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Archive for September, 2013

Restored in His Image

In Genesis 1:26 we’re told that we are “made in the image and likeness of God”; but what does that mean?  It means we have a spirit and a soul, in addition to a physical body, and we are imbued with God’s attributes of creativity, morality, intelligence, beauty, love and grace.  God blessed us with so many gifts because he wants us to live full, rich lives, as Jesus promised in John 10 “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

So why don’t we all live the abundant life?  Unfortunately through sin and abuse we become broken and shattered, like a mirror smashed on the ground.  Instead of being a reflection of God, we are wounded, with jagged edges, reflecting bitterness and anger.  We still faintly bear the distorted image of God, but we are unable to be restored by our own efforts. We know we are broken, so we read self-help books, and go to counseling, or we try to escape our pain with alcohol, the internet, or by work or exercise.  But nothing can remove the gaping, broken emptiness.

But God promises in 1st Peter 5 that “the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ (Jesus) will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little.”  So how will he accomplish this?

Thirty years ago in Holland one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces was viciously ripped open by a disturbed visitor to the Dutch Museum.  The Museum gathered experts, art historians and scientists to analyze the damage and try to seek out some way to restore the damaged painting. Painstakingly they devised a way to repair it by lifting the face of the painting from the original canvas and placing it on a more sturdy one.  The completed process was so successful that it looked perfect to future visitors.

Through trauma and through our own sinful actions, we rip apart the masterpiece that God created, just as surely as the deranged man who damaged Michelangelo’s Pieta; with one stroke of a hammer he broke off the arm of the Blessed Mother, and shattered part of her face.

St. Athanasius pondered our shattered image, and explored the different ways that God could restore us.  Would he give up on the human race and throw away the broken art, and start over?  St. Athanasius realized “The artist does not throw away the panel,” he wrote, “The subject of the portrait must come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material.” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation)

“Jesus Christ was born to restore God’s image in us! On the canvas of human flesh and blood, God has allowed himself to be re-drawn in Jesus Christ, to restore his image in humanity, and to show us what it means to be fully human again! Jesus himself became the canvas, in human flesh and blood! On and in and through Jesus God drew the picture of himself. A perfect and flawless portrait, as the author of Hebrews declares: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Hebrews 1:3). No guesswork, no stains of sin to remove, no places left blank for others to fill in later, no improvising from the margins.”   (From article “How Can We Restore God’s Image in Us?” link below)

Only in Jesus Christ can we become whole in body, mind and spirit, and live the joyful life that God planned from the beginning of time.  To achieve this restoration, spend time learning about Christ, meditate on his passion and death, his miracles; come to know him in the deep, interior recesses of your heart.  The more time you devote, the more you will see his glory.  “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (1st Corin. 3:18)

How does God restore us?  He promises in Isaiah:
The desert and parched land will exult, they will bloom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful song.  The desert of shame and  unforgiveness will turn into streams bursting with love and joy; the burning sands of loneliness and despair will be turned into pools of refreshing warmth and tenderness.  The thirsty ground yearning for love, will spring into wells overflowing with mercy and compassion.  The place where the jackals of darkness and depression roam, will be turned into a rich marsh, where hope and happiness flourish.  We will be met with goodness and gladness, and grief and sorrow will flee.  A highway will be readied for those striving for holiness, where we will be safe and secure, free from harm, crowned with his glory.
(From Isaiah 35)

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Ignorance is Bliss

If you willfully ignore some of  the Church’s teachings, is it a sin?  Maybe, maybe not. Did you first diligently search for an answer?  In moral theology, ignorance is defined as a lack of knowledge that a person ought to have.  Ignorance is divided into two main categories, invincible and vincible. Ignorance is invincible if a person diligently tried to find an answer, but either failed to discover the truth, or was given incorrect advice from a priest or theologian.  For example, when I joined the Church in 1985 I discussed the issue of birth control with a priest on staff.  I expressed my concern about joining the Church when I felt the Church was wrong on this issue.  His advice was to “just make up my own mind”, which I found out later was an appallingly incorrect answer.

