Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The trouble is witness

I keep thinking I should write fewer posts about religious stuff.  I have lots of other things to share: my recipe for the best potato salad I've ever had, an explanation of discipline tactics that work, pictures of my garden if I ever take any.  I write them in my head when I'm trying to sleep, and then the morning comes and it's chaos all over again and I just don't have time.

The stuff that pulls on me so that I can't rest till I write it, is the religious stuff.  So my apologies to anyone who wants to learn to make better potato salad.  I really will blog that stuff when I have a chance.  But I've got to talk about this.

I've had kind of a sucky week.  It started when someone shared with me a job posting for what would have been my dream job if I were looking for one.  An alternative classical/Montessori school, looking for someone who could teach a variety of subjects.  Must have two years experience and be good at Latin and gardening.

Latin and gardening, people!  That is not a combo you see every day!

Then I read down a bit and there was the Catholic stuff, the chosen candidate would have to teach religion and therefore of course they wanted a Catholic.  They didn't say if they required a loyalty oath, but my past two jobs did -- quite a strict one which, it is argued, goes beyond what the Church requires us to believe in the first place.  I've taken them before without giving a whole lot of thought to it, and signed statements saying I acknowledged that I would be fired if I publicly denied any Church teaching.

I'm not sure I could do that anymore.

To go to Mass is not a lie, it's a commitment.  To declare I believe stuff which I want to believe but don't actually believe IS a lie.  It's not fair to Catholic parents who want a really believing Catholic teaching their kids - heck, I don't think I'm Catholic enough to teach my kids, though I do because somebody's got to and I'm on the spot.

But since I have no teaching degree, I can't teach many other places besides Catholic schools, and so I realize I have lost my career as well as my certainty.  Sure, I am not working now, don't need to work.  But I dreamed of getting back into the classroom someday -- of at least having the option to if I could find the right sort of place.

So there was that.  And then this week I heard another group I'm part of was considering expelling a member who had become an atheist.  There was a lot of talk about how there could be no true fellowship between believers and unbelievers, talk about how mere exposure to bad ideas would harm everyone's faith.

Of course my first thought was that this is unkind, and the second thought was that I'm next.  This blog isn't private (kicking myself a little about that, but I think the desire to avoid hypocrisy was a valid one) and if I were on trial to prove I am a Catholic in good standing, I don't think I would win.  It certainly raises the question of how many of the people who like and respect me would cease to do so if they knew what I really think.

But the third thought was the scariest one, and it is this: is stuff like this the only reason anyone is Catholic at all?

You see, when all other reasons for being Catholic fail, you can always say, believe because others do.  Think of the people who taught you the faith, and take things at their word if you can't prove them.  But how can you do this when you know that many, many Catholics believe for reasons that aren't at all rational either?

Are we all just keeping our heads down because we don't want to be thrown out of our clubs, jobs, or even families?

By this I don't mean, everyone doubts as much as I do and just doesn't say it.  But that when you feel a bit of doubt, when you think there's a good argument against the faith or perhaps a book or article that might make you believe less, you have a zillion and one reasons not to examine it -- and 99% of those reasons aren't rational or perhaps even spiritual at all.

If Sally pushes away her doubts because she thinks the slightest chance of going to hell isn't worth any benefit to thinking about that stuff, and Bob pushes them away because his mother would be broken-hearted if he doubted, and Tracy pushes them away because she works for the Church and her job would be at stake, and Harold pushes them away because the Church considers it a sin to even entertain doubts in the first place .... how are we supposed to know the reasons for believing could ever stand up to criticism?

It's cultic thinking, and while cultic thinking is no proof at all that something isn't true, it also chips away at one's ability to use the witness of others as evidence.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

There is no such thing as religious freedom

I will freely admit that my personal experiences make me less than objective when considering the question of the truth or falsity of the Catholic faith.  But I also insist that those same experiences make me particularly knowledgeable about what religion actually is, how it functions.  And I'm fascinated by it -- how it works, how it fails to work, how it works excessively well at times.

Too often Catholics narrow it down to a list of propositions: Catholics believe these things, that's our religion.  If you can sign onto the dogmas, you should sign up for the religion.  But any religion is a great deal more than that: it is relationship to the divine, ritual framework, community tie, law, mythic structure, shared history, and moral indoctrination.

