Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dance with Me

So often it seems there are two opposing images of God and Life that stand in the ballroom of this world. And they don't dance well together. Life wants to boogie, and God (we think) wants to sit with folded hands on the sidelines. 


While we're making our moves through Life, jumping "to the beat of the rhythm of the Night", and "everybody working for the weekend," God seems like the garish light of Day. 


"OK, party's over. Get ready for Church!" 


In this vision, God is the Debbie Downer, the wet blanket that smothers any spark of passion we find on the dance floor of Life. We have here the dynamic of pleasure versus puritanism. If it feels good, there must be something sinful in it. If it's boring, dull, uptight, it must be the morally right thing to do. But what if both extremes are faulty steps in the dance?


Years ago, during my discernment in the seminary, I remember giving talks to high school students, and they would always ask questions like this: "Can you go to parties? Can you work out? Can you listen to music? Can you drink beer?" It was apparent that their vision of seminary, or of being "religious", involved walking around with candles, chanting in Latin, and generally looking like liver and onions was for dinner... again.


But is this vision of the "Divine as dull" accurate? Is faith boring? Is God's dream for us one of gloom and misery, penance and pain. Are we allowed to "enjoy" this world, this life, or must we somehow seek to bypass it for the Kingdom to come? Why did He create us after all? What is our purpose? 


It seems that the desire to dance runs deep... to lose ourselves in something bigger than ourselves, to find ecstasy (which means literally to stand outside of ourselves). What do we do with this desire? It's universal, it must mean something.


"The fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the wind, and join in the general Dance."
- Thomas Merton


Who is God? As the song goes (and ironically I'm not a huge fan of this song) God is the "Lord of the Dance." God's deepest identity in fact is not the lonely Old Man watching to see if you keep the rules, but He is the Dance. What does the Church really teach about God? "God Himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and He has destined us to share in that exchange." (CCC 221) Whoa.... ponder that one. Eternal giving and receiving, Eternal Love! Isn't that what our hearts really want? Wouldn't that be ecstasy? This is God's deepest identity! He is an ecstatic, eternal communion of life-giving Love! He is a Trinity! And this Blessed Trinity is Who we celebrate today!


The Old Testament book of Proverbs from today's first reading sings "When the Lord established the heavens I was there... and I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, playing on the surface of his earth; and I found delight in the human race."


It's time for some revisionist thinking on just Who God is, and on just what kind of Dance we're invited into. Who's giving these blurred and stilted images of God to us anyway but those who are only "dancing with myself" as Billy Idol once piped? That sounds boring to me. So let's cut loose, and get footloose in a manner of speaking. As Augustine once said, "Love God, then do what you will!" Let's dance in the Love and Light of this incredible God today, in the Great Dance of Eternal Love. 


And a  word of advice from personal experience; Let Him lead.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The "Problem" of Pregnancy

There must be roughly 317 reality shows on television today. Huddled in our homes at the end of a long day, it seems we are living more and more vicariously through them - be they Biggest Losers, or Amazon Adventurers. It's fishbowl television and certainly many of these shows are simply shock and awe, meant to keep us watching in a more voyeuristic kind of way. This is not so much the case with the reality show "16 and Pregnant." It's a series that follows the tremulous and fragmented lives of pregnant high school girls and the boys who have impregnated them.

Is it good? Well, at least it raises awareness of the consequences, intense stress, need for commitment, and sacrifice that being sexually active and not being married can bring. Sexual intercourse is a life-changer, and potentially a life-maker in fact. Once you open up that gift (or even tear at the wrapping paper before its time to receive the gift), your life will never be the same. For many on the show, and for many watching it, "16 and Pregnant" is a wake up call.

It can be crass, it can be insanely frustrating to watch, and it often condones things that as Catholics we know are only exacerbating the problem. But even through these crooked lines, sometimes they get it right. The show appears to be very pro-life. All of the girls choose to carry their babies to term. However, there is a strong contraceptive mentality that slithers through the show like a serpent, and it's this point that I find disturbing and deceptive. The adult advice from Dr. Drew is not "stop being sexually active, kids. You have an amazing power and need to be ready for mommyhood and daddyhood if you're going to have sex." The advice is "protect yourselves" from this problem of pregnancy. They are consistently told to don the "bullet-proof" vest of a condom, etc, before entering into the battle of the hormones. By the way, the real stats on the reliability of condoms in use by teens is another story altogether.

