Monday, March 31, 2014

Honk If You're For Jesus

I was reading a Gospel meditation, the one about the multiplication of the loaves.  I had thought it was a great miracle, what Jesus had done.  I was wrong in my thinking; He didn’t do it all.
“The Apostles tell Jesus that a young boy has five loaves and two fishes, that this is very little, in fact, nothing at all for feeding five thousand men.  But the Lord asks for this nothing and uses it to accomplish a great miracle.  It is always thus:  the all-powerful God, who can do everything and create from nothing, when dealing with His free creatures, will not act without their help.  Man can do very little; yet God wants, asks for, and requires this little as a condition of His intervention.  Only the Lord can make us saints, as only He could multiply the small supplies of the young boy; still he asks for our help.  Like the boy in the Gospel, we too must give Him everything in our power; we must offer Him each day our good resolutions, renewed faithfully and lovingly, and He will bring about a great miracle for us also, the miracle, of our sanctification.”
            -- Divine Intimacy (P340), by Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.
I read those words and looked up at the monstrance on the altar.  He “will not act without their help.”  As I pondered and took some modest actions in recent months, to do my little thing in this “New Evangelization” effort, I always had the feeling that the task of turning around our culture was just so immense, so daunting, that any effort I made would not make a difference at all.  Yes, I was somewhat anxious, despite the title to this blog.  As we seek to do God’s will, we so often look at the big picture of things, the huge miracles that need to be wrought, and we get anxious:  “What could God possibly want me to do about this thing?”  And we focus on eliminating poverty, feeding the hungry, healing everyone who is sick, cleaning the pollution on the earth, ending global warming.  We want to do something!  But then we look in the mirror, and see just one person there, and he seems so little.
This gospel meditation was a great reminder to me:  God may want to do some great things, world-changing things, miraculous healings even --- but He doesn’t expect me to do those things by myself AND, perhaps even more importantly, He tells me in this Gospel that He won’t do those things by Himself either!  Praying: “GOD, DO SOMETHING!” is a fanciful prayer, an expectation that God controls everything on earth, and will act at our beck and call.  But even as I pray: “God, be here,” He reminds me that I AM HERE also.  He doesn’t expect me to do everything, but to do what I can, even just contributing 5 loaves and 2 fishes to feed 5000.   Even if my efforts will only feed a dozen, He wants me to feed those dozen.
This was the reminder for me this weekend, to seek to do His will, as much as I am able, and then to not be anxious about the outcome.  He will be with me there in my efforts.  I need to remember that, as I worry about and pray about our country.
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Shortly after the Gospel was read at Sunday mass, our dear pastor began his homily.  Perhaps it was because I had meditated on the Gospel the night before, or perhaps it was because I felt that I (in my great brilliance) knew all there was to know about that Gospel, and so I quickly found my mind wandering and not paying attention to the pastor’s words.  I picked up a book I was reading, To Know Jesus as the Christ, by Cardinal Schonborn, and I read these words, which I thought particularly insightful:
“How often, though, we obscure the image of God through our behavior!  If we are of the opinion that we become happy only if we concentrate on ourselves as much as possible, fulfill ourselves as much as possible, then we do not understand Easter joy. Easter joy is this:  In the Resurrection of Jesus, God confirmed that this man is really his beloved Son. … listen to Him.  In Him you can see what I am like and how our path should look.  In Him you can see what it looks like really to be a man and to become a man!”
These words were significant enough for me to want to remember them, and so I began to underline them, even as I faintly heard the good father drone on from the altar.  The words “Cardinal Schonborn” perked up my attention, and I looked up and listened to father say:  “… who talks about what Easter joy really is …”  And then I glanced down at my pen, about to underline the words “Easter joy.”
I guess that was a confirmation to me that I was right about the importance of those words.  I shall read and meditate on them again.  But it also was yet another little nudge, I think, of my mind:  read these things; think on these things.  This too, as with the lesson I perceived in the Gospel, is an example of how I should contribute --- in some small way --- to the will of God.  Reading and learning about Him, seeing “what it looks like really to be a man and to become a man,” are part of my contribution to His effort, my making of myself into someone He can use, willingly, to do His will.
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I entered the adoration chapel Monday afternoon to say my Evening Prayers, pray my nightly rosary, and perhaps read some meditations.  Time with God.  I knelt down and greeted God, there on the altar, and we talked about my day.  Some things didn’t go so well; some big tasks I thought others would assume, they won’t.  I wondered softly to Him: What should I do?  Then I sat down in the chair next to the glass windows, which surround the circular-shaped chapel building.
As I sat down, I heard a “creak, creak,” and I glanced up at the ceiling.  Perhaps the wind was acting up, and the building feeling the stress.  But then I heard it again, faintly, but more clearly: “tap, tap.”  I turned around and saw the large Canadian goose standing there, next to the window, looking at me.  She tapped the glass once more, and looked at me.  I smiled and tapped the glass twice in front of her.  She tapped once more, and then sat down right behind me, and turned her head to look at the altar.  I prayed in the chapel for over an hour, and the goose did not tap anymore, nor did she move.  Except for the glass, I could have given her a pat on the head.  But then I packed together my things and turned to her once again, and softly touched the glass.  Her head turned from the altar to look not at my hand on the glass, but into my eyes.  And I stood up and left the chapel.  Looking back, I saw her rise also.
Why do these things happen thusly?  How many of them are happening all around us, but we are too busy to notice?  How often are we too busy with things WE WANT to do even the smallest things God wants, things He will work with us to accomplish --- even to the giving of some small prayer partner, who can only speak to us in simple actions. 
If even a silly goose can praise God, why can’t we? 

