Difference

When I was young, my Christianity was heavily influenced by a Calvinist doctrine called “total depravity.” In practice, this had two primary consequences, one personal, and the other communal:

1) On a personal level, the idea of total depravity led me into scrupulosity and despair, since I believed that I was, to my very core, vigorously opposed to God, even when I believed that I was loving and serving Him. It had a kind of gas-lighting effect: “Even if you believe that you love God, your nature is so corrupt that you can’t even see that you hate Him and are working against Him at every opportunity.” The idea that all works were useless, and that if you weren’t “saved” that even great acts of goodness were despicably worthless in God’s eyes was very difficult to overcome.

2) The other effect that total depravity had was to convince us that we were the sole “good” people on the planet — that the only people who were right with God were those who agreed with our theology, and that everyone else, regardless of how many “good” things they did, were hell-bound enemies of God. We were told that everything that Mother Teresa did was worthless in God’s eyes, unless she believed the way we believed. That nothing that anyone did had any value (“filthy rags”) unless they also happened to be saved when they did them, in which case they would kind of even out: not actively bad anymore, but more pointless, since Jesus had done all the work of salvation. Works could be good, but they were unnecessary.

Now, there are many things I could say about this, and I may in the future, but today I wanted to approach it from an experiential standpoint, primarily as regards the second consequence above.

Once I grew up and began to go out into the world, the idea that everyone who wasn’t a member of our tiny community of like-believing people was an active enemy of God and was heading for eternal damnation on a speeding freight train started to seem a little off. I had been told that if you weren’t an Evangelical Christian who held all the correct positions on Bible interpretation, then you had to be the other binary: evil, and opposed to God in every way. But that didn’t square with what I saw: people who held different Christian beliefs, people who held different religious beliefs, people who claimed to hold no religious beliefs whatsoever — so many of them were decent people, many of whom loved God deeply and were trying to the best of their knowledge to serve Him and love others.

This was a not insignificant part of why I left Christianity in the first place: one of the main teachings, as I understood it, didn’t fit with reality as I was seeing it. Deism made a lot more sense: God gave everyone reason and a moral sense, and then everyone did their best to live up to what they knew. It accounted for reality better than what I had before. I began to see people as flawed, but still having the capacity for good, even if they weren’t “saved.” And the Catholic Church recognizes this: she differentiates between natural and supernatural goodness, and doesn’t deny that people who aren’t within the Church or within Christianity can still do good, and even be connected with God in a variety of ways.

So I had been fairly content with this view up to this point: that human beings, while their nature has been flawed by sin, are nonetheless created in the image of God and as such, have the capacity for good. And while some people use their free will to commit acts of great evil, most people operate with a basic level of natural goodness.

And then, I encountered turbulence.

My husband’s family had never been practicing Christians, certainly not to the level that my family was when I was growing up. They had done many things that we would have considered very wrong, but in general they were kind, decent, hard-working people who would sacrifice themselves for their family and friends. In short, they belied what I had been taught growing up: that all people who aren’t active Christians are depraved sinners. Or at least, they seemed to.

As long as I was part of their family, they were welcoming, loving and accepting. At times I even felt like they loved me more than my husband! Then, a couple years ago, I left my husband; his abuse had made me so afraid of him that I couldn’t function in a normal way. For my own psychological safety, I had to leave.

At the time, I didn’t contact his family. I had no desire to damage his relationship with them, and felt that nothing could be gained by telling his family all the ways he had mistreated me. I still loved them, and planned someday to write them a letter, probably when/if we ever actually divorced.

But when my mother-in-law died, I found out for the first time that his family had completely rejected me, to the point that they didn’t want me at her funeral.

I was emotionally rocked by this. For some reason, I had assumed that just because I could not live with their son/brother anymore was no reason that my relationship with them would be affected. And maybe it wouldn’t have, if I had communicated better with them.

But, I think, it may have had more to do with the way that I grew up: because everyone I knew was Christian, in general I lived in an atmosphere of supernatural love. I didn’t think of it that way; as Christians, it was just the way we lived our lives. I assumed that “love your enemies” was common practice, because it was the baseline for all of our morality. And even when I grew up, and realized that “unsaved” people could still be good, I attributed supernatural goodness to them instead of merely natural. I suddenly realized what Jesus meant when He said:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”                                                                                          (Luke 6:32-36)

I had encountered people with natural goodness, who were good to those who were good to them, when everything was going fine. But I hadn’t realized that the true test of supernatural goodness is when everything ISN’T going fine. I had grown up assuming that even great wrongs were not beyond forgiveness, because I was steeped in the notion of Christian, supernatural love, and I didn’t realize that it WAS supernatural.

