Mawwage.

It’s been a long minute since my last post.

In all honesty, even though it sounds like a cop-out the only explanation I have for my long absence from the blogosphere is life happened.

I was recently engaged when my last entry went live, and with a wedding date of 6 months from the day of our engagement things just started happening almost as soon as I hit “publish.”  Even for a small wedding (37 people, including the bride, groom, and priest) taking place in 6 months, there was a lot of work to get done.

And then once we walked down the middle of my church, had some cake, and took some photos, we were in full swing to prepare for my BigSis’ wedding later that same summer.

From there, life just became a blur.  A happy, blissful, stupidly cute blur.

Oh, and we got a dog.

On the 17th of this month, we’ll be celebrating 11 months of marriage — 11 months that I can only describe by quoting Pedro Casciaro:  “Dream, and your dreams will fall short.”  Because let me tell you, looking over previous blog entries where I was discussing my love life and my relationship with God (and sometimes both together), I realize now that everything I have experienced and endured while trying to follow Our Lord was His way of testing me in fire and refining me into the woman that would deserve the man I now call my husband.

I am a Catholic who had not one but two crises of faith (one in late adolescence and one in my early twenties) who grew up in the Catholicism of Opus Dei, and I ended up marrying an atheist who was raised in a Protestant home.

If anyone ever tries to tell you God doesn’t have a sense of humor, feel free to point them in my direction.  I’m well aware that describing the faith-dynamic of my marriage sounds like the beginning of a joke.

But it’s not a joke at all, and while I can see the humor in it and say that God really does have a way of making life turn out so weirdly and unexpectedly, I know in the deepest part of my heart that my vocation to married life (and eventually motherhood) means I am tasked with a serious lifelong mission.  And the fact that a man of science and reason, not of faith, was given to me by Our Lord and bound me in Holy Matrimony makes it all the more serious to me.

In First Comes Love, Scott Hahn states:

God knows it is not good for us to be alone .  He doesn’t want us to be alone.  It’s the oldest story in the world, and it’s written into our very human nature:  He wants us home.

As a wife, this is the point of my vocation:  to help my husband live as good and meaningful a life as possible so that we may eternally rejoice in God’s kingdom together. It doesn’t matter if he’s an atheist; not only is this one of my core beliefs, it is one that he has chosen to accept and, even without RCIA let alone the slightest iota of faith, one that he wants to support for my sake.

I promised my atheist husband that I would never beat him over the head with the Baltimore Catechism or the Compendium, that I would never make his conversion a requirement to be in a relationship with me, and that I would never force him to to Mass if he did not want to go.  In return, he listens respectfully to me when we debate about religion, he never ridicules or belittles my faith, and goes to Mass more often than other Catholics I know.  He has even held my hand while I’ve prayed out loud for guidance or for a special intention, and genuflects before stepping into our regular pew at my church.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine an “inter-faith” marriage working so well, even though I was open to the real possibility of it and readying myself for the challenge of being a practicing Catholic in a relationship with a non-religious person.  Our courtship and engagement together lasted 364 days (we chose to celebrate our first anniversary as a couple by getting married on the 365th day, and God saw that it was good), but in that short time I never once felt shortchanged on any level by our differences in beliefs.

When we discussed the direction in which we wanted to take our relationship and I stood my ground and said I wanted to get married and commit for life, and if he didn’t like that then we should part ways sooner rather than later, he respected me enough to tell me that he was also of the same mindset.

Later when we talked about getting married and I told him that marriage to me meant getting married in the Church in any way possible, he told me that as long as I was marrying him he was cool with it.

Because of his acceptance and willingness to support me in my faith — not only did he come, and still continues to go, to Sunday Mass with my family and me whenever possible, he also made no argument about doing the Archdiocese-mandated Marriage Preparation course and had a long one-on-one chat with our parish priest — we were blessed with a dispensation to get married in my parish chapel with the full Catholic Rite of Matrimony.

Yes, you read that right:  I married an atheist with the full matrimonial liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.

And he never complained about “doing it my way.”

I may not have married a Catholic, but I am truly blessed in my marriage.  My husband’s name is Pierre, the French form of Peter, and he truly is the rock upon which I continue to build my house for God.  It does not matter that he is an atheist:  what matters is that there is love in his heart, and enough of it for him to support me in any way he can while I go about my faith each day.

