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How to Eat an Elephant

How do you reconcile feminism with Catholicism?

First you reconcile John Paul II with Catholicism.

You start with the assumption that John Paul II was indeed a real pope (not an anti-pope) and that Benedict XVI (also a real pope) is in the process of declaring him to be a Saint, not merely a saintly person. This will lead to the recognition that John Paul II was not a heretic, and thus you will know that you can reconcile him with the rest of Catholicism, though it may take some time.

Then you take that time.

And when you are done, you will look to the side and see that–by the Great Saint Anne!–you’ve reconciled feminism with Catholicism!

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To Whom Do You Confess?

Yet another (serious, and not sarcastic, though of course I can rarely resist making a few jokes here and there) post in my ongoing consideration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I have been incredibly blessed by the comment so far, and after letting this post sit for a while I now look forward to comments on it as well. It is perfectly fine if you have a different experience or view of the God we Catholics worship, and I am interested in how this plays into your experience of confession in a sacramental space.

Edith Stein divided up the prayer of the Church into the public (liturgy and Eucharist), and the private (solitary dialogue with God). My prayer life is incredibly lopsided toward the former. One of the many downsides of being so warped is that no matter how much I know about God, in fact no matter how much I know God, I am still mismolded by the Church’s imperfect language.

The Church’s public liturgy is not obsessed with God as male, but its poor wording naturally leads to misunderstanding in the deepest sense possible. My own soul contains the problem of the day, and God is conflated with Father.

This problem is no where more obvious than when trying to live out the acts of the penitent. A good examination of conscience is impossible for me when I only think of confessing to God as Father, because such a limited view of God shrinks my conscience and my awareness of my relationships and responsibility. When I think of God as Father, I think of a loving, just, and merciful God who created me in HIS own image, allowed me to be born with the stain of sin, knows all of my weaknesses, and sent HIS only son Jesus to redeem me. I think that HE graciously provided the Church so that we can have the sacraments here on earth as means of grace our our way to finally live with HIM in heaven forever.

I know all of the rules set forth by the Church, and I obey them. I never knowingly disobey them1. I even maintain the appropriate Catholic sense of guilt for not doing quite enough, without it mattering what exactly enough is (um, that part was a joke. Laugh. Haha).

With this understanding of God in mind, I have very little to confess. And when the Holy Spirit somehow breaks through and gets me to confession, priests are often quite ready and willing to remind me that God is Father. God is Father. Father is pleased with me for making a point of knowing what should be on the checklist, and then checking it off.

And priests are busy. They do not have time for people who don’t understand that God is Father; for people who do not understand that only those sins that violate the Father’s commands need to be confessed. If one does not have the most fearsome of universally mortal sins to confess, then one should start out every confession with “bless me father for I have sinned. It has been 11 months and 30 says since my last confession.”

If reconciliation simply means confessing my sins to Father Priest who sits in the place of Jesus as mediator between me and Father in heaven, then it is of incredibly little use in my life. It is, in fact, a complete puzzle why God should have chosen so many amazingly wonderful sacraments, and then tossed in one that is all but pointless. After all, the only people who need to confess to Father are those who are so far from God that they would never bother to confess.

I first realized the extent of this problem two years ago during Advent. I knelt in Church examining my conscience, and finding nothing. And then I looked at the crucifix and saw a sister hanging there. And instantly I felt it all: the knowledge of my sins, the perfect contrition, the complete awareness of my utter brokenness and horror at how I had broken the God who loved me through death.

Last night I realized it all over again. As I said my act of contrition, I realized that despite the happily generic word “God,” I was saying it to Father. I had sought reconciliation because I had been given an understanding  by a God who transcends such human categorization, and in fact demands more words in order to not be trapped by that one male word. But, going through the motions of confession, I was once again returning to the limiting understanding of God which keeps me away from the grace of reconciliation.

And that, I suppose, was one of the reasons that my stomach remained tight, even as I left the confessional amazed at God’s grace. The Holy Spirit was clearly present, but was being quenched even as I said the words for the purpose of accepting the sacramental grace into my life.

