Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Blessed Certitude of Being Forgiven: A Wondrous Gift of Sacramental Confession

[Please note this post is not intended as a theological exploration of the sacrament of reconciliation. Rather, it is a reflection based on my personal experience about one particular aspect of this sacrament: how marvelously it shows God's eagerness to bend down to us with the gift of mercy in a way that takes account most eminently of the needs and weaknesses of our human psychology.]

Something that has stamped me indelibly as a person is the history of my being a convert to the Catholic faith. Next to life itself my Catholic faith is God's greatest gift to me.

I was baptized (praise God) as an infant. However, as a young man I did not embrace the Christian (Protestant) faith into which I had been baptized (though I never rejected it either). I was agnostic and used to think that even if God did exist, when it comes to the issue of divine ontology we mere humans find ourselves with no choice other than being doomed to perpetual uncertainty.

Then, God's grace came into my life in a way I had never dreamed could be real. . . .

But, this is not a post about my conversion. This is just by way of background to comment about what I want to say now: I am so grateful to God for the awesome sacrament of confession!

As I prepared to profess the Catholic faith and be received into full communion with the Church, being a convert who was already a baptized Christian, I was faced with the (at first daunting) prospect that my first confession would cover 28 years of my life! As I took instruction in the faith (which a gracious priest agreed to conduct privately over a series of meetings), one of my first difficulties was thinking about the Catholic practice of sacramental confession. Certainly, it is the case that we can pray directly to God for forgiveness for our sins and move on from there.

But as I thought about this (then a newly believing Christian but not yet Catholic), something bothered me: How could I know for sure--how could I ever have a deep, peaceful confidence in my soul--that God has truly forgiven me? I knew that I was a sinner and had done some awful things; I had offended God and deeply hurt others and myself by my sins. And I was completely certain that to go forward in life as a newly reverted (converted) Christian, I had to ask for and receive the forgiveness of God for my past sins. I ached to have my soul cleansed; I knew I needed this. And I believed that God since He is truly our Father and loves us immensely would also want us to be able to have confidence in His mercy. What father could stand to have his beloved child uncertain about an authentic gift of forgiveness? I knew that on some level, if I could never have genuine confidence in having been personally forgiven by God for my own particular sins I would always be plagued by an interior anxiety--a spiritual angst would be simmering within: Has God really forgiven me? (i.e. Has my prayerful request for forgiveness been adequate enough? Has it been heard? How do I know?)

Then one day it hit me (at this I experienced a thrill of realization): The Catholic practice of sacramental confession--because it is so tangible--is an almost unbelievably perfect answer to the above wretched state of anxiety as to whether God would ever truly proffer his mercy to me. Left only to my own private self-assessment how could I be certain that my own flawed prayers would elicit the (badly needed!) divine mercy I desired? We don't (usually) hear God speak into our ears! How could it be adequate to merely "feel" like God had forgiven me?

Confession to a priest (a validly ordained Catholic priest who has received the authority from God to forgive sins through the power of Jesus Christ) I realized, would give me vastly more confidence about whether or not I had truly ever received forgiveness from God. I realized that while I could fret endlessly about the sincerity of a private prayer offered to God alone I could be absolutely certain of the fact of having gone to confession and heard those blessed words with my own ears, actually spoken by a real human voice: "I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." How could a person not be sure of the reality of having gone to confession, named his sins with his own voice, and received back the words of absolution from another living human voice?

I give praise and thanks to God for the awesome sacrament of reconciliation. Because of its particular form--taking place in a person-to-person interchange involving lips and ears of flesh for both parties--I need never doubt whether or not God has truly forgiven me my sins. It is as blessedly simple (almost scandalously so) as asking myself: Did I truly confess my sins with my own lips? Did I truly hear those words of absolution with my own ears? Yes, I did! Thanks be to God!

It is so amazing the love of God--how truly fatherly He is. No, He does not have to work through a priest to bestow forgiveness upon us. But, loving father that He is, isn't it so like our God who freely emptied Himself out on a cross for us that He would institute a way to forgive and heal us of our sins wherein we could not only be forgiven but would then possess the great peace of a conscious, personal certainty of the exchange--our confession for His mercy? What hope this gives me!

Does God love us enough to provide a way to be free from anxiety about His mercy?

Let us prepare; go to the confessional; speak our sins to the priest whose lips speak for Christ and afterwords know without doubt that we have heard these wonderful words: "I absolve you of your sins." Thanks be to God!

Beautiful choral Ave Maria

Occasionally I hope to post or link to something that strikes me as especially beautiful from the realm of art.

