Judging freely in the age of choosing whimsically

Here’s a confession for you:  I happen to be a news junkie.  Each day I browse the headlines (on my Google Reader App, of course) of several major newspapers.  Some headlines are from “non-mainstream” sources of information (digital newspapers on the so-called left and right) and others from standard wire sources such as Reuters and the Associated Press.  On some mornings I spend hours reading articles from various perspectives on the “hot” news item of the week—on others, reading the headlines suffices.

This morning an article in the New York Times caught my eye.  [You may wish to read it here].   There seems to be an incipient brouhaha germinating about the self-proclaimed neutrality of the group spotlighted in the article.  The details in the article are a bit convoluted (gratuitous quotes from Bill O’Reilly and other names that tend to shut down a conversation before it begins) and references to an MTV show that brought the group out of obscurity into the much desired (albeit often short-lived) Warholian limelight.  But the article led me to what for me is the crux of the matter: the group’s Web site and its use of language.

The group, whose Web site offers (among other services) post-abortion greeting cards, claims to have been founded by women who “came together because they, or someone they knew, had personally experienced the lack of non-judgmental services available for women and their significant others after an abortion”  [italics added].  That’s when it struck me that perhaps we live in an era that so completely manipulates language that certain words become “buzz” words (“judgment or judgmental,” “freedom or choice”) by taking on completely erroneous meanings.

Depending on the circumstances and how I feel about a particular situation (which says an awful lot about me I’m not proud of), the term judgment takes on different shades of meaning for me.  Though most words take on a particular meaning given its contextual use, I’d like to believe that there exists such a thing as the objective meaning of a word.  To judge is really all about looking at a particular set of circumstances and filtering its various elements using some kind of barometer.  I’d like to think the greatest barometer is my heart—that place deep down (call it soul, gut, intuition, or conscience) where I truly know when something is just not right.   Why would a woman want to be helped to avoid judgment of something so life-altering as having decided to terminate a pregnancy?  Even if she espoused the position that the child in her womb was not a person, the fetus having been “potential” life was still worthy of taking seriously, wasn’t it?

I guess my point in writing on this topic is to say that I’d like to develop sharper powers of judgment.  And I’m not talking about the bogus recriminatory judgment that revels in pity, anger, and existential angst.  I want to develop the ability to be able really to see.  [I can’t help but call to mind the blind man (and there seem to be several in the Gospels–pick yours) that called upon Jesus to restore his eyesight.]  At the heart of all pain is a desire to find what is true, good, and just—fulfillment, if you will.  I know in my heart that I was made for happiness and for eternity, so why fear judgment?  Why fear sorting through circumstances, taking a good long look at the outcome or consequences of an action (mine or someone else’s) and declaring a judgment on the matter?  And since my happiness is such a serious affair, why allow the cultural moires of society and what is popular shape (or worse, choose) that judgment for me?  Because in the end seeking a so-called “non-judgmental (counseling) service” is making a judgment about what I really want to hear and not necessarily about the truth of my circumstances.

Looking at my own life and the events that have brought me to this moment, I know how fickle circumstances can seem to appear.   But if I’m honest with myself, I can’t help but turn to judgment—to wanting to sort through the events and find meaning (or even lack of meaning) in a particular situation.  Since I truly believe there is meaning in life (and life is made up of circumstances, events, and choices—large and small), I’d like to face life equipped with keen powers of judgment.  I don’t want to live in a world that is made up of non-judgment.   I don’t want to be left to decide based on my “feelings” alone on the matter.  I want a benchmark and that benchmark needs to be of the highest order—it needs to be truly human.  Perhaps that’s why the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation appeals to me.  What higher benchmark can there be than God becoming one of us?

By reflectionsoncarnality

Italian Saints, Canadian Provinces, and the Sanctification of Time

The Coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada

At the beginning of the week I began reading the Letters of Caterina Benincasa (better known as Saint Catherine of Siena), the 14th Century Christian mystic and stigmata that convinced the Pope to return from exile.  As I read her letters to numerous people (and she didn’t just write popes and politicians)  I was struck by her thunderous simplicity.

