How Christians talk about sexual difference

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If you had to buy clothes for a little boy under the age of seven a century ago, a pretty pink dress would have been a socially acceptable option. According to an article in the June, 1918 issue of Earnshaw’s Infant’s Department, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” By the end of World War I, the trend of putting dresses on young children of both sexes had waned, but it was not until the 1940s that blue became associated with boys and pink with girls.

There is quite a lot about the way we understand what it means to be a man or a woman that is generated by cultural trends, even when it comes to things we feel very strongly. The result of this has been, at times, the unfair punishment of one sex or the other for non-conformity, experienced most strongly by women.

As our culture has awakened to this reality, it has in some ways over-corrected. Since the 1960s, some feminists have argued that there are no real and essential differences between men and women, other than a bit of plumbing. It is not hard to draw the line between that reasoning and today’s acceptance of the idea of gender as a social construct, the breakdown of the family, the absence of fathers, etc. But none of that eclipses the fact that there are aspects of our lived experience as men and women, some of which are very dear to us and feel completely inherent, that are nevertheless social constructs. Blue may feel more masculine to us and pink may feel more feminine, but a century ago we would have felt exactly the opposite was true.

This all ran through my head as I read Alastair J. Roberts’ recent piece for The Gospel Coalition, “How Should We Think About Watching Women Fight?” (originally titled “Why Christians Should Refuse to Celebrate Women Fighting”). Roberts argues strongly that Christians ought to be opposed to women fighting in mixed martial arts because it “cuts against the grain of the ends for which they were created.” Along the way, Roberts makes good points about the sexualization of women fighters and the way in which such sexualized violence feeds into the pornographic mindset of the mostly male viewership of the UFC. Yet his ultimate point seems to be that women should not fight because that just is not something that women do. He relies for this assessment on the generally greater upper body strength of men and a vaguely described notion of men having a “greater propensity toward, aptitude for, and interest in both violence and agonism [=struggle].”

In addition to women who fight in the UFC, Roberts is also critical of the trope of the “strong female character” – the waifish woman in television and films who kicks the butts of men twice her size (think River from Firefly or Black Widow in the recent Avengers films). “Such women exemplify the virtues of much contemporary feminism and gender theory,” he says, “which commonly seek to deny the reality of sexual difference, overturn all gender norms, and disproportionately celebrate women who achieve in traditionally male activities or contexts.”

Roberts is right that there is a problem in contemporary western culture that has emerged from the loss of an essentialist view of sexual difference. He is also right that women are largely on the losing end of that stick. For all of the claims that women fighting in the UFC or scantily clad women fighting in popular fiction empowers women, the sad truth is that such things give cover to the idea that the only way women can have value in our society is if they do what men do, or make themselves sexually available to men, or both. As Roberts puts it, this is an “idealization of women who most conform to male norms of behavior, interests, and aptitudes, an idealization that can make unlikely allies of contemporary feminists and male fantasists.”

Unfortunately, Roberts seems content to name “male behavior” and “female behavior” as the correctives for this problem, as if such things are easily and universally identifiable. It may be true that men tend to be more aggressive than women – I have no immediate data to back that up, but it sounds anecdotally true – but if it is true, what does that mean? Are men supposed to be aggressive? Are women not? Why? Who says? If we find a woman who is able to kick a man’s butt, does that disprove the theory?

These questions are compounded in Roberts’ article by his lack of reference to Christian sources of authority. Roberts only quotes Scripture once, making a passing allusion in his final paragraph to Genesis 2 which he does not flesh out. He quotes from no fathers, no theologians, and no councils. In short, he is attempting to make a Christian argument that does not actually have any Christianity in it.

Compare and contrast this approach with the document Inter Insignores, a 1976 declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which was endorsed by Pope Paul VI and heavily cited by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1994  apostolic letter, Ordinato Sacerdotalis. Inter Insignores deals with the question of whether or not women can be ordained priests, not whether or not they should be knocking each other’s brains out in the UFC, but the fundamental question behind the question is the same: What can the Church say definitively about the essential differences between men and women?

Both Inter Signores and Ordinato Sacerdotalis are careful to be economic in their pronouncements. They say that the primary reason why the Church cannot ordain women is because Christ simply did not leave His Church authority to do so. Nonetheless, Inter Signores expounds deeply upon the theology of the priest as someone who stands in the place of Christ. This is a sacramental reality that requires a physical sign in the priest’s own body:

The incarnation of the Word took place according to the male sex: this is indeed a question of fact, and this fact, while not implying any alleged natural superiority of man over woman, cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation: it is indeed in harmony with the entirety of God’s plan as God himself has revealed it, and of which the mystery of the Covenant is the nucleus.

