Wednesday, November 22, 2017

One Year Later, a New Perspective

Universal Life Church
As Advent approaches, so does my first anniversary back in the Catholic church. It's not been an easy year, and one thing I've learned for certain is that there is no perfect church for me.

It's not that the Catholic church and I have differences of opinion. We do, and I've mostly learned to live with that. It's that other people leave me disillusioned with how they put political partisanship ahead of listening to the fullness of the church's message.

On the right are the traditionalists and fundamentalists who argue with each other about why the other group is going to burn in hell, all while they glorify violence and war and sneer at the poor and marginalized. They wrap themselves in the flag and imagine their Jesus as a vengeful warrior who will come back one day to mow down the sinners. Right-wing Catholics even bash their own pope. They've replaced love and mercy and compassion and a vision of the Kingdom of God with rules and regulations and judgments and a cross wrapped in a flag. Their hearts are hard, and they're led by fear. Fear of change, fear of the "other," fear of damnation.

And on the left I see people concerned about social justice, which Jesus would surely be pleased with, but they've drained any sense of spiritual mystery out of their churches. They may as well be humanist social clubs that happen to talk about Jesus now and then. Actual theological discussion is rarely broached, since anything that may potentially cause the slightest bit of offense to anyone is expunged.

To that end, most progressive churches will even refuse to acknowledge God the Father the way the entire biblical tradition does, as a "he." They'll just repeat the word "God" -- "God revealed Godself" and the like. Now, I fully embrace the concept of Sophia as the feminine aspect of God, and I'm with Julian of Norwich, the great Catholic mystic, in believing that God is Mother as well as Father. I realize that God is spirit and beyond human gender, and I acknowledge that the image of an all-male Trinity is problematic. But the metaphor we have of God as a loving father, protector, and provider -- as the forgiving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son who always welcomes us back with open arms, unconditionally -- exists for a reason. Without it, you change the essence of Christianity and turn Jesus, who himself called God his Father, into a liar. "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father," he said. Would Jesus have spoken in different terms had he not been born into a patriarchal culture? Maybe. But even so, the tradition is what it is.

Crisis magazine
If you do want to still give God pronouns, though, apparently some Christian progressives will allow you to use "she" or "ze." That one hit me when I visited a Quaker meeting recently. One of the first things I spotted when I came in was a table of buttons, from which you could choose the one that listed your preferred pronouns. A few minutes into the service, one man rose to address how the meetinghouse bulletin treated an excerpt from the writings of John Woolman, an 18th-century Quaker. This is what appeared in the bulletin:
As Christians, all we possess is the gift of God, and in the distribution of it we act as his (God's/her/zir) stewards. It becomes us, therefore, to act agreeably to that divine wisdom which he (God/ze/she) graciously gives to his (God's/zir/her) servants. 
No joke.

The fellow who rose to speak pointed out what a ridiculous overreach it was to impose this choose-your-pronoun nonsense onto an 18th-century document written by a man who, like most in his time, saw God the Father as just that, a father. Not a "zir," whatever that completely made-up word is supposed to mean. "This crap has gone too far," the man said pointedly. "Just stop."

I hadn't even looked at the bulletin yet. When I saw what he was complaining about, I nearly rose to say "Friend speaks my mind," as Quakers will do in support of another's comments. Instead, I quietly walked out a few minutes later, with no intention of returning.

In short: Right-wing Christians are obsessed with rules, mean to the less fortunate, caught up in the idolatry of nationalism, and enthralled with violence. And left-wing Christians have simply lost any semblance of common sense.

Sympathy for the devil

In light of all the craziness on either side, Catholicism is at least familiar. It's the devil I know. Maybe that's the most I can ever hope for.

My wife was gracious enough to go before a priest and convalidate our marriage, so that I could receive Communion in good conscience. Of course, the problem is that no one should have to qualify to receive in the first place. Jesus' table is meant to be open to everyone. But to Pope Francis' credit, I think he's trying to move the church more in the direction of taking mercy on people who were married outside the church or who have been divorced. Life happens, and compassion ought to trump small-minded Pharisaical rules.

