What led me to the rosary?

The rosary is one of the most distinctive Catholic prayers, but it didn’t come easily to me. It seemed so long, and kind of outdated. Others have concerns about devotions to Mary in general—do they lead us to Christ? In the end the rosary proved to be one of the devotions that most helped me grow closer to God—and a key step in beginning to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

When I entered college I joined the campus council of the Knights of Columbus (around November). They gave out rosaries, asked us to carry them, and encouraged us to pray them as often as we could. I did begin keeping mine in my pocket but never prayed it. I don’t think I had prayed a rosary since Sunday school, but it did intrigue me. I knew other people prayed the rosary and spoke highly of it. So, when it came time to pick a Lenten goal in the spring my mind went back to the rosary. I had a sense it would be a good thing to do, and a little sense of responsibility since I had not followed through on praying it yet. I set a goal to pray it each day during Lent.

At first I had to look up the instructions online. I knew the basic prayers by memory, but was fuzzy on some of the details. In particular, I needed a refresher on the “mysteries” of the rosary. These are one of the keys to what makes the rosary such a powerful method of prayer. If you aren’t familiar with them, how it works is that each “decade” of the rosary is made up of an Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, and a Glory Be. During each decade you call to mind a particular event from the life of Christ or Mary (called the “mysteries”) and reflect on it. These mysteries are grouped into four categories (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious). A standard rosary consists of praying all five decades of one group of mysteries. For example, the Joyful mysteries include the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple.

It was a tough habit to start. In the beginning most of my effort was focused on the logistics (what to say and when). After a little while I began to be able to focus on the mysteries and really think about them. The set of prayers gave me a fixed amount of time to think, and something to “do” to help focus. I gradually realized that the mysteries basically took you through the life of Christ, from the Annunciation all the way through our entrance into the life of heaven. These reflections began to bring together the “big picture” for me, and I began to really think about these things. I came to understand more about what the mysteries meant and how they connected with events I was facing. It wasn’t an abstract or solitary reflection, but one carried out in union with Jesus’ mother, Mary. Thanks be to God, I was able to continue this practice throughout all of Lent, and it really changed me. It’s hard to exaggerate how much this helped me to grow in an adult understanding of my faith and in my ability to enter into conversation with God during prayer. It ended up being my Lenten practice again my sophomore year of college, and it was shortly after that when I began to consider my calling from God. Developing this serious life of prayer (even if just 15-20 minutes a day) was something essential in becoming who I am today. Providentially, I later found out the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is the anniversary of my baptism—a connection that brings me great joy!

There are different forms of prayer, but I wanted to share this one since it was a powerful avenue of grace in my life (and in countless others over the past 800 years or so!). It can be prayed in its fuller form, or even just one decade at a time. It is a great prayer for groups or to pray alone. It can be prayed in a church, on a walk, or in the car. Each decade can be offered for a particular intention, which makes it a great prayer of petition. It is a prayer that continues to adapt with you throughout life! I really had no idea where it would lead me, but am so grateful for what God has done. It humbles me to realize how God overcame my resistance and led me to follow Him

Take the time to pray. If you don’t know where to start or how to grow, take the time to have a conversation with someone that does have a serious life of prayer. You won’t regret it. God bless!

How do we pray in solidarity?

As Christians we pray for other people. This is what we call “intercession.” It isn’t the only type of prayer, but is an important one! St Paul writes, “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone” (1 Timothy 2:1). It is a way that we extend our concern for all. We are convinced that we are better able to face our difficulties when we pray, and that likewise we are better prepared when others are praying for us.

However, how do we keep everyone in mind? We know that we have limited financial resources, but even with prayer we experience our limitations. The modern world gives us more and more opportunities to learn about problems, which often surpasses what we can do in response. It is an impossible task to always be aware of everything. It can make the mission of prayer seem overwhelming. We see this at times with the modern attempt to stay “woke” (aware of every current issue). This easily degenerates into a discouraging treadmill or a sort of one-upmanship (highlighting the way that others aren’t as current as ourselves, etc).