So many times, I think, we don’t see Christianity for the outlier that it is. Because we live in a culture that has been primarily Christian for so long, we assume that supernatural goodness is the order of the day: individual rights, care for the weak, forgiveness of wrongs, the value of the human person. We forget that that is not the way that humanity naturally is; we’ve been living in a Christian bubble for the last 2000 years. We don’t have the perspective of the first Christians, who were taking an idea that was truly new and radical into pagan Rome, or of missionaries who take the Gospel into places that have had no contact with Christianity. We don’t see how amazing and different the Gospel is. When every child for hundreds of years learned “love your enemy” in their catechism, we began to think that that was normal, instead of an insane, radical idea that ultimately, changed the world.

When I was growing, up, because our culture was basically Christian, our conception of “conversion” basically meant that someone who was already operating within a Christian culture would become slightly more Christian: they might come to church more times a week, and follow more stringent moral principles. A lot of what we considered the “difference” was completely internal: people would get saved, and they would talk about feeling “overwhelming love,” or warmness, or some other fairly subjective sensation. And if that was all that Christianity was, I couldn’t see the point.

But when you look at Christianity in contrast to the “real” world, a world where human nature runs amok, where hatred and vengeance and bitterness and cruelty and violence and objectification are NORMAL, then you realize why it had the impact it did. It’s hard to convince someone to commit to a narrower channel of Christianity because so many people now enjoy the benefits of living in a Christian culture without really having to sacrifice anything for it. But at one time, Christianity would have made all the difference in the world.

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When mercy seasons justice

When I was first investigating the Catholic Church, one of the things that I found most attractive was the concept of Purgatory, and penance in general.

Which, on the face of it, is weird. I’ve heard of plenty of people who were raised Catholic, and who fear Purgatory nearly as much as they fear Hell. And it’s logical, isn’t it, not to look forward to experiencing consequences of your misbehaviour?

Let’s consider the alternative, however: in the evangelical Protestantism in which I was raised, there was no concept of Purgatory or penance. Forgiveness and atonement were considered to be given absolutely without qualification (doing anything yourself to atone for or make up for your sins would have been considered “works salvation,” which was absolutely rejected). No matter what you did, Jesus’s death and resurrection covered it 100%, and you were responsible for none of it. All you had to do was repent and believe, and you would be ushered into everlasting glory at the moment of your death. You could torture and murder and cheat and lie and manipulate and perform all manner of evil, and you were never expected to deal with any of the consequences.

What I found, however, was that this eventually seemed… insulting. Almost disrespectful, in a way. If nothing you do matters, then what does that say about you as a person? Are you a human being, with free will, who has the power to make decisions and act on them and create consequences, or are you just an animal, or an infant, who can never be held responsible for anything? If nothing you do earns any consequences, then what’s the point? You’re just a twig floating down a river, getting swept around, and not accountable for anything. I felt LESS respected, being told that all I had to do to escape consequences was to ask for it, that I was incapable of doing anything concrete to mitigate my wrong actions, that I couldn’t do anything that deserved severe consequences.

This is what goes through my head every time Pope Francis talks about the death penalty  (or even life sentences) being unjust. To me, holding people to account is the most respectful, affirming thing you can do to a rational, adult human being. To say to someone, “You have committed a great evil which has had enormous consequences upon your victims, upon society, and upon yourself, and therefore you shall endure these consequences, to avenge your victims, to protect society, and to punish yourself,” is to fully respect a person’s free will and ability to make free actions. To say to someone, “You have committed great evil, but we are not going to hold you accountable for that,” is to reduce them to an animal or a child, who is not capable of making responsible decisions.

Mercy is a great thing. But it only exists in the context of justice. Mercy is what seasons, what tempers justice. By itself, it is nothing. Mercy is only visible against the backdrop of evil, and the ensuing justice. Justice is to get what one earns by doing evil. Mercy affects justice, but it cannot replace it. For it to have any meaning at all, we must first clearly see the justice, and the evil that earned it. You can’t get mercy if what you did wasn’t bad enough to require justice.

