Category Archives: Apologetics

Why faith AND reason? Faith is reasonable? St Augustine says, “Yes!”

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-by Carl Olson, Carl grew up in a Fundamentalist Protestant home and attended Briercrest Bible College, an Evangelical school in Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife, Heather, were married in 1994 and entered the Catholic Church together in 1997. Their conversion story appears in the book, Surprised By Truth 3 (Sophia Institute Press, 2002).

“Pope Benedict XVI dramatically underscored the importance of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) recently. In a series of general audiences dedicated to the Church fathers, Benedict devoted one or two audiences to luminaries such as St. Justin Martyr, St. Basil, and St. Jerome, while dedicating five to Augustine.

One of the greatest theologians and Doctors of the Church, Augustine’s influence on Pope Benedict is manifest. “When I read Saint Augustine’s writings,” the Holy Father stated in the second of those five audiences (January 16, 2008), “I do not get the impression that he is a man who died more or less 1,600 years ago; I feel he is like a man of today: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, who speaks to us with his fresh and timely faith.”

The relationship between faith and reason has a significant place in Augustine’s vast corpus. It has been discussed often by Benedict, who identifies it as a central concern for our time and presents Augustine as a guide to apprehending and appreciating more deeply the nature of the relationship. Augustine’s “entire intellectual and spiritual development,” Benedict stated in his third audience on the African Doctor (January 30, 2008), “is also a valid model today in the relationship between faith and reason, a subject not only for believers but for every person who seeks the truth, a central theme for the balance and destiny of all men.”

This is a key issue and theme in Augustine’s Confessions, his profound and influential account of his search for meaning and conversion to Christianity. Augustine testifies to how reason puts man on the road toward God and how it is faith that informs and elevates reason, taking it beyond its natural limitations while never being tyrannical or confining in any way. He summarized this seemingly paradoxical fact in the famous dictum, “I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe” (Sermo 43:9).

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Falsehoods about Faith

There are, as we all know, many distorted and shallow concepts of faith, reason, and the differences between the two. For self-described “brights” and other skeptics, reason is objective, scientific, and verifiable, while faith is subjective, personal, and irrational, even bordering on mania or madness. But if we believe that reason is indeed reasonable, it should be admitted this is a belief in itself, and thus requires some sort of faith. There is a certain step of faith required in putting all of one’s intellectual weight on the pedestal of reason. “Secularism,” posits philosopher Edward Feser in The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism,

“…can never truly rest on reason, but only “faith,” as secularists themselves understand that term (or rather misunderstand it, as we shall see): an unshakeable commitment grounded not in reason but rather in sheer willfulness, a deeply ingrained desire to want things to be a certain way regardless of whether the evidence shows they are that way.” (6)

For many people today the source of reason and object of faith is their own intellectual power. To look outside, or beyond, themselves for a greater source and object of faith is often dismissed as “irrational” or “superstitious.” As the Confessions readily document, Augustine had walked with sheer willfulness (to borrow Feser’s excellent descriptive) down this dark intellectual alleyway in his own life and found it to be a dead end. He discovered that belief is only as worthwhile as its object and as strong as its source. For Augustine—a man who had pursued philosophical arguments with intense fervor—both the object and source of faith is God.

“Belief, in fact” the Thomistic philosopher Etienne Gilson remarked inThe Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, “is simply thought accompanied by assent” (27). There is not and cannot be tension or conflict between reason and faith; they both flow from the same divine source. Reason should and must, therefore, play a central role in a man’s beliefs about ultimate things. In fact, it is by reason that we come to know and understand what faith and belief are. Reason is the vehicle, which, if driven correctly, takes us to the door of faith. As Augustine observed:

“My greatest certainty was that “the invisible things of Thine from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even Thy eternal power and Godhead.” For when I inquired how it was that I could appreciate the beauty of bodies, both celestial and terrestrial; and what it was that supported me in making correct judgments about things mutable; and when I concluded, “This ought to be thus; this ought not”—then when I inquired how it was that I could make such judgments (since I did, in fact, make them), I realized that I had found the unchangeable and true eternity of Truth above my changeable mind.” (Confessions 7:17)

Getting through the door/portal of faith, porta fidei

However, while reason brings us to the threshold of faith, it seems, at least, implausible that ALL of Creation is a random incident/accident, and the fact that we are ignorant of how it comes to be is insufficient and irrational reasoning to deny the existence of the Divine, whereas accepting the proposal of the existence of the Divine seems rational, and refusal to do so due to ignorance, or what “fits” under a microscope, or can be understood by finite human reason —and even informs us that faith is a coherent and logical option—it cannot take us through the door. Part of the problem is that reason has been wounded by the Fall and dimmed by the effects of sin – human limitation, if you prefer. Reason is, to some degree or another, distorted, limited, and hindered; it is often pulled off the road by our whims, emotions, and passions.

But this is not why natural reason, ultimately, cannot open the door to faith. It is because faith is a gift from the Creator, Who is Himself inscrutable. In Augustine’s intense quest for God he asked: Can God be understood and known by reason alone? The answer is a clear, “No.” “If you understood Him,” Augustine declares, “it would not be God” (Sermo52:6, Sermo 117:3). The insufficiency of reason in the face of God and true doctrine is also addressed in the Confessions. Writing of an immature Christian who was ill-informed about doctrine, the bishop of Hippo noted:

“When I hear of a Christian brother, ignorant of these things, or in error concerning them, I can tolerate his uninformed opinion; and I do not see that any lack of knowledge as to the form or nature of this material creation can do him much harm, as long as he does not hold a belief in anything which is unworthy of Thee, O Lord, the Creator of all. But if he thinks that his secular knowledge pertains to the essence of the doctrine of piety, or ventures to assert dogmatic opinions in matters in which he is ignorant—there lies the injury.” (Confessions 5:5)

Augustine’s high view of reason rested on his belief that God is the author of all truth and reason. The Incarnate God-man, the second Person of the Trinity, appeals to man’s reason and invites him to seek more deeply, to reflect more thoroughly, and to thirst more intensely for the “eternal Truth”:

“Why is this, I ask of thee, O Lord my God? I see it after a fashion, but I do not know how to express it, unless I say that everything that begins to be and then ceases to be begins and ceases when it is known in Thy eternal reason that it ought to begin or cease—in Thy eternal reason where nothing begins or ceases. And this is Thy Word, which is also “the Beginning,” because it also speaks to us. Thus, in the Gospel, He spoke through the flesh; and this sounded in the outward ears of men so that it might be believed and sought for within, and so that it might be found in the eternal Truth, in which the good and only Master teacheth all his disciples. There, O Lord, I hear Thy voice, the voice of One speaking to me, since He Who teacheth us speaketh to us. (Confessions11:8)

Another example of Augustine’s high regard for reason and for its central place in his theological convictions is found in his experience with the teachings of Mani. As Augustine learned about the Manichaean view of the physical world, he became increasingly exasperated with its lack of logic and irrational nature. The breaking point came when he was ordered to believe teachings about the heavenly bodies that were in clear contradiction to logic and mathematics: “But still I was ordered to believe, even where the ideas did not correspond with—even when they contradicted—the rational theories established by mathematics and my own eyes, but were very different” (Confessions 5:3). And so Augustine left Manichaeanism in search of a reasonable, intellectually cogent faith.

Know the Limits

Reason, based in man’s finitude, cannot comprehend the infinite mysteries of faith, even while pointing towards them, however indistinctly. For Augustine this was especially true when it came to understanding Scripture. Early in his life, reading the Bible had frustrated and irritated him; later, graced with the eyes of faith, he was able to comprehend and embrace its riches:

“Thus, since we are too weak by unaided reason to find out truth, and since, because of this, we need the authority of the holy writings, I had now begun to believe that thou wouldst not, under any circumstances, have given such eminent authority to those Scriptures throughout all lands if it had not been that through them thy will may be believed in and that thou might be sought. For, as to those passages in the Scripture which had heretofore appeared incongruous and offensive to me, now that I had heard several of them expounded reasonably, I could see that they were to be resolved by the mysteries of spiritual interpretation. The authority of Scripture seemed to me all the more revered and worthy of devout belief because, although it was visible for all to read, it reserved the full majesty of its secret wisdom within its spiritual profundity.” (Confessions 6:5)

The contrast between reading Scripture before and after faith is one Augustine returned to often, for it demonstrated how reason, for all of its goodness and worth, can only comprehend a certain circumscribed amount. While reason is a wonderful and even powerful tool, it is a natural tool providing limited results.

Man, the rational animal, is meant for divine communion, and therefore requires an infusion of divine life and aptitude. Grace, the divine life of God, fills man and gifts him with faith, hope, and love. Faith, then, is first and foremost a gift from God. It is not a natural virtue, but a theological virtue. Its goal is theosis —that is, participation in the divine nature (see CCC 460; 2 Pt 1:4). The Christian, reborn as a divinized being, lives by faith and not by sight, a phrase from St. Paul that Augustine repeated: “But even so, we still live by faith and not by sight, for we are saved by hope; but hope that is seen is not hope” (Confessions 13:13).