He has seen me at my worst and knows where I have been and what I experienced before I found him, and he has forgiven and accepted and loved with all his heart.  And because of this, while I will never force a conversion upon him out of respect for his free will, I will always pray for him and always trust that God holds him in His hands just as He has held me.  Continuing to live my faith and follow God so that I am a strong example of Catholicism for him and for our future children while being respectful of his beliefs and of his free will is what I must do to keep our union harmonious and to keep God in it.

When we were dating, Pierre walked me home in the night even when we lived on different ends of the city.  By the graces given to us through our marriage I know he will walk with me to my Father’s home in Heaven.

Love over everything else

The United States legalized gay marriage nationwide today, and I’m not afraid to say that I’ve hit “Like” on more than one friend’s status update and on more than one news service’s headline about this social milestone.

I’m also not above sharing the fact that a person I’ve known and called a friend for some time now sent me a text message asking me why on earth would I give this breaking news a thumbs-up, remarking by way of justification that,

“…it’s wrong and goes against what we believe in, and as a woman who someday wants a family you ought to think hard about how this threatens your future position as a mother in a society that accepts this sort of thing.  Your hypocrisy is disappointing, to say the least. ”

Anyone who follows this blog knows I wear my faith and my views on my sleeve, and I do tend to get a lot of mixed feedback about doing so.  That’s only to be expected, though, since the Internet is public — but that’s besides the point.  Of all the negative messages I’ve received about my more worldly views, this is probably the one that angers and hurts me the most.

It’s not just because I have a lot good friends who are homosexual and a few who are bisexual.  It’s not just because  a good friend of mine is a heterosexual whose divorced parents are both now with same-sex partners.  It’s not just because one of my closest friends came out to me before they came out to anyone else, including their own parents.  It’s not just because a dear friend of mine is searching for a way to make their homosexuality coincide with their faith, determined not to give up or abandon either one because they believe both are equally important to who they are as an individual.

It’s also because I have never, ever believed in using my sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or gender to say that I am in any way “better” or “holier” or “more deserving” than anyone else – and it pains me to know that members of my faith community (both immediate and extended) so easily forget what the Lord says about love.

And He has quite a lot to say on the subject, but perhaps the most familiar points to just about anyone  are, “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” as well as, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.”  He also asked us to, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Oh, and while we’re considering those points, it would serve us all in good stead to remember that “Christian” means “follower of Christ,” and “Catholic” means “universal.”

Thus…

Is it truly Christian or Catholic for any person or group of people to say that those who are “different” aren’t worthy of the same rights, privileges, and advantages which “the norm” may claim unopposed?  Do we truly love others as we have been loved by an infinitely wise and loving Creator when we use that same Creator’s words against people who are in some way, shape, or form not exactly like us?  Can we really say we believe love is the greatest virtue when we allow our faith and beliefs and ideologies to get in the way of everyone being able to share their lives with other people in freedom and security?

If being a follower of Christ means following His example in daily life and if being made in God’s image means reflecting some measure His infinite love, then the hypocrisy lies not in being supportive of friends and/or family members whose lives are remarkably different than our own.  The hypocrisy lies in viewing anyone who isn’t heterosexual – and therefore supposedly “normal” – as being unworthy of acceptance, friendship, support, and yes, love. 

And that’s because the bottom line about humanity in this faith, the very heart of this belief system, is that our God became human so that He could die for all of humanity.  The Incarnation and the Crucifixion did not occur to save a select handful of souls, but rather every soul.  That is the extent of Divine Love, and nothing of human design or conception – not even the most deeply entrenched prejudices or misconceptions concerning the diverse complexity of any aspect of humanity – can change that.

I have heard You calling in the night

Last Sunday’s readings at Mass included the one about Samuel waking up in the middle of the night because he heard somebody calling out his name. It took a while before Eli figured out it was God’s voice in the night and once he explained this, Samuel knew how to answer The Lord. The readings last week also included the passage from the Gospel of John where John not only recognises that Christ is passing by, but proclaims it with such certainty that disciples immediately follow in His wake.

This past week has been a time of deep introspection for me — a week of constant soul-searching, praying, and demanding to know what exactly is expected of me. I’ve come to realise a great many things about myself and my life so far, and have come to better understand the role of certain events in the grander scheme of things.