The CDF goes on to cite a vast array of Scripture passages—Galatians 4, Ephesians 5, Revelation 19, and especially Matthew 22:1-14, among others—to make the case that salvation is wrapped up in the “nuptial mystery” of the joining of Christ (male) with His Church (female). “It is through this Sciptural language, all interwoven with symbols, and which expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity, that there is revealed to us the mystery of God and Christ, a mystery which of itself is unfathomable.” The document does not try to pull apart the mystery and examine each individual component, but instead accepts it as a whole, a tapestry of interconnected realities of maleness and femaleness, including essential differences that go beyond mere plumbing but that are nevertheless hard to pin down in a scientific way.

Whether one accepts the central argument of Inter Signores or not, it is clear that there are ways for traditional Christians to talk about gender essentialism that do not require us to hitch our wagons to unprovable, anecdotal evidence. When we start with Scripture and the historic teaching of the Church—instead of with novel American cultural norms and intuition—we come to a much clearer and less cluttered critique of our culture’s approach to sexual difference.

Women and men are different on many different levels, none of which invalidates our equal dignity before God. Given how our culture has historically curtailed the freedoms and diminished the contributions of women, we do well as Christians to examine carefully our basic understandings of gender and to distinguish as best as possible between that which is truly inherent and that which is merely culturally received. Yet even as we do so, we must remember the finely woven tapestry. It is not easy to pull one thread out without seeing the others fly loose. That is the tragedy we now live in, wherein a real and true and good critique of sexism has resulted in a total breakdown in our society’s ability to value the objective differences between women and men.

The gift of grieving

Screenshot of Edward Herrman and Kelly Bishop from Episode 5 of Season 6 of the original series, from Wikipedia.
Screenshot of Edward Herrman and Kelly Bishop from Episode 5 of Season 6 of the original series, from Wikipedia.

“Gilmore Girls” was a staple in our household when it was airing a decade ago.  It was a coming of age story, filled with lots of quirkiness and charm but grounded in an unvarnished view of the challenges of human intimacy. I was skeptical going into the recent reunion show, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” on Netflix. Having been disappointed by just about every attempt at rebooting a show after a long hiatus that I have ever seen, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was different. It had the expected fan service–the call backs to obscure moments in the original series and cameos from almost everyone who ever even walked by the set–but it was something different and special all on its own. It was still a coming of age story and a story of complex relationships, but now it was also a story of mourning.

Edward Herrman played Richard Gilmore in the original series. Richard was an important character but not absolutely central. In fact, Herrman’s name in the credits of the original series was always introduced with the words “special appearance by,” as if to underline the tangential nature of his character. However, Herrman died in 2014, meaning he would not appear in the reunion show. His absence would have to be addressed.

From all reports, this show was percolating in the mind of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino for many years. She knew what she wanted to do with it long before Herrman’s death was a factor. She could have easily dealt with the absence of Richard by saying he was off on a fishing trip or that he had run off with his secretary. She chose instead to make the death of Richard a central aspect of the show. Far from just a quick moment of sadness, the absence of Richard Gilmore colors the entire four episode arc. He is arguably more central and more important here than he ever was in the original series.

Grief is like this. It is not a momentary endeavor, an interlude of sadness in an otherwise productive and happy life. Mourning is a lifelong discipline. It colors and changes us. As a priest, I have been at many bedsides of the dying and seen many people mourn. Grief is as unique as a snowflake. Every person experiences every loss in a different way. The losses do not recede with time the way that people say that they will. Instead, they slowly work their way into the fabric of life, changing the way we love, the way we trust, and the way we see the world.

My maternal grandmother died in 2003. She was just shy of 78, not tremendously elderly by today’s standards but old enough that no one would have said that she died without ever getting a chance to live. She was a complicated woman whose life was not always easy and whose choices were not always good, but to me she was always a figure of pure love and support. Her absence from my life, even after all these years, still feels something like the soreness in the gums at the place where a tooth has fallen out. Something is missing that belongs there, something that could easily be overlooked when it was still there and functioning but that is immediately apparent when it disappears.

Recently, my good friend and colleague in ministry, Fr. Brewster Hastings, died quite unexpectedly. I had no idea how important he was to me until he was suddenly gone. He had been my spiritual director, my mentor, and at times even my confessor. He walked me through a good many difficulties. I did not thank him enough. I did not appreciate him nearly enough. I am quite certain that I will still be feeling his loss in a decade.