Recognize Rightful Authority

Humble receptivity to faith requires recognizing true and rightful authority. “For, just as among the authorities in human society, the greater authority is obeyed before the lesser, so also must God be above all” (Confessions 3:8). What Augustine could not find in Mani, he discovered in the person of Jesus Christ, His Church, and the Church’s teachings. All three are in evidence in the opening chords of theConfessions:

But “how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe without a preacher?” Now, “they shall praise the Lord who seek Him,” for “those who seek shall find Him,” and, finding Him, shall praise Him. I will seek Thee, O Lord, and call upon Thee. I call upon Thee, O Lord, in my faith which Thou hast given me, which Thou hast inspired in me through the humanity of Thy Son, and through the ministry of Thy preacher. (1:1)

For Augustine, there is no conflict between Christ, His Body, and His Word. Christ, through His Body, demonstrates the truthfulness of His Word, as Augustine readily admitted: “But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me” (Contra epistolam Manichaei 5:6; see also Confessions 7:7). Holy Scripture, the Word of God put to paper by men inspired by the Holy Spirit, possesses a certitude and authority coming directly from its divine Author and protected by the Church:

Now whom but Thee, our God, didst make for us that firmament of the authority of Thy divine Scripture to be over us? For “the heaven shall be folded up like a scroll”; but now it is stretched over us like a skin. Thy divine Scripture is of more sublime authority now that those mortal men through whom Thou didst dispense it to us have departed this life. (Confessions13:15)

Humility and Harmony

“The harmony between faith and reason,” wrote Benedict XVI in his third audience on Augustine, “means above all that God is not remote; He is not far from our reason and life; He is close to every human being, close to our hearts and to our reason, if we truly set out on the journey.” Augustine’s life is a dramatic and inspiring witness to this tremendous truth, and it is why his Confessions continue to challenge and move readers today, 16 centuries after being written.

The young Augustine pursued reason, prestige, and pleasure with tremendous energy and refined focus, but could not find peace or satisfaction. It was when he followed reason to the door of faith, humbled himself before God, and gave himself over to Christ that he found Whom he was made by and for. “In its essence,” Gilson wrote, “Augustinian faith is both an adherence of the mind to supernatural truth and a humble surrender of the whole man to the grace of Christ” (The Christian Philosophy 31).

The Church Teaches

“Believing is possible only by grace and the interior helps of the Holy Spirit. But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths He has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church 154

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Love, Faith, and Hope,
Matthew

becoming Catholic, Dr. Allan J. Cease

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-by Dr. Allan J. Cease, Dr. Allan Cease served in ordained Protestant ministry for nearly 28 years before his confirmation in the Catholic Church in 1997. He is a graduate of Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA with a Bachelor of Arts in history. He also received a Master of Divinity degree from Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Drew University, Madison, NJ. He has pastored various United Methodist churches in Northeastern Pennsylvania and South Central New York. His ministry has further included chaplaincy positions in two hospitals, a nursing home, and a state-run residential facility for adults with intellectual disabilities. Dr. Cease has also worked over ten years for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Now retired, he lives with his wife and son in the house in which he grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. He can be contacted by email at ajcease142@yahoo.com.

“After 51 years as a Protestant and 28 years as a United Methodist clergyman, I have come home to the Catholic Church. To my delighted surprise, I have found it to be a “pearl of great price.” Let me share with you my faith journey, my journey to Christ and with Christ and my discovery of the fullness of the Church. In so doing, I wish to highlight the joy which emerges through struggles and hardships and, in fact, is made all the more exuberant because of them. My story is a journey to joy!

Some people who come to faith in Jesus Christ have a “Paul” experience. Like St. Paul, they have a dramatic conversion when almost instantaneously they are changed from unbelief to belief and in a moment are brought from darkness to light. These testimonies are wonderful to hear, but they represent a small percentage of the people who have been won to Christ. Most of us have a “Timothy” experience rather than a “Paul” one. St. Timothy was a protégé of Paul, whose mother and grandmother were Christians. He was brought up in the faith and, so far as we know, did not have a dramatic conversion experience. I am one of those rare individuals who has had both a “Paul” experience and a “Timothy” experience.

My childhood was a “Timothy” experience. I was brought up in a devout Methodist home in Northeastern Pennsylvania. From my earliest days, my mother and grandmother read the Bible to me, prayed with me, and sang hymns for me daily so that I came to know the love of Jesus at a very early age.

Call to Ministry

By the time I was in fifth or sixth grade, I had a steadily increasing sense of God’s call to ordained ministry in the Methodist Church. I also had a consistently Methodist education in prep school, college, seminary, and, after entering full-time ministry, in another United Methodist seminary where I completed a Doctor of Ministry program. Starting with my second year in seminary, I became a pastor. Over the course of the next 26 years, I would pastor several United Methodist congregations in Northeastern Pennsylvania and the Binghamton, New York area.

In 1976, I met a young lady from Endicott, New York named Lynne Hess, who was also studying for the ministry. Lynne and I fell in love and were married in 1980.

“You’re Not Playing Bingo!”

Several years later while I was serving a congregation in Binghamton, Lynne was having a spiritual struggle that led her to become a member of the Catholic Church. When I came home one day, she told me she was planning to become Catholic. I voiced my objection, not by lifting up some esoteric point of dogma or theology. No, the first thing I said, believe it or not, was, “You’re not playing Bingo!” I did, in fact, strongly object to the idea of her becoming Catholic. Indeed, I took it as a personal repudiation of me and my ministry. I had never considered myself to be anti-Catholic in any degree, but I believed that Catholics had added certain unscriptural and unnecessary elements to the pure faith in Christ, which Protestants, through Luther and the Reformers, had restored. Over time, however, I began to see how happy Lynne was as a Catholic and how greatly the Catholic Faith was helping her spiritual life as well as how she was taking great pains to be active in my congregation and be supportive of my ministry with the approval of her priest. These realities helped me to accept her decision, although I still had no conscious inclinations toward Catholicism on my own part. Lynne was journeying to joy!

Two years later after we moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, our son Christian, who was attending a Catholic parochial school, told me that he too wanted to receive First Holy Communion and become Catholic. When I asked him why, he said, “Because I want to have Communion every week, not just once a month, and besides, it is really Jesus!” I then gave him my blessing, amazed that such words would come from an eight-year-old Protestant boy! In retrospect I now realize that the blessing I gave my son was a tacit admission of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a truth I was not yet ready to acknowledge. Yet, through this conversation my son had sown a seed that, I believe, played a significant role in preparing me for the Catholic Faith.

In 1990 we moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, so that I could pursue a position as a resident chaplain at the Williamsport Hospital. The itinerant system by which we moved every few years and other pressures of pastoral ministry were taking a toll on our family. We hoped that by my entering institutional chaplaincy we would be able to live in one place for a longer period of time and bring more stability to our family life.

At the same time I was growing disenchanted with some of the liberal theology of the United Methodist Church and especially its pro-choice position on abortion and its continual controversies over the ordination of homosexuals. So although I was intending to become endorsed as a United Methodist chaplain, I was actively looking into transferring my orders to some other Protestant denomination. I considered the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ, but I soon discovered that they were having the very same problems with these moral issues that the United Methodists were, and, in the case of the latter two, the situation was even worse. There seemed to be a lack of consistency with historic Christianity on several key matters and no central authority to prevent the church from voting every four years on whether abortion or the practice of homosexuality and remarriage after divorce were right or wrong!

A Life-Altering Weekend

In August 1993, one month before I was planning to appear before the United Methodist committee which I was hoping would endorse me as a chaplain, my wife told me she wanted to attend the National Sacred Heart Conference at Franciscan University

in Steubenville, Ohio. Lynne told me one of the speakers was Msgr. John Esseff from Scranton, a priest whom I had known and admired for about twenty years. To her surprise, I agreed to go with her. We decided, however, that I was not obligated to attend any of the conference and if at any time I didn’t want to be at the conference, I could go sightseeing in nearby Pittsburgh.

As it turned out, I did attend the conference, every session, even the ones about the Sacred Heart of Mary. I did get into some confrontations with certain militant Catholics over doctrinal issues, and I blew my cool when one young man told me that Martin Luther was the AntiChrist! I think that most of the people in the cafeteria that day could hear me yelling back my defense of Luther and the Reformation during that lunchtime “conversation.” In spite of this, I kept attending the sessions. I was enthralled by Msgr. Esseff’s Saturday evening youth program, but the conference still had no life-changing effect on me until the next morning when I attended the Mass that closed the conference. What was about to happen to me was my “Paul” experience to follow my “Timothy” one. As a Protestant, I had already been converted to Christ; now I was about to be converted to the fullness of the Church.

