Tag Archives: holiness

A Herd of Hookers

14 Dec

That’s what you do in a herd: you look out for each other.
~ Manny the mammoth

“Did he just say what I think he said?”macau-1

The radio was on as background noise – I can’t remember if I was at my desk or driving somewhere. NPR’s Frank Langfitt was talking about money laundering in Macau, and I wasn’t really paying too much attention.

But I perked up at this line: “I’m in the bottom of one of the casinos and trying to avoid a herd of hookers.” Wow – really? “Herd?” Of “hookers?”

The alliteration was catchy, but it sounded so demeaning and dehumanizing. These were individual women, after all, each with a family background and history, and each, no doubt, with a terribly sad tale to tell. The journalist’s flip use of a slang term for prostitute was bad enough; lumping the women all together as a nameless pack of animals was truly jarring.

I react similarly whenever I hear public health advocates speak of their immunization efforts – like Harvard physician Haider Javed Warraich:

Vaccines work when given to individuals, but they are most effective when administered to an entire population. That’s because vaccines confer “herd immunity” that disrupts the chain of infections, but only if enough people get the immunization.

I get the idea and the science behind it, but if public health officials want greater vaccination compliance, then I suggest they come up with a better image than “herd immunity.” Certainly immunization is effective and an important weapon in the public health arsenal, but I am not part of a herd, and neither are my children.

Instead, Warraich and his ilk notwithstanding, my kids are individual persons with individual physiologies, not to mention unique personalities, affinities, and dispositions. And this is true for everyone – something Somalian writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out with specific reference to Muslim women:

I didn’t realize until I came to the West that we actually are first and foremost not collectives. We are individuals. We are individual girls with our different characters, with our likes and dislikes. And before you assume the collective, assume the individual.

Yes, individuals first; members of a collective second. And, in any case, never simply part of a faceless mob.

Good_Shepherd_Catacomb_of_PriscillaHowever, there’s one area in which herd language is appropriate – and, oddly enough, it’s particularly associated with prostitutes. I mean, if there’s anything that deserves the moniker “herd of hookers,” it’s the church.

To begin with, the church actually does turn out to basically be a herd – remember the Good Shepherd? We all love the parable of the shepherd rescuing that lone sheep in the Gospel. It’s comforting and reassuring: I’m a witless beast, and the Divine herdsman has me safely ensconced across his broad shoulders.

Remember, though, that the shepherd eventually would’ve returned that sheep to the herd. Ultimately, it’s the herd that the Good Shepherd is entrusted to protect and nurture, and rescuing individual sheep is accomplished within that context.

Admittedly, it’s a delicate balance that Scripture strikes between images of God’s people as individuals and as a group. Paul gets at it very directly in his letters, especially when he talks about the body of Christ being made up of individual members with their distinctive differences. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (I Cor. 12.12). In other words, we’re all in it together as one body, but we’re also like discrete cells in an organism – each with distinct tasks to fulfill, with the vitality of the whole depending on everybody carrying out their assigned roles.

The ultimate destiny of the organism, however, is not dependent on each separate cell becauspeter-drowning2e it is already determined – predestined, you could say – that the organism is destined for paradise. “When the Holy Spirit blows, He does not create good individual Christians, individual ‘saints,’” writes Metropolitan John Zizioulas, “but an event of communion, which transforms everything the Spirit touches into a relational being.” The Catechism quotes Vatican II on the topic:

Believers who respond to God’s word and become members of Christ’s Body, become intimately united with him: “In that body the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe, and who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ in his Passion and glorification.”

Salvation, thus, is a matter of our incorporation into that body, and our petty faults and failings day to day are somewhat irrelevant as long as we persevere in that body. We know this because Jesus told us that the ones actually getting into heaven are the tax collectors and the prostitutes – biblical shorthand for notorious sinners. Think about such stories from the point of view of one of their main target audiences – the Pharisees and the self-righteous. They listened and critiqued, but they missed the obvious – and what was the obvious?

