Sunday, October 25, 2015

Doubt and the Truth - Part 3

One last entry on doubt and why my doubts about some Catholic teachings have weighed on me.

It is not possible to question or doubt an infallible teaching of the Catholic Church. As an example, here an excerpt from the "Definition" section of Ineffabilis Deus (the document proclaiming the Immaculate Conception):
Hence, if anyone shall dare -- which God forbid! -- to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.

To not accept an infallible teaching means you are not in communion with the Catholic Church. This is the same penalty for procuring an abortion or committing murder. It is a serious sin to "think otherwise" about an infallible teaching. I have spent many years studying and trying to understand the teachings of the Catholic Church so that I could accept them; I "craned my neck to Rome" when I was left with utter confusion.

In my exploration of the Eastern Orthodox Church I discovered that the Eastern Church had the same questions as the Roman Catholic Church, but the East answered deep theological questions in a different, thoughtful, theological way (see Doubt and Truth - Part 2). On learning this, the weight of my doubts were lifted.

Doubt and the Truth - Part 2

My last blog entry on Doubt and the Truth spiraled into theological debates about the Immaculate Conception in the comment board and on my Facebook page. I posted the following in the comment section to answer some of the questions regarding the Immaculate Conception and the differences in Eastern Orthodox teaching. I felt it was worth posting as a separate blog entry. Doubt and Truth - Part 3 will return to my question about doubt. 

I feel like the original question of my blog post has been lost to theological debates about the Immaculate Conception. My original question was: is it possible to doubt a dogma? The Catholic Church says no; you must accept the dogma as promulgated. That's very hard for me on several dogmas.

The interesting thing that I have discovered through these comments and the comments on my Facebook page is that I have clearly "thought" as an Eastern Orthodox for a long time because the questions I highlight in my blog are the same questions that theologians in the East have asked for centuries. My questions derive specifically from the language that the Church has used in its documents to explain the Immaculate Conception.

The root issue (at least as far as I can pinpoint) on the teaching of the Immaculate Conception is original sin. What appear to be subtle nuances between the Eastern and Western Church are actually two very different perspectives on Original Sin/Ancestral Sin. These two terms do not mean the same thing - and I am by no means capable enough, at this point, of explaining the Orthodox position beyond this simple explanation:
In Catholic teaching, when Adam and Eve sinned against God it damaged our very human nature (Original Sin). In Orthodox teaching, the sin of Adam and Eve damaged the relationship with God, but there was no change to the essential nature of the human person because sin does not have the power to alter God's Creation. The sin of Adam and Eve ushers death into the world.
In both East and West, there is a need for a Savior. In the West, Jesus' death was an atonement for the sins of all of humanity. In the East, Jesus' death on the Cross, destroys death. In the Divine Liturgy, it is proclaims "Christ trampled down death by death". In the East, there is no need for a dogma like the Immaculate Conception because Mary (and indeed all of us) are not lacking in our human nature.

Here is a quote from "Light from the Christian East" (113-4)
"According to Orthodoxy, sin is not an act of nature, but of a person. This correlated with the Eastern Christian understanding of creation: each nature created by God, and each individual which embodies that nature - whether human, animal, plant or whatever - bears within it a logos which impels it to God's service. Further, even after the fall of our first parents into sin and the horrific consequences that arose from it for human beings and for all the rest of creation, each created nature - and thus each individual that embodies that nature - still carry within it that dynamic logos which calls it to its appropriate divine service."

On the topic of Mary, I do believe she was without sin and I believe that, by the grace of God, her logos was most especially attuned to the service of God. My doubts are not on WHO Mary was/is as the Theotokos, but on HOW the Catholic Church teaches about who she was/is. The doubt is on the formulation of the teaching, not the person of the Theotokos.

If I have faltered on explained the Eastern Orthodox teaching, I ask that Orthodox believers fill in my gaps.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Doubt and the Truth

Why would I consider leaving the Roman Catholic Church and become Eastern Orthodox?
Answer: Theological Truth and the freedom to struggle in the search for that Truth.

One of my favorite professors often stated that Catholics "must crane our necks towards Rome" on teachings we didn't understand or with which we disagreed. He said this with the utmost charity and humility meaning that the Catholic faithful are to rely on the leadership of the Magisterium and hierarchy. And so, I craned my neck. When I was young there were teachings I didn't agree with, like birth control and Natural Family Planning, but with prayer and an open heart I came to see that the teachings were correct. However, there were other teachings that I struggled to explain in my ministry because I could not wrap my mind around them.