Almost one in four low-income teens (23.2%) who rely on condoms will become pregnant in a year. If these teens cohabit (and are therefore more sexually active), almost three in four (71.7%) who rely on condoms will become pregnant within a year. (Contraception: The Fine Print by Susan E. Wills, Esq.)

The effort to raise awareness of the teen pregnancy crisis, and assist teens through it, or to teach them how to avoid it, is very commendable. But to perpetuate the problem by pushing contraception, or turning a blind eye at cohabitation does them a grave disservice. Is this the best we can offer young people today? Taking the seemless garment of pleasure and procreation, love and life, bonding and babies and tearing them in two as if they were made from a different fabric? Aren't pregnancy and sex connected? Should we really have one without the other? Common sense tells us that tearing a thing apart kills it, and "what God has joined," well, you know the rest of that line. This garment is meant to be white for purity and worn on the wedding day, and pulled back to reveal the gift of self only to your beloved for life. That's when it shines the best. Teach this truth with passion, reverence, and sensitivity and I believe the young will rise to the challenge. 

Here is where the fallout from the sexual revolution of the 60's hits us. After nearly 50 years, the field of male/female relations is still radioactive and the infected are leading the infected. The season two finale of "16 and Pregnant" interviewed each mom (and sometimes the father) and asked the question "Are you still sexually active?" To which came the response, between sheepish giggles, "yesssss..." "Are you using contraception?" "Oh yeeeeesss! We won't make that same mistake again!"

Hmm. Pregnancy = mistake, problem. In the words of Dr. Janet Smith, "If you get pregnant during an act of sexual intercourse, it means something went right, not something went wrong!" (Contraception: Why Not? CD, www.mycatholicfaith.org) Here lies another hole in the head and in the heart that the Theology of the Body could have perfectly filled. Studies have shown that simply shoving contraception at teens only creates what's called "risk compensation." Ever wonder why teen pregnancies continue to rise after decades of "safe sex" talk? One deterrent to premarital sex was the risk of getting pregnant, but slide in contraception and tell kids to be "safe" and kids think they are "safe." More of them, now equipped with more contraception, feel at liberty to have more sex. And the more sex is engaged in the more chances there are for becoming pregnant.

Those who mistakenly believe that contraception protects them from pregnancy and STDs are more likely to become sexually active at an earlier age and to engage in riskier activity, such as having more sexual partners. (Susan Wills)

This sad fact is perpetuating itself as we push more contraceptives on kids. This is in addition to the "unseen" scars premature sexual activity brings to youth; unhealthy attachments, emotional dependency, depression, general distraction and confusion about who they are and where they are going at a tenderly decisive age of life.

The bottom line is this: contraception is not stopping 16 year olds from having sex and getting pregnant, and handing it out in a teen's back to school kit is essentially giving them license. So what do we do? Just pull our thumbs out of the dam and let the breaching waters of teen hormones flood the culture? No. I suggest honest and straightforward talk about everything, starting with the wondrous beauty of our God-given sexuality, then tackling the contradiction of a contraceptive mentality. When they see what lies at its heart, perhaps teens will choose the higher path of chastity until marriage.

So my dear young people, here's the skinny: contraception literally creates a wall between people - between bodies and between hearts. It holds back an essential part of the total self-gift of who we are and who we're called to be. It literally means "against the beginning." What lies at our beginning, you ask? Well, for believers it was a call to be fruitful and multiply. Yup, that means just what you think it means, but hear that first commandment of God in all of its glorious and beautiful context! See the seemless garment that is woven from the fabric of sexual intercourse, fertility, pregnancy, motherhood... These are truly signs of the Divine in our midst. And the garden in which they were meant to flourish was marriage, and the sower of the seed was meant to "cleave to his wife" as husband and father; chivalrous, chaste, with reverence for the gift of woman, fertility, love, and the fruit of that love. Pregnancy is meant to be the jewel in the crown of a free, total, faithful, and fruitful love, also known as marriage. 

