He welcomes me home by name

There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt. (Wikipedia)

One of the most poignant images to me of God’s forgiveness, in my struggles as a Christian, has been Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In his father’s house, the wayward son had everything, and yet he abandoned it. Even as he went, he took the bountiful gifts of his inheritance; and yet he squandered them.

And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

In that distant land, the son lost everything that he had. Sin is like that. It will take you further away from home than you ever intended to go, and take more out of you than you ever intended to give. It will take away your gifts and leave you in abject poverty. It never yields the harvests that it promises.

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

There is a lot of power in a name. Though we do not know the name of the lost son or his father, it is clear that theirs was a family of some wealth and prestige. Even above all the material wealth he had been granted, the son’s name — the name of his father and family — was certainly of more lasting worth. The Book of Proverbs tells us that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1). And yet the son had squandered and shamed that, too. He considered himself unworthy for his father to call him ‘son’; undeserving to bear his father’s name.

And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

But the mercy and compassion of his father was overflowing. As the son returned, not only did the father accept his son back, but he saw him still a long way off, and ran to embrace him.

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

Not only did the father welcome him home — but he gave him his name back. The signet ring — the seal of the family — was the mark of his identity. He was his father’s son again. And the father rejoiced. He spared nothing — he clothed him in the most sumptuous robe; he killed the best fattened calf; brought out the best wine. For this was his son who was lost to him, and was found; who was dead in his sin, and was alive again. The language of resurrection here could not be more vivid.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompeo Batoni. (Wikipedia)

I don’t think it is any mere coincidence that we come to our priests in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the cry of “father”: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” Just as the prodigal son returned to his father confessing his sins, we return to our fathers, and to our Holy Mother Church, and to our Heavenly Father, confessing ours. And though our earthly priests don’t always run to embrace us — often their words are stern and bear godly discipline — our Heavenly Father pours out His endless grace upon us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, our sins are absolved. And at the table of the Eucharist, we are again and again offered the choicest of all meats, the Body and Blood of the Lamb of God.

Today I returned to my Holy Mother Church heavy with guilt and shame, not deserving of the name that has been given to me. I laid down my sins, and by that boundless grace bought by Blood, they were absolved. But when I went forward to receive the Eucharist, a funny thing happened, that I don’t think has ever happened before. Deacon Ted, always quite reserved, communicated the Host to me, and greeted me by name: “The Body of Christ, Joseph.” And my friend Jan, bearing the Cup, did too: “The Blood of Christ, Joseph.”

There is a lot of power in a name. And hearing my own name, being recognized and welcomed at the Table, as I was again given Communion in Christ’s Body and Blood, it was as if Christ Himself welcomed me home by name. I am a child of this Church. I was sealed with the Holy Spirit, and received the mark of Christ as a member of His flock, as a child of God: the name of “Christian.” Though in my wandering I make myself undeserving of it, He always welcomes me home by name, and restores to me my identity, my sonship.

Laid low and lifted high: On Reconciliation, and awards too!

Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son 1670

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings.org).

It’s been a pretty brutal couple of weeks. I am pretty beaten up and beaten down. I haven’t had the energy or the motivation to write. I’m forcing myself even now. Because I don’t want to abandon this thing.

There is a lot of negative I could be focusing on right now; but this blog is meant to be about the positive, the beauty and the majesty and the glory of Christ and His Church. So all I will say is that I am hurting too much on my own right now to engage in the kind of knock-down, drag-out apologetic debate that I was courting before. I am tired, very tired, of spilling my breath and my words for Christians who are still living the battles of 500 years ago, still cultivating those ancient, festering wounds; who are more about division and separation in self than union and communion in Christ; who would rather reject their fellow believer in rancor and hate than love and forgive their neighbor in charity. I am tired of liberal friends and acquaintances misunderstanding and misrepresenting and deriding my faith; I am tired of a secular culture determined to call the black white and the twisted path straight; I am tired of politics in which even the lesser of two evils still looks pretty evil to me. I am really weary of this world.

But I am thankful for a Lord whose grace is sufficient for my every need, Whose strength is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9); Who even when I am most broken down abounds in the power to forgive and heal and save; Who is faithful and just to forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). I am thankful for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where His grace will always meet me at my lowest; for His Penance which guides me to restoration. I am thankful for His Eucharist, His daily, most intimate Presence; His blessed Bread of Life to nourish my soul. I am thankful for a pastor and confessor who will hear me, who is unsparing in his discipline but overflowing with Christ’s mercy.

