Friday, October 30, 2009

Calm Sailing

A lot of dynamics come to bear on the Protestant soul that is drawn to Catholic Christianity. The dynamics involve both interior and exterior dimensions. This multi-dimensional journey can indeed be quite a crisis of faith, not only for the soul on the journey but also for the host of spectators viewing from up close and far away.

It is a journey filled with inexpressible joy, something that I personally liken to the parable told by Jesus about the Prodigal.[1] The implicit life-parallels contained in this parable are striking.

This joy has a deep personal and intimate fullness about it that is more easily experienced than it is described. But, at the same time, the journey is also replete with levels of sorrow and sadness, elements that have a way of creating their own set of defining characteristics.[2]

Rejection is definitely one of the characteristics that earmark the journey of a Protestant into the world of Catholic Christianity, something that is particularly heightened when the one being led on the journey happens to be a Protestant minister. It’s just simply part of the course. Although the pains of rejection have a way of sharpening awareness and firming resolve, it also necessitates practicing generous amounts of forgiveness and living more deeply centered in the love of Christ.[3]

Life’s journey is a course of discovery. I am discovering, along with these telltale marks of natural aging, that I am growing quite the more sentimental and sympathetic as I traverse these proverbial hills and hollows in pursuit of Christ and my own soul’s redemption.

I must admit however that there was a season on this journey when it was easy for me to meet rejection with equal amounts of its kind. Perhaps that was paraptoma on my part, fault that had a way of clouding over a lot of good memories of beautiful relationships and fruitful ministry that found themselves surrounded by camps of other well-intentioned but belligerent forces that caused me much personal hardship.

But perhaps it was also something necessary along that particular stretch of an extremely difficult climb, one that amounted to nothing less than a feat of spiritual, emotional, and even physical survival.

The dire straits inherent in that part of the journey have lost their keen edge. The major storms have abated. Those difficult straits are now more of a historical matter than they are present lived reality. The fabric of my life is yet being woven.

The sun rises in the East and sets in the West, a natural sign filled with profundity. “Live in fear of judgment day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be.”[4]

[1] Luke 15:11-32
[2] Romans 8:31b-39
[3] Matthew 5:3-12
[4] RB 4:44-49

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mea Culpa

I CONFESS.

The beginning words of the Confiteor will ever be an incomplete statement of the process of self-examination and, at the same time, the doorway that opens to ever-deepening depths of interior healing and health.[1] It is a process that we are simply never done with, though it is easily set aside, avoided, or rejected for one reason or another, especially in our pressing post-modern culture with its gross overemphasis on individualism and independence.

I do not like to admit my own culpability. Not to myself. Not to anyone else. I am, after all, a human being and I am as susceptible as any other person to the sin of self-justifying pride, the plank that leads only to the inevitable short plunge into an unforgiving sea of self-destruction.[2]

John Cassian, born about 360 and ordained to the diaconate shortly after 400 by John Chrysostom, writes poignantly about the vice of pride, something that is found listed first on the list of the seven capital sins.

“There is no other vice which so reduces to naught every virtue and so despoils and impoverishes a human being of all righteousness and holiness as does the evil of pride. Like a kind of pestilence in its noxious universality, it is not satisfied with disabling one member or one part of the body; instead, it wastes the whole body with its deadly corruption and seeks to cast down and demolish by the most utter collapse those whose place is already at the summit of the virtues.”[3]

Poignant words. Blunt and sharp in the same instance. Words that implore self examination.

St. Benedict[4] cautions against the sin of superbia throughout the Rule. He applies these cautions to every level of personal monastic status: Abbot, cellarer, deans, prior, priests, reader, monks. I must, as an Oblate of St. Benedict, take to heart the wise counsel from “a father who loves me, welcome it, and (work to) faithfully put it into practice.”[5] The context of an obedient life as an Oblate of St. Benedict, housed within the framework of the historic Catholic faith, has defining and refining characteristics that I cannot ignore or slight.

The practical truth of the matter is that none, regardless of their point or position of Christian experience and service, are immune to pride. I am certainly not above it, must own up to it, and include myself in this group of none. Pride, cloaked with its insidious and deceptive nature, has a way of always showing up. It simply has my number, knows how to dial it, and is constantly ringing it up in one way or another.

