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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Finding God in the Small and Unimportant

In a small, mostly forgotten church in downtown Chicago visitors can have an extraordinary experience of God.

But I didn't know that when I first started going. I found it absolutely unimpressive in almost every way. But I wasn't seeing it, not truly, and I was looking for God as people always have been: in the grand, the important, and the powerful. This is what happened:

I live in Wheaton but work downtown just a few blocks from a Catholic church. They offer a daily mass and last year I decided to try to attend a couple times a week on my lunch break if I could.

This church, Assumption Catholic Church for those interested, is somewhat small and really unimpressive from the outside. It's in desperate need of repair too with noisy heaters that kick on during mass and what I think must be Chicago's worst insulation as you often feel the need to keep coat, scarf, and gloves on for the duration of your visit.

Upon first entering the church, you'll find it fairly gaudy. There are a lot of different stylistic elements at play, most of them dissonant and obviously accumulated over time and therefore mismatched. It's as if over the years this church kept acquiring knick-knacks from other places, throwing them all in the sanctuary, and thinking that a "more is better" approach was the supreme philosophy of decoration. There are the dozen statues lining both sides of the church, most of different sizes so that each saint is disproportionately large or small, which of course irritates me to no end. I love order! I love uniformity! And the statues were the first thing that put me off when I walked in the door.

The bathroom is practically in the sanctuary; the candles are too numerous (yet underutilized); the congregation numbers around a dozen; the lector wears a black leather vest, leather pants, and bolo tie combination - every single day; and the priest is old to the point of hardly being able to stand. I'm not making any of this up. On top of all that not everyone who attends regularly has wonderful hygiene and so the smells are another experience altogether.

So just exactly how do you meet God here? The same way you meet God anywhere else: through the people, through prayer, through art, through your own experiences, through the Eucharist. It took me about a month to start appreciating this place. I started to savor the intimacy and isolation the small congregation afforded and the warmth of my wool scarf defending my neck against the cold. The statues...I didn't notice as much. And I gained a great admiration for the lector who came daily to do the readings and especially for the priest who walked, bowed, leaned, or stood as needed - all of which you could plainly see caused him physical pain. He was performing his duties and his calling and still does. And as far as I know, he's never shown any signs of complaint or failed to do what any other priest would.

I think it was Therese of Lisieux who intentionally sat next to the other nuns who were the cruelest to her. No one was anything but nice to me here but the idea of that sort of 'quiet embrace of the difficult and the unpleasant' was a lot of help for me. I got over my Sam-ness by intentionally sitting near the people who didn't shower and by staring intently at the gaudy baby Jesus with a crown so big that its proportionate weight, it can be assumed, would crush the head of any other infant.

And the art! Despite the cacophony of styles, the art in this church is gorgeous and numerous. Beautiful stained glass windows, portraits of the Apostles, paintings of events throughout Christian history, and a beautiful 10' stone mosaic of the Last Supper behind the altar. I'm sure the priest thinks I'm a little weird myself because during mass I'll just stare directly overhead at the ceiling. Its hand-painted, classically-styled scenes are really captivating - and that's coming from someone who often "doesn't get art".

I got over myself so that I could meet God. (Or rather God got me over myself.) Now I find prayer here is some of the best I have. I clearly see God in the faces of these people I initially judged. And I'm learning to embrace the difficult way, the less important way, the more humble or unpleasant or unattractive way. Because there you'll find surprises and you'll find more of your true self. And there you'll find God.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Catholics and Bibles and Ignorance - Oh My!

I was recently with some friends – all Protestant – talking about a semi-spiritual topic and they started referencing Scripture. This talent always amazes me! It really does. I grew up Protestant. I did the Bible drills, I memorized the order of the books of the Bible (something that makes me seem quite intellectual in Catholic circles, let me tell you), and I’m pretty familiar with most of the Biblical narratives.

But I don’t have verses memorized. I’m not sure I've ever met a Catholic who did who wasn't formally trained or a former Protestant. I’m fairly certain that at this point it’s an uphill battle that I wouldn't win. But Protestants whip these out like it’s second nature, and it’s really impressive.

But in Catholicism, it’s also just not as necessary. Catholics don’t believe in sola scriptura (Scripture alone) but instead have Scripture and Tradition. Both are regarded as necessary and both are equally authoritative. Scripture, which was inspired in the theological sense of the word, was also finite. All Christians reason that inspiration couldn't go on forever. But where Protestants and Catholics often diverge is that Catholics believe revelation is ongoing. And not just private revelation about your life but universal – catholic – revelation.