And that’s what I mainly fear from the recent emphasis on “mercy.” Of course, there are the continued victimization, the hardened consciences, and the scandal; all of these are negative consequences of ignoring good justice. But I can’t tell you how encouraging and hopeful it was for me to learn that my actions had consequences, and that it was just and right that I make atonement for them. I understand that in the eternal sense, I can never sufficiently atone for my sins to reconcile me to God. That is why Jesus’s death was required. But His death doesn’t make me helpless or senseless. God created us with reason and free will, and He is just. He knows that justice benefits the sinners, the victims, and society. It lifts us up, above the rest of creation, and is part of what makes us like God: rational thought, and free will. We have the ability to make free choices, and we have the opportunity to use the consequences for those actions for our good. We can choose to let them refine us, to come face-to-face with our own fallenness, to learn the depths of depravity to which we are susceptible. If we don’t realize how far we can fall, then how can we appreciate the mercy of God? If nothing is worth justice, then mercy is likewise worthless.

Cheap mercy, cheap grace — is that all that Jesus earned on the cross? Did He endure the Passion for a bunch of insignificant actions? If we do not earn justice, then was His work worthless?

Never, I say. He endured what He did because the human heart contains depths of unfathomable evil. Human beings commit actions of unspeakable depravity, and THAT is why He suffered. THAT is why He endured what He did, to go to the depths of that darkness. We are not helpless, we make choices. And those choices have consequences. To claim otherwise is to degrade not only human nature, but the sacrifice of Christ Himself.

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Why I Am Not Orthodox

(Insofar as it is traditional for Catholic converts to explain why they entered the Church of Rome instead of one of the Orthodox churches, I offer the following.)

As I neared the end of my Deist period, I began doing research into various religions. I knew that I didn’t want to return to the Evangelical Christianity of my youth; I had too many problems with it. I didn’t want Mainline Protestantism, because of its lax stance on moral views that were important to me. I had encountered Islam, but it never seemed that convincing. Since I was coming from Deism and had admired the social ramifications of certain Eastern religions, I briefly considered Buddhism, but that didn’t last too long.

Ultimately, I found an internet quiz that promised to suggest the best religion for me based on my answers to various questions. I plugged in what made the most sense to me, and the result what that I should be: a Sikh!

Sikhism is a vaguely monotheistic Indian religion that (like other Eastern religions) emphasizes right living as the greatest spiritual good. Its understanding of God is vague, which I appreciated, since I had come to believe that the true God would be utterly beyond our ability to comprehend Him. Significantly, Sikhism doesn’t emphasize separation from the ordinary to become holy, rather using the events of ordinary, everyday life into order to achieve holiness (which is a concept found prevalently in Catholicism). It is also very accepting of other religions, which was also important to me. Overall, Sikhism is a very admirable religion, and I was excited about the possibility!

This is going to make me sound super shallow, but here’s why I didn’t immediately run and find a Sikh Gurdwara: Sikhs are never allowed to cut their hair. Additionally, the long hair requires that all Sikhs constantly carry a ceremonial wooden comb, and the dedication to righteous battle means that they all wear a symbolic metal bracelet, sacred undergarment, and a mini sword!

Truthfully, these things aren’t all bad, and if I had come to be convinced that Sikhism was the one true religion, I would have overcome my reluctance to engage in these things. But as it was, to become a Sikh would have required a significant departure from my own cultural background, language, and customs.

Fundamentally, what I learned from my brush with Sikhism was this: I believed that the one true religion (if there was such a thing) would be equally accessible to people from ALL cultures, not just ones in certain places, at certain times, with certain social and technological norms. It would be, in fact, katholikos — universal.

And THAT brings me to the Orthodox Church (having spent most of this post on Sikhism).   When I looked at the various Orthodox Churches, the primary thing that struck me was that they were almost all linked to a specific nation, ethnicity, language, or culture. In fact, that seemed to be their most defining feature! They would agree on theology, then break down the one “true” faith into which language was spoken in the liturgy. That, to me, was the enormous red flag that none of the Orthodox Churches were God’s fullest revelation to mankind. I firmly believed that, if God was going to reveal Himself, then that revelation would be equally accessible to all people, everywhere. It wouldn’t require you to speak or read a certain language (so the Muslim requirement that the true Koran is ONLY in Arabic disqualifies that). It wouldn’t require that you be able to read and study the Scriptures for yourself, like Protestant Christianity! (Good thing, because for most of history, most people were illiterate, and couldn’t afford books, anyway.) You wouldn’t have to move to a certain place to practice your faith, or eat only certain foods, or wear only certain clothes.