Cassian tells us that no one can attain the end of perfection and purity except by true humility.[6] Benedict spends quite a few words in the Rule[7] outlining twelve steps in the ladder of humility. It seems to me, despite all the efforts and arguments made to downplay, avoid, and even justify omiting the subject, there is only one legitimate prescription available that can allay the effects of pride.[8]

Perhaps, if I keep taking this prescription long enough, one day I’ll finally slay this dragon named pride that shows up all too often on my doorstep. I can offer no legitimate excuse for opening the door and welcoming him in.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

[1] James 5:16
[2] Proverbs 16:18-19
[3] John Cassian, The Institutes, Twelfth Book, p. 255
[4] c. 480-547
[5] RB, Prologue 1
[6] Book Twelve, XXIII
[7] RB 7
[8] Phillipians 2:5-8

Friday, October 23, 2009

Onus

Daybreak marks the Eastern sky and a Mockingbird is singing its part in the morning chorus. I love this time of day. It’s beautiful.

For a while an owl was hooting down in the bottom. The air is filled with the aromas of autumn’s earth scents. The world of people is waking, at least in the natural sense, and beginning to go about its frenetic course while monks assemble to pray the morning offices in unhurried fashion.

They pray for themselves. They pray for the Church. They pray for me. They pray for the whole world. From a distance I enter into and join in the spirit of prayer with them.

Laud the day. Christ is Risen and the graces of God’s mercies are renewed afresh!

O God, come to my assistance.
O Lord, make haste to help me.

I’m reminded in today’s Gospel[1] of the partitive nature of the Christian experience, that entering into and living the life of Christ is to choose a life replete with what appears as paradox. But it really is not paradox. There is no contradiction in Pure Peace, in the one who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”[2]

Far be it from the Prince of Peace to be the generating source of division. Yet, in his own words, he tells us that his coming was to announce division. He did not come as the creator or author of division.[3] That’s a project that humanity does well enough at on its own.[4] He came as the Light to penetrate and illuminate the darkness that separates mankind from God. He came to illuminate the darkness that separates humankind from one another.

I have to own up to my own onus where this matter of darkness is concerned. The owning up is much easier though at this point in my life-journey. What, after all, do I have to lose?

[1] Luke 12:49-53
[2] John 14:6
[3] 1 Corinthians 14:33
[4] James 3:16

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Moving Beyond The Sesquicentenial Post

To say that the journey of faith is an interesting and challenging journey is perhaps one of the greatest understatements that can be made by anyone. How can it be anything but interesting and challenging? It is, after all, a journey into the heart and mind of God.

It’s a journey that begins with the premise that trusting in God’s ability takes precedence over any ability that I may possess. It’s a journey that takes into graceful consideration my own inability and fallibility. It is a journey of continual discovery, of continual conversion. Then, one eventual day, the journey as we now know and understand it concludes on the same note that it began with.

Then, even and especially then, what seems to be the conclusion of life is only a beginning, a brilliant and new beginning of consummate union and fulfillment in the Very Source of our being. This ultimate union and fulfillment is, I believe, the hope and goal of all believers in Christ regardless of their denominational affiliation.

It’s really a shame, considering that the whole of Christendom shares in this single hope and goal, that so many wedges pry Christ’s Body apart. A lot of wedges have been cast since the Reformation. Not just wedges that separate Protestants from Catholics, but also wedges that separate Protestants from Protestants.

Christian people have their differences of opinions about certain matters of faith and doctrine. Maintaining and furthering differences of opinions has a way of necessitating the forging of larger and heavier wedges. It’s wise to remember that the deeper a wedge is driven into a block of wood the harder it is to remove it. Even if it is removed it always has a way of leaving behind a gaping scar.

Hammering wedges is not on my list of intentions. Christ’s Church is already badly fractured and scarred enough. But, at the same time, I cannot but speak and write objectively and with integrity about my own personal faith journey, one that was for a lot of years deeply involved in the Protestant faith realm before my conversion to Catholicism.

This was a conversion that did not happen in an instant. It wasn’t a change made in haste. It came only after years of study, prayer, and discernment. It came only after a long season of “counting the cost.”

I owe a lot to my former life as a Protestant and I give credit to every teacher and mentor that I had along the way. I consider, at this point in my faith journey, that the sum of the various parts of my Protestant experience were preparatory for the day when I, with my Baptist background wife beside me, would be confirmed in the Latin Rite.

This journey of faith, in many respects, has only just begun. It’s a journey replete with all the inherent aspects of a life-long love affair. It’s not a fickle romance based on infatuation and changing emotions. It’s deep, soul and marrow deep. It involves the intellect but transcends the capacities of intellect to anticipate and enter into Divine Mystery where faith becomes unclouded sight, where I am better able to “see as I am seen” and “know as I am known.”