Closed communion is my biggest area of disagreement with the church. But I'm also not on board with its refusal to ordain women or allow married priests. And I think it should be acceptable for married couples to use contraceptives that aren't abortifacients.
Moreover, I find the church far too legalistic. It tries to define and control every minute detail of the religious experience, and its dogmas sometimes simply reach too far. The entire annulment process is a prime example of how the church clumsily tries to deal with real-life messiness. It creates a legal fiction, pretending that a marriage never existed, to allow divorced Catholics to partake in the sacramental life -- when it could just show mercy and welcome them to the sacramental life anyway.

Yet despite all those misgivings, I still feel the pull of the Catholic church. Maybe it's just in my blood. And I do find much to admire in the church's pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty. The grandeur of the greatest church buildings, the church's history, its traditions and rituals, the comforting rhythm of the liturgical season, the bells and smells -- all of those things being me comfort and help connect me to the divine. They elevate my soul and humble me at the same time.

There's also the matter of Matthew 16:18 to contend with. Non-Catholic denominations try to impose various interpretations on what Jesus meant when he changed Simon Bar-Jonah's name to Peter, Rock. But the plain meaning of the verse is impossible to ignore. If there is a church Christ founded, it is the one built on Peter, to whom Christ handed the keys to the kingdom.

When in doubt, call on Mom

On top of all that, I'm deeply devoted to the Mother of God. If you love the Virgin Mary, there's really nowhere else you can go but to the Catholic or Orthodox churches. And it's the Blessed Mother who brought me back to the church in the first place, as I've mentioned in the past, so I almost feel as if I owe her a debt of gratitude and feel obligated to stay where I am.

Here's the thing. All my life, I've felt the pull between wanting to believe in something bigger than myself and a logical mind that tells me to dismiss superstition. My Catholic upbringing was that of many Catholics -- immersed in guilt. So I'm sure part of me was afraid to give up my early beliefs, out of fear of the consequences. That's how they keep people coming back to church, right?

Yet there was more to my struggle than just trying to give up "superstition." I could never fully commit to calling myself an atheist, for example, because atheism seemed like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

It was that conflicted, questioning person, having visited Buddhism and Taoism, Confucianism and Hinduism, Caodai and Konkokyo and Shinto and paganism, not to mention the teachings of Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, and many others, that found himself unexpectedly face to face with the Virgin Mary.

Mary was the one part of my Catholic upbringing that I'd never abandoned. She was a loving mother figure, a softening feminine influence in a religious system that was overwhelmingly male, from its Trinitarian God to its clergy. For a kid who didn't have a terrific childhood, I didn't need the fire-and-brimstone judgment of God as much as I needed the tender, maternal love that Mary represented. Even at my furthest point from Christianity, when I had an altar full of pagan goddesses in my meditation nook, Mary was there, in the corner of the altar, looking over everyone else, patiently and prayerfully, as if letting me know she was still there if I ever wanted to seek her out. She was the last remaining strand of faith I had in Christianity.

There came a time when I started to experience ill health and my sister-in-law died very young and very unexpectedly, and it began to bring a lot of things in my life into focus. Visiting my hometown around that same time reminded me of my Catholic upbringing, and although I was convinced at the time that Catholicism just wasn't for me, I did feel a pull to somehow connect again with Christianity, my birthright faith. I ended up with the Quakers, whom I still admire for their commitment to the social gospel, doing their best to live out Jesus' example on Earth in caring for the "least of these," rather than using Christ as a tool of judgment over others.

The Liberal Quakers seem to have jumped the shark, as I pointed out earlier, but we'll set that aside for the moment. In the end, Quakerism wasn't quite what I was looking for anyway, so I drifted back into Buddhism for a while. But then that also went nowhere.

