Sometimes We Fail

Easter is realizing that Christ is carrying us

Easter is realizing that Christ is carrying us

Last year, I wrote The Joy of Our Salvation as a candid recount of the Easter Vigil calling it, “hands down the best liturgical experience I have ever had.” I was amazed by the transcendence in the liturgy, the energy in the congregation, the faith in the catechumens. Last year, everything went exactly as planned. It was an incredible success.

This year went a little differently.

Now a theology student with a little experience preaching, I was asked by the pastor of St. Camillus Church to give the English “reflection” for Good Friday, the celebration of the Lord’s passion (since it’s not a mass someone other than a priest often gives it.) I was honored. I was excited. Those who know me know that I love big liturgies and I love to preach. Come Friday morning, I felt really great about what I wrote and couldn’t wait to share it with a packed church on such an important day.

But things did not go according to plan. Starting around 4:00 that afternoon, I developed a headache which turned out to be a migraine. I was in pain and confused for a few hours. I felt dizzy and disoriented for much of the afternoon. I could see, but part of my vision was blurry. I took a long nap, got some medicine and right before the service started I felt a little better. Rather than have the pastor stand up and have to make something up, I decided to give it my best. I would be in a little pain, I thought, but that I could still do a decent job.

I didn’t.

In front of my fellow student friars, four priests, and an almost packed church that included friends, strangers, and even one of my professors, I failed miserably. Within twenty seconds I lost my place. After a few sentences, I became downright confused. Looking directly at my written reflection, I could see the words but they meant absolutely nothing to me. I said one sentence a few times because it seemed completely incoherent. Three times I stopped, caught my breath and tried again. I looked at my paper again, but they were only nonsense words. I couldn’t do it. After three tries and about two minutes of embarrassment, I looked at the pastor, said “I’m sorry,” and began to cry as I walked away. I made it to the sacristy, fell to the floor, and cried as hard as I ever had.

I had failed.

I hope that this doesn’t come off too dramatic or even privileged, but it was easily one of the top three most painful experiences of my life. Not only was I in a good bit of pain, I embarrassed the heck out of myself, messed up the liturgy, and back in the sacristy, my classmates, two priests, and some strangers saw me crying, something I have not let people see in many years. How could this night have went any worse?

But then a friar sent me a text and my perspective began to change ever so slightly:

In no way should you feel embarrassed. It was incredibly brave for you to try to do it. I’m very proud of you for trying to tough it out, but also knowing when to ask for help. While I’m sorry you had to go through it, I think for most folks it was a rather poignant demonstration of what carrying the cross looks like in real life. Several people said to tell you what a beautiful homily it was. And it truly was.

By most definitions, what I did up there was anything but a success. I stumbled. I lost my place. I didn’t even get 1/3 of the way finished before I quit. And yet, the result was anything but a failure. There before me, I witnessed my brother stepping in to finish my words for me. I felt my classmates and random members of the choir come to bring me water and console me (like ten people crowded in the sacristy within seconds!) Some even mentioned later that the abruptness of the situation broke them out of the predictable pattern and awoke them to something more before them. How could it be that I was unable to do anything right, that the plan failed miserably, and yet Christ’s message came through?

God transforms our failures into his success.

I stood up, relying on my own strength, thinking that I was going to talk about the pain Jesus went through, the humiliation He experienced, and how He even wept, but my strength was not enough. I couldn’t do it by myself. And I didn’t have to. There we were celebrating the moment in history when Christ triumphantly took our pain and weakness upon himself, subsumed our failures into his perfection, and it began unfolding once again before our eyes. I wanted to talk about this event, but God wanted to show it. My weakness was turned into strength, my failure into success. The Paschal mystery could not be contained by words.

To say that this year’s Triduum celebration went off without a hitch would be far from the truth. Before my Easter this year, I had to experience one of the most difficult crosses of my life. Nobody likes to realize that they are not strong enough. Nobody likes to admit that sometimes we fail.

But we do. And that’s okay.

It is in our weakness that Christ is our strength. It is in our failings that Christ is our success. It is in the crosses we bear that Christ is our Easter joy. May we never be ashamed of our weaknesses, despairing over our failures, or refuse to carry our crosses. Sometimes we fail. Every time Christ succeeds. Happy Easter! Alleluia!

Not So Minor

It is in serving the least of his day that Francis experienced perfect humility and minority.

It is in serving the least of his day that Francis experienced perfect humility and minority.