I am thankful for my dear blog-friends, who have presented me with another award: the Reader Appreciation Award, to mark the appreciation of my readers:

Reader Appreciation Award

Both Foraging Squirrel and Jessica of All Along the Watchtower nominated me for this award; and for both of them I am very honored and grateful.

The rules for accepting this thing are that I thank and link back to those who nominated me (done), and pass it along to some other fine people. I have been detached from the blogosphere for a couple of weeks, but I will try to determine who hasn’t already received these; maybe even introduce someone new to our circle of blog-friends.

These blogs and bloggers are some that I genuinely appreciate and recommend:

  • The Reluctant Road – Somebody has probably already given him this, and I don’t think he posts these things anyway, but I always enjoy his blog. Before my conversion, evangelicalism was increasingly foreign to me; Anthony, as a fellow evangelical convert, tries to make sense of it and gently demonstrate some of the misguided paths it has taken. He’s a man after my own heart, in that he still loves the people and places he’s left behind and isn’t lashing out in anger.
  • Thoughts from a Catholic – Chris has many insightful things to say from the rational perspective of an engineer (God love the engineers; they keep us liberal artists from floating away). If you haven’t read his blog, you ought to check it out.
  • SatelliteSaint – A fellow pilgrim on the road to God, Tucker has deep and valuable and sometimes piercing insights into Christianity. He is a Protestant with affinities for history and tradition and the wider Church. I still haven’t quite figured out where he’s going, but that’s part of the enjoyment in reading.

I’m not supposed to say something else interesting about myself, am I? Good, because I’m afraid that tank is running a little dry right now.

Please pray for me, my dear friends.

Thinking about Sin

As I’ve been pondering theology lately, it occurred to me: All this time I’ve been charging that theology is human, man-made, artificial; that it is only man’s attempt to comprehend the mysteries of God in his own feeble, limited, human mind. And we cannot possibly fully comprehend God. And that is true. But that doesn’t mean that theology is unimportant. Because it can profoundly affect the way we live our lives, the way we approach the world, and the way we approach God.

The past week or two I’ve been reading about Calvinist and Arminian and Catholic soteriology — views of sin, and grace, and justification. I’m trying to get a full, balanced view, by reading all sides of the matter, and sometimes that’s a lot of work. I’m realizing how fully and how very different the Catholic and Protestant views really are. It is a lot to wrap my head around.

Catholics charge — and I’ve read this several places, most recently here — that Protestant theology doesn’t truly believe in the eradication of sin from our lives: that when we are forgiven and justified, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, despite our own inherent sinfulness, and God declares us righteous before Him. Though I was never formally taught that, this seems to be consistent with my Protestant way of thinking.

There is a quote from Luther that I’ve seen and heard many places, and I wish I could find the original context — but the only thing I can find when I google is Catholics criticizing the doctrine. Perhaps my Lutheran friend can help? Luther is said to have taught that justification is like a cloak or a white sheet thrown over the putrid, rotting sin of the human soul: that we are only declared righteous before God while remaining sinners; that we are not truly washed clean, only our sins and our shame are covered. Is this true? I know Protestant theology makes a distinction between justification and sanctification. Hopefully, after this covering, there would be some actual purification and cleansing through God’s grace?

Catholic theology, on the other hand, doesn’t make the distinction between justification and sanctification. The two are inseparable, part of the same process, practically synonymous. When our sins are washed away through Baptism, they are really washed away. When we are forgiven and absolved through Reconciliation, our sins are really taken away, blotted out. This gives a much more satisfying and clean feeling.

But the difference is this: Protestants believe that the experience of justification is a once-and-for-all legal declaration; that when we are justified, Christ throws the white sheet and all our sins are covered; that when Christ’s righteousness has been imputed, no sin we could ever do can be held against us; that Christ paid the price for all our sins for all time. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that justification is a continuing, lifelong process. That though Christ paid the price for all our sins, we have to go back again and again to be forgiven when we fall, to receive that justification again. That when we sin again after our baptismal regeneration, the sin actually sullies our soul, damages our connection with God and with the Church — in the case of grave, mortal sin, even severs it. There is no white sheet protecting us, covering our shame: we are naked, and when we sin, filthy. Reconciliation is not just a formality; it is a sacrament of actual, spiritual healing. Through the grace of Penance, God washes us clean again, heals our wounds, and restores our damaged connection.

