Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Meaning and Purpose of Life

Why yes, in fact, i do know the meaning and purpose of life.  If you would like to know the meaning and purpose of life, all you need to do is send $100 to 1304...

Ok, never mind.

      You don't need to send me money.  I'll just tell you.  I usually fall far short of it, i'm trying, but it's hard.  You see, meaning is tied to purpose.  Everything has a purpose and the meaning of existence is to fulfill that purpose.  This may seem subtle, but i'll ellaborate.

      As humans, there are three big questions we tend to ask.  Most everything else is just a version of these.  Every answer we seek is the counterpart to one of them; What, How and Why.
      What is the most basic question of all?  What is the most basic question of all.  That's the answer, what.  The most basic question of all is, what.  What is this thing?  What is it called?  What is it made of?  What defines it?  You are a person, a human being.  You're made of carbon and water and a few grams of various other minerals, and something else.  It is this union of the something else to the material that defines you.  There are billions of people, but only one of you.  Each person is a union of body and soul, and this distinguishes us from everything else.  Angels have souls but no bodies.  Animals have bodies but no souls.  (They have temporal spirits, but that is very different.)
      Only human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.  This image is stamped on our souls, our souls are joined to our bodies and we are made the manifestation of God's power on earth.  (See post from last week.)  As human beings we are defined by the image we bare and this joining of conflicting elements.  As individuals, we are distinguished by our souls and the individual vocations to which each of us is called.  Your body could be duplicated and your memories downloaded into its brain; but you would still be distinct, you would still be different.  Your soul and your vocation, your calling, are unique to you.
      How!  This is the second question.  Science loves asking this question.  Although, it really only got popular with the enlightenment, when people lost sight of their priorities.  Understanding how something came to be and how it works can tell us how to control it.  Answering the question of how grants power, and science loves power.  This isn't true understanding, it falls short of answering the final question.  In Genesis we find an answer to the question of how.  It's an extremely simplified answer, but it is all we really need.  God did it.  We can push further and ask how God did it, and there is nothing wrong with this, but it is not particularly important.  In order to move on to the final question, all we need to know is that God did it.  Pushing further into the how must not distract us from the why.
      Why did God do it?  Why am i here?  The why informs purpose.  Darwinism, materialism, modern enlightenment thinking says there is no real reason.  It was just random chance, happenstance.  Just the natural result of causality, like the rain or the sunshine.  The only purpose is to exist, and then you die.  Yea...
      Jesus gives a better answer.  In fact, He shows us.  As He suffers and as He dies, He proclaims the very purpose of our lives.  Two-thousand years ago, upon a cross, God gave Himself for us and He now gives Himself to us every day in the Eucharist.  Through Scripture and Tradition , He tells us to do likewise. new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.
(John 13:34) 

      We were not placed here to pursue just any-old-good for ourselves, we were placed here to pursue the good of others.  When we imitate Christ, and give ourselves for the good of the world we discover our true purpose, the very meaning of our lives.  This is the greatest good we could ever hope to procure.
      We were placed here to love as Christ loved.  To love the old man across the street.  To love the single mother we pass in the store.  To love the unborn child, waiting to be born.
      We love others when we place their needs before our own.  When we desire what is best for them and pursue it without concern for ourselves.  When we accept, from God, a "new heart" which "will make it possible to appreciate and acheive the deepest and most authentic meaning of life: namely, that of being a gift which is fully realized in the giving of self." (Blessed Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 49 [emphasis in original])

      I fail in this on a daily basis.  But occasionally i succeed, and every time i do i rediscover its truth.  I cannot prove my claim philosophically, but it is easy to demonstrate.  Find an opportunity to love someone who has no chance to reciprocate.  Take a leap of faith, you won't regret it.
      True happiness is this, to love abundantly, with no concern for your own happiness.

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Saturday, September 22, 2012

In the Image of God

Why is there is so much pain and suffering in the world?  If God really loves us why is it that 16,000 children die every day from starvation?  Why do there have to be rapists and murders and politicians?  If God is all loving and all powerful why did he let it get this bad?
      Do you want to know the answer?  You might not like it.  Its pretty simple really; the world is screwed up because you suck at life.  Basically, you suck at being a person.
      I'm sorry for being so blunt.  I would have preferred a more refined way of expressing this concept, but i lack the literary eloquence necessary to achieve that particular feat.  At mass we say, "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault"; mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.  Every child who goes hungry tonight, every family with no roof over their heads, every school that can't afford text books.  If you want to know where to lay the blame, look no further than the nearest mirror.  Every time you come upon an evil and fail to act, due to laziness or selfishness or being "only human", that's you failing at life. 