It’s this: Jesus was calling on them – and on us – to become more like Zacchaeus, and the Gospel’s sinful woman, and other noteworthy biblical transgressors in their lowliness. Far from giving the Pharisees a commission to lift sinners to their own level of respectability, the Lord gave them a subtle challenge to descend to the tax collectors’ and harlots’ level instead. That’s where humility and contrition can take a visceral, authentic form. That’s where true repentance and conversion can take place.

So, if Christianity is about conforming to Christ and getting to heaven, and if we ourselves really want to be on the way to heaven, then we too should think of ourselves as tax collectors and prostitutes – simply sinners, that is, just as Pope Francis declared himself after an interviewer asked him who he was:

I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.

This is no surprise, of course, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the process of becoming saints is a group effort – all the members of the body of Christ working through their stuff all at the same time – and it won’t exactly be a precisely choreographed affair. The Catechism puts it very explicitly:

All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.

SignofPeaceTo be sure, the crook and the harlot and all us sinners, once incorporated into the body of Christ, are still called to repentance. There’s no question that sin is awful in every respect, and part of embracing Christ and becoming part of the church is recognizing sin for what it is and reforming accordingly. Nevertheless, the crook and the prostitute have an advantage over the self-righteous, for profligate sinners have no illusions about their worthiness or sufficiency.

In any case, our job entails avoiding judgment of our fellow sinners, and then, more importantly, fully acknowledging our own corruption and inadequacy. Then, Jesus can do something with us – the sooner, the better.

Fortunately, thank God, we don’t have to go it alone – we have the Church herself, the saints, and even each other. Here’s the Catechism once more:

The unity of the Mystical Body produces and stimulates charity among the faithful: “From this it follows that if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with him, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.”

Out of many, one; one body, many members; born again as an individual, but born into a herd destined for glory. “Such is the race that seeks for him,” says the Psalmist, “that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”

There’s plenty of mystery here to go around: Let’s dig in!

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A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

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Saint TBA

1 Sep

There is only one tragedy, not to be a saint.
~ Leon Bloy

“More and more, I was wishing I could be Kyle Decker.”

So says Doug Barnes, the adolescent narrator of Dave Barry’s Christmas tale, The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. As Doug tells it, Kyle excels at sports, is “cute” (according to the girls), and “doesn’t hack around” (according to the teachers). The problem for Doug, however, is that Kyle appears to have captured the heart of Judy Flanders, Doug’s big crush.

Kyle’s advantage seems formidable, which leads to Doug’s existential aspiration. Of course, we all know that Doug can’t be Kyle. Only Kyle can be Kyle. And Doug can only be Doug—plain, old Doug.

This story, and specifically Doug’s wish to take Kyle Decker’s place, came to mind as our pastor gave his “Our goal is to become saints” homily at the first-day-of-school Mass a couple weeks back. It’s a theme that runs through all his homilies: Everything—in school, in work, in life—everything has to be subservient to getting to heaven, to getting to Jesus in an ultimate and eternal way.

That’s as it should be. It’s basic to the Gospel message, and particularly underscored by the Second Vatican Council—the “universal call to holiness” they called it. Every follower of Jesus must seek to put away sin, and to grow in the virtues of faith, hope, and love—it’s not optional. All those saints we see depicted in church—the statues, icons, and stained glass windows? That’s supposed to be us someday: Citizens of heaven mingling with the angels and the holy ones around God’s throne forever.

C’mon, let’s be real, right? It’s a bit daunting, holiness and all. Saints are saints, and we’re, in a word, just…Dougs.

kolbeTake, for example, the saint commemorated at that first school Mass: St. Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Polish Franciscan of extraordinary resourcefulness and resolve, who made use of every form of media available at the time to spread the Gospel around the world—surely a patron saint of the communication age.