Finally, it was time to revisit a Catholic church, which I did with some trepidation at the beginning of Advent 2016. I still wasn't sure that was where I belonged, until I started to develop a deeper relationship with the Blessed Mother. I didn't yet know quite how to relate to her Son, or to God, so I talked to her instead. And to my surprise, I found my relationship with her deepening, very quickly. I felt as if she understood me and was accepting me just as I was.

Then one day at a church in Seattle, without even thinking about it, I reached out to take the hand of the Mary statue I was standing before. And the instant I made contact, I felt an overwhelming rush of emotion flooding over me. Chills shot up my back and I felt my eyes welling up with tears as I looked up at the Blessed Virgin's serene expression.

All my life, all I had ever wanted was some kind of sign that someone was out there, caring about me and the struggles I was going through. And at long last, here it was. The feeling Mary gave me was one of unconditional love. She didn't speak a word to me, yet she made it unmistakably known that I was loved, more than I could ever comprehend, and that if I needed her to, she would take me by the hand and lead me to the source of that love.

Suddenly, I understood why people were so deeply moved by their experiences with Mother Mary, from personal revelations like mine to the many famous apparitions of her throughout the centuries. She is our loving Mother, and as such, she only wants the best for us.

Well, knowing of the church's veneration of Mary, I took this as a sign that I was in the right place. Immediately I began going to Mass every day and praying the Rosary every night. I was back on the team, no questions asked, taking whatever was revealed to me on faith.

And central to that experience was the Eucharist. Daily Communion was my spiritual fuel. It centered my experience and made me want to come back for more. It also humbled me. I felt a deeper understanding of Jesus' teachings, and I was able to accept my ongoing mystery illness with more grace than I had before. I'd been angry about my illness, about my upbringing, about the world in general. I'd also burned a lot of bridges, and now I was finding the faith and courage to approach people I'd wronged in the past and ask for their forgiveness. That was a huge step for me. For people no longer living, it was too late to ask forgiveness. Others simply wouldn't offer it. All I could do was my best.

Take this, some of you, and eat of it
Then I hit a huge brick wall, when I realized the church wouldn't want me to receive Communion at all. That's because I was married in the years I was away from the church. If you're Catholic and don't receive a dispensation to get married outside the church, then the church considers your marriage invalid, which means, in the church's eyes, you're living in mortal sin, condemned to hell unless you rectify the situation.

I talked to several priests and confirmed that this was indeed the case, according to church law. My remedy was to pursue a convalidation, which would mean bringing my wife into a church and having her say our vows before a priest.

Because I desperately wanted to continue to receive Communion in good conscience, I initially gave this option some serious consideration. But the more I reflected on it, the more I realized that the church was placing the letter of the law ahead of mercy. Here I was, coming back to the church, enthusiastic about my faith for the first time in my life, and the church was putting my soul in the same league with murderers and the worst of all sinners, all because I didn't get married in front of a priest.

Reflecting on that made me think about the Pharisees, and how hard Jesus worked to expose their hypocrisy of placing law before love. I thought about how Jesus, in the Gospel of John, called himself the Bread of Life, and how he said he would never turn away anyone who came to him.

That's when it began to occur to me that the church gets Communion backwards. The church thinks you have to meet certain criteria before you can receive -- that you have to be properly holy and worthy. But who is holy and worthy enough to receive the body and blood of Christ? No one. That's why Catholics repeat the words of the Centurion before Communion, that we are not worthy to receive, yet all the Lord must do is say the word and our souls shall be healed. Thus, receiving makes us more holy and worthy.

So why do churches close off Communion, when Jesus ate freely with sinners? When he even had Judas, his own betrayer, sitting at the table with him?

Because of Paul.
It is from Paul, and Paul alone, that churches justify fencing off the body and blood. Because it was Paul, commenting on abuses of the communal meal at the church in Corinth, who said that those who approach the Eucharist in an unworthy manner end up eating and drinking condemnation upon themselves.