I have been formed to confess to Father, and unless I actively counter that tendency, confession is meaningless in my life. There is the grace to overcome my inclination, but every day I must accept it instead of absorbing the limiting understanding pressed upon me by miserable language.

To whom do you confess? Do you share my tendency to confess to a loving, just, and merciful Father?  If so, do you find it helpful or harmful? Has your understanding of reconciliation radically changed, and if so, how has it changed the way in which you embrace the practice?

1. That was true when this was written a month or two ago. It is no longer unambiguously true, but that is the subject of another (hopefully forthcoming eventually) post on reconciliation.

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To Try to Preach

To try to preach without referring to the history one preaches in is not to preach the gospel.

Many would like a preaching so spiritualized that it leaves sinners unbothered and does not term idolaters those who kneel before money and power.

A preaching that says nothing about the sinful environment in which the gospel is reflected upon is not the gospel.

Oscar Romero, pray for us.

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Damning Suffering

Why is it that redemptive suffering is so very unnatural? Why is it that suffering, instead of causing us to be more open and sympathetic to others, instead seems to crush love and understanding before it can take root? Why is it that suffering seems to push us over the edge to hell?

I noted this a long time ago with my physical suffering. Aside from a grand total of one time in which it was mystically good, my physical suffering serves to quench this already smoldering wick. When I am in pain I can’t participate in liturgy, I don’t have enough energy to see the pain in others, and I care nothing for any supposed virtue associate with fasting. Pain is a spiritual hazard as much as it is a blessing.

I observe this same phenomena when it comes to emotional pain. For instance, I would think that people who have unfulfilled longings of spouses or children would have incredible empathy for homosexuals or women with “vocations of the unacceptable sort.” Based on the transformative and purifying nature of suffering, I would expect that those struggling with their own incomplete vocation would be beating down Rome’s door decrying the evil bias which prevents chaste homosexual men from ever being priests, no matter how perfect their lives.

But that isn’t the case. It seems the more one should understand, the more one is actually carried away by thinking that one’s own pain is the worst thing in the world.

I don’t understand it. I don’t understand my own life and I really, really don’t understand it when I see seemingly pious Christians who are so consumed with themselves that they shrivel up into themselves rather than giving themselves to those whose suffering they could alleviate, if only they could see beyond their little painful world.

Lord have mercy, for we have sinned against you.

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Confession: Reconciling Advice and Reality

Have you ever corrected a priest in the confessional? I haven’t.

There have been times when I should have, such as when the priest seriously misunderstood the substance of my sins. There have also been times when what the priest said simply was not factually true. I don’t think that I will ever believe it is right to correct a priest on basic religious facts during confession.

When I went to reconciliation during last Advent the priest heard my confession (you’ll never guess what part of it was based on the following ;-)) and then responded that God hates lukewarmness and has said “because you are neither hot nor cold I will spew you out.” I nodded attentively and said something like “I’m Laodicea” as the priest paused to catch his breath. But then he continued on “of course you don’t have to worry about Jesus ever spewing you out, that was the Old Testament God who said that.”

I am obviously recounting this story from my memory which I don’t trust to be exact, and so it occurs to me that perhaps the priest was not mistaken about the location of the passage to which he referred. But if that is the case then the potential for heresy in the statement is even higher.

When I told Josh about the priest’s statement Josh suggested that I should have corrected the priest. After all, priests tend to have a few things that they say over and over again to penitents, and it is not good for this particular piece of misinformed advice to be spread around.

But that was absolutely out of the question for me. For me, reconciliation is supposed to be a time of humility, and instructing the confessor does not at all fit in with that. I suppose that if I thought that the misinformation were truly pernicious, I would later schedule a non-confession appointment with the priest and bring the issue up then.

It does strike me as quite possibly wrong that I see confession as such a structured time of hierarchical humility. It is not about the pursuit of truth in life or even my spiritual life; it is about shutting myself down in the hope that God will swoop in and clean up in the formally prescribed way.

I know that in reality the best answer is probably “it depends upon the situation, the facts, and all involved” but I suspect that most people are probably as dogmatic as Josh and I in our preferences for the “correct” course of action.

