Awkward Catholic

Living my faith as the awkward man of God that I am.


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To the Heights – Through the Valley

That awkward moment I was bounding up the main stairs of the Catholic high school just as all the teens were being dismissed and filing out into the halls and parking lot, and my foot missed the next step and I face-plant in front of all of them… not a good way to make a first impression.

Mountain in a Lake

 

One of the most profoundly important scenes in the Gospel is one that is often overlooked or treated as a nice story but left behind quickly as it is a bit confusing… the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is contained in all three synoptic Gospels, with a brief reference in John; in each instance the Transfiguration is a turning point, the fulcrum to the whole story of our redemption.

To see the face of God… to see God, Face to face… it is the destiny, the dream of every human heart because it is the fulfillment of every human desire. Yet, to see God’s face is death; that is, we cannot see God’s face until we have faces with which to see him. (Peter Kreeft).

What do the above two points have to do with each other? What do they have to do with Good Friday and Easter? Why write about his today? I’m so glad you asked.

The Transfiguration is the fulcrum to the entire Gospel and yet is so often misunderstood or glossed over because there is simply so much going on. Prior to the Transfiguration Christ had spent his entire ministry in Galilee, healing, teaching and doing miracles. After the Transfiguration he sets his face towards Jerusalem and to his ultimate glory. The story is a Theophany in that it reveals God. It is a mountain top experience, a foreshadowing of our destiny in heaven. And it is a Christophany in that it reveals the true nature of Christ, the summation of the Law and the Prophets (Moses and Elijah), but not just a summation for Christ goes beyond them, becoming the lasting fullness of God’s revelation… the revelation of the Face of God.

As Jesus is praying his face was changed and his clothes became dazzling white. This is a vision of the heavenly glory that awaits each of us, but more importantly, it is a vision of the Face of Christ unveiled for our human eyes to see. In this glimpse we see the glory of God, but it is just a glimpse. One of the most important lessons I have learned from this passage is that in order to obtain the beatific vision in its fullness, like Christ we must first pass through the valley of the cross.

Wounds of Christ

I love the reaction of the Apostles because it shows clearly that even they didn’t get it. They were as thick-headed as I am. Just a few days prior Jesus had told them that “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Then, in the Transfiguration, he discusses his exodus, i.e. his Passion, with Moses and Elijah; Peter, John and James, completely miss the point! They want to make three tents, three chapels where they can keep that encounter alive. They want to stay on the mountain. Can you really blame them?

To the ancient Jewish mind (and the modern mind too), suffering meant that God had abandoned you, that you had somehow caused God to leave you to wallow in your misery. That’s what Job’s three friends accused Job of when he suffered more grief and loss in one day than most people suffer in a lifetime. And Peter, John and James didn’t want to descend into the valley, to leave behind this mountaintop experience. They wanted to stay there, where it was safe and comfortable and “heavenly”. Who can blame them?

But a cloud comes down upon the three disciples and the voice of God booms, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” I love this! It reminds me of the countless times I’ve bent down to my four year old who is blessed with an active imagination, so much so that he rarely hears what others are saying to him or asking of him. I repeatedly bend down and call out his name, “Dominic! Listen with your ears!” The apostles, like us, needed to learn to listen to Jesus, who had just commanded them to take up their crosses, to descend into the valley of the cross and suffer like Christ.

Why? Why must we suffer? Simply this… to find our faces. What’s the point of suffering, of Good Friday? What’s so good about it anyway?! As Peter Kreeft describes, our hearts are like granite blocks in the hands of a master sculptor who must chisel away the stone until our true image appears.

I remember hearing once that a master sculptor, when he obtains a new block of granite, doesn’t just start chipping away but rather listens to the stone, spends time with it and studies it in order to find it’s true nature. I like to imagine the Father does the same with us, he sees the true nature, our real faces inside the deep recesses of the stone. And the blow of the hammer against the chisel, our suffering, is what brings our true nature out.

That’s what’s so good about Good Friday… the true nature of Christ is revealed in his face, the most beautiful face of love, the suffering Christ, the Holy Face, the scourged face, the crucified face of Christ. And in that most horrible moment, in the suffering that broke the world, Christ took upon himself the suffering of the world and transformed it into the most beautiful, powerful, death destroying love. That is a good Friday! That is the beauty of our suffering… it enables us to find our faces so as to meet Him face to Face.