During Communion, as the Catholics in the room were going forward to receive the Eucharist and I remained in my pew in prayer, I was suddenly overpowered by the awesome presence of holy love. In an indescribable way I was bathed with the Spirit of the Lord and began to weep openly. I regained my composure, however, by the time my wife and son returned to the pew. I believe that, at that moment, I received what St. Thomas Aquinas called “spiritual communion,” that is receiving the graces of the Eucharist without actually receiving the Eucharist.

After Mass I did not say a word about what I had experienced even though I felt a love, a joy, and a sense of holiness in my spirit I could not describe. But as we were pulling out of the parking lot to leave the conference I nearly caused Lynne who was driving to swerve off the road when I said, “I think the Lord wants me to become a Catholic!” Then I shared with my wife and son what I had experienced during Mass. But I also found my defenses going up as I began to list all the reasons I did not want to be a Catholic and should not be one. These ranged from doctrinal beliefs which I considered unscriptural to vocational issues such as my call to ministry. I knew at this point in my faith journey that I most certainly did not want to become Catholic, but somehow in my innermost being I was compelled to do so.

Upon returning home, I decided to enter the inquiry stage of RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). It was providential that there was a newly ordained permanent deacon at the parish in South Williamsport where my wife and son were members. He had also been a Protestant minister for many years. In fact, at one point he had served as dean of a Protestant theological seminary. I started to meet with him regularly to discuss the Catholic Faith. I tried to be brutally honest about my objections to what I thought Catholics believed about Mary, the Pope, purgatory, and other doctrinal issues. In response, the deacon would give me sections of the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council to read and respond to. What I read in those documents and heard from the deacon’s instruction went far beyond what I expected. Much of it was not what I thought Catholics believed. Not only to my great surprise was Catholic teaching in total harmony with Scripture, I discovered that I already believed much more of it than I had thought I did. I did voluminous reading. I digested the Catechism and some of the writings of the Church Fathers. I searched the Scriptures to find support for Catholic teaching, and, as a result, became more convinced that in the Catholic Church is the fullness of truth. I was still wrestling with various issues, though, and did not enter the Catholic Church at that point.

The Eucharist Drew Me

Pivotal to my conviction of the Catholic Church having the fullness of truth was my increasing awareness of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is not surprising, since the Eucharist is so absolutely central to our faith and identity as Catholic Christians.

Holy communion has always been very important to me. As a Methodist, I believed that communion was a sacrament and, as such, conveyed divine grace. I further believed that our Lord was indeed spiritually present in this sacrament; but also that the bread and grape juice, while special and sacred, remained bread and grape juice after their consecration. For many years I had never thought there was a need for me to rethink or re-experience the meaning of Christ’s presence in the sacrament. But in the decade before my Steubenville experience, I was gradually discovering there was something more.

Interestingly, a liturgical renewal within my Protestant denomination played a role in this process. In the mid-1980’s, the United Methodist Church issued a new Order for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper which bore a much closer resemblance to the Vatican II Liturgy of the Mass than did the previous ritual, which had emphasized holy communion as a memorial meal symbolized in bread and cup. The new one offered a shift in emphasis and startled me with the words that had been added to the calling down of the Holy Spirit section (“epiclesis”) in the so-called Prayer of Thanksgiving. These words ask the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ for the worshipers.

One day after having offered this prayer, it truly hit me what I was asking the Lord. I was not asking God to turn these communion elements into representations of Christ’s Body and Blood, but into His actual Body and Blood! That thought, especially after my Steubenville experience, blew me away! I began to ask myself, “Do I really expect the Prayer of Thanksgiving to be answered? Can Jesus Christ actually transform ordinary bread and wine into His actual Body and Blood, and will He do it?” At that point I had not yet adequately grappled with the issues of apostolic succession and the validity of a Protestant celebration of the Eucharist, but that change in the Methodist liturgy started me down the path of acceptance and appreciation of both transubstantiation and the Catholic Mass itself when I actually encountered it.

During my final years of Protestant ministry, I was serving as a part-time chaplain at a large state-operated residential facility for adults with intellectual disabilities. My offering of holy communion to the individuals who lived there also caused the Holy Spirit to enlighten me about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As I ministered to these individuals who had moderate, severe, and profound cognitive disabilities, I realized that when I held aloft the communion wafer and said to them, “The Body of Christ,” many of those who heard these words were incapable of comprehending them as symbol but understood them literally. It dawned on me in the course of this ministry that these folks truly believed that wafer was what I said it was — the Body of Christ. Beginning to look at the Eucharist through their intuitive spirituality, I began to believe it, too.

These experiences intensified the insights I was gaining from reading the Church Fathers, who I discovered were unanimous in their teaching that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of the Lord.

Additionally, I saw the sixth chapter of John in a new light. I came to realize that when Jesus said, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55), He was not speaking in metaphorical terms but in literal ones. If His language had been symbolic, He certainly would have clarified the matter promptly for those disciples who “turned back and no longer went about with Him” (John 6:66), but He did not. I came to see that in an earlier passage when Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus was saying about being “born anew” (or “born from above,” John 3:3-4), the Lord did offer an explanation. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). But in John 6, Christ’s words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood stood with no modification. Their meaning was seen to be self-evident and obvious. As astonishing as it seems, the Eucharist is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ!

Trouble With Mary

Another serious doctrinal issue I had to overcome in my pilgrimage centered on the Catholic teachings about Mary. I thought that Catholics made too much of Mary and, since we could go directly to Jesus as our Mediator and Advocate, praying to Mary was unnecessary at best and blasphemous at worst.

I recall one afternoon when our son came home from parochial school with a rosary given to him by his teacher. When he asked me to pray the Rosary with him, I wanted nothing to do with it. I remember getting up, saying, “Get that thing away from me!” and walking away with Christian running after me with his rosary in hand before Lynne thankfully intervened. For me at that point in my faith journey, the Rosary was an obsolete remnant of the Middle Ages that was connected with superstition for illiterate people, not the beautiful and powerful aide to intimacy with God that I now know it to be. In the years that have passed since my son chased me around the parsonage with his rosary, the Holy Spirit has helped me to see that our Catholic devotion to Mary does not take anything away from Jesus, but instead it exalts Him!

When we pray to Mary, we are not looking at her as an object of worship, but merely asking her to direct us to her all-gracious Son in praise and intercession. When we affirm her Immaculate Conception we are not declaring that Mary needed no Savior, for as the Catechism states, “She is redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son’” (CCC, paragraph 492). Rather her preservation from original sin is fitting in light of the reality of the Incarnation since Mary bore in her womb the Second Person of the Godhead who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

In summary, I have discovered that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the other Catholic dogmas concerning Mary are not superficial appendages to our Christian beliefs but are necessary to a complete development and appreciation of the miracle of the Incarnation. Although one cannot definitively quote chapter and verse from Scripture to “proof text” some Marian doctrines, they logically follow from a full understanding of who Jesus truly is, God Incarnate, a belief that all Christians can gladly affirm!

Vocational Concerns

The vocational and practical issues of my coming into the Church were more problematic than the doctrinal ones. After all, I was married and assumed I could not be a priest. Ever since I was in elementary school all I ever wanted was to be an ordained minister and I was finding that dream shattered. Besides that, being a pastor was the only occupation I had ever known. I had never actually had a job in the secular world.

In 1994 I resigned from the church I was pastoring, took an early retirement from the United Methodist Church, and started looking into secular jobs while still pursuing the part-time chaplaincy position I continued to hold, ministering to adults with developmental disabilities. The next five or six years were extremely difficult financially and put tremendous strain on me and my family. During that time, my wife waged a terrible battle with bipolar disorder and was hospitalized numerous times in various mental health units. I was also terrified about how I should approach my mother about my decision to become Catholic. She was now in her upper 80’s and in very poor health. I was sure that the news that her son the minister wasn’t going to be a minister anymore would break her heart and spirit. All of these obstacles delayed my entrance into the Catholic Church.

An Authority I Could Trust

When all is said and done, the key issue in my entering the Catholic Church was the matter of authority. I was frustrated and despairing over the Protestant denominations’ inability to speak and act with a unified, consistent authority on several significant matters of faith and morals. I was drawn to the Catholic Church because I began to see that when Jesus gave His authority to the Apostles (cf. Matthew 10:1; 28:16-20), He was bestowing it upon His Church. I became increasingly convinced that the unity and consistency of that authority to speak and act in His name was most fully present in the Catholic Church.

In 1997, as I was moving towards my final weeks of RCIA, this conviction was put to the test when I read the Easter Vigil liturgy and encountered the statement I would have to affirm in order to be confirmed as a Catholic: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.” That word “all” threw me at first. As a Methodist, I did not feel required to accept everything my denomination taught as revealed by God. So I thought to myself, “How can I affirm that statement? I still don’t know all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches, and some of what I think I know I’m still not sure about including some of that stuff about Mary.” Yet I was sure about this matter of the authority of the Church in its faithfulness to apostolic teaching. So I affirmed what I knew, trusted twenty centuries of apostolic teaching for what I didn’t know or wasn’t sure of, and gladly and gratefully read the entire statement at Easter Vigil without hesitation.

