Saturday, September 27, 2014

For God So Loved the--- Yawn--- World...?

On Wednesday night at the junior high youth gathering we are going to ask the question: "What is the Gospel, anyway?"

Perhaps that seems like an elementary question. Certainly they have been told what the Gospel is time and time again throughout their formation years.

I contend it is a most important question to ask, though.

We are going to ask the question as if we have never heard of the Gospel before.

Last week we examined the thirst of the human heart for God. Our desire for God drives us forth, seeking heaven in which we will find the fulfillment of all desire. Jesus Christ comes along and wakens us to that thirst within, and offers us the opportunity to quench it. Repent and believe the Good News, he says.

Illustration copyright 2014, used with permission

Most of the children and youth we work with in faith formation have known nothing but Catholicism all their brief lives. They have been, to greater or lesser degree, exposed to the message of the Gospel since infancy.

This is good because it means that these children are being raised in the Faith, that their parents have taken seriously the responsibility to be their primary educators in the Faith. But raising children in the Faith brings challenges, as well. Take it from one who is not only Catholic, but who has worked in the trenches of the Church for a number of years. It is not easy being the child of a worker in the vineyard of the Lord. But that’s another story.

When people are raised in the Faith, their astonishment-potential can be diminished. When there is a crucifix on every wall, and Catholicism is the air we breathe, that shadow side of this very good reality is that we run the risk of neglecting to really look and listen. The crucifix becomes another pretty ornament and we no longer see it; the Gospel becomes so familiar we no longer hear it. And we certainly aren't astonished by it.

But the thing is, when Jesus came on the scene in first century Palestine, he did astonish people. His teachings, which people recognized came from his “authority,” blasted religious convention away. Jesus shook things up. He left people either 1) angry (usually because he made them look in the mirror) 2) perplexed, or 3) amazingly and suddenly alive. He was anything but status quo, or business as usual.

And he is still astonishing people. Right out of their complacency and even deepest sin.

Jesus is never mundane. Jesus and boring are concepts light years apart. But our perception of him often is dulled by certain realities in our lives. Sin, cold-heartedness, distractedness, idol-worship, and familiarity--- these things sometimes cloud our perception of Jesus and the Gospel message. Often we meet the Savior with indifference. Sometimes we yawn through the Gospel readings because they are so familiar that it has been years since we actually heard them, let alone tried to live by them.

I have seen this in myself (not proud to admit) from time to time.

How often on my journey, for instance, have I walked past a crucifix without taking a moment to really look at it, take in its stark and yet glorious truth? This is what love looks like! This is how much I loved you! What happened to the wrench I used to experience in my heart as a young man when I gazed upon the crucifix with eyes newly baptized into the Faith?

How many times have we seen or heard the words from John 3:16, words that should astound and shake our hearts to the core, only to have them barely register in our minds?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16, RSV).
It is important that we are intentional in personally re-encountering the Gospel message over and over. It is critical that we help our children and youth hear the Gospel as if for the first time. (We can't effectively do the latter unless we first do the former.)

Sometimes I like to commit to a fresh read-through of the Gospels. For instance, I will choose one of the Gospels (each is so rich in its own way, you can’t go wrong) and approach it with an imagined unfamiliarity. In other words, I pretend I have never read it before, trying to come to it with fresh eyes and an open heart.

That can be a powerful experience. You may find yourself thoroughly surprised by Jesus.

“Wow, I didn’t remember he said THAT!”

“Whoa, I forgot people reacted to him like THAT! Oh, man, it reminds me of my hard-heartedness!”

Reading the Gospel with fresh eyes can wake the soul to new wonders. How many saints attributed their initial conversion to a reading of the Scriptures and especially the Gospels!
"We must read and reread the Gospel without stopping, so that we will have the spirit, deeds, words, and thoughts of Jesus before us so that we may one day think, talk, and act as he did." Blessed Charles de Foucauld
Reading the Gospels--- really being attentive and hearing them with the heart--- leads to wonder, repentance, and ultimately, prayer.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What's a Real Catholic Man Look Like?

The new buzz in the blogosphere, Catholic broadcasting, and Catholic publishing is all about Real Catholic Manhood. What does that phrase even mean? What does a "Real Catholic Man" look like, anyway?
Illustration copyright 2014, Used with permission
Is a Real Catholic Man (hereafter RCM) a guy who loves football, eats pizza, enjoys competitive displays of vigorous flatulence, while going to Mass every Sunday and Confession regularly, praying before meals, and attending the occasional men's fellowship at church?

Sometimes that's the impression I get when I read/listen to/watch various male Catholic evangelizers on the circuit today. They talk liberally about football, wrestling, beer, and God like they are all part and parcel of being a man. As if all men love to watch football, eat pizza, pass wind, drink beer, smoke cigars, and what makes a man a RCM is that he does Catholic "stuff," too.

Sometimes when I read/ listen to/ watch some male Catholic evangelizers I find myself yawning at their superficiality. Even some of the most energized, passionate male speakers bore me to tears. (A disclaimer: thankfully, there are some excellent ones out there, too.)

Now maybe it is because growing up I was the strange, isolated artist kid, more likely to be found in the school library reading a great novel or doodling in my ever present sketch pad (admittedly, drawing ripped superheroes saving beautiful damsels in distress, or grotesque monsters voraciously munching on people's body parts, in a gleeful desire to gross my friends out), than out on the playground playing a rough game of kickball. I guess for a nerdy artist guy like me, it is hard to relate to the testosterone-charged barrage of some guy on stage yelling at the men, grunting and exhorting them to "man-up." (Maybe that is why I enjoy Fr. Robert Barron's work so much.)

