Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lessons Learned from an Encounter with Mary and the March for Life

I had the opportunity to attend the March for Life in Washington DC with a few good friends this past week. We made it a pilgrimage of sorts.

We visited Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary on the way, and we went for a walk along the Stations of the Cross that leads to the Grotto and the small adoration chapel on the hill.

As we walked the Stations of the Cross, it began to snow. The snow melted the moment it landed. When we arrived at a scene of the crucifixion, up on a hill, I was struck by the effect the melting snow had on the face of Mary, looking up at her crucified Son. The water that streamed over her cheek had the appearance of tears.

I was moved by the realization that Mary’s look was one of deep sadness and reverent love, not despair, and not anger.

It made me think.

When we come to Mary, her gaze is never one of condemnation, though it was for our sins that her blessed Son was brutalized and killed.

Her look is one of deep compassion. If you have ever watched the movie, The Passion of the Christ, you may recall the eyes of the Blessed Mother, played so beautifully by the Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern, as she looks at the viewer—you and me--- while the lifeless, bruised and bloody body of her Son rests limply in her lap. Her eyes are not accusatory; they are hauntingly sad, and they seem to ask, “Do you see? Do you see what he has done for you?” Her longing that we do see is palpable in the long, drawn out look we receive from the screen.

Do I? Do I see?

Do I recognize what her Son did for me? Do I know that he would have done it for me even if I were the only person on earth? Do I recognize the Love demonstrated by the Son who willingly surrendered Himself to the fate that I justly deserve through my sins?

As I gazed at the face of Mary in the lightly falling snow I thought of a love that is just beyond my reach, and even comprehension.  It beckons, but we cannot grasp it or even receive it without aid. We must be lifted up. Only in God may we reach this love.

The March for Life, which we walked the following day, was a potent reminder that love is not an illusion, or a fleeting emotion, but it is a force to be reckoned with. It breaks down thick walls of evil and fear; it smashes the barriers that stand between the human heart and God. God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8), and God is all powerful. He who abides in love abides in God (cf. 1 Jn 4:16).

To see so many (half a million or so at last report) people, unified for the cause of life, was a testament to the power of love to overcome. While I felt a certain pride in the fact that the Catholic faith dominated the march in terms of presence, I was edified and energized by the fact that there were others there that do not share our Catholic faith, and even, at times, disagree with its teachings. And yet we stood as one, in the power of love.

The many seminarians, religious, and priests, and the thousands of lay faithful, brimming with joy, were such a powerful witness to the love of Christ to all around them.

Illustration copyright 2015 by Leighton Drake
Hearts will change when they encounter changed hearts. People will come to be pro-life when we demonstrate pro-life love authentically. When we affirm the beauty and goodness of life through our witness, people will take notice.

I speak from experience as one who once took the “easy” stance of neutrality on the issue of abortion. I saw it as a personal choice, and though it was an ugly reality, it seemed perhaps a necessary evil. Before I became Catholic, I simply did not see the truth. But, through my conversion as a young man in my twenties, I learned to see life through a completely different set of lenses. I came to appreciate life in a way that made me understand the depth of the evil of abortion. It was the witness of the Church, in her unfaltering affirmation of the beauty and dignity of life, that God used to change my heart.

This doesn't mean we don't speak truth. Nor do we soft-pedal it. But we must speak truth in a spirit of authentic charity, or we don't have a chance of being agents of conversion for anyone. And we must remember we "speak" truth most convincingly by our actions.

The people who stood on the sidelines of the march holding placards that read things like, “My Body, My Choice,” must not be vilified. They must be seen as human beings who do not see the full truth of the beauty and dignity of all human life, for various reasons. There are undoubtedly wounds—deep wounds--- in them from which their blindness comes. Like the rest of us, they need conversion and healing. They need to encounter the love of Jesus Christ, who will show them the truth, goodness, and beauty of all human life, including their own.

The moment we make the pro-choice man or woman an object of scorn, we turn them into an object in our minds. Once we have objectified another human being, we have failed to love. In that moment, we have turned from Christ, and back inward, toward our smaller selves.

The beauty of the march was the joyful faith, hope, and love demonstrated by the youth there. They reminded me that our faith and our hope and our love are theological virtues: in other words, they are gifts from God, received at our baptism. They are the gifts that will change the world. We are reminded that sour-faced saints, to use the image of St. Teresa of Avila, act as a counter-sign to the true Gospel.

Only Love will conquer all. That love is the love that enabled Mother Mary to look upon us with not scorn or hatred, but only the deepest love and compassion, in spite of our complicity in the death of her Son. May we turn to Mary in our attempts to stand for life, and rely on her intercession and her witness of faith, hope, and love.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Have a Nice Day at the Catholic Cafe!

The poverty in what is often called "cafeteria-style" or "pick-and-choose" Catholicism is that it fails to entrust one's life completely to the sovereignty of God. In a word, it is a failure to wholeheartedly trust in the Lord. 

Copyright 2015 by Leighton Drake
This post is intended for Catholics because Protestants, by the very nature of their religion, deny the authority of the Catholic Church. So for them this is a non-issue. I believe they are wrong in their position concerning the authority of the Catholic Church, but to be wrong does not imply a lack of integrity or sincerity. They are following what they believe to be true and I give them the benefit of the doubt they are doing this with integrity. I have known a lot of very holy Protestants that could teach some Catholics (including this one) a thing or two about being an on-fire disciple of Jesus Christ.

But for the Catholic, the authority of the Church to teach in Christ's name is a huge issue. One could argue it is the issue. Why? Because the doctrines of the Trinity, the Eucharist and all the other sacraments, the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the rest, receive their authority through the ministry of the Church that Christ founded.