For Protestants the Bible is it. It's the cat's pajamas - the beginning and the end of all reference sheets. Sure, there are other resources but they all draw their strength directly from the Bible by supporting their arguments and ideas with Biblical references (i.e. Romans 8:28). The Bible is the sole authority for Protestants so reading it and returning to it often makes a lot of sense.

Not so with Catholics. We believe revelation began about 13 billion years ago with the creation of the universe and continues to the present age, including a lot of important developments in the last two millennia. If you picture the Bible as something like the U.S. Constitution and Tradition as something like all the other laws born out of it, then you can kind of understand the role ongoing revelation plays for Catholics.

It’s not that Scripture isn't important in Catholicism because it is. It’s just that it’s not the whole pie. It’s one half (though a very tasty one at that). Catholics have more than the Bible to turn to for authoritative knowledge and they have more authoritative resources: the rosary, papal bulls, church councils, theological works, spiritual readings, formulaic prayers, devotions, and above all, the mass. When Protestants ask themselves the question "What's the answer?" they know the one place to turn. But when Catholics ask themselves that same question, I think it's fair to say most are going to look to Tradition (often with a basis in the Bible) rather than the Bible itself.

This seems to be a simple misunderstanding. Protestants wonder why Catholics don't care about the most important thing and Catholics wonder why Protestants threw out everything else but the Bible. Both are exaggerations of course. But I'm beginning to think that ecumenicism, at its heart, means refusing to only validate others insofar as they meet our standards.

So for those who think that Catholics don’t read the Bible – they may or they may not. But it doesn't mean they aren't “good Christians” and it doesn't mean they aren't spiritual. They just have a different spirituality. And that’s okay. That's valid.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