Face to face

The mountaintop experience gives us hope and strength to endure the valley of the cross. We cannot stay on the mountain any more than we can stay in heaven… until we have found our faces. And so like Christ, having encountered his glory on the mountaintop (the retreat or prayer experience) we must set our faces towards Jerusalem… our own individual exodus’ by taking up those little crosses of daily life and follow him. And as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death we find that each thorn, each whip, even the nails piercing our hands and feet become as beautiful roses, a garden of joy and peace… because like Job, we find our own faces and are able to meet God, Face to face and be satisfied.


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A Simple Question

That awkward moment when someone asks you a question that you know the answer to but you completely blank.

Confused

This happens to me all the time. I know a lot of useless information and a lot of Theology but quite often it escapes me when I actually need it. And I know I’m not alone in this. In the confirmation interviews I ask the teens questions about their faith and their understanding of Church teaching. I’m certain they know the answers to many of these questions but in the high pressure environment of the interview, they blank.

The last question I ask them is simple, “Why do you want to be Catholic?” It’s simple yet the most important question I ask. “Why do you want to be Catholic?” What I’ve found is that most people haven’t really thought or prayed about if before I asked them. Sure, they have their reasons, but even the parents would be hard-pressed to articulate the answers. For many of us Catholics (myself included) there’s simply a general feeling that the Catholic faith is the right one. For many, it’s what they are used to, how they were raised or other sentimental reasons. Honestly there’s nothing wrong with these reasons, everyone’s gotta start somewhere after all. But alone they are not enough.

The covenant we enter with God through the Sacraments of Initiation isn’t some mere contract to be made or broken at will. It is a covenantal relationship like marriage and is meant to be permanent. Just as the covenant of marriage is stronger and more permanent than blood relationships; blood relationships are created by covenantal relationships, so too is our covenantal faith with Christ and his Church.

Like marriage, there will be good times and bad times. There will be times when your faith is on fire and the world is bathed in God’s glorious wonder; the hills will be alive with the sound of music. There will be times when your faith is flat and gray and just kind of there. And there will be times when the world goes dark, your faith seems to have shriveled and the “Mighty Smiter” will seem to be smiting you with all his might. It’s in these times when your answer to that most important question matters most.

When tragedy strikes you will face that question, “Why am I Catholic?” When profound sickness comes you will be asked, Into Darkness“Why am I Catholic?” When your faith is challenged by your friends, why are you Catholic? When your priest or youth minister or other trusted leader of your parish causes scandal, why are you Catholic? When God seems to have abandoned you and nothing makes sense, why are you Catholic? Your answer to this question can make all the difference.

Recently I went through a difficult situation where my faith in God was tested. The Big Man and I had some words, I questioned his providential care for me and faced this question myself, not for the first time. My answer was simple though it did not come easy. Why am I Catholic? Because what else could I be? To whom should I go? Who else has the words of eternal life, the Eucharist, Mary and the saints, Scripture, Truth, community and so much more?

I thank God also for the grace found in the disciplines he’s helped me develop over the years. For a time I went on an autopilot of sorts. The disciplines remained and kept me going in that time of despair and depression. And like Jeremiah the prophet I cried out, “You duped me oh Lord, and I let myself be duped!” (Jer. 20:7) Yet once again his grace sustained me when all I could see was the pain in front of me. Time passed slowly but my heart remained anchored in his Eucharistic heart and the disciplines of faith kept me going. Eventually I stood firm in my faith again. The fire within, never extinguished, took hold and like Jeremiah I rediscovered that the Lord has planted his word in my heart, like a fire burning within my bones and I cannot contain it, I cannot keep silent.

FireSo I ask you, is there a fire in your heart? Does your soul ache for the love of God? Are you rooted in his word, his Truth? Why are you Catholic? From where does your fire come? What will anchor you to his Cross when all light seems to have gone out from the world? Each of us must answer that question many times throughout life. It pays to be prepared.


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No Tears in Heaven (but there might be wings)

The other day in the car, I had a conversation with my five-year old son; he wanted to know if he could get angelWinged Victory wings in heaven. I told him that in heaven God would give him whatever he needed to be happy; if he needed angel wings to be happy then God would find a way to give him wings. (I have it on good authority that Redbull doesn’t exist in heaven so that’s not an option.) I then stressed to my boy who this is one of the most amazing things about heaven… it’s perfect happiness where nobody ever cries or gets hurt. He didn’t believe me.

