Monday, July 23, 2012

LCWR and NPR - Airing Dirty Laundry

Who is getting hung out to dry?
The sisters or the bishops? Or us all?
Check out an article I wrote for Ignitum Today on the LCWR and an interview that their president Sr. Pat Ferrell recently gave on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

LCWR and NPR - Airing Dirty Laundry

If you are wondering what my angle is, well I try not to have an angle, except that I am a faithful Catholic trying to make sense of these things.

Here is an excerpt:

"I have read several different takes on the interview. On one side of the spectrum an article compared Sr. Pat to a manipulative 7-year old, and on another was a glowing account of the interview as a journalistic “breath of fresh air.” Both accounts left me feeling a bit queasy and depressed at the continued polarization of the Church that is exemplified in the ongoing debate over the LCWR."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Going Beyond Good and Evil

Doin' a jig on my path to God
The path of the just is like shining light, that grows in brilliance till perfect day. - Proverbs 4:18

First of all, don’t let the title of this blog post worry you. I am not going all Friedrich Nietzsche on you. 

When people find out that I am in the process of becoming a religious sister, they often ask me difficult questions. I don’t mind this; I like to live an analyzed life and if they ask a question I have not considered, all the better.

The most common thing I am asked about is the problem of evil. I respond with the normal answer, “For God to bring a good into the world – our human freedom, he allows evil to exist. If we could not choose evil, we would not be able to choose good.” This is a typical answer to the problem of evil but people rarely seem satisfied with it. I am beginning to think that this is because in order to understand the beauty of freedom, it is necessary to move beyond the simple choice between good and evil.

No worries now, I am not saying there is no difference between good and evil. There is a universal morality. But, when I speak of going beyond good and evil, I speak of entering the dimension of the moral life that involves choices between one good and another good, or sometimes the good and the better. I discover this beautiful world more and more as I discern religious life. St. Augustine spoke of it when he wrote, "The beginning of freedom is to be free from crimes... such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege and so forth. When once one is without these crimes (and every Christian should be without them), one begins to lift up one's head towards freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom."

I know there are some people who think that discerning religious life is about finding out what God wants for you and following it. Period. Some even suggest that it is a sin, at least a venial one, not to enter religious life if that is what God wants. I am not denigrating this point of view; this is how I felt when I entered the discernment process. But I have not found this to be my experience.

As I approached the time of deciding whether to enter novitiate, I reached a point of hysteria. I did not feel God clearly calling me to either religious life or married life and I still resisted the thought of religious life very strongly. I was confused and a bit angry. I had entered the convent in good faith. When I entered, I felt a deep resistance to religious life but I asked God to change my heart if He wanted me to become a sister. I wanted Him to make me want it. He's God after all, I figured this shouldn't be too hard. At first, I felt God answering my prayer but after a while this change in my heart reached an end point. I had made some progress but I was still stuck at serious resistance.

During Holy Week of this year, the postulants went on retreat and I needed to decide whether to apply to novitiate the following week. I set about my retreat seriously. I expected God to tell me what to do, and told him so frankly. I figured it was not too much to ask the Creator of the Universe. Being told what to do by the most powerful, omniscient being in the world, it sounds like a good thing right? It is a good thing, but God showed me an even better thing.

During the retreat, God clearly communicated to me that he was inviting me to religious life but it was just that, an invitation. He basically said, “I will bless whatever choice you make as long as you live your life in relationship with me. That is all I want. I give you the invitation to religious life as an extra gift, one that you can accept or not.” As I thought about this invitation, I realized that logically in order for me to be able to freely choose religious life, in order for me to truly love, it had to be an invitation, not a command.

Sounds simple right?

Simple maybe but it rocked my world.

At first I thought, "Really?! I can leave and you won't be mad at me? I'm packing my bags!" But I decided to sit with what God told me for a while and I realized that I really had not known God very well. This God of freedom was a new face of the God I already loved. I was intrigued, and hooked. I knew even though I still was feeling resistance, beneath that I felt a tremendous peace and a desire to spend more time getting to know this God of so many beautiful faces.

This experience has reminded me of a saying my mother always told me, “You can follow God but He does not expect us to walk lock step down the path. He lets us dance.”

It’s true; our God of freedom lets us dance, and we are happy as long as we are dancing with Him. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Ship of Joy

Joy riding old school...
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. - John 15:11

Joy is like an old ship that was headed to some adventure, but sinks instead like a slow rock under the heaviness of life, waiting to be unearthed. 

It takes a while to uncover joy. It usually is under several feet of murky water, rotting in sin. Divers, plunging in on the breath of prayer, found my ship a while ago, full of Spanish gold. 