Let's clear up a couple things right off the bat:
1) I don't think that I need to rationally understand every single aspect of the Christian faith. We deal a lot with Mystery, like the Trinity, but I do feel that a theology geek, like myself, should be able to at least articulate the basics of a teaching.
2) I take very seriously trying to live out what my faith teaches.

One of the teachings of the Catholic Church is on how the faithful are to receive dogma (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 88):
The Church's Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

I am bound to hold any teaching dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church, period. 

Flip forward 2000 paragraphs to No. 2088 where the Catechism distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary doubt:
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.

What happens when you doubt a dogma? Is that voluntary or involuntary doubt? There are a couple Catholic dogmas that have I not only doubted, but have had a very hard time accepting, the first of which is the Immaculate Conception. Most people think this has to do with the conception of Jesus. Nope. It's regarding the conception of Mary. The Catechesis of the Catholic Church states (no. 491) quoting Pope Pius IX from Ineffabilis Deus:
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

Mary received a special grace that protected her from original sin; no other human in the course of history has received this gift. She received this gift at her own conception by the merits of the child she had yet to conceive; so the merits of Jesus worked retroactively and before these merits existed in time. Okay, I can kind of get this because God can do whatever God wants. No problem! It's starts to get dicey for me when pondering Mary's earthly life. 

Mary is supposed to be our example of a preeminent disciple, but if she did not have to struggle with original sin like the rest of us slobs, then how authentic and freely given was her 'yes' to the angel's Annunciation? If Mary was without sin, then why did she need a Savior? It was impossible for her to sin. Sheesh! I wish I was incapable of sinning, it would make going to Confession a heck of a lot easier, "Yeah, Father, I've got nothing this month." The teaching of the Immaculate Conception seems like theological gymnastics to me and I have struggled to understand it. If Mary didn't have to deal with the struggle of sin, then was she truly and fully human? The struggle against sin is, sadly, part of the human condition.

Based on Catholic Church teaching, I doubt the Immaculate Conception and I'm probably on the voluntary doubt side of the Catholic doubt equation. What am I supposed to do? My husband asked a Catholic priest what he should do if he doubts a dogma. The response was to go to Confession to confess the doubt and then, hopefully, the priest will help you understand the dogma. You must crane your neck, period.

Some struggle or doubt is allowed in the Catholic faith, but not when it comes to dogma. I was curious how the Orthodox Church presented the teaching of Mary's sinlessness. I also wondered if there were dogmatic mandates in the Eastern Church. Imagine my surprise and delight when I read about doubt in The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware:

Because faith is not a logical certainty but a personal relationship, and because this personal relationship is as yet very incomplete in each of us and needs continually to develop further, it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive...We have to make our own cry, "Lord, I believe: help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). For very many of us this will remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death. Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite - that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves off from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it (16). 

As long as you are continually engaging the faith, according to Eastern Orthodox thought, doubt is okay because the search for Truth is a struggle worth devoting your life.

I fully accept that Mary was without sin, just not the way the Catholic Church teaches. Orthodox teaching states that Mary was without sin, but that she was born with "ancestral sin" (that's a blog for another day). Mary was just like the rest of us, she struggled with sin, but she was so attuned to God that she didn't sin. Mary's sinlessness was due to her goodness and choosing not to sin, not because she was incapable in sinning. Now, that is a preeminent disciple - of which I am not, but I do not doubt it and it is an example I can try to live up to.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

On taking a new path

Hey, how ya' doin'? It's been a long while...working, family life and blogging, one of them had to give. So, I'm back to blogging, which means I'm not working outside the home. My blog is about to take a big turn; I'll still write about theology and life, but it's going to have a different flavor. My family and I are about to take an official step onto a new, but well trodden and ancient, path. We are going to be officially enrolled as catechumens in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church at St. John's Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska.

How the heck did this happen?

Yeah, I have wondered this myself for many, many months. At first I wanted to make sure this isn't the theology nerd equivalent of a mid-life crisis. Some people might buy a sports car, others might have an affair, others might have plastic surgery, but do theology nerds fall in love with another faith and jump ship?

Looking back I can see the fingerprints of God throughout my life priming me for this decision, however, the turning point happened just over a year ago. I attended a training for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. John's in June 2014 and I had the opportunity to attend the Divine Liturgy. My first physical impressions in no particular order: dang this is long, it is crazy hot in here, can I sit down?, they sure like incense, I can't see what the priests are doing, the icons are pretty. On the surface, these are fairly vapid and superficial observations, but I was a good little theology nerd and paid attention to the content too.