Yet Fr. Kolbe is best known for what he did at Auschwitz where he was imprisoned in 1941. There had been a successful prison outbreak, and the Nazis selected ten men to die for revenge and as a deterrent. When Fr. Kolbe found out that one of the men was a young husband and father, he volunteered to take his place—an offer the Nazis readily agreed to. Kolbe died in Auschwitz on August 14, 1941. And the man whose life was spared by Kolbe’s sacrifice? He survived the war, and even attended Kolbe’s canonization in 1982.

What a story! What a hero! Could I be a saint like Maximilan Kolbe?

Well, no—because I’m not Maximilian Kolbe. I mean, the chances are slim and none that I’d ever be given an opportunity to sacrifice my life for another person, but that’s not the point. If it were, I might be tempted to let myself off easy—you know, with a sigh of relief, and maybe a prayer or two for all those who still suffer religious persecution throughout the world.

So, no, I’m not called to be another St. Maximilan Kolbe, or any other canonized saint for that matter. Their stories are edifying, and their examples inspiring, but I’m called to be a different kind of saint—and it’s an even more unnerving prospect than trying to be another Maxilimilian. For I’m called to be a sanctified version of myselfto become, in fact, St. Rick Becker.

Not canonized, mind you, but a real saint all the same. It’s the goal of the Christian life, after allto become a citizen of heaven and to enter into that heavenly family reunion for all eternity. That’s what saints are, whether they’re officially recognized or not. And as humiliating as it is to suggest, it’s what God made me foryou, too! Needless to say, God does all the work, molding and prodding, shaping and pruning. As He goes about His business, we just need to avoid mucking things upand we even depend on Him to help us do that!

Dorothy Day, among others, would agree. Herself a candidate for official recognition as a saint these days, Dorothy had mucday1965h to say about holiness and sainthood. She strongly discouraged talk about her own sanctity, and was famous for saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

Yet Dorothy frequently stressed the requirement that every Christian live a holy life—that saintly living wasn’t reserved to the halo crowd, but was fundamental to the Faith. “All are called to be saints, not to do the extraordinary,” she wrote. “If sanctity depended on doing the extraordinary, there would be few saints.”

This is consistent with how she lived her life: Caring for the poor, standing up for justice, challenging the strong, guarding the week were, to her, the ordinary duties of anyone claiming the name Christian. Not to “earn” her salvation, but to “show” her salvation, as St. James argued. And she certainly wasn’t seeking to be a Great Saint. Instead, and despite her demurrals, she was simply seeking to become whom God intended her to be: Dorothy Day the saint.

And that’s our goal too—not to be little replicas of Dorothy Day or Maximilian or whichever saint we aspire to imitate. Our goal—God’s goal, in fact—is that we would become our own saints by allowing Jesus to conquer and transform in us every last vestige of resistance to Him.

Another saintly feast happened to coincide with the second day of school—the Assumption of Mary—and it’s a feast that highlights two realities that are pertinent here. First, Mary is our prototype for becoming saints. All we need do is utter our “yes” like shthe-assumption-and-coronation-of-the-virgine did, and God will do the rest.

And, second, by living that “yes” and persevering, we can anticipate sharing in Mary’s heavenly reward—something we affirm every time we recite the Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Mary blazed the trail for us—you, me, everybody—and we have her maternal support and guidance to help us follow her to Glory. Pope Francis said as much on Assumption Day when he spoke of Mary’s Magnificat as “the song of hope,” which is also “the song of many saints … some famous, and very many others unknown to us but known to God: moms, dads, catechists, missionaries, priests, sisters, young people, even children and grandparents.”

Even Dougs.

You have approached Mount Zion
and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
and countless angels in festal gathering,
and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven,
and God the judge of all,
and the spirits of the just made perfect
.
[Hebrews 12:22-24a, NAB]

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Madness of Faith

11 Jul

All of us who do not regularly experience hallucinations or delusions reside on what may be called a ‘cliff of sanity.’ Some of us, for reasons still unclear, are closer to the edge of the cliff than others.