I am not like John and the disciples who immediately recognised Christ as he passed by on the road. I am more like Samuel who woke up in darkness and was unable to recognise the voice of God without help. It is true that I have found God in my darkest moments, but it was only through retrospect and guidance that I was able to see that it was Him calling through those long shadows.

Once I realised this and truly began to listen — this Friday at my desk job, of all places — some answers came to me in swift and resonating succession, not unlike the hammer blows a blacksmith rains down upon an anvil when forging a new tool.

A hammer has the dual ability to destroy and to create, depending on the conditions in which it is wielded. When I was not listening to The Lord, His words broke me open and His call was hollow in my ears. When I listen to Him now, those words — the very same words, for His message has not changed — took all those pieces and started banging them back together.

I am not entirely mended, and I will always be a little broken. But I trust in God’s wisdom and grace enough to trust that the chinks and dents will be straightened, the tears will be mended, and the holes will be patched over. In darkness and in light, The Lord is working on me so that I will be ready to be a part of something greater than my own self. Because, as somebody so very dear to me once wrote to me in a time of darkness,

“In one way or another we are all tools of God. Our talents determine how He comes through us into the world — the musician becomes His instrument; the artist becomes His paintbrush; the writer becomes His pen. But sometimes we are called to spread His Gospel and sanctify daily life in ways that require us to be like swords in His hands. And because we are swords that He draws at a moment’s notice, He hammers and bends and tempers us in His divine forge; makes sure we are always sharpened; and always keeps His hand upon us.”

An Epiphany of My Own?

If I had a dollar for every time somebody exclaimed, “Wait — you’re Catholic?” I would probably have a tidy nest egg by now. When I, in turn, ask why it’s a surprise, I usually get a response along one (or any combination) of the following lines:

  • “Well, I guess because it’s weird? I don’t know anyone who still believes in God.”
  • “Because religion is ridiculous.”
  • “Oh…well, then, that actually explains a lot.”
  • “You don’t really seem very Catholic..”

While I could write a post for each one of those (and probably will one day), in light of the Feast of the Epiphany today I’ll just address the last one.

What is it to “act Catholic,” exactly? The modern secular world seems to have an archaic view of Catholicism that resembles a mish-mash of all of the human Church’s less-than-spectacular moments in history and the way popular media has misrepresented Catholics over the years. But even though we real-world Catholics are aware of how we are misrepresented — even though we know the truth of how our faith works in the real modern world — why is it that so many of us are afraid to show what we truly are and profess what we truly believe?

I grew up in a small town in the Fraser Valley that had no shortage of Christian followers: between the Roman Catholic parish to which my family belonged and the nomadic evangelicals who moved from family to family in my best friend’s congregation, there was a slew of trinitarian Baptists, Latter-Day Saints, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and numerous Protestant denominations. I certainly wasn’t the only practising Christian or even the only practising Catholic in my high school when I started out, and though there were fewer of us when I graduated I certainly did not stand alone on the religious front at the end.

But adolescence is rife with insecurities, and if left unattended those insecurities cross the threshold with us into adult life. As practising Catholic teenagers, my brothers and those few Mass-attending classmates were different from the other Christians because church on Sundays was never optional, and if we knew ahead of time that we couldn’t make it on Sunday we had to go on Saturday. We were different because our faith included rites and rituals and sacraments that were foreign to other versions of Christianity. We were different because practicing our faith outside of church didn’t involve youth mission trips to third-world countries over the summer, but rather spending time outside of Mass in prayer, reflection, and contemplation.

We knew what to do and what to say at Christmas and Easter Mass. We didn’t know lines of scripture by heart but could talk your ear off about catechism. Our summer camps were gender-specific, and involved daily Mass, faith formation, and prayer time. We wore Saint medals and scapulars; didn’t eat meat on certain days of the year; and said grace in the cafeteria.

After any amount of time of having these differences pointed out to us, in our own ways we stopped being so visibly Catholic among our peers. We found ways to keep our Catholic lives separate from our school and social ones, and gradually some us even abandoned it altogether. Some of us abandoned the Cross for some time before returning to stand at its foot.

Having experienced all of that, including a crisis of faith and a reaffirmation of my beliefs, I should be able to stand in front of you and be unmistakably, unsurprisingly Catholic. I am a daughter of God and have embraced that, so it should come out in how I express myself and conduct myself even when I’m not talking about beliefs.  It shouldn’t come out in a pushy or overbearing way — I don’t believe in throwing certain things in people’s faces — but it should still be evident that I profess faith and practice it, too.

