Saturday, March 31, 2012

40 Things #34: Palm Sunday and Holy Week

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday.  This day marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter.  The final three days of Holy Week comprise the Triduum: Holy Thursday marks the Last Supper and Jesus' betrayal and arrest, Good Friday remembers Christ's passion and death, and Holy Saturday recalls the day Jesus was buried in the tomb.

Palm Sunday Mass starts with pomp and grandeur.  At the very beginning of Mass, we listen to the Gospel account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, when he was greeted as a triumphant king.  We receive our blessed palm branches as a reminder of the crowd's shouts of praise.

The regular order of Mass begins after this, and the tone changes immediately.  The readings for this liturgical year include a passage from Isaiah, which contains the lines
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.
That doesn't sound like a kingly welcome!  We recite a portion of Psalm 22, the same one that Jesus quotes on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"  It is considered a messianic psalm, as it foretells events in the life of the Messiah:
They have pierced my hands and my feet,
I can count all my bones.
They divide my garments among them,
and for my vesture they cast lots.
I love that this psalm also contains (and in its full version, concludes with) words of praise and glory:
But you, O Lord, be not far from me,
O my help, hasten to aid me.
I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.
The second reading is taken from St. Paul's Letter to the Phillipians -- one of my favorite passages from all the epistles.  I can't figure out a single part to leave out, I love it so much.  So at the risk of gratuitous quoting, here's the reading (Phil 2:6-11):
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that 
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the Glory of God the Father.
The Gospel reading is an account of the passion -- this year, it's from Mark's Gospel.  It's by far the lengthiest Sunday Gospel reading of the year.  It's also the one time that the congregation plays a part in the reading.

On Palm Sunday, one lector serves as the main narrator (I did this several times at my parish back in Ohio), the priest reads the quotes of Christ, another lector reads the quotes of people like Judas, Peter, and Pilate, and the congregation reads the quotes of the crowd -- phrases like "Crucify him!" and "He saved others; he cannot save himself."

As a child, I didn't like that aspect of the Gospel.  I loved Jesus -- I didn't want to be saying "Crucify him" and mocking him!  In later years, I grew to appreciate this practice for a couple of reasons:

1. Just because I wasn't alive in first-century Palestine doesn't mean I bear no responsibility for the cross.  Jesus died for all of our sins.  His sacrifice is not bound by time or place.  The weight of every wrong I have ever and will ever commit is applied to his cross.  Jesus didn't only endure the cruelty of the crowd he faced that day, but the cruelty of the whole world.

2. As much as I want to believe that I would have been one of Jesus' loyal followers had I been a contemporary, I have no certitude that I would have been.  And at the end, almost all of his disciples abandoned him.  Even among the apostles, whom we (rightly) regard as saints and the original ministers of our Christian faith, only John stayed with Jesus until the end.  (Although, it's interesting to consider that most of the disciples who stayed with Jesus through the crucifixion were women!)

Like so many other aspects of Catholic liturgy, the "lines" we read as the congregation hit me at a visceral level.  The experience of listening to and participating in the Gospel is a very somber one, which sets the tone for the entirety of Holy Week.

Usually, there is a recessional hymn sung at the end of Mass.  But on Palm Sunday, we exit the church in silence.  That silence ushers in a week of sorrow and reflection.

I'm looking forward to a prayerful and penitential Holy Week this year.  I'm hoping to go to daily Mass at least once, confession, and hopefully the Mass of the Lord's Supper, celebrated during the evening on Holy Thursday (it's at 7:30, and Elise usually goes to bed between 8-8:30, so I'm a bit hesitant, but we'll see).  There are no Masses on Good Friday or Holy Saturday during the day (on Holy Saturday the Easter Vigil Mass is celebrated; vigil Masses stem from the Jewish tradition that the day ends at sundown).  However, there is a Celebration of the Lord's Passion and Death service on Friday afternoon. I went to this service several years ago on Penn State's campus, and it was very beautiful.  I'd love to go again, and to the Easter Vigil Mass, but with our family travels I probably won't have the opportunity.  I'm really looking forward to Mass on Easter morning, though!

How about you?  Do you do anything special for Holy Week?

Friday, March 30, 2012

40 Things #33: The Way of the Cross

See Jen for more Quick Takes!

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

I'm once again combining quick takes with my Lenten series featuring Catholic beliefs, traditions, and moral teachings.  This week, I'll be looking at the Way of the Cross, a Catholic devotion that prayerfully remembers Jesus' suffering and death.  Every Catholic church (that I know of) has the stations depicted somewhere.  The Way of the Cross consists of fourteen stations, so I will be featuring two stations for each take.  No writing here, just various images to reflect upon.  We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. 

1. "Jesus is condemned to death."  Artwork by Michael D. O'Brien.
2. Jesus takes up his cross.

3. Jesus falls the first time.
4. Jesus meets his mother Mary.  Artwork by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS.
5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.  Image from the movie Jesus of Nazareth.
7. Jesus falls the second time.
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
9. Jesus falls the third time.
10. Jesus is stripped of his garments.
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross.
12. Jesus dies on the cross.
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross.  Artist: Michelangelo (Pieta)
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.  Artist: Wilhelm Mengelberg.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

40 Things #32: The Theology of the Body

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

A few months before I got married, the Newman Center at my university had a four-week series on "Theology of the Body."  I had never heard of it before, and I assumed that it was about the Eucharist as the Body of Christ.  I missed the first two sessions because...I don't know, I was doing homework, or clipping my toenails, or something.  But my friend encouraged me to go, so I went to the third session.  It turned out to be about sex.

Well, not entirely.  But it was most certainly about human bodies, and our sexuality is an inherent part of our bodies:
The 'Theology of the Body' is Pope John Paul II's integrated vision of the human person - body, soul, and spirit. As he explains, the physical human body has a specific meaning and is capable of revealing answers regarding fundamental questions about us and our lives. (Source)
Pope John Paul II gave 129 public reflections, or audiences, on Wednesdays between 1979-1984, which together comprise his vision of the Theology of the Body.  In these reflections, he talked about the purpose of life, the meaning of being male or female, married and celibate vocations, and numerous other topics.

In more recent years, various Catholic authors and speakers have collected the wisdom of the pope's reflections into more accessible formats.  For example, that four-week course that I attended the last half of was a series of four videos of theologian Christopher West, who has made studying and proclaiming the Theology of the Body (through lectures and writing) his life's work.

