Something occurred recently that provided me a better understanding of the difference between converts and so-called “cradle” Catholics.
It was during a meeting of older parishioners, those groups commonly called by names like “Senior Catholics” or “Golden Agers” or “Young At Heart,” etc., groups where you might expect to hear laments of lost traditions. A woman in her eighties who serves as a Eucharistic minister bemoaned her observations of young people who, she said, “…don’t believe. I mean, they really don’t believe that it’s the real body and blood ….” I mentioned that they don’t really have to believe, what they have to do is assent to believe; that coming to believe, or to know, is actually a grace, not a criterion or some measure of their faith.
My comment didn’t do anything to make me more popular in the group, and I get it now that the purpose was to criticize, or just to mourn the lost traditional “have-to’s” that constituted the Catholic faith education of their youth. Nothing wrong with that. And it might be well argued that such is the privilege of the elderly. (I’m not totally sure I go along with that argument, however, since oppositional obstinacy is no more a privilege of the elderly than it is of the young—who can be just as stubbornly opinionated. I think it’s more characteristic of personality than it is of age.)
But it brings out something not much attended: the nature of grace, for one, and for another, the meaning of assent. I remember as a Southern Baptist child, being drilled repeatedly in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” This was the criterion of faith, followed by the warning that if you don’t believe, you’re condemned. Well, I tried. I tried hard. I didn’t want to go to hell for not believing. Somewhere, sometime, I gave it up. I couldn’t help what I believed or didn’t believe. Slowly and silently, I faced the truth that I would go to hell, and even more silently, grew angry with a God who would condemn me to hell for something I couldn’t help.
Fast forward many decades: Learning the difference between assent and dissent, and learning the nature of grace. Faith as belief is a grace. We can’t earn it, gain it, no matter how hard we might pursue it. It is a grace, not an achievement. Grace comes from God, not from us. However, we can’t receive the gift unless we assent to it; i.e., unless we are willing to believe. Those who dissent are unwilling to believe, and therefore not open to receive the gift of faith. What is up to us is not whether to believe or not believe, but whether to be willing to believe.
The vast majority of those in communion lines assent to believe that what they will receive is the true body of Christ; thus they are able to say Amen when the priest says to each of them The Body of Christ. They may not fully believe, but they are willing to believe. And that’s enough. It’s all God asks of us. Sometimes they may have something like an experience of peace when they consume the body of Christ, and it’s a peace that is valid.
There are others who dissent, who are not willing to believe, their minds are made up, and their decision is final. It is they who, as St Paul says, “eat and drink their way to condemnation.” It is a blasphemy. And that’s the reason non-Catholics are not invited to consume the Holy Eucharist, not because they’re somehow excluded from the church (their exclusion is their own choice), but because, if they eat the body of Christ in dissent, in an unwillingness to believe, they condemn themselves. In their own interest of spiritual integrity, it is better to abstain.
We can’t help what we believe, but we can be open to belief—or not. Frankly, I think all the millions of Catholics who have gone to their graves after a lifetime of always being willing to believe and never having received the grace of fully believing may well be the greatest saints in heaven. It’s us hard-core types for whom grace was an absolute necessity who will be very blessed indeed just to get a seat somewhere in the back rows of that great assembly.
I’ve just finished what is commonly called a “Netflix binge,” which means I watched an entire series of shows. The Story of God had a two-season tenure with some nine episodes in all. I was surprised to enjoy it. I had expected something like the kind of show I saw several years ago during the height of the “historical Jesus” interest. I still remember the superior attitude of the narrator and his remark at the conclusion: “As near as anyone can tell, Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant preacher, the son of a Judean stone-cutter,” followed by a smile of benevolent tolerance: “If he was more than that for some, well, that’s a matter of faith.” The condescension was profoundly offensive.
