Believing the Facts

What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the lord, our God, is to us? (Deuteronomy 4:7)

The Lord Jesus Christ brought true religion to the earth. Religion that ascends to God as He truly is. Religion that also penetrates into the center of our hearts, to our real selves.

True religion = Honest communication with the real God.

Christ Himself practiced this true religion. And Christ Himself is our only means—our only hope, our constant inspiration and guide—for practicing it ourselves.

In honor of the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, we have been considering some parallels between AD 33 and AD 2012. Here’s another:

The world at large seems to labor under a vague and paralyzing misapprehension. The misapprehension that God, the Almighty, the All-Good, the Father of all—the misapprehension that He cannot be known. The cruelly dispiriting misapprehension that He may or may not exist. The altogether confusing misapprehension that each of us is really on his or her own when it comes to learning God’s will for what I am supposed to do—and Good Luck! Because no one can really know that.

The pagan world; the world without Christ; the world into which the Apostles confidently strode forth; the world that waits for us, too: This world has a problem. Somehow or other, the most important thing that ever happened has managed to pass it by.

No wonder, really. The all-important thing happened very quietly. It happened in a little corner of the earth, in an obscure country the size of New Jersey.

Fighting wars to expand your empire, or maximizing your profits, or watching t.v., or playing video games on your smartphone—all these things can get pretty distracting. So it is hardly surprising that the world managed to snooze its way through the most important thing that ever happened.

But, world: Wake up, please! God has not left us to flail after Him blindly. The Lord has not left us to our own devices with the impossible task of trying to know Him without His help.

“Religion” can never be just a matter of us making stuff up, or just following the things that our more-creative forefathers made up. No. God wants us actually to know Him, as He actually is–personally, as a friend.

So He has revealed Himself to us! He has taken very dramatic steps so that we could know all about Him.

Now, admittedly: The steps He has taken to reveal Himself may not exactly be the steps that we think He should have taken. Maybe we think He should reveal Himself by shooting off some fireworks, or by tweeting regularly on His own Twitter feed, or by giving a speech on t.v. and talking to an empty chair.

But God has not done any of these. He has done what He has done.

As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it:

God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind. (Dei Verbum 6)

The talking heads of our contemporary world tend to use the terms “religion” and “faith” as if they referred solely to subjective personal experiences—experiences which bear no necessary relation to facts. According to this way of thinking, my ‘spirituality’ arises from my own unique circumstances. No one can judge the truth or falsity of my faith or my spirituality any more than they could judge my preference for a particular football team or fast-food restaurant as true or false. (Which, by the way, I like McDonalds.)

Anyway, this false contemporary understanding of religion and faith conforms perfectly with the idea that God is too busy, or too distracted, or too aloof, to take the trouble to make Himself known personally to the human race.

Now: Yes, the Catholic faith touches us at great personal, interior depth. There is something utterly unique about every individual person’s relationship with God. Nonetheless, while faith is more personal than anything else, at the same time it also engages us with an objective set of facts—indeed, the most compelling objective facts imaginable. We do not believe in our own experiences. We believe in Jesus Christ, a man who certainly walked the earth at a particular time, in a country about the size of New Jersey. We believe in particular things that happened, by which the truth of God has been revealed.

Our faith is fundamentally an act of submission to this truth, a truth that transcends our mental powers. We submit to a truth which we acknowledge as something more solid than anything else could ever be, a truth immeasurably more solid than our own feeble knowledge and insights.

We believe in Almighty God, Who has revealed Himself to mankind, by words and by deeds. In other words, we believe in Divine Revelation.

More on this over the next few weeks.

Where is Time Headed?

In explaining his international preaching enterprise, St. Paul takes one interesting fact for granted. In his famous sentence,

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified,

St. Paul takes this for granted, namely that the preacher will always have an audience, no matter where he goes. The preacher will have an audience among all the different peoples of the world, because everyone everywhere wants to learn something; we want to hear the answer to some mysterious question or questions.