So here’s a toast to all the miles and memories that reach back to the days of my earliest memories. And, looking ahead at the miles that are hidden within the misty Cloud of Unknowing, I follow the toast with a prayer looking forward to God’s continued grace and guidance.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Spiritual Discernment

Discernment is not always a pleasant process. It’s also a process easily complicated by attempting to inject what I think is in my best interest, what will suit my own preferential desires, or even what I think is God’s will, according to my own perceived and conditioned notions, into the process.

The process of discernment is something very fluid and its outcome, quite often, can be far different from what one may think. The involved fluidity can be something of a challenge, especially when we are conditioned to think in concrete and systematic terms, terms that can place personal limits on the illuminating capabilities of the Holy Spirit.[1]

It was a stark and numbing reality that I awoke to. Although it was a quite sudden awakening, it was predicated by a long road littered with the debris of multiple personal crises arising from the process of trying to faithfully serve God in what I honestly understood to be my vocation in life as a Protestant minister.

For all my best efforts and personal sacrifices, despite all my best efforts and sacrifices, the road in my rear-view wasn’t a very pleasant sight to behold and I no longer possessed the emotional and spiritual stamina to keep riding the waves of disaster that beat against the shore of my life. I simply could not keep doing what I was doing and accruing what I was accruing.

I didn’t see a pathway when I consciously stepped off the road that was familiar to me. It was, in fact, more like blazing a trail through the brush and bramble. I did not know where I was going and had no idea or inclination that the trail that I was blazing as a mere act of survival would intersect with monastic spirituality, solitude and contemplative prayer, and the Catholic Church. But I was satisfied in knowing that I was going.

Discernment is a process that bears its precious fruit over time. Its fruit blossoms and develops “in the going.” It has its moments of epiphany, those little rays of brilliance that penetrate our hearts and minds to give us hope. The process of discernment takes us into ourselves to show us where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. It offers us opportunity to grow deeper in our understanding of ourselves. It takes us out of ourselves to help us better understand God and his will for the life we’ve been given to live in this present world.[2]

“All sorrow, hardship, difficulty, struggle, pain, unhappiness, and ultimately death itself can be traced to rebellion against God’s love for us.”[3] My own rebellion. Other’s rebellion. It’s really a simple but nasty matter.

I, for the most part, credited the cause and fault of the multiple crises to others. It was, after all, from others both in marriage and ministry that the leaping flames of disapproval reached out to singe my heart and blacken my emotional skin. At this point now, in the course of my life, I can own up to my share of the causes and faults that worked covertly deep within my ill-prepared self.

And, more honestly, pray ... forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

[1] Romans 8:7
[2] Phillipians 3:15-16
[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 267

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Religious Dissension

It really is something of a spiny horned dilemma, one that centers itself in the issue regarding the bread and the wine offered on the altar – in its presentation by the priest, in its consecration and sanctification by the High Priest who comes miraculously and mysteriously to inhabit the bread and wine, and in those who are able through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation to share in the reception of the true and living Body and Blood of Christ.

There are, quite naturally, other issues that arise out of this primary one. One of the most significant of them is the ideal that governing spiritual authority was vested in Peter and the other apostle-bishops, and subsequently in those upon whom they laid their hands in ordination.[1] Rejection of Apostolic Authority in the priesthood, the priestly spiritual lineage of leadership traceable back to Peter[2], along with the spiritual authority vested in him by Christ, opens a proverbial Pandora’s Box filled with divisive moths that eat away at the very fabric of the leadership model ordained by Christ.

Authority, of any kind, is a major issue with a lot of people. Especially in this age of independent thinking and living. It’s important to remember that the antithesis of authority isn’t freedom. Far from it. The antithesis of authority is anarchy and when anarchy is the rule of the day nobody is free. Everyone lives in fear, even its promoters and proliferators. The worst possible form of anarchy is the one that births schismatic spiritual dissension.[3]

It is, in my mind and understanding, a climate of spiritual dissension that affects all of us in the realm of modern Christendom. A lot of it appears on the surface to be well-intentioned dissension. But even well-intentioned dissension has a way of getting out of control. It has a way of side-stepping and ignoring historical Church norms and, in their place, fashioning its own sets of congregational and independent norms that more readily allow for individual preferences and human expressions.

The sad and dangerous reality about these replacement-norms in the realm of Christendom is that all of them incorporate the Scriptures as their source to justify their being. The Holy Scriptures, in the multiplicity of their denominational usages and independent interpretations, have sadly become the single greatest tool used by the Enemy to fracture and divide the Church. I hardly think that religious dissension was Christ's holy plan for his Body or God's intentions in giving us the Scriptures.