Narrated by Morgan Freeman, each episode of The Story of God dealt with a theological/philosophical topic: the problem of suffering, life after death, heaven and hell, good and evil, and so on. Freeman visits various faiths for explications of these topics by traveling to locations associated with those faiths: Egypt, Israel, New Orleans, Rome, India, New York, Mecca, Africa, Australia, as well as his native Mississippi. He is respectful and interested, and expresses his own opinion from time to time. No particular faith is dealt with at any length, only insofar as the topic addressed for that episode. For what it is, it is very well done.
As democratic as the series is, it nevertheless provides an overarching thesis, overtly stated intermittently and conclusively: Our differences do not divide us but unite us. It was definitely “global fare,” and likely very gratifying for those who don’t align themselves with any religion but claim to be “spiritual.” His last episode was an interview with a woman who had an after-death experience and described it as “pure love”; she acknowledged no religious affiliation. Freeman agreed with her statement that God is simply love.
I enjoyed it, and found (almost) nothing arguable in the entire series. Except for that conclusive thesis. It’s all the same, it’s all love, and that’s all that matters anyhow. As consoling as that sounds, it’s a little problematic. Not because I believe there’s only one true faith, but because of something else: If there is no sin, there is no mercy, no forgiveness, and if there’s no chosen faith, there is no feeling of belonging to a community where your own beliefs are shared by others—i.e., no culture, and ultimately no real community. The thesis is an articulation of John Lennon’s famous “Imagine” reality: no country, no religion, no heaven, no hell, etc., just people living in peace together. The idea that people would live together in peace if we just eradicated religions and countries is a fantasy. People who seek differences as a cause for war and violence will only find other differences to justify their actions. It’s the illogic that says we can eliminate racism by eliminating races, or we can eliminate sexism by eliminating the sexes. In other words, we can eliminate intolerance by eliminating those things that require tolerance—that is, anything or anyone different from us. We don’t have to tolerate difference if we just eliminate difference.
I am reminded of an incident in an undergrad literary survey course when a professor authoritatively pronounced, “So you see that there are no answers!” After a moment of silence, a student tentatively raised his hand: “Well, it doesn’t seem like there are no answers, sir. It seems like there are a whole lot of them. You just have to choose one. That’s the hard part. Kind of like choosing one girl when there are so many. But it turns out pretty quick that if you don’t choose one of them, you don’t get any of them.”
People, we hear, are living longer. That’s not true. While it is true that more people live to old age, “old age” itself has not changed its number definition. Eighty was old fifty years ago and it’s still old. (Ask anyone who’s eighty.) The psalm is still on target today when it says our lifespan is seventy, “or eighty for those who are strong.” The number is no higher now than it was 2500 years ago.
When we have memory lapses, become slower in our steps and prone to more aches and pains, we say we’re “getting old.” Not so. We’re old. We just don’t like to say so. “Getting” implies that old age is coming, but the truth is that it has arrived. In fact, it arrived a good while back.
You might think that the reason we’re in this kind of absurd, self-mocking denial is that we don’t want to be old. That’s not true either. Being old actually has its perks—people defer to you (sometimes), concern themselves about you a little bit (sometimes), forgive you for tardiness, technological illiteracy, forgetfulness, crankiness; and all this social slack-cutting is in addition to the fact that you may now spend some of that money you’ve been saving for the future—the future is now. And you can sleep in too, if you want to.
No, we don’t really mind being old. What we do mind is what we don’t mention so much—to other people, to each other, or even to ourselves: We don’t want to die. And old age is the last stop before the end of the line. It’s a good thing we can sleep in because a lot of us have no choice: insomnia is the most common geriatric complaint. Old people are not able to sleep because they don’t want to “sleep.”
What do we think about, talk about, in our waking hours? There’s an awful lot of dieting, exercising, power-walking and such. Lots of vitamins and supplements. We spend so much of our little time remaining trying to extend our little time remaining that we waste the little time remaining to us. Back in the 70s, a guest on a talk show boasted that his daily multi-mile jog had extended his life by seven years. The host—I believe it was Dick Cavett—responded, “Yes, but you spent seven years running.”
