Sunday, February 9, 2014

No Greater Joy-A Testimony

This last few years I have witnessed a rapidly increasing level of ridicule, mocking and general nastiness toward those who profess religious belief.  Main stream media leads the way in the writing off of Christianity, and in particular, Catholicism, with the ever repeated and increasingly boring quip about the 'imaginary friend in the sky'

Members of my country's government have suggested 'vetting' prospective public servants and those in high office for Catholic sympathies.  Catholic teaching on the nature and ends of marriage, family and sexuality are laughed at..or worse..shouted out as hate speak as has happened in Ireland in recent days.  In other words, Catholics shut up (and I've seen it put in those very words) and realise that we are no longer relevant or wanted.

So how is a Christian, or more specifically, I, as a Catholic, supposed to respond to a culture at which I find myself at odds?
Should I simply accept post-Christian European rejection of religion as something I have to take on the chin?  Turn the other cheek at the accusations of misogyny and worse.  Should I smile at the Facebook jibes about imaginary friends and stupidity and the accusations of not caring for born children from people I care about and pretend I don't find them hurtful? Bow my head and humbly accept my place and stay there?

Maybe silent suffering is for some people but personally, I don't think I'm called to that.  Does the man light his lamp to place it under the bed? No, he places it high for all to see.  To be perfectly honest, I don't think I could look at myself in the mirror should I fail to give my testimony.

So is my faith in a Risen Christ a mere talisman? The condition of an unthinking sheep, happy to go along with a herd of superstitious fools, pious on the outside but no depth on the interior.  Is it something that gives me comfort in my comfortableness?  Something I blindly follow without reason or intellect...or rather do those things not more accurately describe the mindset and attitudes of the detractors and enemies of religious belief, specifically, Christian belief?  Believe me, there is nothing comfortable about Christianity and in order to be truly counter-cultural today one must surely be Catholic.

I often wonder as to the real conviction of many who claim atheism.  It seems to me that the logic of a-theism, as in a...without....theism...belief in God...without belief in God, should bring with it a genuine disinterest in what other people believe.  Since we came from no-where and are headed no-where, so what?  Even less so should they disdain others for their beliefs.  If there's no God, who cares what anybody believes as it makes no difference anyway.  Why would you be bothered that some people see fit to struggle to do better to live up to a non-existent being?  Why would you want to take the wind out of their sails with put-downs and snide or demeaning remarks or 'memes'.  If it makes them happy, why not just let the poor fools get on with it?

Sometimes I wonder whether it's disbelief at all.  Sometimes I whether it's plain old-fashioned dislike.

Perhaps this stems from a mistaken or distorted idea that someone is watching over our shoulder with a stick waiting to punish us as soon as we put a foot wrong.  Who lays traps and pitfalls for us making it impossible not to fall in and then who mercilessly remembers every single fault and flaw?  But a loving Father God? Pwaaah!!

I knew a guy once who had had a very sordid childhood at the hands of his father.He was a very troubled person.  He had lived his childhood, having attended Catholic schools, thinking that God is his enemy who brutalises us and who has nothing whatsoever to do with kindness, love or forgiveness.  The teachers who taught him that God is our father didn't realise that for him-that was a bad reflection on God. His experience of father affected his perception of God as a father. Thankfully with good guidance he realised that in his Father God lay all he had longed for and not received from his earthly father.  Today he himself is a loving father, transmitting to his children the authentic fatherhood which is the reflection of God's fatherhood.

So really, is it a mis-conception of |God as a party-pooper or maybe anger at the way we were 'handed on' the faith or the less than 'Christian' behaviours of those entrusted with this task that leads to this professed disbelief?  A rejection of the message because of the faults of the messenger.  I have heard so so many times 'I had religion shoved down my throat...therefore it's wrong'  'This person did this...therefore it's wrong'  'I didn't get my prayer answered...therefore it's wrong'

None of these things is proof or even indication of stupidity or folly in religious belief.  That people don't live up to a standard is part of the human condition.  We don't live up to our spouse's expectations...or they to ours. We don't speak their love language, more often thinking of ourselves than of them.  And yet we know that the times we've let them down is not the true indication of what we feel for them.  We begin again, begin again and always wanting to do better but rarely seeming to make much, or any, progress.  Like a race where we keep returning to the start line every time we trip up.  That some of us never get much further than the starting line says nothing.  What speaks is that we keep trying, starting again and then someday we make it to the first hurdle without tripping on our boot-laces. Then of course, become distracted and fall again.  And back we go to try again-but not with the anger and humiliation of a vengeful God but with the loving embrace and kisses of the father who saw his prodigal son from afar and who RAN to meet him-without even a rebuke.