I will say that had I already been living in a culture that was primarily (some kind of) Orthodox, I would have been much more open to the idea. If I lived in Russia, and that was the only historically and geographically feasible option, then I could have gone that direction. As it was, though, the universal Catholic Church, which happens to be based (but not necessarily!) in Rome, and that has been in the process of taking the Gospel to people in every time and culture for the last two millennia, was where I found the fullness of truth.

 

 

 

 

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Divine Mercy

(I know I’m two days late. Shut up.)

On Sunday, the priest (who is from an African country that leaves him with a nearly-incomprehensible accent), started off the homily with some general thoughts about mercy. I think everybody’s attention kinda wandered, since the words were generic and it was hard to understand, anyway.

Then he said, “My father left us when I was ten,” and everyone’s attention SNAPPED back. He told of his father abandoning them, and not seeing him for 20 years — when, as a condition of his ordination, he was required to have both parents present him to the bishop. The priest told of how he had to have mercy towards and forgive his father, and he said, “Jesus forgave without people even asking for forgiveness.”

That’s when I heard the record scratch. Mainly because it was the same thing I’ve heard, over and over, my whole life. And because it was one of the most harmful things that I’ve ever believed. Every time my husband mistreated me, I would automatically put the incident out of my mind, think, “I forgive him,” and move on. The problem is that our relationship was never healed; none of the wounds he caused me were ever dealt with; he never ASKED for forgiveness, intended to change, or even, to the best of my knowledge, thought that there was anything wrong with his behaviour.

And from what I understand, in view of many aspects of Church teaching, forgiveness CANNOT BE HAD without the offender recognizing the need and ASKING FOR IT. Obviously, the Church has a very well-though-out theology of reconciliation and salvation. The whole point of God being nailed to a piece of wood was to reconcile us to Him. But I don’t know of ANYWHERE the Church teaches that forgiveness is given without requesting it.

To wit: One of the seven sacraments is Reconciliation, wherein Catholics go to a minister and ask for God’s forgiveness in order to receive it. And not only do you have to ask, but in order to be forgiven, you must: be contrite (be sorry for your sins, and resolve not to repeat them), ask for forgiveness, and perform penance (doing something to make up for the wrong we did).

Also: The Church teaches that Jesus’s death on the cross was sufficient to attain forgiveness for all of humanity’s sins for all time. However, that doesn’t mean that all of humanity’s sins were instantly forgiven on Good Friday. Everyone wasn’t instantly forgiven, sanctified, and transmuted into heaven that day. They weren’t even made perfect on earth on that day. Not even Jesus’s followers were instantly forgiven at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon. All forgiveness necessary is available, but it is not automatically applied in each individual case.

Again: When Jesus taught His followers how to pray, He included “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” He taught them 1) that they must ask for forgiveness, and 2) that forgiveness is even conditional upon their actions! Not only do you have to be contrite, confess, and try to fix the problems you caused, you have to offer the same to people who offend you!

CLARIFICATION: At this point, I feel it is incumbent for me to say that when I speak of withholding forgiveness, I do not mean deliberately nurturing bitterness and hatred in your heart toward people who hurt you until they sufficiently debase themselves to earn your forgiveness. You must always love everyone, recognizing their intrinsic value, and desiring their true good.

That DOESN’T mean, however, ignoring offenses against you and allowing people to mistreat you without any consequences or any signs of repentance on their part. Especially in the context of a close relationship, to allow offenses to multiply, and to never address the damage to the relationship and to the people involved, is a recipe for disaster.

In Matthew’s Gospel, immediately before Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven (or 490) times, He says, “If your brother sins against you, GO AND TELL HIM HIS FAULT.” [emphasis added] When people speak of immediate forgiveness, they usually ignore this part. Jesus, having a pretty decent grasp of human nature, understands that relationships must be healed if they are to survive, whether between God and man (His death, and the sacrament of penance), or between people. And for people’s own sakes, they must be told that they’ve done wrong! Forgiveness doesn’t help if they don’t know that they’ve done anything, so they don’t fix themselves, so they never get better!

