Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Old Stuff

see if it still works

Let's look at some miracles.

First, God thought matter into existence. That is, some of his immaterial love is so dense that it actually manifests itself as stuff. You know: fermions, gluons, bosons, all the impossibly tiny little grains of love that everything else is composed of. Then he thought the stuff into things such as our bodies. Isn't that miraculous? I think it is. And until the Fall, it was all good, being ultimately made of love.

But we sinners have made a mess of it, and now know God at a remove. Still, God helps us and communicates to us, often through physical bits. F'rinstance after the Flood, God used a rainbow to communicate something important to Noah's family...ehh...I forgot what it was.

Regardless, God later mediated his power through Moses' and Aaron's staffs. They whacked the Nile, canals, the Red Sea and rocks with miraculous results.

Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground due to the power in the Ark of the Covenant.

Elijah and Elisha each crossed the Jordan on dry ground by striking it, Moses-like, with a cloak.

At Elisha's instruction, Naaman the pagan leper was cured by bathing in the Jordan.

After Elisha passed away, a dead man hastily thrown onto Elisha's earthly remains was restored to life.

But miracles aren't just an Old Testament Thing. God kicked off the New Testament by putting a star in the sky...something to do with Jesus.

Jesus worked miracles too, often fixing not just physical problems, but spiritual ones, "healing the sin-sick soul" as the song says. And he worked these miracles through his physical nature, living stuff face-to-face with the afflicted or an intercessor.

Sometimes Jesus didn't even need to be directly involved, but simply physically available, like a cloak or a bone. Recall that the woman with a hemorrhage barely managed to grab the trailing tassel of Jesus' prayer shawl. Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me.” Just plug into the Holy Battery, get a nice jolt.

But miracles aren't just a Jesus Thing, either. After the Ascension, Paul and Peter could also heal without being directly involved. Peter's shadow could heal as it fell on someone. And "God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them."

Sticks, bones, water, aprons, cloaks, people, the common stuff of the world; none of them magic, all of them sacramental. God has related to the world sacramentally since the Fall, and there is no expectation in the Bible that he'll stop until the Second Coming. Miracles aren't just a Bible Thing. So think of the sacraments as Jesus-supercharged miracles in which divine power still flows through bits and pieces of love older than Creation itself.

Think big. Think Catholic.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Literally

This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets.

Who Knew?

It's no surprise that the more clever the West becomes, the less inclined it is to take the Bible literally. Not that cleverness is a bad thing, but it does tend to feed The Pride Beast. And I'm not saying every Scriptural jot and tittle should be taken literally, if only because God can speak though the writers by using simile, symbolism, metaphor, and parable.

On the other hand, we aren't able to fully perceive the reality around us, even with the help of instruments. Are there more dimensions? Do time and space twist and fold without my noticing? Are there wormholes? Is Heaven all around us like the Cloud of Witnesses? Is the Universe a sphere, flat, or saddle-shaped? Given our limitations, is it possible that some stuff in the Bible is literally true, but we just can't tell?

Look, here's an easy example. In Catechism class, we cover Isaiah 22, especially "I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open." Usually a child will notice that resembles Matthew 16, and ask if the key is real. We'll sort out that it's probably not a physical key that can open the House of David, since "house" isn't a single building, but an extended family comprising a kingdom. But it might be a physical, ceremonial key that symbolizes the power invested in the keyholder. Or it might be a physical key that actually opens a gate, or a room, or a chest full of money, and also serves as a symbol of vested authority. In any case, I think Hezekiah's key is real and physical whether it unlocks anything or not.

Later we get to Matthew 16, including, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Right away the kids ask: "Are those real keys? Well, first you tell me: is Heaven a physical kingdom? I don't think so. Right- where does your body go when you die? Does it rise up into the clouds like Jesus? No it gets buried. Yes. What goes to heaven? Souls. Yes. Are they physical? Umm...no? Right. But are souls real? Yes! Right- so some things are real even if they aren't physical, even if we can't sense them or see them with telescopes, microscopes, x-rays or whatever. So I think they are real keys, but they aren't physical, because the kingdom isn't physical. Yes? I saw a painting of Peter and he was holding regular keys. Yes, he's often shown with physical keys; they are a symbol of his authority. But how can a key be real if I can't hold it? I don't know- the same way a kingdom can be real even if it's invisible. The Bible is literally true in saying there's an invisible kingdom; and may also be literally true in saying that kingdom has keys."