The timing was perfect for me.  I was an engaged woman, wanting to follow the Church's teachings on sexuality and marriage, knowing intuitively that they were right, yet often not able to articulate why.  I think that's the case for many people: Catholic beliefs on sexuality seem more like a laundry list of don'ts than anything positive and encouraging.

Learning the Theology of the Body changed all of that for me.

It took Pope John Paul II, a brilliant and holy man, five years to complete all of his papal audiences on Theology of the Body, so I'm only going to be able to provide the skimmiest of skims here on why I love it.  This is only a tiny glimpse into Theology of the Body!

1. Our bodies are good.  I think there is rampant misunderstanding about this point.  Scriptural passages like "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41) and "The flesh is of no avail" (John 6:63) can inadvertently lead some readers astray to think that Christ was speaking negatively about our bodies.  False.  Passages such as these refer to man's sinfulness and the idea of worldly pleasures as the highest good.  Worldly pleasures may indeed by good (because God has made them), but they are not the ultimate good. 

If there is any worldview that considers the body not good, it's popular culture today.  Everywhere we go, advertisements sell us on the idea that unless your body meets artificially air-brushed standards, it's not worth anything.  Clothing for women -- even girls -- is designed to send the message that nothing is sacred or holy enough to bother covering adequately.  At the same time, Eastern philosophies which include a distaste for sensual pleasure (Buddhism) or the idea that you are not your body, but a soul trapped in your body trying to escape the cycle of life and death (Hare Krishna/Hinduism) are gaining popularity in the Western world.

But Christianity unequivocally teaches that our bodies are good.  They are created by God, and the Holy Spirit dwells within each of us.  We are not just souls; we are embodied souls, and God loves our bodies so much that they will be resurrected on the last day.

2. Love is a decision.  The first time I heard Christopher West say this, I was blown away.  A decision?  What love song ever talked about a decision?  Everything I ever heard about love in popular culture had to do with feelings.  And it's true -- when we fall in love, we definitely feel it!  And we hope to have those feelings of love for our spouse our entire life.  But what happens if the flame goes out?
"For love is not merely a feeling; it is an act of the will that consists of preferring, in a constant manner, the good of others to the good of oneself." -- John Paul II
If love is only a feeling, then hardly anyone could expect to love only one person, and to continue loving that person until death.  But if love is an act of the will, the vows of marriage become realistic and achievable.

3. Our bodies speak a language.  Never is this language more obvious than in the context of sexual intercourse, which says: "I am completely yours and I belong totally to you."  When we engage in sex, that is what our bodies are saying, whether we mean it with our hearts or not.  (Science backs this up: the oxytocin released during intercourse is a "bonding hormone.")  In fact, the Church teaches that married couples renew their vows with their bodies every time they engage in the marital embrace.

4. True love is already written on our hearts, and it is free, total, faithful, and fruitful.  We are not being controlled (free), we hold nothing back (total), we are committed for life (faithful), and we are open to the possibility of new life, if that is God's will (fruitful).

This is where a lot of people disagree with or simply disregard Church teaching, because it asserts that sex should be between a married man and woman and should not be sterilized or contracepted.  Looking into the history of the idea, it seems straightforward -- this is the only kind of sex that has approval within the Bible, from the early Church fathers, from the Catholic popes and Magisterium throughout the centuries, and even from the Protestant Reformers.  But it's an unpopular idea today.

I never had much trouble accepting the Church's teachings on sex outside of marriage.  I had more difficulty understanding her position on contraception, probably because it is so pervasive in our society.  Theology of the Body helped me to see that this teaching, which can look like a great big DON'T, is actually a beautiful do: give yourself to your spouse completely.  Hold nothing back, including your fertility.

This is why my husband and I have practiced natural family planning (NFP) throughout our four and a half years of marriage.  The Church realizes that couples may have legitimate reasons for avoiding births, and she encourages couples to prayerfully discern God's will for them and, if needed, observe the woman's fertility signs and avoid intercourse when she is fertile.  After all, God's perfect design of woman was that she would actually be naturally infertile most of the time.

I admit that I was nervous about NFP before we got married, wondering if it would "work."  A few weeks before our wedding, I was still spazzing out, asking Dr. Google various NFP questions that I knew I already had the answers to.  And you know what came up in my search results?  Jen's Conversion Diary blog, which at that point was called "Et Tu?"  It was the first Catholic blog I had ever seen, and I was immediately hooked.  Her blog was my portal into the world of Catholic blogging, something that I had never even stopped to consider might exist.  I cannot overemphasize the incredible role these blogs have played in my spiritual life during the past several years -- and it was all the result of a serendipitous find during an NFP search!

NFP has been a huge blessing in our marriage.  It has helped us to communicate better with one another and to have a greater awareness of our role in God's plan.  It is also liberating: I understand more about my cycles than some OB/GYNs seem to (due date based on a wheel? for real?).  NFP is inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and completely respectful of both husband and wife.  It's not always the easiest way to go, but I truly believe it is the best.  I believe the marital act is sacred and beautiful, and I do want God in my bedroom.  He's the one who designed sex in the first place!

*NB: The Church understands that sometimes, women are prescribed the birth control pill for non-contraceptive, therapeutic reasons:
On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever. (Humanae Vitae #15)
I've never been on the pill, but I know several women who used to be on it for various therapeutic reasons -- I think that doctors often prescribe it needlessly and erreoneously, but it is my understanding that in some severe cases nothing else helps.  I'm hopeful that alternative treatments will be developed in the coming years for those situations so that women who don't want to be on the pill don't find themselves with no other option.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

40 Things #31: Sacrament of Penance

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

"Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.'  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.'" (John 20:21-23)  Jesus says this to the apostles when appearing to them after his resurrection.*

"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." (Matthew 16:19)  Jesus says this to Simon after renaming him "Peter" and declaring that "on this rock [petra] I will build my church."

Only God can forgive sins.  The Jews of Jesus' time knew this, which is why many religious leaders accused him of being a blasphemer when he claimed to forgive sins.  Of course, Jesus was committing no blasphemy; he can and does forgive sins, because he is God.

So why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest?  We believe that Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23) and reconcile sinners with the Church (Matthew 16:19).  That authority has been handed down through apostolic succession to all priests.  When a priest says, "I absolve you from your sins," he is acting in persona Christi -- "in the person of Christ."  It is the priest saying the words of absolution, but it is Christ himself administering the Sacrament and forgiving our sins.

