Ten More Reasons to be Catholic

Being Catholic for me is far more than a matter of religion. I am what they sometimes call a “revert,” which puts me in the rare position of being both a cradle Catholic and a kind of convert. Catholicism for me has all the familiarity of family, but it is not simply a reflex. Being Catholic is something I really had to think about and choose.

Earlier this week, Sam Guzman of The Catholic Gentleman wrote a list of “10 Reasons to Become Catholic.” He notes, via Chesterton, that there are many thousands of reasons he could list, but they all boil down to the truth of the faith. I believe that too. I have written before about my reasons for returning to the Church, the main one being a strong sense of God’s directive to me personally to do so. Guzman wrote about why people should become Catholic, but that got me thinking about why I remain Catholic.

After all, this is not a great moment for Catholic triumphalism. Scandals abound. The abuse crisis and its cover-up is a shocking display of evil, especially if what Guzman says is true that “The greatest obstacle to the advance of evil in the world is the Catholic Church.” Wrap in alongside that the financial scandals just starting to emerge, the crisis of pastoral care created by the priest shortage, and the banality of the liturgy in many places and it is easy to see why many people find the modern Catholic Church more lamentable than hopeful.

Yet here I remain. And it is not simply that I am resigned to it or see it as the best of bad options. I’m jazzed about being Catholic. I think this is the absolute best thing I could be. I’m not trying to bash anyone else by saying that, but for me, there is no place I would rather call home.

So here are ten reasons why it is a joy for me to be Catholic. I have not copied any of Guzman’s, all of which would be on my list too. I am sure I could come up with ten more if I tried. Where truth lives, joy abounds.

A Mystical Faith

In the Catholic faith, we don’t just learn about God. We experience Him. We meet Him in the Sacraments and in the reading of Scripture. We encounter Him in prayer. He is not abstract. He is not distant, off on a cloud somewhere. He is an ever-present part of life. The Catholic faith is filled with tools to help us to know Him. From the Ignatian spiritual exercises or the Carmelite way of perfection to Eastern traditions of iconography and the Jesus Prayer, Catholicism is mystical from top to bottom. And the Church shows us through that mysticism that it is possible to have deep spiritual experiences without sacrificing reason and rationality in the process.

A Healing Faith

We are all carrying wounds around with us, wounds of loneliness, wounds of pride or despair, wounds of sin. The mission of the Catholic Church is the salvation of souls.  That means that the Catholic Church exists to offer us healing for our wounds, a healing that is deep and that ultimately saves us from death itself. Sometimes Christians envision salvation in purely juridical terms – I’m either good or bad, and if I’m bad then I have to go before a judge to pay a penalty, unless someone else intervenes. That kind of understanding has its place within the tradition and can be useful in some ways, but it is not the primary lens through which salvation is meant to be viewed. We are not dying from sin because we have offended an angry God. We are dying from sin because sin is a sickness, a poison that infects us and reaches out into every corner of our lives, regardless of the choices we have made. Indeed, it is that wound that causes us to want to make bad choices in the first place.

But in and through the Church, we receive the medicine that we need. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), through the preaching of the Gospel, through prayer and fasting, through spiritual direction, and in so many other ways, the Lord Jesus Christ works through His Church to heal us and restore us to wholeness.

Catholicism is Weird

Earlier this year, I got to bless a room full of kids with a piece of bone from St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s weird, right? I mean, totally. And what could be better than that?

The weirdness of Catholicism is part of the joy of it. We sing in funny tones. We tell stories about great saints who have done things like levitating or reading people’s minds. We get together to worship what looks to the naked eye like a piece of bread, only we insist it has become something much more. From the perspective of the world, so much of what Catholicism does is super weird and in some cases even super offensive. But in an age in which we trumpet the idea of being non-conformist and yet participate in an endless cycle of boring consumerist trends, Catholicism is one of the few ways in which we can truly escape from the mediocrity.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “In an age that has thrown off all tradition, the only rebellion possible is orthodoxy.” The more we embrace the Catholic faith in all of its strangeness, the more we find ourselves breaking free from the worst that the world has to offer.