The difficulty I have in this chest-pounding approach is that it is grounded on some sophomoric assumptions that simply don't ring true.

When male Catholic evangelizers contend that man and women are equal but distinctly different, I wholeheartedly agree. My son and I are surrounded by females in our house. I get it. Catholic anthropology is grounded in Truth.

But the chest-beaters lose me when they seem to equate RCM spirituality with abundant chest hair (poor me, with my predominately English blood, I am seriously challenged in this area), sports, and blood-drenched action movies. Sometimes I even sense that these guys are afraid to speak seriously of the great male intellectual tradition in the Church. It sometimes seems implied that a) the pursuit of intellectual spirituality is too deep a concept for men, and b) if you want to keep men engaged you must keep it superficial and steeped in sports or war banter.

That's a little insulting.

I've noticed they neglect to speak of the goodness of male tenderness, as exhibited by a father cuddled up to a child on the sofa as he reads to her, or a dad running his fingers through his little boy's hair as he bids him goodnight. Nothing, to my mind, speaks of male spirituality and manliness as a father telling his little girl, "You are a princess in the Kingdom of God, and the Great King cherishes you. Don't ever forget that." At the inaugural Mass for his pontificate, Pope Francis spoke of this tenderness as exemplified by the husband of Mary:

"St. Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!" 

I understand what the chest-beaters are doing: they are trying to meet a lot of men where they think they are at and then lead them deeper to the ideal of spiritual battle, warfare, and all that. They are trying to wake men up to the reality that a man is called to spiritual battle for the souls of his wife and children. So true. After all, I love Braveheart and Gladiator as much as the next guy. And I do realize we are at war for our family members' souls. (And I also believe we must examine ourselves when it comes to liturgical music, etc., which has tended to be bland and banal, especially from a male perspective, but that is the subject of a post for another time.)

I guess my complaint is that the chest-beaters often fail to take it deeper. I suppose I find that a bit patronizing. Don't treat me like I am a spiritual neanderthal. Challenge me to be a saint, albeit a male one, not just a testosterone-charged Catholic superhero.

Being a RCM is more than a coach saying a customary Our Father before a ball game (though that is good to do for certain). It is more than going to Mass with the family (though that is essential). It is so much more than joining in family prayer before bed (ditto).

To my mind, being a RCM is to be like King David, not in his abilities as a warrior, but in his all-consuming love for God. So often we focus so much on David's kick-donkey leadership (as exhibited in his fantastic smack-down of Goliath) and equate that with his true manliness rather than realizing what made David a true man was his all-in devotion to God. David was a man who danced like a fool before the ark of the Lord, after all (cf. 2 Sam 6:16). It was this devotion, this single-minded, manly commitment to God, that motivated David's military exploits and moved his heart to repentance when he failed to exercise the virtue of chastity and even plotted the death of his beloved's husband, Uriah, in an act of stupendous cowardice.

A RCM--- at least the one I am striving to be, as witnessed by great saints, like Pope John Paul II--- models his life on Jesus, the greatest model of Real Manhood, by laying down his life for others.

He submits to the authority of God and leads in love, as the Master did.

A RCM is faithful to Christ and His Church in all things, including in areas of sexuality and procreation. He doesn't selfishly expect his wife to poison herself with life-preventing contraceptives, or conversely disable his own natural ability to cooperate with the work of the Creator through sexual self-mutilation or the absurd application of rubber sheathes.

A RCM spends time with his wife, eye to eye. He values her opinions and listens to her. He spends time with his children, doing what they want to do, even when his fatigue tempts him to a sedentary sprawl on the recliner before the TV.

A RCM not only takes his family to Mass on Sunday, he talks openly about his faith with his wife and children, and explains to them why it is so important to him, and what a difference it has made in his own life. He pushes through his fears of being vulnerable and speaks of his faith to others when the occasion calls for evangelization.

A RCM models his need for and the beauty of reconciliation with God and the faith community by going to the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation regularly.

A RCM prays, not just mumbling the "easy" formula prayers along with the family (though this may be an admirable beginning), but by truly being a leader of prayer in the home. He demonstrates his devotion to God through his commitment to prayer, and he takes seriously his responsibility to be a teacher of prayer to his family (see John Paul II's apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, no. 60, 1981). A friend of mine recounts how he would pass by his parents' room at night and see his dad kneel at his bedside in prayer, and how it left a deep impression on him and his perception of what it means to be a man.

I am going to be honest. I have a long way to go to become the RCM I believe the Lord has called me to be.

Like the rest of the disciples, I am a work in progress. And at times I have failed miserably in the project. But I know who it is that I must look to to teach me how to be a RCM. And frankly, while they have their purpose and value, it isn't some Catholic speaker on stage, going on a rant about Catholic manhood, that is going to teach me how to be a RCM. My Teacher must be the One Teacher, the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. Certainly He will use others, such as the saints, to tutor me in the way of authentic male spirituality. But ultimately, it is only by keeping my eyes fixed on Him that I have a hope to finish this race (cf. Heb 12:1-2; 1 Tim 4:7).

The older I get the more I believe that what makes a man a man is his right orientation of heart, and where he goes from there.

Whether he is an exceptional athlete or a quirky artist, it is the state of his heart that matters.

"You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8, NAB).

The heart directed to God is a heart most fully alive in love, and love is the fuel that drives the male heart and makes a man a man.