And if the Church has been given the authority to teach in the name of the Author of life (see the root for the word "authority"), then one would be unwise to dismiss the teachings of the Church on any matter. On the other hand, if the Church does does not possess that authority, Catholics are following a man-made religion and may very well risk their eternal salvation. 

It is not the purpose of this post to argue for the God-given authority of the Catholic Church. For an excellent and concise treatment of this, I recommend the book, By What Authority, by Mark Shea, a former evangelical Protestant turned Catholic. 

I would rather like to briefly address the question: 
If the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, and was bestowed by Him with the authority to teach in His name on matters of faith and morals, as the Catholic Church claims, how does one justify to oneself the picking and choosing of articles of faith and morals without risking disobedience to the Lord Himself? 
I know: it is a big question. But I think it is an important one. 

When I came to the doors of the Catholic Church (literally--- and they were locked, incidentally--- but that is a story for another time), I found myself facing that question head-on. I knew I could not, with any integrity, become Catholic unless the Church could claim the authority of Christ Himself. If He was not the Head of the Body, as Paul said, I could not with integrity be part of that Body.

If Christ was not the Head of the Catholic Church, the Church was no more than a man-made institution that basically made its claim upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ without any authority to do so. This would be, to my mind, the height of arrogance, and I could have no part in it. 

I poured myself into study and investigation (I was much younger in those days and could be up till all hours of the night and still function the following morning). I desperately wanted to be a Protestant because most of my extended family, including my beloved mother, were Protestant. I also had--- perhaps a silly notion--- dreams of becoming a minister (quite a stretch for a guy who months before had claimed agnosticism and shunned all forms of Christianity). 

However, the wise words of C.S. Lewis, from his classic work, Mere Christianity, haunted me:

I hope no reader will suppose that "mere" Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions--- as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into the hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.... And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be; "Do I like this kind of service?" but "Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, from the Preface, emphasis mine)
Through prayerful study, I became convinced that Catholicism is true, and I remain convinced, more than ever, by her claims to authority. (Frankly, from a fleshly point of view, sometimes I think it would be much easier to not be Catholic! But truth must always trump comfort.)

I was twenty-eight when I began the process of initiation into the Church, a process that is wonderfully marked by occasions of conversion and rites that take the human person's faith journey with utter seriousness, and offer a depth of conversional opportunities sorely lacking in many ecclesial communities. 

When I made my profession of faith for the first time, I did so with the conviction that I was "all in." I had tried life on my terms, and that was an utter "fail," so I happily submitted myself to the teaching authority of Jesus Christ, whom I had asked to be Lord of my life, displacing a myriad of idols I had knelt to over the years. 

One of the toughest teachings I encountered was--- not surprisingly--- the Church's teachings on contraception. Not because the teaching didn't make sense--- I read Humanae Vitae to become informed on the reasons for the Church's teachings, and found it brilliant and beautiful, and so prophetic--- but because, frankly, I was terrified. What if we ended up with twenty-odd children (following the example of St. Catherine of Siena's parents!)?

But, scared as I was, the words of Christ, "Fear not!" echoed in my mind as I determined to follow Him all the way, not just part of the way. How arrogant would it be for me to approach the Blessed Lord and say, "I will follow you, Lord--- but on my terms"!

My fears, of course, proved to be a waste of energy. The blessings of openness to life and working in cooperation with God's bodily design through Natural Family Planning over the years has been immeasurable. The Church's teachings on marriage and fertility have done more to mature and strengthen my faith in God's providential care than anything else, in fact. The big, scary "Yes" of submitting to God's authority regarding fertility makes the countless opportunities to say "Yes" to the Lord in other areas of the spiritual life much less daunting. The "Yes" to God's plan in marriage leads to life in the fullest sense.

On the other hand, to treat the Church's teachings like optional culinary items on a buffet table is to cheat oneself of the fullness of faith. It is simply a poverty to live a half-hearted commitment to the Catholic faith.

The only reason to believe and follow anything is because it is true. And Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life (cf. Jn 14:6). He also said to the Apostle Simon Peter, "You are Peter [rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt 16:18-19, RSV).

Either the Church teaches in the Blessed Lord's name, or it doesn't. Once it is acknowledged that the Church was founded by Christ and has the authority to teach in His name, it is impossible to pick and choose what one believes to be true from the deposit of faith with any integrity. "Cafeteria-style Catholicism" becomes an act of sheer arrogance and futile subjectivity.

People come to the Church because they need Jesus. They seek communion with God. People who say they have a relationship with Jesus but don't need the Church are missing the whole point of Jesus' mission. He came to save a lost humanity, and in doing so He established a family, the family of God, and to be part of that family is to be part of His family. The Church is the "universal sacrament of salvation" (cf. Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). The Church is the way He established to bring us into communion with Him, and through Him, with the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit Who proceeds from the Father and the Son. In the life of the Church, we live in relationship with the Blessed Trinity.

When I say "Yes" to the Church, I am saying "Yes" to Jesus. I am, in a sense, living the spiritual reality of Mary, who gave her fiat to God in the fullness of time so that we might have eternal life. Imagine Mary saying to the angel Gabriel, "Let most of it be done to me according to your word... most, but not all."

Sort of loses its spiritual power, doesn't it?

She gave God her full, unconditional "Yes."

We are called to imitate her and do no less. In imitating Mary in her response to God, we open the door to Jesus.

People need Jesus! It's not rocket science.

That's the beauty of the Eucharist, by the way: Jesus is wholly "given for you" (cf. Lk 22:19).

Will you be wholly given for Him?

"It is not hard to obey when we love the one we obey," said Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, admired by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for the depth of her Christian witness.

To obey the teachings of the Church for love of Jesus brings a depth of life and joy that we will never know if we live a "conditional" Christianity.