Some people become obsessed with their health. Attending their health becomes a full-time occupation, and they work overtime. We no longer have “a doctor”; we have a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, an ophthalmologist, a urologist, and that’s just a few of the doctors we have on our appointment calendars.
In a spurt of reality-thinking, we go to a lawyer and draw up documents: a will, an “advance directive” or “living will” or the now-popular list of “5 Wishes,” and a financial power of attorney in case we become debilitated before we become dead. We purchase burial plots, coffins, funeral services. All this is expensive, but the high cost allows us to feel that we’ve bitten the reality-bullet about dying.
Not so. Once we’ve done all the practical stuff, insomnia returns, a new pain or a strange mole or something else has us calling another specialist, or we sign up for yet another yoga, tai chi, or exercise class. Perhaps contemplate a vegan diet. Maybe that little reality break wasn’t all we needed. Maybe we need to “get right with God.” We go to daily Mass, we try to make amends for all the wrongs we’ve done in the past, pray for the souls in purgatory and have Masses said for them, spend lots of hours in church volunteering. We work at getting right with God. We pursue interior peace (never recognizing the contradiction).
Being old is a lot of work. But we may, with God’s grace, get tired. Fatigue may release us from compulsively attending every Mass, from constant vocal prayer recitations, from all the feverish efforts to earn his favor and our salvation. We may even be blessed with the insight that all we do for him, for others, is really for us. And not just lately, but all our lives.
And we are so tired. It’s too late now to live our lives over. Our bodies are worn out and frail. Our minds are tired and our hearts are weary beyond bearing. Our one desire now is rest. And so, at last we surrender—we surrender our labor, our life, everything—for that precious rest we know is possible only in him. It’s then that we begin to live, and we begin to wish that we’d been old all our lives . . . .
Atheists are fond of suggesting that we create God in our own image. In fact, the mean old white-bearded god of judgment learned in some people’s childhood is the reason they give for dismissing belief in God. (Actually, of course, any reason will do if you decide not to believe.) But it does seem that as we evolve, so does God.
He seems so much more complicated as we age. We can perhaps remember, as children, our idea of God was so simple. We can smile at the memory of our innocent wonder of “Him,” a child’s wonder at all the universe, all the life around us, from the view of our own new life, of which we were just becoming aware, the very newness of our own being. He was Father—of all this, all life, of us. As we grew, so did he. We matured in our own understanding of “father”; a loving disciplinarian, he “chastened” us because he loved us. This was our understanding of Our Father, our Sire, that source of life in whom we lived and moved and had our being. He was big and powerful, protecting us, his beloved children.
In the same way, we understood our Mother, who fed and nurtured us in unconditional love; she was obedient and submissive to Father and taught us the same obedience and submission. Indeed, it was in her submission that we were conceived. And so we understood that too as a source of life, mysterious though it was. To be disobedient was to thwart life and deform us, and lead us to a life of darkness and loss of our father’s kingdom.
There are those who outgrew their father. They became smarter, bigger, stronger than he was, and just so, they outgrew God. Because they were smarter than he was, they became their own authority, humanists. And they outgrew their mother as well. They became wiser, more free than she was, and ironically controlled by their unacknowledged worship of phallic power, they became stronger than she was. Despising what they saw as her weakness, they became feminists. They outgrew faith in anything except themselves and their own ideas.
But, even if we didn’t have a temporal ideal father or mother, whether we were blessed with an idyllic childhood of unified parents or not, we still knew, because we are part of nature and all of nature followed the same pattern: God was heaven, mother was earth, and all of life was the fruit of that union, the trinity of nature that depends utterly on the union of heaven and earth, father and mother. We understood the mystery of the seeming death in submission as the necessary condition for life. It was not hard to perceive the resurrection as the unmistakable sign of life’s continuity because of that necessary surrender to the Father’s will, even on a cross.