I remember meeting a friend of mine who had just come out of confession.

'My God', my friend grinned, 'if Fr so-and-so us a glimpse of the mercy of God, we've nothing to worry about!'

I lived for a while in a parish where there had been no confessions for nine years as the priest didn't think it was a priority.  When the priest changed and a new priest re-instated this sacrament, the 16 year old daughter of my friend decided to go for the first time since her first confession. When she came out she turned to her mother and announced 'I feel like a bird with wings!'.  Can you tell me of anything else that can cause such joy?

The meagre efforts of Christians are not the way to judge a message's truth or falsehood.  What I look for is FIRE. Who's on fire and what are they on fire with?

Every time I go on Twitter I see fire and rage.  The rage on there is something really horrible and which I find quite ominous and frightening.  The barrage of foul language, personal attacks and gleefulness when terrible things beset those who these people perceive as standing for Christian belief is very unsettling.

A young American writer/blogger/speaker who is to the forefront of the battleground on marriage and it's definition had a freak accident last year leaving this newly-married husband paralysed and fighting for his life.  I was horrified at the delight and rejoicing from an unbelievable number of his opponents.

Something similar except worse happened closer to home and I am sickened to say that I witnessed examples of the same horrible glee.  I'm not talking about heated debate here, I'm talking about heated hatred and I see it and not from a few people, this is very very common..

When all is said and done who would I like to stand with?  Something that copper fastens my belief in the Christian God is the lives of those gone before me.  I really see the churlish cries of 'imaginary friend' not quite holding water when you look at the likes of St Thomas Aquinas, who after his life's work, the 3,020 page Summa Theologica) (which no, I haven't read, I'm more of a How to Raise Your Children in Two Easy Steps sort of girl!) threw his pen down in desperation at his own smallness with the exclamation 'I haven't even begun!'  He never finished the Summa because he realised that his work was but a drop in the ocean and didn't even begin to explain or grasp the reality of God. We never can and what a small mind thinks that either we can package God into ourselves or he doesn't exist.  My goodness!! We can't even observe the iridescence of the hummingbird with our human eyes-we just don't have that faculty, which the hummingbird, with it's much smaller brain, does.  If we can't even take in all that a hummingbird is, how are we supposed to understand God?

Or what about Pope John Paul II, whose Theology of the Body is perhaps the greatest treatise on the human person ever written?  Have the detractors of Catholicism as being anti-woman and uptight about sex and sexuality ever read a single page of Theology of the Body?  I challenge them to open Man and Woman He Created Them and then tell me that Catholics hate women and are afraid of sex.

A friend of mine was recently at a college 'bash' in a nightclub/bar.  Her description of what she saw was like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.  A chaotic and desperate display of our culture's profound loss of understanding of the human person, the human body and human sexuality as things...nothing more than commodities from which to grab moments of pleasure without thought of the consequence to the other or to oneself.

She noticed one guy in particular who had just 'been' (in the new sense of the word) with another guy, followed quickly thereafter by a young girl.   Along with the rest of the crowd, his natural sense of decorum or modesty had been lost somewhere in the orgy.  The boy was sitting alone, staring ahead at nothing and my friend saw in those eyes a child deadened and lost and completely bewildered as to where to turn next.  Is this all there was to life?  Is this it? She left then.

Compare that to the 1886 martyrdom of 45 Christian boys, Catholic and Anglican, mostly teenagers, who were killed for their faith in the most horrible way a human can imagine. They were pages of the court of King Mwanga and were killed because of an understanding that we don't expect of young people any more, that we don't have a body, to be used how and as we wish by ourselves or by whosoever feels like it, rather we are a body.  We are a body and a soul and what we or others do to the body, we do to the whole person.

With that understanding, those teenage boys would rather lay down their lives in a brutal execution than renounce their beliefs or consent to the debasement of their bodies, temples of Christ, by the King who saw them not as persons but as objects to satiate his self-centred lust.