I want to highlight a few ways to approach the work of intercession from a Christian perspective. First, we recognize that our responsibilities begin within our sphere of influence. We start with care for those that are closest to us, and seek to grow that circle however we are able. If we do not have the resources (material or spiritual) to go very far, we humbly begin with the portion of the Lord’s work that we can undertake. We resist the temptation to give up because of the immensity of the task. Second, we rely on our public prayers, which draw us into wider circles. The prayers at Mass in particular range out to touch the needs of the entire world. Where two or three are gathered, the Lord is present in our midst (Matthew 18:20). Finally, in our prayer we can leave space for the Lord to work within us. When we put an excessive burden on ourselves we forget that prayer involves the work of God to draw us into his work of redemption. St Paul writes, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26). It is important to create room for silence in our prayer, because it is here that the Spirit can work.

When the needs of the world overwhelm us, let us humbly offer our hearts and minds to the Lord, that the gift of intercession may well up within us when the needs of our brothers and sisters surpass what we are able to face alone.

Why believe in Christ? Part I: What sets him apart

Today I thought I’d post on the “second level” of belief. I’ve done a couple of posts on the “first level” (belief in God in general), and so now we move on to the question of Jesus Christ. Why believe in him among other religions? At this point I am not distinguishing between different groups of Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, etc), but looking at Christ himself. I think the first point is to understand the basic difference that we believe separates Christ from other prophets or holy people. It is well portrayed in a passage from Matthew 16:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” [The disciples] replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

The question here centers on his identity rather than any particular action. Usually a person is significant to us because of what they have done. It is the opposite for Christ—his actions are significant because of who he *is.* From eternity he is the Son of God (the Second Person of the Trinity). In time he takes on human nature as the Son of Man (born of the Virgin Mary). He is therefore true God and true man, one Person with two Natures (divine and human). A nature is a source of action, so by his divine nature he knows and loves in an infinite way. By his human nature, though, he is able to share in suffering and death (and to know and love in a human way). Therefore, he is able to live a human life but filled with a perfect charity.

What problem did he come to solve? The separation between mankind and God. We see, then, that in his own Person he reconciles the two! The work of redemption involves the joining together of these two realities. Salvation involves sharing in the divine life. Divine life overcomes the limitation of death, sickness, and sin. It offers an invitation to hope and love in a manner that surpasses human nature alone—as seen in the lives of the saints. As Athanasius put it, God became man that man might become God. Christ possesses divine life by nature, but we can possess it by participation. It is not something that we can create ourselves—it transcends created things. We believe that God has freely chosen to offer this to us through Christ.

This, then, is why we believe Christ is worthy of belief. He doesn’t just claim to be a prophet or a holy man, but claims to be God incarnate. This means that there is something unique and fundamentally different about his actions. In other posts I will look at reasons to believe that this claim is true, and at the question of different Christian communities/churches. But, from the beginning we need to be clear on this fundamental claim of Christ: he is truly the Son of God and truly the Son of Man.

John Chrysostom Homily on “You are the Salt of the Earth”

Today I am going to include a “guest post” from St John Chrysostom (a bishop of Constantinople, d. 407 AD). It is a favorite of mine, and I think a powerful witness to the truth that we as Christians are not called to be transformed by the world into its own image, but to transform the world through God’s work in us. God bless!

(From his 15th homily on the Gospel of St Matthew)

“You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).