~ Dr. Samuel T. Wilkinson, Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine

Mary Poppins (1964) is by far my favorite Disney movie, and one of my favorite scenes is the rooftop rendezvous of chimney sweeps wBerthen they sing “Step in Time.” Remember that? They’re racing around, jumping off and on chimneys, rolling and kicking and dancing up a storm.

At one point, the sweeps dance along the ledges of the buildings. They pretend to be balancing with some difficulty, holding their arms out and teetering like drunks, but then the music starts and they start leaping and twirling again in perfect coordination.

Yes, I know it was filmed on a Hollywood set, and, yes, I know they weren’t in any real danger. Nonetheless, their exuberant defiance of death strikes me as an apt image of the Christian life. The Gospel requires a kind of foolhardy abandon if we embrace it fully, and like the dancing chimney sweeps, we often enough come perilously close to the edge—right where Christ can do something with us. In other words, there’s got to be a bit of madness in every Christian.

Consider the Gerasene demoniac. He was a raving looney, running about, whacking himself with stones, busting up the chains that restrained him, and crying out night and day. The guy was plagued by so many devils that he called himself “Legion.”

And that’s me! That’s you, too, I’d imagine. We love Jesus, we’ve given our lives to Him, we struggle to pray and be virtuous and become saints. But we fail and fail and fail again. We, too, are harassed by numerous weaknesses, temptations, and faults, and, like Legion, we beat ourselves up about it, bemoaning our lot, and wailing to all who’ll listen. And why not? We’re schizo, affirming a Gospel that we can never live up to.

Then, Jesus comes, restores order, and tosses out the demons—and not just tossed out, but tossed into a bunch of pigs that run over their own cliff and drown. The next scene is telling, because when the gawkers observed the demoniac sitting at Jesus’ feet, “clothed and in xp-heals-the-gerasene-demoniac-alexander-master-kinoiniklijke-bibliotheek-the-hague-1430his right mind” according to Luke, they were “seized with fear.” Fear? Of what? Of Jesus tossing out their demons too? In any case, they feared Him enough to “beg him to leave their district.”

Perhaps the crowd had their own madness in preferring to hold onto old ways and familiar devils, and maybe we do, too. M. Scott Peck alludes to this human tendency in The Road Less Traveled when he writes, “Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.” Many times, we avoid mental and spiritual health because it’s just easier to stay put. Why approach a precipice, with all its attendant unknowns, when it’s so much more convenient to keep ambling along well away from danger?

But He won’t leave us alone. He draws us to the edges of our lives and confronts our neuroses and petty sins—in ways that can seem downright cruel at times. Peck picks up on this idea in a section he calls “The Healthiness of Depression”:

As likely as not the patient will report, ‘I have no idea why I’m depressed’ or will ascribe the depression to irrelevant factors. Since patients are not yet consciously willing or ready to recognize that the ‘old self’ and ‘the way things used to be’ are outdated, they are not aware that their depression is signaling that major change is required for successful and evolutionary adaptation.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?” we shout out with Legion. “I beg you, do not torment me!” Spiritual dryness and doubt, difficulties, disease, and disasters, even nervous breakdowns and mental illness—torments all. They’re not imposed by Jesus, but they are used by Him to get our attention and bring us to that place of vulnerability where we’re compelled to change.wire

He’s going to put us there teetering on the ledge whether we want it or not, so let’s race out to meet Him rather than shrinking away—to be acrobats after holiness rather than plodders, casting aside everything that holds us back. Nik Wallenda, the aerialist who recently walked across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope, has said, “I have never in my life walked with a harness. The weight of the tether makes it feel like I’m dragging an anchor behind me.”

Legion, the madman, cast off his chains and ran to Jesus to be healed. So should we, come what may.
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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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