10 Things Not To Do On Facebook

I've been working this list over in my mind subconsciously for a while now. Then I realized I had some working knowledge of facebooking (new verb) and decided I might actually be able to speak to this. To be fair, a good portion here is subjective opinion. I own that. But I'm also a professional Social Media Marketer (hospitality industry) and I'm a paid consultant in Facebook Marketing for other businesses. That gives me some expertise and so I've made this list of Facebook faux pas that we all do but we should nevertheless avoid. For the record, I have done and still do more than a couple of these so don't feel bad if you're in this boat with me. Just try your best to get out of it.
Don’t be:
1. The Retro User - the status update that's missing a person. “likes to read on Saturdays.” Or “ ’s cookies turned out great!” This is a remnant from a bygone era on Facebook. Back in the day, your status used to post on the same line after your name so that it looked like “Sam Ogles really rocked that blog post.” But now your name is displayed higher and your statuses just look outdated when you do it this way. Include a reference to yourself!I really wish football season would end,” or “My favorite thing is crushing the dreams of children.” Time to modernize. Let’s get with the program. 2. The Riddler - your status shouldn't be a cryptex we have to crack. (Yeah, that’s right: I've read Da Vinci Code.) Things like, “Sometimes...” or “Could life get any worse?” Maybe this is more of a personal beef. I hate it when people open conversations with that because I know they want me to say, “....Sooooo. Something on your mind??” Look, if you want to talk to someone or vent or whatever, just do it. That’s human! Don’t be cryptic just so people will ask you what’s wrong. It’s like pouting.
3. The Obsessed Parent - all your posts are about your kid. Kids are adorable. I love kids! There’s nothing wrong with posting about your life with them since I assume having one is a big deal. But it shouldn't be your whole relationship with everyone else. Guess what, sometimes we want to hear about something other than your special mommy moments. “Week 10 of my pregnancy.” “Week 20” “Week 82” Ugh... we don’t care. Give us only the extra special updates - those we honestly care about. Tell your friends and family the details in person. Leave the online world out of it.
4. The Sports Junkie - usually guys but not always. We do not - I repeat - we do not need to hear your opinion via status update every 20 minutes during the game. If we wanted insightful expertise and a play-by-play, we'd go to a professional broadcast and, no offense, not to you. Nothing wrong with an opinionated sports update but keep it minimal. If you want to post your reactions 10 times in the course of two hours, find a different social medium. Enter Twitter.
5. The Photo Addict - I used to never take photos of my life until I got a smartphone. Now I love it. BUT you have to be sparing with posting them. Why is Instagram so great? Partly because it’s a snapshot and not a photo album. A picture’s worth a thousand words, so don’t make us read an encyclopedia! Don’t have a million photo albums each with 50 photos. Start weening off of it. Pick 1 or 2 photos from your great night out. Pick your 10-20 best shots from vacation. Keep it short and sweet. You’ll be happier and more people will look through your life as captured by camera. 6. The Double-Dipper - linking Facebook & Twitter. They’re different social mediums! They have different cultures. Don’t always post the same thing to both. I do this occasionally too but it’s just silly. Offer original content for each. If you’re always posting the same things to both networks, then there's no incentive to follow you on both.
7. The Instigator - it really shouldn't have to be said but apparently it needs to be. You can’t always be complaining about something. No one likes that in real life and we like it even less online. If you are a passionate, committed advocate for change, hey, that’s  just the tops. But don’t let it define your online presence. Post some regular stuff about your life and do it often, not just how the other political party is the devil or how oppressive society’s systems are. It will help you too because when every post you have is an angry shout, people will eventually adjust their volume and tune you out.
8. The Debater - I would get called out incredibly fast if I didn't own up to this but this is me. I get in debates online all the time. In the right setting it can be okay...from time to time. You have to learn that, sadly, you’re not going to solve the world’s problems on Facebook. Maybe you can change a few attitudes. The thing to remember is moderation. No one likes someone who wants to argue all the time. Not even most of the time. That being said, you don’t have to let your views get steamrolled either. Make your point but do so succinctly, fairly, and with sensitivity. And then move on.
9. The Pretender - own up to reality. You don’t need to post a really outdated photo of yourself. You’re not in high school anymore and you don’t look like that. Guess what? You've gained weight. Or you’ve developed some lines. Or you’re just not as young as you were then. I don’t know why you insist on projecting an image of yourself that’s eight years out of date but you do. Sure, go with a flattering photo but make sure it’s a photo of you, not “you” as you’d like to be or the “you” as you once were. My hair is thinning a lot now and as fantastic as my long locks were in college (which was pretty amazing, by the way), those days are gone. I can face that. And you should too.
10. The Self-Photographer - Pictures taken of you by you should be like cats. Have a couple and it can be kind of cute. Have a ton all the time and you’re just a crazy person. Self-photos are usually the worst, especially if you’re making duck face. About the only time you can get away with this is if you are both A) a girl under the age of 30 and B) have a friend in your shot playing along. Other exceptions include 
if you literally market yourself, vacations and special events. Buying a new outfit is not such an event. Neither is looking cool at a coffee shop. Wondering how good you look and always cataloging your good-looking moments I think of as signs of immaturity or insecurity. And who has both of those in spades? The Biebs. Have you seen Justin Bieber’s Instagram? It’s photo after annoying photo of himself by himself. Most people who know you know what you look like. Would you walk into a room and say “Look at this great photo I took of myself?” Because that’s what you’re doing by posting it online.
I know I can't be the only one to have made a mental list. Any suggestions to add here? Or detractions?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

St. Francis' Window

As a Catholic, you hear it a million times: Why do you worship Mary? Why do you pray to humans (saints)? Why do you bow down to things like statues and crucifixes? Don't you know those are idols! Or I should say, as a Catholic you hear this sometimes and read it often. Online people feel anonymous, which can manifest maliciously. In person people have a lot more tact. Wheaton is the same. Although I've had a few people express anti-Catholic views to me in person, most are just pro-Protestant views that conflict with Catholicism, and there's nothing wrong with that. But one of the major objections you'll find, even in thoughtful Wheaton, is to statuary, honoring depictions of the saints, and so on. A lot of evangelicals believe Catholics focus on the physical and the human too much. "Sure the saints were great but they were just humans. Why elevate them?"
My cousin, an Evangelical, took a missions trip to Italy several years ago and actually visited Assisi. After he got back I was talking to him at a dinner and asked how his trip went. He told me about Assisi and remarked that in visiting, he was struck by the impiety of the physical church in the town. It seemed to be full of much that honored and praised St. Francis of Assisi and very little that focused on Christ himself. He said that everything in that church was about St. Francis. He spoke of a large mural depicting the saint and how he felt something almost evil in overlooking Christ - God - in favor of a human. Where was Christ’s even bigger mural?

