Category: Personal Reflections

The Disciplined Life of the Non-Religious

Christians assume that the non-religious or the “spiritual but not religious” are necessarily undisciplined. Pastors complain that young people today are more hedonistic because they are less religious. Lay missionaries publish countless Christian self-help books to address people who, because of their lack of belief, are evidently unable to make commitments or sacrifices. Jesus makes people moral, so non-Christians are necessarily less moral.

Unfortunately, moralism is not only a distortion of the Gospel, it is also condescending and false. Recently, one of my favorite non-religious YouTubers made a video about being a vegan. The video challenged my assumptions about the non-religious. Vegetarianism and veganism are growing trends in the United States. Thousands of young people every year consciously decide to give up not only meat but also eggs, cheese, milk, certain oils, and even leather. Many of these young people would call themselves Agnostics or Atheists. And yet they have decided to make significant sacrifices in their lives. It takes a lot of discipline to give up all animal products. Most vegan food has to be made from scratch.

The YouTuber explained why she decided to be vegan. She had been a vegetarian for years, but one night she suddenly decided to avoid all animal products. After considering the negative impact the consumption of animal products has on the world, she became convinced that veganism was the more ethical alternative. She was disturbed by how her consumption was hurting the poor around the world. She recognized her privilege. She wanted to love her neighbor better.

We Christians need to stop assuming the non-religious are immoral. Millions of non-religious are concerned about the ethical implications of their actions. I am not a vegan or even a vegetarian. I’ve never really considered the impact eating meat has on the poor or the environment. But that YouTuber has, and she is not alone.

Christianity doesn’t necessarily make a person more moral. Instead of pitting ourselves against the non-religious we should celebrate the sacrifices they make in their everyday lives. We should join them in their projects to better the world.

Christianity is not a moralism. It is a relationship. A relationship with a person who is also the Son of God. Instead of trying to show up the non-religious we should focus more on helping people encounter Christ in prayer, in the sacraments, and in their daily lives. In general, Christians need to be less condescending toward others. We need to pontificate less and dialogue more. We need to stop assuming that we are morally superior. Throughout history, Christians have benefited from the wisdom of the pagans.

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Speaking a Strange Language in a Strange Land

I am one of a group of parishioners who are helping to welcome Catholic refugees in my diocese. Because I know French, I serve as an interpreter. Today, I accompanied a refugee to the doctor. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak French or English.

I have forgotten what it is like to not understand English. I forgot how vulnerable you are when you don’t know the language of a region, when you speak a language no one else speaks. I learned English in kindergarten, but I had to go to a speech therapist for a year to correct my mispronunciations. I was ridiculed for mispronouncing peoples’ names or accidentally blurting out answers to math problems in Farsi. At the age of 9 I suddenly quit speaking and writing in Farsi. Today, I only remember a few words and expressions.

The woman I was accompanying speaks a language only a few Americans know. The hospital claims to have interpreters for over 200 languages, but they didn’t have a human interpreter for her. Thankfully, they did have an electronic interpreter, so she was able to get the help she needed.

It is tempting wish that everyone could speak the same language. But language has a cultural component, so linguistic diversity implies cultural diversity.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jews of different nationalities were suddenly able to understand each other on Pentecost without learning new languages.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine (Acts 5-11).

God wills that all of us may hear and understand each other even though we may speak different languages. We should celebrate the diversity of languages in the world.

The woman I accompanied today is currently attending an ESL program, but modern language programs need to improve in America. The United States is one of the few monolingual nations in the world. While more and more students are learning Spanish, many Americans don’t understand the point of learning another language. I hope interacting with the refugees will help my fellow parishioners appreciate the value of learning other languages.

There are children attending my parish who can’t speak English yet. I worry that they will be pressured by their English-speaking friends to renounce their native languages. I’d like to think that American elementary schools are becoming safer places for immigrant children. But I’m not so sure…

Do not lose heart – St. Ephrem the Syrian

Image result for ephrem the syrianAmerica is making me upset. My president evidently doesn’t think enough people have died in Syria. Lord have mercy!

In light of current events and since today is a Friday, it is only appropriate to share with you a reflection on Christ’s sacrifice and forgiveness by St. Ephrem the Syrian.

St. Ephrem the Syrian

St. Ephrem (306-373) was a Syriac theologian and deacon, known today for his hymns. Ephrem started writing hymns at a very young age in his hometown of Nisibis. When Constantine died in 337, Shapur II the Great of Persia attacked the Roman regions of Northern Mesopotamia. When Nisibis was captured in 363, Ephrem and his fellow Christians were forced into exile. They became refugees. Ephrem settled in Edessa and spent the rest of his life teaching and ministering to the other Syriac Christians in the city. Over 400 of his hymns still exist.