In the very early days of Christianity, grave sinners performed public penances, which could sometimes take years to complete!  The practice of private confession and penance grew out of the monastic tradition several centuries later, and has remained in place to this day.  But the basics of the Sacrament -- particularly that a person must be absolved of all grave sins before receiving the Eucharist -- have been in place since the earliest days of the Church:
"Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure" (From the Didache, 70 AD). 
Those basics include: confession of sins, contrition, penance, and absolution. 

The Process, and Why I Love It:

1. Examination of Conscience.  We do this before going to confession so that we know what sins we're going to confess before we walk in the confessional.  It's one thing to say, "yes, I'm a sinner."  It's another to take a good look at everything you've done and really think about when you've been wrong.

Many people develop the practice of doing this daily, or even twice daily, to be better aware of how they're doing.  Generally, I think we're pretty good at remembering our serious transgressions.  But examining our consciences frequently helps us to see those smaller vices, those habits that slowly poison our souls and become more and more difficult to "die to."

2. The Confession of Sins.  After entering the confessional, we kneel or sit before the priest and say, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."  We say how long it has been since our last confession, and then we confess our sins.  For most people, this is the hardest part.  It can be very difficult to hear ourselves saying our sins them out loud, especially when they are serious.  But I really think this is crucial.  In those moments, I can really feel the weight of my sins; I can also feel myself truly taking responsibility for them. 

And no, I don't feel scared to be telling them to a priest.  I know I am really telling them to Christ himself.  Also, the priest is bound for life by the Seal of Confession to keep all sins private.  The patron of confessors, St. John Nepomucene, was put to death for refusing to reveal a woman's sins to her jealous husband (who happened to be a king named Wenceslaus -- evidently not the "good" one from the Christmas carol!).

3. Contrition.  This means that we must be truly sorry to obtain forgiveness.  The most popular "Act of Contrition" prayer isn't the one I learned as a child and I still don't have it memorized, but I prefer it to the one I learned and I'm hoping to memorize it soon:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins, because of your just punishments, but most of all because they offend You, my God, Who are all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.
4. Penance:  This is assigned before absolution, but performed afterwards.  It usually doesn't take long; most of my penances have been prayers (Our Fathers, Hail Marys, for special intentions) or readings (from scripture or the lives of the saints).  Catholicism for Dummies makes the point that "whatever the penance, it's merely a token, because Catholics believe that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is what made atonement for our sins.  Your penance is for your benefit -- to remind yourself that God comes first and you come last."  I know I could use all the help there I can get!

5. Absolution: Here, the priest gives his sacramental absolution and God forgives us:
"The formula of absolution used in the Latin Church expresses the essential elements of this sacrament: the Father of mercies is the source of all forgiveness. He effects the reconciliation of sinners through the Passover of his Son and the gift of his Spirit, through the prayer and ministry of the Church." (CCC 1449)  
Hearing the words, "I absolve you from all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," is a liberating and joyful experience. 

6. Sanctifying grace: This is God's love dwelling in the soul.  When we commit mortal sins, we effectively shut the door on sanctifying grace.  The Sacrament of Penance restores it.  Even if we only have venial (less-serious) sins on our soul, more sanctifying grace is always a very good thing.  It washes away the spiritual illness from our souls and fortifies us, helping us to avoid sin in the future.  I have gone to confession much more often in recent years than when I was a teenager and young adult, and I can certainly perceive the huge difference that sanctifying grace has made in my life.
Remember, no matter what you've done, God still loves you and always wants you back!  "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance" (Luke 15:7).

*Did you catch what happens in John 20:22?  "He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'"  Note that Jesus performs an outward sign [breathing], which he did not have to do, to show the invisible grace of the Holy Spirit.  Love!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

40 Things #30: Dying to Self

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

Although I'm sure I heard the phrase here and there as I grew up in the faith, the first time I ever gave significant thought to "dying to self" was when I read Jen's post about it a few years back.   It made sense in theory: to live a full Christian life, we must put to death our attachment to sin: "Slowly, I began to understand that to die to self was to die to the willful, selfish, sinful parts of ourselves; to let go of our plans and what we want to do based on comfort and convenience."

Of course, what's plain and simple in theory can be very challenging in practice.  I still have very far to go on my spiritual journey, but I know I've made a little headway in recent years.  I have found that dying to self can happen very slowly.  When I first re-committed to trying to live a virtuous life, I could see many of the big problems in my life, the grave sins.  But I was fairly oblivious to the smaller ones, the little vices that had crept into my life over the years, the sinful habits that I was firmly entrenched in and attached to.  In many ways, those are the ones that have been the most difficult to overcome -- to die to.

For example, one of my many vices is a tendency to be a bit of a miser.  I'm always afraid that a major catastrophe will befall us and we won't have enough money to face whatever it is.  A few years ago, I received a raise at work, which got me thinking that we probably should start contributing more to the church.  I really fought the idea -- we were hoping to conceive soon (we did), and once the baby came I didn't know if I'd keep working, go part-time, or quit, and I had this rambling argument with myself about how we really needed to save, blah blah blah, so even though I was making more it should just all be saved, blah blah.  I wrapped it up with "I have to take care of my family."  Immediately, I felt a Voice in my heart say, "I take care of your family."

Oh.  Right.  Suddenly it was so obvious: I was so attached to the idea that if we only had enough money saved up, we could conquer anything, that I had lost sight of Who is really in control.  "Do not put your trust in princes" (Psalm 146:3)...and there I was, putting all my trust in myself and in money.  Talk about building a house on sand (Matthew 7:26).  I approached Colin and suggested that we increase our weekly offering at Mass; he agreed, and we did it.

Of course, sometimes dying to self can happen very quickly.  My prime example (I know, too easy) is becoming a mother.  In some ways, I felt like the old Louise had died -- and she did, because Louise as a non-mother would never exist again.  But the truth is, the new Louise is more me than the old one ever was.

You don't have to be a parent to die to self, though.  Anyone living out his or her vocation -- whether as a single person, married person, or consecrated religious -- has ample opportunity to empty himself or herself of vanity, self-interest, pride, and attachment to sin.  We do it every time we love.

"Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Mark 8:34-35)

"He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30) 

"I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:24)

"It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." (Galatians 2:20)

"For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life." (from the Prayer of St. Francis)

Monday, March 26, 2012

40 Things #29: Mary

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

Day 29 and I'm just now getting to the Blessed Mother?  What kind of Catholic am I?