As for Jesus forgiving people without them asking, do we really have evidence of that? I propose the following:

1) that since Jesus is God, He knows what is in people’s hearts, so of course He can tell if they are sorry without being verbally told, and

2) although it’s not recorded, I’m sure that people Jesus forgave DID ask His forgiveness, whether the authors of the Gospels recorded it or not. Can you imagine that, after the Resurrection, the disciples picked up with Him as if everything was normal, and just never mentioned how they all abandoned Him? You don’t think that there were tears and apologies and active sorrow for what they had done? I guarantee that there were, because I’ve lived in a relationship where those things never happened, and it was a living hell. You cannot have a healthy relationship with someone who constantly hurts you, yet never takes any responsibility for it or acknowledges that you’ve been hurt.

I’ll leave you with a portion of the Catechism:

There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive. “There is no one, however wicked and guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provided his repentance is honest.” Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgiveness should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin. – CCC 982 [emphasis added]

 

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I don’t understand the crucifix

One thing I’ve heard, over and over and over, since I’ve been studying Catholicism, is the importance of the crucifix. Well, and Christ’s Passion inclusive. Fr. Serpa, lately from Catholic Answers, used to say that we should meditate on the crucifix in order to understand God’s love. But I don’t see how looking at a crucifix makes you understand love; for me all it has ever done is fill me with condemnation and guilt.

Basically, when I see a crucifix, this is the message I receive: “You are so terrible, that even without your knowledge and consent, your actions caused an innocent man to experience unimaginable suffering. If it wasn’t for you, he wouldn’t have had to undergo this. All of this is your fault. And it’s not like you were given a choice. Just by existing, your evilness is so extreme that it reached back through time and caused the ultimate innocent suffering.”

There’s also the “in case you didn’t realize how awful you were, here’s an image of how much God hates sin, which is the primary constituent element of your being.”

I’ve never understood how anyone could glean love and hope from a crucifix. I know that I should, as a Catholic, display one more prominently in my home, or spend more time meditating on one in church, but I just cannot endure the crushing despair that it causes.

Maybe someday I’ll have the chance to take the red pill and find out why so many people are so enthusiastic about the contemplation of the Passion. But until then, I’m just going to leave them to it.

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Holy Thursday

I had a job interview today for a job that I’d really, really like to get. (Like, “I’d be able to pay my bills,” like to get.) I just hope I’m one of the seven they pick out of the at least 40 that showed up…

So as the anxiety began to mount, it occurred to me that today is the perfect day to pray, “Lord, if you are willing… nevertheless, let not my will but Thine be done.”

Which is much, much, MUCH harder than it seems. Truthfully, almost physically hard. To let go of desire, and fear, and anxiety, when they are such a part of you that they find physical expression, is almost painful. It’s not just an intellectual exercise; you actually have to relax your body, and release the tension when you consider that you might not get what you want. And you have to do it again, and again, and again.

That, of course, reminded me of Jesus sweating blood as He prayed those words. I had never really considered why that anxiety produced a such a physical result; I just pictured Him knowing the inevitable result, and just play-acting the trauma so that we would have a good example, you know? And then something occurred to me: for Jesus, choosing to suffer would have been particularly stress-inducing because He could have prevented it. 

We can afford to be fatalistic, and accept suffering in a passive way, because very often there’s nothing we can do about it. We suffer, and we don’t have the power to change it. All we have to do is accept it. But what if we COULD change it? How much harder would it be to really voluntarily undergo suffering — not just endure something over which we have no control? And that would go not just for our suffering, but for others — imagine Jesus’s pain when He saw other people suffering, and knew that He had the ability to stop it, but for greater reasons had to let it be? When you have the almighty power of God at your immediate disposal, how much self-control would it take to say, “Not my will, by thine be done”?

There ought to be a word for the action that is not only saying something, but physically acting it out as well. Like, the difference between saying, “I love you,” and actually doing something about it. When you say to God, “I trust you,” there’s a physical component that can be just as exhausting as the mental part. This weird fusion of the spirit and body, where they must both agree, otherwise one puts the lie to the other.

So for the next week, every time my over-active brain reminds me of the job that I might be getting, I have to say, and act out, “Lord, not my will, but thine be done.”

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Mother Angelica

shrine of the most blessed sacrament

I will always remember Mother Angelica’s date of death (March 27, 2016), because I joined the Church the day before. Also, that year was one in which the Annunciation fell on Good Friday.

I believe Mother Angelica is a saint, and am waiting impatiently for the five-year minimum to elapse before a cause can be opened… She is a wonderful example of what God can do with someone who is willing to give everything to Him, and of heroic acceptance of suffering.