I say moral indoctrination because our morals are something we learn long before we have a good sense of why.  And yet I don't think that conscience is necessarily innate.  Sure, we naturally have a sense of empathy, which gets us as far as, "I should seek the benefit of others," but other rules beyond that vary widely between times and cultures.  [Note: "people's moral assumptions vary" isn't intended to imply "no one set is correct."]  That variation explains the sense of moral outrage I feel on reading ancient history (how could people attend hangings and treat them like parties?!), Greek epics (why the heck is Athena praising Odysseus for lying?!), or the Old Testament ( know THAT story already).  I am seeing people do things which are morally wrong (from my viewpoint) but which they seem to assume are right -- and which they don't bother defending because everyone knows they are right!

I can't imagine how a discussion on morality between me and, say, an ancient Babylonian might go.  What shared principles would we start from?  Heck, I am not sure how I could explain to some of my quite near ancestors why it's so terrible to be racist.

The only reason we think that morality exists apart from religion is because most religions (and philosophies) we normally come into contact with have very similar moral codes.  Not only that, but the religions practiced in America all seem to have mutated somewhat to be accepted today.

Think about it: what are a few ethical standards Americans, in general, agree with?  "It's okay to do what you want so long as you don't hurt someone else."  And, "People should be able to believe and worship how they want."  And, "We should be nice to people who are different."  What religion do these ideas come from?

The Catholic Church used to be rather touchy about religious freedom; now it accepts it and points out that God himself seems to let people believe what they want.  Aggiornamento, I suppose -- this progressive idea is just what people think nowadays; I suppose the cardinals felt as I do about it, that it's just morally right and therefore the Church has to be okay with it.  So Catholics can now -- as they could not so easily before Vatican II -- sign onto the secular ideal without compromising their own faith.

Tolerance, freedom of religion, etc. aren't from a religion at all; they are from the philosophy that America is founded on.  (And most other modern nations -- it's a pluralist, secularist, progressive sort of creed,  developed in the Enlightenment.)  Religions that are accepted in America are all religions that are able to sign onto this philosophy -- or at least are willing to coexist with it.  We can have Catholics, but not Inquisitions; Puritans, but not witch trials; Islam, but not jihad.  You're welcome if you're willing to live and let live.   But if your religion commands death to the unbeliever, you're not welcome.

This seems like it would go without saying, but it only seems obvious because you're used to it.  The ancient Romans and ancient Jews shared the common belief that failure to worship properly would lead to punishment, not only on the unbeliever, but on the whole nation unless it punished them.  That is why the Romans threw the Christians to the lions, and why the Old Testament has a little bit about stoning to death anyone who even suggests worshipping other gods.  It really was a part of their religion -- it was just as sincerely held as any belief you hold today.  But just try explaining that to the judge, as you plead First Amendment protection at your murder trial!

And honestly it makes good cultural sense, in a very dangerous world, to defend your cultural standards with violence.  If you are part of a tribe/culture/religion (because those almost always go together) that believes in the sanctity of human life, and some stranger wanders in whose beliefs you don't know, you can't just trust him.  His religion might mandate cannibalism.  Tolerance comes in second to self-preservation.

What made modern religions give up this sort of attitude?  Was it Jesus and his talk of loving your enemy?  Possibly.  Or perhaps it's just an idea whose time had come; things had gotten safer and one didn't need to be quite so careful.  Even despite this, though, there was an Inquisition, and religious pluralism wasn't accepted until fairly recently.

But don't be deceived: pluralism itself is something you don't really have freedom to deny.  Well, maybe you could, if you lived in an area with a religious majority, and it was just understood that you would have to abide by its rules if you lived there.  Here in America, it's a fact -- there is no religious majority that agrees on all ethical standards.  So law cannot be derived from religion, not without causing all kinds of chaos as people refuse to follow a law they don't believe in.  Instead, we've just agreed -- our standard is something different, it's the idea of human rights, of freedom so long as you don't harm others, of a secular public sphere so that no one religion dominates.

Even the whole concept of majority rule is an enlightenment idea.  Before that it was cuius regio, ejus religio -- everybody has to follow the religion of the prince.  Because for people to live together, there has to be some rule as to how they interact.  Is forced conversion okay?  Is blasphemy okay?  What about heresy?