The beauty and the history of the Liturgy bowled me over. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has been used in the Orthodox Christian East since the 5th century. I could see the historical roots of the Mass within the Divine Liturgy and I kept thinking, this is how we all used to do it - way, way back in the day. I felt a connection to my ancestors in the faith - the saints and martyrs of the early Church - that I have never experienced in the Mass. It also warmed the heart of this Trinitarian geek to hear the Trinity mentioned so many times and that Mary, the Theotokos, the God bearer, was not only mentioned but reverenced, as is fitting to her role as the first disciple.

I have been to a few other Divine Liturgies in my life, but it was clear that I was an outsider and occasionally called a heretic (gee, thanks). That wasn't the case at St. John's and it was fantastic to be able to sit down with a few Orthodox theology nerds after the Liturgy and ask questions. The point that stayed with me from the discussions is that while we have the same early history, Orthodoxy is not just the Eastern branch of the Church. I had always heard that the Eastern Orthodox Church was the sister Church of Catholicism and that it was historical events and translation issues that kept us apart. However, there are significant theological and structural differences between East and West (which I'll blog about in the future). I wondered about these differences for months and would occasionally ask questions of my new found Orthodox friends.

After the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd training, I returned home to Juneau and didn't think much about the Divine Liturgy until I went to Mass the next time. I thought about the Divine Liturgy every single time I went to Mass and felt that "something" was missing. I recalled the overabundant beauty of the Sanctuary, the smell of the incense, the sound of the a capella music which is so different from modern Mass music, and an inexpressible feeling that I was in communion with history. The word that repeatedly came to mind when thinking about the Divine Liturgy was and is "gratuitous" and in comparison the Mass seems "naked".

Finally, I broke down and told my fellow theology nerd of Orthodox extraction, who used to be Catholic, that I couldn't stop thinking about the Divine Liturgy. She bought me a book, Light From the Christian East, and we talked and talked. I read more books, listened to podcasts, wondered, asked questions, read more books, and so on.

In June I returned to St. John's to complete the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd training, but I arrived a few days early so I could attend the Divine Liturgy before class started. Would the Liturgy be as striking as I remembered or was I simply under the romantic spell of a different theological tradition? I figured my response the Liturgy would be the answer and this time I was armed with a little more knowledge about what was happening. It was just as beautiful as I remembered. In my heart I knew I wanted to become Orthodox, however, my head was screaming "uh, what about your husband and did you forget you work for the Catholic Church?"

My husband already knew that I was researching Orthodox theology and we had some conversations about various topics: Original Sin, the Immaculate Conception, perpetual virginity of Mary to name a few. These were sticking points in the Catholic faith for one or both of us. In the course of the conversations I found out that my husband believed many Orthodox teachings. When I told him that his beliefs were not in line with the Catholic Church he said that he had heard a podcast about whatever we were chatting about on Ancient Faith Radio...which is Eastern Orthodox, but he didn't know that.

I loved the Divine Liturgy, but would my husband? My family came to visit me halfway through the course and we all attended the Liturgy. My Orthodox friends had prepared my husband for the Liturgy and basically told him, "don't be surprised if you are confused and hate it the first time." Well, he didn't hate it, in fact, he really liked it and said that it made perfect sense.

In the background, life continued to surprise us and in the midst of contemplating Orthodox stuff I found out that I was pregnant - SURPRISE! For those of you who have read previous blog entries, you know that our first baby died at term 7 years ago and that pregnancy is a pretty scary thing for me. But, this time we were in Alaska and the OB care in Juneau for a high risk pregnancy is non-existent; traveling to Anchorage for care would need to be part of the plan. This is where God kicked me out of the driver seat and said, "Hang on to your hat, kid! I'm about to take you on one crazy ride." At the end of June we found out I was expecting, the beginning of July my husband heard about a great job opening in Anchorage, the beginning of August he was hired for the job, we quit our jobs in Juneau, my husband left early for Anchorage, my parents arrived to help me finish packing and make the move. With all our stuff loaded into a U-haul truck, my parents, my son, and I drove on to the ferry in Juneau closing an exciting time in our life. After 4 days of travel, we arrived in the Anchorage area at the end of August. Now we're close to great medical care for me and our unborn baby boy and the door opened wide for us to join the Orthodox Church.

Here we are, again, at the trailhead of a new path. You'd think I'd feel scared or worried, but I don't. God has led us to this point and things have turned out pretty good in past when we've followed his lead...I just never thought it would lead me here.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Moving and prayer

It's been 2 1/2 months since the move to Juneau and most areas of my life are leveling out to a new equilibrium. However, my prayer life is still hobbling along.