We live in a society that tries to deny death. Part of that denial includes the denial of grief. We see it as something to get over or get through. We try to psychologize it. We expect it to get better. We tell people that it will get better. But it doesn’t get better. And here’s the real kicker, it shouldn’t get better.

Grief is not a bad thing. It is not a problem. It is one of the truly great gifts of human life. It is a hellish gift, to be sure, but it is a gift all the same. What the constant throb of grief reminds us is how important life is and how unfair death is. We act sometimes as if death is natural. We try to make friends with it. We comfort people by saying things like, “It was just his time” or “she lived a good, long life and she’s not suffering anymore,” or worst of all, “God called him home.” None of these sentiments tell the truth. Death is an aberration. It is completely without dignity. It robs us every time, whether the person in question lived a long life or not. God is not the author of death. God never intended for us to die. Death is the outworking of sin in the world. It is the warping of God’s plans and intentions.

Grief reminds us that death is our foe, not our friend. Grief can also give us clarity about what is important in life. In the new Gilmore Girls series, the grief experienced by Emily, Richard’s widow, completely changes her, making her realize that many of the things she once thought were important never really were. Living in the shadow of Richard’s memory eventually gives her an odd kind of courage to be kinder to people and to let go of many things that simply do not matter. In a strange sort of way, his death becomes a sacrificial offering for her. It allows her to live more fully, not because she gets over him but because she finds in the pain an untapped potential for beauty and human connection.

The grief I have known has had a similar though as yet less complete effect in my life. I cannot say that I have become a totally different person, but I have grown more sensitive to things I would not have noticed before, things like the difficulties of life for people as they age, the loneliness of widows, and the often unnoticed humanity of the very sick. Like all suffering, grief has tempered my soul. It has made me love more deeply even as it has made me more aware of my own failings to live up to love’s promise.

As a Christian, of course, grief takes on a whole different dimension. It is a reminder of the fact that the very love of God is borne out of grief. So God loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for us. His death on the cross is the ultimate example of fashioning love out of grief. When I encounter the crucifix, there is a dual feeling that often runs through me, a sense of shame at my own sinfulness and a corresponding joy at the fact that His death has lifted it from me. Sometimes in those moments, I suddenly realize anew that Jesus died for me and that I never really saw what I had before. In those moments, I become a Christian for real. It is a religion of bitter sweet love, a piety of grieving happy tears.

And of course, bound up in all of this is the promise of resurrection and the hope of the life to come. Those who have died are not gone, though they may be gone from us. I pray now for Fr. Brewster and for my grandmother and for all those who are on another shore. I pray for their repose in Christ. I hope they pray for me. I learn over and over again, every day, to trust them to God’s care. That too is a gift.

Edward Herrman was a faithful Catholic. I think he would have liked how “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” portrayed the loss of his character. There is another shore where Herrman and Fr. Brewster and my grandmother all see a horizon that I only catch glimpses of now. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. And may we who grieve never take the gift of our grief for granted.

A Tale of Two Marys

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Discerning the voice of God is one of the toughest parts of the life of Christian discipleship. This is not because God is hard to find. Every inch of creation echoes with His calling. That, in a sense, is what makes the discernment so difficult. God speaks all the time. It is literally God’s speaking that keeps the world spinning. But the question I often ask – the question we all ask from time to time – is what is His word for me? It is a bit of a narcissistic question, but it is one that somehow seems inescapable. Yes, God has spoken through the prophets and continues to speak in the Holy Scriptures. Yes, God speaks in the Sacraments. God speaks to me there as much as He does to everyone. But that doesn’t answer the gnawing questions I have about what I ought to be doing with my life.

In my experience, there is no way to cajole God into giving you that kind of a word. You simply have to wait for it. But it helps to do that waiting in His presence. This is one of the glorious things about reserving the Blessed Sacrament. At any time, I can step into the presence of God. Of course, I am always in the presence of God in a sense, but to kneel in prayer, in silence, in the presence of His Body and Blood is different. I do not have the words to describe it. His presence radiates through me when I do this. I feel like I am home.

Today, I happened to be downtown in Philadelphia and was able to attend the midday Mass at Saint Mark’s, Locust Street. I was there quite early and so I was able to make a holy hour beforehand. There are few places as stunning as the Lady Chapel at Saint Mark’s. The altar is made of pure silver and covered in jewels. Every inch is carved into something of magnificent detail. Sunlight streams in through the stained glass and makes the whole place shine.