Do not lose heart

Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve; pronounce not over yourself a final judgment for the multitude of your sins; do not commit yourself to fire; do not say: The Lord has cast me from his face.

Such words are not pleasing to God.  Can it be that he who has fallen cannot get up?  Can it be that he who has turned away cannot turn back again?  Do you not hear how kind the Father is to a prodigal?

Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly: I will arise and go to my Father.  Arise and go!

He will accept you and will not reproach you, but rather rejoice at your return.  He awaits you; just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as did Adam.

It was for your sake that Christ was crucified; so will he cast you aside?  He knows who oppresses us.  He knows that we have no other help but him alone.

Christ knows that man is miserable.  Do not give yourself up to despair and apathy, assuming that you have been prepared for the fire.  Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire; he gains nothing if he sends us into the abyss to be tormented.

Imitate the prodigal son: leave the city that starves you.  Come and beseech him and you shall behold the glory of God.  Your face shall be enlightened and you will rejoice in the sweetness of paradise.  Glory to the Lord and Lover of mankind who saves us.

My Lent: Thoughts and Readings

We are nearing the end of Lent. I have more or less succeeded in some of my resolutions and failed in others. Lent is more enjoyable with a partner. Unfortunately, this year I decided to do three things with three different people. Lent hasn’t been an utter failure though. I have learned more about my strengths and weakness and have become more involved with social justice. I wanted to get involved more, and I have.

Since reading The Art of Biblical Narrative early this year, I have found the motivation to reread the Old Testament. I recently finished Joshua and Amos. Joshua is basically a Jewish epic story. Reading the book in that context has helped me stomach the violence. I have difficulty believing that God told the Jews to annihilate surrounding nations. Still, the book emphasizes more God’s love for a formerly enslaved people. The weak and marginalized are liberated. An allegorical reading of Joshua (a reading Medieval Christians preferred) interprets Joshua’s victory as grace. Through grace, God helps us overcome sin.

Amos is so relevant today in America. The wealthy Israelites have forgotten the God who sides with the marginalized, so Amos preaches a fire-and-brimstone sermon to remind the Jews of God’s wrath. In Joshua, the Jews had the victory because they were obedient to God, but they have forgotten that their victory is due to God’s mercy. Instead of helping liberate the oppressed, they have sided with the oppressors. The Jews have become like Pharaoh. Amos’ words of warning are often cited in social justice contexts today.

Truly, the day of the LORD will be darkness, not light,
gloom without any brightness!
I hate, I despise your feasts,
I take no pleasure in your solemnities.
Even though you bring me your burnt offerings and grain offerings
I will not accept them;
Your stall-fed communion offerings,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me
your noisy songs;
The melodies of your harps,
I will not listen to them.
Rather let justice surge like waters,
and righteousness like an unfailing stream (Amos 5:20-24).

I know that it is not fashionable today to interpret natural disasters and national failures as signs from God, but the Hebrew Scriptures do think of God’s wrath as imminent. The afterlife is not really a concern for the Jews. While I am not interested in reviving this tradition, I do believe we should be perceptive to the “signs of the times”. The racism and poverty in America should make us more comfortable Christians uncomfortable. Amos reminded me that I am wealthy. God does not look kindly on the rich.

Finally, I have begun praying in the morning. No long prayers. Just one Our Father and one Hail Mary. But these two prayers have reminded me of what it means to be a Christian. I am reminded to accept everything as grace, to live modestly, and to forgive those who have offended me. I am reminded that one teenage girl’s “yes” changed history, so my “yes” matters. .

Let’s Talk: Catholic Blogging

I’ve wanted to make a post about this topic for years. This is the third religion blog that I have started. I also have a literature blog, but my faith is a large part of my life. It has certainly influenced my research interests. I shut down my last Catholic blog for personal reasons that I don’t want to get to here. Let’s just say that I outgrew my last blog. It no longer represented who I am.

Christian blogging is different than other types of blogging because the blogger presents him/herself as an “expert” in the faith. I hate that part of Catholic blogging. I don’t like how self-righteous, narrow-minded, and anti-ecumenical Catholic apologetics blogs tend to be. I can’t relate to the content. I come from a mixed family. I am not interested in heresy-hunting. I am not interested in being seen as an expert in the faith. I am not an expert. Blogs that teach the Catholic faith are certainly valuable, but nobody has all the answers.

I started Catholic blogging because I know there are other people who feel the same about the current climate of the Catholic blogosphere. I want to find blogs I can relate to. I want to find Catholics who are honest about the joys and struggles of being Catholic in the modern world. Finally (and most importantly), I want to find bloggers who don’t hate the contemporary world and/or the contemporary Church. I attend a modern parish with a modern liturgy. I love the Gather hymnal. I love the fact that there are female altar servers, and I have no problem with receiving communion in the hand. So much of the Catholic blogosphere is anti-Vatican II, but I am grateful for the Second Vatican Council. I was so excited when Pope John XXIII was canonized, and Yves Congar taught me that you can be Catholic and ecumenically-minded.