This stuff comes up all the time.  If Doctor Joe is against abortion, but Susie believes it's one of her human rights, does Doctor Joe have to perform one for her, or not?  Is a pharmacist allowed to refuse to dispense birth control pills?  What about poison, or a drug he knows will cause a dangerous reaction?  Does a diabetic child's right to receive insulin trump his parents' right to raise their child in a religion that forbids medical treatment? We wrestle with these and argue them out as a society -- but in the end, we can't even have a conversation about them without a shared set of moral principles.  We have all agreed on rights that people have, and that's what makes it possible to weigh one right against another in the first place.

  America has a nice little balance -- majority rule is a general principle, but everything decided by the majority has to abide by the constitution, which respects individual rights.  We decided that the majority should rule, but it couldn't infringe some basic rights the minority gets.  Those rights are carefully enumerated and they have to do with harm -- if you can demonstrate you are being harmed, you have a claim to stop someone from doing what they are doing to you.

But when all the fuss goes on about "religious freedom," meaning freedom to opt out of the laws everyone else is obeying, I think .... well, this is what you get when you are a minority religion in a country with shared ethical principles that differ from yours.  When there is no conflict, you're fine.  When there is one, you have to acknowledge that your morals aren't the standard the country is run by. What will you do, pay the jizya or leave?

Well, I guess you have more options than that.  You could withhold consent from the reigning establishment, refusing to vote and biding your time to overthrow the state and set up a Catholic theocracy.  (Because if you don't believe in majority rule it's a little silly to vote.)  You could come up with a different sort of shared philosophy which involves voting but has Christian values enshrined in the constitution, and try to get people to sign onto it and vote for your ideals.  You could try to find a secular argument for the thing you want -- for instance trying to prove that you are harmed more by being forced to bake a cake you don't want to bake than a gay couple is harmed by having to ask someone else.

But you can't say "everyone has the right to do what they think is moral," because that would be chaos.  If you thought stoning gays was morally obligatory, you would be out of luck.  Turns out the shared Enlightenment philosophy that says you can't impose your beliefs on others trumps religion.  It has to, or else you wouldn't be allowed to practice your own religion, because guaranteed, your religion isn't allowed by somebody else's religion.

In this country, we have freedom of belief and freedom of worship.  Freedom of conscience, though, is bounded by the rules of our shared philosophy.  You can have the freedom to do some things, which can be demonstrated not to hurt others -- refuse medical care, affirm instead of swearing on the bible, be a pacifist.  And not to do other things -- things that might hurt others, like child marriage, female genital mutilation, or human sacrifice.  No one cares if your religion requires it, that's tough luck because it contradicts our shared moral grounding.

Turns out most people in this country think that you have the right to use birth control (because it doesn't hurt others) and marry the person you like of whatever gender (because it doesn't hurt others) and  that you don't have the right to discriminate or encourage violence (because on some level that does hurt others).  If you disagree, you'll have to find an argument based on showing that following the majority will harm you, and that your opting out of the majority opinion will not harm others.  "Religious freedom" isn't an excuse for doing what our shared philosophy believes to be immoral.

And that's why I think "religious freedom," defined otherwise than freedom of thought and worship, doesn't actually exist.  You can't opt out of America's rights philosophy and still demand your own right to liberty.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

7 Easter takes

Yeah, it's not even Friday anymore, but I don't want to let yet another week go by without posting anything about our actual lives.  Too much interesting stuff is piling up to tell you!


First off, we are now a two-car family.  My parents helped out with buying the new car, which embarrasses me a bit.  I mean, I guess in my mind I thought having a second car would be proof that we had Arrived, and here we are with a second car we didn't earn.  But on the other hand, the kids are getting older and I want them to have some opportunities outside this house before they turn into recluses like their mother.

Probably too late for me, though.  I have this car and now I don't want to go anywhere!  Leaving the house is like asking for trouble: almost guaranteed, somebody will get in some kind of unexpected trouble, someone will have an accident or a blowout diaper, something that should have been in the diaper bag (spare pants, spare diaper, sippy cup, snack) won't be.  At home I have all my stuff available without having to pack, I can get stuff done around the house while the kids play, and everything in reach is stuff that's okay for touching so I don't need to spend all my energy on making the kids behave to a certain standard.  As I said the other day, if I didn't like being at home, I wouldn't have chosen to live there!  Home is my favorite place.