Now, we could spend all day discussing what it is exactly that this eager audience longs to hear. I hardly propose myself as competent to give an exhaustive answer. But let me suggest one thing. It is the mystery which lies, in my opinion, at the heart of today’s parable of the Ten Virgins.

What do we want to know, that a preacher can tell us? One thing, it seems to me is this: Where is time heading?
We observe that times moves forward. For instance, I observe that I am now 42 years old. It seems like the last time I checked, I was like 12. Time moves on; it waits for no man.

But, on the one hand, time appears to move in a circle, like NASCAR racers around a track. Noon recurs. Friday recurs. August 31 recurs. We have been here before.

But, actually, we haven’t. As of August 31, 2011, the Mexican Olympic soccer team had never won a gold medal. As of August 31, 2010, Steven Strasburg had never had Tommy-John surgery.

This is not just one big loop. We are headed somewhere. Where?

St. Paul, where are we headed? Church of Christ, where are we headed?

To Christ. The power of God and the wisdom of God. The firstborn of the many brethren who have fallen asleep. Who will come in glory to judge. Whose kingdom will have no end.

Stewards’ Choice + Moonshine Movie

The common custom among landowners in ancient Palestine involved paying their laborers and slaves with meal. If the owner spent time away from the farm, he chose a steward, who would ration out the workers’ payment and distribute the meal.

As we know, farm life moves in an annual cycle—an annual cycle which has repeated itself nearly 2,013 times now since the birth of the Son of God.

The Great Landowner, Who owns every field, every furrow: He appears to have taken a lengthy trip.

After all these many cycles—some 735,000 daily distributions of meal to the workers—after all this apparent monotony, the stewards of this mysteriously absent Master might wonder if He intends to return.

Doubts might begin to seep in, which would then give rise to wicked thoughts, such as: Well, if He will never come back, why do I bother to keep on doing my duty with painstaking precision? Why not just keep what I can get away with keeping for myself, and live it up a little? Who will punish me if I do?

But other stewards watch the sun rise in the east every morning, and think to themselves:

The same Great Master Who owns this vineyard, Who owns this field, Who owns this house, Who owns it all, Who made it all in the first place—this same Great Master makes the sun come up; He keeps air in my lungs; He gives the fields increase and makes the rivers flow to the sea. Wouldn’t I be a fool to doubt that His justice will inevitably be done? Certainly it will, more thoroughly than I can even imagine. Let me do my duty today, because I fear this Great Master’s wrath if He catches me slacking off.

2,012 years, and counting, seems like a long time. But all these many years are made up of single days. Not one of us stewards can deny that God gives us the strength to do my duty today. I can do under His sky what I am supposed to do right now, not doubting for a second that He is good, that His plan is just, and that—for Him—a thousand years is as a single day.

Our long wait for His return will end when it is supposed to end, and then He Himself will distribute goods to us, and they will be more wonderful than we can imagine.

…PS. If they were going to mythologize our beloved Franklin County, Virginia, with a moonshine movie, I wish they could have done it with a better one.

But, don’t worry: We will definitely come back to Jessica Chastain. She appeared in Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which deserves a thorough study here, once I get a free moment or two…

The Conscience of the King

If you would like to pray for reprieve from hurricanes (especially on the feast of the Martyrdom of the Baptist), click here.

…In the Old Covenant, the Lord established a monarchy in the person of King David and his descendants. This institution possessed unique characteristics—unique characteristics of many different kinds. One of these, which made the throne of Judah different from all of its neighbors was this:

As we read, at one point during his reign, King David undertook a manifestly corrupt and evil course of action. He plotted to have Uriah the Hittite killed, so that he could marry Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. When David undertook to do this, the king’s evil orders were indeed obeyed by his subordinates. But not everyone stood by quietly. The prophet Nathan came to David. The prophet confronted the king and managed to convict David out of his own mouth as an unjust villain who deserved death.