Her letters must be read in the context of the history of Italy during her time  (and more specifically Siena which in modern times becomes part of the Italian region known as Tuscany).  Catherine came along at what I refer to as an “Estherian” moment.  I make reference  to the Biblical Queen, Esther, who arrived at the Persian palace and saved Persia’s Jews from annihilation.

Caterina Benincasa was single-handedly responsible for recalling the Church of her day to holiness.  She lived during a time in history that required saints and prophets rise up and recall Christians to the Church—to Christ.  It doesn’t sound much different than our era (or any other era of human history, come to think of it).  I believe that “Providence” gives humanity in all ages what it needs when and how it needs it.

Perhaps it will seem odd that as I have been reading Chronicles of Avonlea I feel compelled to draw parallels with St. Catherine’s day and the fictional world of the Canadian author L.M. Montgomery.  She writes her stories drawing from her homeland experiences on Prince Edward Island, Canada.  PEI, as it is known, is just off the coast of northeastern Canada between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

In Chronicles of Avonlea the characters are not living during a particularly trying time in human history.  Late 19th Century North America was experiencing a period of boon, growth, and progress never seen before the Industrial Revolution.  Yet I compare what I’ve read in a collection of fictional stories written for children to the time of the Medicis, Anti-Popes, and the Council of Nine?  Well, quite frankly, yes.

I don’t pretend to be coming up with an original thesis that will draw parallels between 14th Century Europe and 19th Century North America.  For this reason, I don’t cite examples from the text to make a case–that’s not my purpose.  I am simply reacting to thoughts elicited by two different women writing for two very different reasons but with very similar ends: the sanctification of time.  Through the writings of both these women I was able to experience something of the urgency and importance of living out one’s vocation with fidelity.   Each writer struggled with the everyday (and not so everyday) circumstances of her time.

Il duomo in Siena (view from the Mangia Tower)

Catherine’s letters are certainly more historically important than Lucy Maud Montgomery’s writing . But both St. Catherine’s letters and Lucy Maud’s writings  are helping me to understand that holiness can only be lived out in the everyday circumstances of life.  That it takes the action of a single person sacrificing her freedom (in the philosophical sense of the term) so she can paradoxically truly be free.

By reflectionsoncarnality

The fool looks at the finger that points at the sky

Waitress and French do-gooder, Amelie, with neighbors in background

I recently re-watched the film Amelie (2001) whose French title is Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. In lieu of providing a plot summary (or worse, “reviewing” the film),  I simply wish to share the thoughts and feelings it elicited.

The movie has a narrator telling you the story of Amelie’s life.  The opening scenes were absolutely beautiful and made me think of my own childhood in many ways.  The wonder of being surprised by everything and feeling one’s feelings to the maximum (whether anger, sadness, or fear–the intensity is high).  The  movie took on many themes (childhood “trauma”, familial relationships, etc.) but focused on Amelie’s decision to do “good”.  If  doing good “worked out” she’d spend the rest of her life doing “good”–if not–then you can figure out her conclusion.

The deed works out as the person whom she bestows a “random act of kindness” upon reacts as she desired him to.   Amelie begins to do other good deeds and finally comes to a moment where the good deed involved considerable personal risk (emotional, not physical).   It was interesting to note that Amelie not only performed “good” deeds, but she took vengeance upon a neighbor that did not-so-good things to a young man in said neighbor’s employ.

The greatest scene in the movie is the chosen title for today’s blog:  “The fool looks at the finger that points at the sky.” The words were uttered by a little boy that came upon one of the benefactors of an Amelie random act of kindness.  Perhaps this is the movie’s greatest message and it couldn’t help but make me think about what it means to live a holy life.   So often, I become fixated on the sign (the finger) instead of looking beyond it to the sign’s ultimate value (the heavens and that something more).

By reflectionsoncarnality

The Rosary and Holiness

One of my intentions for the New Year is to spend more time praying.  It is interesting to me that the rosary prayer (which dates to the second half of the fourteenth century) is associated with meditation.  For those of you not aware, when one prays a decade of the rosary one meditates on a particular mystery.  Sunday is the day to meditate upon the “glorious” mysteries: the resurrection, the ascension, Pentecost, the assumption of Mary, and the coronation of the Mary.  Whatever you might think about this particular form of prayer (those that object claim that Mary ought not be “prayed” to), it does lend itself to thinking about the events that marked the “after” of Christ.

