Tag Archives: Catholicism

A Lenten Penance for Anger

One good piece of advice I have received regarding lenten penances (“giving something up”) is to construct your penance around your most troublesome fault. For instance, I have a problem with gluttony. Put a box of gluten-free (a sad necessity for me) cookies in front of me, and I won’t realize how much I have eaten until the box is gone. To try to help control that, I have given up cookies, cakes and candies for Lent.

A person I know wants to get a better handle on his anger. He feels he is sometimes unjust because of his strong emotional reactions. His idea was to keep a journal and note each person he gets angry with. He then writes down either something to admire and appreciate about that person, something he can do for them, or a prayer for them.

I thought that was a nice and creative approach for Lent that very neatly encompasses the true purpose of the liturgical season. If you have some equally creative practices, I would love to hear about them.

One of the Good Guys

I am taking a musical theater class with my daughter. (I find that participating in my kids’ activities – as coach, helper, or fellow student – brings us closer in a way that’s hard to get otherwise.) My daughter’s vocal teacher, who is leading the class, picked out a song for me: One of the Good Guys from the music revue Closer Than Ever. It is a remarkable song about temptation, mid-life crisis, and the truth about marriage.

Temptation

The song is sung by a self-professed good guy, who dotes on his wife and kids. It quickly becomes a confessional:

But there was a night in Hawaii
On a business trip,
That my mind has suffused with a mystic glow.
She was someone’s friend, and she had this smile…

They become close, but in the end he resists the temptation to cheat on his wife. (Though he should never have been on that beach in the first place!)  And in his reflection it gets interesting:

…one of the good guys
Who trades a flash of heat
To build a warmer fire;
Denies himself a treat
To shoot for something higher
And that’s the part that’s sweet
That only the good guys know.

What is the “something higher”? Of course it is marriage, but it isn’t just any marriage. There are plenty of loveless and miserable marriages out there. It is a marriage that has realized something important. A marriage in which self-sacrifice is recognized as the highest virtue. A marriage built according to this guideline:


Husbands,love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.”

Ephesians 5: 25-31

This is a call to self-sacrifice, a call to the husband to give over his very life for his wife, just as Christ gave up his, a concept out of fashion in our no-fault divorce world. This sort of self-sacrifice, however, which is the definitive sign of real love, is what we were built for, what we are called to, and when we reach it, we have reached something higher. We have reached something holy.

I can honestly say, after twenty years of marriage in which we have seen our share of pain and in which we have failed to love more than I would care to admit, that what you get to after those 20 years of perseverance really is something higher, something transcendent. We have, even in a very imperfect way, attempted to imitate Christ’s love, and even imperfectly it is something wonderful.

But that’s not the end. There is more to the story.

Mid-Life

Fast forward and the singer is now 44 with everything laid out in his life as perfectly as he could ask. But…

Sometimes at night, in the stillness,
Lying wide awake
As the wife I still desire sleeps by my side,
I can feel the wash of the perfumed air
As my mind is drowning in billowing hair…

He is tormented by thoughts of what might have been, of what he gave up, and of the possibility that even now he could seize those fantasies and make them real.

Of course, he doesn’t. After all, he’s one of the good guys. And then he passes on the key piece of wisdom from the song:

It’s not which road you take,
Which life you pick to live in,
Whichever choice you make,
The longing is a given.
And that’s what brings the ache
That only the good guys know.

He has come to realize that no matter how happy you are, no matter which spouse or career or life you choose, you will feel the regret, the questions, the uncertainty, and the temptations. It is just a normal part of life. These things we find ourselves desiring – and the people – are mirages. Worse, they are lies. They promise something they can never give, which is completion. Total happiness.

But why? Why are we built that way? Why can’t we achieve that happiness we desire? St. Augustine understood:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

We have an emptiness inside us that only God can fill and that will not be filled in this life. We try to fill that need with pleasure; with sex or alcohol or excitement or food or other indulgences. We try to fill it with our spouse. But it is never enough. We always come back to that empty feeling.

Even our marriage cannot fill that God-sized hole, and if we persist in believing that it should, we may be tempted to throw it away and start over. But if we come to understand what marriage is and what its relation to God is, then we can feel that transcendence that I talked about earlier, even while tormented by the longing that never goes away.