Alas, it is not the case, and that needs to change.

The Feast of Epiphany recalls the journey of the Three Magi from the Far East to Bethlehem in the wake of the Star, and celebrates what they found there: the new-born Christ in his lowly manger bed. It is used in the New Testament and in the Liturgy of the Word as a precursor to the spreading of Christianity throughout the world, for the Wise Men did indeed travel from countries far from Israel to celebrate the birth of the Holy Child and pay homage.

Our parish’s head pastor, a wise and down-to-earth Irish-Canadian Monsignor, told his congregation today that the Three Magi had great faith indeed, for only great faith in prophecy and scripture could account for how closely they watched the night sky and then followed the Star from so far away. They had no idea where exactly they would find the infant Messiah and they had no idea how long it would take — they did not even know when the signs of His birth would appear. But they kept faith that they would not only see the signs, but also that they would eventually lay their eyes on the Holy Child.

A little over two thousand years later, there is no need for Catholics to wait for signs and to wonder if Our Lord will come — for we know that He already has, and that He has already died for us. There is even no need for followers of Jesus Christ to follow Him in secret. We acknowledge His birth, we greet him at the manger, and we trust in His second coming. We are secure in this, so does it not also stand that we should be secure in living our lives in ways — at all times — that bear witness to this?

It is easier said than done, and it is a lifetime struggle at that, to live in the real world in ways that makes us unmistakably children of God and followers of His Word. But that is where the strength of one’s faith is truly tested: in the real world, in the mundane and repetitious tasks of every day life. I spend most of my human life outside of the comfort of my own home, but my entire life and all aspects of it should be spent in the presence of God. And if I truly am secure in my faith, I should not let the adolescent fear of being different keep me from being unsurprisingly Catholic.

Living my religion

Being a young adult of ardent faith comes with its own set of challenges, especially in today’s society.  It’s no understatement to say that being a young adult practicing any religion is counter-cultural simply because it’s true:  the majority of my peer group does not have a well-developed spiritual formation, if any at all.

And because we practicing young adults are going against popular culture, our own lives can become quite confusing from time to time.  We are still humans living in the day-to-day world.  We are still faced with the same challenges, ordeals, and events that everyone else encounters – but we have faith.  And while faith is on the whole an incredibly reliable compass, when the expectations of faith clash with the expectations of popular culture we do get thrown off-course.  It’s especially hard to live and express faith openly when popular culture perpetuates religion-based stereotypes, particularly the ones wherein anyone who is an ardent believer and faithful follower is portrayed as an uncontrollable, unlikable zealot out to convert the entire world by force.

Uniting uncommon faith with popular society is a tricky business.  It’s hard for those of us who have it to understand it, so believe me when I say that I get that the non-believer has a hard time understanding it too.  I’m a practicing Roman Catholic who had a crisis of faith in late adolescence and young adulthood, so really:  I understand both sides of the story.  And I do need to point out that the world through the eyes of faith is not necessarily black-and-white.  There are many shades of grey on all subjects of morality – and those spaces in between the extremes of what is blatantly wrong and what is infallibly right are where our faith is truly tested.

I’m still figuring out my faith and who I am as a daughter of God.  I’ll probably spend a great deal of the rest of my life trying to figure it out.  But in the twenty-four years that I have lived, loved, lost, and regained my faith, I have come to understand a little better three key aspects of my belief system.

Let me be clear that my intention here is not to preach on these three points, but rather to share how I have come to understand them – and for a few reasons.  First, not every religion names the Bible, either in entirety or in part, as its holy scripture.  Second, there are several versions of the Bible and the way I know the Word of God is not necessarily the way others would know it.  Third, the written word – even as it pertains to faith and religion – is always subject to human interpretation, and therefore can be read in many different ways even among those who know the same version of the Bible.  (See what I meant when I said it’s not all black-and-white?)

But there are common threads among all kinds of faith, and maybe if you’re a young man or young woman of a faith different to mine you’ll see those threads of my spiritual life intertwining with yours.

***

“Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not carte-blanche for you to do whatever you want and think you’ll get off scott-free.  Catholics have this thing called Confession.  Otherwise known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s hinged upon the belief and teaching that no matter how grave the transgression, the sinner is still worthy of love and forgiveness.  (Actually, it’s what the entire religion is hinged upon.  After all, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as a means of salvation for all of humanity is pretty much how this all started.)  And this is pretty good.  It means we can be human and make mistakes, but we have a chance to start anew and head back into the world with a stronger resolve.