No other kingdom in recorded ancient history had prophets who would humiliate the king, if the cause of truth required it.

…There is a higher King, and the higher King has His will and His plan—and His will and plan are true. The wills and plans of all of us here below, from the most- to the least-powerful: they all must be measured, and they can be found wanting.

Nathan confronted King David. Nathan, God bless him, got to sleep in his own bed that night. David had been wrong, but he was not so wrong as to blame the messenger of truth when condemnation came. St. John the Baptist likewise confronted Herod. But St. John did not get to sleep in his own bed on Herod’s birthday night or any other night after that.

Both King David and King Herod had given into lust and sinned against the sacred marriage bond. Both were measured by truth and found wanting. Both of the prophets who had the guts to confront these kings—both of them were prepared to die for it.

Can we imagine for a moment that John the Baptist hesitated for even a millisecond before accusing Herod? The Baptist did not hold his life on earth at a pin’s fee; all he cared about was the truth; he certainly did not hesitate.

If we say to ourselves, “Well…John the Baptist is John the Baptist. Living in the desert, wearing camel hair, eating locusts, etc. Of course he never thought twice about confronting the powerful; of course he was ready for death. He was John the Baptist, after all!

“But I don’t know if I am cut-out for such death-defying truth-telling missions. I’ve got commitments in this world; I’ve got to compromise and find a way to get along…”

Okay. Alright. No one wants to be an obtuse egomaniac who styles himself a latter-day John the Baptist.

But let’s ask ourselves this about the man himself, about the real John the Baptist: If simply being John the Baptist meant that he would denounce the king for an unholy marriage–without a thought for his own safety; if ‘being John the Baptist’ meant as much, then what does ‘being a Christian’ mean?

If John the Baptist had not done his duty and accused the king; if instead he had retired from his calling, or never followed it in the first place, and instead kept a little shop and had a wife, and then died in his bed an old man; when he went to meet God, wouldn’t God say, “Look here, man. I made you to be a mighty prophet. But you blew it off, blew off your mission because you wanted a little comfort for a few years. For crying out loud, I made you to be John the Baptist, but you crumbled and became John the baker instead! Geez.”

If we can see clearly the incongruity of such a scene, then why can’t we see this clearly: If I die and go to God, and He says, “Look here, man. I made you to be a Christian. I consecrated you in truth to live for heaven and never fear death. But you didn’t have the guts to stand up!”

…We also have to ask ourselves one other question. Who do we have the duty to confront? We have to go after the most dangerous tyrant of all.

Of all the kings of the world, which is the most difficult one to confront with the truth? Before which potentate does it require the most guts to stand up?

The star chamber that requires the most courage for sticking solely to the truth is the little room where I stand alone in front of the mirror. If I can accuse the tyrant I see there of all his sins, then there’s hope for me. Then I can look forward to sharing the reward which John the Baptist now enjoys.

Three Characteristics of the Former Way of Life

Do you also want to leave? (John 6:67)

The Lord Jesus asked His Apostles this question after many of the other disciples left and returned to “their former way of life.” The Apostles said, “No, Lord. You have the words of eternal life. We are not leaving.” But a lot of the other disciples left and never came back.

What had the Lord said, which made these other disciples take a walk? He told them that He came from God as the anointed Savior, the One for Whom Abraham, Moses, and all the prophets hoped. He told them that His Body and Blood, shed for the life of the world, would feed the human race unto eternal life.

He demanded an act of faith. Believe in Me. Believe in the divine food I will give. It is the flesh of God made man. Believe.

Some of His disciples could not make this act of faith. “Okay. Yes, he’s an impressive teacher. Yes, he works miracles. But does my worldview have room for a divine man who invites me to eat his flesh? I mean, I’m just a simple working stiff. Can I feature this scary-talking wise man, who calmly, gently, and lovingly insists that my sins will cost Him His life, but He will rise again and establish a Temple in heaven? Can I feature this? Not really. I like hamburgers, sleeping late on the weekends—all the normal stuff. I like watching t.v. I’m not cut-out for what this Nazarene preacher has in mind. Time to go back to the way things were before.”

