Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Be Not Afraid of Fasting

Recently someone told me that there are two things he’s learned not to do.  The first is never to make a New Year’s resolution because he always breaks it the next day.  The second is to give up something for Lent.  The reason being the same as for New Year’s resolutions - he can’t keep it up.  Instead, he said, he tries to do something “positive” for Lent such as smiling at everyone he meets.

There are three problems with this outlook.  The first is that this treats Lent as nothing more than a New Year’s resolution.  While it is true that you are allowed to “do something” as your lenten penance rather than fasting from something - as per Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution on Penance - the idea is to do something spiritual.  One day when I was in high school a group of students was discussing what they were doing for Lent.  One student said that he would be doing all his homework.  Besides being something that a high school student should already be doing, this act, along with the aforementioned smiling at everyone a person meets, is a perfectly secular New Year’s Resolution.  When the Church gives the option to do something for Lent she still means it to be a spiritual act and an act of penance, such as praying the Rosary daily, going to daily Mass, or spending an hour a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  

The second problem with this outlook is that it ignores the inherent value of fasting.  Fasting is an ancient practice, observed both in the Old and New Testaments, and, not least of all, by Christ Himself.  On the first Sunday of Lent we heard the story from the Gospel of Matthew of Christ’s forty days in the desert following His baptism.  We see in this act of Christ not only an example to follow but a demonstration of the reasons for fasting.  

The primary reason for fasting is to help us acquire mastery over our passions, our instincts, and our sins.  By denying ourselves a pleasure, we increase our capability to deny our temptations and, ultimately, with the grace of God, to overcome sin.  In denying ourselves, we also engage in a small martyrdom, a death to self, which prepares us for the Cross.  This is the second purpose of fasting during Lent - to prepare for the suffering of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday.  Christ’s forty days in the desert were a preparation both for His imminent public ministry and His ultimate passion, death, and resurrection.  

The third reason for fasting is to express an inner conversion.  This is the purpose that a penance following confession serves.  We have turned away from sin, we have repented and received absolution from our sin, and now we make restitution for our sin through some corporal penance.  Lent is a season of conversion and it, therefore, necessarily involves penance.  When Christ went into the desert, He had not committed any sin.  However, He had just been baptized as an example to us of how to turn away from sin, and He extended this example by embracing a penance - first, through fasting in the desert and, ultimately, on the cross.

Fourthly, fasting is important because it unites us to Christ.  Our constant mission throughout life is to conform ourselves more fully to Him.  In fasting we both follow His example and join in His passion and death.  In the Gospel Our Lord calls on us to “take up your cross every day and follow me.”  The act of fasting, particularly during Lent, is a means of embracing our cross and following Our Lord to Calvary.  And when we have joined Him in His passion and death, we are then also able to join Him in His resurrection.

The final reason why the attitude which rejects fasting is incorrect is that it makes Lent all about us and our willpower rather than about God and His mercy.  Lent should be an opportunity to increase our reliance on the grace of God which helps us to renounce the pleasures of this world and on the mercy of God by which He forgives us when we fail.  Would any of us say that we have given up trying not to sin because we always end up sinning?  I certainly hope not.  So neither should we give up fasting because we sometimes break the fast.

Throughout the season of Lent we are marching toward the Cross.  The Cross, from which Jesus promised paradise to a miserable thief.  The Cross, from which, gasping for breath as He endured the cruelest of deaths, Our Lord uttered “Father, forgive them.”  The Cross, from which God’s mercy literally flowed when the centurion stabbed Him in the side, letting loose a fountain of blood and water - the love and mercy of God - which drenched the soldier causing him to cry out that “Truly, this was the Son of God.”   

Don’t be afraid to fast this Lent.  Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.  Face your greatest weakness, take on your greatest temptation.  And if you fall, don’t give up.  Run to Him.  He is literally dying to shower you with His mercy and His grace.  His mercy by which He forgives you and His grace by which you will be able to get back up and continue on your Lenten journey.  Our Lord told His disciples “forgive not seven times but seventy times seven.”  He longs to forgive you every time you fall.  Even if you fall seventy times seven times.  He died to pour out His mercy and grace on you so that, eventually, if you persevere, you may overcome your struggle.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

John Paul II and the Sacrifice of Love

Four years ago I was studying abroad in Europe.  One weekend our class had an opportunity to travel to Poland – to spend three days in Pope John Paul II’s beloved homeland.  To prepare for the trip we all set out to watch various documentaries on and tributes to our late Papa.  My image of JP II had always been of the young, vibrant Pope, despite the fact that throughout my life he had been in the last stages of his.  In watching one of the tributes to him I was struck by how he looked in the final years of his life.  Pope John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and suffered from the degenerative disease, the same which my grandma has been suffering from for over 15 years, until his death in 2005.  What struck me about his appearance was that he looked like my grandma.  The disease had taken the same toll on each of them.

