Young Adult Catholics

It’s not every day that you hear a proclamation of a “theological state of emergency.” Yet that is precisely the term employed by theologian Mary Hunt in her December 14 Religion Dispatches article calling for “theological first responders,” that is, “scholars and activists…to step forward in concrete, educational ways” in light of recent political rhetoric about Muslims. The words that follow are my modest attempt answer Hunt’s call for “strong and constructive countermeasures” and in union with the Women in Theology statement on anti-Muslim sentiment, out of my own experience as a Catholic woman enriched and blessed by dialogue with Muslims.

For several years, I was part of a Muslim-Christian women’s group in Central Virginia. We are Catholics, Quakers, Mennonites, and Episcopalians as well as Sunni and Shia Muslims, from the United States, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Jordan, Bosnia, Nigeria, Germany and Luxembourg.

We met monthly for two hours, initially…

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Vox Nova

It was Christmas Day. As always, I sat in the living room with my family members, who were ready to exchange gifts. This year, I folded my arms sheepishly. I’d spent my December buried in job applications, and then the week before Christmas (which is when I normally do my shopping) I’d caught the same horrific flu that everyone seems to be catching this winter. For the first time ever, I hadn’t managed to buy a single present. For anyone.

“Don’t worry about it,” my mother said kindly. A devout Catholic who has never been a fan of consumerism, she was not going to let my negligence make any of us forget the reason for the season. “And honestly, there’s only one thing I want from you. I’ve bought you a book for Christmas, and the best present you could give me would be to read it.”

I felt a knot…

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So often the media presents us with images of religion as a destructive force in our world. Today, on the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin , I am happy to hear a different story:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/24661333

All Saints Day. All Souls’ Day. Wszystkich Świętych. El Día de los Muertos. This is the moment when in so many cultures the line between living and dead grows thin, when one world touches another. In Poland the cemeteries are currently thronging with people; crowds are gathering at the graves of their beloved dead, lighting candles in reverence and prayer. In Mexico, the celebration of Day of the Dead combines solemnity with comedy; people make beautiful altars in honour of the dead and dance dressed as skeletons during wild festivities. In my current city of Toronto, red poppies are beginning to appear lapels in preparation for Remembrance Day. Though focused on honouring those soldiers who lost their lives in the two world wars of the twentieth century, many Canadians treat the eleventh of November as a time to honour all of those who have come before us.

As a Catholic born and raised in the United States of America, I am fascinated by the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. I come from a culture where death is a taboo topic, where the elderly and dying are hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes. In American culture, youth is usually seen as the best part of life; most people live in denial of ageing and death. Our Memorial Day in May holds none of the solemnity of Wszystkich Świętych in Poland or Remembrance Day in Canada – most of us treat it as simply the unofficial beginning of summer, a good chance to go to the park and enjoy a nice picnic. I am more than sympathetic to this attitude toward death; indeed, despite my religious faith I live in as much fear and denial of it as anyone. But, this time of year causes me to step back and reflect on my own impending mortality and the memory of my ancestors – not only distant ones, but my own grandparents (both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and I lost my grandmothers during my teenage years), aunts, uncles and cousins. Despite their absence, they live in my memories, and perhaps they still exist in another realm that briefly touches ours during these late-autumn days. Tonight, on this freezing November evening, I am thinking of my father’s mother, Emille, a stoic yet tender Polish-American woman whom I lovingly called Bacci.

