Our Lady of Superstition

I present to you a situation shared with one of my classes this week:

A professor of mine was in a small town in France some years ago and visited a church with a beautiful image of Mary on the outside wall. It was apparently a great pilgrimage site for the locals, and many people stopped and prayed daily, including the town prostitutes. The fact that they were prostitutes at the church was not a problem. The problem was that these prostitutes prayed to “Mary” each day, knowing her to be a good example on earth, close to God, and believing to have some power here on earth, for the purpose of getting more customers. I kid you not. Prostitutes were praying to the virgin Mary for more customers.

This story is ironic, a bit funny, and quite sad all at the same time. Most of all, it epitomizes an interesting situation we find in many of our churches, one of severely misguided faith, but faith nonetheless. Like the person that comes to mass to pray the rosary, receives the Eucharist (holy communion) as a purely private act between “me and God,” goes to confession but refuses to stop doing what they confess, or spreads the Gospel with violent tactics or divisive rhetoric, there is a clear disconnect from what the larger Church is doing and what the individual is doing. Particularly in the Catholic Church, we find many people more concerned with rules than they are with the Gospel. In a very clear sense, these extreme examples represent a faith that is so misguided and self-perpetuated that it is hard to label it as anything but wrong. 

And yet, there is an obvious sense that these individuals have at their core something guiding them, something pointing them to the transcendent. With all of the things we could fill our lives with, there is something to be said about the person that continues to come to church, continues to pray to a saint, continues to ask for forgiveness, or continues to share what they find important, even if what they are holding onto is in fact the product of their own mind or situation.

What does a pastor do in such a situation then? To be honest, I’m not sure. There are clearly at least two answers to this dilemma. The first is to realize that the “faith” on which their actions are built are nothing more than superstition, that the recognition of the transcendent is nothing more than carrying a rabbit’s foot or wishing upon a star, and it is best to squash this “faith” in an attempt to rebuild something a little more in touch with reality. There is a great danger in this, quite obviously, in that there is a great possibility that no new faith will be rebuilt. This is the problem with arguing with fundamentalist Christians: to tell them that they are wrong in believing the world is only 6,000 years old will not bring them to the light, but in fact, will cause them to question everything about their faith, and most likely drop everything as a result. “If that’s not true, what can I believe in?”

The other solution, one that I do not necessarily pose as the correct answer, is the “Good, Better, Best” model. In this way, we look at the fact that someone is at church, no matter the reason, as a good thing. Even if severely misguided, there is still a recognition that there is something outside of the individual that is greater than the individual, even if that is simply luck, superstition, or Santa Claus. From there, we can gradually call the individual to a better faith, and ultimately, to the best faith, the ideal. This solution requires much more patience in meeting people where they are, a tremendous amount of frustration because of lack of progress, and even the crippling realization that you are supporting some people that will never change. Even worse, we run the risk in the larger Church of letting these people be our ambassadors to the outside world, negatively evangelizing the world about a Church that does not actually exist.

I guess the answer I give at this moment is that we are called to love each person on an individual basis and to remember that love is not necessarily supporting and encouraging. Sometimes we are called to tough love, sometimes we are called to patience. Regardless, we are at all times to engage the people with the most authentic faith we can live, to evangelize not by what we say but how we say it and how we welcome people, leading people to “true” faith by example. While many people may be devoting themselves more to “Our Lady of Superstition” than to the actual Mary, spending more times with rules than they are with the Gospel message, I think that this ultimately makes our job a bit easier. Sure they may be running in the wrong direction, but at least they’re running; I think it’s much easier to change someone’s direction than it is to get someone moving who doesn’t want to run.

Redefining Freedom

What do we actually mean when we say "freedom"?

What do we actually mean when we say “freedom”?

Freedom is a word that is thrown around a lot in this country, used to justify a political agenda or distract from the true issues at hand. “Fight for freedom,” “let freedom ring,” and “don’t take away my freedom” are phrases heard on a daily basis in politics and general conversations. What does it actually mean to be free?