In our world today there are two approaches to disease, disability, and depression.  The first, the euthanasia approach, says both “I don’t want to live like this,” and “I don’t want to die like this.”  I don’t want to live attached to machines, too weak to care for myself.  I don’t want to die in an undignified manner.  When of course the truth is that there is no such thing as dying in a  dignified manner.  Death is a messy business wherever and however it takes place.  The product of sin could never be otherwise, except insofar as it is accepted in love and humility and united to the death of Christ.  There was no less dignified death than that of Christ on the cross.  Stripped of his clothes, naked, beaten, humiliated, and “lifted up” before a crowd, Christ died.  Yet this is what we as Christians are called to embrace.

Pope John Paul II not only embraced the indignity of his cross but embraced it publicly, as Christ had.  Throughout the many years of his illness he continued his public ministry, making himself, and his suffering, visible to the world.  He continued to make pastoral visits around the world through 2004.  It had always been a trademark of John Paul II to kiss the ground when he arrived in a new country.  By the time of his 1998 visit to Cuba it had become difficult for him to do this, due to the nature of his disease.  In an act of love, several children approached the Holy Father with a bowl of the country’s soil as he disembarked from his airplane.  They lifted this up to him so that his lips could touch the dirt without enduring the struggle of bending to the ground.

The last public appearance of John Paul II occurred 4 days before his death, when he struggled to bless the crowd in St. Peter’s Square from his window.  Throughout his illness this man gave the world a public demonstration of the second approach to disease, disability, and depression.  This approach says, in contradiction to the “I want” mantra, this suffering is not about my wants.  This suffering is an opportunity to practice love and humility.  The love which offers suffering for the salvation of souls, which sacrifices its own wants and dignity for the good of others.  And the humility which does not insist on independence but allows oneself to be cared for by others and to appear weak and sickly in the eyes of others.

I’ve been privileged to witness this embrace of suffering on a very personal level, with the illness of my grandma.  When her health began deteriorating, and it became apparent that she needed full time care, my aunt gave up her job and her life in upstate New York to come home and care for her mother.  For the past 15 years my aunt has taken over increasing responsibility for my grandma, to the point that she now does literally everything for her.  There is nothing more humbling than having to rely on another person for everything that is necessary for your life.  There is no dignity in my grandma’s situation, except the dignity that comes from love.  There is no dignity in death, except the dignity that comes from love.  

Administering a lethal injection does not give someone a dignified death.  Rather, it strips them of the opportunity to sanctify both themselves and others.  The love which offers suffering for souls sanctifies oneself and the humility which allows others to sacrifice for you sanctifies them.  If we truly want to offer “death with dignity” we will abandon our wants and engage in the hard work of caring for the diseased, disabled, and depressed.

During my pilgrimage to Poland I had the opportunity to visit the Divine Mercy Shrine, dedicated to the message of Divine Mercy which Our Lord communicated to Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska (now St. Faustina).  One of the Sisters of Divine Mercy, the religious order which runs the shrine, gave a talk to our group on this message.  She finished by inviting each of us to take a Divine Mercy holy card.  They were not for us to keep, however, but to give to someone who needed to put their trust in Jesus.

My grandma had been on my mind since I had noticed the similarity in appearance between her and the Holy Father.  I had been praying for her throughout my Polish pilgrimage and I sent the holy card home to her, to strengthen her in her suffering and to thank her for the example she has set for me.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

What's In A Name?

What term would you use to describe the action of taking a person's life? Murder and killing are the first that come to my mind.

What term would you use to describe the procedure in which a mother “terminates a pregnancy?” Society uses the word abortion.

This past week Alisa LaPolt Snow made headlines when she testified on behalf of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates at a legislative hearing before the Florida state legislature. On behalf of Planned Parenthood she opposed a bill mandating life saving medical treatment for children born alive after botched abortions. The Weekly Standard article making the rounds, which documents this incident, is entitled “Planned Parenthood Official Argues for Right to Post-BirthAbortion.”

Forty years ago headlines could have read “Supreme Court Okays Pre-Birth Murder.”

