Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Christian Standards of Entertainment

With Halloween approaching, I've got my mind on the old pastime of scaring ourselves silly with horror films, stories, and--in our own generation--video games.  A love for the horror genre is in my blood, if you'll excuse the way-too-fitting use of that phrase.  Among my biological relatives, at least those on the maternal side (and that's the side I know the best), I can't think of one single person, who's old enough to tell, who isn't exceptionally fond of scary fiction.

This has often put me in a unique position among my coreligionists, or at least those who are close to me besides those in my family.  It seems like many of the people I know find the horror genre distasteful at best and outright immoral at worst.  It's as though my time-honored family tradition--and trust me, it may be the one-and-only thing that is literally common to my entire extended family--is supposed to be something I should look at as a "guilty pleasure."

YOU should be ashamed!!

I've actually fretted about this at times.  I am the sort of person who tries to avoid deliberately enjoying entertainment that is inherently tainted.  Example?  I used to enjoy the show Friends, and pretty much gave it up when I was baptized, due to the fact that a fairly central premise to the show and in most episodes was a sinful, unwholesome lifestyle being presented as something normal and acceptable.  For this reason, I pretty much avoid the comedy genre, as almost all comedic films or sitcoms these days take place in this sort of moral wasteland where making light of sexual immorality or high levels of irreverent crassness is a central theme of the movie or show.  So I am not someone who is content to just say "Yeah, this show/movie is pretty rotten to the core, but I'll just chalk it up to a guilty pleasure."  Because indeed, my conscience is active and lively enough that, even though I do engage in such "guilty pleasures" from time to time--I'm not perfect--there is major emphasis on the guilty, such that I would never defend such a thing as being okay.

So whenever I really enjoy something, as I enjoy horror, I feel the need to really think about whether or not it's morally acceptable, rather than just shrugging and saying "Oh well, right or wrong, I like it, so that's what matters."  That's just not acceptable to me.  I believe in consistency, in people being able to know where I stand on things.  When it comes to this beloved genre, I intend to make another post as to why I think an enjoyment of horror is compatible with Christian values.

But this gets me to a bigger question:  What, in general, are my concerns when watching a film, reading a story, or playing a video game?  Thinking of horror, here, has gotten me to thinking of what some of my standards are for all entertainment, regardless of genre  I'm going to share some of them in this post.  These are the considerations I try to take into account when I choose my entertainment, or at least if I enjoy something outside of these guidelines I tend to admit that it's probably something I shouldn't be doing rather than insisting there's nothing wrong with my patronage of it.  As for the topic from the beginning of this post, horror, I see no reason other than prudery that something from the horror genre that adheres to these guidelines should be treated as any more immoral than any other genre which does.

End discrimination against the horror genre!

1.  Evil Should Never be Glorified:  Entertainment of various genres often deals with evil, or evil beings and powers.  Some even explicitly include monsters and demons.  The deciding factor in whether a work is morally acceptable is not the inclusion of darkness and evil, but whether the darkness and evil are deliberately made to appear attractive or glamorous.  If there is realistic witchcraft in a film--that is, not mere fantastical magic but actual pagan or devil worship--that does not make the film immoral anymore than the book of Genesis is immoral for recounting tales of murder.  But the witchcraft should not be depicted in a flattering way.  You should not leave the experience thinking being a witch seems cool.

*2.  Violence or Gore Should Not be Glorified nor Gratuitous:  It's often true that there is violence or gore to be found in certain genres, especially horror, but also war films and others.  Personally, I think the classiest stories, films, and games use it as tastefully as possible, and I think that's key.  Violence is often a necessary part of the storytelling.  When it is necessary to show it explicitly--perhaps for impact, realism, etc.--it should never be done to titillate or to thrill.  It should not be something "cool."  Gratuitous violence is much like obscenity:  Hard to define, but you know it when you see it.  I'll admit frankly, though, that for example most slasher films probably cross the line, and in the world of video games, many war games are guilty of it too.  The violence in them is often over-the-top, intended to impress the audience by finding new and creative ways to kill victims.  To me, that's gratuitous.  The aim of violence should never be to "show off" or impress.  As a fan of slasher flicks, Dario Argento, and even the Mortal Kombat video game franchise, it pains me to admit to all this, as all of these can be easily argued to contain gratuitous violence, but if I'm going to imply that, say, fans of raunchy comedy have a duty to resist indulging this or to at least admit that their indulgence is "guilty," then I too must admit when things I enjoy are wrong.  And I believe that gratuitous violence, even when pulled off in a manner that's dreamlike and brilliantly executed, is probably wrong...

3.  Hopelessness and Despair Should Not be at the Heart of the Work:  Increasingly, films and stories take place in a universe of bleak, amoral realities.  People are pretty much animals, from the cynical sitcom to the gritty horror flick.  And even the protagonists are so strictly focused on self-preservation, hedonism, or self-promotion that one gets the feelings that no one really cares about anyone else.  Or perhaps, in more cosmic stories, evil wins, and not merely in a "bad ending," but in a way that suggests evil is really more powerful than good.  These are all messages that a Christian has no need to imbibe.  Cynicism is not a Christian trait.  We believe that good overcomes evil.  While it might be the case that tragic or horrific things happen--which is why a "bad ending" is not synonymous with cynicism--the implication that evil inherently trumps good, as opposed to isolated incidents where evil seems to triumph, is toxic.

And should be buried underground with nuclear waste.

4.  The Work Should Still be Recognizable and Complete if all Questionable Elements were Removed:  I'm not a prude who believes that Christians should never read, watch, or play anything that has questionable elements.  If that were the case, the ancient Christians would have been wrong for reading and admiring the works of pagans, which often had questionable elements.  However, it seems safe to me to pose this question:  Would the work that I'm enjoying remain intact, coherent, and meaningful if all the questionable elements--including gratuitous sex/nudity; gratuitous drug use; gratuitous violence; obscenities; perversions; irreverently sexual, sadistic, demeaning or dirty humor, etc (see, I just made a whole list of things a work shouldn't ideally contain all in this one point!)--were removed?  If the answer is yes, and if you're not enjoying the work for the questionable parts, then I would say that it's okay to watch, read, or play it, although I would say that it should be enjoyed under protest of the immoral parts:  When watching a film with others, for example, there should be no question that, if you had your way, the immoral parts of the film would not be included, and you should find little ways to protest--I always avert my eyes from gratuitous sexual nudity, for example, even if an overall film is decent and the nudity in question doesn't tempt me; I do so as a form of living my disapproval of the questionable element, and I would likewise skip over an explicit sex scene in a novel insofar as possible.  If, however, upon removing the questionable elements, the work would be a gutted shell of its former self, hardly making sense, or if a significant portion of the work's plot, themes, or presentation would be missing, then it's probably safe to say it's trash.

5.  The Work should not Pose a Near Occasion of Sin to You.  It may be that a given work passes muster in every other way, but that in some way it causes you personally too much temptation.  Perhaps it's a film that, despite having one scene of gratuitous nudity, lives up to the principle of #4.  If that one scene, however, causes you to lust, then even IF the overall film could be salvaged if that scene were removed, you yourself need to avoid the film altogether, unless you can find some way to watch an edited version of the film, although to be honest due to the principle of #4 if there's an edited version of the film that edits out strictly the morally problematic parts, I would say anyone should opt for that version.  It's just that it's especially important for someone who could be tempted to sin.

6.  Morality Should Not be Evil OR Deliberately Gray:  It's okay for a work to not answer certain moral questions.  What I'm talking about here is that a work should never teach that morality is gray, that suggests that right and wrong differ depending on circumstance, and that we the readers/audience/players have no right to judge whether an action is right or wrong.  It goes without saying, of course, that any work that actually advocates immorality, at least if that advocacy is at the core of the film or doesn't pass the test of #4, should be avoided.  This includes themes like vengeance or greed just as surely as it includes themes like sex or drugs.