The reason I pose this question is because I believe that the “American” concept of freedom, founded on thinkers such as John Locke, is an entirely different concept from the freedom we find in the Church. Though it is the same word, there is a wide discrepancy when it comes to defining it. Whenever I hear people using the word “freedom,” I feel like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do no think it means what you think it means.”

For the political philosophers like John Locke, freedom is the complete separation of the individual from any social structures or institutions that would inhibit one’s ability to act entirely in one’s own self-interest. The only guiding principle of the individual and government, what keeps society from utter chaos, is the principle that one can do anything one wants as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. It is a concept of freedom defined by radical individualism and subjectivity, and often uses the word “from”: freedom from government, from oppression, from responsibility. Thus, it is not the role of society to provide quality options nor is it anyone’s right to make any choice, while helpful, on behalf of another person; it is simply the role of society to not interfere with one’s own choices, allowing for the most possible choices. Simply put, someone with five choices is more free than someone with three choices, and no matter what those choices are, both should be free to continue looking for more.

What is entirely lacking from this conversation is the quality of choices made available. If one thirsty person is given five options to drink (crude oil, Clorox bleach, mouth wash, salt water, and rotten milk) while another person is given only one option (water) which person is more free? Clearly the second person is more free because none of the first five choices would quench thirst. What if, in the same situation, the government mandated that crude oil, Clorox bleach, mouth wash, salt water, and rotten milk were illegal to drink, and that one could drink water? It would be entirely non-sensical to be enraged by such a mandate, for the former options are poisonous to the human person and the latter is good for one, and yet, I suspect that there would be those protesting on principle: “You can’t tell me what I can and cannot drink!” This, I say, is a distorted view of a freedom and a very misguided way to relate to others.

Freedom as a Christian concept is one defined by relationship with God, self, and neighbor, and often uses the word “to”: freedom to flourish, to worship, to live peaceably with others. Unlike the radical individualism and subjectivity above, it is a recognition that there are things that are objectively good and bad, and that the only choice one needs is the choice of the good. In this way, we as Christians have recognized for two thousand years that we are on this journey together, as one Pilgrim Church, not in competition with one another for rights and resources, but in cooperation with one another for the building of God’s Kingdom.

A Christian conception of freedom must also look at one’s ability to choose within oneself, namely, one’s Free Will. While God has given each human the Free Will to choose to act free from God, this does not mean that we are absolutely free: in many ways, our freedom of choice is limited. The greatest culprit of this limitation is not the will of other individuals. It is sin. Through sin, our choices and encounters contrary to God’s will, we are left less able to choose what is good. It’s easy for us to look at others, particularly those with addictions, and say, “Why can’t they just have the will power to stop doing that.” As I mentioned in Sin, A Social Problem, original sin and social sin are very real and very destructive because they strip people this ability: children who are abused, addicts of every kind, and individuals born into violence must deal with tremendous burdens inhibiting their free choice. They are not free in an ultimate sense because the psychological, physical, social, and economic factors are often too heavy to bear.  When we sin, the effect is the same for us: we cloud our judgment and confuse our conscience with what is wrong, making it easier and easier to sin until we are in fact less free to do what is right than we were before. At no point are we without the freedom will entirely, but we must always recognize, in ourselves and in others, the ways in which our choices are very limited at times (think about how we act when we are hungry, angry, lonely, and tired… are we truly free to act perfect in those situations??) and to treat everyone with mercy and forgiveness.

This is how Jesus, our great liberator treats us and how we hope to treat others. But what Jesus does is much greater: He frees us from our sins, our situations, our inhibitions so that we may love more truly. Jesus forgives us of our shortcomings, recognizing that we are only able to do so much without his help, but also makes us more able to do better the next time. True freedom is a life in Jesus. To be free, thus, is to be able to love the good, the objective truth that is God.

Sunday Reflection: Drink From Living Waters

This weekend I will be traveling to the University of Georgia to visit with the students at the Catholic Center and to give a reflection at each of the masses. My reflection is based on the readings for the day, found here.