The Mother of God

Some Christians worry that Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary somehow obscures the place of Jesus, but my experience has been just the opposite. The more my devotion to Mary has increased, the closer to Jesus I have become. How could it be otherwise? She is His mother, after all, and so all that she says and does points us back to Him. In John 2:1-12, Jesus performs His first miracle by changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Mary is at the heart of this scene, urging Him along, and more importantly urging others to follow His lead, saying, “Do whatever He tells you.” She understands her Son. When I get to know the family and friends of others, it often leads me to have a new appreciation for them. The same is true here. Mary is the one who models for us how to be a disciple.

Mary is also the source of Christ’s humanity, her flesh becoming His. In that sense, we honor her as the arc, the bridge, the means by which God chose to unite Himself with us. In that respect, to fail to venerate her is to fail to fully understand just what He has done for us.

The Church Loves Women

The veneration of Mary also reminds us that the Catholic faith celebrates women. This sometimes surprises people since the common misperception is that the Church does just the opposite. Yet the teaching of the Church is not only that women ought to be treated as equal to men, but that they need to be loved, cherished, and honored for their unique gifts. Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women is a grand example of that. In it, the pope thanks women for the gifts of being daughters and sisters, wives and mothers, and he advocates for things like “equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights,” as well as an end to “sexualized violence.”

The “Me Too” movement has highlighted how women are routinely regarded as mere objects for the satisfaction of men in our society. Women’s stories are not heard. Their humanity is reduced to whatever garners the attention of men. The Catholic faith does the opposite, acknowledging the humanity of women at the deepest level, that women like men are made in the image and likeness of God, that they contribute uniquely to the good of society, and that they deserve love and respect. The message of the Church is not just about women, but it is also for women and from women. Some of the greatest doctors of the Church have been women like St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Therese of Lisieux. In other words, women are not simply something the Church talks about. Women are the Church. Indeed, the Church herself is traditionally referred to as “she” and as our “mother” because she unites us to Jesus as His Bride. “The future is female,” says a popular feminist slogan. To which we might add, “So is the Catholic Church!”

The Church Loves Children

Despite the horrors we have seen perpetrated by some leaders in the Church in recent years, historically the Catholic Church has always taught that the family is sacred and children are great gifts from God. This can be seen in many ways, from the Church’s relentless defense of children in the womb and migrant children, and the Church’s efforts to end human trafficking, to the World Meeting of Families, World Youth Day, and the development of Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions designed specifically to care for children throughout their childhood years. As a father of two children with a severe form of autism, it is particularly gratifying to know that the Church loves my kids and believes they are as worthy of love and respect as any other human being.

Building a Better World

The Catholic social justice tradition is unparalleled in its advocacy for human rights. The entire concept of “human rights” has its origin in the teaching of the Church about the inherent dignity of every human person. My own walk back to the Church was greatly influenced by figures like Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Oscar Romero who fought for the poor and the disenfranchised. The Catholic Church has long advocated for the rights of workers, an end to abortion, an end to capital punishment, the eradication of nuclear arms, and the moral imperative for all of us to work towards healing the planet from pollution and the effects of global warming.

You Can Party With Us

The Catholic poet Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine. / At least I’ve always found it so, / Benedicamus Domino!” Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is famously pictured standing at the top of a mountain smoking a pipe. Is the point that Catholics like to smoke and drink? Well, some of them do. But the point is actually much bigger and better than that. The Catholic faith isn’t afraid of pleasure. In fact, Catholicism deeply celebrates all the good things that give pleasure in this world, such as good wine, good food, gregarious laughter, and so forth. All of these need to be enjoyed within reason. Obviously, there are ways in which pleasure seeking, when it becomes an end in itself, is a destructive force. But taken in moderation, with the understanding that all good pleasures we experience in this world are merely foretastes of the pleasure of knowing God in the next, the Catholic Church acknowledges that pleasure is a good thing and a healthy thing to want in our lives.