The Growth of Atheism: Intermission

Up to now I’ve documented atheism’s roots and the cultural changes which fertilized its growth in the West, and the parallel decline of religion and the family.  I know that in some pockets of religious fervor this might seem only a story, a worry about where we might be going --- but I see more and more evidence of how far we have declined, and how so matter-of-factly it is accepted.  This is not just a story.

The editorial in the April 7, 2014 issue of Fortune magazine begins with a quote from the American novelist Philip Roth: 

“The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy.  It is no longer, as it was for centuries throughout Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the populace, nor is it the totalitarian super state that imposes the fantasy, as it did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet Union.  Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom.  The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends.”

Andy Serwer, Managing Editor of Fortune goes on to note in his editorial comments:

“For better or for worse, organized religion, government, sports, and, yes, big business have been discredited and hold much less sway over us.  And as pop culture becomes more tightly fused with technology … the power and immediacy of pop culture is heightened every second.  Condemnation?  Not necessarily.  Fact?  Absolutely…. One of the few institutions I could think of that even begin to rival the unfettered rise of popular culture is our colleges and universities, if only because they haven’t been discredited as the others have.  Americans still have tremendous respect for the likes of Yale, Indiana University, and Pomona.  But if the academy isn’t careful, admissions scandals, outrageous athletics policies, and hubris that comes with the riches of a place like today’s Stanford will bring them down too.”

I almost laughed at the Fortune article.  This “wise” editor first admits how far the culture has fallen, and then places hope in universities.  Maybe he is just ignorant.  Perhaps he doesn’t know that Princeton’s head of the Ethics Department believes that parents of unwanted children under the age of 5 should be permitted to kill them.  Or perhaps he didn’t read where the University of Illinois fired a teacher of a Comparative Religions class because he dared to read out of the Bible and discuss if it might be true.  Perhaps he doesn’t know that over 90% of college professors label themselves as liberal; the majority do not attend any church.  No, if we are to slow or stop our decline, it won’t be by relying on our colleges, which actively teach youths how to defy religion and their families --- and to “look out for yourself, number one.”

But while Fortune’s Mr Serwer big worry is that colleges might implement some “outrageous athletics policies,” over in the Wall Street Journal Mr Charles Murray wrote an article titled:  Advice For a Happy Life (Saturday, March 29, 2014).  While the article began as I expected, I was surprised to read his fourth point:  4. Take Religion Seriously.  Really?  This is what he wrote:
“Now that we're alone, here's where a lot of you stand when it comes to religion: It isn't for you. You don't mind if other people are devout, but you don't get it. Smart people don't believe that stuff anymore.  Some of you grew up with parents who weren't religious, and you've never given religion a thought. Others of you followed the religion of your parents as children but left religion behind as you were socialized by college.  By socialized, I don't mean that you studied theology under professors who persuaded you that Thomas Aquinas was wrong. You didn't study theology at all. None of the professors you admired were religious. When the topic of religion came up, they treated it dismissively or as a subject of humor. You went along with the zeitgeist.
My wife, prompted by the birth of our first child, had found a religious tradition in which she was comfortable. I began keeping her company and started reading on religion. I still describe myself as an agnostic, but my unbelief is getting shaky.
Taking religion seriously means work. It can easily require as much intellectual effort as a law degree.  I certainly have developed a far greater appreciation for Christianity, the tradition with which I'm most familiar. The Sunday school stories I learned as a child bear no resemblance to Christianity taken seriously. You've got to grapple with the real thing.  Start by jarring yourself out of unreflective atheism or agnosticism. A good way to do that is to read about contemporary cosmology. The universe isn't only stranger than we knew; it is stranger and vastly more unlikely than we could have imagined, and we aren't even close to discovering its last mysteries. That reading won't lead you to religion, but it may stop you from being unreflective.
Find ways to put yourself around people who are profoundly religious. You will encounter individuals whose intelligence, judgment and critical faculties are as impressive as those of your smartest atheist friends—and who also possess a disquieting confidence in an underlying reality behind the many religious dogmas.  They have learned to reconcile faith and reason, yes, but beyond that, they persuasively convey ways of knowing that transcend intellectual understanding. They exhibit in their own personae a kind of wisdom that goes beyond just having intelligence and good judgment.  Start reading religious literature. The past hundred years have produced excellent and accessible work, much of it written by people who came to adulthood as uninvolved in religion as you are.”
I said I was surprised by the article.  While admitting that “a lot” of youths (and himself, although he notes he is 47) don’t believe in God or religion, he does get around to thinking about it.  It’s a start.  I also thought it interesting WHY he began thinking about religion:  his family.  Building a family can be a start point for re-building a culture. 
But then, as if to re-emphasize the point, in today’s Wall Street Journal I read of a recent study which said that 2012 was the lowest fertility rate EVER recorded in American history.  It noted record low numbers of grandparents associating with their grandchildren.  It also noted that by 2020 25% of American women over 50 will NEVER have grandchildren. 
For any who would doubt the seriousness of the increase of atheism, the decrease of religion, the decrease of family, you only have to read the newspapers.  Mr. Roth hits the nail on the head in the first quote above.  At the heart of our culture’s decline is how we are using our freedom.  We are thinking --- and teaching --- that freedom is all about you and what you want, for yourself.  You have the freedom to make yourself happy, in any way you want.
In our country’s history, in the history of Christianity, that is not the definition of freedom.  And if we continue with this thinking, whether atheist, agnostic, or Christian, we will all be the worse for it.  We need to change course.  Somehow.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Growth of Atheism: Part 2. Fertilizer