7.  The Work, at Heart, Should not be Something You'd Feel Guilty Producing:  This is just an overall standard.  Taking #4 into consideration of course, if the overall work is one that you yourself would feel immoral in producing, then why should you put your seal of approval on the self-condemnation of the other souls who have produced it?  Whenever there is a piece of work where immoral elements are so integral to the work that you couldn't imagine being free of guilt if you had singlehandedly made the work yourself, you shouldn't forget that somebody out there did make it, and when you endorse the work gladly and without remorse, you endorse the spiritual suicide of those who really are part of it.  It would be like praising the drug culture and feeling like you're absolved of guilt just because you neither do nor sell drugs.

As is so often the case when I list things, this isn't an exhaustive list.  But it's something to reflect on, and a good starting point.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be watching one of those horror films I love so much on Halloween, with some relatives, and I've gotta get to work on deciding which one...


*Note:  My problem with gratuitous violence isn't the old scaremongering that kids who watch violent movies will go out on killing sprees.  Rather it's that gratuitous violence treats the human body irreverently, as an object.  Gory violence is very dehumanizing, and therefore when used gratuitously in a work for the sake of amusement, humor, titillation, or the "cool" factor, it presents an atmosphere in which human dignity is disrespected.  That's quite enough reason for concern among Christians, without any need for scaremongering.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Should Catholics Care if Protestants Convert?

Notice:  Though "Protestant" is mentioned by name throughout this post, the same arguments here would apply equally to those in the Orthodox Church.

If we Catholics often lack a passion for bringing people to Christianity in general, I think it's even truer that on the whole we lack a passion for bringing people to Catholicism in particular.  I'm not saying that we just don't care.  Most fellow Catholics I know, at least the orthodox ones, do think it would be ideal if everyone became Catholic.  However there's no real sense of urgency behind this admission.  There is a sort of lukewarmness about it, of which I too can be guilty.  It wasn't always like this.  In times past, Catholics were quite zealous about bringing people to Christ specifically by way of His visible Body--the Church.

What has changed?  Well, for one thing, the Church has clarified Her teaching in ways that were often glossed over before.  At one time, the average Catholic was under the impression that the overwhelming majority--if not the entirety--of non-Catholics went to Hell, regardless of whether they embraced faith in Christ in some other way.  This is because of the teaching (which is still dogma, as dogma never changes) "Outside of the Church there is no salvation."  But it was always the teaching of the Church that those who were non-Catholic through no fault of their own could be saved.  Pope Pius IX said the following in the mid 1800's in his encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore:
It is known to us and to you that those who are in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion, but who observe carefully the natural law, and the precepts graven by God upon the hearts of all men, and who being disposed to obey God lead an honest and upright life, may, aided by the light of divine grace, attain to eternal life; for God who sees clearly, searches and knows the heart, the disposition, the thoughts and intentions of each, in His supreme mercy and goodness by no means permits that anyone suffer eternal punishment, who has not of his own free will fallen into sin. (emphasis mine)
"Invincible Ignorance" is that sort of ignorance of which Jesus said "Forgive them, for they know not what they do," or, in another verse, "If you were blind, you would have no sin."  It's when someone fails to see the truth, but it's not their fault.  For example, if a Protestant was genuinely convinced that there was no reason to give Catholicism a chance, or if he did look into it and was genuinely convinced it just isn't true--despite his sincere efforts to give it a fair shot--then it might be said that his not believing in Catholicism is to no fault of his own.  He's done what he could, and for mysterious reasons simply hasn't been able to come to the same conclusions we Catholics have.

In modern times, the Church has simply emphasized this more than She did one hundred years ago. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say, after first having confirmed that heresy (wrong beliefs) and schism (separating from the Church) are sins:
818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."272
So it's easy to see, then, why so many Catholics these days are prone to feeling cozy with the thought of our Protestant (or Orthodox) brothers and sisters never crossing over into the Church.  Unlike before, the Church has spelled out to us plainly that our brothers and sisters outside of the Church are still Christians and that, if they're outside of the Church to no fault of their own, can be saved.  If they're not in danger of hell, we seem to reason, then what's the urgency behind trying to bring them into the Church, when we should be focused on converting the pagans, the atheists, the total unbelievers?

I believe that this is one of those things where Jesus would say "[The one thing] you should have done, without leaving the other undone."  It's true that the unbaptized and the non-Christians are in more grave danger, and therefore are a top priority.  But that doesn't mean that bringing fellow Christians fully into the Church is not also a high priority.  We must learn, as the saying goes, "to walk and chew gum at the same time."

But why should we consider it urgent that people become Catholic if they are already Christian?  If we're not gravely concerned that they may be going to hell, then why does it matter?  I'm glad you asked.  Because I can think of many reasons.

1.  Because Christ Prayed for Unity:  Christ's longest prayer recorded in Scripture includes a prayer that all His Followers be one.  In fact, He prayed to the Father "that they may be one, as We are one [emphasis mine]."  I have heard it argued, from more than one source, that this is a reason we shouldn't care about converting non-Catholic Christians.  The argument goes that this will only cause tension and useless argument over Catholic-specific dogmas, which wound our unity.  While it might be ideal for all to become Catholic, we should settle for a "lesser unity."  However, Jesus' prayer does not lend itself to this.  He prayed for a oneness so profound it mirrored that of Himself and the Father.  Now when it comes to Truth, I ask the following question:  Is there any dissent or disagreement within the Holy Trinity?  Of course not.  So it's also true that we should long--as passionately as Jesus did--for all Christians to be so unified that there is no disagreement in matters of morality or doctrine.  This cannot come about by "agreeing to disagree," but can only happen when all Christians agree on these matters.  Perhaps we'd like to look at another reason that agreement among Christians is so important...

2.  Because the Things about which we Disagree are not Trivial:  As it stands, there are some very stark disagreements about even some serious doctrines and moral questions:  "Is communion symbolic or is Christ really present?" "Is baptism necessary?" "Is X--say, using birth control--a sin?"  "Are we obligated to do Y--such as attend Mass every Sunday?" "Is there one true Church?" "Is it okay to pray to saints?" "Is confession with a priest necessary?" and a host of other questions are all questions that each can only have one answer, and whatever that answer is, Christians should be concerned that we all find it, not merely agree to disagree on it.  Nor can it be argued that these aren't important.  Example:  If Christ really IS present in the flesh--and not merely the spirit--in communion, then we OWE Him our worship in that form as well as any other, but if He is NOT present, and the bread and wine do not become His Real Flesh and Blood, it would be IDOLATRY to worship mere food.  Only by knowing the answer to this question--if only by faith--can we determine whether we're committing a grave sin (culpably or otherwise) one way or the other.  There is no in-between.  The same is true on many of the other things about which Christians disagree.  They simply aren't frequently trivial.  That's not to say that those who "get it wrong" to no fault of their own will go to Hell, but it is to say that these things are important, and so it's much better to agree on them than to merely "agree to disagree."

3.  Because Evangelizing is about Now, not only about Heaven:  Some may say, "As long as they've got enough to get to Heaven, why should we strain over whether or not they convert?"  If one has that attitude, however, one might well ask "As long as that starving person is going to Heaven, why feed him?"  Or "As long as the orphan is going to Heaven, why help him?"  What a minimalist approach to working for the Kingdom!  We were taught to pray, by Christ Himself, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."  Catholics do not have the luxury of thinking only Heaven matters.  We are called to do our part in conforming this world as closely to God's will as possible, and not merely waiting for His will to be done in the next.  That's why we try to alleviate suffering, where it is found, instead of simply dismissing it as temporary.  That's why we help the less fortunate, instead of just leaving them destitute until they finally receive their Heavenly inheritance.