A man of great conversion, Francis is probably most well-known for dramatically renouncing his earthly wealth and high social status in order to minister to the lepers, those people so sick and disgusting that they needed to live outside the city (and wear a bell so that people could run away when they heard them coming.) The Franciscan charism follows in his example: As members of the Order of Friars Minor, the “lesser brothers,” we are called to live a life for the poor, with the poor, as the poor, renouncing any sort of wealth, power, or status, that would nurture a feeling of entitlement or honor. The lowest in society do not expect to be served or cared for, they know that they must serve others. That is what Francis wanted.

When I look at my own life, I struggle to identify a single way in which I am a minor in our society: I am a young, white, college-educated, middle class, heterosexual male, born in the United States to parents that are still married, a member of the largest religious organization in the world, and have no mental or physical disabilities. If that’s not enough, I joined one of the largest religious orders in the Catholic Church, giving me tremendous (and largely undeserved) respect as a religious and future member of the clergy. In literally every way that I can imagine I find myself among the privileged in society.

And unlike Francis who was able to renounce his status in society with a symbolic undressing before the bishop, I can hardly renounce the attributes that make me privileged in this one:

  • As I see racial discrimination continue to boil over in places like Furgeson, and I am reminded how much easier it is to be white. Upon arriving in Camden, one friar told me, “Oh don’t worry, you’re white. The gang members and drug dealers won’t hurt you because they don’t want to scare away their white customers.”
  • As I watch news coverage of the recent boarder crossings and immigration laws in Arizona and Georgia, I know that I will never be “randomly” stopped on the street and forced to prove that I belong, have to flee one country into a country that does not want me, or have to worry about my rights when abroad.
  • As a male, I know that I will never be given less money for doing the same job as a co-worker, fear being alone outside at night, or constantly have to prove my self and my gender as not inferior.
  • As our church and country continues to understand homosexuality, I am made aware that I have never had to worry about how my sexuality or sexual orientation could offend someone, what people might think of me if they found out, or being thrown out of my house by my parents.

This list could go on and on. As I look out into the world, I see people being discriminated against and made “lesser” in our society each day, and it is never me. I doubt it ever will be. And so I’m faced with a challenge. How do I ever become “lesser” in society? How do I ever even approach minority when things like race, gender, sexual orientation, education, and physical capability are not exactly things that can be stripped and handed to a bishop?

It is here that I would normally have a conclusion like, “For me, what’s important is… The key is… I’ve found that the best answer is…” Unfortunately, my reflection today is a little less complete than normal. The fact of the matter is that I simply do not know and I will have to sit with this struggle for a while longer. There are obviously some things that I can change, e.g. how I spend my money, with whom I associate, how intentional I am at being with the poor. As I leave formation and entire into a little more autonomous life as a friar, I know that there will be a little more freedom to choose where and how I live, and what ministry I do, making this a little easier to live out.

And yet, there is a part of me that realizes that I will never be the least in society and I am struggling to accept that. How can I say to be a friar minor, an imitator of Jesus and Francis of Assisi, with so much respect, authority, privilege, and “wealth,” both civilly and ecclesiastically? I don’t know. For now, all I can do is realize that this “great privilege” I have in our society is nothing but a lucky ticket in the womb lottery: I have done nothing to deserve it and ultimately am no better off than anyone else because of it. I am what I am before God, and nothing more. This is a bit of wisdom that I must always keep with me. For though I may never be able to fully renounce all that separates me from the least in our society, I know that there is always a full reserve of pretension, entitlement, and arrogance just waiting to be given up inside me. If I want to be minor in society, it starts with the attitude I bring to every situation: I am here to serve the people of God with perfect humility and minority, and they do not owe me anything because it is God who is truly doing all the work.

The Irony of Being Celibate

Today I attended a three-hour sexuality workshop to fulfill requirements set by the Church and my province. It was the first of two sessions that we will attend this year, the second level of a four-year program. Prior to this, my classmates and I attended three workshops during Postulancy and Novitiate, each consisting of two or three sessions per day for more than three days each. If that’s not ironic, that is, celibate religious men devoting a tremendous amount of time talking about and developing their sexualities, I don’t know what is. But wait, there’s more!

We talk about sexuality much more [intelligently] than before. 