For Catholics, this month of May is a joyous reminder of Mother Mary, and as nature's blossoms break abundantly, we see the same fruitfulness in spirit as in the natural world. Life is good! Motherhood is good! Fatherhood is good! Fertility is good! In the midst of the massive sexual disorientation in our culture, there is still a chance to "see the light." In pregnancy we have been given a refresher of the pure gift of sexuality, intimacy, fertility, and the sheer wonder of bringing a human life into the world. May the young and old, from 16 to 70 come to a new reverence and appreciation for the gift of sexuality and the miracle of the family. May Joseph be the light to show men and boys alike the high call entrusted to them of the care and protection, love and devotion they are called to give as husbands and fathers. And may Mary, herself once sixteen and pregnant, be an example for us all of the power of a YES to Life, no matter how difficult the path ahead may be!

____________________________________________
Originally published in the Catholic Standard and Times

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What We Found in LOST

Sunday night, my wife and I watched along with millions of viewers everywhere the captivating conclusion to one of the most epic, engaging, confusing, and emotionally moving television series ever conceived; LOST.

For years we've followed the fractured lives of the survivors of Oceanic flight 815, and as they struggled to find answers to the riddles of the Island and their place in the whole scheme of things, well, with nearly as much pain and confusion, so did we! But last night, as far as we're concerned, we found those answers. The series ended on a pitch perfect note. In fact, without a clue as to how they could possibly wrap up this incredible journey full of an international cast of almost two dozen characters, the finale surpassed our expectations.

But what made this series so captivating and why will it leave an indelible mark on television for years to come? I think there are 6 solid answers to that question:

1. THE SEARCH
Each week brought viewers deeper into the secrets of that lush, dark, and mysterious Island, and it seemed over the years there was always something new around the corner. In fact, right up until the very end! (That Cave of Light, the very heart of the Island, wasn't revealed until just recently). What a powerful analogy for all of us; life is a searching, a deepening into the events and encounters that form us, shape us, and hopefully draw us out of ourselves into Something More. "Our hearts are restless..." as Augustine knew, and they are made for questioning. "Guys, where are we?" the character Charlie whispered in the first season, and we should continually ask ourselves the same thing. 

2. THE MYSTERY
In that same search for answers, the survivors would peel back the veil just a little bit for us each week, but always more mystery remained. It hooked us. The Smoke Monster, the Others, the Hatch, the Numbers, the Cave of Light, the Whispers.... these words have become iconic. And as the series ended, not all mysteries were explained, thank God! I can't tell you how disappointing the "new" Star Wars film Phantom Menace was when it "explained" the Force, whittling it down to some microscopic entity in the bloodstream! Our deepest identity is not something merely biological, but an animating presence, a spirit that is immortal, and made for Eternity. We are made for ever deepening Mysteries. The Mystery of God Himself! LOST fed that longing for the infinite and unexplainable in a way not too many series ever dreamed of. And I'm actually glad for some of the loose ends and unexplained pieces. "For now we see dimly, as through a glass darkly, but then face to face." (St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:12)

3. GOOD AND EVIL
In our morally muddy times, the clarity of Good and Evil found in LOST was like a refreshing stream running through the TV (finally). Not that all of the choices made by the characters were pure. In fact, all too often we saw them learn through the via negativa, the negative way of immorality. We learned to move right by their moving left. But the redemption was always near at hand. One of my favorite episodes in this regard was The Cocoon, from season one. In it Charlie, with the help of John Locke, overcame his heroin addiction and rescued Jack from certain death. Over and over again, it was the choice for good or evil that shaped the series, just as it shapes our lives today.

4. RELATIONSHIP
The vast diversity of people that formed the cast of LOST and the ways in which their lives were interwoven was yet another incredible accomplishment for this series. It took stereotypes and gave them real faces, and so often flipped the scales on us. LOST taught us to feel for everyone, unwed moms, drug addicts, murderers, con men, lonely men filling cubicles, self-obssessed beauty queens, and even maniacal manipulators like Benjamin Linus! In the immortal and oft-quoted words of Jack Shephard "If we can't live together, we're gonna die alone!" Pretty good words to live by if you ask me. To gaze upon each other in all of our diversity, our weakness, our strength, our beauty and fragility is the first step to real communion.

