Category: Personal Reflections

Correcting Myself Gently

For its time, St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life (1602) is a surprisingly moderate spiritual guide.  Most Catholic devotionals have historically been written for monastics, but Introduction to the Devout Life was dedicated to a married noblewoman. Francis’ advice is therefore quite practical. True, some of it is dated, but it is surprising how much of it applies to my life. I have consulted this work off and on for the past few years.

While flipping through the book last weekend I came across a chapter called “On Gentleness Toward Ourselves”. It was what I needed to read at the time.

I suffer from extreme anxiety and experience bouts of self-loathing over past decisions. I have difficulty forgiving myself or feeling worthy of forgiveness. My sins frustrate me. Confession helps sometimes but not always because I never feel like I can talk about what’s on my mind (that’s for a future post). It’s too complicated. Medicine and therapy help, but I have an unhealthy habit of thinking that self-hatred is a virtue. St. Francis de Sales insists that it is not. It is actually a form of pride. It is also quite destructive.

“On Gentless Toward Ourselves” is a reminder that we are all frail. When we sin we should not react in rage. We should not beat ourselves up. Self-hatred does not prevent us from sinning again. It is actually a sign of pride. We have convinced ourselves that we are generally good, virtuous people who should be “better than those sinners over there”. There is not a whole lot of difference between the Pharisee who thanks God for being better than the Tax Collector and the Pharisee who experiences rage over a sin he has committed. St. Francis explains why:

[A]ll this anger and irritation against one’s self fosters pride, and springs entirely from self-love, which is disturbed and fretted by its own imperfection.

Instead of getting angry over our sins, we should confess them and then calmly promise to be more alert in the future. Like a good parent correcting a wayward child, we should focus more on what went wrong and what we can do to avoid near occasions of sin in the future than on punishment:

Believe me, my daughter, as a parent’s tender affectionate remonstrance has far more weight with his child than anger and sternness, so, when we judge our own heart guilty, if we treat it gently, rather in a spirit of pity than anger, encouraging it to amendment, its repentance will be much deeper and more lasting than if stirred up in vehemence and wrath.

If I fly off the handle when someone does something I don’t like, the other person focuses more on defending herself than on what I am trying to tell her. She may suffer emotionally from my abusive remarks, but am I not sinning when I do that? Does my anger really help my friend change her ways? The most useful criticism is always constructive.

St. Francis de Sales taught me last weekend to give myself gentle but constructive criticism.

So then, when you have fallen, lift up your heart in quietness, humbling yourself deeply before God by reason of your frailty, without marvelling that you fell;—there is no cause to marvel because weakness is weak, or infirmity infirm. Heartily lament that you should have offended God, and begin anew to cultivate the lacking grace, with a very deep trust in His Mercy, and with a bold, brave heart.

God is the potter and I am the clay. Without the potter, the clay is nothing but an unformed lump. I will try to be more gently with myself this Lent.

Reading Deuteronomy as a Catholic

Deuteronomy is not usually included in a list of the best books in the Bible. It is a second retelling of the Mosaic Law. Most of the teachings no longer seem relevant to Christians. So why as a Catholic did I decide to read Deuteronomy?

Last week, I suddenly got the urge to revisit the Torah (a.k.a. the first five books of the Old Testament). I have always been interested in Jewish history. But even I find the Law hard to read. God commands fathers to stone wayward children, forbids Israel from sparing anyone in the lands it conquers, and seems to have a complicated relationship with pork (unclean in the OT but permitted in the NT). So why did I suddenly decide to read Deuteronomy? Why should any of us revisit the Law and the Prophets?

As you may know, I am interested in late medieval religious literature. Late medieval Catholicism doesn’t have a great reputation. Heretics were executed, popes went to war, and bishops lived in palaces. But the Catholic Church always exists in an ever-changing world. Negotiating with this world is both challenging and necessary. If Pope Innocent III found a way to justify the eradication of the Albigensians without undermining “just war” Thomas Aquinas engaged with contemporary scholarship and found a way to communicate an ancient faith to a 13th century world. In both cases, negotiations and compromises were made. Some were good, and some were well…

The Catholic Church, on pilgrimage to the City of God, exists in the City of Man. Catholics, like Jews, have had to wrestle with the laws of their surrounding cultures.

A tribal nation like Israel cannot survive without waging war with surrounding nations. Some of the laws are no longer applicable even for Jews (at least, not literally). They also tend to be quite specific. The laws were given, after all, to Jews living in a particular socio-historical context. When God commands “eye for an eye” He condemns “head for an eye”. When God commands the Israelites to attempt peace with surrounding nations before going to war with them, God condemns war for the sake of war. Once I considered the historical context of Deuteronomy I felt more comfortable reading the Law. I was impressed by God’s justice toward widows, orphans, and strangers. Throughout history the Jewish people have had to adapt their interpretations of the Law to address contemporary concerns. Catholics have had to do the same.

Finally, reading Deuteronomy has me a greater appreciation for Christ’s teachings. I noticed how Jesus adapted certain laws to address the Jews of his day. Here is an example from Deuteronomy 20.