As I knelt there praying, I tried to focus my attention on the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but I kept finding myself pulled to notice the statues on either side of the altar instead. They are both statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, both made of silver. The Mary to the left of the altar has her eyes closed and her head bowed, obviously praying. The Mary to the right of the altar is looking out into the room in such a way that it is hard not to think she is looking directly at you. Two Marys, one contemplative and one active. They seemed to speak to me out of the silence.

mary-prayingGod does not always respond to my prayers in the way I expect. I began speaking to God, but I heard the voice of Mary answering me, speaking to me sweetly as my mother. I was a little confused at first, but came to realize that she was not speaking alone or of her own accord. It was her Son who was in her, compelling her to speak. I could almost see a line moving from the Tabernacle up through the image of the Lamb at the pinnacle of the altar, over and out into both Mary statues. What she said to me is just between us, so I will not repeat it here, but I was absolutely struck by the way in which God was at work in that moment, answering my prayers in this strange, round-about seeming way, yet so clearly and truly in them.

The two Marys are emblematic of the life of God in the Church. Both Marys represent how Christ is at work, through the Mother of God, to sanctify the world. One Mary prays. Day and night, she is before her Lord and mine, offering up the petitions of the millions who love her and call out her name. Fueling her prayer is the prayer of her Son who offers His own petition, in the form of His very own Body, on our behalf without ceasing (Hebrews 7:23-25).

But the active Mary offers a word of hope and new life that is borne out of the Resurrection of her Son. She does not give easy answers. I wanted God to speak with fatherly finitude and tell me exactly what the path ahead would look like. Instead, Mary spoke to me with motherly love, assuring me that I can take steps in faith because she will always be there to catch me, to wash my bruises and wipe away my tears. She spoke, but He was speaking in and through her, joining all three of our hearts together, and telling me, gently but firmly, to step out in faith.

lambDo you want to discern the voice of God for your life? Go before Him and wait. But do not be surprised if He speaks through an emissary, be it angel or saint, or even someone entirely unexpected. However He speaks to you, if it is truly Him, It will be a word that both holds you and bids you to act. It will be a word that challenges you and also confirms the deepest longings of your heart. It will be a word that lays out a path that is truly frightening and thoroughly glorious. It will be a word that neither takes away nor adds a single syllable to the deposit of faith, but it will bid you to trust that the whole deposit of faith has been given to you through the sacrifice of the cross. God will delight in giving this word to you. Never doubt for a second that you are beloved of God.

We are not our brains

right_brainThe soul cannot be scientifically proven. That should not cause alarm for Christians. There are lots of things that cannot be scientifically proven, either because science has not gotten there yet or because science is not the right tool with which to explore that particular question. Science can tell me who my biological mother is but it cannot prove that she loves me. It can determine whether or not a person’s DNA was left at a crime scene, but it cannot determine whether or not he should be held accountable for committing a crime.

Nonetheless, for many people who have been heavily influenced by materialism–the philosophical conviction that matter and physical processes are all that there is–the lack of a testable hypothesis about the soul means that the soul must be an illusion. As neuroscience continues to advance, more and more research has shown that, physically speaking, we are our brains. All our memories are stored in the brain. All our feelings are generated by the brain. When we feel pain in our hands or feet, there is no actual pain there. Rather, our brain is interpreting reactions in our nerve endings as pain. Many scientists now believe that all that we call consciousness takes place in the brain and that it will not be long before we figure out just how the whole trick of it works.

The NPR program Intelligence Squared hosted a debate in 2014 on the question of whether or not there is life after death. Debaters on both sides were scientists, but those on the pro side argued largely from personal and anecdotal evidence of near death experiences. Those on the con side focused instead on the question of consciousness. They likened death to a candle being blown out. The matter and energy still exist, but the process is done. The flame was never really its own thing, but an illusion of perception. Likewise, what we think of as us is merely a set of complex chemical processes taking place in our brains. Everything about us from our sense of humor to our experiences of love is reducible to the firing of neurons. Once that firing stops, there is nothing left of us to live on. The soul was never more than chemistry and therefore has nowhere to go when the chemistry is done. This argument handily won the debate.

The problem with this logic, of course, is that it assumes its own philosophical premise. The soul has to be a physical reality in order to be scientifically disproven in this way. If the soul is something different, something other than the stuff that makes up this world, then the tools of physics and biology might be able to catch glimpses of it but they would never be able to reduce it to a formula. The proponents of near death experiences sometimes do try to subject those experiences to scientific rigor, as they should, but the kind of scientific questions that can be asked about such experiences will not yield the kind of answers that strict materialists are ever likely to accept.