And what is this understanding of marriage? Marriage is no less than a relationship, designed by God, to reflect both Christ’s love for his Church and the Father’s love for the son. It aspires to be the perfect and selfless love that is Christ’s love. Paradoxically, the only way to achieve total happiness is through a total outpouring of oneself for another, for in doing that, we begin fulfill our purpose, which is to be an image of God. Likewise, our marriage an family begins to fulfill its purpose, which is to be an image of the Holy Trinity, that most fundamentl and perfect of all relationships.

And that truly is the part that’s sweet, that only the good guys know.

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church Part 3: My Own Little Damascus Moment

In Part 1 of my conversion story I described how I became an atheist but how I later began to learn that belief in God was not unreasonable. In Part 2, I described how I learned about the Catholic Church and even came to respect it.

I still did not believe, however, and I had no desire to believe. I was perfectly happy at the thought of dating – and eventually marrying – my cute Catholic girlfriend, and she was happy with her atheist but well-meaning boyfriend.

No Proof is Possible

Stuart Chase said, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” I was definitely in the latter category. I had come to understand that you cannot prove that God does not exist. I had even seen scientific evidence for the existence of God. I had come to learn, in as first-hand a manner as possible, that the universe is delicately balanced in a way that science really can’t explain. I had come to see that science is a tool for understanding how the universe works, but it cannot approach the question of why.

But it wasn’t enough. I know now that it shouldn’t be. Faith cannot come from a textbook.

Advent

I didn’t know it then, but it was the Advent season.

In order to keep this very large physics experiment staffed, the project rented an apartment in Italy for the professors, post-docs, and graduate students and also leased an automobile on a yearly basis. The car was leased out of Milan, a two hour drive north of the laboratory. The lease was up that December, and as I was the last American on site that year – scheduled to fly back to the States shortly before Christmas – it was my job to drop the car off then return to the lab via train and bus.

So Christmas was coming. My return home was coming. Something else was coming that I definitely wasn’t expecting.

When Nothing Seems to Go Right

Have you ever had a trip where nothing seems to go right? This was it for me, at least until the end. It seemed simple enough. Drive to Milan. Turn in car. Take cab to train station. Take train to seaside town of Guilianova. Take bus from Guilianova to Paganica. Be home by bedtime. I had the train schedule and the bus schedule and the timing all planned out. Being a graduate student, I didn’t have much money (and no credit card), but there was cash for the cab, cash for the train, cash for the bus, and a little extra for food. No problem.

Well, some problems. Like delays at the rental agency. Like traffic on the way to the train station.

I raced into the station right at my scheduled departure. The train was about to pull out, and the line at the ticket booth was at least a dozen people deep, so I skipped the ticket booth and went straight for the train. I knew that, if the conductor came by for tickets and you had none, you could buy one, though at a penalty. I had done it before. Once safely on board, I carefully counted my money. There was enough to cover the penalty, but I wouldn’t be doing much eating the rest of that day.

The train was packed, and I was one of the last on board. Standing room only on a smoking car. Miserable and hungry, I stood and stared out the window as the countryside slowly went by. Very slowly. Then we stopped, and I didn’t recognize the station.

I pulled out my map. Yes, I was going the right way, but this station wasn’t on the map. In my broken Italian (which tended to be laced with a lot of French and a little bit of Russian, but that’s another story), I asked the other passengers and heard the word I had learned to dread in my days in Italy: Strike.

The express train conductors were on strike, and all express trains were out of service. I was on a local train.

I looked at my watch and made frantic mental calculations. I had to be in Guilianova by 8pm to catch the last bus out. At the rate we were going, I didn’t think we would make it.

The anxiety grew at each stop. A fold-out bench opened up, and I was able to sit. My mind rehearsed the remainder of the trip. Soon the conductor would come by and ask for my ticket. He would take the majority of my money. I would have the 10,000 lire for the bus ticket but little else. I would arrive in Guilianova with no money, no place to stay, and no way out till morning. And it was cold, likely to snow. I wondered what it would be like to sleep in an outdoor railway station in the middle of winter. I was scared.

Presence

I felt something set in that was an incoherent overlay of panic and despair. Would I suffer in the cold? Would I be arrested? Would I die? Would somebody, anybody, help me?

There are people that confront those questions every day of their lives. But I was a pampered graduate student who had never had to worry about food or shelter. For me a big horrible thing was about to happen to me, and I could not stop it. All I could do was wait and watch it happen, and more than anything else, I felt all alone in the world.