For that reason, we can understand why our Lord told Martha that her sister Mary had chosen the one thing necessary. In our Christian life, we find, sometimes only painfully slowly, that the one thing necessary is submission to his will, not to win our own complicated arguments about whether he is a he/she/it or about what we think his will might be. For Christian faith is composed of listening, another word for prayer. No theories, no human ideas of activism—of body or of intellect—can supersede that one thing necessary. Nothing can displace the primacy of that necessary condition of all life, and of life eternal. It is the very state in which our blessed Mother lived her life, in wordless pondering of his will in her heart. His mother, his sister, his brother are those who do his father’s will. No one understood that better than she.
From the primeval days of the infancy of our humanity, when God was the mountain, the big and powerful and remote mountain, to the days of our pagan adolescence when the sun was father-God and the earth was mother, we evolve and mature in direct proportion to our spiritual growth. And eventually, in old age, perhaps, we understand that nothing of our early grasp has changed at all, only deepened and expanded. It really is simple, after all. We are still children—but now, in joyful and grateful humility, so very glad to be! Finally understanding that our true strength comes in our weakness and our true freedom comes in that submission and obedience, we are plagued no longer with restless desires for more.
And in moments of meditative listening, we know that as our own science has learned, nothing ever goes away in nature, but only changes, so it is in super-nature. As it has always been from the beginning, so it is from our own beginning. We know enough about him only when we know that we will never know him—not now, not in this life. And we are content to see through a glass darkly, content to listen, to obey, to submit to our own love for him and to his love for us. Until we see him as he is.
A man I admire, a deacon, recently told me that he sees Christ in every person he encounters. He seemed surprised when I answered that I did not. I said that I saw Christ in someone’s character or condition—like their loving nature, or their innocence (not to be confused with naiveté)—or perhaps in their “story,” the events of their lives, etc. “You see like a writer,” he said. Well, maybe. But when I look at other people, I see—or try to see—them.
My Baptist mother had a sort of gift for seeing. I remember her quiet little predictions about some person or other, which were inevitably realized. Examples: A man was behaving a little differently and my mother said, He’s having an affair. Turns out, he was. Everyone was shocked except my mother. She could tell when anyone was lying (except me—blind as a bat where I was concerned). Sometimes she could even tell when someone was gravely ill, just by looking at them. And even—I remember, once it happened—she could tell when someone was going to die soon. She could see goodness and badness in other people when there was no outward sign of either. She saw what she called “little black scurrying things running along the baseboard” when my uncle was having a very hard time with his pain and anger, following a divorce when all his five children abandoned him. I don’t remember her ever seeing Christ in other people. But she loved Christ deeply and talked to him in her sleep, thanking him, loving him.
I’m reminded of St Peter who saw the duplicity in two of the newly-formed Christians who lied about bringing “all they had” to the collective treasury. Or St (Padre) Pio, who could read souls and was known to refuse absolution to some penitents.
The good man I admire so much referred to my “inability” to see Christ in others. The term has a negative judgmental connotation, and I was a little hurt by it It’s not the first time we’ve disagreed about something or other, and, come to think of it, it’s always been about other people. But here’s the thing: He gets up before dawn and drives many miles over dirt roads in order to set up Exposition in the chapel for the handful of people who like to visit before going to work. He does this without complaint, despite the fact that there’s another deacon and a priest right next door to the chapel. And he stays, of course, in case all adorers leave, for the scheduled two and a half hours, in case someone else wants to visit. He visits the sick in the hospital, takes Holy Communion to whoever asks, runs the RCIA program, preaches homilies whenever asked, and visits a reclusive old lady like me once a month to talk, sometimes for a couple hours or more.
I don’t see Christ when I look at other people, but I think I can understand that for those whose lives are utterly dedicated to service, that may be a necessity—as Mother Teresa said of all those whom she encountered on the streets of Calcutta. But I’ve also seen Mother Teresa’s expression in photos with Princess Diana and others who sought photo-ops with her, and then I believe she could see others as my Baptist mother saw them.