The ironic thing about being a celibate in a religious order is not just that we talk about sexuality much more than we ever did before entering, it’s that we do it much more intelligently than in the outside world. Sure, guys would get together and talk about sex, but when did I ever have a conversation about sexuality? The thing is, sex and sexuality are related but not the same thing. Our schools were required to talk about the practical aspects of sex, but who ever talked to us about attraction, orientation, loneliness, friendships, non-genital expression, boundaries, or addictive behaviors? These topics are vastly underdeveloped in secular education and common knowledge, and were never the topic of my conversations prior to entering the friars. In religious life, these are common place.

Because of this I find myself to be more self-aware and self-accepting of who I am than I ever was when I had the possibility to date. Talking about these topics ad nauseum (and I do mean nauseum) and studying them in an intelligent context has given me the language and skills to identify not only important aspects of my own sexuality, but also to understand those around me much better and to enter into relationships in a much more meaningful way. Why everyone doesn’t take a full two years to understand oneself, how one relates to others, and social dynamics is beyond me. Going through the process of becoming a celibate religious prepared me for dating more than anything else in my life.

Clearer boundaries actually makes for freer relationships.

Because I am very comfortable with who I am and the vocational path I am following, I never enter a relationship confused or plagued by sexual tension. I am certainly still attracted to people and find myself wanting to be around certain people more than others (welcome to being human), but there is a clear boundary in every relationship that was never there before: I do not want to date you. Really. I don’t care who you are. (I still may be speechless or swept off my feet, but I don’t want to date you!) This, I have to say, is one of the greatest freedoms I have ever experienced in being with people.

When I stopped looking at everyone as a potential date, relationships opened up for me.

When I stopped looking at everyone as a potential date, relationships opened up for me.

Before becoming a friar, there was always the internal tension in every new relationship: “Do I find her attractive? Does she find me attractive? Could I date her? Should I try? Am I trying already? What could I do to make her like me? Dang, look at that body! I wonder what she thinks of me?” With clear boundaries, I know that the answer to any one of these questions now means absolutely nothing to me anymore and am free to completely disregard them for a less superficial relationship that before. Do I succeed at this? Not always. Vanity is a tough one to kill and we all want to feel important around attractive people. I will say this though: giving up the desire to date has helped me tremendously in looking beyond one’s attractiveness and has helped me treat attractive women with much more dignity and respect than I did before.

The ironic and somewhat tragic part of this is twofold: 1) Obviously, that it took stepping away from women for me to objectify them less, and 2) more tragically, that I would be so much better of a boyfriend/husband now having spent three years learning how to be in intimate relationships while having absolutely no intention of possession or objectification. Come on! I’m nowhere close to perfect now nor will I ever be, but I often wonder what a relationship would be like with this more mature and respectful approach.

As “men in uniform” and in positions of authority, we are more attractive than we were before.

The last part is a little bit of a joke but true nonetheless: people in leadership positions, especially for organizations of service or selflessness, are very attractive to people. Add a great looking uniform and be under fifty years old and people will come in droves. As friars, we know that we are “attractive” people. We’re friendly; we’re jovial; we’re virtuous (sometimes); we’re in charge of important things. Whether deserved or not, people tend to think highly of “the brothers” and naturally want to be around us. This is a natural attraction that none of us has ever experienced in our lives.

The difficult part of this for some friars is understanding the difference between being attracted to “Br. Casey” and “Casey”. We were told a story as postulants of a well-liked friar that was very attractive to the people he served, particularly the single women. Seeing other options, he left the friars to pursue a relationship in which the girl later realized that it was “Br. X” that she had been attracted to all along, not X, and they never ended up getting married. (If that’s not the most twisted irony you’ve heard today I don’t know what is!) Sometimes, it’s both “Br. X” and “X” that people are attracted to, but the point remains: being a public person in authority wearing a respectable uniform is going to attract more people than we’re used to and we need to be prepared for that.

*

To summarize, I know myself much better, I would make a much more mature and respectful partner, and I find myself with more opportunities than I had before. And this is preparing me for a life alone? Yes and no. While ironic in the sense that it has potentially prepared me for its opposite, celibacy is a gift that has truly prepared me to be a man for everyone, not just a man for someone. In this life, I know myself better, I am a more mature and respectful partner (to all) and I am given more opportunities to love than I would ever have been offered in an exclusive romantic relationship. I guess you could say the real irony of it all is that celibacy deters people from religious life because they are afraid that they will not find the love that they need. In reality, celibacy is a life learning how to love as many people as possible as well as one can possibly love. Wouldn’t you give up something too if you could do that?

The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Do you find this picture provocative or offensive? Why?