But if we are called to share our material blessings and enact justice in material matters, how much more urgent can it be to share the riches of our spiritual treasury, the Catholic Church, and spread the fullness of Truth--and thereby, pursue a more perfectly spiritually just society--far and wide?  If we count the bodily needs of such high importance as we rightly do, we have absolutely no excuse to count the spreading of our full spiritual goods--Catholicism--as less.  Sharing the wealth and bounty of the Church as fully as we possibly can with our other Christian brethren should be at least as important to us as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned, and we are called to do those things even for those who are "going to Heaven either way."  We should take our duty of bringing people into Catholicism just as seriously.

4.  Because there is Greater Strength in True Unity:  We are called to transform the earth, to redeem our culture, as much as we can.  Our current state of disunity makes this very difficult.  But imagine the power that Christians would have if we were all united in one belief, one set of doctrines, one ethical code!  We would truly be able to "set the world ablaze" with a transformation toward Christian values.  If we truly believe in all that the Catholic Church teaches, however, then we know that this can only happen to the fullest extent if all are united under the Catholic banner.  For example, from a Catholic perspective, one of the most rotten parts of our culture--that has had a grave impact on the "sexual revolution"--is its acceptance of contraceptives.  Even the most conservative of our Protestant brothers and sisters generally accept contraceptives (although this wasn't true until less than a century ago), so this particular cancer on our society would never be solved by "agreeing to disagree."

This one's a tricky one, admittedly, because in our own culture Catholics are often more guilty than any Protestant of undermining Catholic values, culturally, politically, and otherwise.  Catholics often support abortion and gay marriage, for example.  But that's because there are plenty of baptized and confirmed Catholic who are more Protestant than Martin Luther himself.  They "protest" against even those teachings of the Catholic Church that Luther would have accepted, and as a result they are not truly unified with us, neither in our Faith nor in our attempts to achieve a just society.  But this doesn't mean we shouldn't try to bring non-Catholics into the Church, it just means that these dissident Catholics are just as in need of being evangelized.

5.  Because Eternity is too Important to take Risks:   The Catholic Church recognizes Protestants who are sincere in their faith as our brothers and sisters in Christ, and so should individual Catholics.  However we must remember that the Catechism and Church do confirm that, objectively speaking, it is a sin to remain separated from (or hold beliefs contrary to) the Catholic Church.  It's just that those who are so separated to no fault of their own are not held responsible for it.  But there are two reasons that this is not a good reason to just "leave them to it" without trying to reach out to them.  The first is that, similarly to number 3, helping others avoid doctrinal error and to know what is sin will enrich their lives in the here and now.  The second is that we should never be complacent in assuming that every non-Catholic is "invincibly ignorant" and therefore safe (although I'm not saying we should assume the opposite either; we shouldn't assume either way).  What about, for example, someone who sort of suspects Catholicism might be true, but who is willfully refusing to consider it because it would upset his life too much, or otherwise be too difficult?

I speak from experience:  That was once me, for at least a year before I decided to join the Church.  I had begun to realize on some level that Catholicism might not only be a fellow Christian Church (which I'd always believed) but may in fact be the true Church, but I was too afraid that such beliefs as "Only one true Church" might make my Protestant loved ones and friends think I was a snob.  Had you asked me, during that year, if I "secretly knew" that Catholicism might be true, I would have denied it, because I denied it to myself--so strong was my desire to believe that Catholicism was just one church among many, so that I didn't have to make such a tough choice.  I held back because of fear, not because I was "invincibly ignorant."  And, because of that, I am not confident in what would have become of me had I died.

Before you decide I'm being too hard on myself, consider this:  What if it had been some other sin, besides schism?  What if I'd been raised to believe it was okay to live a gay lifestyle, had been taught the "alternate" interpretations of Scripture that some trot out to allow that?  What if, at some point, I'd begun to suspect that it might be a sin to live a gay lifestyle, but went into denial because it might upset all my gay friends, although I did continue to maintain a devout prayer life and observe all the other commands of Jesus?  Objectively speaking, both schism and living a homosexual life are sins, if Catholicism is true.  So there is no reason to believe that it would have been okay for me to continue living in schism when some part of me, deeply buried, "knew better," if we do not apply that same excuse to my living in the gay lifestyle in this hypothetical scenario--and I think most orthodox Catholics (and indeed devout Bible-believing Protestants) would feel uncomfortable risking giving someone a false sense of security in the hypothetical scenario.  For a Catholic, then, it should be no different with schism.  If not for the tireless work of apologists for Catholicism, people who had a passion for bringing other Christians into the Church, then I might never have had enough information nor seen enough conviction from Catholics to "tip the scales" and make me give up my denial.  So we should all endeavor to do our part in helping others who may, for all we know, be in the same boat I was in.

I'm not talking about brow beating people, or approaching people with a smug attitude of superiority that suggests we think we are "better" than they are.  That would have probably chased me away from Catholicism very quickly, because among other flaws I have too much pride to have ever admitted defeat if someone had made it into a war.  It's wise and right that the Church recognizes that there is good in other denominations, and the use of "ecumenism" is precisely in fostering the kind of mutual respect in which hearts can be open to what we have to say.  Only in humility and graciousness can we hope to reach those who stand where I stood shortly before my conversion.  But there must be firm conviction, it must be possible for those around us to see that we are Catholic not because it's just a really good "denomination," but because we believe this is the True Church.  No one is going to be drawn to our Faith, at least not for the right reasons, if they get the sense that we think our doctrines and specific beliefs are "incidental" or "not important."  And combined with our conviction, we must be as prepared as possible to explain to others why we believe as we do.

In Conclusion, I want to reaffirm that it's noble and good to accept Protestants as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Some of the most faithful Christians I know--certainly when it comes to loving Christ and having the best of intentions--have been Protestants, some in my very own family.  Many Protestants, on that level, are more worthy of respect than many Catholics, and certainly more than I myself.  This isn't about disrespecting Protestants or saying they are "less Christian."  It is about wanting to share the fullness of our Faith's riches, precisely because all those who have been baptized in Christ have a right to this Treasury, and by His Grace deserve nothing less.  So in fact the more virtuous and in love with Christ a Protestant is, the more it is his birthright to become a Catholic.  We owe it to God to proclaim His full Truth, not only the parts that "all Christians agree upon."  And we owe it to our separated brethren to give them a real fighting chance to join the One True Church, and experience the richness that dwells here.

NOTE:  The article The Whole House from the New Oxford Review is a great piece on this same topic.  I highly recommend it.  The link, unfortunately, won't allow you to read the whole article though.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Urgency of Salvation

I think that we in the Church have often lost a sense of the urgency of the Gospel.  I'm not talking about heretics and schismatics, who might be expected to have lost this sense; I'm talking about even those of us who are orthodox, practicing Catholics, who believe everything that the Church and scriptures teach.  Even among us, there is often a sort of lukewarm attitude, and it's born not from believing the wrong things, but about not necessarily taking the right things--which we do believe--seriously enough.

The consistent teaching of the Church, starting with Christ Himself, and continuing through the Church Fathers and throughout Church history, has been that there is only one narrow way to salvation:  Through faith in Jesus Christ (and, by extension, the Holy Trinity--the God Who is Three in One--Whose Nature Christ revealed to us), baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (as Christ taught one must be born again by water and the Spirit, not merely the Spirit), keeping Christ's commands, and repenting when we fail to do so.  The Church and Christian history attests that faith in Christ includes faith in His Divinity as the Second Person of the Trinity, and faith in the miracles during Christ's life, including His birth of a virgin (it may seem secondary, but is in fact a confirmation that Christ is the begotten Son of God, not of a mortal father).  Such is the nature of the beliefs and life that constitute the narrow way to salvation.

We have to be clear about something:  The consequence of rejecting this narrow way, if the rejection lasts up through death, is the Second Death, an eternity in Hell.  Let's think about that, let it really sink in.   When we consider that people could die at any given time, it becomes serious business that they follow the narrow way.  Hell is the absolute worst fate imaginable.  Total separation from God's Grace, real pain--physical, spiritual, mental, emotional pain--worse than any we can imagine, and for all eternity!  Do we really believe it?

