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Several times in the last few months, I have heard others say that Christians are living in a fairy tale, out of touch with reality.  Incidentally, this has happened with the same few months that I have been struggling very hard with pretty much everything–including my faith and spiritual life.  I’ve managed to bite my tongue lest I blurt out a less-than-charitable response to that ridiculous claim.

But allow me to set the record straight here:  Christianity is no fairy tale.  And it doesn’t take some deep philosophical/theological/spiritual treatise to explain why that is so.  I’ll tell you why it is so, and that is because if it were a fairy tale, my life would be a heck of a lot easier.

It’s pretty telling that while I have heard more than a few people claim that I’m living a fairy tale, I have yet heard anybody explain to me exactly what part of my life resembles a fairy tale, and what part of my life is out of touch with reality.  Face it, I do everything that everybody else does every day: I work, I pay bills and taxes, I sit in traffic, I eat and sleep, I buy groceries, I vote, I obey laws, I like being with friends and family, I like having fun, I long for happiness.  I share in all the joys, drudgeries, and responsibilities of life.  And sometimes I really struggle–I get tired, I get sick, I get injured, I get broke financially, I have times when absolutely nothing seems to go right, I get depressed, I get discouraged, I lose my temper, I lose hope.  All the things that “normal” people do, I do too.

Only, I also do more–I also live a Christian life.  I also try to fulfill responsibilities and offer service to God, my Church, and my fellow man that are above and beyond the civil, human, personal duties and services common to us all.  And you know what?  The Christian life isn’t some kind of fairy dust that makes all the other things go away or get easier.  In fact, it sometimes makes them more challenging, more urgent, and more complicated.  It adds a new layer to everything.  It demands that I think more critically and deeply about everyday life and what actions I take.

Far from supplanting my life in the “real world,” my Christianity demands that I take it more seriously and enter more deeply into it.  I have to follow Christ.  Which means I have to be charitable to everybody, not just the people I like, and at the same time I have to be willing to take a stand and tell people things they don’t want to hear, things that might even make people hate my guts and the guts of my stupid, out-of-touch religion.  And I have to struggle with all of that too.

So, say what you will about Christianity, but it’s not a fairy tale, it’s not removed from reality, and it’s not easy.  In fact, life without it is often far easier.  I’ve lived with it and without it, you know, so I am able to make the comparison. To be concerned only for the here and now and the people and creatures at hand is far easier than to be beholden to an eternal, transcendent God.  To worry only about being nice or compassionate or tolerant is far easier than to be bound by the demands of true charity.  To treat Sunday like an extension of Saturday is far easier than to treat it as the sacred Lord’s Day.  To be able to hem and haw and adjust one’s beliefs and morals according to what is popular in society or what is easiest in a given situation is far easier than to stand firm with absolute truths no matter what.

Christianity is not an escape from, or replacement for, the “real world.”  Rather, it’s a whole additional world that overlays the “real world”–and in fact is like a super-real world where everything takes on a new light and new significance.  And my life–my little ol’ life–is supposed to encompass both of them!  That’s not the kind of fairy tale I would write for myself, folks!  I’d be some kind of crazy masochist if that were the case.  But I’m neither crazy nor a masochist–nothing in my nature or conduct would give evidence of that.

So, with all of this said, why am I a Christian?  The answer, again, is simple.  I’m a Christian because Christianity is true, good, and beautiful.  It is everything that is worth striving and fighting and suffering for.  It is not a fairy tale, but rather is an epic reality that calls the most ordinary of persons–such as little ol’ me–to be heroic, saintly, and above all genuine–to be more, not less, of a real human being.  It makes me better and more complete than the person I was when I did not live a Christian life.  It makes me care more about what is important than what is easy.  It’s really that simple.

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I’ve begun reading Elisabeth Leseur‘s diary.  What a humbling and inspiring treasure it is!  I think she ought to be canonized, and I shall pray for as much!  Here is part of her entry from 21 September 1899:

Let us go back to the holy source, to the Gospel, the word of God.  Let us draw from it lessons of moral strength, heroic patience, tenderness for all creatures and for souls.  Let us Christians be sure never to “break the bruised reed” nor to “quench the smoking flax.”  That reed is perhaps the mournful suffering soul of a brother; and the humble flax extinguished by our icy breath may be some noble spirit that we could have restored and uplifted.  Let us beware: nothing is so delicate and so sacred as the human soul, nothing is so quickly bruised.  Let each one of our words and deeds contain a principle of life that, penetrating other spirits, will communicate light and strength and will reveal God to them.