5. SUFFERING
Who didn't suffer on this Island adventure? It seems every character had a cross to bear from their past, from their lives before the plane crash. As the series unfolded, we treasured those famous flashback scenes, learning the tragic history of Sawyer, the dark heart of Kate, Rose's struggle with cancer, Jack's deep father wound and obsession with making things right. And didn't this backward glance determine and influence their future? Ultimately their peace came about not by rejecting their broken past but by facing it... moving through it. Our lives are richer that way. We learn real compassion that way. "For we are like olives," says the Talmud. "Only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us."

6. LOVE
Finally, though the list could go on, I think one of the most captivating draws of this series was the emphasis on love. If we look deeply, it was always shimmering just below the surface, appearing in flashes like a rainbow trout in a stream of often turbulent images. But love was there, and it illuminated everything. Charlie and Clare, Sun and Jin, Rose and Bernard, Desmond and Penny.... in the final episode this love literally brought them all together, and it brought them to, of all places, a church! For a Catholic guy like myself, I was overjoyed to see that final scene, with the characters we'd grown to love, passing a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, gathering in a church with a tabernacle at its center. Then the words spoken by Christian Shephard (wink wink) given to Jack... "You needed each other... to remember, and to let go." And then Another Door opens, and that LIght streams in, and they let go. Love wins, again!


Granted, the series had its sins, and plenty of them. Murder, adultery, constant deception, seething anger and jealousy... but welcome to the human race. We must sprinkle holy water on everything, and pray that we too can let that Light overpower the smoke monsters of our own doubt and fear and hate. 


So that's what I found in LOST.... a little inspiration, a dose of consternation, perennial anticipation, and now finally, some relaxation! At least until the next epic series dawns (although I don't think we'll "find" another one like LOST too soon).


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

ONLY 5 SPOTS LEFT!


June 13 - 18, 2010
Theology of the Body I: Head and Heart Immersion Course with Bill Donaghy
Quarryville, Pennsylvania

Theology of the Body I (Head and Heart Immersion Course)
This course examines the main themes of the 129 Wednesday audience addresses that comprise John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” Particular attention will be paid to themes such as creation in the imago Dei, fall and redemption, Christian ethics and ethos, freedom and person, gender and vocation.





THEOLOGY OF THE BODY CERTIFICATION PROGRAM
_____________
Training Christian Leaders
This Certificate Program* is designed both for personal enrichment and to train Christian educators and leaders – clergy, religious, and lay – to witness effectively to the life-transforming vision of John Paul II’s theology of the body. It provides an initial or additional credential for those who seek to teach the theology of the body formally or informally in a parish, diocesan, and/or classroom setting.
Courses are designed to accommodate the lives of working adults who would be unable to relocate for full-time study. Unless otherwise indicated, each class is taught in a 5-day (Sunday Evening-Friday) intensive format at Black Rock Retreat Center located in beautiful Southern Lancaster County, PA, easily accessible from the Philadelphia airport. Black Rock Retreat offers a perfect setting in which to study, pray, and relax.
 For more information, visit http://tobinstitute.org/default.asp

Monday, May 10, 2010

Awkward Catholic Moments: Flashback Edition

Hi All. In lieu of busyness and a lack o' blog reflections, I thought I'd recycle one from May of 2007. I hope it retains its freshness.

Have you ever had an Awkward Catholic Moment (henceforth referred to as an ACM)?

- Maybe you're about to make the sign of the cross in a restaurant or a diner before a meal and there's that brief second of indecision; "Am I being showy or saintly?" (ACM)

- A friend\co-worker says "You're Catholic, right?" (you swallow hard) "So what's the big hang-up with birth control? Are you guys trying to take over the world?!" (quick answer is yes, we are. See Genesis 1:28 and Matthew 28:19)

- Maybe someone at work or school drops a bomb on the table and says "they" should just let priests get married and that would solve the "problem," and in the seconds ticking between talk, you wonder if you should speak a clarifying word from Matthew 19:12 or the Catechism? (ACM)

- or maybe you're actually a little unsure about the meaning of the whole celibacy thing yourself and don't know what to say. (ACM Deluxe Edition)

- You're walking down the aisle of a massive movie theater to grab a seat and you genuflect before you enter your row (ACM Platinum Edition... and yes, I did that once.)