I was confirmed and received my first Eucharist in the Church that Jesus founded through the Apostles. I will remember and cherish dearly that wonderful Easter Vigil in 1997 all the remaining days of my life. It was an occasion of profound joy even though I still did not have a permanent full-time job at the time, and we were still facing severe financial, emotional, and marital difficulties as a result of the many pressures we had to endure. It was a journey to joy in the midst of the dark night of my soul as I continued to wrestle with what sort of vocation God had in store for me.

Our financial woes continued to mount until I secured a full-time position with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania late in 2000, but it was too late to save us from bankruptcy and too late to save our marriage. Lynne and I separated in 2000, and I very reluctantly granted her a divorce in 2003. For several years I lived a life of celibate singleness, keeping in touch with Lynne as a friend and praying for the restoration of our marriage.

In 2007 my prayers were answered when Lynne approached me about getting back together as husband and wife. We agreed, however, that before setting a date for our reuniting, we would test our relationship by participating in a Retrouvaille weekend at our diocesan retreat center. (Retrouvaille is an outstanding Catholic program for couples with troubled marriages, an outgrowth of Marriage Encounter. I highly recommend it.) On December 18, 2010, Lynne and I reaffirmed our marriage vows before the altar of St. Therese’s Church in Shavertown, PA.

I was relieved to discover that many of my fears and apprehensions about becoming Catholic were largely unfounded. When I told my mother I was Catholic several months after I was received into the Catholic Church, she took the news better than I expected, and so did most of my other relatives and friends. Additionally, although I have not become a priest or deacon, I have no shortage of opportunities to use my pastoral gifts and training in my local parish. At St. Therese’s I have served as a lector, Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, catechist for RCIA and SPRED (special religious education), Lenten Scripture study leader for four years, member of the Parish-Pastoral council for three years and chairperson for one; and a member of the Liturgy Committee and the newly formed men’s faith sharing group. I have been at no loss of occasions to serve our Lord. The pastor and members of St. Therese’s are giving us tremendous encouragement and support.

In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’ Have no anxiety about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4; 4, 6-7).

Do you know what was going on with Paul when he wrote those words? He wasn’t sitting in an ivory tower or enjoying a time of pleasure and ease. No, he was shackled in a dark dingy prison cell, not knowing from one moment to the next whether or not he would live or die. Yet he was moved to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice’!” What could possibly give the apostle boundless joy in the midst of such desperate circumstances? It was the knowledge that “the Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5). He is coming someday on the clouds of glory. He is coming today and every day to bring us peace in the midst of pain, hope that disperses despair, and joy that no sadness or heartache can overcome. Jesus will lead us all on a journey to joy if we but trust Him. Thank God for the Catholic Church!”

Love & joyful welcome. Be patient with us, we are a church of sinners.
Matthew

becoming Catholic, “There is a ‘there’, there.”, Russell E. Saltzman

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-by Russell E. Saltzman

“For thirty years I labored away in parish ministry as a Lutheran pastor. Then for another four years, I was a district dean for the North American Lutheran Church (a supervisory work I enjoyed about as much as tooth decay).

Now, as I write this in the run-up to Holy Week, I am about to become a Roman Catholic, along with my wife; me for the first time and her for the second.

You may blame her for my conversion (though I think of it as a natural transition, as you’ll see). She was raised Roman Catholic and became Lutheran. Her father was raised Lutheran and became Catholic. Life is a darn strange thing at times. Her father died two years ago, and in the throes of watching that good man give up his life to ALS, she felt a tug back to her childhood faith.

To my surprise — hers too, I think — I said I’d tag along. Actually, it wasn’t much of a surprise to me. From seminary on as I became enmeshed in the Lutheran confessional documents from the sixteenth century, I progressively became more catholic in my thinking. What I sought for my faith was an ecclesial density; the feeling that there is a “there” there. The state of Lutheran church bodies in America simply does not approach it.

But it isn’t only out of disappointment as a Lutheran that I am becoming Roman Catholic. There is conviction behind this move. That rises along several avenues.

1) Some of my seminary class work, back in the late 1970s, was done at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio. I had classes in Sacramentology and Marian studies, taught by two old school Jesuits. I found myself in a classroom, the lone Lutheran surrounded by a horde of Salesian seminarians. It was exciting.

What impressed me was how close Lutherans and Catholics really are in basic doctrines and in the respective theological formulations. We ― Romans and Lutherans ― do theology alike, and possibly in a way nobody else does. We pay close attention to our words. Each word is weighed and compared to alternative words that might be used but pose less precision. Precision in wording, it seems, will keep us out of theological hell, and if the exact words aren’t the exactly proper words placed in the exact proper order, well, do not doubt it, we are all certainly doomed.

When you think about it, it’s actually a pretty charming approach. It also means that when Lutherans and Catholics do sit down together, they have a common language and speaking it together often results in surprising outcomes, as in 1999 with the doctrine of justification.

That’s one level. At the parish level, there is no consistency in how catholic a Lutheran congregation will be or can be. It’s that density thing I mentioned; pointedly, Catholics got it, Lutherans don’t.

2) When my wife said she was thinking of turning Roman again, I started wondering just how Lutheran I still remained. I had the influence of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus tugging at me. I was his successor at Forum Letter, a Lutheran publication he edited for 16 years (I did him a year better). In his years as a Catholic priest he would often nudge me, come home. The last correspondence we exchanged was on that topic. After his death there were a couple nights in my dreams when he whopped me upside the head because I hadn’t done it. The man had, in his Lutheran years, deep impact on my pastoral life as a Lutheran, and that only intensified in the years he was a priest. I enjoy telling people I discovered Neuhaus wheedles as well dead as he ever did alive.

The more I thought things through the more I realized most of the Lutheran clerics I admired most — and with whom I enjoyed the comradery of the Lutheran pastorate — had, one by one, left for Rome. It seemed I knew as many priests as I did pastors, and after a while, not a few of those pastors had became priests. There I was on the shore, hailing good-bye as they left.

For a short while after Neuhaus’ death I helped edit the magazine he founded, First Things. Though not explicitly Catholic, it is usually regarded that way. For the last six years, coming up on seven, I have been a regular columnist at the website; I was a Lutheran writer; now I’m a Catholic writer.

3) It became very easy for me to become Roman Catholic. But the key of course is not convenience, but conviction. I came to believe that the essence, more like fullness, of the Church of Christ is found in churches in communion with the Church of Rome.

I reject nothing of being a Lutheran. That is the transition, not the conversion; I am moving, but the Christian faith that has marked my life is coming with me. I learned my prayers as a Lutheran, memorized the catechism, and when I was struggling out of the well of agnosticism tending to atheism every third or fourth day, God put in my life some challenging, passionate, authentic Lutheran pastors who taught me well. For a guy who in those years did not believe Christ was raised, it was in a Lutheran community founded in the Resurrection of Christ that I first believed there had been a resurrection. What may I do with that, save give God praise?

Being a Catholic isn’t a finished job — not for me, not for any of us, as I think about it. We do not occupy a perfected Church. But then it is not our job to make it perfect; that’s God’s responsibility. But we are promised a holy Church being perfected. There are always discoveries of faith awaiting each of us.”

Brothers & sisters, converts & reverts, welcome! Welcome back! Welcome home! Be patient with us cradles, we are a church of sinners.

Love,
Matthew

advice for a new Catholic

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-by Rachel Lu,

“It’s an especially happy Easter for the Lu family this year, since a near and dear relative of mine came into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Eleven years into my Catholic life, I am no longer the only Catholic in my natal family. God is good.

In light of that, I’ve been reflecting on the topic of conversion, and what I as his sponsor really ought to convey. Since everyone’s life is a bit different, it’s hard to know what will really help. Even so, generating advice for neophytes is a healthy exercise in self-evaluation. What have I learned in my time so far as a Catholic? I made a list of the most important things, and would encourage others to make theirs, if only to reflect on where we might improve.

The first and most important thing I would say is that the repeatable sacraments are the bread and butter of Catholic life. No matter what else happens you must keep going to Mass, and to Confession. If you’re in a rut and they don’t seem to be helping, carry on anyway. If you’re busy, make time for it. Every kind of moral and spiritual problem can be worked out over time with the help of God’s grace. But if you discontinue these practices, you are spiritually starving yourself.  (Ed. where is your faith?  Trust Him always!  He will provide.  Assume the position of anticipation, reception, patience and trust.  Trust.  He will gloriously provide in ways we could NOT imagine!  He ALWAYS does.  He always does.  His timing NOT ours!!!  His!!!  Trust not in your own devices or wisdom! (Ps 143:6)  Trust Him!!!  ALWAYS.  ALL WAYS.  Praise Him, Church!  Praise Him.)

