Saturday, October 30, 2010

Is single life a vocation?

I recently exhorted a group of young adults to be open to discovering their vocations (see the previous post--it's from a modified homily, actually). I specifically mentioned priesthood, marriage, consecrated religious life.

The next morning I received a very thoughtful, fair, and clear email from a young adult at the Newman Center in which she expressed the following concerns, which my homily had brought up by omission. She wrote (by the way, she gave me permission to use excepts) that I "neglected one other vocational state: Single, just single; i.e., not called to marriage and not called to be a religious brother or sister, or third order whatever."

In her opinion, Catholic singles are the "forgotten vocation."

She went on to explain that, in her view, "the great majority of Catholics view all single people as in tension; i.e., trying to decide whether to choose the married life or to choose the priesthood/religious life."

And more, that "It never occurs to them that a single man or women might not be trying to decide anything. They’ve already chosen to be single."

The bottom line for my friendly and concerned interlocutor seems to be expressed when she writes: "it would be nice if the Catholic community at large, both priests and laity, recognized that the unconsecrated, unattached single life is a legitimate vocation too."

How would you respond to these comments? Can single life be dubbed a "vocation" in the same way as marriage, priesthood, and consecrated life?

Here's three elements of a good response.

1) Baptism is the fundamental "vocation" of each Christian, a consecration to be priest, prophet, and king through union with Christ. It is has a nuptial significance already, oriented as it is to completion (i.e., full initiation) by Holy Communion. From this perspective, there is no such thing as an "unattached" or "single" Christian.

This means priests and consecrated religious are not a special "caste" of those called to holiness and lay people are the lowly second-class citizens called to spiritual mediocrity. Why not? Because they are all baptized, and therefore consecrated to God.

Nonetheless, priesthood and marriage constitute two unique consecrations at the service of Communion in the Church. Far from downplaying baptismal dignity, these actually highlight it in specific ways.

2) To remain unmarried for the Lord is, in some sense, preferable and normative, in a symbolic though not statistical way. Recall that St Paul says in I Cor 34: "An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit." So in a way my friend is dead right: no one should be shocked at the unmarried status of Christian women, assuming that her virginity helps her to be concerned about the Lord's affairs, i.e., as we would say, living out her baptismal promises.

This "preferable" or "normative" dimension of Christian virginity we see in St Paul does not mean that a majority of Christians are to remain unmarried; rather, it points to the profound and thorough "texture" of baptismal, and in fact all authentic Christian, spirituality. Hey, we belong to the Lord, married or unmarried. Once in awhile I like to remind people of the radicality of Jesus Christ by saying something like, "If you've met Jesus Christ, how can you possibly think about any body else?" It gets the point across...even if it's totally unnuanced. All this being said, I'd gently offer one corrective to my emailing friend:

3) Virginity, to be properly ordered "to the Lord," benefits greatly from, and perhaps is ordered to, an ecclesial form.

I don't want to sell short the spontaneous reactions that my friend received from average Catholics. She wrote: "it would be nice if the Catholic community at large, both priests and laity, recognized that the unconsecrated, unattached single life is a legitimate vocation too."

Would it be nice? Perhaps what causes some hesitation in Catholics in general toward easy recognition that the unattached single life is a vocation is just that--its unattached. Sure, it's "attached" to Jesus, interiorly, spiritually. But as Catholics we are used to (rightly, I think) the invisible becoming visible, the interior becoming exterior. If you are attached to Jesus, you want to show it--and our instinct is to show it (the attachment to Christ) in some form in the Church.

The Church document which addresses this is Vita Consecrata. It says in paragraph 7:

7. It is a source of joy and hope to witness in our time a new flowering of the ancient Order of Virgins, known in Christian communities ever since apostolic times. Consecrated by the diocesan Bishop, these women acquire a particular link with the Church, which they are committed to serve while remaining in the world. Either alone or in association with others, they constitute a special eschatological image of the Heavenly Bride and of the life to come when the Church will at last fully live her love for Christ the Bridegroom.

If priests or lay people raise eyebrows at the validity of "single vocations," perhaps it is because they simply don't see the "witness" aspect, linked as it is to the public, ecclesial consecration of the diocesan Bishop. Note that this allows the single woman to "acquire a particular link with the Church, which they are committed to serve...." This is huge. It resolves the tension, to some degree. Because after all, as Pope JP II reminded us, every man is called to be a husband and father and every woman a wife and mother, physically, spiritually, or both. Everyone is called to love, to "lay down their lives for their friends." This requires commitment; it demands attachment.