I had read descriptions of what saints were like, but she was the first I actually saw. Her lack of fear, devotion to the truth, and the fact that she was the most… like herself person I had ever seen made a deep impression on me. I know now why people wanted to be around the saints, and emulate them. They didn’t terrorize people, or make them feel inferior, or hopeless… It was like they had found the most desirable thing in the universe, and it constantly oozed from them. When you saw them, you saw what you wanted to be more than anything else. It truly did seem like they had found the pearl that was worth giving up everything else they had and not even feel the loss.

Mother Angelica, pray for us!

 

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Catholicism: 2 years and counting…

I really ought to have done this yesterday, since that was my two-year anniversary of entering the Church, but I got busy. It’s close, right?

I don’t really have a lot of deep insights right now, but I feel like I should put something down for the historical record… Being a Catholic is like life, you know? Some things good, some things bad, most things just running in the background.

I guess the main thing that I didn’t anticipate was that my (now soon-to-be-ex) husband would follow me into the Church within a few months. Almost as soon as I joined, he suddenly became much more interested, received personalized, expedited instruction from the chaplain at his command, and was confirmed that October.

On one hand, that’s good. Obviously, I believe that the Church is true, and that to align oneself with Her is the correct thing to do. On the other hand, given my personal situation, the Church suddenly became much less safe for me. Previously, the Church had been a safe haven; I knew that I could always go there to be safe — mentally AND physically, since it was once place my husband wasn’t. But things like the Rosary, Adoration, and Catholic radio became things that brought me nearer to my husband’s orbit, instead of farther away.

Of course, if we had a healthy relationship, this would have been great news. Many converts’ journeys into the Church are burdened by their spouse NOT agreeing with what they’re doing. As with so many things, my problems are the mirror-image of normal… As it is, my entry into the Church was followed by a swift cooling of interest and decline in practice (although not below the required minimum), because my attempts to stay as far away from my husband as possible led me in the opposite direction.

I believe that one’s journey toward Truth is necessarily paved with difficulties. It’s like you have to prove you want it, you know? In my case, before I entered the Church, I had to accept that I may have to endure a sacramental marriage until death, despite abuse and civil divorce. After I entered the Church, I had to force myself to continue to be faithful, despite wanting to flee in the opposite direction to avoid my husband. The timing is important: had he shown interest beforehand, I may have thrown over the whole thing to get away from him. But since I had been confirmed, I was committed…

The greatest benefit to being a one-religion family is that our daughter will be raised in agreement. She attends Catholic school, and I have every reason to expect that we both will do our best to raise her in the faith. We may live in different houses, and attend different parishes, but there’s consistency.

The other challenge to my young Catholicism has been the normal strains of everyday life. Attending college, moving, trying to find a job and support myself, illness… I no longer have the time available to spend researching and studying the Faith. And truthfully, that’s something that I have always appreciated about Catholicism: it’s for the merely human! You don’t have to study, read, and devote all your spare time to trying to determine what the truth is. The Church has done that for you, and She gives you a very, very light minimum weight to carry to continue to be in good standing. The Church understands the difficulties of life, and constantly makes allowances for them. It doesn’t take much to be a Catholic, fortunately. Or it takes everything, whichever. Depends on which day I’m looking at it…

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A theory on suffering

A while ago (man, QUITE a while ago now), I was having a conversation with someone about suffering; to wit: why? Human beings have an innate sense of justice, and sometimes it’s hard to understand why we have to endure suffering, especially when it is long, painful, and seemingly un-earned.

Well, I had an epiphany on the way home from Wal-Mart a few minutes ago, and here it is:

I was talking to someone who is kinda resentful about some broken relationships from his past. I told him that I believed that, in general, everybody in the situation made the best decisions that they could with the understanding and resources that they had at the time. But, I thought, that doesn’t mean that you get to be immune from the consequences. Even if your culpability for a particular action is small, you still have to live with the results of it, and sometimes that means that certain people never want to see you again.

So, you ask, what do you do with that suffering? In this case, it seems obvious that your own actions caused this suffering, so you should do what you should do with all temporal consequences: learn from them, and use them to further perfect your soul. You know, get a head start on purgatory.

That makes sense to us, right? When we do something wrong as suffer as a result, we can see both the justice and the practical aid that the suffering brings us: we rightly suffer for our sins, and we can use the suffering to learn our lesson. But what about suffering that we DIDN’T cause?