There are no novel ideas here.  Rather it is a beautiful, soul-stirring exposition of some of Christianity’s most fundamental ideas.  Something so desperately needed in this modern age.  I know I needed to read this.  It’s so easy to stray even from the fundamentals of the faith.

Dear Elisabeth Leseur, pray for us!

I was talking with a friend at work over lunch today, a friendly and interesting chat about theology and theologians.

She had attended a lecture by a former Dominican priest who had apparently abandoned Christianity because he couldn’t believe in, or at least couldn’t worship, a God who would allow so much evil.  He noted how much natural evil there was, in addition to moral evil; he used the example of a wasp that will paralyze a moth and lay its eggs inside the moth’s body, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the moth from the inside out, and the moth is still alive while it’s being eaten, etc.  Which, I agree, is pretty horrific.  So are viruses and hurricanes and other kinds of natural evil.

Now, as far as I know and have been taught, natural evil, like moral evil, is a result of the Fall and the severing of man from God’s supernatural life.  That makes sense to me.  In the fall, man chose the devil over God.  And all creation essentially turned upside down.  Why shouldn’t there be natural evil as well as moral evil in a fallen world?

The problem, which my friend was also speaking of, was that so many theologians and so many average Christians today basically believe that we moderns have outgrown the stories of Adam and Eve, the fall, original sin, and even the devil himself.  Now, if you don’t believe in any of these any more, if you discount them as myths devoid of any meaning whatsoever, then of course you won’t be able to make sense of evil.  You will come to see religion as just a generic kind of moral code, a way to live out your life, without being beholden to any real, personal God.  Or, you might reject religion completely.  You will become a practical, if not a professed, atheist.

These people let everything, their entire worldviews and belief systems, hinge on the problem of evil.

But what do they do with the problem of good? How do they account for the fact that even in this fallen world with its many various evils, there is so much good?  Good that defies all natural explanation?  Goodness that prevails in the face of sheer evil?  How do they explain miracles?  How do they explain seemingly irrational acts of self-sacrifice or heroism?  Or natural goods such as the tenderness some animals show toward their young, the exclusive monogamous bonds between mates of some species, the cycle of the seasons and the abundance of crops, the astonishing beauty of life on earth?  Where does goodness come from?  How can there still be so much of it if the world is so steeped in evil and has been since the beginning of time?  Surely evil should have long ago conquered all–and yet it hasn’t!

That’s the question that must be posed.  And it never seems to get posed.  We allow the nay-sayers to moan and groan on and on about evil!  That’s exactly the way the devil likes it.  He likes everything to be all about him.  And he especially loves it when people don’t realize that they are making everything all about him!  He laughs!  He laughs at us and He laughs at God.

So, here’s my advice to myself and to everybody.  Whenever anybody raises the problem of evil, raise the problem of good to them.  Whenever they use the problem of evil to try to discredit God and Christianity, use the problem of good to try to discredit their position.

As far as I can tell, Christianity provides answers to both problems.  Their position doesn’t provide answers to either problem.  They take the one for granted and wallow in it incessantly, while completely ignoring the other.  In all charity, we must try to get them beyond that.  Get them to face the full picture.  Challenge them to come up with answers.  Until then, I don’t see that they have any rational grounds for rejecting God or Christianity.

I found myself on the edge of weeping all throughout and even following Mass this afternoon.  It happens sometimes.  Sometimes I just realize how good God is, how good life is, how good the Mass is, how good the Sacraments are… and how I repeatedly take everything for granted or else shun it in order to serve my own purposes.  I had quite a bit of that sort of thing to take to Confession today.

My penance was to read and pray over this Sunday’s second reading from Colossians, which is very much about loving and being grateful:

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.
And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.
And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.
And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, in word or in deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

It moved me, softened my heart, so greatly.  St. Paul reminds that we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved”–that is pretty overwhelming, when you think about it, isn’t it?  So is St. Paul’s definition of love as “the bond of perfection.”  It’s easy to think of God’s love as being merely warm and cuddly and indulgent, as mere kindness.  But it’s far more than that, often uncomfortably so.  God is love… God is also perfect.  We can’t just say, “Oh, I love God so much!” and then just turn around to do whatever we please, certainly not to engage in our favorite sins and flaws.  True love, which exists in the divine nature, can’t be divorced from holiness.