If we really believed it and comprehended it, we would never be lax in our duty to evangelize.  The very thought that someone even might be at higher risk of Hell would set our hearts aflame for their conversion and repentance!  The sad truth, though, is that we often don't take it very seriously at all.  We have it in our minds, I think, that damnation is rare.  Whereas at one time Christians believed that it was necessary that a person not only believe in Jesus, but believe in the right things about Him and His Gospel ("If even an angel should preach to you a different Gospel, let him be anathema!" as St. Paul said), now we are very shy about saying these things are necessary.  It's true that Christianity has held that God is not bound by His norms (although due to Scripture we know that even "exceptions" would somehow have to still be through Christ, as "no one comes to the Father but by Me"), so that we must never judge any individual soul as having gone to Hell, but we've taken a hope and turned it into a nigh certainty.

In fact, the only guarantee that someone will go to Heaven is that he holds to the narrow way of Christianity.  Anything else would be a miracle of mercy.  God can do that, but that possibility is not something we should assume.  Anytime that others fail to believe in Christ, or to believe in all that He (and later the Holy Spirit) taught, we should be very passionate for them to amend their ways.  We shouldn't be lukewarm.  Such people are unambiguously outside of the normal means God has provided for salvation.  God can save them anyway, if He so chooses (through mysterious means still owed to Christ's victory), but it's the same way that God could suspend someone in midair if he jumps off a cliff.  We wouldn't fail to be gravely concerned and bothered if someone was going to jump off a cliff just because "God could send His angels to bear them up."  No, we'd be overcome with the desire that the person choose the one known way to avoid falling to his death:  To not jump or fall off the cliff in the first place.  In exactly the same way, we should be passionate that people choose the one known way to avoid falling into Hell.

We should also know, from all this, that it's imperative that souls convert as soon as possible!  It is true that we must meet people "where they are," but it should always be a matter of urgency that they convert, and fully, at the earliest possible time.  The scriptures say that "today is the day of salvation."  Not tomorrow.  Not next month.  Certainly not years from now.  We are not promised a tomorrow.  So the idea that sinners and unbelievers--including ourselves when we fall into such errors--have time to "gradually" convert is a dangerous and lethal notion.  It could soften our urgency for their conversion.  That's not to say we shouldn't accept that sometimes a person will only gradually repent or convert, nor that we mustn't be patient and charitable in our methods of appealing to them, but it means we must see to it that this gradual repentance is in spite of our urgent efforts, not because we had contented ourselves with their gradual conversion.  After all, if we begin to believe that the unbeliever or unrepentant sinner has "plenty of time," then our passion for converting them will naturally suffer.  We mortals tend to procrastinate if we think we have the luxury, so it's important we know that we don't.

I don't know how to kindle that passion, though.  Even though I know the truth of what I say, my heart fails to grasp the gravity.  It's as though the reality is so terrible, so burdensome, that my heart just cannot believe it.  So I'm in the same boat as most people, when it comes to lacking a sense of urgency.  For the most part, even if in my mind I know that "narrow is the gate and constricted the road that leads to life, and few are they who find it," in my heart I have the (false) sense of security that most people I know and encounter are probably going to go to Heaven regardless of their religious affiliation or lifestyle, because they seem like "good people" with "good intentions."  I cannot fathom God sending or even allowing them to go to Hell for eternity.  I confess that!  Such is my limited human mind and heart that I cannot dare to grasp the mind and justice of God!  That's my flaw, not any fault with God, Who is always without fault.

In the end, I believe the following standard is best:  Judge as though everyone will go to Heaven, but evangelize as urgently as though the only souls in Heaven will be those who had explicit faith in Christ and His teachings.  If we do that, we will be living the tightrope balance between "judge not" and "preach the gospel to all nations."  And pray for me, a sinner, for I too have a long way to go.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Man Behind the Walls

In my previous two posts, I've been talking about some of my anxieties and fears around women, which I think quite possibly has to do--if only in part--with why my opposite-sex attractions are not as direct or physical as my same-sex attractions.  As I've continually tried to make clear, I'm not saying that women are to blame for my difficulties, as many women have been good to me, especially my wife.  But, the same as a woman who has been mistreated by just one man or a group of men may have issues revolving around men in general, even if she's rational enough to know that's not the men's fault, so too I have some scars I have to work on regarding women, who as an overall group bear absolutely no fault for it.

In the post immediately before this one, I had clarified that I believe the first of the three posts was pointing to two things.  The first was that I feared that women, upon seeing my basic personality and traits, would not see me as masculine, but as "harmless," which I argued is mutually exclusive with being masculine.  In this post, I'm exploring the other thing.

The second thing, the thing that touches on a very deep insecurity, is the thought that even if the average woman can see me as a man, a "lion," upon a first or surface impression of me, she certainly wouldn't if she saw the real me.  This is something I'm surprised I ever overcame with my wife, but somehow I did, and rather early in our friendship.  Before meeting my wife, I had always thought I'd just have to keep up a wall, a facade, in order to be taken seriously by a woman.  Even when women have born their hearts and souls to me, I have feared that if I did the same in return they might "see how pathetic I am," and lose respect for me, so I've kept the walls up.

I'm hiding somewhere on the other side.

Here's how I am when the walls come totally down:  I can be petty, I whine and complain, I get upset over little things that seem childish, and I am moved to a tearful sorrow ridiculously easily.  I'm mushy and sentimental, the sort of guy that wants to say "Awwwwwwwwww" over anything remotely cute or adorable, or over anything sad.  I cry pretty easily at times, whether at sad movies, or sometimes even over inconveniences that I've somehow exaggerated into tragedy.  I can be confused, inconsistent, passive aggressive, just plain passive, timid, obsessive, worried about what people think of me, scared, and often a nervous wreck.  "You big baby!" is a phrase that many might be tempted to throw at me as they watch me freak out or complain about some seemingly trivial slight or problem.  And that's not just on a bad day.  I'm not saying these things display themselves dramatically on a daily basis, but on any given day it's probably easy, for someone I really allow in, to see those traits in some capacity.

*In the past, I've had women (not a majority, and not constantly, but enough to leave a mark) mock or criticize me because of these traits, in sharp and hurtful ways.  Often enough, this was done not in private, but in front of other women and sometimes even in front of my fellow men.  So it's relevant that I didn't see most other guys I knew being treated this way.  When I've described these interactions to my wife, she pointed out, with a woman's perspective, that they were treating me not as a man, but as girls will treat other girls if they think they're too weak, whiny, or whatever; her words make sense to me, and for obvious reasons that explains why it was so emasculating.  In fact, there was a period of time in my life when I received sharper and more "public" criticisms from women than from any of my fellow men, who--for all the stereotypes of men being less empathetic than women--were surprisingly understanding, perhaps because they, being men and knowing that they could be big messes inside too, didn't feel that they were solid rocks of manhood themselves.

Might be a little uncomfortable for a special lady to cuddle with, anyway.

So it's easy, now, for me to think that my wife is simply a rare exception to some overwhelming rule about how most women see me.  If I see a woman on the street, I fret that she would laugh me to scorn if she knew how I really am.  I have no temptation, unlike the average guy, to sexualize women at the beach, no matter how skimpy their suits, because how can I be attracted to someone whom I fear--if she was allowed a real glimpse at how I am--would mock me?  I'm not saying that it would be a good thing to struggle with objectifying women at the beach or on the TV screen, but often blessings are mixed with curses:  The blessing of not having that struggle comes, for me personally, with the curse of hardly being able to see the feminine body as a sexually magnetic thing at all.