The idea that there are real things that we only partly perceive, or don't perceive at all, but take completely on faith is normative in Catholicism. E.g., the miracles in the Bible are literally true, although what makes them happen is impalpable. And by extension all the sacraments are real, although their energies are undetectable as well. Put another way, the Church expects us to think of reality as being much bigger than what we can directly access via our sin-flawed physical existence; and thus Catholics are primed to understand the Bible more literally than anyone else.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Paroles d'Amour

This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets
violets grow there the whole year 'round

Song lyrics have hugely informed my view of romance and marriage since before I could even read. For over 50 years, I've continually remembered and sung the most influential ones. Only in the last year or so have I recognized how being married for 26 years, having kids, grandkids & All That has deepened my understanding of those old lyrics for the better. Because I used to reflect on these songs, but now I participate in them.

From my grandparents' hi-fi, South Pacific (where men wear coconut brassieres):

Some enchanted evening
When you find your true love,
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side,
And make her your own
Or all through your life you
May dream all alone.

and

Younger than springtime, are you
Softer than starlight, are you,
Warmer than winds of June,
Are the gentle lips you gave me.
Gayer than laughter, are you,
Sweeter than music, are you,
Angel and lover, heaven and earth,
Are you to me.

From my parents' hi-fi, the Four Freshmen:

As the days grew old and the nights passed into time
And the weeks and years took wing
Gentle boy, tender girl, their love remained still young
For their hearts were full of spring

Then one day they died and their graves were side by side
On a hill where robins sing
And they say violets grow there the whole year 'round
For their hearts were full of spring

From the radio, Minnie Ripperton:

No one else can make me feel
The colors that you bring
Stay with me while we grow old
And we will live each day in springtime
Cause loving you has made my life so beautiful
And every day my life is filled with loving you

From my stereo, Yes:

Hold me my love, hold me today, call me round
Travel we say, wander we choose, love tune
Lay upon me, hold me around lasting hours
We love when we play

Look me my love sentences move dancing away
We join we receive
As our song memories long hope in a way
Nous sommes du soleil
Hold me around lasting ours
We love when we play

From France, Julien Clerc:

Comme un jour tu viendras sûrement/ One day you'll surely come
Dans ce salon qui perd son temps/ To this room where time stands still
Ne parlons plus jamais de nos déserts.../ We'll speak no more of just deserts
Et si tu restes je mets le couvert/ And should you nap I'll cover you snug
Maintenant, comme avant/ Now as before
Restons-en au présent pour la vie / Let's stay like this for life
Aujourd'hui, reste ici / From now on- stay with me.

(my translation, traduttore, tradittore)

From the Greenville County Library, Billie Holliday:

Living for you, is easy living.
It's easy to live when you're in love.
And I'm so in love,
There's nothing in life, but you.

I'll never regret the years I'm giving.
They're easy to give when you're in love.
I'm happy to do whatever I do, for you.

For so long through so many songs I imagined lifelong love. Now I live lifelong love in ways I couldn't have imagined. The songs are old; but love grows, and blooms anew.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Plus des Sacraments

This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets


I was reading Michael Gormley's post, Teaching the Sacraments, felt compelled to pontificate on the subject, and decided to do it here and then link.

I used to teach sacraments to adults in RCIA, and to kids in Catechism class. With my current curriculum I don't have specific lesson plans for sacraments. But even when sacramental content is woven into the wider lessons, over the year a sacrament will get treated in 4 ways:

1. Each bit of OT scripture that we cover which is relevant to one or more sacraments is connected to that sacrament on the spot: anointing, washing, sprinkling, miracle bread, miracle flesh, Passover, laying hands, etc. are discussed at least briefly in terms of foreshadowing one or more sacraments. Typically I make the kids figure out which ones. I rarely hand out answers.

2. In the NT, every miraculous thing Jesus or an Apostle does is connected to a sacrament, even it's nothing more than observing that once again, a physical encounter is required with Jesus or an authorized agent in order to obtain particular graces or healing.

