It is mid-Lent and you stumble into a church, not because it is Lent or you have a habit of churchgoing but because you need a bathroom. You try to look like you belong there, bowing your head, making yourself a bit tense. They are just about to begin a service.
Something about the candles, the kid in the white gown holding the taper, the marble, the death, everywhere death and gloom and a lack of irony. This you want. Though you did not know it until now. Suddenly you can’t make yourself leave.
You will stay for the entire mass. And you will return, again and again.
One day you will sidle up to an usher in a green corduroy sport coat who frankly will be no help – who will not exactly fall all over himself to point you in the right direction to start becoming Catholic.
Which will only make you trust this place all the more.
You will go to a weekly class and they will tell you to find a “sponsor” (what is this, AA?) and every Sunday you will have to parade with your little group mid-service out of the church in front of the whole crowd, like a row of prisoners whose time in the activity yard is up.
Then one Saturday night you will put on a white “alb” which the harried woman whose smile you never believe and who is in charge of the whole thing has told you many many times “is your baptismal right to wear”.
And the embarrassing and surreal totality of water. They drench you. Water as you have never used it before. Water without utility. You are not swimming, nor drinking, nor cleaning, nor cooking nor washing. You are doing what? “Symbolizing”? Is that a thing one does?
You just know the feeling, the way it is on your skin. As if no argument can be made against this, if someone would ever want to. If a charitable friend might tell you, for instance, that your baptism is not really a thing that is happening to you – that it is a thing leveraged or constructed or something. But, no, it did happen to me. The water was really there. Damp towels to prove it. Why would I put myself through this bizarre pointless soaking if it wasn’t real?
Your logic actually doesn’t work that well, but for you it suffices.
And, truth be told, arguments are made against you, by people who know you, though they are never spoken out loud. You wish they would be! You want to hear them. Because really, you know better than this. You have no legitimate cover for taking such grievous measures with your life. There was no Catholic girlfriend, no pending wedding to become spiritually aligned for. There has been no vision, no astounding conversion story, no miracle of the internal organs. No bible passage randomly flipped to, revealing the foul depths of your nonetheless sacred heart.
And so people will just think you are not that smart anymore. Or maybe you never really were that smart. And once they realize this, that you went off the mental rails somewhere – or never were on those rails – they can then consign you to a part of their brains that understands this quaint, even touching turn to old-time religion.
As for you, while you could cite doctrines, beliefs and a bone-deep feeling, really it’s this: you are in the game. That’s all you really know. You’re on the field, and you want to stay there.
“It is one of the curious anomalies of present day civilization that when man achieves greatest control over nature, he has the least control over himself. The great boast of our age is our domination of the universe: we have harnessed the waterfalls, made the wind slave to carry us on wings of steel, and squeezed from the earth the secret of its age. Yet, despite this mastery of nature, there perhaps never was a time when man was less a master of himself. He is equipped like a veritable giant to control the forces of nature, but is as weak as a pigmy to control the forces of his passions and inclinations.”
When Eve Tushnet converted to Catholicism in 1998, she thought she might be the world’s first celibate Catholic lesbian.
Having grown up in a liberal, upper Northwest Washington home before moving on to Yale University, the then-19-year-old knew no other gay Catholics who embraced the church’s ban on sex outside heterosexual marriage. Her decision to abstain made her an outlier.
“Everyone I knew totally rejected it,” she said of the church’s teaching on gay sexuality.
Today, Tushnet is a leader in a small but growing movement of celibate gay Christians who find it easier than before to be out of the closet in their traditional churches because they’re celibate.
Josh Gonnerman, 29, a theology PhD student at Catholic University, writes for the spiritualfriendship site and speaks easily about embracing his gayness. When he came out in the mid-2000s, Gonnerman says, church leaders weren’t speaking about celibacy because they had “sort of thrown their lot in with the Republican Party” and wouldn’t talk inclusively in any way about LGBT people. The LGBT group he and Tushnet are part of at Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, he said, has gone from more of a “support group” to something more upbeat that organizes social and spiritual activities for members — not all of whom accept church teaching on celibacy.
“There is this shift from the more negative to the more positive,” he said. “In the past, the Catholic approach was: ‘Oh, sucks for you’ [that you’re gay]. The emphasis was on the difficulty. Celibacy is being reimagined.”
More times than not, I'll read or hear about nominal Catholics who struggle with the Church's teachings on a variety of issues. Attending Mass regularly, the Eucharist, gay marriage, you name it. The only authority many of them are willing to yield to is the authority that guides them on what to have for breakfast or what to tape on the DVR.
It's refreshing to read about people like Ms. Tushnet and Mr. Gonnerman who embrace the faith and attempt to bend to the Church's teachings rather than succumb to the authority of self.
God bless 'em. God give the faithful and those attempting to be faithful the same courage and strength.
I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit that until yesterday, I had not delved into the details of the "Our Lady of Guadalupe" story.
The Catholich Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe each year on Dec. 12, celebrating the day in 1531 when the Blessed Mother Mary revealed herself to a 57-year old peasant named Juan Diego.