Don’t worry too much if you initially feel like you’re “going through the motions” in your sacramental life. Seasoned Catholics sometimes feel this way too, but over time we come to understand that sacraments go on working in our lives in ways we can’t immediately appreciate. Partly, that’s because grace is mysterious.  AMEN!  AMEN!  (Thinking you know it all, or adhering obsessively to ONLY the humanly quantifiable, is a sure way to prevent/resist it!  HUMBLE YOURSELF BEFORE THE LORD!!!!  Ps 51:17  Do NOT DEMAND HIs Presence or action, but patiently await His gifts.  Kings grant their gifts in their own way, in their own time!  Not under duress, or from demands of subjects/sinners!  Allow for the possibility of His love, His grace.  It will come much more swiftly and dramatically to you.  I promise!!  Be careful what you pray for!!  That Holy Spirit is POWERFUL, POWERFUL!!!  And, subtle as the whisper or the breeze. (1Kgs 19:13)  Just ask St Paul.)  🙂  But also, the Church has a lot more wisdom than most people realize. AMEN!  AMEN!  

Sacraments were filling deep human needs long before psychologists made up fancy terms for them. Modern people are inclined to lose heart if it doesn’t feel like their worship is sufficiently “authentic.” They should stop worrying so much. AMEN!  AMEN!  THE CHURCH UNDERSTANDS better than you do what is happening in your soul when you follow her advice. Think of her as a spiritual life coach, whose self-improvement program has an excellent track record of helping people over the long run.  (Or, the Instrument, the Bride of Christ on Earth!!!  His Spouse, as I prefer, as is more traditional!!!)

Confession especially can be quite awkward in the beginning. It’s also often disappointing if you’re expecting cinematic moments of stunning sacerdotal insight. (cheap parlor trick grace?  this is your god?  I pity you, truly. 🙁 ) (This, of course, is what the movies lead us to expect.)

Realistically, we probably shouldn’t see the confessional as a regular vehicle for external spiritual direction. (It has a more utilitarian focus, namely, the forgiveness of your sins.  And, there’s a line waiting behind you!)  Some priests really do have a kind of charism for it, and there are innumerable stories of penitents receiving a much-needed word at precisely the right time, enabling them to turn their lives around. It’s certainly good to make oneself available to that kind of grace. But it isn’t simply available on demand, and most of the time you’ll hear something brief, like a Bible verse or a quick platitude (“keep trying!”), followed by a penance and absolution. Don’t be disappointed. The priest has a lot to do and he doesn’t even know who you are.

My early confessions felt like awkward bean counting. Over time though, the regimen of regular confession completely changed my interior life. Sometimes bad habits get nipped in the bud just because I feel shame at the thought I might need to confess them.

I’m painfully aware of which sins are “my regulars,” (You can root out your “regulars”, too, if you are truly serious about it, and we ALL SHOULD BE, we should.  That is NOT to say, we can make ourselves sinless in this life by our own power.  We must let Him be God.  Makes sense, because He is.  His will, His way, even, especially when we do not understand why, especially then, trust, trust, trust.  Because of our fallen nature, sinner that I am, I will sin, again.  But, the power of His grace is AWESOME!!!  DON’T try harder.  Cooperate with grace!!  THIS IS GOD, we’re talking about, here!! If drugs are your problem, or such, STOP taking drugs!!!  Throw away in the trash where neither you nor anyone else can retrieve, EVER!!!  If you ARE going to repeat this sin, again, make it as expensive, and difficult to do so, as humanly possible.  Give yourself a chance, in a temporal way, at least.  Be practical.  Be real.  Deal.  Either you will, or you won’t.  Either way you & God will know the truth.  He ALWAYS DOES!!!  My money’s on God.  Sorry self, not really.  No more self-deception.  No more equivocating.  No more bullshitting yourself & God.  None!!!  Then trust, trust, trust, pray, pray, pray, love, love, love Him, more.  Rinse, and repeat, until He gives you the strength to be sober, to live soberly, and DO HIS WILL!!!  Let Him come to you!!  How sweet, how refreshing, how placid, it is, when He does.  🙂  I promise.  I do.  Literally, as God is my witness!!  I have benefitted.  I have.  I swear.) and at the same time, it often happens during my examination of conscience that I become unexpectedly aware of some failing that I hadn’t even noticed.  (Don’t be neurotic.  Be honest.  Be open.  Love Him more.  It will be easy, because you know He does.)

The most important thing to understand, though, is that confession is not about wallowing in guilt. Quite the contrary, it provides a healthy outlet for channeling justified guilt towards genuine moral growth. Instead of wallowing in an aimless sense of shame and inadequacy, Catholics put themselves on a sacramental “diet” that gives structure to our efforts at moral improvement. As with other healthy life habits, the typical result is less debilitating guilt, not more.

Now that you are Catholic, draw strength from the realization that you are part of an enormous family. It includes the saints in Heaven. It includes the suffering souls in Purgatory. It includes all 1.2 billion of us here in the Church Militant today… and you’re stuck with us. The Church is like the Hotel California that way. (?, uh…ok, whatever.  You get those “moments”, “expressions”, when dealing with the Holy Spirit.  It’s weird.  It is.  Get used to it.  Just roll with it.  It’ll be all good.  🙂

You can be a good Catholic or a bad Catholic, but nobody gets evicted. What is done CANNOT be undone! The mark on your soul is INDELIBLE!!!  (Yay!!!) 🙂

In that spirit, try not to pay too much attention to Church politics. Catholic politics is, well, politics. Unless your profession requires it, you probably don’t need to obsess about it, and there are much more edifying ways to immerse yourself in the faith. But whatever you do, don’t trust journalists to educate you about Catholicism. Far too many Catholics take their cues from the ordinary media instead of their priests and bishops, the Catechism, the saints, reliable historians and theologians, and the wealth of faithfully Catholic media sources. AMEN!

Journalists, as a rule, are as ignorant as they are hostile when it comes to Catholicism. Living in an information age, we have lots of fantastic resources to help us increase our understanding. The New York Times and Huffington Post aren’t among them. Don’t trust anything they tell you about our faith (or any other).

Finally, cherish the realization that your Catholic faith anchors you in something far bigger than you, or the year 2016, or the United States of America, or even the whole world. This may sometimes cause you trouble. Christ has already warned us of that. But fear not! He has conquered the world.(Jn 16:33)”

“Inquire not simply where the Lord’s house is, for the sects of the profane also make an attempt to call their own dens the houses of the Lord; nor inquire merely where the church is, but where the Catholic Church is. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Body, the Mother of all, which is the Spouse of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Catecheses, xviii, 26). St Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD)

Love & Great Welcome!!!,
Matthew

Psychiatry & Catholicism: Part 3, The Theological Virtue of Hope

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Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” -Dante Alighieri’s inscription on the entrance to Hell, and maybe, just maybe, if “Our Hope is in the Lord, who made Heaven & Earth!” (Ps 124:8), that is EXACTLY what Hell is?

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” -1 Cor 13:13

I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” relating his experiences and personal, formative revelations while a prisoner of conscience in Auschwitz while I was in high school. Not because it was assigned, but because I just wanted to. The most astonishing revelation to the reader of this powerful work is Dr. Frankl watching who did and did not survive, among those not killed directly by the Nazis through their various and hideous means.

He concluded that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had it right: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. ” (Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in 1963, p. 121) He saw that people who had hopes of being reunited with loved ones, or who had projects they felt a need to complete, had a great talent they still needed to express, or who had great faith, tended to have better chances than those who had lost all hope.

But “…meaning must be found and cannot be given.” (1, p. 112) Meaning is like laughter, he says: You cannot force someone to laugh, you must tell him a joke! The same applies to faith, hope, and love — they cannot be be brought forth by an act of will, our own or someone else’s.

So we attempt to fill our existential vacuums with “stuff” that, because it provides some satisfaction, we hope will provide ultimate satisfaction as well: We might try to fill our lives with pleasure, eating beyond all necessity, having promiscuous sex, living “the high life;” or we might seek power, especially the power represented by monetary success; or we might fill our lives with “busy-ness,” conformity, conventionality; or we might fill the vacuum with anger and hatred and spend our days attempting to destroy what we think is hurting us.

We might also fill our lives with certain neurotic “vicious cycles,” such as obsession with germs and cleanliness, or fear-driven obsession with a phobic object. Or, we self-medicate through alcohol, drugs, etc., just to numb the pain of our emptiness. Perhaps this is Hell as it truly is, without hope, forever, for eternity, outside the dimension of time? The defining quality of these vicious cycles is that, whatever we do, it is never enough. ONLY JESUS satisfies. ONLY JESUS. ONLY JESUS. Thank you, Lord! Thank YOU!!!