Here is a version of the Ave Maria (actually it is the Angelus, which includes the Ave Maria) for male choir by German composer Franz Biebl (d. 2001) that is particularly beautiful. In the clip below it is sung by the outstanding choral group, Chanticleer. It was performed at Christmastime at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mary Ann Glendon, Example of Piety

Some readers might know of this, but, for those who don't, the distinguished professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard (former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican; current president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences; defender of the unborn) did a very noble thing today in witness to the sanctity of human life. She declined to accept the prestigious (and in her case, deserved) Laetare medal from Notre Dame because Notre Dame will be giving the stage to and bestowing honors upon President Obama on the same occasion (Notre Dame commencement ceremonies) at which she would have been awarded the medal.

This is getting a lot of attention in the Catholic world. For an example of excellent commentary about this and for more about Professor Glendon, see the article here by Fr. Raymond de Souza. I agree with Fr. de Souza that "In her life of extraordinary accomplishments, the witness given by Glendon by not going to Notre Dame next month is something of a crowning achievement."

But I want to post on this topic not to speak directly of the situation at Notre Dame (which many are doing elsewhere), but, to ask a question and draw attention to a virtue. I thought that especially in light of my earlier comments about the cultivation of virtue it would be worthwhile to consider: What virtue (or virtues) is Professor Glendon putting into action by her principled decision?

One could probably list several. What comes to your mind? The virtue that came first to my mind, was piety.

Now, by piety, I am not speaking of it in the everyday, ordinary sense. I am speaking of it in a more traditional, older, classic sense. Fr. Hardon's handy Modern Catholic Dictionary gives a short definition of piety (in keeping with this classic sense I am thinking of) as,
Honor and reverence given to someone in any way responsible for our existence or well-being. Thus God as our Creator and constant Provider, parents, near relatives, country, tribe, or people.

So here are a few observations about how, it seems to me, Professor Glendon in her rejection of the Laetare medal manifests a great example of piety.

1. Professor Glendon honors and reverences God. Many people of lesser virtue would find the prestige and attention of such an award too attractive to resist. But, in her rejection, Glendon shows that she honors God more than man. It is more important to respect God, the creator and author (and truest lover) of all human life, than to receive the praise of mere men (even if the President of the United States will be there). God's principle is never to take innocent life--which includes the life of the unborn growing in the womb. Our President's principle is not only to allow it, but to defend it. For a person of piety, when there is a clash between God's principles and those of men--deference is given to God every time.

2. Professor Glendon honors and reverences her parents. By her action, she shows herself to be a person of deep-seated integrity and character. Virtue of this sort, when it appears in a public fashion such as this, speaks very highly of the memory of her parents.

3. Professor Glendon honors and reverences her country. By her action, she shows that she truly cherishes her country--so much so that a highly inappropriate bestowal of an honor upon her President, an honor which will represent (because of the President's disregard for unborn life) a betrayal of the values of equality and respect for life and liberty which are so foundational to our country, has induced her to decline to stand upon the same stage with him. And I would wager that she does so, in part, out of true respect for the office of the Presidency, aware of the importance that one who occupies this office not tarnish it.

Would that we all would have such piety! Thank you, Professor Glendon, for your example.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Evangelization, Polish Dominican style

Some reading this blog know that from the Summer of 2003 to February, 2008, I was a Dominican--a member of the Order of Preachers. I was a student brother in simple (temporary) religious vows until God, through a painful discernment process, let me know that what I had originally thought was a lifelong calling to Dominican life, was in fact a temporary calling. I departed the community on good terms in 2008 and am blessed to count my former brothers as friends. In a different though still significant way I see us as continuing brothers in St. Dominic. I will always be deeply stamped by my 4 1/2 years as a Dominican and consider this time of my life as a great blessing for which I am very grateful to God. Though I am no longer a Dominican brother, I still love the Dominicans and much about Dominican life! [My former classmates--truly excellent men--will be ordained to the holy priesthood next month (but for one who was ordained last year)! Please pray for them.]

The charism of the Dominicans is to go out into the world and preach the truth about God and man for the salvation of souls. So, on the topic of things Dominican, here is an excellent example in video form of how the Polish Dominicans (wonderful men of God, and blessed with vocations) approach evangelizing the contemporary culture. Even if you don't speak Polish (I don't), you can still get a very good idea of what the Polish brothers want to communicate with this creative and thought-provoking music video.

Past and Present: both needed for your self-understanding

A week or so ago after attending an evening class with friends at The Personalist Project, I was asked (not in these exact words) what I thought about the topic of tradition vs. the now (i.e. custom vs. novelty; the past vs. the present; the old vs. the new). I didn't get to respond and so I'll offer a few thoughts here.