God is, was, and will be a part of every step of creation.

Given the amount of quality material out there and the fact that this is a somewhat tired and irrelevant topic for most Catholics, I’m a bit apprehensive about devoting a post to “the religion and science debate.” What more can I say that hasn’t been said better by others? On the other hand, the fact that it continues to surface unintelligently in pop culture and even in our churches tells me that it can’t hurt to try a new medium.

So here we go. Science and religion. The great debate of our time. Some say that science is the only real truth, that religion is mere superstition that propagates fairy tales and manipulates people into violence. Others say that the only real truth is religion, that science is unreliable and that it denies the existence of God. Clearly, I would say, both of these opinions lack an understanding of the other and should be dismissed: even if one is the perfect option, neither lacks truth in some sense. So where does that leave us?

In between the two poles you will find many saying that science confirms religion and that religion guides science. Among Christians, I would say that this opinion is the most common. What they are trying to do, it would seem, is to reconcile the differences in the two in order to create one cohesive worldview from two different disciplines. This, as nice as it may sound, is yet another misunderstanding of the nature of religion and science.

The key to understanding the “debate” is that it is not a debate at all: religion and science are concerned with two completely different, mutually exclusive forms of knowledge. In the same way that art and engineering are two completely different, yet important, ways to understand a new bathroom project, science and religion have completely different goals. Science, using only empirical data (data that can be measured objectively with the senses), is concerned with the facts, that is, statements that can be proven without a doubt. Religion on the other hand, using divine revelation and human reason, is concerned with truths about our existence, that is, statements that give our life meaning. Which is better?

Scientists like Richard Dawkins or Neil Degrasse Tyson want to argue that this makes science better (although I would like to note that I do like much of what Degrasse has to say.) They say, and rightly so, that the great thing about science is that if something is a fact, it is so no matter what we believe. One can not simply “believe” that gravity does not exist because one doesn’t want to. Because of this, though, they look down on religion because of its lack of proof: “How can you believe in a God that you can’t prove exists?” they ask. What they want is a scientific answer to a religious question, facts where people are searching for meaning. To me, this is like asking an artist why they paint even though it cannot provide electricity for the house. It’s ridiculous because that is not the concern of art. As far as religion is concerned, there is no proof for what we believe because proof of God would actually collapse our free will. Proof does not allow for choice; it does not allow for faith. Surely this is not what God wants. Instead, the purpose of religion is to use the evidence we have, both from revelation and reason, to find meaning in our life about God to help us assent to him.

Because of this, it is a grave mistake for us as Christians to view science as anything other than an incredible resource. When we look to the world, we want to be as informed as possible as to how it works, don’t we?! It is a tragic reality that many Christians view science with skepticism, or worse yet, that they see it as a threat to their religious beliefs. Quoting Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus, John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences with this remark in 1996: “Truth cannot contradict truth.” In other words, if something is scientifically true then it cannot be against the truth of God.

This statement must be the basis of any interaction between science and religion; it must be the lens through which we understand any new information, no matter the medium. To dismiss new truths from science (or any hermeneutical device for that matter, e.g. art) is to limit our ability to properly interpret the evidence of our existence. To dismiss them on the basis of a particular interpretation of scripture is utterly foolish. As far back as the 4th century, St. Augustine recognized that an ignorant faith only repelled people from the church:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world. . . and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics. . . The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? (citation here)

It doesn’t matter what the topic is. Creation. Evolution. Reproduction. Homosexuality. Genetics. Astronomy. Thermodynamics. Fracking. Stem cells. If we begin from a religious statement that contradicts or disregards truth from other disciplines, namely scientific fact, because we are afraid to incorporate new information into a broader interpretation or as an attempt to pass off a statement of faith as a statement of scientific proof, we will look foolish and unattractive to non-believers. This is what we unfortunately see from Christians wishing to use the Bible as a science textbook, emphatically declaring that the earth is only 6,000 years old. It is a response that exhibits fear and a lack of faith. Why couldn’t God have created the world out of nothing AND continue to create it anew each day through the process of evolution? (For a truly fantastic article that deals with this specifically, I strongly encourage that you read “Creationism is Materialism’s Creation“.)

Using every possible form of knowledge does not make us atheists, it makes us grateful that God gave us the ability to reason!

Using every possible form of knowledge does not make us atheists, it makes us grateful that God gave us the ability to reason!