Sex is Good

Some people might hear that the Church approves of pleasure and object that this cannot be since the Church does not approve of sex. Those people would be frightfully misinformed! The Church teaches clearly and consistently that sex is good. I have written before about the way in which our world today is unable to acknowledge the greatness of sex. The Church teaches that sex belongs in the context of marriage not because sex is bad but precisely because sex is so good. It reaches its fullest, most beautiful potential within a covenant of grace in which two people who have been bonded to each other for life can afford to be vulnerable and honest with each other, giving the whole of themselves to each other. Pleasure, then, is one of the great goods of sex, not isolated on its own but in conjunction with the entire self-giving that sex involves. As Pope Francis put it to a group of young people in 2015, “It is right to try for a genuine love that knows to give life, that does not search to use the other for its own pleasure. A love that makes sacred the life of the other person: ‘I respect you, I do not want to use you.’”

Knowing Jesus

All of the previous reasons culminate in this one: Being Catholic is to know Jesus. The heart of the Catholic faith is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the good news of what He has done for us and His continued reign over His Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we receive Jesus directly, in body and spirit. In the Church’s teaching, we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to our hearts. In the living of the Catholic faith, we constantly see Jesus at work in the world. We hear Him crying out to us in the suffering of the poor and the sick. We know His joy and His saving grace in the love of parents and children, husbands and wives, and friends for one another. There is nowhere in my life that I have found greater intimacy with Christ than in the Catholic Church.

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English Catholic Spirituality: An Introduction

They say sometimes that you can win a battle but lose the war. It is also possible for you to win the war but lose history. Just ask Oliver Cromwell.

During the period after Cromwell’s great victory in the seventeenth century English Civil War, the English nation was transformed in myriad ways, none more visceral than in religion. The Book of Common Prayer was banished as a relic of the “papistry” it was meant to replace. For a time, other written prayers were allowed, yet even they were eventually deemed too close to papism for comfort. Eventually, ministers were instructed that they could only conduct worship with good, wholesome, biblical prayers that they offered extemporaneously. And so, many clergymen who had dutifully prayed the Office from the Book of Common Prayer all their lives started to lead their congregations through whole sections of Morning and Evening Prayer “off the top of their heads.”

English Catholic spirituality has a long history and a deep well to draw from. It cannot easily be dispensed with or ignored.

Of course, having said that, it is important to note that the clergymen I just referenced were not Catholic. We might call them Anglican, though they themselves would not have known that word. They might have been willing to refer to themselves as “Reformed Catholic,” though that term was more in vogue after the Restoration than before. They certainly would have called themselves Christians and ministers of the Church of England (perhaps even priests, though they would have understood this distinction in a way that would differ from how generations of later Anglo-Catholics would see it). Oddly enough, one moniker they would have been comfortable with is one that I always found deeply uncomfortable when I was an Anglican: Protestant.

Regardless of what they called themselves, though, they would have rejected strongly any insinuation that they were in any way associated with the unreformed Church of Rome. Yet the move they made to retain and conserve their history and theology through the memorizing of liturgical prayers is a deeply Catholic move. The Puritans who objected to the Book of Common Prayer on the grounds that it was too Catholic were not entirely wrong.

As an Ordinariate Catholic, I am blessed to worship each day with some of those same words that those men memorized, words that have been cherished by generations of Anglicans, but I get to do so from within the heart of the Catholic Church, influenced by and interacting with centuries of the great traditions of both the Latin West and the Byzantine East. In the Ordinariates, we have been entrusted with an “Anglican patrimony” for the purposes not only of preserving it but sharing it, as both Anglicanorum Coetibus and its accompanying complementary norms make clear.

Yet there remain legitimate and interesting theological questions about what that patrimony consists of and what that means for the larger Church. Certainly the patrimony includes the celebration of the Mass according to Divine Worship The Missal. But is it more than that? The Anglican tradition has a different pastoral approach than exists in much of the Catholic Church today. How does that fit into the patrimony? There is also a long tradition of ascetical theology in Anglicanism. Much of it is compatible with the faith articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or can easily be adapted. Does this too now have a home in the Catholic Church?

This series that I begin today, “English Catholic Spirituality,” will be an effort to explore some of these questions, but it will not answer them definitively. Anglicanorum Coetibus is barely ten years old, and the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in which I serve is a mere seven. In the history of the Church, that is barely a blip. It will likely take many years to work all of these questions out. My goal is much more modest. I want to participate in an ongoing theological conversation. I want to think out loud and to invite others to participate.