On the other hand, it meant I didn't have to drive John to the airport right at the worst time of day for unexpected naps, when he went to Italy earlier this month.  It means that I can do grocery shopping on a weekday when the place is empty, and spend the weekends hanging out with my husband like I'd much rather do.  It means that I can go to the craft store or the seed store and have that be the only thing I do all day, instead of jamming all the errands in on a busy Saturday.  So, you know, there are perks.  We've also been to the library and visited the friends who have generously had all the playdates at our house for years.

I am grateful, but I am reminding myself that having a car doesn't obligate me to use it when I don't want to.


 My family was here for Easter, and just left this morning.  I was so glad they came here, because I can't see going out there for awhile yet -- it was so exhausting last time.

Not that this visit wasn't exhausting too.  My family is indefatigable.  They wanted to see all the sights, and seeing all the sights while towing a combined seven kids is very tiring.  Some days I stayed home with my kids while my parents and siblings went hiking -- especially as Marko was sick on Monday and still convalescent on Tuesday.  Rotten timing, but you know, even when he's not sick he's a bit overwhelmed by the tornado of chaos that is my family.

It's hard to understand how I managed to emerge from a family like that.  But I swear, they were mellower when I was a kid.  It was just my big brother and I, reading books.  Sometimes we went to the park.  And now there are four kids, all of them are loud, and all of them are involved in a zillion things.  The whole mood of the family is different, even though my parents are the same.


Tuesday was Marko's birthday -- but since John was working late and Marko wasn't feeling well anyway, we celebrated on Wednesday.

Can you believe he is FIVE?  Wasn't he just four?  I thought four sounded like a big kid, but five sounds really like a big kid.  Five-year-olds are in kindergarten!

Of course that makes me feel worried ... is he really as advanced as a kindergartener?  Sure, he's smart and knows his letters and all, but I can't imagine him going off by himself for a whole day, or even a half day.  He rarely talks to grownups who aren't me . . . and I worry, it's because I don't expose him to many.  And then when I do, I mediate a lot, explaining him to them, because he doesn't say "hello, how are you," but "I'm the Doctor!"  I worry about my own ability to teach him how to interact with strangers, because I don't know what I'm doing either.  I've always been kind of awkward with strangers; I bluff my way through it but I wouldn't be surprised to find out I'm inadvertently rude.

Anyway, here's Marko, looking very five:

That is a piece of wood he's holding.  He wanted a picture with it.  I don't know why.


Here's is Marko's birthday present:

Little wooden pegs from the craft store, painted by me to look like Doctor Who characters.  From left to right, there's Strax, the Eleventh Doctor, Rory, Amy, a weeping angel, a Cyberman, the Tenth Doctor, and Rose.   A couple of them are going to his best friend the next time I see him.  Michael's already managed to lose the Eleventh Doctor, but I suspect he's inside the couch somewhere.  Marko has been sleeping with Amy Pond at night.  He also found a cardboard box and wheedled me into painting it like a TARDIS, which he's been flying his peg people around in.

I am very proud of myself ... and I also am fighting the temptation to order a big box of pegs and set up an Etsy store.  First, because I don't have time, second, because I got the idea from somebody else's Etsy store (they were selling them for $20!) and I don't want to steal their idea for profit.  But painting is lots of fun.  I like mixing the colors to try to match my inspiration pictures.

Certainly I have lots of ideas for the next birthday or holiday.  The kids definitely need an Ood.


Miriam is getting so big.  She crawls, she pulls to a stand, she lets go and plops onto her bottom without toppling over.  She eats lots of stuff, including stuff I said she was too young to have, but heck, when the big kids are eating muffins with gluten, egg, and dairy, I feel like a colossal heel if I don't give her one too.  Oh well.  She hasn't had any serious reactions, but she has been sleepless and cranky so perhaps I should try to get a week when she only eats things she's supposed to have and we could see how it goes.

This is how she sits.  I know W-sitting is supposed to be bad for babies, but what about Isle-of-Man-sitting?  (Does it make me a nerd that that was my first thought when I saw her sitting like that?)