I'd rather stand by those boys than with the university students.

Or would I like to stand with the early Christians facing death in the eyes of the lions and beasts in Circus Maximus, where the sand turned crimson to the glee and cheers of the crowd.  I somehow imagine those crowds, were they alive today, would be active in the anonymous world of Twitter hatred.

Or would I like to stand with 'stupid' writers like Tolkien, Belloc and Chesterton, who after many years of public debate with their atheist friend H.G. Wells, declared the sadness of how such a great God-given gift as the intellect of Wells had been used against the very giver of that gift.

If you have never read any of the long standing discourse between Belloc and Wells, I'd definitely recommend getting your hands on Mr Belloc Objects ( to the Outline of History by H.G.Wells) and Mr Belloc Still Objects.  Hilaire is well up there in his caustic ability but it is a debate which is still raging today, albeit by different people. Very entertaining and if you are prone to finding yourself in these debates you might glean a few tips.

Or how about Miguel Pro? Mexican priest and master of disguise, whose last words, shouted over the sound of his firing squad were



Not the words of a man dying for his talisman of comfort or for his pixie friend in the sky.  Compare him to the people who spit at priests simply because they are priests-why would someone do that if they sincerely don't believe in God?  That looks like dis-like to me, not dis-belief.  

Or closer to home, my own ancestors, Stephen and Martin Conroy, brothers of my Great Great Grandfather of West Connemara, who are documented as risking their lives by accompanying the (illegal) priest on horseback through villages to protect him as he moved from secret location to secret location during the Irish Penal Laws. Had they been caught, they and the priest would have been imprisoned or slapped with hefty fines.  As equally would their mother whose knowledge of caves enabled her to provide shelter and safety for the underground priests.

There is a very real modern-day non-bloody martyrdom taking place at the moment whereby people with Christian beliefs on such things as marriage and human life are vilified and demonised and their character pulled through the mud.  This is a genuine suffering for those who dare to stick their head above the trenches.

What drives people to lay their neck on the block in every generation, in every culture and in every age when it would be so much simpler to keep one's mouth shut? St Thomas More would never have been martyred (incidentally for standing up for marriage)  had he just said nothing and kept his beliefs to himself. Superstition?  Stupidity?  Or maybe  someone...Jesus Christ, because they love Him.

Incidentally,  Stephen and Martin Conroy later emigrated to America, where their descendants, still Catholic, are living in Nebraska and Colorado. I was speaking to one of them by e-mail only a few days ago.

Sometimes in my more romantically dramatic moments I dream of the crown of martyrdom-Viva Cristo Rey amidst the din of gunfire, or the Christians who coloured the sand with their blood.  There's not a country in the world on which the Church hasn't been built on the blood of the martyrs-and their numbers are ever increasing.  Only this week 99 Nigerian Catholics were massacred while attending Mass-an act they knew could, and did, cost them their lives. 

But then I remember that I don't really like discomfort.  I complain at great length with every minor ailment that comes my way.  I'm the princess who doesn't like the pea under her ten comfy mattresses, so I'm really hoping that maybe that red and glorious crown isn't for me.

But nothing is surer, today someone in the world is going to become a martyr for Christ.  Not because he is their rabbit's foot in time of trouble or because they are dizzy with the opium of the masses or even less so because they are simply stupid.  The common denominator of the martyrs is the fire of love and hold as true.

Well if not martyrdom, perhaps little Margaret of Castello.  She was born blind, one leg was shorter than the other, she had a hunch in her back and was a dwarf.  She was rejected by her wealthy high-society parents and bricked into a door-less room with nothing but a hatch for handing in food.  Blessed Margaret,  patron of the unwanted, who returned all that with nothing but love and gratefulness and an immense devotion to her parents because it was precisely them who had given her life.  Today Margaret would be nothing more than a foetal anomaly whose right to be called 'someone' dissolved in the pixels of an ultrasound screen.  More than likely she'd become what Pope Francis called a victim of our disposable culture.

As it turned out, Margaret was a gift to this world-as is every other 'foetal anomaly'...or sick baby, as I prefer to call them.  There are people who shout 'my body, my choice'.  I think I'd rather stand with Margaret with her hunchback and her stick than with those people with their healthy God-given voices who, like Wells, are using those very gifts against life itself.