If I search for Emille on the Internet, the only results I get are links to ancestry websites that mention her birth and death dates. This is hardly surprising, given that she was born in the era of horse drawn carriages and died when computers and the Internet were only beginning to really transform the world. Nevertheless, there is no Wikipedia page to describe her accomplishments; no biography has been written about her. And yet, for me, she is nothing less than remarkable. In addition to witnessing all of the major events of the twentieth century – from two world wars to the advent of space travel – my Bacci dared to live boldly and passionately, refusing to bend to societal expectations. Born into an upper middle class family with an aristocratic mentality, she studied pharmacy in the 1920’s – a time when few women dared to even imagine pursuing higher education. I must admit I chuckle whenever I pick up her old university yearbook and read the all-male editorial board’s commentary on their female colleague: “Watch out for that frigid stare if she doesn’t like you.” While I used to imagine my grandmother – who indeed had a stern, imperious demeanour – as being somewhat disagreeable, I now suspect that this posture was a survival technique, a means of commanding respect as one of three women daring to enter a male male-dominated class studying for a male-dominated profession.

Upon graduating, Emille didn’t go to work as a pharmacist – not at first. For some years she followed the path that was expected of her (though I suspect it was also the path that she wanted). She married my grandfather, had her children, and devoted herself to living as creatively as she could in the context she was given. She cooked, baked, canned, knitted and crocheted items that received prizes each year at the county fair; she painted, did calligraphy, read in four languages, built gingerbread houses at Christmas, wrote, collected antiques, and maintained a garden that bloomed from February through November. I am always amazed at the range of her abilities (after subsisting on my mother’s meals for the first eighteen years of my life and takeout for the next ten, I have only now begun to experience the joys of cooking; handicrafts and artistic ability are lost on me). However, what amazes me even more is that in the late 1950’s, thirty years after completing her Bachelor of Science degree, my Bacci went to work for the first time. As a pharmacist. Economic need drove her to it – her husband was dying of cancer and could no longer work himself; the family was in deep debt. And so, without making any fuss, she brushed up on what she had learned decades earlier, researched the latest developments in her field, and got to work.

Naturally I wish I could ask her how she did it. Was there no fear, no self-doubt behind that firm expression she always wore? How did she relearn everything, and how did she become informed of all the ways her field had changed in those thirty years? How did she keep her resilience in the face of so much adversity? During my Bacci’s long life, she had the misfortune of losing not only her husband, but three of her five children (one died in infancy, two in the prime of life) as well as her daughter-in-law; she coped with her husband’s alcoholism, endured economic hardships and the challenges of caring for him when his health failed in middle age, and eventually had to face her own ageing and death. And yet, with a fortitude as unassuming as it was strong, she moved through the phases of her life as deftly and gracefully as a trained dancer, always landing on her feet. She worked as a pharmacist for three decades, only retiring in her mid eighties when no longer physically capable of meeting the job’s demands. She continued pursuing her hobbies throughout her life, crocheting the beautiful tablecloth that now adorns my parents’ dining room table. During the second half of her life she travelled to over thirty countries on five continents, hiking in New Zealand, dealing with black market money changers in communist Poland and joining one of the first groups of foreign tourists to visit China after its revolution. She never tired of learning and experiencing as much as life would allow her – which, as she delightfully found out, was quite a lot.

However, what impresses me most about my grandmother is the strength she showed in the face of life’s challenges. Compared to her, I have led an easy life. As of this writing, I have yet to deal with serious financial hardship; I have yet to care for the dying; I have no children and certainly cannot imagine what it would be like to lose them. And yet, I feel like I’m always on the edge of some crisis, always about to stumble into an emotional abyss of loneliness, discouragement or fear. How did she keep her chin up like that? When she died in 1995 I had just turned twelve years old; I was much too young to appreciate the richness of her life and the strength of her character. Sometimes, I wish I could have her back, just for an afternoon or evening meal. I wish I could clasp her hand in mine, look into her big blue eyes, and ask her how she did it. She is one of the ones who made me; one quarter of my genetic material is hers, so surely there must be some of her in me. But at the present moment, as I stand at a crossroads and face a future filled with uncertainty, I don’t know where to find her.