And this can have profound consequences for the way we think about sin. For years and years as a Protestant, I struggled with the same sin (I still do, only now I am actually struggling). I assuaged myself, told myself that God knew I was sinful, knew I was a wretch, and that He’d already forgiven me; that nothing I could ever do could take away my salvation. There was never any impetus to truly repent, to truly strive for holiness. And so I didn’t. For a long time I would pray and ask for forgiveness, say I was sorry; but then go right back to doing the same thing. After a while, I stopped even pretending to repent, believing that God “understood” and had it covered.

That’s not a Christian way to live. I hope and believe that that’s not the way most Protestants live, that most Protestants do indeed strive after repentance and holiness as the Bible teaches — but I know that it was an easy fallacy for me to fall into, believing what I did about justification. Now, as a Catholic, I am realizing more and more vividly that sin is something severely harmful and menacing — that not only does it harm me temporally, make me miserable, but it harms my relationship with God; it causes me to fall from grace; it threatens my immortal soul. More than ever before — where I have not had it before — I feel the drive to repentance and to holiness.

Confession and Healing

Today I made my First Confession.

I’ve heard from various friends about the sensations they felt the first time they took part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation — from joy, to peace, to release. For me, it was similar. I was very nervous going in. It was a new experience, and I would be laying my soul and my faults bare. I had written out my confessions beforehand. As I confessed them, I had the sensation of a pouring out of my soul — and in the end, catharsis. I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt clean. I didn’t smile; I didn’t skip away; I cried.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
Micah 7:18-19 ESV

This has always been one of my favorite Scriptures about God’s forgiveness. Today I truly feel that my sins have been cast into the depths of the sea.

What has moved me the most in approaching Confession is that it’s known as a Sacrament of Healing. I don’t know what I thought it was when I was a Protestant; but I conceived of it more as a burden, a legalistic obligation, than as an administration to the soul. Christ is the physician to our bodies and souls. Confession is the Sacrament of Reconcilation, the Sacrament by which we as sinners are reconciled to the Church, to each other, and to God. It is also called the Sacrament of Conversion, because through it, through Confession and Penance, we actively turn away from our sins and convert (turn towards) God and His path of righteousness (CCC 1423-1424). This whole chapter in the Catechism is powerful and poignant to me; I have quoted sections of it before; but to quote another:

“The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.” Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament. For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God (CCC 1468).

One of the key scriptural foundations for Confession is telling to this point:

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
James 5:13-16 ESV

Here, confession of sins is intimately connected with healing, both physical and spiritual. And it is paired essentially with the other Sacrament of Healing, the Anointing of the Sick.

In the Christian tradition from which I’m coming, miraculous healings, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are at the forefront of the Christian experience. When someone is sick, especially gravely sick, there is so much prayerful petition, so much faith and hope that God will work miracles of healing through prayer, anointing, and the laying on of hands — inspired by the healing miracles of Christ and the Apostles, and by this same Scripture that undergirds the Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. There is a genuine belief and an active faith that God heals; but even beyond this, there is ready credence and faith given to faith healers, individuals who profess to have individual, personal gifts of miraculous healing through the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, in the Great Commission of the “Longer Ending” of Mark (Mark 16:14-20), that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” and that “these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues . . . ; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, writes of gifts of healing and other spiritual gifts. While Catholics and cessationists apply these passages only to the Apostles and believers of the Apostolic Age, many Protestants and continuationists apply them to wider Church, to all believers in all ages, and believe that these miraculous, personal gifts of healing continue to this day.

I have no doubt that God heals today — that He intervenes in our lives in miraculous and mysterious ways. If this weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be alive today. But I believe that more often than not, these healings follow the course of the mysterious rather than the miraculous: of God’s infinite love and grace, and not His desire to make a show or spectacle. My own healing was miraculous, but it was a private, personal miracle, more for me than for anyone else. My experience, and the faith it engenders in me, is of little weight to anyone else; and to me, that makes it all the more personal and precious. I believe God works through medicine, through surgery, through the unexplained, through paths that no one sees, that few appreciate but those that receive His graces. When it comes to professed faith healers, to individuals with professed gifts of healing, I tend to be a skeptic. Many of them, I fear, are charlatans and showmen. I certainly don’t believe “word of faith” teaching, that professes that we can “speak” or “declare” God’s blessings and graces into our lives.