Then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I don’t know what happened, what triggered it. The best way I can describe it is this. Try to think back to when you were a child and your mother gathered you into her arms. How did it feel? I felt gathered and held and comforted. I felt as if someone had come up to me and told me he loved me and would take care of me no matter what.

There was a physical sensation to it. A communication. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not alone. I don’t think I heard a voice, but I thought maybe I had. Words were in my head. Words of reassurance. Comforting. Like a parent with a small child.

I was told, in that voiceless way, not to worry. I was told that I was loved and would be taken care of. I was told to trust.

And so I did. I spent the rest of journey focused not on my plight but on this wonderful experience of being loved by something or someone I could neither see nor touch.

He Provides

Before I knew it, it was around ten o’clock at night. I was in Guilianova, and the conductor had never come by to collect tickets. If that was a miracle, it was a pretty low grade miracle – perhaps it was policy not to collect tickets during a strike, I don’t know – but it felt like a miracle to me. One of the things I have come to understand is that God works miracles for us every day, miracles that seem absolutely mundane until you look on them with the eyes of faith.

But now I had the next step of my journey. The last bus was long gone, and I was in a freezing cold and empty train station long after dark. I wasn’t worried. I was filled with a sense of wonder at what might happen next. I walked out of the train station into a dark and sleeping town.

Guilianova – at least the part I was in – did not have a bustling nightlife. Or any nightlife that I could see. I picked a dark street at random and started walking.

Soon I saw a light. As I approached, it resolved into a small bed and breakfast. Still trusting, I walked in.

No, there were no empty rooms. Then the owner hesitated, and a look of motherly concern came over her face. “You’ll take one of our rooms,” she said, “But it does not have a private bath. You will have to share with our family. Is that all right?”

I agreed enthusiastically, in my best Italian. While she prepared the room I spoke haltingly with a guest who claimed to be an alchemist. He was excited to learn that I was a physicist and wanted to share his theory on how to create gold.

The innkeeper had no food, so she gave me directions to a place that she thought might still be open. It was nearing midnight, but I set out again anyway. I was hungry, but I was more motivated to just live out this strange and wonderful moment of my life.

Several hundred twisty-turny yards later and I found myself in a pizzeria. I sat down with a pizza and a beer and watched the movie showing on the bar’s TV. I wish I could say the movie had a spiritual meaning. It didn’t, but it was comforting. I spent the evening watching Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, feeling like a little child whose Father loved him.

Next: The Way of the Cross

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church Part 2: Visions of Truth

In Part 1 of my conversion story I described my atheistic background and how God “tilled the soil” in preparation for my conversion. He wasn’t ready to plant the seed of faith quite yet, however. I think He needed me to see some things for myself first.

There’s Always a Woman

Is there a woman in every story? Well, there is in this one.

In the autumn of my first year of graduate school, I chose the experimental physics group with which I would eventually complete my Ph.D. It was a group doing experimental particle astrophysics – looking for exotic particles in the ubiquitous shower of cosmic rays that constantly bombards the earth. I chose the group both for the grandiosity of the subject as well as for the fact that it would give me a chance to live in Italy. I had been at the school over the summer, so I already felt at home the day I first walked into the lab.

Now, to set the picture, I still looked the part of a hard partying college student in southern California, even though I had recently transformed into a non-partying graduate student in the northeast. I had hair down to my shoulders, a snake earring in my left ear (sometimes it was a dagger or skull), and dark glasses. I wore t-shirts and shorts, but I had given in to wearing shoes again.

I followed my new advisor into a lab where electronics were being prototyped and equipment was being calibrated in hurried preparation for shipment to Italy. The room was full of undergraduate research assistants all working diligently. One stood out.

She stood out in one sense because she was a she, the only she in the lab. But she wasn’t just any she. She sat on a tall stool with a soldering iron in her hand and her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. We were introduced, and she looked at me with those big brown eyes, and I didn’t think physics students were supposed to be so pretty. I did know that she was way too pretty for a guy like me to be asking out.

It was a year later when we started dating. I’ll skip the details; that’s another story. Suffice to say she gets the credit for getting the ball rolling. It was in the first two weeks when I got a little surprise. I asked her out for dinner on a Sunday night. She agreed, but said she couldn’t go out until after she got out of Mass.