A few years after my Bacci’s death, I attended a charismatic religious retreat intended specifically for youth. I remember it as an impactful and somewhat unnerving event, filled with music and song that put all of us participants into a trance-like state. Suddenly, her face flashed before me; I felt her gnarled hand on my shoulder, reaching out with tenderness and love. It wasn’t a hallucination, and I don’t believe it was her ghost. It was only a memory. But, it still startled me. I hadn’t really thought of her much during my teenage years, and then, all of a sudden, she appeared. “She’s watching over you,” my father said gently when I later told him about my experience. And, while I’m not sure if that is true that the dead watch over the living, I can’t help but imagine that somewhere, in some way she is aware of my life, just as I have become aware of hers.

“Do you think Bacci would approve of how I’ve lived during these years?” I recently asked my father, referring to my twenties, which were filled with travel and educational pursuits. “She’d love it,” he affirmed, and all I can say is that I hope that he’s right. And, now that I can sense challenges on the horizon, I also hope that I can draw strength from this connection that, though tenuous, somehow feels stronger as we celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. One of the things I most love about my Catholic faith is the idea that the living and the dead form a community – we call it the communion of saints. Despite our individuality, despite the inevitable isolation that each of us must endure, we can trust that we are all on this human journey together, and we can also rely on one another for strength – not only our living friends and companions, but also the beloved ancestors who have walked this road before us.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 
For he who has died is freed from sin. 
But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. 
For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 
The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 

– Romans 6:3-11

This is the night
of which it is written
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me
and full of gladness…
O truly blessed night,
when the things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

– From the  Catholic Easter Proclamation recited at the annual Easter Vigil Mass

Easter Sunday. The sky is blue, the crocuses are pushing up from the ground, cardinals are hovering around the bird feeder. After a long winter, spring has finally come to Western New York, where I am spending this Easter as I usually do, with my parents and other family members. Over the past week I have engaged in traditions that, for Christians, mean temporarily setting aside our daily concerns behind and entering into another dimension: the realm of story and myth. During these days, Christians commemorate the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, his unjust suffering and death, and his glorious resurrection three days later. During these days, we celebrate the centre of our faith: the belief that God is alive and moving through our troubled world, transforming our pain and suffering into grace and salvation.

During this week, I have found myself meditating on faith. Looking at the world we live in now, with its continued war and violence as well as the destruction of human and non-human life, it can be difficult to maintain a belief in God’s mercy. And for me, as an academic in a secular milieu where atheism or at least agnosticism is most often the default belief system, I find the premises of my religious faith are constantly being challenged. When I look at the history of Christian apologetics (the efforts by theologians to justify the truth of faith through the use of reason) for guidance, one of my favourite arguments is that put forward by seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal. According to “Pascal’s Wager,” as it is called, all of us human beings bet our lives on the possibility of either God’s existence or non-existence. If we do not believe in God, we are unlikely to seek to live according to Christian principles; we are more likely to pursue earthly pleasures and personal gain. If we believe in God, however, we will set our aim on salvation and the infnite reward of heaven. For Pascal, even the possibility of this infinite reward should be enough to convince a rational person to embrace a life of faith.

Though groundbreaking in its time and still invoked today by many Christian apologists, Pascal’s Wager has also met with much criticism. While it might be true that we bet our lives on whether or not God exists, these critics say, we do not know what kind of God this might be. For example, what if God is evil? In that case, any sacrifices we might have made in the hope of an eternal reward will have been in vain. Conversely, if God is truly benevolent and merciful – if his love is unconditional and universal as Christians believe it to be – then why do we need to live according to a set of precepts or even profess belief in order  to obtain a divine reward?  Then, there is the argument of inconsistent revelations – what if, for example, the God that exists is not the Christian God, but perhaps Zeus, or Odin, or one of the many other divine figures that have graced the stage of human belief systems over the centuries?

For me, there is much truth in Pascal’s wager. As of this writing, God’s existence (or non-existence) has not been proven. Whether we choose to believe, disbelieve, or remain undecided, not one of us can claim to know for sure. Knowing full well that I could turn out to be wrong, I choose to believe – but not for the reasons that Pascal has argued we should. While I hope that I will some day meet Christ face to face in heaven, the truth is that I am already meeting him here and now, on this earth, every day.