How about you? Would you correct a priest during confession? Have you ever?

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Funny Stories About Confession

I can’t be the only one with stories about confession that I find amusing, can I?

For instance, I once went for something like 4 confessions in a row with different priests with each one laughing at me at some point during my confession! And I thought that I was confessing different, not-especially-amusing sins. But for some reason each of them found something funny.

But my most amusing confession moment was one time when I was in a long line before Mass. I had waited almost an hour and as the time for Mass approached two silver-haired people behind me started complaining about how long the line was taking. They worried that it wouldn’t go fast enough because young people have so many sins that they take a long time. I was the only young person in front of them and found this amusing because I often feel the same dread of older women in front of me because of the stereotype that older women talk for hours in confession about who-knows-what that they have already confessed every week for the last 50 years. I was going to confession fairly regularly at that point, had my conscience examined with my sins concisely formatted, and knew the priest hearing confessions. Since he was a rather perfect confessor who was not about to prolong things right before mass, I was in and out in much less time than any of the older people who had been in line before me.

I still don’t get the older people’s concern. Even if we young people do sin more, how long does it take to say “I killed three firemen, had sex with 18 married men, and lied more times than I can count… maybe twice an hour while awake. For these and all my sins I am very sorry?” Amount of sin has nothing to do with how long it takes to confess it.

One other amusing story from waiting in long lines was the time I heard an older man talking to another person about how he hadn’t been to confession in decades. He did not understand the concept of older people confessing recently because he thought that only younger people got out and about to have the opportunity to sin. Considering the fact that none of my sins to be confessed that time involved getting out of the house, I found this a rather funny idea.

Please share your amusing confession stories!

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Confession: Reconciliation Is Not Beauty In My Life

This is a serious and not at all sarcastic post. It is also an intensely personal post. I believe that whatever is not of faith is sin, and I also believe in the primacy of a well-formed conscience. That means that something could be sin for me, and not for you. References to sin in all posts in this series are only references what is sin in my own life, not assertions that the same actions (or failures to act) are sins in anyone else’s life.

When Michelle asked for responses on why we go to confession I took it as a challenge to answer as honestly as possible. The first answer that came to mind was that I go because I’m Catholic. As a currently practicing Catholic, confession is non-optional.

But that could not be the actual truth since one can be a practicing Catholic in good standing with the Church and only go to confession once a year. Besides, given my place in the world and in history, it would be pretty easy to simply not be a practicing Catholic.

So I must go for some other reason. I reflected on my life this past year, and in considering my actions the best answer I could come up with was that I went to confession because it forces me to really stop, examine my conscience, and clean up my spiritual life. I fail to do this properly (the Church suggests daily) and so I choose confession as a way of getting things back on track. As Michelle said, it is like the difference between a self-test and the midterm in the lives of her students.

The truth is that reconciliation, like Sunday Mass, is one of the very few areas of my life where I act out of obedience. I go to confession because at some point not going becomes a significant rejection of the Holy Spirit in my life.

I believe that I should experience the Sacrament of Reconciliation monthly in most seasons, but last year I only went four times. Once I felt that pure bliss, but otherwise it was the usual.

I hate participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation because of the tremendous gap between what I think that it should be, and what it actually turns out to be. My stress level still rises thinking about a certain priest who was exceptionally lacking in gifting as a confessor. I am fine with priests who are busy and run things quickly, and I am fine with priests who are wise, but oh how I hate to deal with those who sit in the seat of Christ and throw me into spiritual turmoil because of their own ignorance. One of the most helpful things in this area was stumbling across Teresa’s thoughts. Saintly wisdom explaining reality was a great gift in allowing me to practice my faith without random priests ripping it apart. They could still tug at my faith, but I could ignore them when I knew they were simply sharing personal opinions which lacked careful formation.