The Bible speaks of the soul in multiple ways. Sometimes the soul is simply a synonym for life itself, as when Jesus says “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The soul is also sometimes spoken of as inclusive of our whole being, including our bodies, such as when Jesus says, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Elsewhere, however, the soul is clearly a separate faculty altogether, as when He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26).

If all this seems confusing, it should. When we speak of the soul, we are delving into a mystery. It is hard to speak of spiritual reality when we spend all our time in a world that has been scrubbed clean of it. To a materialist, appealing to spiritual reality will always sound like special pleading because it requires us to look at the world through a different lens than that of a microscope. It requires the same knowing that allows me to accept that my mother’s love for me is not merely a chemical reaction in her brain or that the “me” I am in my mid thirties is the same “me” that I was when I was only four or five years old, despite the fact that everything about me has changed during the time in between including the entire set of atoms and molecules that make up my physical body.

Yet it would be incorrect to say that we have no evidence at all of the soul besides the purely subjective experiences of religious people. Throughout the Intelligence Squared  debate, I kept asking myself how I would have argued the question if I had been on the pro side. What I would have said would have been something like this: The first, last, and best piece of solid evidence for the existence of the human soul is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course, that probably would have made further conversation impossible, at least from the materialist point of view. It is unfair, they might say, to try to buttress one religious idea by means of another. We have to stick to facts after all, not faith. But the resurrection of Jesus is knowable, not through scientific testing, but certainly through the social sciences and the study of history. We can test the veracity of the resurrection the same way we test the veracity of the reign of Julius Caesar or the existence of Socrates or any of hundreds of other important historical events that happened in the ancient past. We look at the best evidence we have and draw likely conclusions based on that evidence, just like we do in a court of law. When we look at the evidence that way, the case for the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming. Do not take my word for it. There are plenty of good studies that have been done on the subject, the best in modern times probably being N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Whatever the outcome, though, it has to be clear that the resurrection has a strong bearing on the questions of life after death and the true nature of the soul. If the resurrection is a fraud, then the materialist view may happily stand. But if it is true, then the reality of life beyond death for at least one of us has to be admitted and the rest of what Jesus claimed about Himself and about us, including what He had to say about the soul, becomes admissible as evidence. Near death experiences can be quite powerful and should not blithely be dismissed, but an actual death and return experience really ought to be decisive.

Naturally, I do not expect that argument to convince the staunch materialist. We simply live in different worlds. The world of the materialist is rational to a fault but dead even before it begins. It is a world where human beings lack not only a soul but also true freedom, the ability to love, the wonder of great art and music, the transcendence that comes from awe at creation, the intimacy of prayer. Not that a materialist cannot have some of these experiences, but they are reduced and diminished by not having access to their spiritual foundation.

We are not our brains. We are our souls. Neither the soul nor the body are in competition with each other. The theory of the soul does not require an incomprehensible brain for it to work. Each new discovery of neuroscience, far from being a challenge to the supernatural, is a wonderful and even awe inspiring glimpse into the way that God has put us together. The world is enchanted. The brain makes the body dance, but the soul makes the brain know that its natural end is the eternal dance of life with God.

Image by Allan Ajifo and made available through Wikimedia Commons.

The Non-Competitive Mary

holy queen

I have been making my way slowly through Bishop Robert Barron’s Exploring Catholic Theology this summer. As is often the case with collections of essays, it can be a bit repetitive, but Barron nonetheless shows why he is one of the leading public theologians of our time. One of his fundamental insights is what he calls “the noncompetitive transcendence of God.” Grounding his argument in both Scripture and Tradition, particularly by way of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Barron says that God is not the supreme being in the way we sometimes think of Him, as if He were the largest and grandest of things that exist, but rather He is existence itself. In Barron’s words, God “coinheres” with His creation, meaning that He exists both outside of it and alongside it but without ever being in competition with it. God plus the world is not more than God Himself. If God and humanity had to fight for the same space, than God would not be God at all.

It is a remarkably simple point that Barron makes and yet it carries with it many profound implications. One of them, which Barron does not address, has to do with how we see the saints and particularly how we see the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Barron contends that the non-competitiveness of God means that God can direct and guide our lives without depriving us of our free will. The fact that we choose what we do with our lives does not negate God’s involvement, nor does God’s choice to point us in one direction or another make us somehow His puppets. In a world in which God coinheres with creation, the world can do the work of God without somehow taking over His unique place in order to do it. God makes the world holy by way of acting within and through the actions of free persons. If I act for the good of my neighbor, it is neither me working from my own goodness apart from God nor God working through me apart from the taint of my depravity. Rather, it is God at work within me and me at work by my own volition because of my sanctification. Neither cancels or negates the other.