But it's only natural, if on average I would feel unsafe letting women in, that I wouldn't have any sexual urges inherently tied to the female form either.  Because one (among others) important part of sex, a part that I think subconsciously underlies sexual attraction--yes, even in men--is the total vulnerability.  In sharing your naked body, you are expressing a deeper sharing, the sharing of your naked soul, heart, and mind.  If some subconscious part of me recoils at the thought of being able to bear my deep nakedness with women in general (with my wife appearing to me to be an exception that only proves the rule), then it's normal that the general concept of sharing bodily nakedness with a woman would fail to arouse me.

To highlight all this, I think it's worth mentioning the way I perceive men, whose bodies do tend to hold more potential for evoking a response from me.  When I look at a man to whom I'm attracted, I tell myself, correctly or not, that somewhere inside he is "like me," a belief helped along by the fact that we're both men.  I believe that he has the same messy person in there as I do.  Even if he doesn't display the traits I do, I tell myself he knows he's just as capable of it.  Women, in my imagination, have some unrealistic idea that men are emotionally steady and have less concern with such petty things than I do, so that a man like myself is "less than" a man; but if I'm telling myself a man is in some sense the same as I, then he can be trusted not to have such unrealistic expectations.  He's safer.  Now in our culture, I know plenty of men are cruel and mock guys like me, just as I know that in reality plenty of women are not at all like the few who have given me such a hard time--in High School, in fact, my worst tormentors were guys, not girls (for that reason, though, I think it shocked me and cut me much more deeply when girls did partake in the same behavior toward me).  But somehow, my immediate gut reaction to an attractive man is to think of him as being able to empathize with me due to "knowing what it's like," where my immediate reaction to such a woman, unless she somehow proves otherwise like my wife did, is to think she'll find me "pathetic" and not "man enough" for her.

Notice:  Losers will be dismissed out of hand!

Yet again, I don't fully know what to do to change my anxiety.  It's been years since any woman has consistently treated me in a way that made me feel emasculated, and I was never treated that way by the general female population.  In fact, I had many of these anxieties before any female treated me poorly, with the short span of time when I did experience it merely reinforcing these fears, not being their source.  Since puberty I always had the fear that, in order to have a significant woman in my life take me seriously, I would have to become "another Josh," a Josh who would be more traditionally regarded as masculine, and I could never take that persona totally off in front of her, not even if we married.  I don't know where this impression comes from.

This time, though, there is one thing I think I do know.  It truly is masculine to exercise self control.  When it comes to the litany of faults I mentioned before, for the ones that are actual flaws--such as being petty or whiny, as opposed to the neutral traits that our culture merely considers unmanly, such as being sentimental or "too" emotionally expressive, which I don't consider inherently unmanly at all--it's the mark of a man to not simply say "Well, that's just who I am!" and expect that women (or men, for that matter) will just accept it; rather it is his mark to work at changing those things.  I'm not excusing anyone who would treat me poorly for these flaws.  But I'm saying that, even if it is their responsibility to recognize that treating me poorly wouldn't help me overcome such flaws, it's my responsibility, by God's Grace, to be transformed.  When the day comes that I've made progress there, the day when "the man behind the mask," who I am in my own home or among those I trust the most, is someone whom I feel is manlier, perhaps the general thought of letting a woman see him won't be so scary.

*Note:  This is not a "blame game."  The marked paragraph is not about blaming anybody nor holding them responsible.  Any such incidents happened a long time ago, besides which I take responsibility for my own reactions, feelings, and the things I've internalized.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Humiliation of being "Harmless."

In my previous post, I wrote about my thoughts that a large part of my difficulty with a certain sort of opposite-sex attraction, that which acts as a real drive, such as many "straight" men are said to have, is because of my feelings of inadequacy as a man, particularly how I expect women in general perceive me--as if a woman like my wife is a saintly exception to the rule.  I said:

I think that a lot of men--including me--have the need to know that women see them as heroic, virile, and "dangerous" in an attractive way.  There is a part of being "man" that includes being wild, unpredictable, and most certainly not "sweet" or "safe."

I want to clarify something.  I am not saying that I, nor most men, want women to see us as He-Man or a macho Alpha-male.  I don't mean that I want women to look at me and have the impression that I'm a civilized version of Tarzan, with some sort of jungle man hidden right beneath my exterior.  Because that would be false.  I do have the sort of personality that most would associate with being "nice" or "sweet."  I take joy in the occasions when people feel safe around me.  I can be warm, very empathetic, and nurturing.  These are all important facets of my personality, and in my last post I did not mean that I want to project, to women, an image that downplays those things.  I'm proud of them!

But not that kind of "proud."

I think there are two things that I meant to portray, with that quote (and with the blog post overall), one that's a general principle, and one that deals with a deep insecurity that I think many men feel.   I'll deal with the first one here.  The second I'll save for the next post.

The first thing is that I wish I felt more confident that, when women see me, with my more immediately visible traits, those that are not compatible with an Alpha-males bravado and machismo, that they don't make the mistake of assuming that means I'm "tame."  Even the "sweetest" man, I believe, has a lion inside of him, and is at heart a lion.  He may be a gentle lion, and it may be true to say that gentleness is an integral part of his particular character, but he is still wild, still a lion.  Anyone would be a fool to not take even the gentlest lion's potential for unpredictability and strength seriously.  If a wild lion were found to be actually rather gentle and receptive to people, it would still be a mistake to forget that the lion isn't tame.  It is, after all, still a lion.

It's the same with us men.  The jolly old Santa Claus types, the meek bookish types, the mild mannered types, they are all--just as the gentle lion found in the wild is still a lion--still men; still made in the image of a God Who, to borrow C.S. Lewis's popular storybook analogy, is not to be mistaken, because of His kindness, goodness, and ability to be gentle, for a "tame lion."  So too, no matter how shy or saccharine or affable a man may tend to be in his disposition, he's not a tame man, for to be man is to be wild; and it is so, not because he fits some stereotype or archetype of a fierce soldier or a wild man swinging on vines and conquering enemies and lovers alike, but simply because he's a man, and so he naturally carries all the wild and unpredictable potential that entails.

But I think a man like myself often worries that women won't see that.  I've been called "harmless," before, and perhaps that's the most emasculating thing ever.  It was meant as a compliment, but it's totally incompatible with masculinity.  I fret that women have divided men up into personality-types, and that those of us with more nurturing or warm personalities will be mistaken, by the average woman, for not being a lion, for not being someone to take seriously.  It's a sad consequence of our culture, not the fault of women as a gender, that many women might indeed see a guy like myself as "harmless."  They may like that about me.  They may even prefer "harmless" men.  But it's still emasculating.  And there's a thin line between "harmless" and "not worthy of respect," and I've experienced just how blurred that line is, in some of my past interactions, which only served to deepen my insecurities about being a man that women could truly respect.  I'll talk more about that in the next post.

You see, that's the problem with "harmless."  It carries implications of having no capacity whatsoever to respond to threats or attacks, nor to command due respect, not even in self-defense, defense of loved ones, or defense of a noble cause.  And a man, like a lion, always has the capacity, no matter how deeply buried, to be "dangerous," to show that he is not to be messed with.  This doesn't mean that he should be feared in the way that a psycho or evil man should be feared, but rather that he should be taken seriously.  St. Anthony of Padua, who was by all accounts mild and gentle, was called "The Hammer of the Heretics," a very manly image that showed that he was not to be taken lightly:  He was gentle, and in his particular case he was even pacifistic, and would probably not have fought back against a physical attack, but if you needed to be symbolically "smashed" in the name of righteousness, he was both able and willing to do so, and everyone knew it.  There was an understanding that, if he was gentle or passive, it was because he chose to be, not because he was "harmless."  That's the respect due a man, the recognition that he is a force to be reckoned with, that even when he's non-threatening, it is by choice, not because he couldn't pose a threat even if he tried.

Don't underestimate me; if I wanted to I could school
you in 10,000 different ways of pain!!!