Because I know from experience that it does not work to expect parish priests to be spiritual directors, I do my best to make my confession as short and carefully packaged as possible. Occasionally I will encounter someone like the young Augustinian (did you know that they count officially as “young” if they are 50 and under, and they are raising the age?!) who asked me what my state in life was and completely threw me because I didn’t know if he was asking if I was married or working or what. But mostly confession is a struggle to go through the motions of a potentially wounding, and usually meaningless, spiritual exercise.

While I sincerely regret my unhealthy relationship with confession, it does have the one advantage of making me exceptionally reluctant to knowingly choose sin. When I go through a phase of not wanting to go to Sunday Mass I know that if I fail to do so I will not be able to receive communion the next day without first going to confession. My twin dislikes for confession and Mass without communion are always enough to get me out the door.

Why do you go to confession? Do you find it easy to encounter Christ there?

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Let’s Talk About Confession

No, really, let’s talk about confession. Or, more precisely, let’s talk about why people don’t talk about confession.

I wonder whether it is because we confuse the seal of confession (“Let the priest who dares to make known the sins of his penitent be deposed”) with a prohibition of discussion by those doing the confessing.

Of course it could just be that we don’t like talking about our sin, but that doesn’t seem likely since we all put our sin on display all the time, whether we know it or not.

Which leaves only the possibility that others have more interesting lives and thus don’t find the process of reconciliation all that interesting.

So, what is it?

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Mass: What to Wear

Once in a while, blogging seems absolutely wonderful. I had one of those days recently when I saw Jackie’s post on what to wear for mass.

I want people to feel welcome at Mass, no matter how they are dressed.

Now, I’m not saying that people who dress up for mass think they are superior and judge those who don’t. But I am saying, we shouldn’t have a “policy” about it lest we exclude those who are suffering the most.

Recently, however, my own dress-down policy has shifted. I still don’t believe that God will be offended if I don’t dress up for him. I believe he doesn’t care what I am wearing, but cares what is in my heart.

You really should read the whole thing.

Back in the day I made a big deal (for me) of dressing up for Mass. I wore both skirts and dress pants, but never jeans or even chinos. After completing a six month makeup-free challenge I resumed wearing it on Sundays because I thought that I should make a point of dressing up for Mass.

And then something happened: I started to understand Mass. Once I began making Daily Mass a part of my life, Church wasn’t merely someplace sacred: it was HOME. All that really mattered was spending as much time with Jesus as possible. And you can’t spend as much time with Jesus as possible if you maintain that what you normally wear on a Tuesday morning is inappropriate for Mass. Dress snobbery dropped away. Maybe those who wore jeans did so not because they cared less, but because they cared so much about being with Jesus that they weren’t caught up on spending their Sunday mornings trying to look good.

Of course there was still residual pride about dressing “appropriately” for myself.

One day Josh and I went into Boston on a Sunday dressed casually for a casual afternoon of activities after Church. We arrived early to pray at the basilica and I kicked myself for not thinking ahead about clothing. Then an usher stopped by our pew and asked us to bring up the gifts. Suddenly my prayer was focused on trying to focus on God rather than myself and the hope that no one else would be distracted either. In retrospect, it was perfectly fine as at least half the worshipers were probably in jeans, but it felt positively scandalous.

Then I got the chance to not own nice clothing for Church. When the only pair of jeans that I owned ripped at the knees, I shrugged and kept wearing them. That, combined with worshiping in a tent helped me more fully realize the absurdity of snobby standards for what is “appropriate” to wear for Mass. These days I wear skirts or dress pants to Mass, not torn jeans. And I am aware that these days I don’t spend enough time on my knees to make ripped jeans an issue.

I still appreciate the beauty of the fullest participation in the liturgy possible, and I think that involves everyone wearing what is most fitting. But “most fitting” varies widely. Sometimes it is “hand-me-down jean skirt, tights, boots, and a cardigan” other times it is “jeans, converses, and a flannel shirt.” And this too is beautiful.

I am incredibly thankful for those parts of the Church who are too busy serving the homeless to have time to judge the appropriateness of what others are wearing for Mass.

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Rad Trads Make Me Happy

They denounce beauty, and in doing so point back to beauty which I have learned to take for granted.

Thanks be to God.

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