Many Protestants fear that venerating the saints and asking for their prayers is tantamount to idolatry. Indeed, the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion warn against the perceived danger of the “invocation of saints,” though without defining exactly what is meant by these words. The Scottish priest William Forbes (1558-1634) argued that Anglicans could call upon the saints without running afoul of the Articles by simply making it clear, in their minds if nowhere else, that they are asking for the saints to pray with them and on their behalf, not praying to them. Forbes styled this advocation as opposed to invocation.

However, if Barron and Aquinas are correct, than the real issue is not one of keeping a proper distinction between the Creator and the created but rather of understanding the kind of relationship that God has with His creation. The holiness that is found in the saints deserves to be celebrated precisely because it is the same holiness that is in God. The saints have been made one with God through Christ, filled with His grace and life, fully immersed in His radiant glory. To venerate a saint is to worship God even as it is also to admire one of God’s creatures. The saint does not stop being a free person when he or she becomes holy. You cannot venerate a saint without worshipping the God whose energies shine through that saint’s life, but neither can you do so without acknowledging the active, free human being in whom God’s holiness has taken root. Where holiness abounds, neither God nor His creatures are threatened by the presence of each other. That is the mystery of salvation.

Perhaps the greatest source of Protestant unease about the veneration of saints is the way that Catholic Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic—give honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even amongst the saints, she holds a special place. Her intercession is sought more than any other. She is called the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God. “O higher than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim,” we sing about her in that immortal hymn, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. We try to play this down in apologetics sometimes out of fear of spooking those whose antennae are sensitive to mariology, but let’s face it, Mary is revered by Catholics. We love and adore her. Let me just put my cards on the table. I love and adore her. I have no trouble offering her the following prayer:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O merciful, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.

How is that not idolatry? How is it not blasphemy? How is it not elevating a creature to the throne that is rightfully reserved only for the Creator?

Truly, it is none of those things, because Mary is not in competition with God. They are not two items in the world duking it out for a finite amount of space in my heart. The difference between God and Mary is that Mary is finite while God is infinite. Mary reflects the eternal being while God is being itself. God and Mary can take up the same space without having to knock each other out of the way. In fact, one of the beautiful and glorious things about the Christian God is that He chooses to make His glory known in and through the lives of people.

While this may seem to be a bit of sideways thinking to Protestants, it is assuredly in line with how the God of the Bible operates. His mouthpieces are many, sometimes willing and sometimes not. Cyrus the Persian acts unwittingly for God. Some of the prophets, most notably Jonah, do everything in their power to run in the opposite direction when God comes calling. Nonetheless, God’s glory still shines through them. But it shines all the more when it is met with cooperation. Moses glowed after coming into contact with the Lord (Exodus 34:29-35). King David was so deeply changed by his encounter with the living God that he wrote the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known in the psalter. John the Baptist pointed the way even from the womb when he leapt at being in the presence of Christ (Luke 1:41). None of this was forced or coerced. God did not force David’s personality out of the way in the writing of the psalms or use him simply as a tool, even though it is surely God’ voice that we hear in them as much as David’s. We can appreciate and even venerate David when we encounter the beauty and majesty of the Psalms without for a second denying that they are thoroughly a gift from God.

So it is also with Mary whom all generations are to call blessed (Luke 1:48). She is more glorious than any other saint because through her womb the world was sanctified. Her very flesh was deemed holy enough for God to dwell therein. She was not simply a husk used by God to complete His purposes. She offered herself in service to God, becoming in the process the mother of all creation. She is not in competition with God or with any other saints. To love her more is not to love God less, any more than to have a new child is to love the old one less. And so we honor her, not simply as an instrument to be used and then discarded, but as a free person who offered her very life for the sake of millions of people like you and me whom she did not know. In honoring her, we ultimately honor Him, even when that is not explicit, because the faithfulness of Mary was such that her actions and His were intrinsically intertwined.

The life of a true saint is such that we may finally only speak of the saint’s actions and desires in contradistinction to Christ’s actions and desires in a theoretical way, similar to the way we speak of the continuing distinction between humanity and divinity within Christ Himself. To be a saint is no longer to be in competition with God because you have given yourself to Him freely. To be able to love Mary and Christ and your neighbor as yourself, all at the same time, is the mark of mature discipleship.