As the story goes, Señor Diego was trekking toward Tepeyac Hill, now better known as Mexico City, when the Virgin Mary made her first appearance.
Juan Diego was a recently baptized indigenous Mexican who, on his way to Mass on Dec. 9, 1531, encountered a woman dressed in indigenous regal attire.
The radiant woman, who spoke the native Aztec dialect, announced herself as the “ever-perfect holy Mary, who has the honor to be the mother of the true God.”
In the course of several visitations, she asked Juan Diego to build a church dedicated to Christ on the site of a former pagan temple and promised to cure his dying uncle.
As a sign for the bishop, she told Juan Diego to find roses and other flowers on the hill, though it was the middle of winter. St. Juan Diego gathered the flowers, and Mary placed them into his cloak, known as a tilma, and told him not to unwrap it until he reached the bishop.
When Juan Diego unwrapped the tilma before the bishop, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe had been miraculously imprinted upon it.
The image became the wellspring of a conversion movement the likes of which have rarely been seen before or since.
The fact that the Virgin Mother not only spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, but appeared to be wearing the dress of an Aztec princess sparked millions of conversions to the Catholic faith in just under seven years.
The shrine that was subsequently built on the spot, where the original tilma can still be seen, remains one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the world.
But this post isn’t about the whole apparition story so much as it is about the tilma, Juan Diego’s cloak, on which the image of the Blessed Mother was imprinted. In the centuries following the event, some amazing and unexplainable qualities have been discovered about it.
Sewell goes on to chronicle four amazing characteristics about the tilma, excerpts follow:
1. It has qualities that are humanly impossible to replicate.
Made primarily of cactus fibers, a tilma was typically of very poor quality and had a rough surface, making it difficult enough to wear, much less to paint a lasting image on it.
Nevertheless, the image remains, and scientists who have studied the image insist there was no technique used beforehand to treat the surface. The surface bearing the image is reportedly like silk to the touch, while the unused portion of the tilma remains coarse.
2. People say it’s just a painting, yet the tilma has outlived them all, in time and in quality.
One of the first things skeptics say about the image is that it somehow has to be a forgery or a fraud. Yet in every attempt to replicate the image, while the original never seems to fade, the duplicates have deteriorated over a short time.
3. The tilma has shown characteristics startlingly like a living human body.
In 1979, when Callahan, the Florida biophysicist, was analyzing thetilma using infrared technology, he apparently also discovered that the tilma maintains a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the same as that of a living person.
When Carlos Fernandez del Castillo, a Mexican gynecologist, examined the tilma, he first noticed a four-petaled flower over what was Mary’s womb.
The flower, called the Nahui Ollin by the Aztecs, was a symbol of the sun and a symbol of plenitude.
Upon further examination, Castillo concluded that the dimensions of Our Lady’s body in the image were that of an expectant mother due quite soon. Dec. 9, the day of the unveiling, is barely two weeks from Christmas.
4. It appears to be virtually indestructible.
Over the centuries, two separate events had the potential to harm the tilma, one in 1785 and one in 1921.
In 1785, a worker was cleaning the glass encasement of the image when he accidentally spilled strong nitric acid solvent onto a large portion of the image itself.
The image and the rest of the tilma, which should have been eaten away almost instantly by the spill, reportedly self-restored over the next 30 days, and it remains unscathed to this day, aside from small stains on the parts not bearing the image.
In 1921, an anti-clerical activist hid a bomb containing 29 sticks of dynamite in a pot of roses and placed it before the image inside the Basilica at Guadalupe.
When the bomb exploded, the marble altar rail and windows 150 feet shattered. A brass crucifix was twisted and bent out of shape. But the tilma and its glass case remained fully intact.
Now that the Torture Report is out and we are discovering that the lies we listened to for so long (We only waterboarded three high value targets! We had to do it to save lives! Valuable intel! Are you telling me that some filthy terrorist is more important than an unborn baby in your sick twisted liberal mind?) are all exposed as appalling lies, it’s important to do an examination of conscience. Why? Because we Catholics consistently supported torture in larger percentages then the average American population. And the more we self-described as “faithful conservative” and “prolife” the more likely we were to do so. God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of us. (Romans 2:24)
We defended the torture of innocents (indeed people who were on our side).
We defended standing on the broken legs of prisoners (something out of a Gestapo or SS scene in a movie).
We defended drowning.
We defended dungeons and putting prisoners at the mercy of interrogators known to be psychologically unstable and having a history of violence.
We defended forcing prisoners with broken feet to stand in stress positions.
We defended non-stop torture for days and weeks.
We defended 180 hours of sleep deprivation.
We defended “forced rectal feeding” (aka “anal rape and humiliation”) that consisted of ramming hummus up the anuses of helpless prisoners.
We defended refusal to treat bullet wounds and neglect leading to the loss of eyes.
We defended dragging shackled, naked prisoners around around blindfold and beating them.
We defended keeping prisoners in total darkness with only a bucket for their waste.
We defended a system that had no clear idea who it was imprisoning and torturing.