The priest should have explained the beauty of the Church’s teaching on the sacredness and dignity of every human life, and the danger of women being objectified by birth control, but since he didn’t, there is a good chance I was no longer culpable for my sin.  I wasn’t raised Catholic and didn’t have the resources available to discover the truth, lessening my culpability.  At that time there was no internet, and I was unaware of any Catholic bookstores or any books explaining the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Vincible ignorance is lacking knowledge that could be found with a reasonable search.  If one disagrees and makes no effort to discover the truth, then he IS responsible before God.  Before I spoke with the priest, I simply believed the Church was ‘behind the times’ and wrong not only on the birth control issue, but on the issue of women priests and the necessity of confessing one’s sins to a priest.  For years I simply disregarded the Church’s stance without any attempt whatsoever to research the matter; during that time I was most probably culpable in my obstinate disobedience.

catechism-of-the-catholic-churchWith the internet and resources readily available at one’s fingertips, you would think very few in the civilized world would fail to find answers.  Our bookstore has many books to help you understand the reasoning behind all the teachings of the Church; the best resource is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  But of course with the internet there are more sources to help maintain stiff-necked stubborn opposition and rationalize immoral actions!

According to Pope Benedict “Ignorance of the faith puts Christians at risk of following a “do-it-yourself” religion.” Willful ignorance undermines the moral fabric of society because it justifies immoral behavior.  Those who embrace hedonism and disagree with the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, have absolutely no intention of ever willingly researching and understanding the Church’s stance on sex before marriage and birth control, because they are dead set on pursuing total sexual freedom, pretending there are no consequences.  Likewise, those who actively engage in homosexual activity generally have no desire for enlightenment, since their behavior would then have to be modified.  As Plato explained “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

If you were raised in an atheistic home without knowledge of Christianity, you are far less likely to be held accountable for your sinful actions, than someone raised with knowledge of Christ and the Ten Commandments.  As Jesus told Pilate “the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11), referring to the religious leaders who arranged for him to be arrested.  Since Pilate was pagan, it would have been harder for him to recognize the messiah, whereas Caiaphas was the High Priest of the Jews, while Anaias, his father-in-law, was the High Priest Emeritus.  These two ‘holy’ men were well acquainted with the scriptural references to the coming messiah and were supposed to be men of prayer, tuned in to following God’s will, yet they were utterly ignorant of the presence of God in their midst…

Stephen Baldwin-JTM-059300.jpgStephen Baldwin is a famous actor in Hollywood who was inspired to overcome his ignorance and discover the truth about faith and morality.  As his brother, Alec, described him “He was one of the great playboy nightlife people in the annals of Manhattan nightlife,”.  Stephen and his wife Kenya happened to hire a nanny who was a devout Christian, and unhesitatingly shared her faith with them.  Kenya had an immediate conversion, while Baldwin started exploring Christianity more deeply.  After 9/11 he had a tremendous conversion experience, and made drastic changes in his life, turning toward God and away from sin.  

St. Paul reassures us of God’s mercy in regard to our ignorance in 1st Tim. 1:12 “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.”  Just as God gives more leeway to those raised outside the Christian or Jewish faith, so he makes allowances for those who have suffered physical or sexual abuse, which can leave a tendency toward sexual and other sin, also causing emotional disorders.  There is no doubt in my mind that God takes all this into consideration on that day of judgment when he looks into your heart.

“Depending on its type and degree, ignorance may remove, diminish, leave unaffected, or even increase one’s culpability for a materially sinful act” (cf. CCC 1735, 1746, 1859).  But then CCC #1860 also tells us “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.”

I am astounded at the deliberate, convoluted reasoning some use to justify their sinfulness.  When Pope Benedict remarked that a gay person using a condom to protect others showed compassion, liberal pundits pounced on his statement and announced to the entire world “the Pope condones the use of condoms”!   Their twisted interpretation of his statement was totally false.  Likewise, Pope Francis was accused of not speaking out enough about abortion and homosexuality, and he explained that “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.”  He went on to explain that “a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

So basically he was saying before you can preach birth control or homosexuality, you must convert hearts.  Just as Mother Teresa never preached social justice, explaining that you must first change someone’s heart; once a heart is converted, it becomes more loving and generous.  But of course journalists gleefully proclaimed “Pope Francis says the Church must look beyond “small-minded rules and its obsession with contraception and homosexuality” and described Pope Francis “as one of the most progressive popes in modern times”.  Pope Francis has done nothing to change Church doctrine on homosexuality or anything else.  Sadly many view the Church as racist, homophobic, and filled with hatred, so I was glad to see the Pope clearly define the Church’s stance on these tough issues.

In Pope Francis’ own words “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”

We are warned in Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked, stubborn people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always oppose the Holy Spirit”.  Only God can judge our hearts and culpability of sin in relation to our ignorance, but I would caution you against risking salvation by blatantly turning your back on God’s Commandments.  If you struggle to accept His teachings, take time to study the reasons supporting the harder teachings such as the ban on sex before marriage, and honestly pray, asking God to reveal his truth.  But if you are hell-bent on a self-centered, hedonistic life-style, you will have a more difficult time understanding the Church’s doctrine.