As before, I'm not sure what the answers are.  Aside from some rather hurtful past experiences with women (more on that topic in the next post), women by and large have not given me concrete reasons to believe that they see me as "harmless."  My wife has certainly not given me such reasons.  So I want my female readers to know that I am not blaming your gender as a whole, by any stretch, for my fretting.  I know it's likely that, somehow, this is a problem with my own self-perception, my own fears about how women perceive me rather than how they actually see me; or at least I sure hope it's in my head!  But knowing it may just be in my head is only half the battle.  I need to know how to get it out.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Man Enough for a Woman?

Except for a five year period of time when I thought first that I'd be a priest, then that I'd be a monk, I always dreamed of marriage ever since I was old enough to show any real interest in romance and dating.  I wanted to have the ideal relationship, a happy family, and live out the dream and adventure of life with my lady love by my side.

I am honored and happy to have found just that, with my wife.  There was a time that I thought this wouldn't be possible.  And yet, even now, I have the sense--and I tell my wife this all the time--that I really hit the one in six billion jackpot, that I could never have met anyone else I would have married.  In one sense, my wife should be rightly flattered by this.  Because one aspect of it is that she alone is a woman who "lives up" to all the things I ever dreamed of in a woman...

But there is another aspect of my thinking "I could never have married another" that, rather than having to do with my wife's worthiness (which she has in spades) has to do with my own unworthiness as a man.  It's true that I can't imagine, at this point, ever wanting to marry another woman besides my wife.  But if I'm honest, it's also true that I can't imagine any other woman wanting me.  Although I believe that my wife wants me, I feel as if only a woman as wonderful, caring, and selfless as she could be willing to "condescend" to a man like myself:  A man who is "soft," an emotional mess, and even whose positive traits are traditionally associated with being the strong suits of women, while lacking many traits often associated with men.

"I love him because he's like a delicate flower!"
Is probably not the best way to make your guy feel like a man.
(Note:  My wife has never said anything remotely like that,
and I'm sure she'd want to make that clear)

I realize, in fact, that a large part of this has to do with the difficulty I have achieving a certain "charge" that "straight" men often feel toward women.  It's that I just can't see myself as the sort of man that would drive a woman wild; I have a hard time seeing myself as "tall, dark, and handsome," the kind of guy whose woman looks at him as a strong protector, a rock, a leader to whom she can entrust herself.  I remember once, years ago, when a girl spoke of a friend of mine, and her facial expressions and tone of voice suggested an inward "shudder" evoked by being impressed with his masculinity; y'know, "Ooo, what a man!"  I have rarely ever felt that women could see me that way.  If a woman loves or falls for me, my inner narrative goes, it'll only ever be because I was nice enough to her to win her over, not because my masculinity moved her or made her feel in the presence of "a real man," her opposite to whom she was drawn like  magnet.  And so, I think some part of me refused to let women have the kind of raw power over me that they have over the typical "straight" guy, because I did NOT believe I had the opposite equivalent power over women that many of my more traditionally masculine counterparts have.

This is true even with my wife.  She loves me, she constantly gives me reasons to believe that my body and my masculinity make her crazy with attraction to me.  But on some level, I can't believe it.  I just can't believe that she really sees me that way.  I'm not saying she doesn't, but on a gut level I can't convince myself of it.  I can't believe that, when she looks at me, she feels giddy or weak not merely out of love, but because she is a woman in the presence of a man.  I can't shake the feeling that the reasons she likes me are limited to the same reasons that my grandmother or mother might have praised me:  Because I'm sweet, because I'm non-threatening, because I'm kind.  I'm a "good boy."  In fact, some part of me suspects that she's attracted to me specifically because of some of my traits which are traditionally feminine.

I think that a lot of men--including me--have the need to know that women see them as heroic, virile, and "dangerous" in an attractive way.  There is a part of being "man" that includes being wild, unpredictable, and most certainly not "sweet" or "safe."  Of course, we want women to feel safe with us, but precisely because we're dangerous, the way that you feel safe with a bodyguard because he is dangerous; just not to you.  And while it's perfectly fine for a man to do things, even frequently, that are "sweet," I think many of us want to think of sweet as something we do, not something we are.  We want to be warriors, we want to be superheroes, to inspire awe in our women.  I think that often (though I don't speak for everybody) we want to be a sort of "mystery," we want our ladies to see us as "foreign" and different, and we want that to be exactly why they're mad about us.  When a woman sees a man this way, she finds him somehow beyond her ability to "tame," like a wild lion.

And this is a lion's response to the suggestion he can be tamed.

In fact I've often felt that the beauty and essence of men can be captured best by the symbol of a lion.  I might even revisit this in a future post.

But I, on the contrary, have spent a lifetime being the "good boy," or the sweet one.  Women have seen me as about as dangerous as a puppy dog, and so insofar as women have been attracted to me, it has almost seemed to be the way that they're drawn to cute critters.  I am tame.  And thinking of myself that way, and more importantly thinking that women see me that way, is (for lack of a better word) a huge "turn off" when it comes to the fairer sex.  And I have no doubt whatsoever that's part of the reason why, for me personally, my opposite-sex attractions are not nearly so "physical" as my same-sex attractions.  I mentioned in a previous post that sometimes the female form does have an effect on me that's probably similar to what "straight" guys experience.  Well, at those times, I become convinced, for a brief but hopeful period of time, that women can see me as all those masculine things I've mentioned.  I get it in my head, if only momentarily, that a woman could look at me and think "What a MAN!!"

Yet I mostly go on believing that the only reason I was able to marry is because I found the most wonderful woman in the world, one who, despite being worthy of a "real man," was willing to stoop down and take unto herself a mere "good boy."  Or perhaps at times I think that her tastes have been distorted so that she even wants a "good boy" more than "a real man."  If that's not it, then perhaps her own self-esteem issues have convinced her that she's not worthy of a "real man," so she's trained herself to like men like me instead.  If anything, God forbid, were to happen to her while the children were still young, I often say--over her protestations--that I could not seek out another wife.  What other woman is wonderful and selfless enough to settle for me?  What other woman, after getting to know me, wouldn't decide I was a fraud, a false man?

"Wait, dude, is he saying there's something wrong with that?"

When it comes to my ability to see myself with any other woman (at least in any meaningful way), it doesn't matter for its own sake.  I love my wife so much that I don't want a relationship with another woman, even if the entire female population were scrambling for me.  But I can't help but believe that it's unhealthy for me to think that I couldn't get or impress another woman even if I tried.  It's not fair to my wife either, because the more virile I feel, the more I feel like I am "man enough for women" in general, the more physically attracted I am to females, in a direct and acute manner.  And that includes my wife.  So I owe it to her, ironically, to believe that I'm man enough that a woman doesn't have to be equal to her kind and accepting nature in order to want me.

The problem is that I don't know what to do about it.  My wife, as I said, has given me every reason to believe she sees me as a "real man," that she is in awe of my masculinity, that she is moved to inward euphoria when she reflects on my identity as man.  So just receiving this affirmation is clearly not enough.  Somehow I have to believe the things she affirms.  I'm not sure, yet, how to get there.  But I know it's important that I try.

Note: The next two posts are going to be continuing this theme, so be sure to keep your eyes open for them.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Vanity of Vanities: Insulting God's Handiwork

Vanity, and the insecurity that goes with it, is one of my recurring faults.  Perhaps it's because as a child I really admired the physical beauty of my birth mother and my aunt--I now see that my grandmother, who raised me, was clearly the source of this beauty, but she was already middle-aged by the time I was born, and when you're a little kid the mid-forties seem "old."  Anyway, the women in my family all, particularly in their heydays, tended to look striking enough that they'd not have looked out of place on the silver screen.  I am not just looking through nostalgia or bias:  I've had friends visit me who, upon seeing pictures of these relatives (and at least one particularly glamorous picture of my grandmother even into her fifties), make extended conversation about their beauty.  The irony is that each of these women considered herself homely and plain, despite what everyone else could see.