      A lot of ink has been spilled considering that line in Genesis.   That we were made in the image and likeness of God.  What does it mean?  Does it means what some ancient heretics claim, that God has a body and we look like Him?  (roll eyes here please)  Maybe it has to do with our intellect?  Our ability to choose?
      As my old youth pastor used to say, context is king.  So let's look at the context.  Specifically the cultural context.  We believe the book of Genesis was written by Moses, some time in the 40 years Israel spent wandering in the desert.  Immediately preceding this development they had spent 215 years living in Egypt; learning about Egyptian culture and custom.  The author himself grew up in the court of Pharaoh, he would have been trained extensively in Egyptian theology. (How about that?) 
      Did Egyptians have any beliefs that seem to mirror this passage?  They had statues, images of their gods, made in the likeness of their gods.  (Connection?)  Those statues didn't simply represent their gods, but rather they believed a god's power was manifested through their statues.  Does this sound familiar?  Its sacramental theology!  We have it in the Catholic Church.  A lot of Protestants follow a form of it.  (Not so much Zwinglians, but they're blatant heretics, we can just ignore them.)
      For people recently concluding a two century long stay in Egypt and especially for Moses, the meaning of this passage would seem obvious.  To be made in something's image and likeness is to bare its sacramental presence, to manifest its power in the world.  We are made in the image of God so that we might be the means of God working in the world, that God might work through us.
      Does the passage support this?   The verse says we are made in God's image "so that [we] may rule".  That seems to fit doesn't it?  That we are given power so that we can rule?  Seems to me power would help with ruling.
      How about other places in scripture?  Do we see this elsewhere in the Bible?  Maybe Moses?  Moses didn't bring the Israelites out of captivity, Moses didn't part the Red Sea.  God did those things through Moses.  This is how sacramental imaging works.  God could do things without human interference, but He chooses to work through a man.
      We see this in the natural world as well.  Consider a man and a woman, they join together in that ultimate act of union, and nine months later a new person emerges into the world!  How incredible is that!  Did they make that person, give it its humanity,
its soul, its very existence?  Creation, new life; that is the domain of God, and yet He works through this couple to manifest that most awesome power.
      If you'll permit me to be Catholic for a moment.  In the mass, when the priest elevates the host, the bread and wine, he speaks the words of consecration and the voice of Christ echos in the world once more.  This is my body, this is my blood.  No longer bread and wine, but rather true body and true blood.  This is not the power of a mere human priest.  This is the power of God being manifest through the priest.  (Please note: Not by the priest but rather through the priest. This is an important distinction.)

      It seems to me, if our power is derived from being made in the likeness of God, then we aught to wield that power in accord with the image.  That is, our authority is not just any authority, it is an authority we are called to use in bringing about God's will.  Christ says we should love one another as He loved us.  That's a tall order, but that is what we were made for.  We were made to manifest God's power in pursuit of love.
      The world is our domain!  God gave it to us.  He could act in it without our permission, but generally that is not how He works.  Getting mad at God because the world isn't perfect is like getting mad at your parents when your room is messy.  We are the ordinary means of God working in the world.  We are His hands in this place.  When it comes down to it, we caused the problems, God expects us to fix them. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Moms, Children and Covenant

At some point i'll need to write a special post just for dads, but this one is dedicated to moms.  To understand the idea of motherhood you have to understand something about kids.  Now, to understand kids you need to understand some sacramental theology and the concept of a covenant. For those of you already versed in these notions, i'll try to be brief.
      Sacramental theology states that the sign or image of a thing makes that thing sacramentally present.  A non-circular definition would be; the power of a thing being manifested through its image.  For example, a picture of a loved one.  Why do we keep these images around?  When we look at a picture of a loved one it inspires the same feelings the person's actual presence would. (Although, generally to a lesser degree.)  Another example; looking a picture of a turkey dinner can make you hungry for a turkey dinner.  These are naturalistic examples, but they express the point.  Viewing the image of a thing impacts us and renders us more receptive to it.
      We can now apply this idea to something spiritual.  Through the cleansing waters of baptism, through that image, the cleansing power of God is sacramentally manifested and the one being baptized is truly cleansed of their sins.  As the initiate passes through the waters of baptism, so to does God's grace.  SACRAMENTALLY!  It's not us wielding power over God, it's God using the sacraments to work in us.  His grace is already present, the sacrament enables us to receive it.
      Now we need to examine covenant.  A covenant is easy, it's a sacred family bond.  A lot of people think of it as a synonym for contract, but that is very wrong.  I have a contract with my business associates.  If we decide to end it, we can get out.  If one of us fails in their side of the deal, the other is freed of their own obligations.  A covenant is what i have with my mom and dad and sister, and someday with my wife and children.  There is no getting out of a covenant.  No matter how badly i may fail in my own covenantal obligations to my parents, they remain obligated to love me as their son.  Even if my children should disown me and spit upon my grave, i would remain their father and obligated to love them.
     Marriage is not a contract.  There is no such thing as the "marriage contract".  Its the marriage covenant.  The man and woman pledge to love and honor one another until death; and because this is a covenant they have to, irregardless of how they feel about it.  True love is a choice to place the other person's needs before your own.  In the matrimonial covenant i am called to do this for my wife even when she fails utterly to do it for me.  Prostitution involves a contract, marriage is a covenant.
      Now, for the Kids!  Remember, we talked about words and act in a previous post?  In the wedding ceremony the couple give words to this new covenant they are forming.  Some time latter, usually that very night, they give act to those words.  They enter into the act which completes the words, and this dualism of words and act give the full sign of their marital union.
      Now, there is a possibility that through this act a new sign of their covenant is called into being.  Their covenant is incarnated in the form of a child and for nine months that child dwells within its mother.  So that mother bares within her the sign of her matrimonial covenant.  Do you know what we call something that caries the sign of a covenant within it?  Its call an arc!  This mom is the arc of the covenant she holds with her husband!  She is a tabernacle, a sanctuary from which new life flows forth.
      Do you recall how the Israelites felt about the arc of their covenant?  God would strike you dead for touching the thing.  Today, for Jews, the holiest spot in the world is the western wall, because it is the closest they can get to the spot where The Arc of The Covenant was placed, The Holy of Holies, where God dwelt.
       The Catholic mass is divided into two parts.  First is the liturgy of the word, where scripture is read, the gospel is proclaimed, the New Covenant is given words.  In the second half we celebrate the Eucharist.  The liturgy of the act, in which the true body and blood of Christ is brought forth, under the image of bread and wine.  The sign of the New Covenant.  After communion, the remaining host is placed in a small box, called the tabernacle, often adorned in Gold and surrounded in polished marble, carved with images of angles and saints.  A veil is placed over the door.
      In traditional Catholic circles women often wear veils in church. This is not merely cultural, it shows the connection between the women and the tabernacle.  That every woman, mother or not, has within her the potential to be a tabernacle.  The veil does not hide her beauty, so much as adorn her.  It declares that she is sacred, an image of the ultimate tabernacle in heaven, and a terrestrial tabernacle herself.