Don't worry, there's a method to my madness.  Today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord.  (It's usually celebrated on March 25 -- exactly nine months before Christmas -- but because that day was the fifth Sunday of Lent this year, the solemnity was moved to today.)  It's considered a Marian Feast in the Catholic Church because it celebrates an event in the Virgin Mary's life: namely, when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who told her she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, "the Son of the Most High" (Luke 1:32).

Yes, Catholics love our mother Mary.  We consider her the Ark of the New Covenant; just as the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament bore the Presence of God, Mary bore God himself in her womb.  We also consider her the New Eve, the sinless, obedient virgin whose offspring freed us from sin.  We believe she was immaculate -- preserved from sin -- from the time of her conception (that's what "Immaculate Conception" means).  We also believe she was assumed body and soul into Heaven at the end of her earthly life.  (See Joe's post for more on the Immaculate Conception and Assumption.)  We call her the Queen of Heaven, the woman described in the Book of Revelation:
"A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne." Revelation 12: 1-5
We also see this image of woman both in Genesis:
"She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." Genesis 2:23
and in the Gospel of John:
"And Jesus said to her: Woman, what is that to me and to thee? my hour is not yet come." John 2:4
"When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he said to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he said to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own home." John 19:26-27  
Just as the original "Woman," Eve, through whom sin was brought into the world, is the "mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20), the "Woman" Mary, through whom our Redeemer was brought into the world, is the mother of all those living in Christ -- our Blessed Mother.

Now before I get into why I love Mary, a couple notes:

1. As I mentioned in my posts about saints (Mary is the Queen of them!), Catholics worship no one but God.  We honor Mary, we revere her, we love her, but we do not worship her.

2. I think some people misinterpret the Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception to mean that we do not believe Jesus' salvation on the cross applied to Mary.  That is not the case; we believe that it was miraculously applied to her from the moment of conception, and that she was free from original sin.  I heard an analogy once that I think helps a lot: imagine Jesus' salvation of each of us as him digging us out of a pit, one by one.  Mary never fell into that pit in the first place, but it was because Jesus stopped her from falling in it.  It still wasn't something that she accomplished herself; Jesus just saved her in such a way that she was never spoiled from the stain of sin.  (That doesn't mean that she lacked free will.  It means that she was put back into humanity's original position, like Eve!  But Mary chose to be obedient to God, where Eve chose to be disobedient.)

Why I Love Mary:

1. Because she loves me.  She is my spiritual mother in Heaven.  I love this because I think it helps us no matter what our earthly mother is like.  If we have a wonderful, caring mother on earth, we can imagine our Blessed Mother being very much like her.  If our earthly mother is not so wonderful or caring, we can take comfort in knowing that our Blessed Mother is always there for us, taking our petitions to her Son.  If our earthly mother is deceased, we can take comfort in a very similar way, and also pray for our Blessed Mother's intercession for our earthly mother's soul.

2. Because she is the perfect example of how to live the Christian life.  We look to all of the saints for their example, but none of them lived a completely sinless life except Mary.  Five years ago, I attended a seminar for lectors at my parish back in Ohio, led by a a Dominican priest who was a fantastic speaker.  He reminded us that the most important thing we could do as lectors, and as people, was to say "yes" to Christ.  Mary, of course, is the perfect example of complete obedience to God's will, to always saying "yes" to Christ.

3. Because she helps me to be a better woman.  It's not easy for a woman to know where to turn when looking for examples and advice.  The post-feminist world sends us messages that are conflicting and often harmful: you're empowered, but your body and your love aren't worth the vows of marriage; you can do anything you want, as long as you avoid motherhood, reject your femininity, and try to be the same as a man.  Sigh.  Got Truth?  Obviously, my life is different from Mary's in many ways, but I look to her example as a wife, mother, and woman who was completely devoted to her vocation.  The very best way to live out our womanhood is to completely embrace who God has made us, and to seek to do his will in all things.

4. She was incredibly courageous. She said "let it be done to me" knowing that she would be suspected of adultery.  She traveled to visit and help her cousin Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist, during her first trimester of pregnancy (when, if her experience was like mine and most, she felt exhausted and sick most of the time).  She fled to Egypt, a strange and foreign land where she knew no one, with Joseph and Jesus after the birth of Christ.  She watched her Son get beaten, scourged, spat upon, and crucified.  A few days ago, I was having some of the extreme-worrywart mother thoughts that I have every now and then ("what if Elise was terminally ill?"), and I had the thought that watching my child get tortured and killed was the most horrible thing I could imagine happening.  It was only after I thought it that I realized: that's exactly what happened to Mary.  "And thy own soul a sword shall pierce" (Luke 2:35).

How about you?  What do you love about Mary?

Further Reading on Mary:
Beautiful like the moon by Jen of Conversion Diary
There's Something About Mary by Dwija of House Unseen
How Mary brought me back to Jesus Part 1 and Part 2 by Elizabeth of

Saturday, March 24, 2012

40 Things #28: Angels

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***
"I suppose you think I ought to be a golden-haired baby-face with no body and two useless little wings?"

Charles Wallace stared at the great creature.  "I might be simpler if you were."  -- From Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door
It is difficult -- well, really impossible -- for us to conceptualize angels.  They are pure spirit, but that's not something you can really depict in art.  When one really contemplates their office, however, the idea of portraying them as chubby babies with wings does seem rather ridiculous.  Julie notes in her post about angels:
An important thing to remember about angels is that they are terrifying. I am not sure when angels started to be domesticated, but nearly every time one appears in the Bible, the humans are frightened. So much so that angels had to start saying phrases like, "Fear not!" and "Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God."
The Catechism defines angels succinctly: "Angels are spiritual creatures who glorify God without ceasing and who serve his saving plans for other creatures" (CCC 350).  Angels are more glorious and perfect than all visible creatures, including humans (CCC 330).

Angels have been a part of our salvation history since the very beginning.  Their work can be seen throughout the Old Testament and especially in the New, announcing the Incarnation of Christ, protecting Jesus as a baby, serving Him in the desert, strengthening Him in the garden at Gethsemane, and announcing His resurrection (CCC 332, 333).

In fact, the Catechism asserts that Christ Himself is "the center of the angelic world":
They are his angels: "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him..." They belong to him because they were created through and for him: "for in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through him and for him." They belong to him still more because he has made them messengers of his saving plan: "Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?" (CCC 331)
We join with the angels during the Mass to praise God ("Glory to God in the highest" and "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts"), and we ask for their assistance, which they are constantly giving us (CCC 335).

