is, it's much bigger and more wonder-full than a materialist may think.

And while it's important to tell all the truth, to talk about the ugliness not only in the world but in the Church's history, ugliness is not the whole story. The Church tells some hard truths, but those hard truths are only necessary to understand the full goodness of the "good news". The only real point to asserting that we are all prodigal sons and daughters is to explain that it's possible to repent and go home again, where we'll be welcomed and embraced.

Convert, whoever you are, wherever you are: Welcome home.

P.S. Did you know today, July 22, is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, "the apostle to the apostles"? She's also been traditionally identified as the repentant prostitute who washed and perfumed Jesus' feet: "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:47)