Contrary to its public image, the Christian life is not about devaluing our earthly existence. Yes, it is true that we hold a dualist view of the world; we believe that there is a transcendent realm beyond this one where God lives – a transcendent realm we all aspire to reach. At the same time, we also believe that God is immanently present in the world we inhabit: in nature, in our joys and sorrows, and most important, in our relationships with one another.

For me, there is no need to make a bet on eternity. My own experience of Christianity has much more to do with my llife here and now. As a Christian, I am given the opportunity to have a relationship with a loving God who consistently offers strength and mercy – to constantly strive to overcome my innate tenency toward wrongdoing, knowing that God will help and support me every step of the way. As a Christian, I am admitted into a two-thousand year-old community of imperfect but courageous people who are striving to transform our world into the image of the one whom we dare to call its Creator – people like St. Augustine, Michelangelo, Teresa of Avila, Maximilian Kolbe, Oscar Romero and so many others who have lived out their faith in the best way they know how. As a Christian, I am encouraged to constantly seek divinity in my daily existence, to see God’s face in every person I encounter, to find strength even in times of hardship. I am called to love all, to give of myself generously to others, to seek peace through justice, to see beauty and meaning in our world, even when it is at its most chaotic. If this is not the recipe for a happy life on earth, then I do not know what is. And if I can do this, then even if my initial bet on God’s existence (and benevolent nature) turns out to be false, I will not have lived in vain.

I wish a happy Easter to all who celebrate it, and a blessed journey to all.

 

 

The economics of sex?

March 19, 2014

Despite having given up Facebook and excessive Internet surfing for Lent (sort of), I still managed to come across this video on the supposed “economics of sex.” Produced by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, the video (which has apparently gone viral) seeks to explain the reasons why marriage rates have declined in the US (and why the age of first marriage has gone up). Seeking to explain sex in terms of an economic metaphor, the video argues that women are the “gatekeepers” of sex given that (or so the video asserts) they do not want it as much as men do. “Sex in consensual relationships will happen when women want it to,” the video claims. It then goes on to state that “pricing” is what determines when a woman offers sex to a man – the price might be a few drinks and compliments at the bar, a month of dating, or, in some cases, the promise of a lifelong commitment in the form of marriage.

The video goes on to assert that, despite being the ones supposedly in control of this sexual economy, women do not have control over this “sexual economy”; individual women do not get to set the price. Artificial contraception, which allowed people to have sex without the consequences of pregnancy, drastically lowered the price of sex. “Don’t believe people who say your grandparents were secretly as casual about sex as your friends are,” the video’s voiceover asserts. “They weren’t. Because to mess around with sex eventually meant, well, becoming parents.” Comparing contraception to pesticides (which greatly increased food production with the unintended consequence of killing bees), the video asserts that the pill effectively made it possible for people to seek out sex without the commiting to marriage (and, by implication, the possibility of family life). The video argues that the “mating market” is now split into two “one corner where people are largely pursuing sex” and “another corner where people are largely pursuing marriage.” According to the makers of the video, the sex-seekers’ corner is dominated by men, the marriage-seekers’ by women. Therefore, women hoping to find a serious mate willing to make a lifelong commitment to them are, unfortunately, at a serious disadvantage. The issue is one of supply and demand. Since women outnumber men in this market, men call the shots.

It’s pretty easy to see why this video went viral. Feminist writers such as Christina Sterbenz of Business Insider were quick to refute this video’s claims. “Despite a cutesy veneer, [the video is] bursting with false and blatantly sexist  claims, like the ideas that men want sex more, women want marriage more, and the decline of marriage rates will destroy the world,” Sterbenz states. “Let me be clear, I’m not a new car, a gallon of milk, or a pricey pair of jeans. Labeling women (and men for that matter) as commodities ignores the complexity  of human interaction.”