There is a prayer that some add to the end of a decade (known as the Fatima prayer) and it goes as follows:  “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.”  For some reason, as I prayed the rosary today, I kept inserting (unintentionally) the words “lead all souls to holiness,” instead of “to heaven”.  I realized it about the third mystery and stopped.  Yet, as I reflect on the minor change it occurs to me that when I pray the rosary, mediating on the events that surrounded the life of Jesus of Nazareth and those whom he loved, I am following in the footsteps of holiness and wish to be led there in this life.  After having spent a significant amount of time in the Holy Land (Jerusalem and the West Bank), my meditation has changed dramatically in my mind’s eye–I can’t help but see the places that tradition marks.  For those that object to asking for Mary’s prayers, the intercession of Mary is something that has a long history.  I’d say it began in Cana when Jesus, though seemingly annoyed by his mother’s prodding, nevertheless did as she asked him.

A friend of mine (who happens to be Roman Catholic) refers to people that pray the rosary as “bead whackers”.  I don’t think he means to be disrespectful but I am not ashamed to admit feeling a bit concerned that I ever be referred to as a “bead whacker” (Egads).   The expression is equivalent to referring to people that read the bible daily as “bible bangers” (or “thumpers”).  I suppose the comparison is a bit odd, but since I am trying to reflect on holiness in everyday life it occurs to me that these items (the rosary and the bible) can be used in a superficial, amulet-like manner, that probably makes a means into an end itself.  I realize that I am guilty of using both these vehicles, if you will, as ends in themselves; I’d like to change that.

What I do know is that when I take any of these means seriously, I desire to be a part of something good and great.  I wish to be better for the sake of God and his love and not for my own sake.  That has to be a good thing, right?

By reflectionsoncarnality

Holiness in a post-Kindle world

It’s the beginning of a new year and I felt it a good a time as any to begin blogging.  I wanted to focus on the theme holiness because it seems to be at the heart of all my obsessions.  I suppose that it’s a good thing, though I feel many might think it an outdated (or even a repressed) stance to have in front of life.  And I suppose being a lover of all good things might seem a bit contradictory to the pursuit of holiness–after all, being holy is being boring.  And boring is not a good worth pursuing.

I recently read a book by the Canadian author, Michael O’Brien, Father Elijah.  Having grown up in an apocalyptic sect I have always shied away from these types of books (the Left Behind series for example).  But since O’Brien is Roman Catholic, I thought I’d give him a try.  It also helped that a trusted friend not only recommended the book but sent it to my greatest Christmas present ever–my Kindle.   I won’t start to go on and on about the Kindle.  Suffice it to say that I’m grateful to my younger brother for giving me neither gold, frankincense, nor myrrh….

I read O’Brien’s book within a 24 hour period.  I’ve read a lot of page turners in my day (though this one was a page clicker) but it was good to have that feeling of just wanting to continue reading and reach the story’s climax.  I won’t spoil the end of Father Elijah for anyone that hasn’t decided to take it on, but I will say the end was satisfactory.  The friend that sent the book didn’t care for it but I think I was able to convince him that O’Brien’s ending was within the realm of possibility for an actual “biblical” apocalypse.

Lately, my father (who remains active in the apocalyptic sect of my upbringing) has been spending a lot of time trying to convince me that the end is truly near.  That God will again intervene in human history (though my father doesn’t put it quite that way because his sect is not incarnational in its belief and practice so the notion of God intervening in human history is purely supernatural).  When I finished O’Brien’s book I realized that Fr. Eljah, the book’s protagonist, was a man after my own heart.  He struggled with his past but lived firmly set in the present.  He was a man who sought holiness through the fire of existence and fulfilling his given tasks.

I’m going to end my blog for tonight.  I’ve decided that I’ll blog about things that I read and experiences I have that call to my mind the desire to be holy.  I don’t know if my definition of holiness is orthodox (I think it is) but I feel that holiness is simply being fully human.   Being the very best that I can be according to anOther’s plan.  And therein lies the struggle: giving over the will to anOther.

I’ve begun the Letters of Catherine Benincasa (the saint from Siena) and hope to blog about that page clicking experience in the next few days.

By reflectionsoncarnality