Tag Archives: Catholic Church

St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Her Little Sacrifices

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We often think of St. Thérèse in terms of simplicity of life, the life of a joyful young woman in a cloistered convent. She is the Little Flower, which almost has some kind of 60s flower-child connotation.

She was, indeed, a gentle soul, and she did, indeed, live a simple life. Her spiritual life was, however, built around the concept and practice of self-sacrifice.

“I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies,” she wrote.

I find the concept of obscure sacrifice to be compelling. We all love to make sacrifices when we get noticed for it, don’t we? We all have “white martydom” syndrome. Do we hesitate to share with others how hard it is sometimes to raise kids? How many times, in an argument with our spouse, do we tell them just how much we have given up for them? When we give up desserts or alcohol or something else for Lent, do we make sure everyone at work knows about it? Do we make a big deal to people about not eating meat on Fridays?

But obscure sacrifices, hidden sacrifices. Aren’t those the sacrifices we are commanded to make? Didn’t Christ say that if we fast we are to wash our faces and not let anyone know we are fasting? Didn’t He tell us to not let the left hand know what the right is doing?

It doesn’t take much. St. Thérèse said, “To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” We have to pick up those pins, and marriage and family life provides ample opportunity. Let’s not squander that opportunity by trumpeting our great self-sacrifice. A little humility would be in order on that front. We should remember that St. Thérèse performed her little hidden sacrifices when she was suffering from a tuberculosis which would take her life at the age of 24. We should remember that St. Thérèse went through a Dark Night of the Soul, herself, and was tormented by temptations and a grave crisis of faith. If she could persevere through that without complaint, we can persevere through our daily pains with a smile on our face.

The Precepts of the Church

A couple of years ago, I was at a men’s group meeting, and the presenter asked for someone to name the precepts of the Church. No one could, out of over thirty people.

The precepts of the Church are defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2041 to 2043. They are the minimum requirements to be considered in communion with the Church, to be considered an active and full member of the Catholic Church.

Keeping the precepts doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to go to heaven. It doesn’t mean that you don’t sin or are not living in a state of moral sin. It doesn’t even mean that you are a good person. Not keeping the precepts might, however, put your soul in jeopardy. Breaking the precepts is considered a grave matter, and if done with consent and understanding would constitute a mortal sin.

How do the precepts help us? They are “meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” (CCC 2041) They are foundational. Necessary but not sufficient. Good grammar won’t make you a great novelist, but you won’t be a great novelist without good grammar.

Here are the precepts:

1. “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor” (CCC 2042). This pretty much reflects the commandment to make holy the Sabbath. It isn’t really complicated, though what is meant by resting from servile labor could take a whole book to discuss.

2. “You shall confess your sins at least once a year” (CCC 2042). Many people only go to confession during Lent. If you are pretty saintly and avoid mortal sin assiduously, and don’t have a problem with habitual venal sin, then maybe that is enough. But for the rest of us, monthly confession is helpful, and if you do fall in to mortal sin, going right away is imperative.

3. “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season” (CCC 2042). If you only go to confession during Lent, then only taking the Eucharist at Easter makes sense. But remember we are going to Mass weekly. Most people take communion every time they go to Mass (though this hasn’t always been the case).

4. “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” (CCC 2043). At the current time in the U.S. that means that we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent. We are also (in the U.S.) called to make some sort of penance on all Fridays. There is even talk of renewing the Friday abstinence (which, by the way, was the direct cause of the McDonald’s Fish Filet sandwich).

5. “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church” (CCB 2043). That means giving to the collection basket as well as volunteering. We are called to give according to our ability, and what that means is left up to our consciences.

So that is it: go to Mass, go to confession, partake of the Eucharist, fast and abstain, and provide for the needs of the church. The basics of being a Catholic.

Preparation for Confirmation

My eldest daughter is preparing for confirmation. It’s an exciting time – the first in our home since mine some twenty years ago. We are starting to have more intense discussions about the faith, and I find myself wanting to be a bigger part of her preparation. It would be easy to leave it to her and her Catholic school. They would do a good and complete job, but I think my involvement can make a big difference as to how strong her faith is at the other side.

Why? A few reasons.
First, I provide a different perspective and different life experiences that can help her to dig deep into complex topics.
Second, I know her and how she thinks. That will help me to explain things in a way that she can see even more of the truth.
Third, every time she sees me living my faith, studying my faith, interested in my faith, it reinforces that all this is not just lip service. It’s real and it’s serious, and people like me build their lives on it. Hopefully she will realize she needs to the same.

So over the next several weeks, I am going to be making some simple posts about simple truths that every Catholic should know. And based on my experience and that of others I know, most people will not know these things.

I’ll be writing these as lists. Lists can be memorized. Memorization, which was heavily denigrated when I was in college, is, I think, an essential element in learning a complex subject. It puts a key set of data at your beck and call. Once it is there, you can use those fact as the foundation for deeper learning.

So, soon I will start with the basics: the precepts of the Church.