As a feminist, I am inclined to agree with this and other critiques of the video (such as this one at Jezebel.com. I have always been outraged by the suggestion that sex is basically a commodity that a woman gives a man – in exchange for money, a dinner out or even a wedding ring. What about women’s experience and pleasure? Sex, as I have always understood it, should be a unitive experience of intimacy in which both partners experience pleasure, closeness and joy.

On the other hand…I must admit that, on a purely emotional level, the video struck a chord with me. As an unmarried thirty-year-old woman who does hope to walk down an aisle some day, I can’t help but relate to some of the video’s arguments about the marriage markets. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed the proverbial male fear of commitment in a wide variety of forms. I’ve watched female friends and occasionally relatives engage in completely non-commital long-term sexual relationships with men for three, four, or (in the case of one of my cousins) twenty years waiting for him to put a ring on it… then suffer intense heartbreak when they finally realize that it isn’t going to happen. The fact that women must put up with this situation never ceases to make my blood boil.

As a Catholic, I am ambivalent toward my Church’s teaching on this matter. Personally, I believe that the Church has more important matters to focus on than what takes place in people’s bedrooms.  As a firm believer in the rights of LGBTQTSA peoples, I simply cannot accept the Church’s teaching that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman; as a believer in the sanctity of all life on this planet (not just human life), I refuse to believe that sex must be procreative in order to be considered acceptable (when we live in a world that is arguably overpopulated already).

However, as a teenager taking in my abstinence-only sex education in my private Catholic high school, I dare to say that I was one of the few students in my class who took to heart the message that sex should be saved for marriage. My reasons were more pragmatic than anything else. At age sixteen I experienced my first love, and subsequently my first heartbreak. And I was devastated. I remember I stayed up crying all night…And I hadn’t even kissed this guy, much less had sex with him. We stayed friends afterwards, and for four years I desperately hoped that maybe he would change his mind about me and become the high school sweetheart who’d be my one and only (incidentally, he grew up to become a classic 21st century serial monogamist, so maybe I’m lucky he didn’t).

As an adult I have fallen in love twice more, and while one might think that adulthood would have inured me to heartbreak, the truth is that now breakups (or even the threat of them) are much more painful and difficult to overcome. The stakes are higher; time is going by. While I disagree with this arguably conservative and patriarchy-enforcing video’s assertion that all women want love more than they want sex, the simple truth is that I do.

As much as I am disgusted by the economic metaphor, the truth is that in my own life, I want to “set a high price for sex.” I don’t want to go to bed with a man on the third date (and be left desperately hoping that he’ll call me again). I don’t want to climb into bed each night next to someone whom I don’t know will still be sharing that bed with me in one year’s time, much less in our golden years. I’ve had those experiences, and the benefits of short-term pleasure have not measured up to the anxiety, loneliness, and heartbreak that they have brought me.

But the problem is that the culture we currently live in does not seem to have much room for the likes of me. I know that I am not the only woman (or, for that matter, the only man) who feels this way about sex; however, we seem to be something of a minority in the highly educated, politically liberal, hipster-ish social circles I’m part of. I can’t help but laugh when I imagine putting an ad on a popular dating site: “warmhearted liberal feminist academic seeks serious romantic relationship with intent to marry – please, no sex until after marriage.” While very traditionalist Catholics might be responsive to such an ad, I doubt I’d have much luck meeting someone whose interests and life goals complement my own. But then…I haven’t tried yet, have I?

Shadeism (Part II)

February 25, 2014

Hi everyone! To those readers who have continued to follow my blog (despite my long absence) I offer my most sincere thanks. I am very sorry for not posting, especially when there is so much to talk about (Pope Francis’ letter on the Joy of the Gospel…Ukraine…Venezuela…human rights abuses and environmental destruction connected with the Sochi Olympics…)There really is so much indeed, and I promise to come back soon.