We defended a system that derived no intelligence to stop terrorist attacks, and that used gruesome torture to get information we could have obtained by conventional means, while generating lots of false intel from prisoners who said anything to make the pain stop. That false intel meant millions spent on wild goose chases.
We defended a system that got its torture techniques from the Commies we used to fight, not imitate.
We defended a system that mainly served to enrich contractors and shrinks who told it what it wanted to hear.
We defended a system that lied to its own superiors.
We–WE PROLIFERS–cheered for a system that “threatened to harm detainees’ children, sexually abuse their mothers, and “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’ In addition, several detainees were led to believe they would die in custody, with one told he would leave in a coffin-shaped box.
Detainees wouldn’t see their day in court because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you,” one interrogator said.
We defended sexual assaults on prisoners by interrogators.
And all the while we did it, we offered an immense menu of Ticking Time bomb scenarios, garbage sophistries, and “what if?” fantasies about bombs under orphanages, all carefully designed to distract us from the reality of what we were defending by reinforcing our fear and rage. We told ourselves we were fighting an inhuman enemy that justified using any means necessary. And we became the monsters we feared.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2298) teaches: “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” When an interrogator treats his captor in a degrading manner, the human dignity of both men is violated; by treating his subject as something less than human, the captor becomes something less than human himself.
Defenders of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques say that it was necessary to put extra pressure on terrorist suspects, to extract important information that would save the lives of innocent people. That is a powerful, practical argument. But is it true? Expert interrogators question that premise.
A tortured prisoner might blurt out… anything. He may tell the truth, or he may say whatever he thinks his questioner wants to hear, whether it is true or not. Under extreme duress, he might not even know whether he is telling the truth or not; when pushed beyond their endurance, most people become lesscapable of speaking intelligently.
Even if it were true that torture could induce prisoners to give more accurate information, that would not be enough to justify an intrinsically evil act. Some defense experts claim that “enhanced interrogation” helped to ward off terrorist attacks. That is, to be sure, a powerful practical argument. But practical arguments are not enough to justify an intrinsically immoral act. How many women, finding themselves in difficult pregnancies, can make powerful practical arguments in favor of abortion?
A moral end does not justify an immoral means.
He too has more. You should click the link and read it all.
The part of us that believes the ends justify the means is the part of us that needs exposure to the gruesome details that are now coming to light because let there be little doubt.
We are losing our humanity.
By the way, because I know some might wonder, Mark has an older post up that helps define the word torture, for those who might be prone to ask. I used to go there myself, thinking that torture could be defined in such a way as to minimize what torture might actually be. Again, the Church is clear on what it is. Read Mark's post.
The wife and I attended a reconciliation service last night. Both of us entertained, if only for moments, the thought of skipping out. We'd had a long, stressful day at the office and were both pretty pooped. Thankfully, most thankfully, we pushed those thoughts to the side.
There seems to be so much ugliness in the world right now.
So much pettiness and the division that results. So much stubbornness and small-mindedness that leads to a deepening spiral of dysfunction. So much ignorance and presumption that can only end in discord and disagreement. So much arrogance that sees vice while ignoring virtue in others. So much madness that ignores God's maxim to forgive. And, of course, so much of my own inclination to engage in this ugliness, to sink to these depths, to wallow in this muck.
It's all ugly. It's all wrong. It's all sin. It's dragging us down.
What I believe is needed to set things right, to replace all the ugly, if only for the moment, is beauty, tangible beauty.
Last night, the wife and I experienced indescribable beauty but rather than attempt to articulate what was experienced myself, I'm letting Simcha Fisher do it for me:
It's the one place that no one would ever go for normal, worldly reasons. No penitent goes to confession to get ahead in life, or to make money, or to get a full belly, or to impress anyone; and no priest goes to confession to be amused or entertained. It's where we go to unload our miseries, to show our wounds and our infections, to take off the disguises that make us appear palatable to each other.
So, not beautiful. No, not especially.
Or is it? If the ugliness, the squalor, the sordidness, and the running nose were all that happened inside a confessional, then it really would be an ugly place -- just a latrine, a ditch, a sewer. But of course, the part where we lay out our sins is only the first part.
What happens afterward is more obviously beautiful. The priest reaches out and picks up the ugly little load you've laid in front of him. And right then and there, he pours the living water over it until the parts that are worth saving are healthy and whole again, and the parts that cannot be salvaged have been washed away entirely. What is useless is gone; what was dead is alive again.
This is beautiful!
And the beauty of absolution does one of those neat Catholic tricks where eternal things reach back in time and impart beauty wherever they want, regardless of chronology. The beauty of absolution makes the confession itself beautiful. Even though my sins are ugly, the very fact that I'm bringing them into the confessional has something beautiful in it: the beauty of trust that I will be forgiven; the beauty of believing that something real and life-changing will happen; the beauty of being willing to accept forgiveness even though I know that I don't deserve it; and the beauty of knowing that, whoever's turn it is to sit behind the screen, it is really Christ who is waiting to meet me.