When we die…

February 25, 2010

The topic of death, heaven, and the resurrection often comes up in our house, because of my daughter’s recent obsession with death and afterlife. My mom came to visit us yesterday, like she does every week, and the conversation was steered by Isabel. She asked, “Grandma, are you going to die?” which we generally respond to with “Probably not today.” Isabel said she wouldn’t be sad because she could still talk to her. My cheeky daughter. Then Grandma corrected her, “Well, I’ll be able to see you, but not hear you. When I want to talk to my mom, your great-grandma, I just ask God to give her a hug for me.”

There’s a very weird difference here between the Catholic and Protestant positions, and I’d venture to say the Protestant one is defined by an effort to be not Catholic. We have taught Isabel that when you die, if you want to (essentially true), you go to heaven and be with God. You can then see people on Earth and they can talk to you even though you can’t talk back (normally). In heaven, you can talk to God and ask Him to help people on Earth, and they’ll see you when they die, and then God brings us all back to life later. There’s a new heaven and a new Earth. We will walk with God and will be as He created us to be, glorified and one with Him in Christ. We usually leave out that last bit for Isabel.

I can’t explain very well the Protestant, non-denominational, Bible-only derived version of the afterlife held by my family. Part of it is I never had a very good grip on what they believed when I was growing up. The resurrection was an afterthought and heaven was our final goal. I think that it goes something like this: when you die, you go to Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:19-26) and become one of the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). There, they believe you can see things, hence the witnessing part, but you are “asleep in the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:13,14). Essentially, here, you are not in heaven, you cannot pray to God, and you cannot hear others talking to you. But God can give you hugs. Judgment Day comes and those deemed “saved” will be resurrected and go to heaven in their resurrected bodies. Those not saved will go to hell. I’m not sure if they get bodies, but I think they don’t. My brother very adamantly was defending this view when we told Isabel that death comes first, then heaven, then resurrection. He insisted that death comes first, then resurrection, then heaven. I don’t think he realizes the idea that we are all resurrected and then go to heaven kind of ignores the new Earth (Rev 21:1).

There are so many reasons this view is self-contradictory, I don’t know where to start. First of all, I don’t know why Abraham’s bosom is considered separate from heaven, especially since there exists an obvious corollary to Abraham’s bosom for the condemned. They don’t believe in an individual judgment and a general judgment later, but then I don’t know how they avoid that God decides some go to Abraham’s bosom, and others to… not Abraham’s bosom, where there is fire and agony. Kind of sounds like hell. If it is not an individual judgment that decides this, then what is it?

They acknowledge that the dead form a cloud of witnesses and combine that fact with the idea that those who have died have “fallen asleep in Christ” to make it sound like we enter some kind of spiritual state of paralysis. We can see, but not function in any spiritual way. Maybe it didn’t occur to them that falling asleep only referred to our physical selves. Here, I think the only reason they believe the dead can’t hear the living and can’t talk to God when we’re “asleep” is to avoid Christians asking those who have died to pray for us to God. It’s a move motivated only to distance themselves from Catholic practices that are deemed idolatrous. But there’s nothing idolatrous about it, since we’re not worshiping those we ask to pray for us. It’s Biblical, and there is no Biblical or logical reason to demand the cloud of witnesses can’t hear and pray.

Likewise, my mom seems to want to allow for the dead who are in Abraham’s bosom to be able to see God such that He can communicate with them and give them hugs, but not that they are in heaven or that they can ask Him for things for those on Earth. The only reason I can see for this is she is making an effort to be consistent with the Biblical testimony that we are comforted by God in Abraham’s bosom, but again maintain separation from Catholic teachings. I’m not sure what heaven is if it is not being in the presence of God. It makes absolutely no sense to say that someone who is in heaven, in the presence of God, and is able to witness what goes on on this Earth, is unable to ask God to help us.

Both of my parents are very respectful of whatever way Chris and I decide to raise the kids. My mom wouldn’t knowingly contradict what we teach them. At least I don’t think she would. So I will have to at some point sit down with her and explain our views on these, and probably other, matters. It’s uncomfortable for a couple reasons. Firstly, I’ll be revealing more of my Catholicity. Also, my mom isn’t very easy to talk to about things that displease her, and she has a tendency to get very defensive when “corrected” about the kids. But I’ll bite the bullet, and soon, so that poor Isabel won’t get a wonky and confused version of reality, especially since this topic means so much to her right now.