The Weekly Standard's headline clearly demonstrates, in a way that only a national newspaper could, that the words murder and abortion are interchangeable for they describe the same action.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Sex Obsessed

Five years ago I went to the doctor for a check-up.  After a couple routine questions she asked if I wanted to get the Gardasil vaccine.  This is a vaccine which supposedly protects against 4 (out of over a hundred) strains of the sexually transmitted disease HPV (human papillomavirus).  Given the prevalence of extra-marital sex in our society (though it is not nearly so rampant as some would have us believe) I can understand the question.  But I politely informed the doctor that, not being sexually active, I was not at risk for HPV.  Rather than accepting this answer the doctor insisted that someday I will be at risk.  Not may be.  Will be.  Excuse me lady, but that ain't happening.  Know why?  Because I am an intellectually capable human being.  I am not some sort of animal that can't control myself.  I have committed to saving myself for marriage and I am perfectly capable of holding myself to that.  Therefore, I have no need for a (potentially harmful) STD vaccine and no desire to be unnecessarily poked with needles.

Last year my new doctor was, nearly literally, shoving birth control down my throat.  For an account of that experience see my article from last summer: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/cw/post.php?id=669.

Two days ago I went to the emergency room in excruciating pain.  Before I could be admitted I had to answer irrelevant questions and sign a mountain of paperwork (which raises the somewhat unrelated question of what idiot bureaucrats who have never had to go to the emergency room mandated paperwork before you can get medical treatment).  In the course of that conversation this exchange took place:
Receptionist: "Would you like to be tested for HIV?"
Me, out loud: "No."
Me, subtext: "Can you give me morphine immediately?"

How sex obsessed has our society become that you can't even get help at the emergency room without first being asked if you want to be tested for a sexually transmitted disease?  Is the moment when I'm doubled over in pain really the appropriate time to be dealing with this?  How about you give me a painkiller and then sometime before I check out you can ask me if I'm at risk for HIV and, if I am, do I want to be tested for it.

Because here's the thing that really bothers me: all three of the medical professionals that I've mentioned just assume that I need, or will someday need, a vaccine for an STD, birth control, or an HIV test.  If it were mentioned in passing at the appropriate time I might understand.  Well, not the birth control, but maybe the other two.  As I said, extra-marital sex, which leads to STD's, is prevalent in our society today so it's understandable that medical professionals would suggest tests and vaccines for these diseases.  But the way they've been pushed down my throat over the years is completely inappropriate and unworthy of the medical profession.

How about we challenge our young people?  How about we hold them to a higher standard?  Rather than the "safe sex" attitude which says "they're gonna do it anyway so let's give them all sorts of drugs to limit the damage" why don't we challenge them to do better for themselves?  No one says, "well, kids are gonna smoke anyway so let's make sure they use filtered cigarettes."  Instead, schools are doing anti-smoking campaigns from the very early elementary school years.  Why aren't we insisting on the same kind of awareness campaigns when it comes to sex?  With a few rare exceptions, the only kind of sex campaigns kids are getting come courtesy of Planned Parenthood.  And the only "safe sex" PP knows anything about is the kind that comes through inserting loads of harmful drugs in women's bodies.  I've chosen better for myself.  And I expect the medical profession to respect that.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

100 Books Every Woman Should Read - The Sorrows of Young Werther***

"This is an epistolary and loosely autobiographical novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, first published in 1774; very dramatic and even overwrought it is nonetheless very moving."

I loved the first three quarters of this book!  The writing is simply exquisite; it is one of those books in which I would read a paragraph, or a whole page, over and over again because it's beauty so touched my heart!  However, towards the end of the book the main character becomes kind of ridiculous and then the whole thing just gets depressing.  So I highly recommend most of this book and leave the rest to your judgment.

Some snippets of beauty from this work:

  • "misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps lead to more complications in the affairs of the world than trickery and wickedness"
  • "In the same way, the most restless of travelers ends up pining for his homeland once again, and discovers in his cottage, in the arms of his wife and amidst his children, and in the labours that are necessary to support them, that joy he sought in vain in the wide world."
  • "If you could but see me, my dear friend, amidst that whirl of trivial amusements!  My senses are quite dried out!  There is not a single instant when the heart is full, not one single hour of bliss!  nothing!  nothing!"
  • "I am also disturbed to find he values my mind and abilities more highly than my heart, which is my only source of pride, and indeed of everything, all my strength and happiness and misery.  The things I know, anyone can know - my heart is mine and mine alone."
  • "the reason why those times whose recollection so torments me now were so blissful was that I awaited His spirit with patience, and received the joys he bestowed upon me with a full and deeply grateful heart."
  • "Think of you! - I do not think of you; you are always before my soul."

Saturday, August 4, 2012

100 Books Every Woman Should Read - The Life of Samuel Johnson***

This is an astonishingly good, fun read despite the fact that it weighs in at about 5 pounds.  We love that a 1200 page book can be so immensely readable.