Everyone has a little ribbon on their car bumper or lapel these days: Support Our Troops, Breast Cancer Awareness, Save Darfur. Imagine wearing a little I Love the Priesthood ribbon?Support Our Bishops? In light of the last few years, that ain't easy. In light of some workplace/lunchtime/water cooler gatherings, it's downright embarrassing.

But when was it ever easy to believe in an incarnational Church, a Church that professes that God Himself established and is literally working through this sinful mess of people, promising a grace and mercy that can save us, even though it may sometimes seem to be flowing over dirty hands and through clogged pipes? With the episcopal shipwreck of the last few years, and the laxity in the laity, many of us still feeling "holy stuff" is what Father does, not me, I'm just a pew potato, it can be awkward to be Catholic today. As awkward as it was for a certain crusty fisherman standing outside of a praetorium, warming himself by a charcoal fire, painfully self-conscious as his Master takes a beating behind those walls.

"Aren't you one of his disciples?"
"I've seen you with the Nazarene, aren't you one of them?"

I guess the question in our ACMs these days is the same as it was for Peter.

So what will your answer be? Do you know the Man? Will you claim allegiance to Him, even as He comes to us in the distressing disguise of a sinful Church? Will you have the eyes to see through the humanity and into the divinity, to the spotless Bride of Christ that is forever wedded to the Lamb of God? For that is Her deepest identity and our ultimate end. We will all be one. And He will wipe away every tear, and He will defend us who have been fearless in our defense of Him. And if we have fallen, He will come and seek us out, saying "Do you love me?"

And then, we can enter the unending bliss of that Wedding Feast with a simple... "I do." And that love will cover a multitude of sins....

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Joseph

Joseph... Worker. Builder. Earthly contractor of Heaven's Plans. A man with feet planted deep in Judean dust, hands gripping tools of earth, you built a home for Heaven's Son. You made a veil to shelter the Holy of Holies with your very life, Joseph.

You, Joseph, heart like a gem set deep in the Heart of God. You, a man, honored the Woman, cradled the Newborn, carried that green wood that would be weathered and one day be fit for a Cross. One day. And that day you missed... or did you?

You, Joseph, watched Him nurse at the breast of your bride.... the image of absolute beauty: a God nourished by His own creature. Humility wrapped in the alabaster arms of the humble virgin, the beloved, the dove, your beautiful one. You saw this, breathed it. Joseph. Sitting on a wooden stool whittling a wooden toy as He suckled at her breast. What thoughts moved you then? What hot tears mingling joy, awe, pain, wrapped in the swaddling clothes of your trembling humanity? Joseph...

Did you know? The sapling you carried, weak as willow wands, so supple, still a boy stretching toward Heaven, would one day be stretched by man's brutality, fixed on the very beams He helped you carry? A boy like any other, seemingly, and walking amidst others with a covered light you knew in more intimate hours that none can know until the Veil lifts: you, Joseph, bathed His tender feet, washed his little hands at day's end from the dust and dirt of His eager apprenticeship.

Those hands that shaped the universe you cradled in the callous tools of your own hands. Did you know, Joseph, the hammer He held for you, with bright eyes watching you work, would one day fall on His palms in pain unspeakable. Ah! How could you bear it? What irony! In His carrying iron nails to you with quickened pace as boys will help their fathers, did you hear the echo of the prophet's verse; "They have pierced my hands and my feet. They have numbered all my bones." How could you know, Joseph, and still work those tools, carry those beams, see that dust shimmer over wooden planks as the sun poured its golden oil over the shop at day's end? And the young Christ there, breathing, sweating, smiling up at you in those early years?

Your heart, then, not a sword must have pierced. But nails.

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