I suspect it's just to give herself greater stability on the hardwood floor.  It hurts if she topples and bumps her head, so she's trying to have a nice wide base so she doesn't tip.

Lately she has wanted to be held pretty much always.  Her naps are 20-40 minutes and she doesn't take enough of them.  She wakes up a lot at night.  I don't think she's teething, but she might have an earache left over from the sickness all the kids had last week.  And then there's the fact that the boys will NOT be quiet while she's trying to nap, because they are also cranky and fighting a lot.

I'm hoping a few mellow days of not-much-happening will help settle everyone down.


Michael is ... well ... Michael.  Here he is holding an unusually large canary:

He'll be three in two weeks, can you imagine?  Hard not to spend all my time thinking, "But at three, Marko listened better!  Marko could have walked through a cave without touching all the stalactites!  Marko could sit at the table through a restaurant meal without throwing a fit because the food was too slow to arrive!  Marko slept through the night!"  They are different kids.  And though he's behind Marko on many things, he is also more open to new experiences than he was at this age, more imaginative, more affectionate, and less shy.  His tamper tantrums are massive, when he has them, but the rest of the time he's pretty chill.  He doesn't hold grudges.  And he's a better talker than Marko was at this age, because he uses his pronouns right.

John sums it up by saying, "Marko is like me.  Michael is like you."  And that's pretty accurate.  Michael likes food, dancing, hugs, and making up ridiculous stories that he swears are true but knows are false.  ("How did you get this scratch on your foot?"  "An alligator bit me, but I ate him."  "Where did you leave the Eleventh Doctor?"  "On the moon.")  Marko is picky, focused, a bit standoffish, and he gets very upset when people say things that aren't true.  When Marko was two and didn't want to get a nighttime diaper on, John would put it on his head.  Marko would wail "diapers are not for heads!  diapers are for butts!" and John would graciously agree to put the diaper on his butt instead.  Michael would not fall for that one -- diapers on heads seem like a great idea to him!  Marko threw a fit the other day because Michael wanted to put Strax in the TARDIS and Marko was certain that Strax never actually rode in the TARDIS.  (I said he did so, and Marko told me I don't know anything.  Yeesh.)  He screams and cries and hits when Michael insists his imaginary stories are true.  So I've been trying to explain ... daily ... that in this country we do not hurt people for being wrong.  People having wrong ideas doesn't hurt you.  The best you can do is hope they learn the right ideas someday.

They really could not be more different.  But I love them both, one because he's like me, and the other because he's like my favorite man.  It's all good.

So far Miriam is more like Marko was as a baby than like Michael, but time will tell.


Anyway, happy Easter, hope yours was great.  Mine was a bit of a disappointment... I was eager to go to church, hopeful that perhaps I would have some kind of spiritual experience that would make me feel a bit better about being Catholic, but Miriam was sick and so I didn't get to go to church at all.  Trying not to see this as a message from God that he doesn't want me.  More likely it was just the baby getting sick because she caught a virus from her brother.  And anyway I got Easter dinner with my family -- meatloaf shaped like a lamb, because a leg of lamb was THIRTY DOLLARS, daylight robbery if you ask me.  Well, no surprise, it was from New Zealand, that's a long way to ship of a leg of lamb.

Did you have a good Easter week?

Saturday, April 4, 2015


We've been talking in the comments lately about the problem of suffering.  But it occurred to me, a great number of religions and philosophies don't find suffering a "problem."  It makes perfect sense.

Don't know what I mean?  Let's go through the possibilities:

*If there is no God, suffering is not a problem.  Death and pain are necessary agents of evolution.

*If there is a God, but he doesn't care about or involve himself with humans, suffering is not a problem.  Just the side effect of happening to exist.

*If there are many gods, none of them all-powerful, and they fight with each other constantly, suffering would be a result of your god not having the power to win out over the other gods.

*In the gnostic view, suffering is caused by matter, and matter is created by the devil or a lesser being.  God cares about people, but he can't reach us as long as we are tangled up in matter.  

*Suffering is punishment for sin, or to encourage us to stop sinning.  The Old Testament holds this view a lot, and so does ancient Roman history.  Your army lost?  You must have lost divine favor because someone among you is breaking a divine command.  The Romans killed the Christians for the same reason the Israelites killed the Amalekites -- because they thought having impious people in their midst was triggering divine wrath.