First, there was the crazy, frenetic exercise of packing...
Then, there was the cross continent week long drive...
Then, there was living without our furniture, kitchen items, etc for about 2 weeks...
Then, there was unpacking...
Then, my dad came to help watch our son for 3 weeks...
Then, I was out of town for a conference...
Then, things seemed like they were settling down...
Then, my son got Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease...
Then, I got Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease...
And along the way, learning a new job, making our way around a new town, making new friends...

Most of these things are fantastic - and I'm not complaining (except for Hand, Foot, and Mouth - that's horrible!) but there have been a lot of changes and it's hard to work in prayer.  Most days I feel like my Hail Mary's are like a Hail Mary pass. "Thanks God...I hope you hear this but I gotta run."

I want to do everything I used to do: Bible, meditation, discipleship program, Catechism, journaling - which took an hour each morning.  The pace of my life is very different now, our living space is much smaller, and our morning routine is very busy with three of us trying to get ready and out the door. While the rest of my life is settled into its new home, it is as though my prayer life is still living out of boxes.

I have been reluctant to change my "old" prayer routine, but it has to change because my life has changed. It's time to unpack and rearrange my prayer life into an order than will work for this season of my life.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Discipline, martyrdom, and obedience

"The very nature of marriage means saying yes before you know what it will cost you. Though you may say the 'I do' of the wedding ritual in all sincerity, it is the testing of that vow over time that makes you married. I hope that I will always have faith in the giddy wonder of romance, but in considering what makes a marriage endure, I am likely to employ such ascetic and unromantic terms as discipline, martyrdom, and obedience."

The above quote is from the book Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris. It's a great read about the little discussed/known sin of acedia which is spiritual sloth or apathy. She explores the history of how acedia has been understood over time, but also her own lifelong struggle with acedia. The one area in Norris' life where she didn't experience acedia was in her marriage; she was fully committed to her husband and the commitment she made to him through everything: manic-depressive disorder, a suicide attempt, and very serious illnesses for the last several years of his life.

I can't say I've ever experience acedia, but after I read this quote my eyes filled with tears and I had to put the book down. I know only too well what Norris is talking about...and most especially now, at this time of the year. Five years ago on August 25th my first baby was stillborn at term and last year on August 21st I had a miscarriage. Five years ago today I lived in the world of "giddy wonder of romance". Martyrdom or obedience or discipline were not words I would have used to describe our marriage after only two and half years.

Now, I understand.

Burying our baby, sticking together through grief, surviving our pain, figuring out our new "normal", finding the courage to try again, learning to be parents, finding the courage to try yet again, saying goodbye to another baby, and most recently moving across the continent for a ministry position...

I understand obedience in marriage not as "yes, dear" to my husband, but "Yes, Lord" to the vow I made and staying true when times are tough. I understand discipline through the practice of saying "Yes" to marriage and life and hope, but also by saying "Yes" to Christ even on the days when I didn't want to. I understand martyrdom not as being put to death for my faith, but as dying to myself, my wants, my dreams, and my plans because God has different vision for me and my life.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Are you a disciple?

Thanks to a new co-worker I have a very long reading list now (and it's AWESOME!). Most of the list has grown through conversations usually going something like this:

"Oh, have you read this book/heard of this author?"
And, the response of the mom of a 3 year old has been, ""

The first book on the list was Forming Intentional Disciples. If you are in ministry or volunteering at your parish or thinking "where are the excited Catholics?" then you must read this book.

The book is incredible and answered a lot of questions, however, it's a little depressing as well. I'm a freak about the Catholic faith - I love it! I love Jesus, I love the Church, I love the liturgy, I love theology. This pretty much has made me a freak for a long time now and I've gotten used to it. Yet, it's also pretty sad because there's a very small contingent of Catholics who are Jesus freaks - and I mean that in the best possible way.

Every year the Church loses people to evangelical Protestant churches because they have more fire in their hearts than Catholics do when it comes to Jesus. They're not afraid to talk about Jesus, but if you mention Jesus to an everyday Catholic they get a little scared. If you're one of those Catholics, then please ask yourself why does talking about Jesus make you nervous and share in the comments section.  

Every Christian should be a disciple, but the sad thing is, not too many of us are in the Catholic Church. Why? Jesus is THE rock star of the universe...and dang it, he is worth talking about! Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God (that's just a sampling of his titles), we should't be nervous or shy or worried or scared to talk about Him.  We need to proclaim Him with our lives, but we also need to proclaim Him with our mouths.