3. Time allowing, I also do something physical: run a skit, draw a picture, lay hands on a head, rub mud on eyes, grab a passing tassel, anything to put a visual stamp on the idea. By the time we get to Acts, an 11-year-old can tell me when I should lay hands on somebody.

4. I keep a stash of props in my bag. Hitting the rock with Moses' rod,  smacking the Jordan with my coat, or pressing a rag to a kid's forehead reinforces the physical, mediating nature of sacraments, even if I don't explicitly say so every time. Again, by the time we get to Acts, the kids tell me about it.

One thing I like about teaching sacraments on the fly is that it's virtually impossible for the children to not have a big picture of sacraments as a group of what, phenomena, that are integral to the warp and weft of Bible history.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

See?



When discussing sacraments with 6th graders, I always emphasize that the physical part of a sacrament is more than a symbol. And by the time we even get to a sacrament (Baptism), they are already familiar with God's grace and power moving through physical media such as Moses' staff, Elijah's cloak, Elisha's bones, and Jesus' tassel. Later on when we get to Acts, they can figure out on their own how handkerchiefs and shadows can transmit healing to the afflicted. Catechism class is alive with God flowing through his Creation.

Ah yes, Creation- the stuff that God made in six days and all of it was good. As I say in class, "It was all good, morally good, even dead stuff like rocks. God makes only good things, that's just his nature." But then Adam sinned, messed up not just himself but all of Creation, and the rest is history. Now we struggle against the consequences of sin, not just spiritually, but physically: we get hungry, sick, injured, we hurt, we age, we die. Now you'll recall that if we graph the 6 days of creation, as days pass, the things created tend to be more and more like God. And at the top of the graph is Adam- well, no, Eve is at the top- well, no, something higher still...sorry for digressing. Anyway, before the Fall, everything was good. But in the case of a rock, only as good a rock can be. A plant would have more goodness in than a rock; a bug more goodness than a plant, etc. More like God = more goodness. By no small coincidence that also means: more like Adam = more goodness. But the downside is that because Adam's sin cursed the Earth (and by implication the rest of Creation) the things closest to Adam took the biggest fall from grace. Let's say Adam fell 50%. And the things farthest from Adam, such as inanimate rocks and water, lost the least of their goodness- maybe 5%. So when God works miraculously through sticks, water, oil, shadows and rags, I see it as a reproach: God chooses those things on the low-end of Creation because they may retain nearly all of their original grace-goodness conductivity. Stuff near the top is more flawed, more unstable.

Now here's another consequence of the Fall: we need faith because we can't perceive all kinds of stuff that affects our existence here and elsewhere. Think about folks in Eden: did they need faith? Sin hadn't yet pried Creation into parts, so I doubt it. Or those in Heaven? No. But now, yeah, sin truncates our perception. We see only dimly, or not at all. And stuff I think I see clearly, like a tree or my wife- I bet they look way different, more tree, more wife, to a saint peering down from heaven. Sin makes it harder for us to see the Good that's woven into the fabric of the Universe. Sin's effects make us divide reality into what's "visible and invisible"; but it's actually one big continuity. Just because we see it partially doesn't mean we can't try to understand it as a single unified entity.

But how nice of Jesus to institute sacraments to bridge that gap. You know what a sacrament is, right? "A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." That's a good Western definition. It points to the part we can see. Sacramentum is a practical word the Latin Church uses in place of the Greek word mysterion, μυστήριον. It makes perfect sense especially if you consider sacra-mentum is fundamentally a tool or means of making something holy, set apart. Like instru-mentum, a tool to construct something.

Too bad the Church doesn't yet again breathe with both of her lungs at the same time, because I'm fonder of that Greek word mysterion. Here's a good definition: "A mysterion is that to which signs refer; a reality laced with the unseen presence of God." I like this concept better because it directly addresses the bigness of the invisible reality, which extends far beyond the grasp of our sin-stunted senses. Beyond the normal...right?

Wrong. This may sound dumb: Eden was normal. Sin is not normal. Its consequences are not normal. The problem is that we wrongly assume what's normal is what we're used to; and all that stuff that's supposed to lie beyond our senses, well, it may be real in some detached way. But not as real as my fingers or my keyboard. Or at least the bits of them that I perceive. Who knows what aspects of my fingers and keyboard exist on the other side of my personal sin-constricted event horizon? And in spite of sin, reality remains "laced with the unseen presence of God." Laced? More like soaking wet with God.