Martin Luther, while an Augustinian monk, began to lose hope in penance and good works as having any efficacy for the baptized, literally in God’s great mercy. Rather, he adopted the view, obsessively, that all of mankind were hopeless and wretched sinners before the sight of God, unworthy of salvation – literally, the “steaming pile of dung”, if you are familiar with that phrasing. Covered like snow by Christ’s redemption, hidden from God, having no worthwhile quality unto it’s own self. He carried everything to such an extreme that his superiors were worried about him. He wore out his confessor with marathon sessions of confessing, going over every thought in detail, then starting again from the beginning. His confessor, Father Staupitz, told him: “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive- parricide, blasphemy, adultery -instead of all these peccadilloes.” Fr. Staupitz also, further insisted with Martin: “We are commanded to hope!”

Catholicism differs in this perspective holding fast to the ancient understanding that God’s creation is GOOD!!!! Wounded by Original Sin, but, still, inherently GOOD!!! And, God LOVES His Creation, because it is HIS, and He declared/declares it GOOD!! (Gen 1:31) In the present tense, because to the Catholic mind, ALL Creation continues to be held in existence by the mind of God. If God stopped thinking about Creation, it would disappear – poof!!! 🙂

We are commanded to hope by the first part of the Greatest Commandment, namely, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with ALL your heart! ALL your mind! ALL your soul!” You cannot, truly, love the Lord your God with everything you have, and then turn around and say, “There is NO hope!” No. Truly. Our hope is in the Lord, Who made Heaven & Earth!!! Amen. Amen. Counter-pointedly, if there is no God Who loves you, what exactly IS the point of ALL of this? There is none.

“The third, and most important, protective factor conferred by Christian faith is the indispensable theological virtue of hope, bestowed in Baptism and subsequently developed in the life of faith. Christianity offers hope in the midst of difficulties and pain. Through our faith, in hope, we can find redemptive value even in and through suffering. The psychiatrist Aaron Beck…did a long-term prospective study of eight hundred suicidal patients to determine which risk factors were most closely linked to suicide. He studied individuals who had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt or for suicidal thinking.

Beck managed to follow these patients for the next ten years to see who survived and who eventually completed suicide. In trying to find the key differences between the survivors and those who died by suicide, Beck examined the patients’ diagnoses, the number and type of mental and medical symptoms, the degree of physical pain a person was in, social and economic factors, and so on. The results surprised some behavioral scientists.

The one factor most predictive of suicide was not how sick the person was, or how many symptoms he exhibited, or how much pain he was in. The most dangerous factor was a person’s sense of hopelessness. The patients who believed their situation was utterly without hope were the most likely candidates for completing suicide. There is no prescription or medical procedure for instilling hope. This is the domain of the revelation of God’s loving goodness and baptismal efficacy. We can have a natural sort of hope when things clearly appear hopeful. But when our situation appears or feels hopeless, the only hope that can sustain us is supernatural — the theological virtue of hope, which can be infused only by God’s grace.“2

1. Frankl, V. E. (1975). The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology. New York: Simon and Schuster. (Originally published in 1948 as Der unbewusste Gott. Republished in 1997 as Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.)

2. Kheriaty, Aaron; Cihak, Fr. John (2012-10-23). Catholic Guide to Depression (pp. 98-99). Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

Love, hope, and prayers for you, and those you love. Pray for me, and mine, please. Let us ALL put ALL our hope and trust in the Lord, Who made Heaven & Earth!
Matthew

Sacramentals – the goodness of creation

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“Thou visitest the earth and waterest it,
thou greatly enrichest it;

the river of God is full of water;
thou providest their grain,
for so thou hast prepared it.

Thou waterest its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,

softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.

Thou crownest the year with thy bounty;
the tracks of thy chariot drip with fatness.

The pastures of the wilderness drip,
the hills gird themselves with joy,

the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.”

-Psalm 65:9-13

-from http://therecusanthousemate.blogspot.com/2011/09/whats-point-its-just-superstition-on.html

“As you may or may not know, I’m a keen baker. It’s not good for my waist line, but it means that people like me more than they normally would, so I think it’s a fair trade. Thanks to a former housemate, I’m also into raiding the ‘wild larder’, which is fully stocked at this time of year with apples, blackberries, plums, and elderberries. I’ve spent many a happy weekend picking the fruit one day, and making something with it the next. This in itself is something of a spiritual experience, and I’m planning a more reflective, contemplative post on this topic for another time.

This year, I decided to make my annual jam-making session into a truly spiritual effort. Having discovered the Rituale Romanum last year, the one-stop-shop for the rituals of the Latin rite, I thought it would be a good thing to get the plums blessed before preserving them. Take a look at Chapter XI “Blessings and other sacramentals” – there’s a blessing for pretty much anything! As an aside, you’ll see Chapter XIII is about Exorcism (is it a coincidence that this is chapter 13?) – click on any of those links and see what happens.

Anyway, our parish priest was happy to oblige. He has on a number of occasions lamented the downturn in demand from the laity for things like blessings and other acts of popular devotion, and was delighted with the blessing, adapted from the blessing for grapes. He even took the prayer home to bless his crop of damsons (which he’d somehow managed to keep secret from me!).

Now, having mentioned this to a couple of friends, both young converts and, just as important, recipients of gifts of jam in previous years, they were both puzzled, if not positively scandalised, by this act of blessing plums. One said that this was one of those things which still made her think that “Catholics are weird”, and that she was pretty convinced that only people could blessed, not things. Neither of them could see the point, and both indicated a suspicion of superstition in the whole thing.

Admittedly, when pressed for an explanation, I was at a loss. I don’t know much about the specific theology or spirituality behind blessing objects, whether sacred or secular, and so decided to investigate; What is a sacramental? How do they work? Is it not beneath God’s dignity to have plums blessed in His Name and with the sign of His Cross? I’ve turned to the Catechism and to the introduction to that chapter in the Rituale, and of course, to the Bible. Let’s take a look at what they have to say.

The Catechism makes a number of references to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on divine worship. SC explains sacramentals very simply. They are “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments…By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.” They do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the Sacraments do, but “by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to co-operate with it.” [CCC 1670] In fact, in the Church’s view, by drawing on the power of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, “There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.” [SC 61].

So what are some examples of sacramentals, these sacred signs which dispose us to receive grace? First and foremost, blessings are sacramentals in themselves, and by them other sacramentals may be made. Take a look at any section of that chapter in the Rituale, and you’ll see plenty of examples, but the most familiar will be things like the blessing at the dismissal of Mass, icons and statues, Rosary beads, scapulars, Stations of the Cross, even the altar in church is counted as a sacramental. Through all these signs, and the prayer of the Church which goes hand-in-hand with them, we are called to fix our minds “on things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth.” [Col 3:2]

But, surely, these sacramentals, these pictures and objects and garments are earthly things? How can they help us towards our heavenly destination? St. Paul explains to St. Timothy that every creature of God is good, and “is sanctified [i.e. made holy] by the word of God and prayer.” [1 Tm 4:5]. Further, in his letter to the Romans, the Apostle tells the Church that “the entire creation…still retains the hope of being freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence, to enjoy the same freedom and glory of the children of God.” [Rm 8:19-21]

Why does the rest of creation need to be freed? As the Rituale explains, “The fall of man caused lower creatures to be separated from God, for they were bound to God through mankind.” Just as God made us and saw that we were good, and that goodness has been compromised by the Fall, so too for the rest of creation. When Our Lord sanctified human nature by taking it to Himself in His Incarnation, so too He made holy all those everyday things He came into contact with.

The Church has always understood this ‘making holy’ accomplished by Jesus. St. John records that He cured a blind man by making a paste out of His own spit and the mud on the ground, applying it to the man’s eyes, then sending him to wash it off in the pool of Siloam, which was full of ritual significance for the Jews [cf. Jn 9:1-8]. The Synoptics tell us that the woman with the hemorrhage was cured by touching His cloak [e.g. Mk 5:25-34]. The liturgy of the Church teaches us, in the Eucharistic preface of St. John the Baptist, that “[St. John] baptized Christ, the giver of baptism, in waters made holy by the one who was baptized.”

In fact, given that we’re talking about sacramentals, let’s look at an example of the ‘real thing’, a sacrament. Take the Eucharist. The new translation of Mass is much clearer than the old one, that when Jesus took the bread, “He blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples…” What is clear is that it is the bread which is blessed, not His Apostles.

Now, let’s be clear about this…all of this is entirely unnecessary on God’s part. He doesn’t need to make a paste to cure blindness, or have a cloak to cure bleeding, or even water to pour out His Holy Spirit or bread to share His divine life with us. Let us reflect on that fact, and then realize that He, who only does what is wisest and most loving, has chosen to work this way anyway! He has no problem using created things to help us – consider that He uses us, mere creatures, to carry on His saving work, which He certainly doesn’t need to do. He sees fit to pour out His Spirit on us through the waters of baptism, He feeds us with His body through the sign of bread.