It is not for your own sake, he says, but for the world’s sake that the word is entrusted to you. I am not sending you only into two cities only or ten to twenty, not to a single nation, as I sent the prophets of old, but across land and sea, to the whole world. And that world is in a miserable state. For when he says: You are the salt of the earth, he is indicating that all mankind had lost its savour and had been corrupted by sin. Therefore, he requires of these men those virtues which are especially useful and even necessary if they are to bear the burdens of many. For the man who is kindly, modest, merciful and just will not keep his good works to himself but will see to it that these admirable fountains send out their streams for the good of others. Again, the man who is clean of heart, a peacemaker and ardent for truth will order his life so as to contribute to the common good.
  Do not think, he says, that you are destined for easy struggles or unimportant tasks. You are the salt of the earth. What do these words imply? Did the disciples restore what had already turned rotten? Not at all. Salt cannot help what is already corrupted. That is not what they did. But what had first been renewed and freed from corruption and then turned over to them, they salted and preserved in the newness the Lord had bestowed. It took the power of Christ to free men from the corruption caused by sin; it was the task of the apostles through strenuous labour to keep that corruption from returning.
  Have you noticed how, bit by bit, Christ shows them to be superior to the prophets? He says they are to be teachers not simply for Palestine but for the whole world. Do not be surprised, then, he says, that I address you apart from the others and involve you in such a dangerous enterprise. Consider the numerous and extensive cities, peoples and nations I will be sending you to govern. For this reason I would have you make others prudent, as well as being prudent yourselves. For unless you can do that, you will not be able to sustain even yourselves.
  If others lose their savour, then your ministry will help them regain it. But if you yourselves suffer that loss, you will drag others down with you. Therefore, the greater the undertakings put into your hands, the more zealous you must be. For this reason he says: But if the salt becomes tasteless, how can its flavour be restored? It is good for nothing now, but to be thrown out and trampled by men’s feet.
  When they hear the words: When they curse you and persecute you and accuse you of every evil, They may be afraid to come forward. Therefore he says: “Unless you are prepared for that sort of thing, it is in vain that I have chosen you. Curses shall necessarily be your lot but they shall not harm you and will simply be a testimony to your constancy. If through fear, however, you fail to show the forcefulness your mission demands, your lot will be much worse, for all will speak evil of you and despise you. That is what being trampled by men’s feet means.”
  Then he passes on to a more exalted comparison: You are the light of the world. Once again, “of the world”: not of one nation or twenty cities, but of the whole world. The light he means is an intelligible light, far superior to the rays of the sun we see, just as the salt is a spiritual salt. First salt, then light, so that you may learn how profitable sharp words may be and how useful serious doctrine. Such teaching holds in check and prevents dissipation; it leads to virtue and sharpens the mind’s eye. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor do men light a lamp and put it under a basket. Here again he is urging them to a careful manner of life and teaching them to be watchful, for they live under the eyes of all and have the whole world for the arena of their struggles.

 

Why believe in God? Part III: Faith and Science

In a previous post I mentioned that Thomas Aquinas listed two major objections to the existence of God: the problem of evil and materialism. I addressed the problem of evil in Part II, and here want to say a few words about materialism—the objection that everything can be explained from physical properties alone. Spiritual realities are irrelevant. I think a more modern way to describe this problem is the question of “faith vs. science.” Which should we follow?

The phrasing of the question shows that people often see these as contradictory concepts. For many, “faith” means blindly trusting in something without real evidence, and “science” means relying on things that we can actually prove are true. This is not how we as Catholics understand faith. Faith is trusting in the word of another, while science (in the modern sense of the term) means a methodological study based on empirical observation and experimentation. While these are different, they are not contradictory. Both are ways to approach the truth. For example, we generally first come to know that the earth is round by faith in the word of another, and later are able to understand the proofs ourselves. In the physical sciences we can generally go back and work through the proofs that have come before us, but often it likewise relies on faith in the work that others have done. Progress is possible because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” They are two paths to the same destination, and both are concerned with evidence and truth.

The main question, then, is what happens when the answers given by faith and science disagree? Maybe the most notorious case is that of Galileo and the discussion of heliocentrism. What does it mean if we discover by science that the earth orbits the Sun, while the traditionally people have considered the Bible to teach that the Earth is the center of the universe? I may devote an entire post to the Galileo case, but the short answer is that the popular version of the case is often historically inaccurate. The issue wasn’t so much his teaching as his presentation. The Church was open to science as granting a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. Cardinal Bellarmine (assigned to investigate Galileo) wrote: “If there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated [by science] is false. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” In other words, his problem wasn’t with the possibility of contradicting the traditional understanding of the Scriptures, but that he believed Galileo was rushing forward by proclaiming something that didn’t yet have sufficient data to support it—hardly an “anti-scientific” objection! Bellarmine believed that, if proven correct, Galileo’s theory would actually aid in Biblical studies by helping to distinguish what is literal from what is figurative. Even today, like the Bible, we often speak of “sunrise” and “sunset,” without meaning to make geocentric claims! There is more to be said about the case, but even here we see an example of how faith and science can work together.