So let's look at a sacrament: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery (megas mysterion)."  It sure is a mystery, because when my wife and I become one flesh, I know there is more it to than my senses can tell me. I mean physically more to it, not just spiritually. I don't think 'becoming one flesh' is symbolic or figurative. I think we physically become one flesh in a way that would be perfectly obvious to a saint. And that torrent of transcendent fusing while everything still looks the same to this sinner...well, that's the mystery. The merge, the one-fleshing is real. I just...can't...see it.

Likewise, we're literally part of Christ's body. Can you see it? Me neither. But it's not figurative, it's real.

I want to get to baptism in a second, but first let's consider this flag:


It's a symbol of America. But that's all it is. There's no metaphysical connection between the flag and the country. Burning the flag doesn't cause a fire in America. We could swap it out for another flag tomorrow.

But sacraments are different from a flag, and I am not content in class with calling the part of a sacrament that we can see a symbol, and leaving it at that. It's just the visible part of a bigger reality. Consider my wife. If I have a picture of her, that's a symbol. Burning the photo doesn't set my wife on fire. But if I'm looking at my wife- is she a symbol of herself? Oooh. Interesting. Living in the world I'd say no indeed, she is my wife, she is herself, not a symbol. But in the context of an unseen and larger reality, then yes, this bit of her I can sense is a symbol of the aspects of her being I can't sense. Or only sense fleetingly and dimly. If we both wind up in the New Jerusalem, of course there'll be nothing symbolic about her there: it would be The Total Babe for all eternity.

My point is that there are different levels of symbol; and Christians tend to regard the symbolic aspects of sacraments as being like the flag, when they are more like my wife. For example, we use water for Baptism. Some Baptists will tell you Baptism's nothing more than a symbol; doesn't do a thing. The Catholic Church teaches it's a symbol (an outward sign) that signifies what truly happens: sin is washed away. That's consistent with Acts: "Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins." Pretty clear- but did Luke mean it literally? Does the water actually wash away sin; or does God intervene when the water is poured? That is, on the spirit side, does the water do anything? Dumb old water? I think it does. That is, if the "cloud of witnesses" attends a baptism (and they probably attend them all), they see water wash sin clean off of the person, as plainly as I see dirt washed off of my hands. The wonder of that miracle (and sacraments are miraculous though not dramatic) isn't that it happens at all: it's no big deal for God. The wonder is that the unseen world pokes into the seen one for a few seconds. It's miraculous to us, yes. But it's also normal. It's normal for water to bear this Christ-infused goodness. Human beings, comprising a unity, a continuity, of body and soul, physical and spiritual, can be washed, body and soul, by water. Because like everything else, there are aspects of water we can't see. But then you ask, why doesn't water wash my sins away every time I bathe? Because Baptism effects a permanent spiritual change. Like an egg: one sperm, one time. It's normal. OK...but why don't people get their sins washed away the first time water flows over their heads? Because God leaves it us to intentionally bring a person into his family, and also to assume some responsibility. He does this with making babies; and with making Christians. Water always has the potential to wash away sin, but it happens only through our physical and spiritual cooperation with God's grace.

So think about sacraments as actual, physical, literal conduits of God's power that's not remote, but moves in us and around us. Think comprehensively- like the Catholic Church.

Fun related link here.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Scapegoating the Body

This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets and Convert Journal

that's a relief

(This post is a bit of a sequel to the prior post.)

On April 30 I completed what I think is my 10th year of catechizing 6th-graders in Wednesday Night Sunday School. I love teaching, but I like to also sit down and have someone else be the teacher, especially if they really have something to teach. My classes are on Wednesday nights at the same time RCIA; and on Thursdays the parish offers lectures on assorted topics of interest to Catholics such as the Reformation, the Divine Comedy, and Islam. Both RCIA and the Thursday night series are led by our Director of Christian Formation T.J. Nielsen, who, like Goldilocks' porridge, is just right: brisk, informed, funny, comment-and-question oriented, and not too Powerpointy. But during the Catechetical year, having taught on Wednesday I don't wanna go back out on Thursday; so I attended only one of TJ's presentations before May, and two more since then. My loss. I may try harder next year.