That’s where the epiphany came in: I suddenly realized that I have done tons of wrong things that HAVEN’T necessarily caused me great suffering. I still need redemption both eternally (the consequences paid by the death of the infinite God), and temporally (the consequences within time that I have to pay in order to perfect my soul). But — and here’s the kicker — the suffering you use to learn your lesson doesn’t have to be directly related to the sins you committed.

Think of it this way: you have run up a huge, huge debt. You were just dumb, made a bunch of stupid financial decisions, and now you’re in over your head. You know you were stupid, you accept responsibility, and now you’re trying to get the debt paid down. So for most of the debt, you are working a second job to EARN the money to pay down the debt. You are suffering in order to reduce the consequences. That makes sense, right?

Then add this: while you’re working and doing the best you can to pay your debt, someone gives you a financial gift. You can use that money to pay down your debt, too. The debt doesn’t care where the money comes from, just so long as you apply it. Same thing with suffering: when you suffer, you are being given currency to pay down the temporal consequences for your sins. Whether the currency was earned yourself (consequences of your own sins), or by someone else (you suffer unjustly due to someone else’s sins), you can use that currency as temporal atonement for your sins.

So when you are suffering because of someone else, not because of anything you have earned, you can rejoice, because you are literally being given the currency to pay down your debt. You didn’t have to go out and earn it yourself; someone just handed it to you for free. That’s why suffering is so valuable: because you can use it to perfect yourself, to learn from your mistakes, and to make up for the harm you have caused to your relationship with God and to your own soul.

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My struggle with annulments

Remember back in 2014-2015 when the Synod on the Family overwhelmed Catholic media? (Aren’t you glad THAT’S over? I am.) I was in RCIA at that point, and I remember hoping that a certain topic would be addressed, but to the best of my knowledge, it really wasn’t. So here’s what I would have liked to have clarification on, as regards marriage and annulment.

I think the most important premise, when talking about annulments, is the concept that a “annulled” marriage had something wrong with it from the very beginning. At the time of “consent,” there existed factors that nullified whatever vows the spouses attempted to make. From what I understand, those are the factors for which the marriage tribunals are looking when they decide annulment cases. In other words, they are searching for known, visible factors to determine if there was a pre-existing problem.

As a survivor of domestic abuse, that is very concerning to me, because one of the defining features of domestic abuse is that it doesn’t show up at the beginning of a relationship. When you think about it, it’s just logical: no one’s going to show up on a first date and punch their date across the room; the victim has no attachment to the attacker at that point, and will immediately terminate the relationship, such as it is.

Abuse is a control mechanism, and treating someone badly early in a relationship ends the relationship, and the potential for control. So abusers play nice — sometimes for YEARS — until the victim is so attached to them, and entrenched in the relationship (financially, emotionally, socially), that they will tolerate all manner of mistreatment.

So when a victim of domestic abuse finally leaves (and abuse is one thing that most Christians will accept as justification for civil divorce), they are in a really bad situation when it comes to getting an annulment. They have clear evidence that living with their spouse is not currently tolerable, but it is unlikely that they have any such evidence from the beginning of the relationship. In fact, their abuser may have been unusually kind and admirable in the beginning, showing all the trademarks of being mature, well-balanced, and reasonable.

I guess my question is: what are victims of abuse supposed to do? Do they just get the short end of the stick? They are unable to get an annulment, but their relationship is the very definition of irreconcilable? I understand that in this world, sometimes innocent people just get the shaft. I guess I just would have liked that particular situation to have been addressed more explicitly in the document from the Synod.

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For example, if a person has been abused, yet there is no evidence for nullity, then what they’re being told is that their marriage is valid and sacramental — that God gave them and their spouse special grace to be able to live marriage out well — yet in their case, it seems to have had the opposite effect. How can they reconcile the validity of a marriage that seemed to destroy them, instead of build them up? If the sacramental grace of marriage allowed their spouse to tear them down, then of what good is it? Is there no way to take evidence from after the marriage was attempted, and to conclude that the current situation demonstrates a lack of sacramental grace from the very beginning, even if there were no explicit indications at the time?

I’m not saying the Church is wrong; I’m just struggling to understand her teaching in light of how my life has played out. As I’ve said before, it’s irrelevant to me because I plan on avoiding marriage like the plague for the rest of my life, so I shouldn’t find myself in a canonically-irregular situation regarding reception of the Eucharist, for example. But I nevertheless struggle to reconcile that my marriage is valid and sacramental with my husband’s abuse.

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