(You can see Part 1. Here: )
Part 1 of the Growth of Atheism story was a review of some books I had read on the subject, which demonstrated how the breakdown of families --- and in particular those with defective fathers --- had caused some very intelligent children to grow into adults who had an innate bias against religion, and against Christianity in particular, because it speaks of God, “The Father.”  These individuals reasoned their way and, using the Scientific Method, proved their way to a belief that God does not exist --- and even if He did, man does not need Him.  Not trusting in families, not trusting in being loved, their faith largely was in themselves --- and they encouraged others to see the world as they did:  only you are responsible for making yourself happy.
Now, logically you might expect that while atheists were sprouting and taking root in many academic circles --- in Europe and then America --- surely there must have been many intelligent God-fearing men raised in good, solid Christian families at the same time.  And that is true.  But also at the same time, the world has been changing in the last few hundred years, and many of these changes acted as a fertilizer, one which seemed to be absorbed more readily by the atheistic, “progressive” mindset of self-reliance.  And so while the “good wheat” and the “weeds” were growing together in our culture, the weeds grew larger.
One of the first springboards for atheism’s growth, the first dose of fertilizer, was supplied by the Catholic Church itself.  The Protestant Revolution arose from some valid complaints about the Church hierarchy, and a new weed “sprouted” in some minds: If I don’t like things as they are, I can change them --- I can determine what is right and wrong, for me.  And like the atheist, more minds formed a bias toward what they wanted, not what God wanted.  For many, overthrowing “the chains of religion” BECAME a religion, one without thought, only anger to obtain “what I want.”  The French Revolution and its hatred of religion was an example of this in action, and a disaster for everyone involved.  Later, as Benjamin Wiker points out in his book, religion was tolerated (in increasingly narrow limits), but religious differences became another fertilizer for the godless state, which counseled: “We’ll help protect your rights, from those other Christians who want things their way --- just give us the power.”
The age of industrialization provided another heavy dose of fertilizer for the “me first” mindset.  Amidst the common lot of farmers, suddenly there were millionaires, made from men who once were farmers.  And with new industrial efficiencies, men could produce more, faster --- and wages rose dramatically.  “Henry Ford is paying $5 a day,” was the headline.  And everyone wanted more money --- for themselves.  (We see the same thing happening in China today, as the people abandon farms and head to the cities for money --- and as recent U.S. surveys show, those in the cities are much less likely to be thinking about God, or family.)  The headlines today, in 2014, make it sound like the large gap between the richest and the poorest is a new thing.  It isn’t.  It certainly has been around since the start of the industrial age.
From the book How The West Really Lost God we saw that family decline paralleled church decline, and there were a number of cultural events which fertilized the decline of the family.  Most were deliberately implemented and justified as good things, but their impact on the family was never considered beforehand --- nor the decline of the family’s impact on our culture.
The Second World War showed governments the strategic importance of mobility, and helped justify the building of the interstate highway system in the United States.  Fast efficient movement of the military was now possible --- and of people.  And the people did move fast, and far.  Families which once lived near to each other for generations suddenly lived on opposite sides of the country.  Children who used to grow up in parish families now moved from one parish to another, to another.  Secure parish families for a child’s lifetime became a constant struggle to find new friends, for a year or two until the next move --- which their parents made for more money.  And those atheist-inclined youths without fathers found other lost souls, who were learning that they too would have to depend upon themselves.
All of this focus on money and self exploded in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as live news coverage came into our living rooms, and became more political.  “War is evil.  Your sons are killing children.  You can’t rely on the Church.  You can’t rely on the government.  You can only rely on yourself, so ignore them all and do what you want --- and just ‘Be Happy!’”  And the heavy decline in marriages and growth in divorces, took a sharp turn for the worse.  And liberalism, the New Society, stepped in.  The state, not the Church or family, would provide for the poor, and help make you happy.  The government, not you, has an obligation to love your neighbor.
Television began with shows which focused on “good families” and people doing virtuous things, but it was the internet that added yet another huge dose of fertilizer to the weeds of atheism and even evermore hatred of Christianity.  From a family gathering site, television became a private thing in the bedroom, and the internet became obsessed with the bedroom.  Over 10% of all internet websites are pornography.  There are thousands of television channels for anything YOU want to watch, millions of musical delights for you to listen to ALL DAY LONG, and with this now all five of the senses have reached the point of our being able to give ourselves WHAT we want, WHEN we want it, WHERE we want it, HOW we want it, and even a virtual with WHO we want it.  Everything entering our body can now be just as WE want it.  Happiness is now ours to be had --- or so the advertisements proclaim.  Only one question remains unanswered.
WHY?  Why didn’t this make us all happy?  Must we just continue trying until we get it right, or are we on the treadmill that Einstein described, where we “keep doing the same things over and over and expect different results.”
Fertilizers:  attempts to purify failed Church leaders, industrialization to provide better products and jobs, a highway system to help defend us, television to help us know one another, and the internet to help us more easily speak to one another --- all good things which turned into waste:  fertilizer.  All had the intention to make our lives better, and yet all tore our lives apart.  Even as we got evermore things “we” wanted, we found we had even less things of value in our lives.  Surveys today show that the happiest people in the world are those in the smallest, poorest countries; those which are without the big cities and efficient highways and mass communications.  All they have is God and family, and they are happy.  Why?
Where did we go wrong in our struggles to make ourselves happy?  How do we get off this merry-go-round of not believing in heaven, but wanting to create it on earth?  How can we look at our sad, angry lives and think we’ve done a great job of controlling our evolution --- without God --- and want to control it even more?  Can the government fix these bad results?  Do we have to chop it all down (like the French Revolution) and start over?  Must we pull all the weeds out --- kill each other --- to find happiness?  How do we find some balance between what we think we want and what will make us happy?  How can we live with one another?  How can people of faith exist in a world which largely doesn’t believe in God, and people who view themselves as the ultimate creators. 
Where do we even start?
Next:  Part 3.  Learning to Love Again.       