I recently reflected on this interaction and realized something. For many, certainly for my cousin in his Protestant tradition, that church building seemed a complete structure, a closed system representing the Church in microcosm and outside of which nothing else existed. If this is how it represents Christianity to its visitors, isn't that wrong? That building is a church but it's really only a small part of the Catholic Church. Just as at my parish I may stand directly in front of a window to stare at its depiction of St. Michael and wonder why he should get the whole window with only a small symbol of the trinity in the corner, my cousin was looking at the Assisi church and concluding Christ was made small in Catholicism in favor of humans. No, the window is only a part of the Church, and if we look around we see other windows and, always, Christ in the center of it all. There are many windows, 
always existing alongside others making up the building. They are meant to be seen individually but understood collectively. 

The light of the Sun is too bright to view directly. The best thing about windows is that though they can never create the celestial energy of light, they do a very good job of filtering it, making it ordered and understandable to our eyes, pleasing and sublime, magnifying and combining it in beautiful forms.  And it’s only after light shines through a window that we can see the artist’s unique use of glass in capturing light. We understand light through our windows just as we understand God through the lives of each other and especially the lives of the saints. St. Francis was one of the greatest among them. Let him have his large window. It only means that more light will shine through on us.
[Comments & questions welcome. Feedback is fuel for the writer!]

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On Redemption

Okay, so it's kind of an immodest title. I know that more intelligent people (past and present...mostly past) have handled the subject with a lot more ability. But Redemption is something I think I only recently found and have begun to understand. It's an area where experience has to catch up with knowledge. I'm getting there.

And it's appropriate for a first post. I'm a social media marketer by profession and I think blogs are both my favorite social medium and the weirdest. Blogs allow a lot of freedom but that can result in some really unusual stuff. A blog seems to be somewhere near the intersection of journal, editorial, conversation, and confessional.

That's a lot to ask. But so is reading someone else's blog.

In the past six months, thanks to some amazing reads, meditation & prayer, and time (thank you, 2-hour daily commute to Chicago), I've experienced a huge growth in introspection. And I've realized a few things.

 "Christian" lies I thought were true about life:
1) You should love God but hate the self
2) Your sin/vices/compulsions are things to be overcome
3) Christians are called to gradually grow to resemble each other as placid, emotionless automatons

This is not Christianity. It's not truth.

Martin Luther expounded #1 in his 95 Theses (What would a Catholic's blog about religion and culture be without a correction of Luther?). I didn't pick up that idea from Luther but somewhere along the way I accepted this as truth, that I was just awful and that becoming a good person, detached and saintly, meant hating yourself. Or at least part of yourself.

This goes right into #2 - overcoming the worst parts of yourself. It's easy to think that we're whole persons meant to encourage certain attributes and qualities in ourselves and suppress others. There's at least some truth here: not every part of our selves needs to be given license to control us. But thinking compulsions can be overcome is ultimately garbage and I've never found true liberation from living it, even in my best moments.

Instead, we have many different selves. I have a patient self, a good listener self, etc. that people like and I've decided to embrace. But I also have a prideful self. A judging self. A perfectionist self who naturally reacts to "imperfection" with anger. These selves don't need to be fueled but they do need something: acknowledgment. They need to be named and they need to be given a permanent place at the table.

Without this they're hiding in the dark corner, unable to be seen yet impossibly present. These parts of me - and the ugly parts of anyone - need to be accepted. Sin needs to be accepted! My whole self needs to be accepted, and your whole self needs your acceptance.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not arguing for uncontrolled vice. But if our Creator made every part of us and can accept us just as we are, shouldn't we do the same? It's the only way to redeem it.

And #3 - once we begin to experience redemption we can become more of our true selves.

The Christian life is about becoming a truer version of you! C. S. Lewis says this all the time. (Fun fact: it's a city ordinance that you can't live in Wheaton without referencing him at least once a month.) You've no idea how liberating that has been for me, to know that I wasn't called to not be rule-following, perfectionistic (my siblings would say "anal"), patient, good-listening - all of it - Sam. I'm called to be the best version of all these qualities.

It's easy to hear about the saints and think how selfless they were and then conclude that they had no selves at all. No, they did. And they used their vices as part of their saintly selves. They didn't overcome them but accepted the best part of them.

St. Paul was a fiery perfectionist. St. Ignatius of Loyola was a glutton for discipline. And that's okay. That was their fullest version and they used those qualities in a redeemed way.

Redemption has meant self-acceptance. I'd compare it to meeting someone on the street who says they know you, know everything about you, and still love you unconditionally. If you could get over how weird that would be and that it was just a little bit creepy, the beauty of it would overwhelm you. I'm learning from experience.

Does this ring true to you? Or maybe you see Redemption differently?