Most Catholics also believe in guardian angels.  It is not a doctrine of the faith, but something that has been taken for granted since the earliest days of Christianity.  Jesus says, "See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 18:10).  From this statement, the Church has inferred not only the Old Testament assumption that angels are God's ministers who sometimes attend to and protect particular people, but that each person has a particular angel from childhood.
"From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession" (CCC 336)
I love angels because they remind me of how truly glorious and awesome our God is.  To quote Julie yet again:
But our God is an awesome God - awesome in the "awe-inspiring" way. God is not our bro. God is not our homeboy. God is the Almighty one - the Alpha (first) and the Omega (last) - the one who is, the one who was, the one who will be (Revelation 1:8).
God is not a grandfatherly old man with a long white beard, twiddling this thumbs as He whiles away the day on His throne.  He is the almighty, the infinite, the holy trinity, the eternal, the one Who is, always has been, and always will be, and He is always surrounded by countless creatures forever singing His praise.  He constantly directs these creatures be messengers to and protectors of us.  How amazing is that?

Friday, March 23, 2012

40 Things #27: The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy

See Jen for more Quick Takes!

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

I'm once again combining quick takes with my Lenten series featuring Catholic beliefs, traditions, and moral teachings.  This week, I'll be looking at the seven spiritual works of mercy.  The Bright Maidens have been doing a series of posts on the spiritual works of mercy, so I'll reference a few of those for the first three, and then give some of my thoughts on the final four.

1. Instruct the ignorant: Julie has a thoughtful post on this spiritual work of mercy and the price of our ignorance:
I truly [think] many people intentionally stay ignorant of God - learn things about him, sure, and learn about things that surround him. But not him. After all, it is hard to look at God on the cross and really know that he knows our hearts. He can touch and change our lives, if we only get to know him. Our God is the God of all; our path towards God will never be repeated for another.
Of course, the primary instruction of the ignorant I'll be doing in my own life is teaching my own daughter (and any future children) about God and our faith.  I suppose that even some of these blog posts may be instructing the ignorant -- I know I've moved beyond my own ignorance in particular areas through the writing of many of them.

2. Counsel the doubtful: Trista tells a short but powerful story about a time when her brother expressed some doubts about his faith.  She used the advice her boyfriend has given her to counsel her brother:
I will confess that I am a doubter.  Not that I doubt that God exists or in the wisdom of the Catholic Church guided by the Holy Spirit, but I wonder if God has a plan for me and if perhaps he forgot to grant me some gifts and talents.  I often jump off the deep end into despair and long crying sessions.  

Then my dear boyfriend, whose faith is remarkable, will gently yet firmly remind me to turn to Jesus.  He loves to reveal himself.  He loves to reassure us, as he did with Thomas, his Apostle. 
3. Admonish the sinner: Elizabeth writes about how, as adults, we don't feel like we should be admonished like children are anymore.  She points out that this gentle correction is actually done in love:
Often the only people who feel comfortable admonishing us also Love us -- which, as any Peter Pan can tell you, makes it all the more annoying and hard to hear. However, in Loving us, they also wish us to be better. That's a valiant truth about relationships, adult or otherwise.

When it comes to admonishing those who don't know that well or stepping out of our comfort zone to admonish others on more serious sins, we listen to the Holy Spirit. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if your actions are "Loving," one way or another.
4. Comfort the sorrowful: I find this is something that I very much want to do, and theoretically find easier than some of the other spiritual works of mercy (like, for example, admonishing the sinner), yet there are occasions when I'm honestly not sure how to comfort the sorrowful.  For example, a friend I've met through Elise's various baby activities lost her mother a couple months ago.  We get along well and our girls have played together a fair number of times, but we're not close friends.  I expressed my sympathy via email, in person, and through a card, and offered to help her in any way I could, but I still felt sad that I couldn't do more.  I guess I always picture "comforting" as offering a shoulder to cry on, listening to someone pour out her heart, giving hugs...when in reality, that kind of consolation is something I'll probably only give to family members and very close friends who are comfortable with it. 

5. Bear wrongs patiently: For years, I'm pretty certain I never even bothered trying to do this.  You cross me?  You're a [insert expletive of choice]!  I'm consummately non-confrontational, so I might be nice to your face, but I'll seethe over your idiocy 'til the end of my days.

Whew.  I'm still working on that, but thank God, I've gotten a lot better.

6. Forgive all injuries: We all know how hard this is, and we all know that God expects nothing less: "forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us."  When I was doing a Women of Grace Bible study a few years ago, I remember Johnette Benkovic saying that if we cannot forgive, we should pray that we can; if we don't even have the desire to forgive, we should pray for the desire to forgive.  It can take a long time.  I think it's good to remember that the act of forgiving someone does not mean we were not wronged, or that we can't feel hurt.

7. Pray for the living and the dead: I have a list of people I pray for every day; I used to recite it from memory, but it grew so long that I had to write it down.  (I'm really glad I did because I was starting to feel ridiculous, racking my brain every morning!)  We pray for the dead because we want them to be in Heaven with God: the prayers can't hurt if they're already there, and if they're in Purgatory, they can help!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

40 Things #26: Purgatory

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***

Wait, what?  Purgatory?  You love Purgatory?  What about Heaven? 

Well, duh: eternal happiness with God Himself is the ultimate thing that I love.  And maybe it's not so much that I love Purgatory itself, but that I love Catholicism's teachings on Purgatory.

Many of the topics I've written about for this series are shared by non-Catholic Christians, at least in part: the Orthodox honor saints, many denominations recite the Nicene Creed, Christians from many backgrounds participate in Lent, and anybody of any faith (or not) worth his salt thinks of a child as better than an encumbrance or a token reminder of an old flame.  But the doctrine on Purgatory is generally rejected by Protestants, so today's topic is more controversial among Christians.  (I was interested, however, to learn that Orthodox Christians and Jews also pray for the dead.)

From the Catechism:
All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.  The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. (CCC 1030-1031
So why I do I love this doctrine?   Because it makes perfect sense to me.  To be in Heaven with God, our souls must be absolutely clean and perfect.  Although we do believe some people die in a state so perfect they go to Heaven immediately (saints!), many people do not.  If the only eternal states were Heaven and Hell, people who died with any attachment to sin, whose souls are even the slightest bit unclean, would not be able to enter Heaven: "nothing unclean shall enter it" (Rev. 21:27).  But if they haven't died in a state of grave sin, they haven't completely turned their backs on God: how could they go to Hell?