*Christianity .... has no answer.  It insists on a God who loves every individual person infinitely, and is also all-powerful.  Why would an all-powerful person not prevent the people he loved from suffering?

Well, there are theories.  You could point out that some suffering is the result of human choices, which some certainly is, and talk about how God respects our free will enough to let us hurt each other.  Now I'm a parent and I don't let my kids hurt each other, even though I respect their free will, but perhaps God is different.  But still, that leaves suffering that isn't a result of human choices.

Or you could say that before the Fall there was no suffering at all.  This is what I understood growing up, that there were no earthquakes, floods, diseases, or whatever before the Fall.  Science can show us that's not the case, that these things have been around longer than people, but I revised the theory awhile back .... suggesting that, before the Fall, humans had the capacity to solve or avoid all that stuff.  We could cure our own bodies of sickness (in fact, we can now, only not predictably -- that placebo effect is awfully powerful) and predict coming natural disasters, like animals can.  So you can still blame all that on the Fall.  (I tell people this and they call it theological speculation, like that was a bad thing!)

You could say, as Belfry Bat said the other day, that suffering is good for our souls -- that we are made perfect and ready for heaven by it.  Certainly in some cases that is so -- I think of my grandfather's deathbed conversion, which perhaps from his perspective made the immense suffering of his final illness worthwhile.  In others, I'm not so sure; suffering seems to pull people farther from God and goodness. 

Another theological speculation of mine is that God bound himself in a promise to hand over all authority over creation to men -- that he isn't actually all-powerful in the created world, because of his statement to Adam and Eve that they were to have dominion.  He meant, literally, they were in charge, and God isn't able to take back his promises.  The Fall damaged our ability to exercise that power, but if we were perfect, we ourselves could do miracles.  And sure enough, all miracles that I can think of have happened through the agency of a human being.  That also says something very intriguing about why God would have had to come as a man.  But in any event, since God has promised not to rule the world, and we are not able to do it competently, the world is in a state of chaos and disorder which God never intended.  (This theory, which I otherwise like, runs into a lot of problems with Scripture, and also raises the question why God set things up like that, foreknowing of course that we would fall.)

There's the time-traveler theory, as I like to call it.  You know how some people say we can't go back in time to kill Hitler because (theoretically) if we did, something worse would happen?  God, knowing all possible scenarios, has picked this one because it is the best possible -- accounting of course for all the free will choices he knows we'll make.  So he could snap his fingers and give me the gift of faith, but that would stop me from writing these inspiring blog posts (for instance) and that would prevent him from saving some other soul who's getting a lot out of them.  Or whatever.  This might not look like the best of all possible worlds, but from God's perspective, it is -- because it results in the maximum number of souls saved.  From this, we draw the possibility that he might allow some to be damned in order to save a greater number, which I don't much like.  But other than that, it's possible -- non-disprovable, in fact, because we don't know how many people God has saved, or how many he could have saved if he did things slightly differently.

There's the author theory, which resonated with me before I actually wrote any books (just like the good-parent theory worked well before I had kids).  In this one, we consider that an author who included no misfortune in his book would be writing a terrible book.  There has to be suffering to make it a good story.  The problem with this is, I don't love the characters in my books.  I like them a lot, but I know they're not real and so I suffer no pricks of conscience when I kill off their loved ones or afflict them with diseases.  If God sees us that way, it's reasonable, but it destroys one of our premises, that God loves us.

Beyond the solid theories, there are comforting additions.  These don't explain anything, but they might help a person feel better.

The first, of course, is that Jesus subjected himself to suffering, and therefore he certainly isn't an impersonal being in the sky who squashes us for fun.  ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport," as King Lear says.)  Jesus was willing to take part in the sufferings we are prey to, which is a convincing show of solidarity.  It definitely does make us feel that God is not entirely ignorant or uncaring of what we go through.