All of us who take on the nature of Christ, through belief in and profession of him as Savior and Lord, are called to become bearers of the Light.[4] This is a tremendous task and responsibility, one that is exacerbated by the reality that we live in an inherited climate of hostilities created by the fruit of several centuries of religious dissension.

[1] 1 Timothy 4:14
[2] Matthew 16:18-19
[3] RB 1, The Kinds of Monks
[4] Matthew 5:14-16

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ecumenism

Ecumenism.

It’s an interesting word. It’s an especially interesting word to bring up on the heels of the last quote from the 1955 Manual For Oblates where we are encouraged to pray for the extirpation of heresies and schisms.

The word ecumenism does have a nice ring to it.

Ecumenism, as an idea and as a movement, boasts of being an endeavor to unify. It offers something in the way of a remedy for the fractured brokenness that realistically characterizes the multi-denominational church world. Relationships can be built with others of differing doctrinal mindsets. Bridges can be built through inter-religious dialog with religions differing from the Judeo-Christian faith.

Relationships, communication, understanding and acceptance are all important dimensions of life in the pluralistic world of religious faith. But, for all the effort, can ecumenism ever serve as the vehicle that achieves Christ’s deep desire reflected in his priestly prayer?[1]

Personally, from the little corner where I live out of my own experiential frame of reference as a Protestant convert to Catholicism, I hardly think that it can. Not in an ultimate fashion. Not in a fashion that will become the catalyst for the conversion of the long list of ancient “other than Christian” religions. Not as the means that will bring all the “separated” Protestant brethren back into the sheepfold of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Ecumenism, as with every other item and issue that concerns my life as a Catholic believer and as an Oblate of St. Benedict, comes down to one simple matter. It is simply a matter of legitimate spiritual authority. Not only a matter of legitimate spiritual authority. But of personally yielding to its Christ given position in His design for the Church.

For me as an individual, mere mental assent in these matters without a total life response is a sure and compromising course leading toward an ever deepening emptiness full of self-deception.

Somewhere, somehow, there simply has to be a final and definitive voice of authority that can herald an authoritative yea or nay. I find this voice of authority in the Supreme Pontiff and his bishops and priests as they rightly divide the word of truth[2] and its accompanying traditions that keep my own interpretations of it from going askew and leading me into anathema. I also find this voice of authority in the Abbot of St. Bernard Abbey where he leads the monks and Oblates in the way of the Gospel set forth by St. Benedict and contained in the Rule.

Ultimate and absolute spiritual unity cannot exist without ultimate and absolute spiritual authority. We can have plenty of individualism and denominationalism without it. We can have plenty of lively and meaningful inter-personal and inter-religious interaction without it. We can do plenty of altruistic good works without it. There is a lot that we can have and do without it. But the one thing that we cannot have or achieve without ultimate and absolute spiritual authority is true, ultimate, and absolute spiritual unity.

This presents something of an unavoidable predicament, one of those inescapable horned dilemmas. No matter how we dress it up, pare it down, or rationalize it.

[1] John 17 (particularly verses 20-21)
[2] 2 Timothy 2:15





Thursday, October 8, 2009

Out Of The Wilderness

A dear friend, serving as a fellow Protestant clergyman, showed me his copy of New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton almost a decade ago. He handed the book to me, opened to chapter 3, and asked me to read. I had never so much as heard of Merton and had no idea that he was a deceased Catholic, Trappist monk, and priest.

I read the first paragraph while standing in the middle of the parsonage living room. Merton’s words warmly massaged my sore bruised heart. I sat down on his living room floor, continued reading the chapter, and experienced something of a challenging infusion of peace and grace that, unbeknown to me at the time, marked the beginning of my journey out of Protestantism and into the world of Catholic faith.

I live daily with thanksgiving for that providential landmark, etched into the fabric of my soul, at a crossroad that was dry, windswept, and otherwise noted for quite an assortment of interpersonal relational hostilities.

Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the notion of converting to Catholicism. Nothing in my Christian lineage supported such a notion.

I was reared in Calvinism in a small independent Bible Church. As a young man in my twenties, after a hard romp in the world, I crawled out of the pigsty and sensed a calling to ministry. I enrolled in a denominational Bible College that was staunchly opposed to the Catholic Church and, for that matter, every other denomination. Upon graduation I was ordained as a minister in that denomination. The latter years of my Protestant ministerial career found me preaching and pastoring in the independent charismatic arena.

I had become, for all practical purposes and in all signs and appearances, a Protestant in full bloom.