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Lent and the Impending Rites

February 20, 2010

I know most bloggers did their Ash Wednesday/Lent posts on Ash Wednesday. Or the day after. I’m a couple days late, but that’s par for the course around here.

Because of Lent, I’ve been thinking about the nature of fasting. In RCIA, they said the main purpose of fasting is to break our attachment to created things so we can put our focus back where it should be, on the Creator. So for me, a very appropriate fast is food. I’m going to stop eating snacks during the day. I’m still allowing myself to snack at night. It may sound kind of lame to people who don’t know me, but I usually eat at least six times a day. For me, eating only four times a day is a difficult fast! I even stocked up on veggie and fruit juices to keep my calorie count (and my stamina) up. Chris has told me since I’m still technically nursing, I’m not required to fast. But I’m hardly nursing now, and I think this is a really good way to keep the purpose of my fast at the forefront of my mind all day long. If I can do it.

After all, I already screwed up fasting on Ash Wednesday. It was kinda funny, and a little embarrassing, when I was looking down at my plate of fish and rice at dinner time and realized I ate meat for lunch. I was all focused on how much I was eating, and didn’t even realize that my “just a light sandwich” (a gyro) had gyro… meat… in it. I did this last year, too, although I wasn’t the one fasting. I was trying so hard to make Chris a nice meal, and fixed up meatloaf, cornbread, and mashed potatoes. On a Lenten Friday. He refused to eat and I refused to speak to him, just for a little while until I had a chance to get over my mistake.

It’s strange that after a year of “inquiry” into the Catholic Church, there is still so much I’m not used to and haven’t experienced. Even the Ash Wednesday mass had me confused and hunting through the missal. I imagine I might feel that way a lot this Lent and Easter. There is a lot of new, uncomfortable experiences coming up. Easter is approaching. The Rite of Election is this Sunday. My first confession is soon. That definitely looming on my horizon. I think I’m more afraid of getting all the technicalities right than the confession part. I lived a long time with certain sins that are no secret to anyone, and telling a priest comes with the benefit of absolution. The hard part will be my nervousness. I want to write down my list (and bring a lighter to burn it afterward), so I don’t forget anything. I know different priests do different things, and some expect you to say the act of contrition there while others don’t. Getting all that right frightens me, but I’ll probably stumble through it like I do with everything else.

Overall, I’m eager to have the strangeness and newness behind me, when I’ll be “one of you”. I generally avoid leaving my comfort zone, and this is one big leap outside it. All done for the sake of the truth, and in effort to obey God’s will. If there’s any good reason, that’s it.


Change of Focus

February 11, 2010

New converts to anything are notorious for zealously spreading whatever they’ve recently converted to. I, like all the rest, have done my fair share of trying to convince people that Catholicism is the most reasonable choice available to mankind that ever existed. But a recent conversation with my wonderful RCIA director struck me. We noticed, people don’t convert because they’re argued into it. Although some convert because they married a Catholic and they just want to unify the family or raise the kids a certain way, other people convert because they witness someone’s faith and they recognize something authentic about it. I’m not even an exception, despite all the arguments Chris and I have had about religion. It was his faith, learning the truth about the Church, and experiencing it for myself that converted me.

On top of this revelation, I also find that I’ve reached a place where I’m tired of wasting my breath and debating with people who stubbornly insist on seeing things through their own myopic lenses, despite all evidence given to contradict their baseless attacks on the Church. I’m happy to answer questions and feel a duty to correct outright lies when I come across them, but overall I feel rather done with persistent debates. At least, that’s how I feel today 😉

What I’d rather do is figure out how to live my life as a Catholic. Right now, the biggest mystery for me is this whole suffering thing. Catholics are like no one else when it comes to suffering. They’re not masochists, no matter what anyone thinks about mortification. They don’t believe the flesh is evil like Puritans, instead they believe that everything is inherently good. Catholics see suffering as redemptive, because Christ redeemed death at the cross and with His resurrection, and redeemed suffering with His passion and successive glory. He even redeemed boring manual labor through His many anonymous years as a carpenter.

Exactly how is suffering redemptive? Well, I can easily see a few things. If our own God Incarnate is not above suffering, then neither are we. He gave a perfect example of submitting to suffering in humility through the events leading up to His crucifixion. We should imitate Christ in all things, and His suffering is not an exception. We share in His suffering so that we may also share in His glory (Rom 8:17).