Continue reading “Three Characteristics of the Former Way of Life”

Quote of the Day from Douthat Beach Reading

The Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberating avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping.

Bad Religion‘s chapter about the “quest(s) for the historical Jesus” made me laugh with delight and cry with sweet consolation.

If you don’t have time to read the (impressively erudite) book right now, the moral of this chapter is: Jesus, the Church, and the canonical gospels (and the whole New Testament) go together like love and marriage and a horse and carriage. If you want to get in touch with the “Jesus of history,” you do well to begin by reciting the Nicene Creed.

In Butter. But Not Co-operating

1. Gold for Mexico in fút. 2. Gold for Team USA, worthily won in a Sunday-morning thriller, which was perfectly timed to unfold immediately after Mass. 3. Rental house has two porches, free bikes, skylights, ceiling fans. On vacation… Dude, I am swimming in the good sweet butter of life.

But I am like the (beach) dog that cannot let go of the bone. The religious-freedom-is-not-the-issue bone…

The National Catholic Bioethics Center produces precise moral analyses, based on incontrovertible principles and developed via careful distinctions. Few organizations in this world make so much sense so consistently.

When he discusses artificial contraception, President Barack Obama lies, flimflams, and cravenly tries to marginalize us Paul-VI feminists–i.e, kind-hearted, reasonable people (like Mahatma Gandhi) who think women deserve better than poison for the womb.

Can such a day come? Namely, a day on which campaign-stumping President Obama refers to some actual facts—facts which the careful analysts of the NCBC failed adequately to take into account in one of their expert moral studies?

Well, it happened. On Thursday.

The NCBC published a vademecum for business owners to guide their discernment about how to handle the federal contraception-coverage mandate (which has now gone into effect for all “non-religious” employers). While I do not hold myself out as an expert on the “health-care industry,” the NCBC’s essay strikes me as realistic when it comes to laying out the options which a business owner/operator has.

Continue reading “In Butter. But Not Co-operating”

He Ranks with Apostles and Archangels

So why does St. Lawrence get a feast day? Not just an optional Memorial, not just an obligatory Memorial, but a feast day—like the Apostles, like the Archangels? I mean, we all know a lot of great guys named Larry, but…

Basilica of St. Lawrence
St. Lawrence served as Pope St. Sixtus II’s deacon. Both of them were martyred by order of the Emperor Valerian in the middle of the third century.

Everyone loved Lawrence. He concerned himself solely with sacred worship and the well-being of the poor. He had a great sense of humor. He went to his martyrdom with such courageous faith that some of the pagan Roman senators who witnessed it became Christians.

In other words, St. Lawrence had such strength and charisma that he bolstered the faith of countless people. We could say he was a Pope-John-Paul-II-like figure, seventeen centuries earlier. Lawrence’s tomb was erected near the site of his martyrdom, and people flocked to it in droves. The Emperor Constantine built a basilica to house the tomb. The relics of St. Justin Martyr and St. Stephen are housed with St. Lawrence’s relics. Pope St. Leo the Great said that St. Lawrence gave to the city of Rome the same luster that the first Christian martyr—St. Stephen, like Lawrence a deacon—gave to Jerusalem.

So today’s feast unites us with the long and inspiring history of our Mother Church, the Church of Rome. May St. Lawrence pray for us, that we will heroically keep the faith with love and good humor.

[Click HERE to read about Pope Benedict’s visit to St. Lawrence’s tomb.]

Jewish Saint

Our beloved late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, beatified St. Teresa Benedicta, canonized her, and then declared her to be a Co-Patroness of Europe.