While there are few things more exhilarating than a ride like this, we need something more in our life to remain fulfilled.

While there are few things more exhilarating than a ride like this, we need something more in our life to remain fulfilled.

They say that money can’t buy happiness. But then again, money can buy wave runners, and I dare you to find a sad person riding a wave runner. Am I right? Probably not the opening line you expected from a Franciscan, but I stand by it. The reason I say this is that there are a lot of good, physical/temporal things in this life that make us happy and keep us going. While riding a wave runner might be a bit of an exaggerated example, our lives are often focused on fulfilling these physical/temporal needs, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. For those of us in school, getting good grades is among our highest priority, and it’s good to do so. For those of us in the working world, earning a good paycheck helps us to eat, pay the bills, and provide the general necessities of life, which are all good things. Eating is good. Having fun with friends is good. Looking nice is good. Going to college football games is good. In a lot of ways, these physical/temporal needs, eating/drinking, work/play, accomplishments and status, are not only good to have, but also necessary to our survival.

In my life before becoming a friar, I was filled with more blessings that I can count. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, I was often unable to see all that God had done for me and was often ungrateful. Although I never had an abundance, God continued to bless me and stand by me, to keep me safe and well-nourished. I was blessed with great parents that supported me. I played baseball for our club team in college and even had a chance to go to the Club Baseball World Series; I had a beautiful girlfriend that made me happy; I got good grades in most of my classes; and I had friends that made me laugh and joined me in never missing a party. For all intents and purposes, I was living it up, and very happy with the life I had. 

That is, until the summer after my sophomore year when I was invited to live and work at the church run by the friars in Greenville with three other students. What started out as simply an opportunity for free room and board turned into the most life-changing experience of my life. The four of us prayed together twice a day, ate meals together, and really, grew together. We spent each day serving the church and community, and then each night sharing our lives, talking about faith, and becoming amazing friends. It was an intimacy of friendship that I had never experienced, and an intimacy that was life-giving. It was because of that powerful experience in community that I found myself able to be poured out day after day for others and yet never tired of what I was doing.

The following year, I realized something had changed in me. For spring break, sixteen friends and I found a house in Key Largo on a private beach; the weather was perfect sunshine and 85 all week; we had no cares in the world except to grab a drink and sit in the sun. For most of us, that’s paradise: we could do that all day, every day. What could be a better life than to sit on the beach all day? To this day I’ll never be able to explain it, but by the third or fourth day of the week, I found myself a little restless. There was something unfulfilling about it, and I started looking forward to going back to school. I know, it sounds absolutely crazy. It was a tremendously fun time, and don’t get me wrong, I’d kill to be back there, but there was something about it, and something about the majority of my life, that was completely unsustainable. I longed to be back at church, living in community, serving people who needed help.  There was a thirst in me that couldn’t be quenched by a day on the beach, no matter how fun. I longed to be doing what truly fulfilled me: serving others.

As I continued on my journey, I spent a summer with the friars in Philadelphia where we have a soup kitchen. There, I met a friar with a similar story. Owning his own business with an office in New York and Atlanta, making incredible amounts of money, and working with celebrities like as Elton John and Bon Jovi, he says that his life was like the most expensive, rich and creamy dessert you can imagine: decadent, extravagant, and eventually unfulfilling. Eating a twelve layer chocolate cake is delicious for dessert, and there are times when it is exactly what we’re looking for; but what if we ate 12 layer chocolate cake every day? I imagine that even the most delicious cake in the world would get old after a while. That was how his life was: he had all the money and prestige he could ever want, but it wasn’t until he gave those things up and devoted his life to the poor that he felt truly fulfilled. There are few people I know that are happier in what they do than him.

In this time of Lent, God is calling all of us to this sort of life-changing experience. Rather than continuing to drink from wells that cannot quench, seeking happiness in things that do not last, we are called to drink of the water of eternal life. We are called to the Word, to the Eucharist, to a life in Christ. We are called to replace a life of fear, emptiness, and futile pursuits for a life of love, fulfillment, and building up of God’s kingdom.