Granted, we can always grow in our appreciation for the dignity of any baptized person, and be sensitive to those who feel "left out" of more popularly understood forms of consecration. But I wonder if we also need to remind folks who have discerned an authentic call to permanent virginity outside of priesthood and religious life that the Church has a place which may be for them, and that they are not forgotten: the ancient, and now newly growing, Order of Virgins.

Monday, October 25, 2010

An Icon of Life: Two men going up to the temple

Throughout the long and rich Catholic spiritual tradition there are any number of images to describe the “work” of the spiritual life. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, and St Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle all come to mind. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus gives a number of parables which provide tightly-packed images of what He Himself does in human souls, and how we respond, and what the great consequences are.

The parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector is one of these tightly packed images, reflecting three basic moves of the spiritual life, the life of a disciple of Christ. Using and modifying Fr Barron’s three steps (from his excellent “Three Paths of Holiness” DVD—did you see it on WGN recently?), I’d like to look at this parable as a picture of these three steps. Here’s how I see the three basic moves of the spiritual life:

1) Turn to the Lord. 2) Know you’re a sinner. 3) Find your mission.

The first one: turn to the Lord. This is the most foundational move of our hearts, the most necessary. It’s the dirt floor. This is where we “turn”, spiritually, interiorly, from all the good things in our life—including our very life itself—to God who is, even now, creating me, loving me, giving rise to my very existence. In the early centuries of the Church, there was a public call to prayer: “Conversi ad dominum!” Turn to the Lord!

We see this move on display in the two men in the gospel today, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Both “went up to the temple to pray.” What they do physically—physically turning to Jerusalem, to the Temple, the physical place where the Most High dwelt—we are called to continuously do spiritually, just we physically turn to the altar at Mass. This is the deep meaning of our prayer at Mass, when the priest says, “Lift up you hearts,” and we respond “We lift them up to the Lord.” Life with the Holy Trinity is our origin and goal: at this moment we offer our free “yes” to this “direction.” We must strive to turn to the Lord, interiorly, at every moment of our lives.

The second move: know you’re a sinner. Think of the tax collector in the gospel today. He doesn’t even lift his eyes to heaven, says Jesus, yet he says, “O God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Now having turned interiorly to the Lord, the pure Light of God, he sees clearly where he is off, where there are smudges on the windshield. But he has learned a new way of seeing, a vision which sees not only his sinfulness, but God’s mercy and power to heal, implied in his unlimited confidence to proclaim his sinfulness publically.

The Pharisee—renowned as a religious expert—never managed to turn to the Lord interiorly, so what does he notice in his blindness? His illusory greatness, and other people’s sinfulness. He prays not to God but to himself. And his pseudo-prayer recounts not God’s greatness but his own litany of marvelous deeds: “I fast twice a week, I tithe, etc”. He also proclaims the sinfulness of the tax collector: greedy, dishonest, adulterous. He perceives the Tax Collector lacks the three things that matter: hope, faith, and love.

And at first blush, he's dead right. Tax Collectors were notorious for those vices.
But the irony is that the Pharisee is all of these things as well—like the Tax Collector, sure—but he is worse off because he cannot see it. Though he tithes, he is greedy, self-centered, unable to be truly giving and generous in his prayer. Though he fasts, he gorges himself in lies about himself and his self-sufficiency; though he goes to the temple to pray, he commits perhaps the worse form of spiritual adultery: self-adoration. He worships himself. Isn’t this form of idolatry—the terrible closed-circle of self-worship and community-centered worship—among our greatest temptations today?
Humans on earth can't be divided between sinners and saints, but only between those sinners who know it and those who don't (yet). G.K. Chesterton said something much like that.

Finally, the third move: find your mission. This parable may not seem to be a tale of mission, but look--Jesus says of the two men:

"I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former."

To be “justified” means to be untwisted; to be brought into a dynamic relationship to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To dwell in God, which is to dwell in love, and so be healed of our self-adoration. The implication? The tax collector has been healed; he has turned to God, he knows he is a sinner, and now he has discovered his mission—and off he goes! He leaves the temple, exalted as an apostle of God’s power and mercy. He truly “went home justified,” he went home healed; while the Pharisee remains a slave to himself and his lies.