A Word About Nomenclature

The title “English Catholic Spirituality” may raise questions for some people. I am choosing not to use the term Anglican. In referring instead to English spirituality, I am invoking in part that classic work by the Anglican theologian Martin Thornton who also chose not to use the word Anglican in his title because he saw the ascetical tradition he was describing as much bigger than that. It would be confusing and unfair to actual Anglicans for me to try to repurpose their name. My hope though is that Anglicans–particularly those of a Catholic mindset–will see in what I am doing something that resonates with their own experience.

I have added, of course, to Thornton’s title the term Catholic. This word can be its own sticky wicket. Undoubtedly, some Anglicans will protest that I should only use this word if I intend to add the word Roman as well, but this is unreasonable. I am overjoyed to be able to call myself a Roman Catholic, but there are twenty-four churches in full communion with the Holy Father who have every right to call themselves Catholic and only one of them is Roman. I use the word Catholic in the same way that Anglicanorum Coetibus does, with reference back to the documents of Vatican II, particularly Lumen Gentium:

The communion of the baptized in the teaching of the Apostles and in the breaking of the eucharistic bread is visibly manifested in the bonds of the profession of the faith in its entirety, of the celebration of all of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and of the governance of the College of Bishops united with its head, the Roman Pontiff.

This single Church of Christ, which we profess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic “subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside her visible confines. Since these are gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.”

I describe as Catholic those things which are substantiated in the faith and sacramental life found in those churches that are in communion with the Holy See, but this does not exclude the possibility that there are elements of a true, good, and holy catholicity found in other ecclesial settings. Indeed, the entire concept of the Ordinariates would be impossible if this were not so.

A Few Caveats

This series needs to be understood for what it is not as much as for what it is:

This is not official

I am in no way speaking for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, nor do my opinions carry any weight beyond just being my opinions. Moreover, I claim no great expertise. I am a priest who lives and breathes this stuff and who has done a lot of reading over the years, but that is the extent of my qualifications.

This is a blog, not a textbook

Nothing here is peer reviewed. I will not be offering footnotes. I do think that there are books to be written on this subject, but that is not what I am doing here. The purpose is to engage and get conversation going. Do not treat any of this like it’s gospel. And like any good, thinking person should, I reserve the right to change my mind.

This is not apologetics

There is an important place for apologetics and for debating the unique claims of the Catholic Church over and against that of other groups, but this is not it. I realize there are some folks who live to pick fights on the internet. That is not what I am trying to do here. Which is not to say that I do not welcome challenge. In fact, I would be happy if this sparks some good-natured, spirited debates. But the second it devolves into “my guys are better than your guys,” I am going to shut it down. If that is what you are looking for, I suggest going to one of the thousands of other spots on the web that are specifically designed for such exchanges.

All of that being said, I am looking forward to where this new series will go. If there are specific things you hope I might tackle, please let me know.

The Civil Rights Issue of Our Age

Homily preached by the Rev. Jonathan A. Mitchican at St. John XXIII College Preparatory on Wednesday, January 23, 2019 – Memorial of St. Vincent

(Mark 3:1-6)

This past Monday was Martin Luther King day. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. has long been a personal hero of mine – and I want to emphasize the reverend part because I think that often gets forgotten these days. He was a Baptist minister and a follower of Jesus. His letter from a Birmingham jail references St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as Scripture. The reason that he spoke out against the injustices in this country that were being perpetrated against African American people was because he believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dr. King wrote, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He believed that, as Christians, we’re required to stand up against injustice in all its forms, and especially to stand with those who are weak, those who are oppressed, and those who can’t speak for themselves.

Dr. Alveda King is the niece of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1973, shortly after Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in all fifty states, Alveda King had two abortions in quick succession. She did it because she was told it was the right thing to do by her doctor, by her friends, and especially by the men in her life. It’s not an uncommon story. A lot of young women get abortions because they don’t know what else to do, because they’re scared, and because the men who should be stepping up to be fathers of their children instead say that they’ll be happy to pay for an abortion, but that they won’t be paying for anything if the child is born. So Alveda King aborted her children. And for several years after that, she became a pro-choice activist. It was the only way, she says, that she could come to terms with what had happened to her. She believed and repeated the lie that abortion was the only way that women could be free and that a child in the womb is nothing more than a clump of cells.