It’s not my intention to scathe the realm of Protestantism. That is not my purpose in life as a Catholic follower of Christ. Nor is it an inherent aspect found in the Rule of St. Benedict[1]. Oblates of St. Benedict are directed to live with an ecumenical orientation.[2] It was, however, out of the world of Protestantism, that I providentially found my way home to the healing fullness of the Catholic Church, St. Benedict, and St. Bernard Abbey. It is a fullness that has definite distinguishing characteristics that Catholics and Catholic Oblates are encouraged not to lose.

I’ll admit that all of the aforementioned does have a way of objectively coloring the way I see and address the bigger picture of Christianity and the Church. It is a picture that helps me see that it is altogether too easy to lose a sense of mindfulness about where we are at the moment - a sense that takes into consideration the direction we are heading and where we have come from. To have this lack of sense in a natural wilderness setting means that we are lost and our very life could quite possibly be in jeopardy.

How can the Christian faith-journey parallel be considered any different? Especially considering the tremendous disunity created by all the fissures, fractures, and factions that, once begun, have continued to multiply themselves over time into such a vast wilderness of divided doctrinal opinions.

“Let them (Oblates) pray earnestly for the triumph of holy Mother Church, for the spread of religion, for the extirpation of heresies and schisms, for the conversion of infidels, for the repentance of sinners, for the perseverance of the righteous, and for the relief of the souls in purgatory.”[3]

[1] St. Benedict, the Rule, and monasticism do happen to be of the Catholic orientation.
[2] Guidelines For Oblates Of St. Benedict, Section A, para. II
[3] .27, Statutes And Declarations Of The Oblates Of St. Benedict, contained in the Rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Religious, granted March 24, 1927. Manual For Oblates, St. John’s Abbey Press, p. 18, © 1955

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pathways Of Contradiction And Hope

Quite a number of years, investigating and pondering the roots and history of monasticism, predicated the day that I eventually knocked at the door of St. Bernard Abbey, an event that coincided with a parallel journey of beginning RCIA[1] classes at St. Lawrence Catholic Church.

These parallel paths first appeared as paths of contradiction. And they are. They contradicted much of what I had been taught as a Protestant believer. They also appeared, bizarre as they may seem to intellects groomed to oppose them, as paths of hope in a deep and dark forest crisscrossed with so many trails and the echoing voices of a confusing chorus of denominational and independent criers.

I could not though, for the spiritual life of me, once my weary pilgrim feet had started walking these parallel paths, turn aside or cease the journey. This journey, replete with certain pending costs in regard to personal relationships, was far too important. Its dividends were far too valuable to trade for less valuable tender.

The voices of the criers in the proverbial woods no longer appealed to my ears. The many crisscrossing paths were no longer inviting and held no attraction to my eyes. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist had become real to me. The need for the authority vested in Apostolic Succession had become real to me. My own deepest personal need, after decades of professing Christ and serving him as a Protestant minister, had become real to me.

It was in the realization of my own deep personal need and the means[2] to satisfy my own deep hunger and thirst that I also began to realize my vocation in becoming a layperson in the Catholic Church and in becoming an Oblate of St. Benedict.

Though I’ve known Christ throughout most of my life, I found my spiritual Mother in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Mother Church established by her Son. In the monastic way of spirituality, particularly through St. Benedict, the Holy Rule, and a daily horarium of prayer, lectio, and manual labor, I found an effective, time proven, and unchanging way[3] to live the Gospel Ideals in this crazy and fractured modern age.

And I endeavor to do this in relationship with the monastic community at St. Bernard’s and with other Oblates living outside the cloister. This is a relationship that readily assists in keeping me from my own easily accomplished errors in interpreting the Gospel to meet my own fickle and changing moods and desires.

A life given to the practice of holy obedience and conversion of life, when viewed in the context formed by monastic spirituality running alongside the framework authoritatively provided by the governing Church that is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic[4], is something far removed from any ideas of a life hedged by religious subservience. Its perimeter and bivouac host a spiritual freedom filled with its own characteristics that are more easily experienced than explained. It is a freedom easily resisted, neglected, or taken altogether for granted.

The labor of holy obedience and its subsequent fruit of conversion of life is honestly the only means available to deliver me from my own sloth of disobedience.[5] So I do my best, as an Oblate, to keep the monastic pathway under my feet. And, when I do wander off the path, it doesn’t take long for the brambles and briars to get my attention.

[1] Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults
[2] John 6:22-69
[3] 1500 years of usage surely deems something reliable.
[4] The character of the Church as defined by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.
[5] RB Prologue 2