Related Articles:

Invincible and invincible ignorance
http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=1203

Pope Benedict and ignorance of faith
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1204379.htm

Interview with Pope Francis on teachings of Catholic Church
http://americamagazine.org/pope-interview

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You may have heard the saying that you “won’t find an atheist in a foxhole”.  It means that in time of war, in the intensity of a battle, most avowed atheists will abandon intellectual ideals and instead implore God for his protection and safety.  I was raised nominal Presbyterian, but my parents quit attending church when I was around 8 years old.  Unfortunately my sister married a man who disliked religion and filled my head with nonsense about Christianity, claiming it was a “crutch for weak people”.  I bought his lies hook, line and sinker.

I am a logical person, and Christianity did not seem logical to me, so by the time I was in high school I entered a phase of atheism, in which I denied the existence of God.  My viewpoint changed after I had children, especially since when I married my husband in the Catholic Church, I had promised to raise my children as Christian.  I felt the Church would give my children a better foundation than the emptiness I had experienced growing up, and so I sporadically started attending church.  But it was difficult taking two rambunctious toddlers by myself, as my husband was a restaurant manager and worked most Sundays.

Parenting is not easy, and my constant fear was that something tragic would happen to my girls.  My first conversations with God were about protection for them.  Every day children are kidnapped or hit by a car and I knew I could not protect them on my own, so I sought help from a ‘higher power’.

My own experience with atheism has lead me to believe that most atheists have undergone a great deal of pain in their lives, which caused their heart to shrivel up, leaving little room for God.  In Ezekiel 36 God promises “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”  Our savior promises to “save” us from our grief, shame, guilt and anger, and instead fill our heart with his tender mercy, love and kindness.

A dead give-away that one’s heart is locked in stone is that you never cry.  From the age of 16 to 36 I absolutely never cried – ever!  But then I went on my first retreat back in 1993; the leader of the retreat lead us back to memories of our childhood.  I was adamantly resistant at first, but the more experienced retreatants urged me to let down my defenses and allow God to heal my heart. I acquiesced, and as the painful memories surfaced, I started crying, and I don’t think I stopped crying for the next six months!

It is far easier to carefully reason and reach the conclusion that God doesn’t exist when you are in good health and employed, and life is on an even keel. My father espoused pantheism, the belief that nature is identical with divinity. But after he realized he was dying from cancer he had a change of heart.  One night when I was tucking him in, he patted my hand and said “don’t worry, I want to go to heaven”.  I had given him a miraculous medal, and even though he tended to be anti-Catholic, near the end of his life he wore it constantly and held on to it for dear life.  I imagine many atheists cling to their ideals until push comes to shove and they know they will soon meet their maker.

In the book “Atheist to Catholic” journalist John C. Wright relates his journey from atheism to Christianity, more particularly to the Catholic faith.  As he looked at the shallowness of his fellow atheists, he started reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and their “solid understanding of the joys and woes of human life”.  He examined the logic, the “complexity and thoroughness of reasoning” of St. Thomas Aquinas and compared it to the “scattered and mentally incoherent sentimentality of some poseur like Nietzsche or Sartre.”

Wright explains “I can tell the difference between a rigorous argument and shrill psychological flatulence.”  He relates a fellow atheist’s claim “how wonderful the world would be once religion was swept into the dustbin of history, and he knew the chap knew nothing about history.  If atheism solved all human woe, then the Soviet Union would have been an empire of joy and dancing bunnies instead of a land of corpses.”

When Wright pondered whether God existed, he simply asked God to reveal himself in some way.  Two days later he suffered a major heart attack and was in intense pain.  He wife was Christian and prayed over him; the pain disappeared instantly and he was overwhelmed with the presence of God.

In the same book Professor Ken Krabbenhoft at NYU was drawn to atheism because he wanted to be “sophisticated, worldly, and pleasure-seeking, rather than self-sufficiently pious”.  He was intrigued by Christianity when one of his students spoke in his class about mysticism.  As he relates “I realized at once that, through her, God was speaking to me.  I understood quite clearly that, on the subject of mysticism, I had missed the point.  The value of mystical writing was inseparable from the truth of mystical experience.  What I had tried so hard to grasp intellectually could only be known through transcendent union with God.”