But then, in 1977, she became pregnant again, and this time the man in her life said to her, “This is my child. Please don’t kill it. I will be there for you and for our baby.” And King says she suddenly saw abortion for what it really was: not a tool of liberation but a tool of oppression. Today she’s the mother of six living children and a proud advocate for the cause of life. And she sees that cause as deeply connected with the cause for which her uncle fought and died decades ago.

In the Gospel reading we heard a few minutes ago, Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees who want to see if He’s willing to heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath so that they can get Him for it. The Sabbath is a law of God, not a law of man. But the Pharisees want to twist that law and use it for their own purposes. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” The purpose of the law is to save life, not to take it away. A law therefore that tells us that some lives are more valuable than others isn’t a just law, and it’s our responsibility as Christians to resist such a law by speaking the truth in love.

Yesterday was the Church’s annual day of prayer for the legal protection of the unborn, and last week was the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. Many Catholics participated in that march, including our own Sr. John Michael. I participated in the march myself back in 2012. Many people, though, including some Catholics, object to the Church’s involvement in these things. “The Church has no business being involved in politics,” they argue. And indeed, politics is the lens through which most people see this issue. Increasingly in our society, that’s the lens through which we see every issue. Politics has become the new religion of our society. And it’s a very dark, unforgiving religion – You’re either good or you’re bad; it’s us vs. them, take no prisoners. But the Church’s objection to abortion has nothing to do with modern American politics. The Church has been on record opposing abortion since at least the writing of the Didache in the late first century. Does the Church’s teaching have political implications? You bet. But that’s always true. It was true when Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up against segregation laws in the American south. It was true when Jesus stood up against the Pharisees.

You guys may think there’s nothing you can do about this because most of you aren’t old enough to vote yet, but there are so many ways that you can witness for life in our culture, not just by speaking out when the opportunity presents itself, but also by sharing your time, your energy, and your love with people in need. Stand up for young mothers and young families. Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center or at another organization that supports single mothers and poor mothers. Work to eliminate poverty, which is one of the major social causes of abortion. Pray the rosary for the victims of abortion – which include not only the children who have died but also the women who’ve been lied to and used as pawns in a political chess game.

In 1958, black people in this country could not vote in most of the south, could not drink from the same water-fountains as white people, and could not even show their faces in many establishments. In 2008, a black man was elected president. And we’re nowhere near done fighting racism in our society, but that’s a heck of a lot of progress in fifty years. It didn’t happen by magic. It happened because many people–and particularly many Christians–stood up and fought for what’s right. It’s time for us to do the same thing with abortion. An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. In the name of Jesus, may the voice of your generation be a cry of justice for the millions of your brothers and sisters who aren’t here to cry out with you.

Light makes the darkness look stupid

This time of year always reminds me of the snow-covered Narnia of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a place that is in a state of perpetual winter but where Christmas never comes thanks to the rule of the White Witch.

It sometimes feels like there is a perpetual winter in my life. There are so many things to be stressed about and so many ways in which it seems that the devil is always nipping at my heels. I don’t think I’m alone in that. There’s a lot of darkness in our world today. We live in an age of chaos and confusion. And I recognize that I’m luckier than most, being born into the middle class of a first world nation.

But tonight is different. Tonight Christmas arrives.

There is a lot of fluff that surrounds this holiday. There is so much commercialization. There are stupid, endless debates about how we should greet each other this time of year and with what words. There are folks who will have their Christmas trees denuded and out on the front lawn for the garbage man by noon on Christmas day, instead of celebrating all the way to at least Epiphany (if not all the way to the Baptism of Our Lord or even the Presentation).

There are also people for whom this is a difficult time of year. There are people hurting and in pain. There are people who are alone or in mourning. There are people struggling to cope with addiction, depression, anxiety, or any number of other things. There are so many ways in which this season can be a horror that swallows us whole.

And yet Christmas is here. The Lord has come. And in His wake, all shall be made well.