A life like this truly is a calling, and it is a calling Christ has for each of us, each of you. Like the woman at the well, Jesus is calling you, because he knows you intimately. Just as he knew that she had had five husbands, he knows who you are and where you’ve been. He knows what you’ve done well, and where you’ve fallen. He knows this because he was walked this road with you, standing by you as you drank the water of earthly life, while always offering the water of eternal life.

What would happen if you answered this call, took in living water, and let it spring up in you throughout the whole world? Where do you think it would take you?

In the life of the Church, it has taken people to serve the lowest and most forgotten people of society, people who would otherwise never be loved or cared for; it has built schools and universities all around the world, spreading not only knowledge, but wisdom to people who need it most; it has inspired doctors, lawyers, politicians, and business leaders to put their tremendous skills toward the common good, even working for free in order to bring life to those without hope.

For some, it has moved people like me to do even wilder things: to vow ourselves to the Church in poverty, chastity and obedience. Let me tell you, it was the most freeing thing I ever did. Don’t believe me? All I have to worry about in life from now on is how I’m going to best love God’s people for him. Because I have given up the ambition to be rich, or even comfortable, the desire to have a family, and the need to be in control or have a successful career, I am free to move where I’m needed, to love without restraint. I live a life centered in prayer, poverty, and humility, and the best part about it is that we don’t have to do it alone: we do it together, living in community. Through these things, God has given us friars so much life-giving water that we can’t help but share it with the world. We work in parishes, universities, schools, retreat centers, and soup kitchens; we act as priests, teachers, artists, musicians, writers, and social workers; we have brought the gifts God has given us to serve the people of God, and we do it together, as Church and fraternity. 

In all of these ways, the seeds of living water have been planted. Jesus has used men like Father David and Father Tom, along with thousands of other men and woman, to bring living water to the world for two thousand years. Jesus tells us that the fields are “ripe for the harvest.” In this time we live, there is an incredible harvest to be had and so few laborers. The churches they’ve built, the schools they’ve founded, the soup kitchens they’ve established, and the movements they’ve sparked, all need strong men and women to keep them going. People often ask, “Why are there so few priests, brothers, and nuns today?”  I wonder: “Do you think that Jesus has called fewer people to serve or are fewer people willing to answer that call?” He says in today’s Gospel: “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.” Jesus is calling you to this harvest. With Jesus as the life-giving water, and others having done so much of the work before us, what is ours to do but to say, “Yes” and continue what they’ve started? It doesn’t matter how old you are or what skills God has given you, the world needs what you can offer.

There is nothing wrong with things of this earth. Much of the physical/temporal things we seek are good. But are they ends in themselves? Can they satisfy us forever? The wave runner eventually runs out of gas, beauty fades, money runs out, jobs end, power weakens, and no one cares about your grades after your first job. In this Lenten season, I ask you to look at your life and ask yourself this question: am I drinking from waters that leave me thirsty, seeking happiness in things that do not last? If this is the case, now is the time to turn your hearts, to say yes to the Lord, and drink of living waters. Just one sip and you can’t help but spring up for the world; you’ll realize that it’s in pouring yourself out that God continues to fill you up. And so, Jesus is calling, “The hour is coming and is now here.” Will you answer? “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

An Itinerant Vacation

Long trip with a lot of great stops along the way!

Long trip with a lot of great stops along the way!

Home at last and back to normal. For now! My hiatus from posting last week was less than desired but not without excuse: five midterms in a week and a half kept me very busy and very tired. Such work is not without reward though, as I’ve spent the last five days on spring break. How does a friar spend spring break, you ask? Itinerantly.

