The Apostolate of the Laity

Waxing philosophical in communion with one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

I am just a sinner who holds fast to the notion that every human being on the planet is the result of a thought of God.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mortal Control

For anyone who immerses himself into the Catholic faith, the reality of mortal sin stays ever close to the front of consciousness. There exists a fear that one might follow the seemingly natural propensity for sin down the path that leads to disunion from the mystical body of Christ. And while this awareness serves a healthy purpose in keeping one from stepping into the abyss, it sometimes leads one down the avenue of thinking that judgment hinges more with the individual's actions and less with the actual disposition of the individual's soul.

As a reminder, for sin to be mortal it must be concerning a grave matter which a person commits with full knowledge and consent. The consequence of dying in a state of mortal sin is horrific. For at the moment of death, in the particular judgment, there is no juridical process, no time to make a case for oneself. One is revealed to be either in His grace or not. Mortal sin places one in the "not" category which can only mean a destiny of eternal damnation.

There seems to be two common extreme responses to this reality, and most Catholics find themselves somewhere in the middle. The first extreme is scrupulosity. The individual engages in a near non-stop examination of conscience and begins to see sin in nearly every activity of daily life. Fear of Hell binds this person to a life accented by near relentless guilt. Enjoyment of the blessings of God take on an evanescent quality replaced by a haunting mantra of the soul that whispers, "I'm not worthy." Perfection becomes the order of the day, but such a goal gets frustrated by one's own embedded sinful nature. Analysis paralysis sets in as the person enslaved to his own worries never stops gauging the degree of seriousness of his sin. His code of conduct is supposed to be inviolable yet the flesh and mind continue to betray this code. Christ the savior becomes Christ the antidote to the poison of his fallen nature, and the confessional becomes a sort of urgent care clinic for the soul. This is not a happy man.

At the other end of the spectrum one finds the more Pharisaic response. This person knows as fact which sins are mortal and which are venial, and he will gladly point them out and even offer advice to the less informed. Everything gets done by the book and there are no shades of gray. Salvation becomes formulaic, and the confessional is simply a variable in the equation of attaining justification for Heaven. Christ the savior becomes Christ the ingredient.

Both of these extremes tend to trivialize sin because they each put the human intellect into the driver's seat for determining any given sin's mortality. Each example puts God in the position of jury and the person in the role of judge instead of a relationship of love in communion with the Trinity. Christ becomes more of a score keeper than a conduit of Divine Mercy.

Jesus claims one in baptism as His own. Like a shepherd who loses a lamb, He will call to that soul at the moment of death. A person who truly was out of His grace would already possess the will and desire not to respond to Him. One would have to be so inwardly focussed that the very thought of losing any part of self would make this proposition by Christ unpalatable. This is the ultimate effect of mortal sin; a free will rejection of God; a shielding of the eyes and ears of the soul to seeing and hearing God's will in favor of self interest.

To pontificate that a single transgression punches a mystical ticket to Hell is to play God. Sin is in the will. The action is a physical manifestation of the will. So if one is committing what would be considered mortal sins, then one needs to address the defect that has blinded one to God's will. For if one is blinded in this life, where the body is mortal but the soul eternal, what leads one to believe that the beatific vision will be any less trammeled at the moment of death? It gives one pause to realize that one's position in the afterlife likely will not be a surprise but rather a continuation of what was began in this life.

There is a third response which perhaps proves the most mortal of all. That is the one of indifference or institutional rebellion. This person knows that the Church teaches his action is grave, he may even know why, and yet he commits the sin anyway because he just doesn't care or because it is too easy to continue his action in his way. In America, contraception provides a wonderful example of this. Most Catholic couples in the United States use artificial contraception. Most know very well that it is against Church teaching. Most discard the Church and opt for convenience. They ignore the reality that Church and Christ cannot be separated. They are one. These couples exercise Church out of Christ and believe that their rebellion is simply against an institution they perceive to be out of touch with today.

It would indeed be sinful to make a statement that these errant couples are doomed. God's mercy is unimaginably generous, but it is worth pondering the idea that one's soul does not magically change upon the death of the body. While the soul detaches from the body, its character does not change. If the soul has rejected Christ and His Church in the here and now, is there any reason to believe he will embrace it in the hereafter? If the light of truth is too painful to look at in the now, would it not be infinitely more painful to gaze upon when revealed in its full glory? Ponder that question, but do not dwell upon it for too long lest scrupulosity creep in. It simply serves as a reminder that our hearts and will must always be oriented towards Our Lord, and when one discovers the contrary, that is where the work must begin. It's also prudent to remember that God's mercy extends beyond parish membership. By ways known only to Him, Catholics believe that others who seek God will be brought home to Him. The Church is catholic, that is, universal.

Through all of this, Satan has one hope, and that is that the soul loses hope. For the devil, one of the greatest things is to run across a soul who has forgotten that God is on his side. That is something he can work with. Christ wants one in Heaven with Him, and the great hope is that no matter how far from Him we are at death, if we are at the very least facing God, His mercy will close the gap and bring us into His glory. The Church and her sacraments, especially Eucharist and reconciliation are the means we have to maintain our orientation in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Courage to Follow

"Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."
Luke 5:8

St. Peter, then known as Simon, exclaimed those words to Christ in the middle of the lake of Gennes'aret after following the instructions Jesus had given him, and he caught a seemingly impossible number of fish; so many that the nets were at risk of breaking. Simon's response to this miracle seems to capture the reaction many have upon first realizing that this Jesus of Nazareth is not just a story, but a reality that redefines previous notions of one's existence.