The second is the thought that God will make it up to us in heaven -- that any suffering we undergo now is just a teeny tiny fraction of the joy we will experience in heaven, and from that perspective it will be all no big deal.  That is comforting, though hard to grasp from our current perspective.  Those who suffer terribly for years do not see their sufferings as "no big deal," and they struggle to imagine the sort of bliss that would make it up to them.  But I can see wanting to believe this -- especially if you believe, as I do, that a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell who could in any possible scenario, with all the terrible influences on them undone, accept him.

Did I get all the theories?

The point I'm driving at here is that it isn't an actual mystery, in the theological sense.  It isn't a clear formulation that just happens to be impossible to understand.  All of these are possible to understand, even if we're not able to follow all the intricacies of God's knowledge and choices.  And we can work to match these theories to the data -- ruling out any that contradict things God has said in Scripture, for instance (if this is, in fact, possible, seeing how very opposite to one another some of God's statements are), as well as any that don't match the world we know.  "Good people are rewarded on earth and bad people punished" can easily be dismissed, for instance, because we observe differently.  I also rule out "God gives suffering to those who can handle it," because that also contradicts what I observe.  Anyone can handle suffering if they have no choice --- unless, of course, they kill themselves, which some suffering people do.

But I think that it's important to try to work this one out and come up with some clear answers, even if these answers only come down to plausible theories, because believers have to be able to show that their belief system is, at the very least, possible.  Saying "it's a mystery" is not an answer; though of course it might accompany an answer -- "I don't know for sure, because it's a mystery, but here's one possibility."  But it has to be attempted, because it's the second-strongest argument against Christianity.  (The strongest, in my opinion, being the apparently bad things God does in the Old Testament, which all my attempts to resolve keep being labeled "heresy.")

What's your theory?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Holy Week

I love Holy Week.

My earliest memory of Holy Week was one year when my dad was out of town.  My mom set up a small table and we all sat on the floor to eat a "last supper" which I think was bread and wine, or crackers and juice, or something.  We might have washed each other's feet too.

Other than that we never did much about the Triduum.  On Easter we would often be at my grandma's house.  I liked her church and singing "Alleluia, alleluia, let the holy anthem rise."

But when it got really special was in boarding school.  I don't miss much about those days, but I miss Holy Week intensely.  It would start with the Mass of the Lord's Supper Thursday evening ... bells in the Gloria, the organ silenced afterward.  The chapel seemed all hollow with us singing a capella.  (Have I mentioned, we were very good singers -- everything was in three parts, always.  And the Holy Week hymns were beautiful: Man of Sorrows, Wrapped in Grief, Ah Holy Jesus, O Sacred Head Surrounded, What Wondrous Love Is This, and so forth.)

After Mass we would sing Pange Lingua Gloriosi and process behind the Blessed Sacrament to the conference room -- which had been transformed into an altar of repose, decked with flowers.  From that moment until noon on Friday, we would take turns for adoration.  Adoration at night was always special -- getting woken up while everyone was sleeping, tiptoeing down to the dim, quiet altar for some alone time with Jesus.

Good Friday was silent, with a deep silence unique in the year.  Instead of being woken by "Christ Our King" and then standing by our beds to recite the Te Deum, we were woken by a knock on the wall and would pray in silence.  Down to the chapel to say our prayers in silence.  No directed meditation, now that was a treat -- we could pray in silence.   We spent the morning on housework, and then the only words of the day -- the Seven Last words.  Seven girls would offer meditations on Jesus' words from the cross, before the Good Friday liturgy, solemn and quiet.  We would receive communion one last time before Easter and then stand by as the altar was stripped.

I felt bereft, with Jesus gone from the tabernacle.  All year, we'd be in and out, paying visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and now he was gone.  I imagined how the apostles and Mary must have felt, laying Jesus in the tomb.  The rest of the day was empty, mournful.  We didn't even pray to Jesus, or at least I didn't.  Everything was addressed to Mary, because Jesus was gone.  Dead.

Holy Saturday passed the same way, hollow and sad.  More housework to do, to get ready.  A walk-through of tomorrow's procession.  Confession, if you wanted to go.  No Mass.  The chapel was an echoing space; we would start to genuflect and then cut ourselves off awkwardly.  Reach into the font, find it empty.

Then, as the sun went down, we would gather hopefully outside.  Father's vestments flapped in the evening breeze, picked out by the red rays of the sun.  The sacred fire in the brazier fought with the wind; it seemed it might lose out.  The incense grains embedded in the Easter candle, Christ yesterday, today, and forever, the numbers of the year etched on . . . hard to believe those numbers, wasn't it still 33 A.D.?