Also relatively easy to grasp is that our resistance to suffering comes from the same source as our sins — our pride. Acceptance of suffering goes an awfully long way toward uprooting our selfishness, our pride, and the “right” we think we have for a “good life”. When we forget about ourselves, we don’t care about our own suffering. Christ defined love as giving our lives for each other (John 15:13), and this perfect love comes with perfect trust and no fear (1 John 4:18), and no harm can touch us (Luke 10:19). It’s not that we won’t encounter problems and pain. It’s just that when we reach this point of perfectly selflessly loving God and others, none of this temporary hardship matters. If we have no pride, suffering can’t harm us.

There’s a third, more mysterious aspect to the redemptive nature of our suffering as Catholics see it. This one is hard for me to accept, because it’s one of those hard to define issues that make Protestants gasp and accuse us of trying to earn our way to heaven and not giving Christ his proper glory. In our sufferings, offered up to the Lord, we share in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in a very real way. We die with Him in His death (Romans 6:4), paying for and redeeming the sins of the world. I try to tell myself that it’s our mission as Christians to unite ourselves with Christ, it’s only natural. All good things we do are by God’s grace (1 Cor 15:10). All of our merit is through Christ’s merit. It is Christ who now lives in us (Gal 2:20), and we are a pencil in God’s hand. It makes sense… but I can’t see it.

I especially have a hard time seeing it when our entire household is sick for over two weeks straight. The flu, colds, ear infections — moaning and groaning ensues, not any thoughts of the redeeming the sins of the world. It all seems like a pointless hardship with no outward profit that we just have to survive. But I can see Christ in others who suffer graciously. It’s noble and good and makes us all admire them, because it’s praiseworthy. It’s good because God is in it. And that’s all that I can grasp.

If it is Christ living in me, how should I respond to suffering? He wouldn’t be whining about how hard His life is. He never thought about Himself enough to whine, merely to ask that His cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible, but surrendered to it anyway as the will of the Father. If it is Christ living in me, then nothing I go through is worthless, because Christ is God incarnate. Nothing that Christ does is worthless, even if I don’t quite understand how that applies to the mundane in my life. I do know that if everyone everywhere took this attitude, it would be beautiful.

So I think all I can do right now is just change my attitude. I may not understand it, but I can see that it is good. I can see that it is better to accept our sufferings and give them to God as a work done for Him, since all we do is done in service to Him (Col 3:17, 23-24). No less, then, is our suffering to be done for God. That would be funny, wouldn’t it? If we did everything for God, but nursed our suffering as some private endeavor, an injustice of the universe or Satan pitted against us alone? In which we think, what? That God is helpless or unwilling to rescue us?

Look at Saint Paul, as Rob has recently brought to my attention:

For I am even now ready to be sacrificed: and the time of my dissolution is at hand… At my first answer no man stood with me, but all forsook me: may it not be laid to their charge. But the Lord stood by me, and strengthened me, that by me the preaching may be accomplished, and that all the Gentiles may hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. The Lord hath delivered me from every evil work: and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom, to whom be glory for ever and ever. (2 Tim 4:6,16-18)

Paul had hardships and physical evils. He was about to be sacrificed and everyone had deserted him, but he still said “The Lord hath delivered me from every evil work.” How can he have said that? Because he was Catholic is all I can figure. We all may suffer much in this world. The only way it cannot harm us is if we are in Christ, and He in us. Then, no physical evils can touch us. Mysterious. I’ll first work on doing it, then maybe I’ll understand it better.


RCIA Class on the Eucharist

February 9, 2010

I’ve been looking forward to the RCIA class on the Eucharist for some time, and was not disappointed. It was good stuff all around and I found my faith being built up. It’s easy to let your eyes shape your idea of things, like the Eucharist, rather than your faith, and I confess I fall into that.

We had an excellent speaker, who walked us through John chapter 6 in a humorous (yes, it’s possible) story-telling way and went through the Eucharistic prayers, emphasizing all the right points and bunny-trailing on essentials only. Like when he segued to explain that the only time Peter got anything right, Christ responded by saying it was from the Father (Matt 16:15-17). This showed that when Christ then gave the keys of heaven to Peter, it was based on the fact that God is able to reveal wisdom and work through Peter, who was by himself powerless. Which of course is an essential point when people ask, “How do you know for sure that the words written by the Apostles in the gospels were the ones Christ actually said and so base your idea that it’s literal on what he said?” The answer of course is that the Church, headed by the Pope in the seat of Peter, gave us the gospels and ensures that they were inspired, written to convey a truth they were already preaching and describing the Eucharist they were already celebrating. Christ’s authority in the Church is our guaranteer through the Holy Spirit which preserves her from error.