When I hear anyone speak live about religion-philosophy-culture-society, it's usually from the pulpit on Sunday or a lectern during the week. I'm always catechetically assessing the moment-by-moment content of what I hear: do I cover that in class? If so, is this new content I can merge with what I already do? If I don't cover it, should I? How much time would it take? How would I teach it to kids? That sort of thing. It's affirming that most of what I hear from pulpit or lectern overlaps and harmonizes with lots of class content and thought-process, although the pitch is different. And even if there's no direct lesson-plan application of some memorable bit, inevitably some child will ask an off-the-wall question; and pow, I deliver an answer I mooched from someone else years ago.

So refining kids' content through exposure to adult thinking is second nature. But over the last couple of weeks being in TJ's class, I heard questions and comments coming from adults that I had already heard at least once from kids. And of course my 6th-grade answers were different from adult-type answers. So I felt constrained to strip the kiddie-approach out of anything I said before commented. But still: meaningful adult content lay within children's catechesis, content that wasn't likely to emerge in an adult-only learning environment.

Last night's parish lecture on the Catholic Worldview included discussion of a human being comprising a unity of a body and a soul. TJ mentioned Manicheans and Gnostics, who align the Soul with light and the good; and the Body with darkness and evil.  A woman asked why Christian heretics such as the Cathars would reinvent those old ideas- after all, Genesis observes that everything was good. Now, kids don't ask questions about Cathars or Gnostics. But kids ask questions about how our bodies and souls go together; and discuss why people don't like to apologize or accept blame; why sin is bad; its effects; why bad things happen. In class, Body and Soul is a theme that runs all the way from Genesis through the Mass. There was a good, kid-type answer to that woman's question, but I had to think about it. After the lecture was over and people were chatting, I asked her if I could respond to her question especially with reference to the Genesis bit. She said sure.

I crouched down so I could touch the floor. "You're right that Genesis says everything God made was good. That means even stuff like rocks. It was all good 'cause everything that comes from God is good unless something messes it up. But Adam and Eve sinned, and God said to Adam, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you." You may already know adama is Hebrew for earth, ground, dirt. So Adam was made from Adama and God's breath (I pretend to scoop up dirt, breathe into it, and mold it), and he was good. Now Mr. Dirt has sinned. But Adam's sin doesn't just affect Adam the man; Mr. Dirt's sin also curses the dirt, the adama (I angrily smack the floor), because they are connected. Adam sins, and all Creation pays for it. Now nobody wants to think their sins have such repercussions; but I think when I sin, it may have some bad effect centuries or light years from here, like throwing a sin-rock into clean, calm water. I don't know how far the bad ripples will go, but I expect to be appalled when I find out. If God showed me right now all the bad I've caused, it'd probably kill me or at least drive me insane. And being prideful, I look for an easy way around that Matterhorn of guilt- you know, I'm not as bad as Hitler, or my prodigal brother, or Judas. Or my sins are just on me, so no biggie to get God's pro-forma forgiveness.

I expect everybody looks for that sort of out: one that lets us keep most of our pride intact. So people take advantage of a major consequence of sin: death. See, death separates the body and soul, and the body belongs to the visible, physical world, which we already know is a mess: famine, plague, tornadoes, tigers, yuck! It was a mess before I got here! So that must be the problem: our souls, our invisible real selves are good and pure, and not morally responsible for being stuck in these lousy sin-prone bodies. This heresy simply scapegoats the Body, in order that the Soul may get a pass. A convenient construct, but a false one. A human being is singular, even if we can imperfectly perceive different aspects of that singularity. We're a bit like Jesus in that respect: Jesus comprises God/Man/Body/Soul all at once. But Jesus is singular; prying him apart is heretical. Likewise the Trinity: the three-ness is singular. Prying them apart is heretical.

The whole person sins. There's no Gnostic spiritual better-half with an eternal get-out-jail-free card. That's why there will be a Resurrection of the Dead before the Final Judgement: the whole person is good or bad, so the whole person will be judged. Ouch.

That's why that heresy remains popular. And it's why the Catholic Church is always clear about why it truly is heretical: the only out is true repentance, and the sacrifice of one's pride."

And that's also why we have, you know, Confession. Ouch again.

(Audio version here.)