I would also like to respond to the challenge that faith is “blind,” and requires us to hold something without any proof. In fact, this challenge begs the question—what counts as “proof?” If we define it as “empirical scientific study,” then of course it will be limited to scientific study! Spiritual realities (God, souls, angels, grace, etc) by definition are things that are not made up of matter, and so can’t be detected by the use of microscopes, telescopes, etc. God is not a part of the world, but the creator of the world. You shouldn’t expect to find the architect of the house by rigorously examining all of the parts of the house. Likewise, the physical sciences can’t directly prove or disprove the existence of God. A popular response to this was to say that, if we can’t disprove the existence of God, we might as well believe in a “flying spaghetti monster!” However, we believe that there is evidence for our belief, even if not a scientific proof (remember, at this point I am only talking about the existence of God, not any particular revelation or faith group). We see an abundance of claims to encounters with the divine, and especially miracles. People have claimed to encounter effects without physical causes, which indicates the existence of spiritual realities (to my knowledge, none of these have been testimonies to a flying spaghetti monster!). Certainly some of these claims have been false, but materialism/atheism would require every single one of them to be false. The topic of miracles deserves its own post. Suffice it to say, scientific investigation does not clear up all of the claims. This evidence isn’t a strict proof, although gives reasons for belief. Faith is not a claim made contrary to evidence, but on account of evidence that has been encountered in a different manner.

As always, much more could be said. In conclusion though, I’d like to use the image of Pope John Paul II, who described faith and reason as the “two wings” of our flight towards God. The problem arises when one of the two wings is clipped. If we cut off the wing of human reason, then our faith loses an important clarifying light. If we cut off the wing of divine faith, our reason becomes closed in on itself. We lose insight into the deeper questions. The physical sciences help us to understand better *how* creation came about, but faith provides insight into *why* something exists rather than nothing. Faith and science do not exist in completely separate categories, and so at times will come into apparent conflict. However, the Church believes that, in the end, “if it’s true, it’s true!” (to quote my old teacher, Fr Fabian). Faith and science do not need to be seen as enemies. The sense of conflict comes from a simplistic understanding of the two concepts. One can love both faith and science (such as Fr Georges Lamaitre, the Catholic priest who proposed the Big Bang theory). If God is truth, then we are a friend of the truth wherever we find it.

Why believe in God? Part II: the problem of evil

Thomas Aquinas identified the problem of evil as one of the main objections to the existence of God—if God exists, why do we see so much evil in the world? Eight-hundred years later this is still a powerful question, and one that most have to confront directly in their lives.

First, we can take a moment to think about what we mean by the term “evil.” Would we say that it is evil to paint a rock red, yellow, or green? No… but we would say it is evil to paint over traffic lights and cause accidents. This is because we define evil in relationship to some good or purpose. The color of a rock doesn’t affect its purpose or dignity. Evil disrupts what *should* be there. It is an experience of something that has gone wrong. To use another example, we wouldn’t react in shock if we saw a human without wings, but we probably would if we saw an eagle without wings. As Augustine says, evil is the absence of some good that should be there.

However, this leads to a sort of paradox. The sense that things *should* be different implies a sense that there is a purpose or dignity to things. If there were no God (and creation truly was just the product of random chance), there wouldn’t be any more inherent purpose to a human being than to a rock. Both would come from the same source and have the same dignity. Therefore, it wouldn’t be more “evil” for a child to suffer and go hungry than for a child to be cared for and loved. Both cases would just be random interactions of atoms among beings destined for non-existence. So, in this paradoxical way, the reality of evil provides not only a challenge to faith but also evidence of belief in something that transcends atheistic existence.