Spending five nights in five different places, I made my rounds in what ended up being a great blend of business and pleasure. Starting in Lancaster, PA (the place where I grew up), I gave two talks at my cousin’s confirmation retreat, sharing about my life in the Church and how the Holy Spirit has guided me in my vocation. From there is was off to the Philadelphia suburbs to spend three nights in three different homes, catching up with family members I have otherwise been unable to see since starting formation. Finally, I finished the trip with a quick visit to our soup kitchen in Philadelphia and the night at our parish in Camden, New Jersey.

Besides being utterly exhausted (so much so that the first thing I did when I made it back to DC was to take a nap), I have to say that it was a great trip with a surprising amount of reflection to be had.

The first point of reflection is about itinerancy. Spending five nights in five beds is both a challenge and a joy. Living out of a suitcase requires one to live much more simply than normal, going without anything that isn’t a necessity. Entering into another’s home, even when treated extraordinarily well, is still an invasion of another’s space: you’re never 100% comfortable because it’s not your fridge, bathroom, bed, television, etc. that you’re using. It requires a lot of flexibility, and with such little time at each place, a lot of energy for each individual person and always feeling like you’re “on”.

For some of us as friars, itinerancy in this form will be a way of life. The Ministry of the Word, as mentioned a few years ago, is a form of ministry in which friars go from parish to parish, preaching at the masses and holding parish missions during the week. Some of our friars can do upwards of twenty or thirty of these per year, spending a lot of time on the road with new people. There are many aspects of this that are appealing to me.

For the rest of the friars, even though we don’t move from house to house that often, there is still a sense with the way we live that we are using, not owning, the things around us. When we know that we will be transferred in 3, 6, or 9 years, we are reminded that someone will be using the things we have shortly after we’re done with them, and that while we have something today, it may not be ours tomorrow.

The second point of reflection I had on this trip, and arguably the more important one, was the experiences I had speaking with relatives and friends about the Church. I come from a very large Catholic family, and like many in the northeast (and western world), many of them have encountered their fair share of struggles within and outside of the church. Having now spent two and a half years in the friars, and spending much of my day in class or indirectly focused on the theological issues of the times, it was a critical opportunity for my own ministerial development to spend time with regular people with varying degrees of affiliation with the Church.

Don’t get me wrong: I have plenty of opportunities to talk about the Church and to be with regular people throughout the day. What I find sometimes, however, is that much of our time is spent with the extraordinary cases, the ones with the best or worst situations who feel a need to seek someone out. They say the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and in this life, its mainly because we have no idea what the other wheels are thinking until they squeak! Being with family and friends this week was an awesome experience to hear where I presume a lot of Catholics are today: not particularly pleased or angered by the Church, simply unsure of a number of things and either unable or unwilling to find someone to ask. The common problem I found this week was that the Church has a twofold problem: education and public relations. The majority of people in the pews simply don’t know what they don’t know. As I think about my future in the Church, this is a big issue that I feel called to work with.

That being said, there’s no use “waiting until I’m older” to get started. In a sort of “But wait, there’s more!” sort of gimmick, my travels are just beginning: next weekend I’ll be in Athens, Georgia at the University of Georgia speaking to the Catholic Student Center about living a vocation in the Church (not just being a friar, but I’ll make sure to emphasize that option!) and in early May I’ll be going down to Raleigh to St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church to speak at all the masses about supporting the friars (and again, maybe even becoming one!)

For me, there’s just too much out there to do to sit around. There’s a great message to be shared, and while some people will come to hear it, it may require us to be a bit more itinerant, meeting people where they are. That’s my mission for now! Off I go again!

Radical Obedience

There are few people that live obedience more radically than these two!

There are few people that live obedience more radically than these two!

When we think of things that are “radical” about religious life, things like helping the poor, shared life in community, and celibacy all come to mind as being counter-cultural witnesses to Christian life. How often, however, do we associate obedience with being radical? By their very definitions, one would think, “radical” and “obedience” are closer to opposites than synonyms: one requires submission, the other fundamental change. Obedience is something for children and the oppressed, not for radicals that want to change the world. And yet, I stand by the title of this post. Even more boldly, I stand by the statement that obedience is the most radical thing we as Franciscans can share with the Church and the world.