For now, I am simply going to share a short follow-up to the piece I posted in November. Shadeism – or discrimination based on skin colour within a given community – is a ramification of racism, imperialism, and in our present world, global capitalism. I recently completed an interview with Nayani Thiyagarajah, a Tamil-Canadian filmmaker who explores this issue. Please check it out…

http://rabble.ca/news/2014/02/resisting-shadeism-interview-nayani-thiyagarajah

Shadeism

November 21, 2013

I learned something new today. I vaguely recall being told as a child to learn something new everyday, and I find it does not often happen. Of course, like everyone else in our media-saturated society I take in plenty of information on a daily basis…But consuming information is not the same as learning. Today, I learned that the legacy of European colonialism is alive and well, all over the world. I learned that while here in North America the multinational Unilever markets itself by promoting “real beauty”(the Dove campaign), in lots of other places it’s telling people that to be attractive they have to be something other than what they are. But unfortunately, it’s not just multinational corporations spreading this message, but also family members and friends.

Watch this video. Some of you will be surprised. Others, I hope, will be able to find strength in knowing that you are not alone. We don’t need to give in to anyone who tells us that to be beautiful we must become other than we are.

http://shadeism.com/

Oscar Romero: Presente!

March 25, 2013

Oscar Romero

 

March 24, 1980. San Salvador. On that horrific day, in the middle of saying Mass, Archbishop Oscar Romero – a humble priest who dared to fight oppression from the pulpit – was murdered by the Salvadoran army. Now, thirty-three years later, Servant of God Oscar Romero (considered the unofficial patron saint of the Americas) continues to inspire those who seek peace and justice throughout the world.

It is often said that Romero’s brief ministry shares much in common with that of his Lord. Like Jesus, Romero led a relatively uneventful life for many years before beginning his mission. (When elected archbishop of San Salvador, he was considered a bookish intellectual who would make no waves in a time of political turmoil and struggles between the wealthy landowners and the exploited campesinos). Like Jesus, he lived most deeply and fully in the last three years of his life and became a champion of the poor and marginalized.

Initially moderate in his opinions, Romero was inspired by his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande (who was also murdered by government forces) to take up the cause of the poor. In his weekly sermons – heard throughout El Salvador and beyond by radio – he regularly denounced the government with his death squads, disappearances, and general reign of terror it was enacting on the country. Like Jesus, he ultimately paid with his life for his beliefs and commitment to justice. And, like Jesus, Romero is still very much alive in the minds and hearts of millions – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – who would seek to follow his example in standing up for the poor and oppressed.

The recent election of Pope Francis does not initially invite comparisons with Romero. As much of the media has eagerly pointed out, Cardinal Bergoglio also lived through a dictatorship, and he did not respond as Romero did. While some sources report his attempts to protect the lives of those in danger, others note his links with the dictator Videla. While this issue is certainly complex, I find myself in agreement with Brazilian theologian Leonard Boff’s statement that “What matters is not Bergoglio and his past, but Francis and his future”:

http://iglesiadescalza.blogspot.ca/2013/03/leonardo-boff-what-matters-isnt.html

Francis is not perfect, and he is no hero…But then, neither was Romero when he became Archbishop. I am not sure what Bergoglio thinks of Romero, but in advocating a “Church of the Poor” he is certainly expressing the spirit of his continent’s unofficial patron. And while I know better than to place too many expectations on a pope – especially in the troubled Catholic Church of today  – I hope that the Latin American church will be inspired to look at its richly progressive past, perhaps revisiting the theology of liberation and breathing new life into it for our twenty-first century world.

Meanwhile, I know I join my voice with millions when joyfully I cry out, “Oscar Romero…Presente!”

 

 

Habemus Papam

March 13, 2013

Francis I…Even the name fills me with hope. Let’s pray that our new pope – the first Jesuit, the first Latin American, the first in a long time to choose a new name – will renew the Catholic Church in the spirit of love and simplicity that Francis of Assisi revealed to be at the heart of Christian life.

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