If you are reading my blog, perhaps you can relate to my struggle. I want people to know that the Catholic Church is a big tent. We are such a diverse church.

I want to be honest on this blog about what I’m thinking and what I’m reading. That’s why my blog is called Incarnational Writing. I don’t perform my Catholic faith as well as I would like, but I also know that my faith is more than a performance. It’s a relationship. It’s a relationship with Christ and a relationship with my neighbor.

I’ve always loved Augustine’s image of the pilgrim Church. A Catholic is continuously on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage includes many joys but also many hardships; despite the stumbling blocks and moments of discouragement, the pilgrim continues on the journey because she believes that the end goal is worth every sacrifice. Along the way, the pilgrim meets many others who are also on the same journey. These others are a diverse bunch and may even come from enemy territories. But they are all reaching for the same goal. So, if the pilgrim is truly concerned about reaching her destiny, the pilgrim will take every help she can get. In the end, after an arduous journey filled with detours, misunderstandings, and excitement, the pilgrim discovers that he who was once “the other” has truly become a friend because the Grace of God has been with them both.

I am excited to learn about you, and I promise that I will never call you a heretic.

Church as a Communion of Sinners

Since it’s Lent, let’s talk sin. Sin in the Church.

We all know that the Church has an eternal and a temporal aspect. The Church, we say, includes the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory. The Church is also the visible, hierarchical, papal institution that we know. There are currently 23 churches that recognize Pope Francis as the earthly leader of the Church. The largest one is the Latin church in the West.

But we all know that Catholics sin. Day-to-day and structural sins. Inquisitions, crusades, corruption, sex abuse, Renaissance popes, hypocrisy, racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. These sins cause scandal in the Church; yet, we insist that individual Catholics (not the Church) are responsible for the evil.

But therein lies the problem. We want to identify ourselves with the communion of saints without acknowledging our membership in the communion of sinners. As a heavenly institution, the Church gives us access to grace. This grace is communicated in the sacraments and through the intercession of those who have come before us and who now enjoy Christ perfectly in heaven. What a blessing! But as an earthly institution, the Church is also a community of sinners. Everyone, from the pope to the laity, is a sinner. Although we normally claim that sin is never a private matter (hence the necessity of sacramental confession) we often talk about sin in the Church as if it is. “The Church didn’t burn heretics at the stake, misguided inquisitors hand in glove with the State did.” “The Church didn’t exclude African Americans through slavery and segregation, racist Catholics did.” And yet we know that capital punishment was used to suppress heresy for centuries. It was defended through a particular interpretation of Augustine’s Just War theory. We know that religious orders owned slaves and that it was once illegal for blacks to join the priesthood. All of these practices were condoned by the Church.

Christians, on pilgrimage to the City of God, exist in an ever-changing world. We are always in dialogue with the surrounding culture. Sometimes this dialogue is more like a screaming-fest, but the Church never exists in a vacuum. In each age, Catholics must decide how to live out the Gospel. Unfortunately, the Church has condoned acts in the past that later we recognized to be evils. As individuals, we are always learning from past mistakes and taking steps to repair the damage our sins cause. Why should the Church be any different?

I know too many Catholics who feel the need to justify the Church’s complicity in past and current evils. But as individuals, we are taught to acknowledge our sins, confess them, and seek to make reparation for the pain they have caused. The Church’s understanding of discipleship has changed in some ways over the centuries, and that is a necessary development. Popes condemn capital punishment today and the Jesuits at Georgetown are giving preferred admission to descendants of slaves. But except for the Jesuits at Georgetown, not many institution-wide, collective penances have been attempted to make reparation for past evils.

I believe that the Church needs to think of penance less individualistically than it has done historically. It is ironic that a church that insists so much on community should be so slow to make communal apologies and implement communal penances. The world doesn’t expect perfection from Catholics. It expects integrity. It is tragic that priests sexually abused children, but it is even more tragic that bishops covered it up. In our desire to be seen as a communion of saints we have tried to suppress the fact that we are also a communion of sinners.

This Lent, let’s begin to consider the communal dimension of sin in the Church. The next time someone confronts you about an evil the Church has been complicit in, do not try to justify it. Acknowledge it. As a Church (beginning on the parish level) we should take steps to repair the damage our sins have caused. As a Catholic I have inherited not only the graces but also the sins of the Church. In the City of God, sin will not exist. But the Church on pilgrimage in the City of Man is marred by sin. I pray that we will begin to acknowledge collectively the sins we have committed in the past and take steps collectively to do better in the future. The Jesuits at Georgetown have taken a step in the right direction.

This is the first of a series of reflections I will be posting on confession and penance. What does your parish do to address structural/institutional sin in the Church?

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.