How we see things, including other people, doesn’t say anything about what we see, but it says a lot about us. My mother’s sight was a gift, and I think my friend the deacon’s sight is a choice he’s made. There’s a difference, to his credit rather than to hers. Imagination gets mingled into my vision, and I don’t trust my own sight of real people. I know better than to trust my own judgment. But when I see my friend the deacon, though I don’t see Christ, I do see a good man, a just man, in the Hebrew sense of that term. And those who know about that term will know that it’s rare, a treasure in God’s sight.
My name is Babel
I am multi-lingual. Because languages are realities, I perceive many realities. You learn a new language; you learn a new reality. And thus we know that reality is plural and not singular. We refer not to “reality” but to thisor that reality.
And because that is so, we can know—with comforting I-am-aware certainty—that there is no faith that is supreme. Faith is as multi-real as language. Thus I (and all those others like me who are also aware of this truth) do not tolerate intolerance. Intolerance is the only sin. Nothing else. I don’t attend any church, mosque, or synagogue. They are all intolerant because they all believe their own faith is superior to others. I recognize no religion that does not give equal validity to every other religion, which of course, cancels out the validity of any religion.
That is not to say that I’m not a spiritual person. I am very spiritual! Indeed, I pray every day. I pray in mindful meditation or meditative mindfulness, and when I ask who he, she, or it is, I always receive an answer: “I am.” And that is how I know that I am God. Reality is what I think it is. It’s what you think it is. God is therefore—us.
We know we are God. We know there is no sin except intolerance. And we do not tolerate that.
My name is Babel.
This old dictum can be deceptively simple, rather like “Home is where the heart is.”
When I first considered becoming Catholic in 1984, I went to the local church, only a block or two from my apartment in New Orleans, and talked to a very young priest, whom I’ll call Father Francis. He was fresh out of seminary in Ireland. In RCIA, I wondered what became of him. When I asked about him, the deacon in charge of RCIA told me that Fr. Francis was homesick for Ireland and was suffering from depression. He stayed in the rectory a good deal.
Well-meaning people tried to introduce him to New Orleans culture, but the attempt was a failure. He just didn’t want to be there. One of the parishioners said, “We’re just not good enough for him, I guess, not white enough, maybe.” Sympathy morphed into resentment.
Finally, one day, he was over it. “You have to be where you are,” he said, as though he’d stumbled on a discovery—and maybe he had. If you are where you are, you won’t understand the difficulty of not being where you are. It’s not a matter of geography. It’s a matter of being. There are all sorts of accoutrements to go with that being—being where, being with whom ….
Having lived all over the place when I was a child (17 school changes in 12 years), and having attached and detached from numerous “fathers” (I had a very romantic mother), I learned very early on that it’s not a matter of where you are, or with whom—all that matters is how you are. If you are self-alienated (another term for this condition), you can project that discontent in any direction you want, and change locations/mates/jobs/situations, and be repeatedly surprised by the smallness of the improvement you’re able to make, even with the most radical changes. Until finally, one day, you may discover that it’s not a matter of where you are. It’s only how you are that counts. And that how comes from the inside out, not from the outside in.
This discovery may seem unimportant. But that’s where the deception lies. The significance of young Fr. Francis’ discovery can’t be overestimated, for, consciously or not, he had decided: “I shall not want.” Even if he forgets that decision, even if he resumes emotional dependence on the world around him, a reference point is made. And the soul remembers what we do not. Wherever he is for the rest of his days, whatever the conditions of his life, he has chosen the better part and his cup runneth over.
Common question among churchgoers after Ash Wednesday. I’m a vegetarian, so I can’t give up meat. Of course, there’s a lot more I could “sacrifice.” Years ago, however, I thought about what to give up—daily wine with dinner, desserts, etc. But every way I turned this in my thoughts, it just came out silly. Foregoing ice cream did not seem anything more or other than a minor nuisance, more likely to make me irritable than to make me holy.
Instead, I decided to give up one specific thing, so I could focus on it, and I decided to give up complaining. This may not seem credible, but it’s true: The difference was remarkable. Complaints come to mind before they come to lips, so it was necessary to counter a complaint mentally. I had to notice the good in every complaint-evocative situation—I had no choice. Here are a few of the more minor examples (There were also major ones):
Thank you, Lord, that I have a friend to meet me for lunch. She didn’t show up on time, but, because I’m not complaining, I am free to enjoy our lunch together, without having to harbor a nagging resentment that her quarter-hour tardiness might have caused me.