Enter Purgatory.  Yes, it entails suffering, a final cleansing of the soul; but the souls there have the knowledge that they will go to Heaven some day.  It's that in-between state for the countless people who die in the state of grace, but are not completely purified yet.

Imagine that you are going to a magnificent banquet or celebration -- even your own wedding.  Would you go dressed in anything less than your best?  Would you go with dirt on your hands or face?  Heaven is the ultimate banquet and celebration.  Our souls can't arrive there with even a speck of dirt.

One of the objections I hear most often to the teachings on Purgatory is that it denies the completeness of Christ's redemption on the cross.  This is not true.  Catholics affirm that Christ completely accomplished our salvation through His death and resurrection.  From Catholic Answers:
It is entirely correct to say that Christ accomplished all of our salvation for us on the cross. But that does not settle the question of how this redemption is applied to us. Scripture reveals that it is applied to us over the course of time through, among other things, the process of sanctification through which the Christian is made holy. Sanctification involves suffering (Rom. 5:3–5), and purgatory is the final stage of sanctification that some of us need to undergo before we enter heaven. Purgatory is the final phase of Christ’s applying to us the purifying redemption that he accomplished for us by his death on the cross....Our suffering in sanctification does not take away from the cross. Rather, the cross produces our sanctification, which results in our suffering, because "[f]or the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (Heb. 12:11).
Essentially, Purgatory allows the sanctification through suffering which we experience during our earthly life to continue, if necessary.  And just as our earthly sanctification takes nothing away from our salvation through Christ, our sanctification after death takes nothing away from it, either.

I conceptualize Purgatory in a somewhat childlike way -- I picture souls getting all scrubbed up for God.  Although it is a state of suffering, I do not think of it as a punishment, but as a great mercy.  I am very thankful that God gives us this last opportunity to completely detach from sin and enter His Heavenly gates with completely pure souls.

Purgatory is the reason that Catholics pray for the souls of the deceased.  It makes no sense to pray for souls in Heaven -- they don't need our prayers -- nor does it make sense to pray for those in Hell.  But offering prayers and offering up our sufferings can help those who are destined for Heaven, but just aren't quite there yet.  (Unless someone has been recognized as a saint, the Church has no certainty as to whether someone is in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory; in all likelihood, prayers have been offered for souls who did not need them or could not use them, but that's okay.  We pray for them in the event they did need to go to Purgatory.)

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Further excellent reading on Purgatory from Joe of Shameless Popery:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

40 Things #25: Sacramentals

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***

Remember the first post in this series on Ash Wednesday?  I wrote about how the ashes that are spread across our foreheads in the shape of a cross are sacramentals.  I also promised to write a separate post on sacramentals themselves -- so here we go!

The word "sacramental" sounds like "sacrament," but they are not the same thing.  A sacramental is a "religious object or action established by the Catholic Church " (Catholicism for Dummies).  Many objects (such as roasaries, crucifixes, bibles, and statues) can be blessed by a priest, deacon, or bishop; that blessing makes them sacramentals.  Rituals such as making the sign of the cross, bowing the head, folding hands, genuflecting, and reciting the Liturgy of the Hours are also sacramentals. When used with a prayer, a sacramental invokes God's blessing.

The ashes used on Ash Wednesday and the palms distributed to the congregation on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) are both sacramentals.  So is holy water, the most common sacramental.  Holy water is used as a symbolic reminder of our Baptism.  When we enter a church before Mass, dip our hand in the holy water and make the sign of the cross, we remind ourselves that we are entering the House of God.  Holy water is also used in the blessing of people and of other sacramental objects.

I particularly like this quote from Catholicism for Dummies: "Sacramentals aren't good luck charms, talismans, or magic objects. For Catholics, they're merely reminders of the supernatural gifts God gives -- such as grace, which is invisible.  These visible and tangible sacramentals remind Catholics of all that the senses can't perceive."

I love that the Church uses visible and tangible objects and signs to convey the invisible and intangible grace we receive from God.  We live in physical bodies in a physical world, and experiencing our faith through our bodies' senses is very natural.  I find it very helpful to have physical reminders of spiritual truths: to feel the ash on my face as I think about penance and death, to wave the palm branch as I hear the Gospel about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, to dip my hand into the holy water and think about being "born of water and Spirit" (John 3:5).

During the course of His ministry, Jesus performed many miracles, and He often used physical touch when healing people.  Did He have to?  Of course not!  But He used touch as an outward sign of the invisible grace He was giving.  I like to think of sacramentals in the same way.  Feeling and seeing blessed objects and feeling our bodies go through the motions of crossing ourselves or genuflecting before tabernacle are physical means of conveying spiritual truths.  I speak only for myself, but I know that the more reminders I have, the better!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

40 Things #24: Redemptive Suffering

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***
 "To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.  Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus."
This is one of my favorite parts of the Hail, Holy Queen prayer, typically recited at the end of the Rosary.  It's a beautiful prayer and I love the whole thing, but I particularly love the imagery of us as a suffering people: "poor banished children of Eve" who "send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears," a place which is actually "our exile."

Yes.  This prayer gets it.  Life is good, but life is filled with sorrows; we were not made for this world, but the next.  The Christian life reminds us repeatedly of the realities of suffering: it is a theme oft-repeated in Scripture, in prayer, throughout the liturgical calendar, and in the lives of the holy men and women we hope to imitate

But a reflection on suffering of any depth always raises the same question, what is the point?  Often we hear terribly tragic situations referred to as "senseless."  Within a purely utilitarian, materialist mindset, they are indeed senseless.  They have no meaning or worth. 