(Above quotes from “Atheist to Catholic”)

Another convert, Malcolm Muggeridge, was a typical leftwing intellectual entranced by Marxist communism.  Then in 1932 he investigated Stalin’s deliberate starvation of millions in the Ukraine.  Censored by his employer, the Manchester Guardian, Muggeridge described the horrific conditions of the “socialist utopia” in his book “Winter in Moscow”.

In 1970 Muggeridge flew to Calcutta, India for a documentary about Mother Teresa.  From his own writings his friend Rowland Croucher describes this encounter:

“Well, on that fated morning of their meeting (a morning that would change him for the rest of his life) he met her as she was working out in the streets with sick and poor people in a ghetto like he had never seen before, amid stench, filth, garbage, disease, and poverty that was just unbelievable. But what struck Muggeridge more than anything else, even there in that awful squalor and decadence, was the deep, warm glow on Mother Teresa’s face and the deep, warm love in her eyes.”

As a result of this encounter he and his wife, Kitty, eventually converted to the Catholic faith.  Atheists are drawn to Christianity for a myriad of reasons.  Some are drawn to Christ because of dangerous or troubling circumstances, while others are drawn by friends who take the time to dialogue in an even exchange without judgment or criticism.

As St. Paul encourages and warns us concerning our faith in Colossions 2 “May their hearts be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ,  in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments… Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”  

So if you are an atheist, don’t be taken in by the empty and seductive promises of the world; ask God to reveal himself to you.  If you are praying for family or friends to turn to God, be patient, pray and try to live out your faith in a way visible to everyone, leading by example.  Just as in Luke 1:46 Mary sings “My soul magnifies the Lord”, we too should try to be a magnifying glass for Christ.

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Grief comes in many different ways; from the tragic loss of a loved one, to the loss of a career, to the loss of one’s health. Sometimes grief can be so painful it feels as though your heart were ripped open, such as when parents suffer the anguish of losing a child.  The loss of a job can sometimes paralyze you into helplessness and powerlessness.

In the book “Gone With the Wind”, by Margaret Mitchell, the author known as ‘Peggy’ wove the tale of the civil war and it’s aftermath drawn from listening to the recollections of her grandparents’ experiences.  With the exception of a few churches, the cities of Atlanta, Lovejoy, Macon and the surrounding countryside on Sherman’s march to the sea were utterly destroyed.  Wealthy plantation owners lost their acres of land, their livelihood, and their entire way of life.  Some, like the main character, Scarlett O’Hara, were survivors, and clawed a new way of life for themselves.  Others literally fell apart at the seams, like a broken wind up toy, and simply retreated into a dream world of past memories, supported by relatives and constantly reliving their glory days.

At some point in your life, you will lose a parent, and eventually both parents; it is a passage of life we all face one day.  Losing my mother was one of the most difficult losses I have ever faced, yet as the saying goes “time heals all things”.  She died twelve years ago, and though my heart still aches, the massive black hole, the raw, searing pain has dissipated.  Every year that has passed was a little easier than the one before.  But the loss of a close relative has forever left it’s mark on my heart; now when a friend loses a loved one I can hug them and simply say “I know your pain”. And I do know their pain, deeply. The loss of my beloved family has moved me from compassion to empathy.

I’m reminded of this by St. Paul in 2nd Corinthians 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.”  The sorrow we experience can enable us to ease others through the grieving process, as we are able to share their pain.

The best advice I was given when my father died in 1997 was to make a scrap/memory album to keep all the prayer cards and other remembrances and pictures.  It was immensely comforting, and after my mother and two brothers died, I included keepsakes from them as well.

If you have lost a spouse or someone close and just can’t let go of the grief, try counseling or a grief support group.  Sometimes you have to make a conscious choice to let go of your grief, and the best way is to talk through your pain with a close friend or counselor.

Shortly before my mother-in-law died she had a stroke which paralyzed one side, and damaged her peripheral vision, causing her to stop driving.  The loss of her independence and diminished health was absolutely devastating for her. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, auto-immune issues, arthritis and other health related problems can take their toll financially and emotionally.

Grief can also be caused by the loss of a dream; parents who have a child with autism, cerebral palsy or downs syndrome may have to surrender their dreams of coaching their child’s soccer team, or walking their daughter down the aisle in marriage.  A young man passionate about baseball may never realize his dream of playing major league baseball; a young woman may never fulfill her dream of becoming a professional dancer.  Grief comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

St. Paul reminds us in our grief “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.  We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.  According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.  Therefore encourage each other with these words.” (1st Thessalonians 4:13)

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