First he inquired, “But what about when someone makes you cry?” I said that nobody makes you cry in heaven because everyone wants to share and be kind and love you. I quoted the sage Eric Clapton and told him there are no tears in heaven (I believe this is also found somewhere in that zany book of the Bible called “Revelations”)¹. He simply said in response, “I don’t believe you.”

I. Was. Stunned.

Dads are supposed to know everything for their little boys. There isn’t supposed to be doubt or disbelief! How could this be? Fortunately, I was stopped at a red light otherwise I may have driven off the road. In pondering this conversation the last few days I came to the realization that of all things for him to doubt, this doubt makes sense. He already knows well that this life filled with suffering, selfishness, tears and yellow jackets. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a happy boy and has loads of fun and is loved and knows he is loved, but by the age of five he’s discovered that tears are a part of life. We all know that, don’t we… only too well?

In this world most of us are taught to doubt anything we can’t see or touch or prove empirically. So heaven either can’t be real or, if it is, can’t be all it’s cracked up to be. After all, this world is pretty consistent in one thing… letting you down. After years of adulation you realize that your parents are fallible (apparently that only takes five years or so); everyone around you acts selfishly, especially yourself; the world is full of criminals; and so on. Simply spending a week as a high school student in a public or private school will suffice to teach this lesson. Everything we can see and touch and empirically prove tells us that “life is pain and anyone who says differently is selling something.”² Why should heaven be any different? Because God says so? Just look at him, this God of ours… hanging on a cross, dying the most horrific death possible. And so we say to him, “Whatever you say, Jesus.” But we think in the depths of our hearts, “I don’t believe you.”

Is it any wonder why it’s so difficult to lead teens (or anyone else) closer to Christ?! Everything in the world around them convinces them that heaven is a big sham. And that hypocritical youth minister over there telling me that God loves me and wants to be happy with me in heaven forever? Puh-leaz! I don’t believe him! Who wants eternal life when life is pain?

So how do we respond? Whether you’re a youth minister, a priest, a teen or a parent, what’s the antidote? Honestly, I don’t have one. There’s nothing I can say to absolutely prove that it’s all going to be worth it. I can provide no antidote to the pain of life.

But I don’t have to. It’s not up to me. It’s not up to you. I am nothing more than the sailor sitting next to his friends in a lifeboat trying to find his way to a safe harbor. Ultimately, it’s the Captain’s job to guide us home; he and he alone can do it and while he seems to have gone down with the ship, he somehow rose again from the depths and is with us.

Refugee Boat

The only one who can prove the joy of heaven is Christ himself. He proved it to me many years ago while I was on retreat. He met with me, he encountered me and I have never been the same. I know in the depths of my heart that heaven exists and is more than I could possibly imagine. “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has in store for those that love him.”³ This knowledge is a true knowledge. We believe that Saturn exists, not because we can see it but because we trust the astronomers who tell us. That is true knowledge. I believe that heaven is real and is more than a mere absence of suffering because the Word of Truth tells me so.

The only answer, the only antidote, the only proof that exists is Existence itself! The God who’s love is so great that he left the joy of heaven to suffer with his beloved loves you. He. loves. you! That love will not be outdone. His love will not be tainted by suffering, not in the slightest because he suffered for you. He took your sin and suffered in your place because he loves you. Perhaps you haven’t met him yet and don’t know. That’s OK. Call out to him. If your suffering is too great then cry out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”4 And he will meet with you. I know him personally (though I’m not the best friend he could ask for) and I tell you, he longs for you like a deer longs for the running stream.

There is nothing I can prove to you or my five-year old son. You can not prove it. It is beyond belief. The Truth of the joy of heaven resides in one place only, one person only (well three Persons if you want to be technical). My job as a dad, youth minister and Christian is to point… to lead others to a place of encounter. Your job is to do the same. Are you helping others encounter Christ? That is your job, your solemn duty, your privilege, your joy.

 

 

1.  Rev 7:17
2.  From the greatest movie ever made: The Princess Bride
3.  1 Cor. 2:9
4.  Matt 27:46