Perhaps take a look at Dorothy Day.  You tell me there are no captivating and exciting role models who would grab the hearts and desires of our young girls.  Look no further!!  Dorothy there was a woman on fire!! Suffragette, bohemian, free love advocate and anarchist turned lifetime campaigner for the poor.  With the same zeal she had rejected all religion, she embraced it.  Oh for her fire!! I love her!!

'Aah...all that's for old people' I hear my teenagers' friends say.  Maria Goretti didn't get to reach old age.  At the age of 12 she died rather than co-operate in the sin of another.  And look at her murderer, who one day may be raised to the altars as a Catholic saint-a modern day example of the repentant sinner.  You see, there's room for all of us at the Father's feast.

So YES, shout it from the mountain tops. Yes! I believe! Jesus is risen and we are an Easter people!!  Except I can't climb mountains, and even if I did climb the highest mountain of all, all I'd find there are a few flags and discarded equipment.  I can shout all I like there but nobody would hear.  Maybe we're not all able to orate at Hyde Park Corner or become whizz kid online New Evangelisers. I'd love that but it would be seriously over-reaching my ability.  Then again, how much expertise do we need? St Therese was a young hidden girl who died young, St Charles Borromeo had a severe speech impediment, the 12 apostles were a right rum lot!! You see God can use the leg of a chair...instead he uses us.

We might not reach those amazing and spectacular mountains but there are other mountains.  That mountain of ironing I could so easily curse, or the mountainous effort to limit my phone addiction and be present for the very people right in front of me.  Maybe that mountain is a hospital bed, or a graveside.  Or maybe it's faithfulness to an undeserving spouse, or autism, or depression...any one of the myriad problems that go with the human condition and wherein we can witness that YES, we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song...even when sung through life's tears.  Those witnesses can speak louder than the best apologists or the slick debaters.

And yet day in, day out, we hear of those who reject religion and Christ because day in, day out, Christians stumble and fall and fail so miserably to conquer even the smallest of drumlins.  But again, that is no reason to write off God.  Don't take your proof of a risen Christ from my example because I, like everybody else, am the epitome of St Paul-

'I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate'
(Rom 7:15)

Don't look at the failures and weaknesses of Christians, instead look at the fire that doesn't go out.  Look at the people who are willing and fail, who take the Twitter spittle and wipe it off their Twitter faces.  Who (sometimes) swallow the caustic reply to the ridicule from their un-believing friends.  Look at the fire and don't write them off so simplistically as stupid.

St Paul was a man on fire.  Remember Saul?  He was on fire...with hatred for Christians, to the point that even his contemporaries called him a wolf.  He was doing his job, on his way to gather Christians to have killed when God picked him right there in the middle of his 'work'  Why did he choose him?  I reckon it was because he was damn good at his job!  His hate turned to love and he set the world on fire.

In my country and across the western world, Europe in particular, there is a huge heave to oust religion, to suppress the Catholic Church and even go so far as to eradicate it.  I've seen this sentiment come up more than once on my timeline.  My answer to this is Graham Greene's short story 'The Last Word'.  A story set in the future where Christianity has successfully been eradicated-all except for the final Christian living-the Pope who utters his final words in the same moment the general pulls the trigger...'Corpus domini nostri'
And as the Pope slumps dead onto the floor the overwhelming thought floods the mind of the executioner...'What if it's true?'  A new Christian is born.

So finally, I'll witness to this-YES I believe in the Risen Christ!  Yes I believe in the Catholic Church.  Am I stupid? No. Am I better than you? No.  Am I weak? Yes.  I'm weak and flawed but not stupid.

I'm not stupid to want to fly with wings like a bird.  Not stupid that I want to gaze upon Him and to want for Him to gaze at me.  Believe it or not, I want to stand for Christ at the foot of the cross alongside the teenage St John, even if everyone else goes, even if the mob laughs and jeers, I'm honoured to be there.  And even if that means watching the blood drip from the face of the One I love and bend to pick up my own little twig and try to carry it day out, so much of the time trying to wriggle out of it or exchange it for a lighter one.

I want to be the one who says even if everyone else goes...I'll stay, Lord.

And d'you know why?

Because I know of nothing more real.

I know of no truer love.

I know of no greater joy.

My unbelieving friends...I don't think I'm better than you...I want that for you.

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