While his theology may need a little work, I find Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. to be a fascinating example of someone able to incorporate the latest in scientific research into a Christocentric Universe. Essentially (and briefly because this post is already too long and going down a rabbit hole we might get stuck in!) Chardin took Charles Darwin’s principles of evolution that all organisms have a natural, material propensity to grow more complex and to reproduce, and added a theological element to it: all of creation has a “driving force” within it so that evolutionary steps are not random, but rather an organism’s yearning to converge on one point, Christ, the connection between the creator and created. In this way God is in not some distant creator that walked away after putting his creation into motion. He is ever creating as it continues to unfold.

Ultimately, I will close by quoting a man most brilliant in his field, Albert Einstein: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” As Christians, we want the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, wherever God is willing to reveal it to us. Let us do as the Apostle Paul tells us: “Test everything; keep what is good.”

The Joy of Salvation

This was hands down the best liturgical experience I have ever had. Second place hasn't even finished yet this is so far ahead!

This was hands down the best liturgical experience I have ever had. Second place hasn’t even finished yet this is so far ahead!

All around the world, Christians are celebrating! Christ has risen from the dead! Our salvation is at hand!

How does one even begin to celebrate such a moment? At St. Camillus, we celebrate in the way of the Roman Catholic Church with the night watch of the Easter Vigil:

Just after sundown, turn off all of the lights in the church, and sit in the physical and spiritual darkness, awaiting Christ’s coming in joyful anticipation. We retreat outside of the church where a candle is being lit, the Paschal candle, the light of Christ in our darkness. With great praise, Christ illumines the night. From the One true light, everyone keeping vigil lights our own candle and processes into the church, now illumined by 1200 or more flames. What can we do but sing? Lumen Christi. Lumen Christi. Lumen Christi. There is anticipation of the joy to come in our voice, but our celebration is yet subdued. Three of the four priests approach the ambo, and taking turns in English, Spanish, and French, sing the ExsultetIt is emotive, haunting, and joyous all at once.

With only the light in our hands, we now sit for a journey through salvation history. Six readings, proclaimed in four languages, recall our journey from darkness into light, from Adam to Abraham to Moses, from sinfulness to forgiveness, from diaspora to reconciliation. We journey as a people in need of the light. Between each reading we sing a response, praising God, using many tongues to express our praise: Latin, French, Hebrew, Spanish, and Bangla are among them.

And then, all at once, there is a great light. The church lights are thrown on and the whole multicultural community cries out in joyful exultation the best way we can: Gloria Deo in excelsis, Gloria Deo sempiternam, “Glory to God in the highest.” From English to Spanish to French to Bangla, repeating the response in Latin, we are united in our diversity, made one from many in our great praise. An epistle from Romans is read, the Gospel and a homily is proclaimed in three languages, and the liturgy has just begun!

Those wishing initiation into the church are presented, so many they stretch the whole width of the church. We kneel and invoke the intercessions of the saints in a prayerful litany, Pray for us. Twenty eight people step into a pool of water for baptism, and each in their native language, have three buckets of water poured on them: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” With each there is an eruption of cheers and a joyful Alleluia sung. The rest of us are renewed in our own baptism with our own “sprinkling” of water, chanting Wade in the Water like you’ve never head it before. The other catechumens are then received, either into full communion or through the sacrament of confirmation. 98 sacraments are received throughout the evening.

And as if this were not enough, it was then, after two and half hours, we begin the liturgy of the Eucharist. The gifts are presented with a traditional Bangla dance, and the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the gifts to make them new. A wonderful blending of cultures and languages, the Eucharist was blessed and communicated, uniting people from all around the world in the utmost pinnacle of our faith, the real presence of our Lord, now risen, here among us.

Throughout the whole liturgy, I was overwhelmed with the overflowing, almost tangible, emotion that I felt and witnessed. The absolute tipping point was after everyone had received communion, the whole church stood up and began to dance, shout, sing, and embrace one another as if a war was called off and we now knew we were going to make it; it was as if we had just been reunited with someone lost many years ago; it was as if we had been given an unexpected day to live when we had lost hope. And in a way, it was all of these things. Although we receive Christ in the Eucharist every week, even every day, there was something even more being celebrating among the more than 1200 people last night: we were celebrating our salvation. Christ has RISEN! The darkness is no more! The true light is with us, and dwells with us! Death has been conquered, our fear has been taken away.

If you’d like to see what I mean by overflowing joy, click the link below to see one of the baptisms, the “sprinkling” of water, the Bangla offering of gifts, and the communion song: