Charlie's Blog: February 2016


A Life of Contrition and Penance

Against you only have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight. . .
PSALM 51:4

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent which is the pentiential season leading up to Easter. The ashes smeared on the foreheads of believers are acts of contrition and penance. If one thing strikes me hard this time around, it is the acknowledgement that I should always be contrite and pentitent and not just during Lent.

I am a sinner. I will be one until the day I die. I pray every day that when my death comes that it finds me in a state of grace. The one thing I keep in my mind is that there is a Hell, and I deserve to go there. And unlike certain presumptuous Protestants, I know that I can still go to Hell. There is no "once saved, always saved" in Roman Catholicism.

If I can sum up the Catholic experience, it would be like this. It is a perpetual life of contrition and penance. From prayers to acts of mercy to the examination of conscience to the confessional, the life of a Catholic Christian is lived in such a way to make up and make reparation for the many offenses against our Lord. Contrition is simply owning your sins. Penance is simply trying to live in such a way to show that you are sorry for those sins.

God is merciful and forgiving. But His forgiveness is not cheap. Salvation is not merely being let off the hook. It is to make satisfaction for sin and to also be rescued from sin. This comes from the gift of God's grace. The evangelical Protestant asks, "Are you saved?" My only answer is to say, "Not yet." I hope to be saved. Salvation is a process and not a single act.

I have hope that God will finish the work He has begun in me. He is my only hope because I know what I am without God. May God forgive me for all that I have done.

Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which You have broken rejoice.
Hide Your face from my sins
And blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners will be converted to You.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Your praise.
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.


The Mystery of Evil

Jesus wept.

What makes a person become an atheist? The atheist may offer various arguments from science and philosophy, and they can all be answered. When you finally clear away these arguments, you will see a bit of emotion come into the conversation, and the atheist will lay out it to you. How can a benevolent and omnipotent God allow all this human evil and suffering? At this point in the conversation, the Christian falls silent. The Christian cannot give an answer because there is no answer. Neither the Bible nor the Church can provide a satisfactory answer for this dilemma. The atheist is left with the options of denying God's benevolence or His omnipotence but opts instead for the least offensive conclusion. God simply doesn't exist. Evil and suffering exist because the universe is indifferent, and things just happen. All things happen by chance, and the random event of your existence will end with some other random event like an airplane crash or ebola.

The story of Lazarus in the Bible is the New Testament response to the problem of evil and suffering. In the Old Testament, you look to the Book of Job, but the New Testament gives us Lazarus. The gist of the story is like this. Jesus loved Lazarus very much, but he let Lazarus die of an illness that He could have cured. When He arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, Lazarus had been dead for many days. Now, Jesus allowed this event to transpire to instill greater faith in those who would be there. The purpose of all miracles is to give faith and assurance to the faithful. It is to help them carry on. So, the evil of the death of Lazarus was permitted, so that this greater thing could happen. At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus breaks down in emotion. He weeps for His friend and all those who loved him. Then, He raises Lazarus from the dead.

The story matters because it tells us definitively that God is both omnipotent and benevolent. Jesus can raise people from the dead, and He does care that people die. But even this miracle is small comfort when we consider that Lazarus would return to that tomb again. In the whole scheme of things, this miracle is just a band-aid. The ultimate resurrection at the end of time is when the cure comes. In the meantime, we endure and persevere.

Jesus would go on to do something even more extraordinary. He would suffer the same fate as Lazarus and raise Himself from the dead. The Lazarus event served as a precursor to that ultimate tragedy and miracle. Still, the disciples lost faith. They ran hoping to escape the fate that they would all embrace heartily in the future.

The challenge of evil and suffering is to retain faith when the temptation is to despair. I am someone who gave into that temptation in my life. I believed in God, and I lost my faith when I found the body of my friend who had committed suicide. I had been studying to become a Presbyterian minister when that tragic event blindsided me leaving me stunned and bewildered. I withdrew from seminary and those plans to become a clergyman. I couldn't believe anymore in a God who would allow such a thing to happen. In hindsight, I can see more clearly now that God was sparing me from the awful fate of being a Calvinist heretic. Had that event not happened, I would not be a Roman Catholic today. But my journey took me through a dark valley of atheism.

I wasn't like the other atheists who spend endless hours debating God's existence on internet messageboards and comboxes. This was because I was more atheist than they were. These atheists struggle with the knowledge that they are wrong, so they try so hard not to convince others but to convince themselves. I would laugh at them because I knew things they did not. I had tasted the horror. I had looked into the abyss. I was utterly faithless. Believing in God hurt so bad that atheism was relief from the agony and pain of trying to have faith in a God who had let me down. If God existed, He was the God of stillborn children, the Holocaust, and bodies mangled in various ways from war and disaster. God was the God of dead roommates who killed themselves because they could no longer stomach the awfulness of existence.

Most atheists are hot atheists. They are passionate about their atheism because they have their doubts about their atheism. But I was a cold atheist. I was an atheist without doubt. God did not exist, and my one comfort in life was that when things become too bad I could escape into non-existence. I hung by a fingernail over an abyss of nihilism, and I look back knowing that I was very close to falling into Hell. To this day, I can dip into that agony at will and bring back those dark emotions and the despair I felt. None of it is gone. I suspect that God allows us to suffer. so that we will have these dark gifts. In much the same way that Jesus could show the wounds of His crucifixion in His body, we carry these wounds in our soul. I do not understand this mystery. What I do understand is that I am in a better place today as a consequence of my suffering than I was in my twenties before any of those tragic events had ever happened to me. I have no desire to return to my days of naiveté when I knew everything. I am grateful for the suffering that I endured. What I have now is worth more than all that I lost.

My suffering has not ended. To live is to suffer. But I have faith now. What made me regain faith when I had lost it? Part of it was learning new things denied to me as an ignorant Protestant. But realizing that the Catholic Church was the right church was a moot point to an atheist who did not believe in God. I simply did not believe. I remember sitting in a chair and contemplating all that I had learned and seeing where I had been in error. I could not believe in any of it. But I wanted to believe, and it was at that moment the scales fell from my eyes. The lights came back on. I became alive again. I was Lazarus stumbling out of that tomb.

My argument with atheists is a simple one. I don't debate whether it is true or not. I believe it is true, but this misses the point. Faith is not an issue of having the correct facts. So, the question I ask is the same one I asked myself. Do you want it to be true? That really cuts to the heart of it. Would you want God to be real? For me, I always wanted God to be real, but the brute facts of life made this impossible. For most atheists, the answer is that they don't want God to be real at all. It is one thing to curse the sun. It is another thing to gouge out one's eyes because the light from that sun is so bright.

My story now begs an argument. Haven't you simply stepped back into the world of illusions? Aren't you the one who has deliberately blinded himself to the realities of this awful life? If I had become a Protestant again, the answer to that question would be yes. But I didn't. I know ignorance, and I know horror. And being Catholic causes me more suffering in this life instead of less. If it is an illusion, it is not a comfortable illusion. It is a painful one. I am well acquainted with suffering. I see evil on a daily basis. I wonder why God allows abortion in this country when the faithful have prayed for four decades for it to stop. I see children born with microcephaly and wonder how God can allow such tragedy. I see my brothers and sisters in the faith raped and beheaded by ISIS and wonder when justice will come.

I have no answer to the problem of evil. I am with Flannery O'Connor when she said that evil is not a problem to be solved so much as a mystery to be endured. I have faith, and I endure this mystery. I know that there is a Resurrection and a Judgment Day. There is a Heaven, and there is a Hell. It will all work out in the end. Only one question remains. Will all that we have suffered and endured be worth it in the end? As somone who has already suffered, I can say that it will be. Whatever is lost in this life will be worth what we are to gain in the next life.


Burnt Fingers

I reflected on other victims I had met and how they were raped right on the altars of their own churches. Some of them were altar boys, and they were abused before or after mass. An altar boy walked right in front of us as we sat there. I began to shake, sweat, and become very uneasy. I felt frozen in my seat.

I am pessimistic about changing things for the better. I doubt my vote makes a difference in the whole scheme of things. I doubt that the opinions I express on my blog make any larger impact. I have spent ten years in my current job, and we still have the same problems now that we did at the beginning of those ten years. We can offer lots of reasons for this lack of change or improvement. Perhaps it is institutional, and the policies and red tape you have to fight to get things done. But this merely puts the onus on a system instead of on the people within that system. Institutions aren't evil. People are evil.

The Roman Catholic Church is no different in this regard than any other institution or organization. At its worst, the Church is just like the world. But at its best, it is the only place where you can find genuine saints. I wonder about my place in the Church as just a layperson, and I contemplate trying to make things better. I don't even try to work within the Church beyond volunteering with the Knights of Columbus. The reason for this is my suspicion that all my efforts are just a waste of time.

I know I can't change things in the Church to make it better. If I doubted this, I had my pessimism confirmed through a box of matches. At the parish I attend, the votive candles are lit from a box of kitchen matches. The problem with the matches is that they are short, and they burn your fingers long before the candles ever get lit. It is simultaneously sad and comical to watch people try and light these candles. I have burnt my own fingers many times and even accidentally set the used match sticks on fire in the small disposal receptacle with the sand in it. My parish is the only parish where I have encountered this problem because every other parish uses long candle lighter sticks.

I wrote an email to the priest and to the parish council telling them about the problem. I even ordered the long candle ligher sticks from Amazon and had them sent to the Church. To this day, those ridiculous kitchen matches are still there. My personal answer to the problem is to bring my own candle lighter. Invariably, I end up lighting candles for other people, too. People even come up to me in the pew after Mass and ask to borrow it.

In the whole scheme of things, the Kitchen Match Fiasco is a small matter. There are much bigger fish to fry than this minnow. But its smallness is what vexes me because if I can't make any difference on such a small thing, what hope do I have in changing the big things? I can only conclude that there is no hope.

Change does happen, but it happens in spite of human efforts not because of them. Within the Roman Catholic Church, there are holy prelates, priests, and religious faithfully living out the faith. Alongside these saintly people are devils who prey on children, squander the charitable donations of the faithful on lavish lifestyles and gay lovers, and undermine the Magisterium subtly and overtly at every turn. Part of me wants to go on some crusade to clean out this filth from the Church. Then, I pause and consider those kitchen matches. Whether it is right or wrong for a layperson to try and take out this garbage is a moot point. Such an effort will be doomed to failure. The Catholic Church has always been this way.

Only God alone has the power to make things better. I know because it is God alone who has made me better. I add my efforts to what God does, but I can't claim credit for anything. After decades of trying to change myself, I realize my only hope is in God. Likewise, the problem in the Catholic Church is not a failure of the right programs or systems but a lack of faith among those who should be faithful.

My answer to the big problems is essentially my answer to this little problem of the kitchen matches. I bring my candle lighter. I help those who ask. I waste no time on trying to fix the problem. I just fix the problem myself. As they say, be the change you want to see in the world. Sometimes the greatest acts of courage and defiance are doing the small things in fidelity to our Lord and Savior. So, I do the small things, and I will leave the windmills to Don Quixote. I may be wrong in this viewpoint, but it is where I am today. I will see where I am tomorrow.