Lately, I have had these lessons hammered into me quite a bit.  I just finished reading the book, Called to Holiness: What it Means to Encounter the Living God by Ralph Martin, and it includes a chapter on “Holiness and Love,” along with lots of other really good material, such as the chapter on “Holiness and Suffering,” which I wish I had read a year or two ago.  It’s a really good little book for helping Christians stay on track, keep our eyes on our ultimate prize, and make greater sense of our mission and destiny.  It drew heavily on Scripture, making connections and offering insights that had not occurred to me before.  It reinforced how very scriptural Catholicism is.

This Sunday’s gospel reading tells the story of the Presentation in the Temple and of Simeon and Anna, whose faith, patience, and devotion are rewarded by seeing the Messiah for whom they had been waiting and longing.  I had been meditating on this story, which is the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, just the other day.  I thought of how blessed Simeon was to take the infant Jesus into his arms, being, perhaps, one of the first people other than Mary and Joseph to do so.  That was a great blessing indeed, and yet I, an ordinary Catholic, nearly 2000 years later and in a faraway land, am even more blessed than dear old Simeon, for I can receive an even deeper and holier Communion with the Lord within my own body.  I can receive that blessing every single day if I wish!  We all can.

How easy it is to take Holy Communion, and the entire mystery of the Mass, for granted!  How easy it is to be distracted from the unspeakable wonders, the miracles!  How easy it is to just start going through Mass and Communion mechanically, as so many mere motions, without true devotion and participation!  And what a great shame and dishonor all of that is!  As I silently prayed along with the Eucharistic Prayer and gazed at the elevated Body and Blood of my Lord and my God, I realized that all I truly need, all my heart can truly desire, all I can long for, all that can sustain me, all that truly matters, was right there on that altar!  Given and sacrificed for me by the God who loves me, the God who never fails me!

It probably sounds so simple, so common-knowledge, but it was a very weighty realization.  It was both humbling and exalting.  It made me feel so small before God’s greatness… and yet I am the object of His love and the beneficiary of His suffering, death, and resurrection!  It gave me that “made of jello” feeling that I’ve come to experience rather frequently and yet can never get used to nor prepare myself for!  As I knelt, I thought I might fall back on my heels and start sobbing out loud!  I felt like it.  But somehow I stayed all in one piece, my eyes quietly brimming with tears.

I was still on the verge of weeping after I left the church.  As I drove to the drug store to pick up a few mundane things, I asked myself why I was still so weepy!  And I thought back to Father’s homily in which he spoke of Christian life as a great waiting and longing, with faith, patience, trust, and hope.  Each of us, no matter how ordinary or obscure, were to follow the example of Simeon, Anna, and the patriarch Abraham, who had waited with devotion on God’s promises.  A term Father used was “long-suffering.”  And that’s what I felt this evening.

Again, none of this was exactly a surprise.  I knew that a Christian’s life must be one of longing.  A Christian’s life on earth is basically a great exile.  Our hearts yearn for a homeland we scarcely even know.  Our hearts are restless until they rest at last in our Lord, as St. Augustine said.  And yet, as St. Paul reminds us, we are not completely bereft of peace.  Christ gives us peace, if only we give our hearts over to it, let it “control our hearts.”

It’s all so complex… and all so wonderful!  And I really shake my head and chuckle at the idea, so prevalent in the modern world, that Christianity is some kind of happy, carefree, painless, childish land of make-believe, some kind of beautiful fantasy where we just sort of lazily bob along.  I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me, right?  When you see the glory and feel the weight of true and whole Christianity, you know that nobody could possibly make it up–and who on earth would want to?  Let’s just say that it’s no walk in the park, no bowl of cherries, definitely no “opiate of the people,” to borrow Marx’s phrase.  In fact, as a much better man than Marx said, Christianity “has been found difficult and left untried” by many.

Only so true and great and marvelous a God, Somebody completely other, better, and greater, could compel any of us to keep on trying.  He is just so worth it!  And I just love and long for Him so much… so much I can’t always contain it inside me, and all I can possibly do is weep!

Well… I imagine most of my fellow Catholics understand.

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St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
(Image from a painting at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Metairie, Louisiana)

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