Immense, yes.  Readable, eh.  That's up for debate.  I appreciate Boswell's effort to make this biography not a mere recitation of facts about a person but rather an opportunity to really get to know the person Samuel Johnson.  He even makes the point that a biography should have a moral, a biography should be penned because there is something to be learned from this person's life.  However, this book is absurdly long.  It can be rather dry and certainly gets tedious after the first hundred pages.  In order to help us get to know Johnson, Boswell seems to feel the need to include every letter Johnson ever wrote and record every miniscule action he ever performed.  Heaven forbid we should not know that Johnson sneezed.  That being said, this work does contain many tidbits of wisdom, some of which I have included below.

Possibly another reason I was rather down on this book was because Johnson and I would not have gotten along.  Boswell was his biggest fan and definitely tried to paint him in the best light possible and yet I could not bring myself to like the man.  I found him to be an argumentative know-it-all and I have enough of those to deal with in real life without also having to read about them.  As Boswell says, "there is no disputing with him.  He will not hear you, and having a louder voice than you, must roar you down."

  • "In a man whom religious education has secured from licentious indulgences, the passion of love, when once it has seized him, is exceedingly strong; being unimpaired by dissipation, and totally concentrated on one object."
  • "Though no comets or prodigies foretold the ruin of Greece, signs which heaven must by another miracle enable us to understand, yet might it be foreshewn, by tokens no less certain, by the vices which always bring it on."
  • "he would not be accessory to the propagation of falsehood"
  • "Distant praise, from whatever quarter, is not so delightful as that of a wife whom a man loves and esteems.  Her approbation may be said to 'come home to his bosom'; and being so near, its effect is most sensible and permanent."
  • "I who have no sisters nor brothers, look with some degree of innocent envy on those who may be said to be born to friends; and cannot see, without wonder, how rarely that native union is afterwards regarded.  It sometimes, indeed, happens, that some supervenient cause of discord may overpower this original amity; but it seems to me more frequently thrown away with levity, or lost by negligence, than destroyed by injury or violence."
  • "Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world.  My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place.  Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question."
  • "A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see."
  •  "we live in a critical, though not a learned age" 
  • "without truth there must be a dissolution of society"

Sunday, May 27, 2012

100 Books Every Woman Should Read - 1984**

The next book on the list was actually Brave New World by Aldous Huxley but as I had already read that and had not read Orwell's classic 1984 I decided to substitute in the later. 

To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed with 1984.  The power of post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels lies in the fact that they are believable, that it is possible that this kind of society could come to exist.  I found that Orwell's novel went rather outside this realm of believability.  I must say that I have never encountered a better description of hell and if that were what Orwell had set out to describe in this novel I would say that he had done a masterful job.  However, what he set out to do was describe the ultimate end of socialism.  I felt that the novel lost much of its power because it was unrealistic, because it is very hard to imagine society ever coming to the point described in 1984. 

Much of the reason that 1984 was a good description of hell, but also utterly unbelievable as an earthly society, was the complete hopelessness of the situation.  Hopelessness or despair is antithetical to Christianity and to true humanity.  An earthly situation could never be entirely without hope as the situation in 1984 is.  There is also a disturbing absence of forgiveness, not in that it is rejected but in that it does not even exist, there is not one mention of it throughout the book.  If one were to mention the term to a citizen of the country of Oceania it is presumed that the word would be alien to them.  Furthermore, there is frequent reference to human beings behaving like animals or beasts.  The more one sins the less human one becomes and so what has been revealed in private revelation is logical, that persons in hell no longer appear to be persons but horrible beasts, creatures that C.S. Lewis said we could not imagine in the darkest nightmare.  The masses in Orwell's novel often give the appearance of being such creatures.

That being said, Orwell is a fantastic writer.  Despite the book's overall lack of believability it is chock full of nuggets of truth.  Here are a few:
  • "He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic.  Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.  At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today, to believe that the past is unalterable.  He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic.  But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him; the horror was that he might also be wrong."
  • "The heresy of heresies was common sense."
  • "His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer.  And yet he was in the right!  They were wrong and he was right.  The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended.  Truisms are true, hold on to that!  The solid world exists, its laws do not change.  Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth's center."
  • "Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect."
  • "A curious emotion stirred in Winston's heart.  In front of him was an enemy who was trying to kill him; in front of him, also, was a human creature, in pain and perhaps with a broken bone.  Already he had instinctively started forward to help her.  In the moment when he had seen her fall on the bandaged arm, it had been as though he felt the pain in his own body."
  • "In a way the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.  They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening."
  • "Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad.  There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad . . . He fell asleep murmuring 'Sanity is not statistical,' with the feeling that this remark contained in it a profound wisdom."
  • "What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?"