Surely, no Catholic would say of the Sacraments, “Oh, that’s superstition!”. That the sacramentals are not an end in themselves, and are ordered for our good and sanctification just like the Sacraments, is made clear in every one of the blessings in the Rituale. For example, in the blessing for beer, the Church prays: “Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord.” Likewise, the Eucharistic bread is not transubstantiated for its own good (an absurd idea) but for the eternal good of mankind.

The Rituale is well aware of the problems faced by sacramentals, acknowledging that “some are apt to be disedified rather than edified when they are made aware that the Church has a mind to speak a blessing on a horse, silkworm, bonfire, beer, bridal chamber, medicine or lard.” Pride and sophistication are to blame for this antipathy, according to the introduction to the chapter. Recognising the important place that God has allocated to created things in His plan for our salvation, and genuinely desiring to make our whole lives holy, let’s be confident in asking our priests to bless our houses, cars, and yes, plums.”

Love & blessing,
Matthew

Catholics void of kindness

Eph4-32

I was telling Kelly, if I had not been born into being Catholic, had a mother who regularly reaffirmed, “If my children lose their faith, I have failed as a mother!”, had met so many wonderful consecrated and/or ordained Catholics, true servants of the Lord, I might definitely choose not to be Catholic.  I can see, clearly, too clearly, why many people do not choose the Catholic faith because of Catholics1.

I would, instead, be and always try to be, as I hope I am, committed to a constant ethic of kindness.  Love might be stretching it.  But, I do try on any initial encounter to offer kindness as a first impression.  Not naivete’, but mature, sincere, respectful kindness, no matter whom.

I don’t know what group that is, or if that even exists in reality/is realistic.  Not so much doctrinally orthodox, or much worried about that, and never subscribing that somehow orthodoxy may be a strength in lieu of kindness, but just…kindness.  As Dickens wrote, “The milk of human kindness”, offered by the Ghost of Christmas Present, an intoxicating beverage.

I try to make it exist in myself and offer it to others as immediately serenely and naturally as I can.  I also believe, sincerely, it is a mercy to fellow Catholics, especially, to clearly identify when they are not living up to their baptismal promises, I do.  (I, also, sincerely, sincerely, hope another would extend the exact and exacting same mercy to me.)  I feel at peace and confident in this, as I ONLY do it in the most dire of cases and as a last resort, fully aware as I can be of my own sinfulness.  I believe this is the only way to live.

I had hoped “Love ye one another!” would be the ultimate, and Jesus Christ is the most sane person I know, including myself.  Also, I recognize and believe the Catholic Church as the historical church founded by Jesus Christ, but I am also truthful enough to admit those facts, that reality is not enough to keep me Catholic.  I would seek something better.

I also tell Kelly if there actually were a better religion/community that existed, I would have left a long time ago.  Since, I don’t believe I really will find them, I will live and die in the faith 1600 years of my ancestors have lived and died in, and Mara, will live in, God willing.  I just don’t want to be the one in the chain who breaks it without REALLY GOOD reasons.

It is, I trust, the imitation of Bl Pier Giorgio, OP, I most admire in this case.  Performing acts of selfless charity secretly, which ultimately lead to his death.  THIS is a good life.

9432Donald DeMarco
-from an article by Dr. Donald DeMarco, PhD

…”Hell is other people,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated. His cynical image, however, is apt, but only for a gathering of unvirtuous people who, as is their wont, prey upon each other. A community of virtuous people, on the other hand, who love each other, is at least a foretaste of paradise. Sartre found life absurd because he did not find love at all. Where there is no virtue, love remains unexpressed. Hell is not only the place where there is no love, but also the place where there is no virtue.

…Love does not flow directly from one person into another; it requires virtue that serves as a mode of transmission. We express love to each other not directly, but through virtue. Virtue is our moral medium of exchange. Without it, we are spiritually bankrupt.

Only God can transmit His love directly. Nonetheless, He chose Mary, the Mother of God, to serve as the Mediatrix of all grace. Nathaniel Hawthorne, though not a Catholic, revealed a fine understanding of Mary’s role in this regard when he made the following statement: “I have always envied the Catholics their faith in that sweet, sacred, Virgin Mother who stands between them and the Deity, intercepting somewhat His awful splendor, but permitting His love to stream on the worshipper more intelligently to human comprehension through the medium of a woman’s tenderness.” Mary’s tenderness is her virtuous way of directing God’s love into our hearts.

Each of us comes into the world with a certain capital of love. It is ours to spend. And the remarkable thing about spending love (unlike spending money) is that the more we spend, the more our supply is increased. With love as our currency, we can go on a lifelong spending spree and never go broke. But we cannot spend a dollop of our love unless we channel it through some virtue. A simple act of kindness, for example, can brighten a person’s day. Kindness is love’s low voltage way of expressing itself to complete strangers without fear of embarrassment or threat of obligation. Kindness is a natural way of affirming the inherent goodness of others and of stirring up their own supply of love. Kindness begets kindness. It can even prepare the way to friendship where additional virtues such as fidelity, patience, and courage come into play. Kindness, which demands so little of us, can open the door to a flood of subsequent virtues.

In Psalm 118 we read: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His kindness endures forever.” Here, God is telling us not only that His virtue is constant and everlasting, but also that His virtue is more powerful than our sin. In addition, He is telling us that if we want to be more Godlike, we, too, must be virtuous. But as we become more Godlike, we do not become less human-like. In fact, because we are created by a God Who loves us, the more Godlike we become, the more human we become, which is to say, the more we become ourselves, the person God intended us to be.

As Fr. Lawrence G. Lovasik states in his book, The Hidden Powers of Kindness, “Kind words have converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning.” “He who is kind is free, even if he is a slave,” wrote St. Augustine; “he who is evil is a slave, even if he is king.” The power of this seemingly modest virtue is inestimable. And it is good to know that such a power is always readily available to us.

Expressing love through kindness allows us to stop complaining and begin building a culture of joy.  We often complain about how much unkindness there is in the world. But this amount of unkindness, however much it may be, exists only because of the lack of kindness practiced by individuals who live in it. The supply of kindness is available; all that is needed is its expression. Expressing love through kindness allows us to stop complaining and begin building a culture of joy. Then we will understand and properly appreciate why virtue is our most important medium of exchange, giving practicality to love and bringing conviviality to life.

It is clear, then, that according to the Christian tradition, virtue is rooted in love. “Love is the form of all virtues,” states St. Thomas Aquinas. For St. Augustine, “Virtue is the order of love” (Virtus est ordo amoris). Nonetheless, virtue is not an exclusively religious notion.

…All humans, religious or otherwise, have an inherent capacity to love. This means that all human beings are capable of expressing their love through any number of virtues. And no one wants to argue that non-religious people are incapable of love. Christianity is not a substitute for humanism, but builds on it and perfects it. Therefore, Christians and non-Christians can work together virtuously, as long as their expressions of virtue are based on love. In this regard, we can take heart in St. Thomas More’s celebrated comment that, “The times are never so bad that a good man can’t live in them.”

There is a light that true virtue sheds that can be recognized and respected by all human beings, regardless of their religious affiliations. Even random acts of kindness can help to bring about a better world. In the words of the Immortal Bard:

How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world

(Merchant of Venice, Act. V, Sc.1, 90-91).”

kind_word_gun

Love,
Matthew

Creation to Catholicism

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Q. Patrick, I loved From Creation to Catholicism. How did the idea for this project come about?

Patrick: I don’t remember who began the process, but I do know Trent and I “flow” well as guest and host, and he’s very sharp on a wide range of topics. We began strategizing a few months ago about producing some really great audio that didn’t involve one person basically giving a lecture. We settled on a simple Q&A format in which I play the gadfly and Trent plays resident guru. We scripted it only in the loosest sense of knowing where we wanted the conversation to end up. It’s very interesting that those conversations naturally fell into a three-act structure, as all good stories do.

Q. It seems that a significant number of resources that deal with atheism have been released over the last couple of years in the Catholic market. I know both of you have books and audio and visual products on the topic, and we’ve seen other high-profile releases by Jennifer Fulwiler, Fr. Robert Spitzer, Patrick Madrid, and a number of others. Given that, do you think we’re making any ground against the prevalence of atheistic thought in our society? What more can we do?

Trent: I think we are making significant gains in giving young people good answers to the questions atheists used to think were unanswerable. Indeed, on my radio show Why Are You an Atheist I’m surprised by the number of atheists who can’t articulate one single good argument for the existence of God they disagree with. They’ve simply ignored the evidence but are increasingly having to confront it when informed Christians arm themselves with the arguments people like myself and other apologists make.