Sunday, March 23, 2014

It's Summer!!!

I went down to the chapel to say my night prayers tonight, and it seems I had a lot to say.  The sky was grey; the weather was cold; the pile of snow next to the chapel entrance was still pretty high.  And I was alone there, just me and God.  And so I read my night prayers, said my rosary, told God I’d try to do His will --- if He’d help me figure it out --- and I’d amend my life, Amen.  And then I started home.
I saw the prayer book on the passenger seat of the car that a friend had left the other day, and so I called her and asked if I should stop by and drop it off.  She said no; she’d get it another day.  And so I took the direct route home, through downtown Plymouth. 
It was cold; it was dreary; there weren’t a soul on the street walkin’ around, and you wondered if things would ever get any better.  On the radio, that old moldy tune Alice’s Restaurant was playing, and the hippie just rambled on his tale.  Even the radio seemed dull and dreary.
When all of a sudden my eye caught someone stopped by a store at the side of the road, and the neon sign on the store was lit up: OPEN.  And the billboard out front of the store said: “$1 off during the first week open.”  The Carousel Ice Cream shop was open!!!  No kids were sitting on the horses around the circular building; no people were sitting at the tables and chairs, and there was only that one couple at the ordering window, but my heart leapt up into my throat:  “Thank you, Lord.  It’s Summer!!”
Well, I cut across two lanes of traffic without looking as I turned into the parking lot.  I got me a hot fudge sundae (a small concession to the freezing weather), went back in the car and brought it home, smiling all the way.
And so now I’m eating a cherry from the top, that tastes better than any cherry I’ve ever tasted.  And the whipped cream is so smooth it makes me forget all the potholes I had to bump over to get home.  And the hot fudge and ice cream taste so great it almost makes me forget the huge pile of snow at the end of the driveway.
Looking out the window, I see blue sky (well, there is a little between all those clouds --- really!), and I guess God just arranged all that prayer time and me taking that route home so that he could let me know that He truly does know our deepest yearnings, and hears our prayer.
It’s summer!!!!!  : - )))))