Jesus responds to the question of evil a number of times. In Matthew 13 he addresses the parable of the weeds and the wheat (“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?”); John 9 considers the case of the man born blind (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”); and John 11 describes the death of Lazarus (“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”). Jesus doesn’t give a comprehensive answer to every aspect of the question of evil, but he gives an exhortation to hope. He denies that evil is a part of God’s desire for creation, and that the evil someone suffers is always the result of a personal sin on their part. He teaches that evil is permitted for only a time, and will come to an end when the final redemption is complete. However, he teaches that there is some plan or purpose to why it is tolerated to exist for a time. In the parable of the sower he addresses the harm that would be done to the wheat if all the weeds were pulled up. With Lazarus, he speaks of the way God’s grace is manifested through the crisis. Christ exhorts us to faith in the goodness of God to believe that a plan is being accomplished. God does not directly cause or desire evil, but permits it at times for the sake of some purpose that is often mysterious to us.

This isn’t a completely blind faith. At times we are able to see glimpses of why certain things happen. We might recognize it like the painful surgery that brings about health. Other times we do not. Yet, we see Christ crucified on the Cross. We see that in his life he did not ignore suffering, but identified himself with the suffering. He embraced the full reality of evil and opened a door to redemption. He invites us to trust him on account of his goodness in the moments when we do not understand.

We arrive, then, at this choice: do we trust him in the face of evil? Will we take confidence in a knowledge that surpasses our own? The alternative (belief in no transcendent reality) also robs the sense of evil from any grounding in how things “should” be. Without God, evil becomes meaningless. Do we believe that we are correct when we see something “wrong” with the world, and that our desire for a world without evil has a basis in the truth?

This doesn’t give a definitive answer to the question of evil, and an aspect of mystery will continue to be with us on this side of eternity. But, it gives us reason for faith in the existence of God even in the face of evil.

Why believe in God? Part I: God or Atheism

In a previous post I mentioned three key questions: Why believe in God? in Christ? in the Church? Today I want to start looking at that first, foundational question. Why would someone believe in a God (theism), rather believing in no God (atheism)? Or, how does one overcome uncertainty (agnosticism)?

First, I think it is important to recognize that this is a question that exists outside of any particular revelation. Being an atheist is more than just rejecting the Bible (or any other claim of a teaching revealed by God). It is the claim that there is not a God of any kind (revealed or not). So, let’s look at an example of someone who did not reach his belief in God through any particular religion.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle lived a few centuries before Christ, and pursued knowledge of the causes of things. For an effect to exist, a sufficient cause was required. So, why did something exist rather than nothing? He argued that there must ultimately be an “unmoved mover,” i.e., a First Cause that wasn’t caused by something else.

A classic example of his reasoning is setting up a chain of dominoes and knocking them over. There must be a first domino knocked over to cause the rest. Or, if someone has a tractor and says they borrowed it from a friend (who in turn says he borrowed it from another friend, etc.), you eventually have to reach the person who somehow acquired or made the tractor in the first place. Or, for a final example, if you see a train moving along a perfectly flat surface, you can logically conclude that there is something that gave it a driving force.

If there was no First Cause, then either 1) there would be no effects, or 2) there would be no need of causes to produce effects. Both he saw as contrary to reality—created things exist all around us, and follow the law of cause and effect. Therefore, he concluded that the Greek polytheism must be incorrect, and that ultimately one Unmoved Mover must exist. Aristotle speculated about what the nature of such a thing must be (infinite, eternal, etc.), but his concept of the Unmoved Mover contains the heart of what we mean by the word “God.”

This is a very simplified explanation, but it shows one road to belief in God that does not rely on any divine revelation. In revelation we believe that we learn more about the nature of God, the process of the creation of other things, how we interact with God, etc. However, at its root, atheism isn’t a rejection of these particular things. Atheism is the belief that there is no ultimate cause or purpose to reality, whereas belief in God is the claim that there is such a cause (whatever the particular qualities of that cause might happen be). Again, there is much more to say on the matter! I’ve provided one example of a path to belief, and want to continue this topic in the following posts by looking at two of the most significant objections to God: materialism and the existence of evil.