      A little Mary talk before i close.  For all Christians, Jesus is the sign of the New Covenant.  It is through the New Covenant that we are forgiven our sins, that we are given access to heaven, that the Kingdom of God is made known.  It was through the womb of Mary that He came into the world.  She bore the ultimate sign, God incarnate.  You want to know why Catholics hold Mary in such high esteem?  She is the Arc of the New Covenant.
      Every child conceived within wedlock is a sign of that marital covenant.  They point to the love two people shared for one another.  They are the manifestation of that love, and manifest its power wherever they go.  The mothers of these children are the arcs of that covenant, the tabernacles of their families. 
      Just as Mary is the heavenly tabernacle of the universal Church, so is mom to her family.

 Behold your Mother.
John 19:27

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why I'm Still Vegetarian

I decided to be vegetarian a long time ago.  I was maybe 10 years old and heard of the health benefits being a vegetarian offered.  Although this got my attention, it was really the vegetarian ideals of freedom and equality that pulled me in.  I appreciated their opposition to animal cruelty, their work in the public sphere to raise awareness, their work in animal shelters and clinics around the country, seeking to lessen the hardships faced by our furry companions.  My mom and i discussed all of this and eventually decided to commit, to become vegetarians ourselves.
      After being vegetarian for about a month i realized we didn't completely agree with all of their ideas.  I can stand with them when they oppose eating dogs or cats or guinea pigs (after all, they're cute a furry).  I am totally in line with not hunting purely for sport.  But they wanted me to stop eating beef and chicken and pork.  How idiotic is that?  They wanted me to stop eating cheeseburgers and bacon and cheeseburgers with bacon?!?!  Who did these stuck-up numbskulls think they were?  Telling me to give up all animal products!
      Some of my so-called-friends looked down on me, said i wasn't really a vegetarian, just cause i didn't want to be a herbivore like them.  I felt angry, i felt betrayed.  They were taking my beloved vegetarianism and turning it into a political weapon.  This was not the vegetarianism of my youth.  It seemed they had rejected those principles of freedom, equality and acceptance of others, which had first drawn me in.  They had turned vegetarianism into simply opposing meat.  They had forgotten our roots in social justice and made it political.
      At times, i've wondered if i really want to be a vegetarian, given the backwards views of so many of my piers; their small-minded refusal to recognize omnivore and carnivore rights, their radical opposition to meat consumption even in instances of steak.  Can i really be part of a group that is so stuck in its old fashioned ideas, so unwilling to move into the twenty first century?
      Despite this, i remain a vegetarian.  I love my vegetarianism, and it is my vegetarian ideals of freedom and equality that lead me to support the freedom of every person to eat what they desire and the equality of all people regardless of dietary preferences.  It took me a little while, but eventually i realized, we’re not going to agree about everything, and that’s OK.  If eating meat annoys some of the vegetarian elites, fine.  Their hateful intolerance of my carnivorous ways will not deter me.  I am every bit as vegetarian as they are.


       You don't have to be Catholic if you don't want to be, but you should be honest with yourself.  Just as a meat eating vegetarian has some strange ideas concerning vegetarianism, so too do some Catholics about Catholicism.  This is a work of satire.  It is not directed as vegetarians, who have no reason to be offended.  There are however many so-called-Catholics who do have cause to be offended.  Namely, "Catholics" who deny the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.  To be a Catholic is to uphold all those things the Church proclaims.
      As this blog continues i will do my best to explain just what those things are and why our Holy Mother Church believes in them.  To deny them does not make you a bad person, but it does kinda disqualify you from the title of Catholic.