So the church claims it's only protecting you from yourself when it bars you from communing with Jesus. But in truth, it comes down to control. The church forces people who want to partake in the sacraments to follow its rules, however arcane or unjust or un-Christ-like those rules might be. Jesus never said you could break bread with him only if you agreed to his rules. He didn't only feed select people who came to see him speak. Just the opposite: He multiplied the loaves and fishes so that everyone could partake and none would go away hungry.

Reflecting on the situation made me think of how many other ways the church reflects Paul more than it does Jesus. The answer I came to was: a lot.

I realized that from Paul we get the subjugation of women, after Jesus took the radical step in his day of treating women as equals. We also get from Paul the idea of penal substitutionary atonement, the notion that an enraged God demanded a bloody sacrifice before he could forgive humanity of its sins.

Perhaps most tragically, Paul reduces Jesus to a belief in the death and resurrection, essentially erasing Jesus' life. Tying this view in with Paul's insistence that we're saved through faith alone, Christians never have to act the least bit Christ-like. When I saw someone online making this argument, pointing out how Paul completely ignores everything about the life of Jesus, including the exquisite Sermon on the Mount, one person who replied to him dismissed those things as "trivial," because the only thing that matters is eternal life.
And that, right there, is the crux of the problem with Christianity today. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most perfect expression of human ethics ever made, would utterly transform our world if we were to all live by it. Instead, it's been reduced to a piece of trivia -- and all because we've turned Jesus to some kind of magic incantation, as if just professing a belief in him gives us some kind of "get out of hell free" card. If that's all Jesus means, then his life meant nothing. No need for the Holy Family to run off to Egypt -- Herod may as well have been allowed to kill Jesus as an infant.

And from Paul was also born the idea of Original Sin, as expounded on by Augustine, who misinterpreted Paul's words on the matter because he didn't fully understand Greek. And from Augustine's notion of Original Sin came the Calvinistic notion of total depravity, the idea that humanity is so hopelessly debased that it has no chance of avoiding eternal damnation except through the mercy of an enraged deity who's disgusted with us and owes us nothing.

And that circles right back around to the guilt I grew up with in the Catholic church. Yet it's not just the Catholic church, but the Western church in general, that sets up this adversarial relationship between humanity and God, as if we're lowly worms not deserving of the slightest bit of love and mercy.

Tragically, it's that very notion of God -- the violent, bloodthirsty tyrant of the Old Testament -- that Jesus came to dispel. If Christians accept that Jesus is God, then it follows that God must be mercy and love and forgiveness, because that's what Jesus taught. He taught loving our enemies, giving up all we have to follow him, doing unto others, and caring for the poor, the outcast, the forgotten. That was the message of his life. It was as if he came to tell us, "You're getting God all wrong. He's not like that. I'll show you what he's really like, and you can follow my example." I think the best metaphor we have of God is the tender, loving, forgiving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Yet in the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, we seem to have reverted right back to an image of God as wrathful deity, more interested in pronouncing judgment and condemnation on his creation than in showing it love and mercy.

Paul's Christianity, of course, eventually aligned itself with the power of the Roman Empire, the same empire that put Jesus to death, and it's that version of Christianity that's been handed down to us. It's long since been neutered of any of Jesus' attempts to speak truth to power, because now it represents power. Constantine converted and placed the chi ro symbol on his soldiers' shields, turning the Prince of Peace into a symbol of aggression and violence. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch hunts were all fueled by this same violent spirit. It continues to this day, every time the congregants in a megachurch chant USA-USA and cheer on death at the hands of our military. Through people like these, Christianity has been stripped of its love and mercy.

It really doesn't seem like there's much of Christ left in Christianity these days. So what can we do? Well, I figure the only thing any of us can do is to continue to focus on those red letters in the Gospels and actually be the hands, feet, and eyes of Jesus in the world. To love others, to care for the forgotten, to be humble, to lead by example. To be perfect as our Father is perfect.