It is hard to believe that sometimes. It was probably hard to believe that on the first Christmas, as Mary bundled her son while Joseph undoubtedly contemplated just how they were going to get back home. Not long after would come the murder of so many innocent babies by Herod, a spectacle of cruelty against children rivaled only in our own day by the cruelty of abortion, abuse, and human trafficking.

But there was more to it. There’s always more to it.

Tonight I will celebrate Christmas Mass. The Lord will show up. He will enter this cruel, calloused world and shake loose the branches that have covered us in our misery. He will thaw the ice that has formed in our hearts and reignite our spirits. He will make all things new, all by being born, helpless and cold, clinging to life in His mother’s arms.

The White Witch cannot have this world. Our winter under her has seemed endless, but it is not. Christmas has arrived. There is no power of darkness that this world has ever seen that can muster even a moment’s worth of battle against the baby in the manger. Heaven and nature sing with joy. The lion lays down with the lamb. The child plays over the asp’s den.

The calendar says that winter has just begun. But rejoice, friends. Rejoice! Christmas is here. There is a light burning in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. There is a crackle of fire that burns now in the Bethlehem of our hearts – and its heat shall burn away the darkness forever and blaze a trail of light that can never be exhausted.

Light makes the darkness look stupid. All those things that we are so afraid of in this long darkness that we have suffered, the monsters that we worry will climb out from under our beds and eat us as we sleep, they all get shown for what they are at Christmas: powerless, toothless, completely unable to destroy us.

“Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus will say. And the world will scoff and say, “Prove it.”

And that’s when we get to smile and look at Him and say, “Watch this.”

Autism as a gift

I took my ten-year-old son with me to the grocery store last night. He pushed the cart himself. He cheerfully helped put things in the cart and then put them on the belt when it was time to check-out. He even helped me load the car and close the trunk. It was beautiful. I almost cried.

That probably sounds like a strange reaction to parents of typical kids. Many kids would have been doing what he did tonight ages ago. For my son, though, this was extraordinary and wonderful. Because he is severely autistic, there is much that he cannot do for himself, much that is a struggle. For that reason, whenever he is able to do something, our family receives it as a tremendous gift. It is incredibly gratifying to his mother and I to see him doing something independently, and it is also deeply gratifying for him when he finds that there are things he can accomplish on his own.

I imagine that every parent experiences some version of this. As a child reaches new milestones, there is a bitter-sweet kind of letting-go that parents do over and over again. For typical parents, the hard part of that is the realization that some day they will have to let go completely and allow the child to flourish all on his or her own.

My experience is different. My children will probably always need me to help them do even basic things. There is a kind of bitterness that can creep in with that, a despair that perhaps our children will never be able to function on their own, and a befuddlement as to what life means and what it is for when it is so perpetually limited.

Yet scattered amidst the strenuous and monotonous trials of daily life, there are these incredible moments when the joyful truth of who my children are breaks through. It is often something like a trip to the store, but it does not have to be. It can be something even simpler, like a shared laugh. It can be the way one of my sons moves to sit in my lap or touch the back of my neck. It happens in the rare but increasing number of moments in which my boys interact with each other.

My children are a gift. That gift includes their autism. That is a difficult thing for me to say. Frankly, much of the time their autism feels more like a curse. It is a hard life. I fear for them. And in my selfishness, I often pity myself for the things I do not get to experience as a father and the things I have to give up in order to care for them. But their autism really is a gift, not because autism is a good thing in and of itself, but because it forms part of the reality of who my children are, and I am a better man because I get to be their father.

Autism is not a separate reality from my children. It is not something that happened to them nor something added to them. There is not a real them that lives somewhere behind their autism, as if you could take the autism away and reveal a truer version of my children that was previously hidden. They are autistic. So to love them, in some sense, is to love their autism.

The limitations that come with autism are a great burden, both for my children and for their mother and I as parents. Nonetheless, there is a sheer joy that comes in realizing and knowing the humanity of my children, especially in those moments when they suddenly seem capable of engaging the world. I do not know that I would be moved to tears watching my ten-year-old push a cart if he were a neurotypical child, at least not every single time.