A Message for Our Holy Father, Pope Francis

Dear Holy Father,

I didn’t know who it would be or how I would feel, but now I know. I am so grateful to have you as our Pope!

Everything I have heard about you during this short time since the white smoke fills me with hope for the future and passion for Our Lord. Your humility, simplicity, and firmness of virtue already inspire, and I am sure there are more wonderful stories to come.

All we have heard about in the last weeks are the problems you will face, as if you are just another political candidate trying to address all the concerns of a divided electorate. But now the smoke has cleared. You have one and only one problem to face: how to evangelize a world that has turned in on itself.

But seeing the people in Saint Peter’s square, hearing professional journalists break down in tears at your address, reading the jubilation of millions online; these things show the truth, that there is a planet full of people out there who love Christ and who love his Vicar.

God bless you Pope Francis! And thanks be to God. I can’t wait to see what you do next!

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church – Part 1: Tilling the Soil

Late at night, in the middle of winter, traveling from town to town through central Italy on a slow-moving train, with precious few Lire in my pocket, God talked to me.

But it didn’t start there.

As the Gospel says, the seeds of faith sprout and grow on fertile soil. For most of my life, though, I was the rocky path, where seeds fall and die. But eventually God, unbeknown to me, began to sweep away those rocks, one by one.

The Young Atheist

In high school, I decided I was an atheist. It wasn’t a momentous decision. It wasn’t a rebellion or a walking away from the youth of my childhood. It was more an acknowledgement of a state of being.

My family was nominally Methodist, but we never went to church. The only vague memories of church I had were of felt banners with pictures of doves and fish and loaves of bread and a few pleasant stories that sounded to me like tall tales. In my mind, Paul Bunyon, Sampson and Delilah, Jesus, and the Lone Ranger all had equivalent claims on historical verisimilitude. I saw the stories of Jesus as moral tales used by certain adults to teach their children how to live. That was pretty much it.

By high school, I was an avid reader of science fiction and I was taking my first physics class. I fell in love with science. Science – and physics in particular – could explain anything, answer any question. My newfound passion for science solidified a vague idea I already had, which was that religion was nothing more than myth. But that didn’t really matter to me either way. The important thing to me was that I had found my passion. I was going to be a physicist. A Newton or an Einstein. The fact that I had “decided” that I was an atheist was, to me, seemingly only a natural consequence of that.

Living the Lack of Faith

After high school, I moved on to one of the premier science and engineering institutions in the nation, a home to Nobel prize winners and other assorted verified geniuses. Everything there confirmed to me my atheism, as religious faith was found on campus about as frequently as bigfoot sightings. If I knew anyone who went to church weekly, they didn’t talk about it. Drugs, alcohol, and sex were everywhere and dominated the recreational side of student life.

I had been a wallflower, but I embraced the party atmosphere. I grew my hair long, got my ear pierced, stopped wearing shoes, and developed an unhealthy appetite for beer. The partying was soon more important than my classes – which I frequently overslept – but somehow I maintained a ‘B’ average. My mental state, however, didn’t fare so well. I was confused and lonely, and I didn’t know how to be happy without drinking.

Still, my love for physics persisted. I developed a fascination for that most basic of fields, particle physics, and I finished my bachelor’s and moved on to graduate school.

Clearing Stones from the Rocky Path

The first gift God gave to me in graduate school, though I didn’t realize it as such at the time, was to get me to a new school, off campus, and away from the party culture. Being away from campus meant I had nothing to do but focus on my classes and find a Ph.D. topic. I stopped drinking so much and began enjoying life again.

The first two years of graduate school consist of core classes, and that’s where God began to do his work. What I learned in these classes dispelled some of my more naive notions about science in general and physics in particular and opened my mind not so much to the possibility of God but to the understanding that science itself wasn’t a god.

Unanswered Questions

I found that science as wonderful and powerful and amazing as it was, couldn’t answer a handful of difficult and important questions.

– Why is the universe ordered the way it is and not some other way? Why is the universe here at all?
– Why are certain fundamental physical constants of such precise values to allow for a universe capable of sustaining life?
– Why does mathematics describe the universe? If the universe arises because of mathematics, then how does mathematics arise?
– What is this consciousness thing anyway?

Essentially, I came to understand that science explains how the universe works, not why it works in a particular way or why it is there at all. And while I wasn’t thinking too much about the issue of God, his existence having been so thoroughly dismissed from my mind for so long, I did come to the uncomfortable conclusion that my assumption that science could disprove his existence was false.

Science can’t disprove the existence of God because it can’t talk about God. Science, I came to understand, is a part of this universe. God, by definition, is outside of the universe. So science has nothing to say on the subject.

None of these things made me believe in God. They didn’t even make me think of God all that much. But they did prepare me for a later conversion. They made me see that the concept of God, at least in the abstract, was not unreasonable, and they made me see that the universe was more mysterious and complicated and wonderful than I had theretofore imagined.

In Part 2, I will talk more about my graduate research and that fateful moment when God stepped unmistakably into my life.