It may seem odd that I would look up to the women this way, rather than to a man.  But the man who was ultimately a father to me was not related to me by blood.  There was no "growing up to look like my Dad," because as a child I didn't even know who my biological Dad was, let alone what he looked like.  Besides, people always told me I looked like my mother, so my hope was clear, at least once I hit puberty and became more conscious of my own appearance;  I wanted to be as handsome a man one day as she was a beautiful woman:  A man who looked as if he could be an A-List movie star.

Yet I never felt like I measured up.  I would go through a laundry list of reasons why I felt that I was not the male equivalent of my mother, but it occurs to me that some of the characteristics that cause me to be hard on myself might be shared by some of my readers, and I don't want to inadvertently insult anyone.  Suffice to say that, while I rarely ever feel ugly, and often do in fact feel that I'm fairly handsome, sometimes I nonetheless feel forgettable, like someone who wouldn't really catch your eye in a crowded room.  Since I felt my mother, and other women in my family, did have that "eye-catching" quality, I felt like I was a step down from their good looks.

One step, a whole flight of steps, who's counting?

What I just said?  It's insulting to God's work; to think that I'm "a step down" just because I may not meet a societal standard that defines what it means to be a "head turner" is to scoff at the very craftsmanship of God.  And I need to stop it.  Maybe you've done the very same thing.  If so, you need to stop it too.  The sin of vanity, I believe, is not committed by wanting to be beautiful.  As human beings, as I'm about to demonstrate, I think beauty is our birthright, so it's only natural that we desire it.  Vanity occurs, however, when we think that we have to measure up to a certain shallow standard to be beautiful, and spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to meet that standard, all the while judging others who do or don't seem to meet it themselves.  Vanity does not do beauty too much honor, it does the opposite:  It fails to give beauty enough credit.

Who are we to insult ourselves or to insist that we are "less than impressive" if we don't measure up to the standards of Hollywood, or whatever else?  Consider:  Who is the artist behind our creation?  God.  Who "knit" us together in the wombs of our mothers, according to scripture?  God.  When I fret that a man must be taller or more imposing than I in order to catch the eye, I'm questioning God's handiwork in ever creating men who are not up to those standards.  When I fret that my nose is too big, I suggest that God's genius was suspect when He gave me such a nose.  Does God, the omniscient and glorious, make "duds," that I could consider myself one of His "less successful" works?

It's my own belief, with which I'm well aware that some sharply disagree, that each human being is a masterpiece.  Yes, even physically.  Don't get me wrong, there can be defects or distortions in the human form that mar its beauty, but I'm talking about the fixed traits that define a person's appearance.  If we imagine any given person as he (or she) would be at his healthiest, with no deformities or defects--much as I imagine he will look in Heaven--then I believe it would be totally accurate to say that each person is truly beautiful, breathtaking, a real eye-catcher.  There is not a human being who is not worthy, by way of God's handiwork, of "oos" and "ahs."  I think that we don't see that because we are fallen.  So we see some features as "less desirable" or as "less pleasing to the eye" than others, even if those features are in no way defective or unhealthy.  If we saw with the eyes of God, we would find that each human being has a beauty all his or her own, so that calling one human being less beautiful than any other would be like comparing apples to oranges.

Although I am partial to apples...

Let's be clear:  I am not saying that, if humanity had never sinned, everyone would be sexually/romantically attracted to everyone else.  Attraction serves a function, and it would be chaos if all human beings were equally attracted to each other human being.  But to recognize beauty is no more synonymous with being sexually attracted to someone than one is sexually attracted to a breathtaking sunset.  After all--here's a perfect example--I was never attracted to my mother, despite having recognized her beauty and finding her highly aesthetically pleasing.  I believe that, in an ideal world, that is the sort of recognition we would have of everyone's beauty.

It's true that the beauty of the soul matters far more than the beauty of the body.  No contest, even, for as good as the material world is, spirit is consistently affirmed in Christianity as better still.  However, we mustn't forget that God made both.  We Christians believe in the resurrection of the body.  Our souls are not going to be disembodied for eternity.  The body has an eternal dignity.  So the answer to body insecurities, at least insofar as they apply to fixed traits that inherently part of us, physically, is not to say "it's only the inner beauty that counts" but to reject the notion that our inherent physical traits are less than beautiful.

It's easy for pagan dualism or Gnosticism, which believes the body is just incidental to one's identity, to say that "only the soul matters."  But in Christianity the body is just as much a part of the human's eternal makeup as the soul.  Yes, it will be glorified, it will be perfected, but there is every reason to believe that it will be, more or less, the same body.  So if we suggest that some people really are objectively less beautiful, then we also suggest that this is their eternal lot.  By this implication, some people even in Heaven will be gorgeous in body and soul, while others--to absolutely no fault of their own--will only have one blessing of the two.  I just don't buy it, personally.

So in the end, I dare to believe that even if I myself don't see it (and I am just as fallen as anyone else:  There are plenty of people to whose beauty I am sadly blind), each individual human being is beautiful.  Not just sorta pretty if I look at them the right way, but breathtakingly, epic-poem-worthy, eye-catchingly beautiful.  That includes you, dear reader.  Because when He makes a human being, God never makes anything less than a masterpiece.  And in Heaven, I think we'll all see that reality for what it is.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Limited Usefulness of Fire and Brimstone

We've all seen it, or at least been given a mental image for it:  The bold, itinerant preacher travels the streets, and warns poor sinners that, unless they repent, they will perish in the flames of Hell for all eternity.  I have to admit, I've often looked at such men as heroes, even though our modern world would frown on such methods:  I say, after all, that it's compassion to warn someone in a burning building that he should get out of the building and into safety.  If done with kindness and tact, there's nothing fanatical or judgmental about warning someone to flee the path that leads to eternal damnation.'s somewhere just to the left.  Hence the fleeing.

Yet there's one thing which becomes a problem:  Many Christians believe that their duty is merely to go out into the world and warn people to "flee the wrath to come."  They believe that, if they go to an unbelieving world and tell them "If you don't repent, you will perish!" then they have "done their job."  But preaching fire and brimstone to a bona fide unbeliever is not enough, on its own, because they have no reason to take the danger seriously.  The fact in the Gospels is this:  Jesus Himself preached about hell, but He also did a lot more than that in order to convince people to believe in God or the true religion.

I've read, time and again, the witty (and true) claim that Jesus mentions hell (or Gehenna, the eternal lake of fire) far more often in the Gospels than He mentions Heaven.  So surely the message that we must repent or else go to Hell is an indispensable part of preaching the Gospel, right?  Sure.  I agree.  But when preaching to those who do not already believe in the true religion, we cannot expect such a message, by itself, to change hearts.  "Indispensable" does not mean "sufficient."

Now I want to re-emphasize that I fully appreciate the importance of warning people about hell.  This post is not the work of a modernist, or a flimsy sort of Christian who believes we mustn't risk "offending" unbelievers by preaching God's word.  I believe that Hell is very much real, a place of literal suffering that will never end for all eternity.  And I believe that only by belief in Jesus Christ, which necessarily leads to also taking His commands seriously, can one find salvation from that fate, and so we have a duty to try to lead people to Him.  As a Catholic, given that Catholicism teaches that the Catholic Church alone contains the fullness of Christ's teaching and commands, I even want to lead people to this Church, which we believe to be founded by Christ.

I'm clearly a radical hippie.  Why, just look at my coexist sti--Oh wait...

So needless to say, I believe evangelizing matters.  I do not hold the vague convictions of one who would say that preaching and conversion of souls is unimportant, that if we're just "nice" to people and we treat them kindly, that's all that matters.  We must thirst for the conversion of souls.  We must have a passion for bringing others into the Lord and His Church!  And part of that is warning unbelievers about the dangers of Hell.