Looking east

The Mendeleyev Journal
That attempt to deify our own lives is a process more known to the Eastern church than to the Western one. The Orthodox church calls it theosis. And when I hit my brick wall with the Catholic church, I seriously began exploring Orthodoxy for a while. As I threw myself headlong into the Orthodox Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services, my wife asked me what I was getting out of all this. And that was a fair question. Why was I doing this?

Well, even though the legacy of Paul is seen in the Orthodox church as well -- in a lack of female clergy, closed Communion, the veils the women wear on their heads, and many other things -- the beauty of the Orthodox service lifted my spirits in a way the Catholic church never did. Orthodox worship feels ancient, steeped in history, as if we're re-enacting how the first Christians carried out their church services. And there's more mysticism and less dogma. The Orthodox don't feel the need to suffocate God with rules. They acknowledge the mysteries of the faith and don't attempt to define what cannot be defined.

But then I hit yet another wall, as I found out that if I wanted to convert to Orthodoxy, I'd have to be rebaptized. I've since learned that not all Orthodox churches require rebaptism of Catholics, but the two churches I was exploring -- Russian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox -- both do.

So here was the Catholic church telling me my marriage wasn't valid, and the Orthodox church telling me my baptism wasn't valid. There was also a particular prayer during the Orthodox Great Litany, a prayer for the military, that never sat right with me. So at that point, I pretty much gave up and went home to Rome, as I broke down and asked my wife for a convalidation.

You can go back home again

So I've found as much peace with the Catholic church as I probably ever will. I'm a Dorothy Day-Thomas Merton Catholic, in terms of how I view the Catholic call to activism and spiritual contemplation. The Carmelite mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are two of my favorite saints. I've been enrolled in the Brown Scapular. I'm a member of Pax Christi. And because of my attachment to the divine feminine, I'm finding that my focus lies on the feminine triad of Sophia-Holy Spirit-Virgin Mary. (Yes, I see the indwelling Holy Spirit as a feminine force, as many in the early church did.)

If that all makes me an unorthodox Catholic, so be it. I've never been good about following things by the book; I need to make things work in a way that resonates with me.

At this point in my spiritual journey, I'm reminded of the old Zen saying that when a young man sat out on the path toward enlightenment, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. Then as he began to gain insight, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers. But once he reached enlightenment and found rest, mountains were once again mountains and rivers were once again rivers.

To me, that spells out the difference between literalist fundamentalism and spiritual maturity. It's the difference between fire insurance -- religion based in fear -- and a spiritual life rooted in love for the world and awe of the universe. It's what happens when you realize that symbols and myths point to much deeper truths and aren't necessarily to be taken at literal face value.

Now, does that mean I don't literally believe in the tenets of my faith tradition? Well, that answer is complicated. I think it's OK to take things on faith sometimes, as long as you don't feel the need to check your brain at the door. I think it's humble of us to acknowledge that we are tiny beings in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and there is much that our feeble minds can never hope to understand. All we can do is try to grasp at the greater meanings of our lives and our universe by drawing from the traditions that have shaped our world, our cultures, our families, our nations, our churches and temples. I was raised in the Catholic tradition, so the Catholic tradition makes sense to me as a particular way of trying to comprehend the divine. For better or worse, it's the stained-glass lens through which I view the cosmos.

In any event, I think getting caught up in dogma and rules misses the whole point. Is Jesus not resurrected every time we bring his love into the world? Every time we help those who have no one? And isn't that what ultimately matters? That's the understanding of the resurrection that makes a difference in the here and now. But that view doesn't preclude a more literal understanding of the resurrection -- it just adds another dimension, one that we can act on tangibly in the here and now.

What happens next

Anyway, to sum all this up: In my year back in the church, I've come to a new understanding of what it means to follow Christ, while some of the reservations I used to have about Christianity haven't gone away. Some of the old questions have been answered, but new ones have popped up in their place.

And that's OK. I don't feel as if I need to have it all figured out. Christ left me enough examples that I can figure out how he wanted me to act in his name. The rest I'm content to take on faith.

Mary brought me back for a reason. She wouldn't lie to me.

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