I write a lot about how hard all of this is. And it is hard. But when every day is a struggle, every victory becomes a tremendous sweetness. I wish people understood better what it is I experience as a parent and what my children experience in trying to engage with a society that was not made with them in mind. Yet I never want to be pitied and I would not want my boys to be pitied either. There is nothing pitiable about them. They are human beings, fearfully and wonderfully made, bearing the image and likeness of God. And because of that, I grow closer to my Lord every day when I serve them.

Why prayer is hard

Delicate is not a word that people often associate with God. Strong, loving, nurturing perhaps, but not delicate. In addition to sounding precious and far more feminine than many people are comfortable with, it is also a word that suggests fragility and by implication weakness. Nonetheless, while it may be too much to say that God is Himself delicate—He is after all the Lion of Judah who roared all of creation into being—it is completely fair to say that the way that we relate to God in a fallen world is delicate.

Sometimes waiting on God will make you sweat. It is possible to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for hours and be completely unable to focus. That danger is even greater if you are trying to pray and reach out to God in your home, at work, or while driving a car. Distractions abound. And just at the moment when you finally sense God, just as quickly you may lose it, like a bubble that pops the second you touch it.

Knowing God takes work. This ought to be a fairly obvious thing to reason out. Knowing anyone or anything takes work. You can neither learn math by simply putting a textbook up close to your head nor build an intimate and close friendship without ever inviting someone into your life. Why would it not be the same with God? Yet we often assume that it should be. We expect knowing God to be easy and obvious. Many people who say they want to know God turn and walk away the first time they realize that it is going to be hard.

Distractions are not the only difficulty either. Even the most committed monks and ascetics find it challenging to stay in and with God throughout prayer. It can be overwhelming to be in His presence and aware of Him. Sometimes we reach for the distractions as a defense mechanism because the full weight of really knowing God is too much to carry.

Why all the difficulty? It is, at least in part, because when we pray we are essentially trying to hold lava in a paper cup. It is easy to forget the radical otherness of God, especially because as Christians we sometimes take  the Incarnation for granted. But really, if we understood the implications of the miracle of God taking on flesh, we would be in constant fear and awe. God is so much more powerfully real than we are that Moses could not be permitted to see anything but His hindquarters lest he die. Almost every encounter with an angel in the Scriptures begins with human beings falling down in fear because the glow of the angels is so overpowering simply because they have been in the presence of God. Yet today we expect there to be not the least bit of friction when, as sinners and weak creatures, we ask the God of the universe to speak directly into our hearts and minds.

Of course, God wants to be with us. The good news of Jesus is rooted in that truth. The Sacraments communicate the full reality of God to us by the most ordinary and unobtrusive means. The Eucharist particularly makes it possible for us to take the full reality of God in the person of Jesus into us, His Body given into our bodies, His soul and divinity touching us deeply, regardless of whether we feel it or not, or whether we are distracted, or whether we are in the mood for it. In that sense, knowing God is easy. All we need to do is show up.

But even if we are rooted in the grace of the Sacraments, there is still a longing in our hearts to know God further in prayer. We want to feel Him, to know He is present. It is a natural desire, but it is not something that can be forced. God is not a high we can induce or a tame pet we can invite onto our laps. He is sovereign and moves as He will. But His desire is to be with us. He delights in knowing us and He delights in us reaching out to know Him.

God does the heavy lifting when we pray. We stress over finding the time to pray, fighting back the distractions, and focusing our minds. We think that means we are working hard. But think about all that God must overcome in order to enter into a place of intimacy with us in prayer. His Holy Spirit has to traverse the great gap that exists between us and Him. He has to make it possible for the paper cups that are our hearts to be able to hold the lava. Everything we do seems like small potatoes in comparison with that.

We cannot be fully aware of the fact that God loves us all the time, at least not on this side of eternity. If we were so aware, we would never be able to do anything but be struck dumb in adoration. We would not be able to drive our cars or brush our teeth or pay our taxes. But the more room we make in our lives for quiet prayer, the more that the realization of God’s love begins to color and shade even those moments of profound boredom or sadness that mark our lives. The more we pray intentionally, the more the whole of our lives become offerings of prayer.