When you go out to war against your enemies and you see horses and chariots and an army greater than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD, your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, will be with you. When you are drawing near to battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the army, and say to them, “Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies. Do not be weakhearted or afraid, alarmed or frightened by them. For it is the LORD, your God, who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies and give you victory.”Then the officials shall speak to the army: “Is there anyone who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard and not yet plucked its fruit? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another pluck its fruit. Is there anyone who has betrothed a woman and not yet married her? Let him return home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.” The officials shall continue to speak to the army: “Is there anyone who is afraid and weakhearted? Let him return home, or else he might make the hearts of his fellows melt as his does.” When the officials have finished speaking to the army, military commanders shall be appointed over them.
When you draw near a city to attack it, offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to your terms of peace and lets you in, all the people to be found in it shall serve you in forced labor. But if it refuses to make peace with you and instead joins battle with you, lay siege to it, and when the LORD, your God, delivers it into your power, put every male in it to the sword; but the women and children and livestock and anything else in the city—all its spoil—you may take as plunder for yourselves, and you may enjoy this spoil of your enemies, which the LORD, your God, has given you.

Sound familiar?

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “[Lord,] let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.* But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” [To him] Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62).

and

Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it, and stay there until you leave. As you enter a house, wish it peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you.Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (Matthew 10:11-15).

It was so exciting to notice that connection, but I am still thinking about what these passages in Deuteronomy can teach us about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Reading Deuteronomy as a Catholic has reminded me of the Jewishness of my faith. It has encouraged me to revisit those “hard books” in the Bible and discover the dynamic nature of God’s revelation to the world. It has reminded me that we are always engaging with the wider world, trying to discern God’s word to us today. I plan to read more of the Old Testament.

Personal Reflections: Hagiography of Privilege

I teach 4th grade CCD. During snack time, the leaders take turns presenting a saint we think the children might find interesting and inspiring. This year, we have a black student in the class. I’ve made a conscious effort to talk about saints from around the world – not just Europe.

For All Saints’ Day last year I asked my students to present a saint of their choice. I had printed out short biographies of at least 20 saints with accompanying coloring pages. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a black saint who was not a victim of discrimination, abuse, and/or slavery. White children can find saints who lived heroic lives and were perhaps persecuted for their faiths, but not many European saints were persecuted by their fellow Christians for being human.

St. Martin de Porres was persecuted by members of his own order (the Dominicans) for being biracial. In Peru, descendants of Africans and Indians were not allowed to be members of religious orders. Martin performed menial tasks for the brothers, but he was never allowed to be a Dominican. Worse still, Martin had internalized the racism. When the monastery was in debt, he offered to be sold into slavery. Priests mocked him for his race. The Catholic Church venerates Martin de Porres as a saint, but the Church has never owned up to its complicity in his persecution. I encounter white privilege when I choose saints for my students. White students are taught that Christians face persecution when they stand up for their faith. But what does St. Martin’s life teach black children? His life teaches, instead, that black Christians become saints when they overcome the racism they face in their own Church. They are saints when they find ways to survive (barely) in a Church that doesn’t accept them.

The Gospel of Discomfort: Welcoming the Stranger

In the Scriptures, God cares a lot about the widow, the refugee, the orphan, and the immigrant.

“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:31-40).

I do not know ancient Greek or Hebrew. I cannot read the Scriptures in the original languages. But I am aware of how radical the teachings in the Old and New Testaments are. When I reflect on passages such as the ones above, I am reminded that God calls us to be uncomfortable to make our neighbors comfortable. The Mosaic Law ordered the Jews to cancel all debts and free their slaves every seven years. Scholars say that these teachings weren’t always followed. I’m not surprised! I’m sure many Jews found the teachings impractical. Wouldn’t freeing slaves and canceling debts destroy the economy? And in the New Testament, we come across a lot of really hard teachings that sound unreasonable. If I turn the other cheek, have I not allowed myself to be trampled on? But try as I might, I am not convinced that the Bible is always exaggerating.

On the issue of immigration, the Scriptures are clear. We are called to welcome the stranger. We Christians may decide to disregard the teaching because it’s “impractical”, but then let’s not pretend we are acting in conformity to the Gospel. We are certainly not! Although I usually don’t observe it, I am not convinced that God’s Word is impractical. The foolishness of the cross lead to the victory of the resurrection. Because of Christ’s total self-giving, we are given new life.

#Iamastranger

Hello everyone! I am posting a selfie today (even though I generally hate having my picture taken) for a good cause. Two Franciscan friars started a hashtag campaign to fight Trump’s anti-immigration, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim policy. I encourage all of you to do it, especially if you are Christian. We need to remind the world that Jesus was a refugee, and that rejecting the stranger is not Christian.

Take a picture of yourself holding the #Iamastranger sign, then post it on social media. I handwrote mine, but you can print one out here: https://pax-bonum.com/2017/01/26/iamastranger-campaign/

selfie

Thanks!