I wanted to impress her. I really wanted to impress her. So I said, “Want me to come with you?” Oh so suave. Oh so debonaire.

Hesitantly, she said yes. So I attended my first Catholic Mass. It was not a conversion experience. I wasn’t reverent. I was just confused. And the crucifix – I had never seen anything like it, and it made me uncomfortable (as well it should).

It would be nice to say that attending Mass with my new girlfriend inspired me to believe in God and to accept Christ, but it didn’t happen. What did happen was that I developed a respect for her faith. I saw she was serious about it and that the people there really believed what they professed. I just didn’t (and couldn’t) share that belief. One very important thing happened: I became aware of the Catholic Church as more than just the caricature we find sprinkled throughout pop culture.

Italy

I started going back and forth to Italy, working on a cosmic ray detector deep under a mountain near the town of L’Aquila, and I missed that pretty physics student terribly. The internet was primitive then. No webcams. Not even voice. We could “chat” occasionally when I could get access to the right terminal, but other than that our contact was limited to very expensive weekend phone calls.

On weekends I took the bus to Rome to sightsee. I saw all the ancient sights of both pagan and Catholic Rome, and I barely distinguished between them. The churches I found to be awesomely beautiful, moving in a way I did not understand. Saint Peter’s. Saint Mary Major. Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Saint Peter in Chains. I saw the bones of martyrs and the fragments of the manger of Christ. I saw tombs of popes. I saw Michaelangelos and Caravaggios.

The thing that struck me from all of this was that this church was an ancient church. It was a critical and inescapable factor in history. Again, I was learning to respect the faith, even though I didn’t accept that there was any truth to it.

At that point, I can only surmise that God decided I was ready.

Next: The Seed is Planted

Lessons in Spiritual Warfare from a Broken Garage Door

I spent time recently repairing my garage door. On Saturday, one of the pulley cables snapped. Simple, I thought. I purchased a new cable and made the repair. The door worked for about a day and then jammed. A hinge had broken. I repaired the hinge, but still no go. The door would not close all the way. I finally determined that a pulley had lost a bearing and would not turn.

Of course, this was not some grand coincidence or case of really bad luck. The cable, hinge, and pulley were all related. One of them, probably the pulley, had begun to fail first. This put additional stress on the other parts. The cable turned out to be the first to fail completely. The other parts quickly followed suit. In engineering, we call this a cascading failure. It is a feature of any interconnected system.

Our spiritual lives can be like that. When we neglect part of our spiritual life – for instance when we sin – we can quickly find the rest of our life falling apart in short order, and soon we wonder why we feel so empty inside. One sin predisposes us to another and then another, until sinful behavior has become a habit and we start justifying ourselves, saying that such-and-such a sin really isn’t so bad. Sin becomes a part of every aspect of our life.

Now that my garage door is working again, I notice that it is remarkably quiet. I hadn’t even realized it was getting noisy. The pulley must have been getting a little noisier every day, the noise increasing so slightly that, like the frog in the boiling water, I was oblivious to the relentless creeping change.

Again, sin is like that. It can start with such seeming innocence that we barely realize we are sinning. It might start out as too much TV watching. Then watching shows that are morally questionable, that titillate and excite. Then turning to programs not just questionable but objectionable. This is how men get sucked into pornography, bit by bit. When we open the door to sin, it can grow throughout our lives without our even realizing it. And then it comes, cascading failure.

The sin has permeated us. We drift away from our loved ones. We drift away from the faith. Our lives become chaotic. We obsess about appearance, status, money, possessions. Eventually, we don’t even know who God is.

How do we prevent this? When designing a complex system, we first design to avoid cascading failures. We choose parts less likely to fail. We design in backups. We minimize dependencies between parts. And we do preventive maintenance, to catch small failures before they have a chance to cascade. This is why the mechanic, when he changes the oil in your car, always checks the air filter.

In our spiritual life we do the same thing. We design our life to avoid the failures. We call this avoiding the near occasion of sin. In our family, we don’t subscribe to cable TV. In business I have a personal rule not to have lunch or even coffee alone with a woman, no matter how innocent.

We also do preventive maintenance. We pray the morning offering and the rosary. We do a daily examination of conscience. We read the scriptures and frequent the sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation.

In short, we can prevent the kind of breakdown suffered by my garage door, but it takes diligence and planning.