Thank you for this unexpected bill. It makes me conscious—again—of my good fortune in having a pension that enables me to pay it. Many people are not so fortunate. For so many, an unexpected bill can be a budgetary crisis.
Thank you for the Mass this morning, for the loud pianist/cantor who seemed to regard the Mass as his personal concert—he was there, not somewhere else. And in his way, he’s participating in Mass. Thank you for reminding me that Mass is not my personal path to holiness, but everyone else’s too. (Mental note: Think more about Mass as shared. After all, we share the one bread, the one cup.)
Thank you that the doctor has kept me waiting a half-hour so far—it’s a wonderful opportunity to sit in quiet meditation, one I might not have had without this delay.
Thank you for this wonderful young priest we had among us for this short time. He’s leaving, but he was here long enough to remind some of us that we are Catholics, not members of some socially-acceptable progressive culture. His departure will break some hearts, but we must be grateful for that too, lest we become dependent.
Indeed, thank you for every deprivation, every loss, especially those that are great. Every loss is a grace, for it is the removal of yet another veil, bringing us ever closer to you.
When I gave up complaining that Lent, I found that gratitude filled the void without any effort or will at all on my part, almost without my even noticing the exchange at the time. Only later, during Easter, did I notice it.
This Lent, I’m giving up criticism. I don’t know what the fruits of that surrender will be, but so far, it looks a little like humility….
Have a blessed Lenten season.
The recent passage of New York’s radical new law permitting abortion up until the beginning of labor was shocking, but more shocking still were the cheers of the lawmakers when the governor signed the bill into law. Even people who were barely lukewarm in their pro-life sentiments were horrified by such an enthusiastic reception of the law. I could not help but wonder, however, at the pro-life horror as much as I wondered at the pro-choice cheers.
When I was teaching debate, I always allowed my students to choose the topics, no matter how controversial, with one exception: abortion. I had to explain that the topic is not debatable. Why? Because the morality or immorality of abortion depends entirely on a judgment about when life begins; otherwise, it’s simply a debate on infanticide. Nor can the issue be decided solely on the basis of religion: The Catholic church says that life begins at conception, a position that makes most birth control methods infanticide, but the Union of American Hebrew Congregations says that life begins when an infant first breathes outside the womb of the mother, a position that makes abortion legitimate up until the very last moment. That is why the Supreme Court refused to make a judgment and that is why the whole issue has been—and will continue to be—so impossible to legislate.
“Well, then, Ms. Hunt, what is your position? Should it be legal or not?”
“I don’t want it to be illegal—I want it to be unthinkable.”
And so the outrage that pro-lifers expressed at New York’s lifting of virtually all restrictions on abortion is as troubling as the cheers of the lawmakers. What is it that governs pro-lifers’ thinking when they consider human life in the womb? Is it the relative development of the baby? Is a baby not as fully developed as one about to be born somehow less a person than one more fully developed? There is something askew in that point of view. Either that’s a human life or it isn’t. Can any human be more or less a person? Once conceived, it’s either a human or it isn’t. The cheers are indeed horrifying, but the hypocrisy of those who were outraged is just as disturbing.
Possibly most mysterious of all is how we have borne our grief in all these decades of legally disposable babies. There’s only one way: by denying the infant’s personhood in earlier stages of pregnancy. Not only has that denial made it possible to bear the reality of the mass murder that has become a part of our culture, it has also allowed so many of us to continue our own systematic murder in the devices we use to prevent birth. It is our reaction to the cheers of the lawmakers that exposes our own hypocrisy.
From the moment a woman knows she is with child, she is answerable to God for the life of the person in her womb. If that is not true, then there is no life-creating God. And that is where the real debate lies—and always has—and no legislation can answer it. That debate is not between us, but within us.