Jesus calls himself our “physician.” Think of these three steps in this analogy: we turn to the doctor’s office, we tell him what is ill, and he heals us so that we can begin to live our lives, knowing and fulfilling His wonderful will for us.

How often in our fear we are like the man—like the Pharisee—who has a massive cancerous growth on his pancreas or liver, and goes to the doctor to brag about his healthy diet and exercise routine. Either this man is delusional, or does not trust his doctor’s skill.

Any of these three steps are happening all the time in our lives; we enter in at any step. Which one are you most in need of right now? Perhaps an experience of addiction has deflated you; perhaps an experience of beauty has captivated you; perhaps discovering that Christ is calling you to the priesthood, religious life, or married life is enflaming your soul with a desire to turn to God in a new way. The "steps" all go together, and form the single experience of our life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Turn to the Lord. Know you’re a sinner. Find your mission.

Monday, October 11, 2010

talkin' angels to a bunch of (curious) materialists

Recently an upper-level religious studies class at Arizona State University came to the Catholic Newman Center, where I work as a priest, as part of a class observation project. They came to observe the strange and exotic behaviors of us Catholics in our native environment, the Mass. Afterwards, they wished to engage in a two-hour question and answer session with me, a priest.

So that is exactly what we did. It was very interesting.

ASU is in many ways a typically twenty-first century American university: a surface-level pluralism appears across the student body, while what actually pervades their way of thinking and believing (very generally speaking) is a vague and often unreflective--but strong nonetheless--brand of materialism and Enlightenment-style suspicion of religion.

What the heck am I supposed to preach to these kids at Mass? That's what I thought as I prepared for Mass that day. Part of me was hoping for a nice, vaguely spiritual ordinary-time feast which wouldn't cause too much cognitive dissonance to my young materialist and anti-Catholic compatriots. So I opened the "ordo" to check the feast day and got the exact opposite of what my bashful side wished for: a feast of great Catholic verve, color, and snappiness.

The Feast of The Archangels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

I'll spare you the details of my homily and talk with the students and say this: Catholicism is at its most fascinating, most riveting, most attractive when it doesn't re-package itself to suit modern intellectual tastes. I was tempted to tuck tail and say the squishy swill they wanted to hear: "Catholicism like everything else out's about being nice, and just being yourelf!"

But, alas, a) that's really boring and b) that's totally not true. Heck, Catholicism is about angels, in a huge way. The more I spoke this, the more interesting things became, the more confident I felt, and (it seemed to me) the more the non-Catholic group sat up and showed some curiosity about it all.

Catholicism becomes inviting when its "thick" worldview--God, angels, heavenly temples, exorcisms and all--is presented without the weak-sauce blushing demanded by Enlightenment-style philosophical systems that can't understand it. With all the proper intellectual nuance, to be sure. But without blushing. If St. Michael is real (which he is), there's no need for it.

Do we really believe in angels? Uh, yeah, we do. Shoot, we know their names (a few of them), for crying out loud. To speak to a large group of students of any number of religious, ethnic, and ideological backgrounds is a privilege. But to speak about angels and archangels was a true delight. It snapped me out of my own fearful tendencies to pander to the intellectual pre-commitments of an audience, in exchange a more reasonable and Catholic model in which I proposed to them a more Biblical and historical (and less Cartesian) worldview.

I challenged my open-eyed interlocutors to consider reality on the broadest possible spectrum (perhaps angels are real after all), and to also consider that maybe, just maybe, materialism (the belief that only physical things are real) is a narrow-minded and weird and rationally untenable position to hold.

Strangely, the topic that garnered the most attention is the existence, nature, and attributes of angels. Maybe it was safer for these students than asking questions about God and Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. But that's fine, isn't it? The students were, as far as I could tell, authentically interested and curious. They seemed a little surprised that much of what Catholics believe about angels comes less from the Bible and more from philosophy (e.g., the nature of how angels know things intuitively, choose, move, etc.)

They giggled--but only a little--when I told them that, if they wish, they can pursue their questions about angels in a field called "Angelology," which is a rich and impressive field in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

If, like Blessed John Henry Newman said, a University is a meant to be a place where all the human areas of knowledge and understanding come in contact with one another, then perhaps Angelology at ASU isn't so strange after all.