Do Catholics believe in divine healing? This was one of the most pressing questions I faced as I made this journey. When someone is terminally ill and dying in the Catholic Church, I have never heard a priest or anyone pray for God’s divine healing. There seems to be a ready acceptance that death is imminent. In many ways I think this is healthy; earthly death is a part of life, as much as being born, and I have seen firsthand the crises of faith faced by those who believed they had “spoken” a healing and “received” it, only to face death in the end. But do Catholics believe in divine healing? Most certainly. Catholicism abounds with stories attributing healings and other miracles to the intercession of saints; even attributing intercession against certain ailments and diseases to particular saints. St. Peregrine Laziosi, for example, is the patron saint against cancer.

And in the Catechism itself, in the mainstream, established doctrine of the Church, there is also hope in God’s healing. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick — the so-called “Last Rites” — is not a sacrament of death or even strictly of preparation for it, but of healing (CCC 1499-1532). Though the emphasis of the Sacrament, as described in the Catechism, is the healing of the soul — on the gift of grace to face sickness; on the forgiveness of sins; on preparation to make life’s final journey — throughout is an acknowledgement that Christ is a physical healer. It affirms that Christ may heal the body to accomplish the salvation of the soul (certainly, this is what happened for me); but accepts that the salvation of the soul is paramount, and that crossing over into the next life is a grace in itself to those who belong to Him.

So do Catholics believe in divine healing? Yes, they do. Sometimes I think that there should be more faith and prayer for physical healing in this life; but what I see, more openly than that, is perhaps even more valuable: a full acceptance of God’s Will and Grace in our lives, that not ours, but His Will be done.

Conversion

Since I’ve been on this road, I’ve been reluctant to use the term “conversion” in referring to my becoming Catholic, since in common parlance, “to convert” connotes a changing of form or character:

con·vert (kən-vûrt´) v. con·vert·ed, con·vert·ing, con·verts v.tr.
1. To change (something) into another form, substance, state, or product; transform: convert water into ice.
2. To change (something) from one use, function, or purpose to another; adapt to a new or different purpose.
3. To persuade or induce to adopt a particular religion, faith, or belief.
. . .
[convert. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved October 9 2011 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/convert]

And I’ve insisted that I’m not changing form or character, or even changing faiths; I am continuing as what I’ve been all along, a Christian. In many ways, though not formally initiated, I’ve been outwardly and inwardly a Catholic Christian for a while now. I’ve preferred to say that “I’m joining the Catholic Church” rather than “I’m converting to Catholicism.” “Conversion” is a scary word; somehow it feels that if I “convert,” I will no longer be what I was before.

Though the majority around me doesn’t think in such terms, I know, I have always seen through the English to the Latin root: converto — I turn around or turn towards a new direction. I want people to see that my conversion is not a change of character, but merely a reorientation.

Last night, I read at length in the Catechism about the sacraments of penance and reconciliation. I was surprised to read of a “second conversion” — the ongoing process of a baptized Christian in growing towards holiness and eternal life — something that I’ve never heard referred to in any Protestant circle. Sure, I’ve heard of “discipleship” and “maturing spiritually,” but generally the evangelical attitude seems to be, “Poof! You’re a Christian! Now live like a Christian!” My ongoing struggle with sin, even though I was supposed to be a Christian, has been a constant source of trouble and confusion in my life. The Cathechism:

Christ’s call to conversion continues to resound in the lives of Christians. This second conversion is an uninterrupted task for the whole Church who, “clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] always follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” This endeavor of conversion is not just a human work. It is the movement of a “contrite heart,” drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first. [Cathechism of the Catholic Church, 1428]

Another name of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is the sacrament of conversion. It is the process not only by which sinners are reconciled to God and the Church, but through which we are inwardly healed and changed; through which we turn away from sin and toward God:

Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. [Catechism, 1431]

I want to be converted, in my whole being. Even more than converting — reorienting — toward the Catholic Church, I want to turn toward God.

The Catholic Church, through its sacrament of reconciliation, understands the need for this continuing conversion in Christians, and how it is effected. I know I have heard some Protestants, the wise ones, acknowledge that growing in Christ is a process; they surely recognize, by experience, what isn’t formally taught in evangelical churches, but should be. So much of my youth was spent in agony, needing to confess and be reconciled, but instead making the same mistakes again and again, never growing, never converting, until I became calloused and complacent.

Today at Mass, as if to confirm this was a lesson I needed to pay attention to and take to heart, Deacon Ted spoke about this ongoing conversion in his homily.