It’s a component of Catholicism that is so integral and intrinsic to the entire belief system that sometimes it becomes a loophole or a crutch.  Personally, I have lost track of the number of times I have said to myself, “I can do whatever I want, because as long as I go to Confession I’ll be alright.  But that’s not entirely true.  “Confession is a covenant, and requires conviction to keep us from condemnation,” as my father once told me (how’s that for a Catholic tongue-twister?), and as such, it can’t be taken as a “get out of jail free” card that we can whip out every time we’re faced with a moral quandary.

But in terms of the world outside the confessional, loving the sinner and hating the sin goes beyond one’s own personal relationship with God.  As I’ve grown in my faith and in my limited understanding thereof, I’ve come to realise that the concept applies to my real-world relationships and that in these circumstances it applies in both directions.  To love the sinner and hate the sin is to “forgive those who trespass against us” and to do it with faith so that we may see the inherent good in others and help them overcome the challenges presented by their own weaknesses and shortcomings.  It is to remind us to forgive without losing accountability – either to ourselves or to others – and to forgive with conviction so as to strengthen ourselves and others.

 “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” is not an invitation towards passivity or inaction.  Spiritual lukewarmness has its own Gospel passage wherein it is struck down and criticized – and rightly so.  Faith requires conviction – not just when it comes to asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, but rather in every single one of its components.

Only God has the power to judge and condemn, but once again this isn’t an excuse to do whatever the heck we want and think we can get away with it.  This is yet another situation wherein accountability to oneself is intertwined with one’s accountability to others.   Refraining from casting the first stone does not mean remaining an uninvolved bystander.  Yes, we should make a conscious effort to avoid passing judgment (especially when we know little or nothing about the situation), but we should not avoid the opportunity presented to us in these circumstances to help another person grow positively.

Whether or not another person in my life shares my faith and even whether or not they believe in anything at all should not dictate how I choose to live my faith within that relationship.  I believe that I am held accountable not only for my actions but for my inaction as well.  It is not enough to merely refrain from casting the first stone:  the hand that drops the stone should be extended to help another back to their feet.

“Love one another as I have loved you” and “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” – if these truly lie at the heart of my faith, then dropping the stone is to try loving as my Savior loves, and extending my hand in aid is to treat another as I would want them to treat me.  The call I have answered through my faith is not a call to jury duty.  It is a call to the witness stand where I can testify to the good in everyone and everything.  If I drop the stone but remain a bystander, I am not testifying to my faith:  I am failing to live by the standards of humanity in which I believe.

“Turn the other cheek,” is not another way of saying, “take it lying down.”  My mother often says, “Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.”  That is to say, the general (and ideal) Catholic propensity towards openness, compassion, and forgiveness is often either mistaken as a loophole to bash the religion as a whole for the mistakes and shortcomings of its individuals, or mistaken as passivity, complacency, or obliviousness to reality.

God created man in His image.  Catechism taught me that God is love; therefore, because I am made in His image I too am called to embody love.  And while my spiritual propensity towards love does exist, my human one towards pride causes a great internal conflict.  I have learned, though, that there is a great difference between having pride in myself and being prideful.  The former is to acknowledge and stand up for my worth as a person – as an individual, unique, and irreplaceable creation.  The latter is to believe that my individuality and my uniqueness place me above anyone else.

To me, turning the other cheek is relinquishing one’s pride enough so as to allow room for growth and improvement in both parties involved, but not letting go of it entirely so as to become a willing doormat or scapegoat for one’s opponents.  To take any unwarranted or excessive attack lying down is to be lukewarm or indifferent to one’s faith and to one’s own inherent value.

I know the reality of human nature includes unsavory qualities and harmful tendencies, but I also know that the reality of spiritual nature gives every man, woman, and child a measure of worth.  Every person’s inherent value is worth fighting for, but I firmly believe that we are called to fight for our worth in ways that are not vengeful or harmful towards our aggressors.  Rather, we are called to fight for our worth in ways that would reflect the worth of others.

***

Of course this is all easier said than done, but another integral part of faith is the battle to overcome human weaknesses and failings.  The struggle is real, but my personal failures and shortcomings do not define me.  I am defined by how I abandon myself to my faith and how I live it in my daily life.