Before you click to a new link, hear me out! I’m not trying to start a cult or militia, and I’m not asking anyone to stop being a free thinker. Quite the opposite actually.

The way I see it, we live in a society focused entirely on the individual. We have become such an inwardly looking people that we have given up on absolute, universal Truth. Truth in today’s world is determined by the individual based on what is considered meaningful, and it varies from person to person. “That may be true for you, but it’s not for me,” one may say. Inevitably, it devolves into a system of belief that can only say, “Who are you to tell me what to do? I believe whatever I want.” In this world of thinking, the world in which the only obedience is obedience to self, we have made ourselves into gods. This is not truth at all. This is delusion.

Christianity professes a very different idea of Truth: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he is obedient to the Father. St. Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians that Jesus humbled himself by renouncing his place in heaven to take on flesh, that he was “obedient to death, even death on a cross.” As fully divine and fully human, this act of obedience was a full and conscious choice and the part of Jesus, a choice that could have gone otherwise: just as He was free in the desert to be tempted by the devil, Jesus was free to let fear of pain and death deter him from doing what He was asked to do. Had it been up to his own will, things might have been different:

Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (Mt 26:38-39)

Jesus provides us with a perfect example of obedience: even though He did not want to do it, and wasn’t completely sure if what He was being asked to do was entirely necessary, He did it anyway. Was it because He was brainwashed and couldn’t think for himself? Hardly. His example of obedience is rooted in humility, trust, and faithfulness to what he knew was the will of God. Jesus’ kenosis included giving up the need to know, the need to be in control, and the need to be consulted before God made the decision. All Jesus needed was to pray and to live in the tension of the situation.

When I look at obedience through this lens, I see it as an openness to be moved, to be taken outside of one’s comfort zone, and to be brought outside the realm of control. It is radical trust in people we love, in people who have gone before us and claim to know the way, and in God, knowing that our feeble attempts at controlling our world pale in comparison to the active work of God in salvation history.

As I study more philosophy and theology, and as I begin to take on a more active ministerial role in the Church, I am increasingly faced with teachings and actions of the Church that leave me unsettled. In some cases, I find myself truly struggling to accept them. And so I return to the title of this post: what does it mean to live with radical obedience when faced with situations that seemingly challenge my conscience? It means living in the tension between humbly challenging and faithfully trusting. The church does not need brainwashed robots that will blindly follow its every command, especially when they may be contrary to the Gospel. At the same time, the Church needs people to recognize that it is founded on nearly two thousands years of tradition and tremendous amounts of prayer, study, and action. After 24 years of life, am I really willing to say that I know more than the collection of theological thinkers over two millennia? I hope not.

When I look to history for other examples of faithful Christians faced with the same issues, a Saint and Pope bearing the same name come to mind: Francis. The profound counter-cultural nature of their lives reveals a disconnect between the Church they imagine and the Church they see; there is no doubt that these men saw a Church in need of reform. And yet, I daresay you will not find a single line of either of their’s calling for revolution, denouncing a Church teaching, or encouraging dissent from the outside. The humility and reverence for the Church is simply too great in each of them. Rather, the profound reform of these two men emanates from inside, within the limits of a less-than-perfect church, through their living of the Gospel as authentically as possible and by challenging the Church to do the same.

This is the type of radical obedience I hope to live. The type of obedience that says, “I may not agree, but I’m willing to try.” The type of obedience that trusts before it dissents, investigates before it acts. The type of obedience that holds the revelation and dogma of the Church in one hand, my own will and the will of the people I serve in the other, and refuses to ever let go of either. I assure you that I will never find the answer to all of our questions and I severely doubt that I will ever be able to profess without reservation everything the Church teaches, but my charism as a Franciscan will always guide me live life in the tension of these realities. For Franciscans, we do not seek easy answers to difficult questions. The world is not so black and white. For us, God is in the grey area, the murkiness, the tension. It is in faithfully trusting what we do not know, imitating our Lord that did the same, that we are able find God.