What is practical atheism?

In earlier posts I have discussed atheism from a theoretical perspective. However, I think the bigger presence of atheism actually exists in what might be called “practical atheism.” In other words, it means that we may profess belief in God in our words, but not show evidence of it in what we do. I sometimes call this the “alien test.” If an alien were to observe our life, what would they list as our priorities? Would they see an impact of faith on a practical level?

Pope Francis addresses this in his Apostolic Exhortation Joy of the Gospel under the name “practical relativism.” He writes, “This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (paragraph #80).  I think this disconnect is one of the biggest challenges for us personally as believers, and in fact one of the biggest challenges to passing on the faith. I am thankful to God for places where I can see that God’s grace has borne fruit in my life, but also am aware of many other times where I can fall into this attitude!

We admire the transformation that we see flowing from the lives of holy men and women. We want to be part of the good things that are happening in the Church. But, this asks of us a true step of faith to change priorities and habits. It requires discipline and encountering the Cross, but the alternative is slavery to the senses and a life that does not bear fruit. It is a joyful thing to encounter the truth of the Gospel, to let it transform our life, and to bear good fruit. Is there anywhere in our life that we see we might give a counter-witness against the Gospel? What change might we feel called to make?

God bless!

The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.

What is the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe?

The title “Our Lady of Guadalupe” comes from an event in the life of St Juan Diego in Mexico in 1531. He was walking to church for Mass on the Immaculate Conception and passed by the hill of Tepeyac (near modern Mexico City). He saw a lady standing upon it, who called to him and introduced herself as the immaculate Mother of God. Mary asked for a church to be built on that hill where God could give his blessings (this was before the Christian faith was widespread in Mexico). She sent him to the bishop with the request. The bishop asked for a sign before he would accept this message, and at the same time Juan Diego’s uncle fell very sick. Juan Diego was torn by his sense of being an unworthy messenger and the needs of his uncle, and so tried to avoid the task. But, Mary encountered him again and assured him with the words, “Am I not here? Am I not your mother?” She directed him to some flowers that had bloomed on the hill (out of season for December), and so he gathered these in his tilma (a cloak made of cactus fibers) to present as the sign for the bishop. However, when he lowered the tilma to release the flowers, the image of our Lady of Guadalupe appeared upon it (the name comes from a title she was heard to say which refers to the act of crushing the head of the serpent, as in Genesis 3:15). At this, the bishop accepted the message as authentic and the church was built. Juan Diego stayed on as the caretaker, with the general public not knowing his role in the events until after his death. It became a place of great pilgrimage and the tilma with the image is still intact in the Shrine in Mexico City, despite almost five centuries (and the first few of those without any form of preservation).

The impact of this encounter was massive. It made a statement that God desired to be present here, and in communion with the people here. As in the “original Advent,” Christ was about to come to birth, and Mary was carrying his presence (see Luke 1:39-46). Mary had appeared to an indigenous, humble man. She had likewise arrived in an appearance that the people of the time would recognize, as one of them. The continued presence of the tilma throughout the centuries has corresponded with the continued faith in what it represents: God with us. It presents both a comfort and encouragement to us, and also a reminder of who we are called to be. We encounter the love of God, and then this encounter develops into a relationship. By discipleship we allow God to form us in His own image (rather than seeking to remake God in our own image). Then, we are sent out as Christ-bearers into the world.

The traditional acclamation for the day is, “¡Que viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! – ¡Que viva!” “Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe! – May she live!” (similar to the cry of ¡Viva Cristo Rey! – Long live Christ the King!). The acclamation emphasizes that this is a faith of life. Christ is no longer dead, but continues to live. The saints continue to live with Him. We are invited to enter into this same life. God continuously invites us to an encounter that can blossom into a new life. May He live in us, and us in Him. ¡Que viva!

Who was Blessed Miguel Pro?

Miguel Pro was born in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico in 1891. He entered the seminary to study to be a priest in 1911, but had to leave when anti-Catholicism in Mexico caused the seminary to close in 1914. He snuck out of the country and was able to complete his studies in Spain. His family wasn’t able to attend his ordination and so after the Mass he blessed pictures of his family instead.

In 1926 he was allowed to return to Mexico, despite the fact that President Plutarco Calles had effectively outlawed practicing the Catholic faith. Miguel Pro had been known for his sense of humor, and began to use his skill at disguises to continue his priestly ministry. He would dress as a janitor or other worker to gain entrance to houses. My favorite ruse was that he carried a police officer’s uniform and at times was able to change into it when the authorities arrived, and escape by joining in on his own search!

Eventually, however, Calles created false charges that he had been involved in an assassination attempt on one of his officials. He arrested Miguel and had him executed by firing squad without trial. Calles even had each step of the execution photographed in an attempt to scare off others protesting his persecution of the Church. Miguel asked for permission for time to kneel and pray, forgave his executioners, and then stood facing them with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross (holding a crucifix and rosary in his hands). He declined a blindfold and died proclaiming the motto of the Cristero movement: “¡Viva Cristo Rey! – Long live Christ the King! Forty-thousand people attended his funeral. Rather than crushing opposition to Calles’ rule, Miguel served as a powerful witness against him. He was declared “blessed” (the step before sainthood) as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

It can be difficult to imagine why someone dedicated to the simple life of celebrating the sacraments for his people should have met with such firm resistance and a brutal death. Unfortunately, all too often Christ’s words have proven true: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Christianity calls its members to serve as “salt and light” in the world, but history is full of times that governments have found this way of life unacceptable. Why is this? There are different reasons at different times, but we see the patter of Christ’s life repeating in them. By proclaiming a limit to human authority the Gospel stands as something opposed to absolute claims of power made in this world. It challenges every one of us to examine our own heart, and then proposes this challenge to the culture at large. Miguel’s love for Christ over-flowed into sacrificial love for his people. May his example continue to shine for us.

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.