In recent Catholic history the following two terms have been used to capture the above notions in regard to how one approaches theology: aggiornamento, and, ressourcement. The former pertains to updating (using the new); the latter to recovery (of the old). Some would claim that those whom I'll call ultra-traditionalists want to return to an idealized past--using only the extraordinary form of the Mass (i.e. the "Tridentine" Mass used universally in the Latin rite until the Mass of Paul VI was promulgated after Vatican II) and eschewing modern theological and philosophical categories in preference for what had been taken in the early 20th century to be a strict Thomism of a pre-modern bent. In contrast to this are some (can they be called "progressive," theologians?) who seem to prefer ignoring any portion of the Catholic theological heritage seen as substantially rooted in pre-conciliar (as in, before Vatican II) thought.

Stepping aside from these extreme traditionalist and modernist camps, there is an idea that Catholicism, in order to be healthy, always needs both perspectives. This was indeed important for Pope John XXIII when he announced the Second Vatican Council.

I observe that clarity can be shed on this if one simply thinks about one's own personal experience as a unique, individual human being.

Who would say that what they think and believe, and how they behave in the present, has nothing to do with what they have done and thought in the past? Of course, at every moment of our time-bound lives, our experience of ourselves and our self-identity, our habits--our virtues and vices--are constantly informed by the sum total of our human experiences up to the present. Our present self, as we know ourselves, is never an isolated island of the present moment, disarticulated from our personal past. Rather, our self-identity and self-understanding are ever shaped and formed by our constantly expanding and living personal past. So, in regard to the individual person, there can be no isolated consideration of one's present self as cut off from (unrelated to) one's history. Likewise, our self-identity is never taken as merely equal to a frozen point from some past moment, static and unmoving. We, as human persons, are always a dynamic harmony of the present with the ever-expanding past. We cannot be otherwise.

It is the same with the Church and with any culture as a whole.

And so, my take on this is that it is very artificial to attempt to fix on an idealized reference point from past historical circumstances and try to bring it forward in static fashion as a model for today. This would be like preferring a single picture frame of a movie to the entire moving picture, thinking that one can understand the whole simply from the single frame, without taking the whole film into account. Therefore I think it is clear that in any human science wherein we want to have a sane understanding of who we are and what we are about as persons and as a people--because of the nature of human life (as both in time, but made for eternity)--we need to engage our minds continually on the new and the old, the past and the present, in a continually unfolding interplay.

Nifty Video

Here is a lovely song about prairie home sausage:

Teaching Ethics vs. Acquiring Virtue

A recent headline at a bioethics web site reads, "A New Model for Teaching Ethical Behavior." This brings to mind an issue that troubles me about contemporary American society. Many people of influence in America seem to think that instilling good "ethics" into others (whatever their conception of this entails) is primarily a matter of education--especially of the sort done in classrooms in high schools and colleges.

I don't have anything in particular against "Ethics" as a course of formal study. It is a perfectly legitimate subject considered as a branch of philosophy. However, we are badly mistaken if we think this is all we need to bring about a change in society for the better. Good people are not made by ethics courses.

How, then, are good people formed? By the consistent cultivation of virtue. Virtue is what makes a person truly good, not the mere acquisition of knowledge, however salutary.

Acquiring virtue is a long-term project that involves daily effort consistently engaged over time. Once virtue is attained, it "lives" or "resides" in the soul. It becomes a part of us, much more integral and central to our personal core than mere knowledge about something. This is why mere classes cannot by themselves make people more ethical. They can be helpful in an ancillary way, but they are not the crux of how virtue is instilled.

Virtue, unlike mere intellectual knowledge, is something that must be woven into the person like a pattern of thread in a textile. It cannot happen all at once, but requires many cycles of the loom as each strand of fabric is laid down until the whole piece is complete.

So often it seems, American cultural leaders act as though there is a simple solution to perceived deficits of moral rectitude; all we need is the right curriculum to be taught. If we could only find the right "model for teaching ethical behavior," we will be on the right path to positive societal transformation.

This is not so. For to acquire virtue we don't need a teacher in a classroom (though this can be helpful). Rather, we need a harmony of many things including a sustained desire to become good (virtuous) and consistent efforts to practice being good, with the good example, advice, and guidance of others more virtuous than we. The process is not unlike becoming skilled at playing a musical instrument. No matter how much you read about playing the piano, you will never become a skilled piano player unless you practice--and practice regularly for quite some time. And if we speak of those virtues which are particularly Christian and thus inseparable from faith, having been modeled perfectly for us by Jesus Christ, we need a confluence of divine grace allied with personal desire and regular (humble and hope-filled) practice. . . Such entails the beautiful journey of the saints.

Header photo

The photo above is of my dear grandmother (on the right) and her sister in a light-hearted moment. I put this up because I like the photo (gram was a farmer; a very practical, hard-working, action-oriented person), and because I would like to suggest that it hints at the engagement with the adventure of life that I would like to have.