The Word of God for those who have no words

An old picture of my boys from a couple of years ago.

It is no accident that my sons, Langston and Micah, are named after a poet and a prophet. I have always found my solace in words. For as long as I can remember, I have been a writer, a reader, and a talker. I’m not good at sports. I’ve never been able to draw. I still count on my hands sometimes to do math. But words have always been both my paint and my canvas.

When I imagined being a father, I dreamed about both sharing my words with my children and having them share their words with me. But that has not been my experience. My boys are eight and four now and they are both on the autism spectrum. While there is great variety in how autism manifests itself, for my children it has come in a form that is probably best described as non-verbal. They both have some words at their disposal, but the number is very limited. They cannot have a conversation. They cannot follow most stories. They cannot read. They live inside a world that is largely wordless.

There are many ways in which the communication challenges that my children face are frustrating for them and heartbreaking for me, but none more so than in the realm of faith. I consider it my most solemn duty as a parent to teach the Christian faith to my children. “Fathers,” says Paul, “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). My children have trouble understanding the most basic things I say. How can I instruct them in who God is and what He has done for them? “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). But what good is that preaching if they can’t understand it?

As Catholic Christians, we are fortunate to have a few more tools at our disposal than we might otherwise. The Word of God is to be found not only in the words of a preacher or catechist but in every facet of the Catholic life. My wife and I try to surround our children with the things of God. There are icons and crucifixes in our home. There are songs that we sing. Many prayers can be learned in a rote fashion – the only way that my children ever gain language – and so my oldest is now able to make the sign of the cross and recite the Lord’s Prayer with some coaching, even though he has no awareness of what he is saying.

And of course, in the sacramental life of the Church, the grace of Our Lord is given as a gift to all of us, regardless of our capacity to understand it. I had the privilege of baptizing both of my boys as infants. Like all the other babies I have baptized over the years, they could hardly have been cognizant of what was happening, but that didn’t matter because God was at work. It wasn’t about them getting it. It was about Him giving it.

Yet the sacraments come with their own challenges for my family. The height of the Catholic life is the Mass, but my children are hardwired by their autism to screaming fits and other behaviors that many people find distracting or even outrageous. I cannot help my wife to wrangle them during Mass since I am usually up front leading the service. They rarely make it past the peace.

Moreover, my children have never been able to attend Sunday School. What happens when it is time for them to be confirmed? How will they be able to take on the baptismal promises as their own?

How do I bring my children who live in wordlessness to know the God who makes Himself known only through His Word?

“Is not my Word like fire?” says the Lord in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. “And like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Word which God speaks is not just an ordinary word. We hear it in ordinary words, but its power is far greater. This is a Word that doesn’t just point us towards God, it actually is God. It doesn’t just act as a symbol for our minds so that we can contemplate God, it actually delivers God to us. It is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, assuming all manner of human weakness in that act of self-emptying love. God’s Word can break the rock of my children’s autism into pieces. He can speak to them in a thousand ways that I cannot, because He has been one like them. He knows what it is not to be able to communicate. He knows what it is to be cut off from the world.

I wish I could say that I have the answer to these questions. There are, of course, programs that help to make liturgy more accessible to children like mine. There are good people trying to work through this. But it’s hard. It’s messy. It’s uncertain. I pray for guidance every day. Ultimately, it is a question of faith, not theirs but mine. Do I trust God enough to find a way to give His Word to my children even when I am unable to do so? In their baptism, Christ claimed them as His own and marked them as such forever. I know that some day my children and I will share words. We will worship God together in a shared language of prayer, whether on this side of the grave or in the life to come. There will be no wordlessness in the Kingdom.

Celebrating the Mass like it matters

adorientem

There has been quite a buzz lately about the practice of priests celebrating the Mass ad orientem (facing east) as opposed to the much more common practice today of celebrating versus populum (facing the people). It has touched off debate amongst Roman Catholics because of remarks by Cardinal Sarah and the subsequent Vatican response. It has even created some debate lately amongst Episcopalians, including some friends of mine, Bishop Dan Martins and Fr. Matthew Olver who wrote great pieces at Covenant recently on either side of the question (both of which came out after I had already written the bulk of the following post). I do not want to add to the controversy. I believe that ad orientem celebration is generally to be preferred for both historical and theological reasons, but that does not mean that versus populum is somehow all bad nor that ad orientem is without certain pitfalls when done poorly. So rather than throwing another log on the fire of debate, what I would like to do instead is reflect on my experience as a parish priest who has celebrated almost exclusively ad orientem over the last decade and offer a few observations that stem from that experience.