One of the reasons I have such devotion for my Catholic faith is her perspective on redemptive suffering.  The Church rejects the idea that any suffering is senseless, meaningless, or worthless.  On the contrary, she believes that human suffering is worth very much:
"Redemptive suffering is the belief that human suffering, when accepted and offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus, can remit the just punishment for one's sins or for the sins of another. Like an indulgence, redemptive suffering does not gain the individual forgiveness for their sin; forgiveness results from God’s grace, freely given through Christ, which cannot be earned. After one's sins are forgiven, the individual's suffering can reduce the penalty due for sin."
Our suffering has worth, because Christ's suffering has worth.  Christ called His followers to "take up their cross daily" (Luke 9:23).  By doing just that, and uniting our suffering to His, we are assured not only that our suffering has meaning, but that Christ is carrying our crosses with us.  Simcha recently wrote about a great analogy she used when explaining this to her children:
We also talked about how Jesus was willing to suffer so that our own suffering would be worthwhile, not wasted.  I told them how I was once too broke to bring a gift to a wedding.  A friend of mine had brought an expensive and thoughtful present, beautifully wrapped, and she let me add my name to the card.  We discussed how Jesus allows us to “add our name” to the gift of his sacrifice to the Father—that we can do this every time we suffer, and also any time we attend Mass.
"Adding our name" is something we do when we recognize our own suffering and choose to "offer it up" to God.  It doesn't have to be something major -- even the tiniest of annoyances can be offered up (I have a knack for noting the smallest of infractions and I try to remember to offer them up -- I think it helps when I encounter a more significant difficulty or disappointment).
Hear, hear!

Monday, March 19, 2012

40 Things #23: Saints

 ***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***

One thing Catholics (and Orthodox Christians) are relatively well-known for is their love of saints. It's something that makes other Christians uncomfortable: isn't that idolatry?  Why do Catholics pray to saints, instead of praying only to God?

I can certainly understand the concern of other Christians, and while I recognize that this debate is a complicated one and not something this humble little blogger can settle, I can happily affirm that Catholics do not worship saints.  We venerate them, which means we give them honor, but worship is reserved for God.

As for prayer, we do not pray to saints because we believe they possess magic powers.  Rather, we pray to them to ask for their intercession.  We believe that they are already in Heaven with God, and much like when Mary interceded for the servants at the wedding at Cana when the wine ran short (John 2:3), we ask the saints to send along our supplications to God because we believe their prayers to be more efficacious than ours.  Of course, we often also thank them later for their intercessions.

In fact, it's really quite similar to asking a friend to pray for us, except saints are our friends in Heaven.

This doesn't mean that we never pray to God; on the contrary, we usually do direct our prayers to God himself.  But most Catholics enjoy praying to saints as well, because it is something that comes very naturally to us.

Today is the feast day of one of my favorite saints: St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus.  The few Scriptural passages that concern St. Joseph tell us he was a righteous man (Matthew 1:19) -- and how he could have been anything but holy and wonderful, for God to have chosen him as the foster father of His own Son?

I think St. Joseph is a particularly great role model for husbands and fathers.  Think back to when he was present at our Lord's birth (Luke 2:4-7): I can certainly testify to the vital role my husband played when our daughter was born!  Then imagine their life as a family: Joseph must have cared for and protected Mary and Jesus, and patiently taught Jesus about carpentry.  He and Mary searched for three days in Jerusalem to find Jesus when He was twelve years old (Luke 2:41-52): can you imagine how terrifying that must have been for the Mother of God?  And there was good, noble Joseph, no doubt comforting and calming her as they frantically looked for her Son (whom Joseph raised as his own).

I love the Catholic tradition of canonizing*, venerating, and praying to saints.  These holy men and women inspire us with their lives and continue to help us through constant prayer to God in Heaven.  They're also a great reminder that we are all called to be saints!

*Just wanted to note that canonization does not make someone a saint -- it is just a formal recognition by the Church that they are already a saint.  Of course, we believe there are innumerable men and women in Heaven who have not been formally canonized!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Quick Note to my Readers

Happy weekend, dear readers!   I'm currently with my handsome husband and darling daughter in Washington, DC.  The past week has been a particularly busy one: Elise and I went to Sesame Street Live (we both loved it), Colin's oldest sister visited us for a few days, and then we had to prepare for our trip.  I've been able to keep up with posting, but I'm terribly behind on reading, commenting, and basically any kind of interaction, so I apologize for that.

We'll be returning home on Monday, and life should be considerably quieter after we get back (although Elise has been skipping her naps more often than she's taken them lately, so I may be losing that time for all things Internets).  Thank you for your patience.  I hope your weather is as beautiful as ours has been!
I'd be remiss if I didn't wish a very happy birthday to my sweet husband today!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

40 Things #22: Lenten Sacrifices

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***

We're about halfway through Lent.  Tomorrow is Laetere Sunday, a time of looking forward to the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter season.  It's one of only two days during the Liturgical year when the priest wears rose-colored vestments.

At this point, a lot of Christians are getting a bit weary of Lent.  The plans we made for fasting, prayer, and almsgiving during this season may have proved more challenging than we'd anticipated; maybe we've slipped up and felt disappointed in ourselves.  When Ash Wednesday arrived in late winter, a time of penance sounded like just the thing to clean up our hearts and minds and get us ready for Easter.  But after a few weeks, sometimes Lent can feel like drudgery.

And doesn't that mirrror life itself?  The habit of becoming resolute, making commitments to change our ways, feeling like nothing can stop us, and then realizing within a matter or days or weeks that the path is rocky, often lonely, and always long. 

But here we are.  Admonishing ourselves for slipping up and eating chocolate, but promising to try harder.  Eating grilled cheese and fish on Fridays when we'd rather have steak, or at least a hamburger.  Trying to remember that our sacrifices, however small, have meaning, and that the penitential desert is preparing our souls for life abundant.

I love Lent because I need Lent.  The only fasting I've been able to keep up this year with no exceptions whatsoever is my avoidance of pop: how miniscule is that?  And yet, every time that frustrated voice in my head grumbles, "if only I had some sugary carbonated water!" I'm reminded that it isn't soda, or sweetness, or any other earthly satiation that I long for; it's God Himself.

Friday, March 16, 2012

40 Things #21: The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy

See Jen for more Quick Takes!

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

I'm once again combining quick takes with my Lenten series featuring Catholic beliefs, traditions, and moral teachings.  This week, I'll be looking at the seven corporal works of mercy.  They can be found in Matthew 25:35-36 (works #1-6) and Tobit 1:16-20 (work #7).

1. Feed the hungry: Sarah wrote a great post at Ignitum Today last year on feeding the hungry, complete with several great suggestions for performing this work of mercy.  It's fantastic and comprehensive and, frankly, better than anything I could say on the matter.