Creating the space for adoration is tough. There is no way of knowing before we begin how God will show up to us or if He will even show up at all (at least in a way that we recognize through our limited perception). Yet the need for such prayer is deep in our hearts. We need to learn the art of prayer, to adjust ourselves to receive that which God has for us. The most difficult things we do in life are often those which yield the greatest rewards. Prayer is the most difficult thing we will ever do, but it is only when we give ourselves to prayer that we really begin to live.

A purgatory of love

There is an allegory often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis that in the life to come we will only be able to eat with spoons, forks, and knives that are more than a meter long. Those who are in hell will be tortured by this because they will never be able to feed themselves, while those who are in heaven will feed each other.

The fairly obvious point is that hell is made of selfishness while heaven is made of selflessness. Those in hell see only themselves, while those in heaven see only each other. The big problem with the illustration is that neither group seems all that interested in seeing God. Presumably, if anyone is getting fed at all in heaven, it is the Lord who will feed us.

That said, as I was pondering this image recently, it occurred to me that it works far better as an image of purgatory rather than heaven.

I went back and forth on my thoughts on purgatory before I was Catholic. I could accept the idea that there might be a state in which God removes from us the remaining stains of sin before we are able to come into His presence. This was, in fact, the understanding of purgatory that Lewis held, as he wrote about in his Letters to Malcolm. It did not distress me that such a state was not explicitly described in Holy Scripture (or at least not described in a part of Scripture that would be acceptable to Protestants). It seemed to me to fit well with the general thrust of how the Bible describes God’s interaction with us. God’s holiness is so bright and powerful that we sinners cannot walk into His presence lest we be destroyed. It is only when we are transformed and our sin is removed that we can stand before God.

But what still bothered me, at least for a time, was the gnawing suspicion that purgatory as the Catholic Church describes it adds to the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we can serve time in some sort of supernatural prison to shave off our guilt, did the sacrifice of Jesus really atone completely for us? If I can say prayers that somehow help a soul in purgatory along the path to heaven, am I not adding my own effort to that of Our Lord?

“That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible,” said St. Augustine in the Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, “and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.” Love lives right at the center of the doctrine of purgatory, but it is not only the love that comes directly from God but the love that God diffuses in and through us. The extent to which we have given and received love determines the degree to which we suffer as we move towards our ultimate union with God.

Believing my prayers for a person in purgatory are effective is no more an addition to the work of Jesus than it is to believe my prayers for a friend in the hospital are effective. It is my own union with God, forged in His love, that makes such prayer effective. I operate not as an independent agent, dispensing my own graces, but as a part of the Body of Christ, humbly assumed as an instrument of His love. Could He do it without me? Sure. But He chooses to do it through me, by means of my prayers, and in so doing He purifies me as well by making me look outside of myself. As I become more loving in this life, I grow closer to a fully realized communion with God in the next.

Sometimes we envision the purifying fire of God as something external, burning away impurities in much the same way that a flame burns off rust or melts wax. But if all purgatory is good for is changing our external appearance, to hell with it. The purity we need is in our hearts, as Our Lord so aptly points out (Matthew 15:10-20). That is a transformation that cannot happen in an individualistic way. It cannot just be me and Jesus. It must be me in Jesus, loving those whom He loves, losing all sense of self-possession in favor of a new identity as one who loves in Christ.

I have dear friends who have died who were true and lively believers. They may already be in heaven. Or they may be in purgatory. I do not know. I rejoice for them either way since either ultimately leads into God’s embrace. Sometimes I pray for them and sometimes I ask them for their prayers for me. If they are already in heaven, I imagine my prayers for them do them no harm. If they are in purgatory, perhaps my prayers for them might do them some good. But even if they are in purgatory, I am sure that they benefit from the opportunity to offer prayers for me and others. Every calling out of the self, every calling to use the long forks and spoons to feed others, is a small act of purification, offered not in competition with the completed work of Jesus but in continuity with it as a genuine fruit of the Spirit.

That Jesus would live as one of us and die for us is the ultimate blessing. That we get to participate in the manifestation of that grace, not only in our own hearts but in the hearts of others, is as deep a love as I can imagine.