Consider that Jesus was not a complete foreigner to Simon. His brother Andrew had likely been a follower of John the Baptist. No doubt the prophesy of John about the impending arrival of the Messiah must have at the very least made everyone in the area stop and wonder the implications of the actual coming of the savior. One can only imagine the conversations that the two brothers might have had regarding this incredible possibility. So when the Teacher with his following came to Simon's fishing village, it is not hard to imagine that he paid attention.

At the time of this account of Luke's Gospel, Simon does not seem to be one of the crowd that was pressing in upon Christ to hear his teaching. Rather he was tending to his nets after a fruitless night of fishing. When Christ climbed into his boat and asked that he put out a little ways, Simon did not hesitate. Scripture does not reveal his motivation at the time. There was no "be it done unto me according to thy word" going on here, at least not yet. He simply complied with The Lord's desire and soon found himself closest to the Master sitting with him in the boat as he taught the people on the shore.

Nor does scripture reveal what the Teacher taught to the people who had gathered, but when he had finished, and asked Simon to put out to deep for another try at catching fish, again there was very little hesitancy. Oh the fisherman explained to the Christ that he had been at it all night with nothing to show for it, but then he unwittingly uttered his own affirmation of faith when he said, "But at your word I will let down the nets."

This would not have been a simple act of humoring the Rabbi. Simon did not let down his nets in an exercise of "See, I told you so." It was a decisive act of faith following a series of smaller ones. First he listened to the man called Jesus. Then he let him into his boat. Then he listened some more. Then he followed His command to head for deeper water. He accepted the proposition of Christ and was rewarded in such a way that he needed the help of his fellow fishermen to bring in the haul. Finally, in realizing the implications of what had just been revealed to him; that the Savior was not some distant hope but rather in the here and now, he was overwhelmed and expressed his unworthiness.

"Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord."

How easy it is to assess oneself as not being meritorious enough for Our Lord. How many people stay away from Christ not because of a lack of belief in the possibility of a savior, but for the simple reason that they feel unworthy to profess being a Christian. They might even boast that they refuse to be a hypocrite like the rest of those church going people, but that is a shallow ruse attempting to mask a broader concern. To approach the idea of Jesus as an integral part of life means a critical coming to grips with one's all to sinful nature. It's easier to respond to the Son of God with Peter's first rejection of Our Lord.

And yet The Son of Man did not browbeat the fisherman for his sins. He did not lecture him on how he should behave. He did not threaten, taunt, or tease. He did not lord his authority over this man who would one day be given the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. No, Jesus spoke to Peter four simple words that God had spoken to his servants throughout the ages. Moses, Joshua, Eli'jah, Zechari'ah, Mary, and later Paul all heard these words of The Divine:

"Do not be afraid."

Those words from the Teacher, along with no doubt a fair amount of grace, gave Peter the courage and will to leave behind the vocation he inherited from his earthly father for a new divine call to life as a disciple of this new master of contrariety. This too, proves to be the stumbling block for many who resist association with Jesus. To be with Christ in this modern age of scientific reason means a movement into the counter cultural part of society replete with all of its potential stereotypes, many of them pejorative. It means setting aside the fearful "what ifs" and embracing the more excellent way.

Let all people ask for the grace to find the courage to follow this Prince of Peace as Peter did.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Greater Good

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Declaration of Independence, 1776

Americans spend a great deal of time, money, and energy in the pursuit of happiness. For the twenty-first century man, a measurement of pleasure serves as the primary barometer for one's state of well being. The more gratification one has, the more content one must be. A tremendous emphasis on how something feels predominates the motivation of those fully acculturated to modern, secular, Western thought.

"If it feels good, do it," was a mantra of sorts for the Baby Boom generation, and the liberties it took with life served to erode the very rights our founding fathers considered incapable of being surrendered. As this generation stares at age sixty and beyond, it now must come to grips with the reality that it consumed far more than it left behind, and now its children must piece back together a morality based on something more substantial and less shallow than pure self-fulfillment and enlightened self-interest.

It seems clear that our founding fathers had a different idea of happiness. George Mason wrote, "Pursuit of self interest in opposition to the public good is not only mean and sordid, but extremely short-sighted and foolish."

Mean and sordid.

Do not these adjectives describe many of today's social ills? Abortion, divorce, euthanasia, pornography, unfettered capitalism, social apathy. All of these have their roots in the pursuit of self interest. None of these calamities are restricted to the individual. They each impact the public and decidedly not for the good.

In a certain sense, Mason and the rest of the founding fathers were not Revolutionary in their thought at the time. They were all steeped in Christian thought and proposed ideals from a foundation of a life in Christ. And while they desired a country where the state neither dictated nor restrained religion, they most assuredly never had in mind a country separated from God. They assumed the country would keep its sense of what was sacred, what was providence.

The pursuit of happiness was intended to transcend individualism. Notice that all men are created equal...not each man is created apart. There exists a very real element of communion, and the greater good rests not in pleasure seeking, but in the freedom to follow the path that got one to a condition which fit one's character. For the 18th Century man, this was definitely a Christian character, and a Christ-centered character is one that gazes beyond self. This is not to suggest that America's founding fathers were saints; however, they understood that with freedom came a responsibility and a need for wisdom in its exercise.

Contrast that with the present sentiment oriented towards unique treatment for multitudinous classes of special interests based upon such unchangeable attributes like race, gender, and even banal sexual preference. Duty towards community comes in a distant third to the individual, first, and his niche demographic, second. Freedom comes to mean entitlement to act without regard to ones actions on the greater good of society. A common standard of Christian virtue shared by the population as a whole has faded to political correctness and situational ethics. This is the legacy of the children of the Greatest Generation.

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Gal 5:13-14

Love is the happiness we are to pursue. Love of God first. Love of neighbor second. With those two fulfilled one will find oneself in that condition of Christian character envisioned by the country's first leaders, and discover the inalienable rights that should be the mainstay of the American citizen.