2. Give drink to the thirsty: Sarah has a great post on this work of mercy, too!  An excerpt:
We are so blessed. If you are reading this, you are blessed beyond belief. Because if you are reading this, you probably have access to clean drinking water, and indoor plumbing. Something that 1 billion of our brothers and sisters in Christ worldwide are literally dying for.
Let it sink in. Get up, go from room to room and turn on your sinks. Get a glass of cold, refreshing water from your tap, or your fridge. Splash some water on your hands or face and offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Offer a prayer for all those mothers and fathers and babies who go without. When you finish your water, your prayer, come back. It’s time to move on.
Move on, read the rest, and come away with some fantastic ideas for giving drink to the thirsty.  It's horrifying to realize how many people don't have access to clean water, but there are ways we can help!

3. Shelter the homeless: I recently found out that a few of the local churches here offer overnight shelter to homeless people during the cold winter months.  I think that is a great initiative, and definitely one that is consistent with Christ's commandment that we show mercy.

4. Clothe the naked: Last fall, we undertook a massive cleaning project in our basement, and we went through boxes and boxes of clothes we didn't even remember we owned.  We donated several large bags of clothing our our local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.  Not only will they be sold at very reasonable prices, but all of the money generated through those sales funds the many charitable works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (all of the employees at the thrift store are volunteers).

Of course, it's even better if you end up finding a way to clothe the naked (or perform any other work of mercy) in person.  I have never encountered such a situation myself, but Hallie shared a beautiful story about a time her husband gave the jacket off his back to a homeless man.

5. Visit those in prison: I've already written about this work of mercy in my post about Catholic prison ministries.  Last weekend, I received my biweekly Catholic Register (our diocese's newspaper), and in it were several articles about this year's RCIA candidates (people who are in the process of converting to Catholicism; they will be received into the Church on the Easter Vigil).  I was surprised to learn that the 171 people converting in our diocese this year includes 17 from correctional institutions (and ours is a pretty rural diocese, so I imagine that number is much higher in other areas).

6. Visit the sick: I wasn't exactly sick, but I can certainly testify to how much this work of mercy mattered to me right after I gave birth to Elise.  My mom and a couple of my friends brought meals to us, which was absolutely fantastic.  And having company really helped, too, when I was lonely and overwhelmed.  Having visitors must be all the more comforting to those who are faced with the struggles of illness (instead of the joy of a newborn baby)!

7. Bury the dead.  I find this corporal work of mercy to be the most fascinating.  The Bible references the burial of the dead as a merciful (charitable) act in the Book of Tobit (which, like the Book of Sirach, has always been considered canonical by the Catholic Church, but is not accepted in the Protestant Bible):
During Shalmaneser's reign I performed many charitable works for my kinsman and my people.  I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown outside the walls of Ninevah, I would bury him (Tobit 1:16-17).
Tobit risks his life in performing these burials (Tobit 1:19-20). 

But you don't need to read the Book of Tobit to have evidence of the importance of burial in the Bible.  To be deprived of burial was regarded with horror by the Jews (cf. 1 Kings 13:22, Jeremiah 16:6, Jeremiah 22:19).  When Jesus describes the eternal punishment of hell for the wicked, He at one point (Mk 9:48) references Isaiah:
They shall go out and see the corpses
of the men who rebelled against me;
Their worm shall not die,
nor their fire be extinguished;
and they shall be abhorrent to all mankind. (Isaiah 66:24)
This imagery was used because, according to the customs of Israel, the most horrific treatments for a corpse would be for it to either rot above the ground ("worm shall not die") or burn ("fire"); a combination of both would be the ultimate punishment.

Like the Jews, early Christians rejected cremation and other methods of disposing of dead bodies other than burial.  These methods were often used by pagans, who did not believe in the afterlife or the resurrection of the body. 

In recent times, cremation has become increasingly popular, even among Christians.  In 1963, the Vatican lifted the ban on Catholic cremations, although the Church still strongly favors burial.  From the Catechism:
The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit....The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body. (CCC 2300-2301
The point isn't that the Church doesn't believe God can resurrect our bodies if they have been burned; after all, even some of the martyrs were burned to death!  Rather, we are called to treat human bodies with dignity and respect.  We are made in God's image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27); our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).

So can we still perform the last corporal work of mercy if our loved one's remains are cremated?  Of course; disposing of one's remains honorably is the spirit of this work of mercy. 

NB: the Church does not consider the practices of scattering cremated remains or keeping them in a private home to be reverent dispositions.  Cremated remains are to be treated the same as the corporeal remains of a human body.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

40 Things #20: Days of Obligation

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***

I went to Catholic school until eighth grade, and as my only activity outside of school was piano (a solo sport), I didn't really have any non-Catholic friends until I switched to public school.  (Ironically enough, now most of my real-life friends are not Catholic.)  One of the first girls I got close with in public school went to a Baptist church, and she invited me to join her in going to their Sunday service.  I told her that I might be able to, but the logistics might not work out, because I would have to go to Mass that day, too.  "Oh, you Catholics are so strict!" she said.

And I suppose we are.  Attending Mass each Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation is one of the Precepts of the Church, which describe the minimum requirements required of Catholics (in addition to following the Ten Commandments).  If we miss Mass on one of those days without good reason (e.g. illness, tending to a sick child, being in a remote location, inability to find transportation), we commit a serious sin.

I think that many people dislike the idea of an obligation; we don't like the idea of somebody else telling us what to do.  But when you think about it, most of our lives are defined by our obligations: as children, as siblings, as friends, as parents, as spouses, as employees.  So the idea of having an obligation to God -- which really, in the scheme of a week, is ever so small -- shouldn't seem like an imposition.  Really, it's a privilege.

I'm grateful that the Church is strict about this.  Loving mother that she is, she doesn't just encourage us to go to Mass; no, she sits us down and says firmly, "This is something you must do, because you need it."

Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
The times I've been away from home on Sundays have given me great opportunities to go to Masses in parishes other than my own.  I love going to St. Gregory the Great near my husband's parents' home in South Carolina: the music is beautiful, the priests have given some great homilies, and the southern aspects incorporated into the church's design are just lovely.  When we were honeymooning in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Colin and I went to Mass at a cathedral there; before the celebration began, a religious sister asked me if I would be willing to lector -- so I did!  This weekend, we'll be in Washington, DC, and on Sunday morning we're planning to attend Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the United States.

The real point, of course, is going to the Mass -- the same celebration of the Eucharist that happens all the world over.  Even if the church building is run-down or the music makes me wince or the sermon is trite, it's the same Mass and the same grace I so desperately need!