We would process into the dark, silent chapel, the candle being raised as Father chanted Lumen Christi.  Our own candles were finally lit and the Exsultet was recited.  As the lights blazed on, we could see the source of the delicious smell that had been wafting down from the altar -- floods of Easter lilies, tumbling down the steps.  Then the long, beautiful liturgy.  Every single reading was said, every psalm sung.  Every time I read those psalms, I hear the voices of those soloists, always the best singers in the school, singing those beautiful settings.  The whole of salvation history, picked out and summarized.  All so clear.  Then, at long last, the first Alleluia -- that one word, carefully not said for forty days.  We would sing it at the tops of our lungs.

But it never seemed real, it never seemed Jesus had returned, until the consecration, when he was at last present again in our chapel.  We received him with a sigh of relief, at last you are back.

The next morning was one of my favorite parts -- meditation, not only undirected, but not in the chapel.  We were given a handout with the appropriate gospel passage and set free to go pray where we wanted.  Lots of people stayed in the chapel anyway, but I always went outside.  Given the choice between a church and outdoors, I almost always will pick outdoors.  It was cold, cold and damp -- for though it felt like spring in the heat of those days, the mornings were chilly.  And I would read the passage, "Rising early on the first day of the week..."  How must they have felt, Mary and Mary Magdalene and the others?  Thinking it was all over, Jesus was dead, now this grim duty.  And then, he was gone, how dare they take even his body from us?  Mary Magdalene, later, walking alone in the garden.  Is that the gardener?  No, it is him, really alive after all!

After that, there was the Mass of Easter Day, and breakfast with all the best food.  I can't remember what else we did, because honestly that wasn't the best part.  The best part was leading myself through darkness, deliberately surrendering to grief, and then letting hope dawn again in my heart.  No joy without suffering.

Perhaps, within this description, is the answer to the question, "Why did you stay, even though you were being emotionally abused?"  Perhaps there too is the answer to that other question, "Why are you still Catholic, when you admit you don't believe?"

Because these things go deep, deeper than good reasons.  Cynically I can say, that's the point.  Religions bind you, bind you to each other and to the past.  That's why the world is so full of Christmas and Easter Catholics, of atheist Jews celebrating Passover.  We might not believe, but we remember.

It's all about the re-enactment, the re-presenting of an old story, a story of death and rebirth.  Certainly Christianity is not the only religion that does something like this in the springtime -- the earth itself dies and is reborn every year.  But for us it is more than a symbol, because we think it's something that actually happened.  And meaning can be drawn out of this one story forever.  Things like:

*Someone loved you enough to die for you, before you were even born -- your life was all foreknown and has meaning.
*That broken feeling inside every person, the knowledge that we are not what we should be, that we are at war with ourselves, comes from a primal Fall and it is all fixable.
*Death is not permanent, Jesus is the firstborn from the dead and you will rise from the dead too.
*True victory is not found in violence, but in what the world calls defeat.

It's a story that clings at the heart, to the point where it can hardly be disbelieved despite any amount of evidence.  In the words of Sister Joan Chittister, "It rings in our hearts like tines on crystal."  Perhaps the story so resonates because it is true.  Perhaps it was created because it resonates.  Or maybe it's just because I learned it as a child.  Does it matter?  It is a good story, one that I want to believe.

I am not sure what to do for this Holy Week.  I can't make it to church today, not with these wild kids, and I'm dispensed from fasting.  Easter Vigil is definitely right out, as it has been for years.  I can't seem to read the Bible without analyzing it.  But still, I feel that I walk that path somewhere within ... suffering, death, rebirth.  The mystery of it.  What does it mean?  What does it mean to me?

So I sing hymns.  I think about it all.  I'll go to Easter Mass, though I probably won't make my Easter communion.  I wonder what I will do, when my family greets me with "He is risen" -- do I respond "He is risen indeed, alleluia"?  I do not feel any alleluias.  I cannot testify to his rising.  But I want to play my part in the story, somehow, if even it's only the part of the doubter.

A strange Holy Week, for me.  I hope it is a blessed one for you.
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