And yet I still stand by the statement that shouting fire and brimstone at unbelievers is useless if not combined with more, and if used by itself it's not even in following the model of Christ nor the early Apostles.  Jesus did preach about Hell, but He also won people over with the beauty and wisdom of His teachings, and with His miracles.  And isn't this, after all, what makes the most sense?  If I preach to an atheist that he risks going to Hell for his unbelief or his obstinate sins, what use is that on its own?  He doesn't believe in Hell!  Even if I preach to someone who does believe in some sort of Hell but who doesn't believe in our religion, what use is that on its own?  He believes in Hell, but if his own religion permits the behaviors or omissions mine would call sin, he has no reason from his point of view to take me seriously!

Now, if I preach to a fellow Catholic, someone who knows what the Church teaches and yet goes against it anyway, then the doctrine of Hell is at its most effective.  Like the Israelite of Jesus' day, he should know better.  If he is in fact a Catholic, then whether he admits it to himself or not, he has the information he needs to know that Hell is a real place and to know what roads lead there.  The same applies to a Protestant who shares my belief in a Divinely inspired Bible, yet who staunchly commits to an ethic that goes against it; he has enough information to know he's violating the commands we do believe in common, and to know what Scripture says the consequences are.  The point is, it's most readily useful to talk about Hell as the consequence of certain actions or of unbelief to those who already believe enough to take that possibility and the wrongness of their deeds seriously.  Otherwise it's similar to a scenario where someone preached to you that the great ZiMah would leave you to some terrible fate for all eternity if you committed the grave sin of, say, eating beef and never repented.  You simply have no reason to take that seriously unless you were already a believer in ZiMah and his hatred of beef.  You need more than a mere proclamation of danger.

It's what's for HELL!

What about the others, though?  How must we reach out to them?  We must do what Jesus and the Apostles did:  We must preach not only about Hell, but also of all the glories of Heaven, the joys of Christ.  It's also true that we should appeal to the sense of reason.  But that's not enough.  The greatest sign of the authenticity of our message will be shown by our works.  Even Jesus said, "If you do not believe Me, believe My works!"  If we preach our Faith with great conviction and soundness of reason, and back up that preaching with works of beauty and charity which surpass that of the world, the unbelievers will notice, just as surely as people took notice when the apostles did great works.  It's a tall order though:  Our works and way of life--enabled by Christ's Grace and the Holy Spirit living within us--must shine so brightly that no other way on earth, neither of any other religion nor any secular philosophy, can be said to match them.  We can't do this on our own, of course, but we can "do all things through Christ Who strengthens" us.

In addition to this, the best way to convince unbelievers that perhaps their sins will lead them to Hell is to draw their attention to the "Hell on Earth," that their sins reap, things they can actually see if they admit it to themselves; we for our part must suggest that maybe these earthly miseries are signs that an eternal misery awaits those who walk such paths without repentance.

This is, after all, what the apostles themselves did:  The apostle Paul, for example, appealed to pagans not merely with talk of Hell, but by pointing out how beautiful and reasonable the Gospel was, and he confirmed his message by doing good and beautiful works which--just as Christ promised--pointed to the authenticity of the message.   He also pointed out the emptiness of sin, which predisposed his listeners to take more seriously the eternal emptiness sin might breed.  If we proclaim and defend that our Lord is the way of true peace, joy, and life, while the way of sin leads to emptiness and loss, and if we then demonstrate these truths by actions that really point to the reality we proclaim, people will begin to at least consider that maybe there's something to this religion of ours.  As they see the emptiness that sin sows in their lives (and indeed in our lives, when we sin--we mustn't pretend to be perfect), compared to the peace that is found only when one walks with God, they may begin to hunger for the latter and to leave behind the former.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Have a Little Talk With Jesus

I think it's far too often the case that we make prayer into a formal exercise.  We believe that we come to God only as servants before a King and so, like a peasant in a royal court, we approach God in an impersonal way.  We seem to keep it "strictly business."  We give God stilted praises and formal honors, ask Him for the things we need, including pardon for our wrongdoings, and hand Him a list of things for which we're thankful.  Then, our "audience" with the King spent, we withdraw from Him, never making a deep and personal connection.

Evidently, these Chess pieces keep their distance too.
Heaven only knows why, as unlike God, Chess kings are about
the wimpiest and least intimidating type of kings there are.

Interestingly enough, here's what a couple of the saints had to say about prayer.  Read these quotes, and let them speak for themselves:
"We must speak to God as a friend speaks to his friend, servant to his master; now asking some favor, now acknowledging our faults, and communicating to Him all that concerns us, our thoughts, our fears, our projects, our desires, and in all things seeking His counsel."
--St. Ignatius of Loyola 
[Jesus said] "...why do you not tell me about everything that concerns you, even the smallest details? Tell Me about everything, and know that this will give Me great joy." I answered, "But You know about everything, Lord." And Jesus replied to me, "Yes I do know; but you should not excuse yourself with the fact that I know, but with childlike simplicity talk to Me about everything, for my ears and heart are inclined towards you, and your words are dear to Me.(2; 921)"
-From "Divine Mercy In my Soul" (The Diary of St. Faustina) 
To read these quotes, there is only one impression you can really get:  That we should talk to Jesus--and so also to the Father and the Holy Spirit--the way we would talk to a friend.  We should talk about the trivial things, the big things, all the goings on in our lives.

It's so easy for us to tell ourselves, "God already knows all about me!  Why does He need me to tell Him what I did today, or what happened?"  But remember, just as Jesus said to St. Faustina, that's no excuse.  And this makes sense.  Think on your own relationships.  Especially today, with social media, it's quite possible that you might know a great deal about one of your friends without his ever telling you directly.  Or maybe one of your loved ones just lives life with the philosophy of being an open book, or has a reputation that precedes her, so that you know all the "facts" before she tells you.  But just "knowing" these things doesn't mean you have no interest in hearing about it from the source.  True bonding and relationship are not about the revelation of new information, but about having a heart to heart.  It's not that they're telling you something "new" that's important, but that they're telling you at all.  It's the connection, the relating, the talking that's more important than the content.

But I'm too bashful for that!

It's the same with God as in our other relationships.  We should talk to Him as though everything we say is news to Him.  Because the benefit isn't so much that we're telling Him anything He wasn't aware of (we're not) but that He gets to hear it from us.  Wouldn't you want the same from your children?  Your siblings, friends, or spouse?

Now anyone who knows me knows that I wouldn't for a second discount the formal prayers.  They have their place.  God is King, and so He does deserve to be approached with reverence and pomp.  And it's also true that that form of prayer can be just as intimate as any conversational prayer--after all, the Holy Mass is the highest prayer of the Church, and it would probably be sacrilege to suggest that it's somehow less intimate because it's formal.  But think of it this way:  If you were the son of an earthly king, or one of his best friends, it's true that you would obey the same protocols as everyone else during formal ceremony and formal audiences with the king.  But you would also have plenty of moments "off hours" when you spoke to the king casually, as his friend or his blood rather than as his subject.  For you are both, and you should relate to the king as both.  To never relate to him as a humble subject would dishonor his majesty, but to never relate to him as a close loved one would fail to explore the depth of the personal relationship.

While I have suggested that the formal prayers, especially the Mass, can be some of the most intimate prayers we pray, I think they are that way because of the relationship we establish with God throughout the rest of our lives.  In the analogy with the earthly king, if you participated in some formal ceremony honoring him in some profound way, it might indeed be one of the most beautiful ways you show him your love (like the Mass, with God), but if you didn't have a personal relationship with him outside of that ceremony, it would just be empty pomp.  Like the Mass, the ceremony may not be any less valid, but it wouldn't do much for your own connection with the king. So too it goes, I believe, with God.  If we want the best out of the formal prayers and rites, then we must give our best in our "down time" with God.

So let's try to tell God everything.  From the smallest joys, the most petty annoyances, to the greatest bliss and the deepest woes, let's open up to Him.  We won't be telling Him anything new, because all knowledge is His.  But we will be giving Him something that He refuses to have unless we give it to Him freely:  Ourselves.