Observation #1: If you are a priest who is going to introduce ad orientem celebration in your parish, you need to educate your people about why you are doing it. And you need to be prepared to explain it to visitors on a regular basis.

The first time I ever saw an ad orientem celebration was during my senior year in college. It was at a small, country parish where the interim Rector had introduced the practice. I had no idea what he was doing. I did not know the history. I assumed that all priests had always faced the people. I was instantly put off and thought this man to be rather rude to turn his back on us. I left vowing never to come back. I offer that not by way of argument, but rather to stress the great ignorance that many laity labor under when it comes to this practice.

Observation #2: If you face the people, you should find a way of making it clear through your mannerisms or through other practices that the prayer you are offering is being directed towards the Father and not towards anyone else. At the altar, the priest stands in the place of Christ. This needs to be emphasized more than I think it currently is.

It was in seminary that I discovered the reasons for ad orientem celebration, mainly from the experience of worship in some fine Anglo-Catholic parishes where the practice is maintained. I was delighted when it turned out that my curacy would be at a parish that faced east. It taught me a deep and abiding reverence for God. I learned to think of myself as in conversation with God. The whole of the Mass became a single motion in which I stood in front of God and offered the Sacrifice for the sake of the gathered faithful. On those rare occasions when I would celebrate at some other altar and face the people, it was profoundly disorienting. I was talking to God but not looking at Him. I did not know where to turn my eyes.

It made me realize that for most of my life I had not known or understood that the Eucharist was being offered by the priest and faithful to God. It seems like a weird thing to say, but growing up with versus populum celebration I unconsciously absorbed the idea that when the priest stood at the altar and faced me he was there to talk to me. It never would have even occurred to me that I should be adding my own prayers to those of the priest, orienting my own spirit along with his so that I could offer myself to God just as he was offering bread and wine to Him, making myself “a living sacrifice” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer. There are, I am sure, ways of mitigating this concern that would still allow for versus populum celebration, but it will not happen on its own. Those who choose to celebrate mostly in this manner need to make a conscious effort to make the orientation towards God clear in the liturgy at all times. Likewise, those who celebrate ad orientem need to be consciously finding ways of inviting people into the mystery, not just doing your own thing at the altar and assuming everyone in the room is with you. This is especially true in church buildings where there is less in the art and architecture that points the people in the direction of understanding and knowing that God is present and that He is the focus of what is happening.

Observation #3: The Mass is a sacrifice before it is anything else. Ad orientem celebration communicates this in a much more evocative way than versus populum. But after years of forgetting and even obscuring this essential truth, both methods of celebration need to be placed in the sacrificial context again.

There are undoubtedly many things happening during the Mass and many images that we can use to talk about the Mass, but among them sacrifice must always be primary. Since the 1960s, the dominant way of talking about the Mass has been to identify it as a sacred meal. To be sure, this is a helpful and true image. More than a meal in fact, the Eucharist is a great banquet. It is the wedding feast of the Lord to which we have all been invited. But as Fr. Olver points out, “The Eucharist is only a meal because it is first and most fundamentally a sacrifice.”

This sacrificial character of what happens in the Mass is not only to be preferred because, as Fr. Olver notes, it is the image most frequently used by the early Church Fathers, but also because it is the source from which comes all the other blessings and good things that we identify with the Holy Eucharist. To have a sacred meal in which the people of God come together to eat as one body is good. To have such an event in which the Lord Himself actually shows up to feed us is even better. Yet when we go to Mass, we are doing one better even than that. We are going to Calvary. We are being transported out of space and time and placed at the foot of the cross. We are being gathered up by Jesus Himself into the one and eternal sacrifice that He made for us. Jesus is bringing us into that moment and pleading that sacrifice on our behalf before God the Father. And then, as part of the priesthood of all believers that unites us with the priesthood of Christ Himself, we do what all priests have always done and actually take the sacrifice into ourselves. In ancient Israel, the priests ate the animals sacrificed in the Temple. In the Mass, we who have shared in Christ’s own priesthood eat the Lamb of God who has offered Himself as both priest and victim on the altar of the cross.

However the Mass is celebrated in your parish, remembering the God-centered, cross-focused nature of the Mass will help you to walk much deeper into its divine mystery. For priests like me, keeping these considerations central to how we celebrate will go a long way towards recovering the great beauty and majesty of the liturgical life in our parishes, no matter on which side of the altar we find ourselves.

Photo from “Beauty of Catholicism