My favorite part was about the mystical aspect of the Eucharist. Two RCIA speakers have quoted Saint Augustine when he said “Be what you see; receive what you are.” (I think this is from sermon 272, but can’t verify it.) This saying is the disputed origin of the phrase “you are what you eat.” How fantastic is that? We are the Body of Christ. Be what you see. We consume the Body of Christ. Receive what you are. It’s beautiful and so strange. It is Christ abiding in us, and we in Him.

The Protestant world I came from had the bare bones of this when we used the phrase “the body of Christ” to refer to the church. I was taught we were supposed to imitate Christ. Although admittedly it was a great epiphany for me in college when I realized my goal in life was to be like Christ. How sad that it came so late. I was also taught that we were to be adopted sons and daughters of God. But this was all so vague and disconnected. Christ’s sacrifice was applied to forgive us our sins, we were “saved”, and that was it — straight to heaven, do not pass go. Being like Christ didn’t mean much except that it was a nice goal. Once we died, God would zap us and make us good like Him. I know there may be Protestants who have a much better understanding of unity with Christ than I did, but this is the non-descript non-denominational vagueness I lived with.

Oh boy, the Catholics take it deeper. When we are baptized, we are brought into the Body of Christ. It is then no longer us that lives, but Christ that lives in us. Then the good work we do is Christ working in us. The people we love and serve are Christ to us. The pain we suffer in perfect surrender to God’s will is the same redeemed pain that Christ suffered in His passion to save the world. Our daily death is Christ’s death on the cross. And our hope is His Resurrection and Life. Since “catholic” means “universal”, I really shouldn’t be so surprised when the Catholic Faith keeps making all these connections so that everything makes sense and fits together, but it still gets me.

Gosh, I never even used to understand why it was so important that Christ was raised from the dead, because I thought we only needed the perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins! Now, I see it. Without the Firstborn, there would be no other children. We live because we live in Christ and He lives! It’s beautiful. It’s poetic. It’s the work of the master, and I am in awe of it.

Christ offers us a deeper dimension to this unity with Him in the Eucharist. He has chosen to give me His life in the most intimate manner physically possible. He has given me His very Body and Blood to consume, to nourish me, to be spread throughout my own body giving me life. Be what you see. Receive what you are. This is the mystery of the Eucharist and I’m so very looking forward to it!

The class even brought to my attention a facet of the mass I never really thought about before — the mass as a sacrifice. In answer to the Protestant objection that Christ’s one sacrifice is enough, Catholics will agree, and explain that at mass we do not sacrifice Christ again and again, we make His sacrifice present again outside of time. But the Protestant in me was still demanding justification for this belief. “Well, where did that come from anyway?” Why do we believe the mass was a sacrifice? Why do we offer the mass up to the Lord instead of just eating and drinking in remembrance, even if it is the real Body and Blood? Why do we see the Body of Christ on the cross and not just the Body of Christ? I found some rather interesting links on the subject and one good one from Catholic Answers.

Why is the mass a sacrifice? First of all, it always has been. This isn’t some strange doctrinal development coming from philosophical obscurities. The Catholic Answers post gives a good rundown of the earliest testimonies that it was indeed always a sacrifice. This would almost be good enough for me, but I still had to press the question of why. The words of Christ, “Do this is remembrance of me”, do not seem to imply a sacrifice to me. But, it seems these exact words did imply that rather strongly to the Apostles and the Early Fathers as the post explains. It says the phrase is better translated as “Offer this as my memorial offering”, because that’s how the early Christians understood it. When Christ said “This is my Body”, he followed up with “which will be offered up for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins”. He was talking about a sacrifice. Furthermore, the Eucharist was seen as a fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 1:10-11, that the Gentiles will everywhere would make a pure offering to the Lord. That satisfied me a little more than just knowing that the mass is fitting as a sacrifice.

I’ll leave you with a sermon from the Rev. Abernethy-Deppe with quotes from Saint Augustine about the beloved sign and reality, the Blessed Sacrament.