She held a special place in the Pope’s heart, obviously: The Nazis killed her in the Pope’s homeland, under the brutal regime which he himself endured as a young man. And, like the Pope’s oldest friend from childhood, with whom he liked to play ping-pong, among other things—like Jerzy Kluger, St. Teresa Benedicta was Jewish.

Before St. Teresa Benedicta became Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she was called Edith Stein. She was a prominent philosopher who had rejected the Jewish faith she grew up with. Then she found Christ, or rather Christ found her. She became a Catholic and a Carmelite nun.

Played ping-pong with the Pope. (RIP. He died this past New Year’s Eve.)
When the bishops where Sister Teresa Benedicta lived protested against the Nazi abuses, the Nazis retaliated by arresting Teresa and sending her to Auschwitz. The saint willingly died with her brother- and sister-Jews, out of love for the crucified Christ, her Jewish Savior, Whom she loved above all.

When Pope John Paul canonized St. Teresa Benedicta, he declared that her Memorial every year should serve as an occasion for the Church to remember the vicious evil of the Holocaust.

Today we pray for all the victims of Nazi violence, that they might rest in peace. And we re-dedicate ourselves to standing up for the universal brotherhood of all mankind.

The Pope said, when he instituted this feast day: “We must all stand together for human dignity. There is only one human family.”

St. Dominic’s Style of Success

A Dominican and a Jesuit argued with each other about which founder achieved more greatness. “St. Ignatius fought the Lutheran heresy!” The Dominican answered, “Yeah. St. Dominic fought the Albigensian heresy. And have you run into any Albigensians lately?”

Pope Benedict XV celebrated the 700th anniversary of St. Dominic’s holy death with an encyclical letter. The Pope pointed out three distinctive characteristics of St. Dominic and his followers. First: love for the Pope and the Apostolic See of Rome. Second: devotion to the Blessed Virgin and diligence in praying the Rosary and teaching others to do so. And third: Solidity of doctrine.

How did St. Dominic “fight” the Albigensians? He used no physical violence. The people of southern France knew him as a gentle wanderer, willing to sell himself into slavery to save a poor man from falling into unbelief.

St. Dominic ‘fought’ the Albigensians by calmly and thoroughly explaining the Catholic religion, basing himself on the Sacred Scriptures. He patiently showed how the Albigensians’ own doctrines made no sense.

Why would God become man with a body—and die an agonizing death—if He does not love man, both soul and body? Why would God dwell in the womb of the Virgin Mary, if she were not truly His Mother? Why would the Lord have celebrated the Last Supper and entrusted His Body and Blood to His Church, if He had no intention of feeding His people throughout the ages with the sacrament?

Faith and reason united; preaching and teaching that flowed from hours of quiet study and contemplation. This is the Dominican way; this is the Catholic way.

But before we turn this into some kind of Olympic medal ceremony for the humble Spanish friar, let’s revisit a question we asked ourselves a moment ago: Have we run into any Albigensians lately?

The Albigensians praised abortion. They refused to give food and water to the terminally ill–and sometimes euthanized them. They preferred temporary concubinage to the permanence of matrimony. They believed in reincarnation. They refused to believe that the God worshipped in the Old Testament is the same loving Father of the New Testament. They accepted some parts of the New Testament–and not others. They considered themselves to be the authentic followers of Jesus, Whom the Church had obscured by Her immoral sham of empty ceremonies. They hated the Pope. They insisted that faith in their doctrines was all that mattered; morals did not matter. They denied that justice could be done on earth at all; therefore, criminals should not be prosecuted in court.

Some of these things sound all too familiar to me. Do I have a calm and gentle explanation ready–for why all of these positions are unreasonable and dangerous?

St. Dominic did. Maybe, if we follow in his soft-spoken footsteps, a generation after we die, all the destructive and ill-founded doctrines of our age will have passed into oblivion. Maybe a few centuries after we die, someone will be able to make a little joke about how successful we were in lovingly standing up for the truth.