Patrick: I’m not sure what measure we would use to chart “progress” in debating atheism and agnosticism. The numbers are harder to come by than, say, anecdotal evidence, which is much easier to find. I will say that open-minded atheists tend to appreciate our willingness to step into the ring with them, so to speak, as opposed to protest them or to “pray away” the problem. And there’s always more to do, because new arguments come along. Same with new advancements in science. No single approach will reach atheists, just as no one “way” of arriving at atheism will attract adherents. This is an effective imitation of the greatest evangelist of them all, St. Paul, who wrote, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

Q. It seems like atheism has been on the rise for quite a while now. How do you account for this?

Patrick: Many factors overlap and amplify one another. One factor is the crisis of fatherhood. Former atheist psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz wrote an insightful book about this titled Faith of the Fatherless. The sexual revolution has provided a distorted lens through which to view women and the relationship between men and women with respect to sexual behavior and family. A kind of social chaos has appeared, which makes it harder to see God in the disorder. The Internet has also enabled whatever atheists are out there to find a forum to share their beliefs—or, rather, their lack of beliefs.

Q. I notice a number of projects you’ve done in the past have been aimed at atheists. Why is that? Do you hold a special place in your heart for this ever-growing segment of our society?

Patrick: I do, yes. The number of atheist organizations, books, and websites represents a challenge to Christians, but more so an opportunity to confront their questions, engage them with intelligence and wit and—this is key—heavy doses of charity. Atheists and agnostics are not necessarily expecting answers from us that are rooted in science, philosophy, and logic. One of the ironies in the debate is that atheism can often be a form of fundamentalist faith.

Q. God has made covenants throughout history with his people, Christ being the most recent as the New Covenant. Why do you think God interacted with his people using this covenantal model?

Trent: God understands that human beings seek kin or familial relationships. Orphans, as well as children who don’t know one of their parents or siblings, seek a relationship with the missing family member. God does not call us solely as individuals but invites to be a part of his divine family, to become his children by adoption (see Romans 8:15) so that we might be siblings of one another in Christ (see Romans 14:10).

Q. Scripture puts it best: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” Would that suggest that no matter what factual evidence you put before someone, no change will occur in that person before they have a conversion of heart?

Patrick: A very good question. Certainly, no argument, no matter how elegant and valid, will convert someone without the action of grace. This is a mysterious thing, the interplay of disposition, bias, temperament, sinfulness, openness, and so on. Some atheists have dramatic, seemingly unbidden conversions to Christ. Others remain unimpressed with our arguments. The best strategy is to overlay every word we speak with as much kindness as we can. We need to show that our faith makes a concrete difference to everything about us.

Trent: Ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who convinces people of their need for God’s grace. Stephen rebuked the Jewish leaders for being stiff-necked people who resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), so anyone, regardless of the evidence given to them, can still find a way, however implausible it might be, to resist it. That’s because they don’t want it to be true. Therefore, along with reasons we present for the Faith, we must always pray that those who disagree will have open hearts and be willing to reconsider their worldview at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Love,
Matthew

Christian Unity: Messengers of Joy!!!

joy

-by Beth Turner

“As Christians, we hear a lot about joy. We are, in fact, commanded to rejoice. That being the case, we cannot understand joy to be a mere feeling, because we cannot command our feelings. However, after we have grieved and known sorrow, we are commanded to return to the reality which overcomes our pain: the resurrection of Christ. He, too, grieved and knew sorrow when looking out upon the sin of the world. But he conquered these pains by rising from the dead, and gives us the gift of such rising again through repentance and baptism.

When we look around at the state of Christian disunity, we are rightly sorrowful. This sorrow is not opposed to joy, however, because it is the sorrow of the blessed. “Blessed are those who mourn” over Christian disunity. “Blessed are the pure in heart” who long for a perfect communion that they have glimpsed in friendship with other Christians, but not fully known. “Blessed are the peacemakers” who work for Christian unity in careful, painstaking dialogue and prayer. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake” because their Christian brothers and sisters slander them and the sacred things dear to them. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” because they long to see God worshipped truly.

We sin against joy when we become embittered. From our sorrow, instead of heeding the call to joy, we sometimes turn instead to cynicism, mockery, and despair. We may suppose that people will never change and that unity is not possible. Our bitterness comes out of hearts that have longed for unity but no longer believe it can or will happen. It proceeds from our hearts to our lips in the form of insults about other Christians, scornful jokes about other Christians, apathy in prayer for Christian unity. The command to joy asks us to turn from our place of sorrow not to cynicism, but to the Man of Sorrows (what a name!). Rejoice that God has allowed you to taste the longing of his very own heart. Believe that your pain is blessed when you long for Christian unity, and you will have joy. Pray that what you long for may be seen in your lifetime, or in the lives of your children, or your children’s children.

Another impediment to our joy is shame. From our sorrow, we may doubt whether joy is truly appropriate in light of the circumstances. We see that people of other faiths may not understand us, or think we are strange, or awkward, or weird. We are afraid to become the butt of a joke. We are afraid to take the social risk of speaking of our joy in Christ. However, it should be the case that these social risks are not so great with our Christian brothers and sisters, and we should make space for others to share their joys and sorrows with us. By proclaiming our Christian joy to one another, we are strengthened to proclaim it to an unbaptized world.

A final obstacle to joy is our anxiety. We worry that we cannot do enough, that we will not do enough, or that God will not be pleased with our efforts to share fellowship with other Christians. As with all anxieties, we must do our best to trust our loving Father’s desire to do good to us and His power to multiply of our efforts, just as he took the meager offerings of the disciples, the loaves and the fishes, and of all the saints to make His glories known throughout the world.

In addition to the joy that comes from the sorrow of the blessed, Christian fellowship itself can be a source of joy. It is joy that can be hard to enter when worship is different from one Christian community to another. It is a joy that can be hard to achieve because we have many questions, concerns, and fears about the beliefs and practices of other Christians. It is a joy that will only be full in heaven, because what little unity we have now is a hard work, a toiling, and a fragile peace. But Christian fellowship across traditions can, itself, be a joy to us. Jesus promises that our joy will be complete when we live in unity with one another.

Prayer
Dear Lord Jesus, may we rejoice that you have chosen us to sorrow over Christian disunity and toil for peace with our brothers and sisters. May we never give up hope for Christian unity, may we see it in our day, and may we pray always for the fulfillment of our longing and yours.”

Love,
Matthew

Christian Unity

roll-away-the-stone

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10 (RSV).

tom_brown
-by Tom Brown, Editor-in-Chief, Called to Communion

“The text for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes from St. Peter’s letter to the persecuted churches of Asia. 1 Peter 2:9-10. We “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,” St. Peter tells his persecuted addressees, and us. In unity, they constituted one race, one priesthood, one nation. This makes sense, for they – for we – answer to but one Father, one High Priest, and one King. As with our forefathers, today God means for us to be united under Christ the King, so “that [we] may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

But we Christians are suffering from ‘family problems.’ As a result, our message to the world, declaring the Lord’s wonderful deeds in bringing us to light, is garbled by our disunity. And we suffer from broken bonds and a lack of trust, just as happens in a broken family. A healthy response to this pain is to seek reconciliation. This takes more than saying ‘sorry’ and ignoring disagreements. Within the family, we need to discuss honestly our feelings, perspectives, and understandings.

Have you ever needed to say something very important to a family member, and planned to have the discussion during a holiday reunion, road trip, or other time together? This can be hard to make happen, especially in situations where there is bitterness between family members. Sometimes we only get to have this conversation in a very forced, artificial way; and it’s not productive. Sometimes we find that the opportunity never presents itself at all; depending on the importance of the topic, it can leave us with profound anxiety and frustration. We feel powerless to get into the open whatever issue is weighing on our heart.

Would that we felt such sorrow over the separation of God’s children! With Him, all things are possible. Thanks to prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, He can provide an opportunity for that needed conversation between family members. His love can roll away the stone that keeps us entombed in isolation from loved ones.

Now, we cannot be like siblings who spend time together, but refuse to reconcile deep-seated causes of division. We cannot simply ignore our different ecclesiologies, theologies or philosophies. We must seize every precious opportunity for truth-seeking conversation with our separated brothers and sisters. We must implore the Holy Spirit to provide us with these opportunities, not just in terms of time and space, but in terms of open hearts earnestly seeking reconciliation.

These opportunities for reconciliation, and our need for them, become more plain through suffering. Praise God for allowing us to suffer, and for allowing the early Church to suffer greatly, so that unity could be so cherished for many centuries. I believe the Holy Spirit will answer our prayers in bringing about such occasions. He will answer prayers for the silencing of debate-filled noise that does not aim at the Truth or at reconciliation. Therefore, let us remember to pray during this week of prayer!

Prayer
“Lord Jesus, you have always loved us from the beginning, and you have shown the depth of your love in dying for us on the cross and thereby sharing our sufferings and wounds. At this moment, we lay all the obstacles that separate us from your love at the foot of your cross. Roll back the stones which imprison us. Awaken us to your resurrection morning. There may we meet the brothers and sisters from whom we are separated. Amen.”

This Lent let us fast from being disagreeable; put ourselves at the service of Christian love & unity.

Love,
Matthew