The treasure laden ship has started to rise to the surface on the current of contemplation. But I am reluctant to let it. I have just enough happiness to coast for now. I cannot imagine swimming in gold. If I throw around my money, everyone will see that I am one of those annoying "nouveau riche" Christians and they will either roll their eyes or expect way too much from me. 

They won't realize of course that the money is not mine, I inherited it a while back. The marine trust fund has been discovered, but it could disappear again underwater at any time. So, instead of facing the constant fear of sinking, I simply keep my hand on the ship of joy, watching as it bobs underwater, struggling to get to the surface.

Too much joy after all is just not something most people want or can handle. It causes unrealistic expectations and of course, like everyone, I am deathly afraid of smiling for the rest of my life. Joy and sanctity are so intertwined. Too much sanctity, now that is even scarier than the never ending smile. So I have decided to keep this joy boat under wraps. It seems proper.

After all, like most people, I prefer to waver just above average in the sanctity business - just enough so people will admire me but no more. With anything more than slightly above mediocre comes the hassle of consistency. God knows, it's the consistency that makes a saint. And then the adventure is all over from there.

Or is it?

I forgot it's the ship of joy that carries us on the adventure in the first place.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Death with Dignity & Other Euphemisms

Our society is very fond of euphemisms. We like to wrap up difficult ideas and realities with words that make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at least distract us from the real meaning behind the word or phrase we are using. Phrases like pass away, friendly fire, and letting someone go, litter our vocabulary. We don't even notice that we are stepping back from the truth when we use phrases like this because it is so common.

Last week, one of the sisters at the convent where I live gave a presentation to the women in formation about the Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act, which will be on the ballots in November 2012. The Death with Dignity Act will allow doctors in the state of Massachusetts to prescribe a lethal dose of prescription sleeping pills for people who are terminally ill and want to take their life. 

If you do not live in Massachusetts, never fear. The Hemlock Society or, excuse me again with the euphemisms, the organization now known as Compassion and Choices, is working to ensure that referendums like this will be coming to a state near you.

Unfortunately, 60% of Massachusetts voters plan to vote for the ballot initiative. This is not surprising, as we live in a society where our main moral maxim is "I can do what I please," with the usual addendum - as long as I don't "hurt" anyone else, (hurt being a very subjective term).

However, whether or not you think a person has a right to kill himself or not, the question is whether the state should be involved in assisting someone to commit suicide. Even if you support a person's right to end their life, it is clear that simply from a logical and practical standpoint, suicide is not something we want to become socially acceptable and, in some cases, even encouraged by our government.


Let's look at Oregon, where physician assisted suicide has been legal since 1997. While the suicide rate was on the decline in the state in the 90s, almost fifteen years later Oregon has a suicide rate that is 35% higher than the national average and it keeps climbing. There were 566 suicides in 2008, 641 in 2009, and 670 in 2010. Is it possible that saying suicide is a permissible and socially acceptable way to end one's life for one reason helps make suicide overall a more accepted and widely used solution to all of life's problems?

Which leads to another question: what is the criteria that would allow someone to end their life and how do we know this criteria will not expand, and the methods change until we have slid down the slippery slope of assisted suicide to euthanasia? Is it such a leap from helping people to commit suicide to giving doctors or the government the power to decide when people's lives have lost value or are no longer worth the financial cost? Sound paranoid? Disability rights groups don't think so. And neither do the people in Oregon who received letters from their government insurance telling them they would not pay for costly drugs to lengthen their life but they would be willing to pay for them to kill themselves.

There is also the problem of people killing themselves because they feel pressured to do so. 4% of those who have participated in state sponsored suicide in Oregon gave financial reasons as their primary purpose for killing themselves. We are one of the richest countries in the world and our government is helping citizens to kill themselves because they are a financial burden for their families. What kind of message does this send to our society about the value and dignity of human life?

Others will no doubt receive a misdiagnosis, the doctor may tell a patient they have very little time to live when in reality they have many years left. People will certainly die under the misconception that they have very little time to live and in the stress and sadness of what they do not know is a misdiagnosis, they will choose to die rather than live.

The practical arguments against assisted suicide go on and on.

But, aside from all of the very serious practical issues that laws like these can give rise to in a society, for me there is a more fundamental point of concern at hand.

When I was in college I was an avid animal rights activist. I volunteered for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) one summer and was the president of the Animal Liberation Collective at my college, (which should provide adequate credentials for those skeptical of my claim). When I considered animal euthanasia, I always agreed that animals should be, pardon the euphemism, "put to sleep" when they are in pain or seriously ill. I did not, at the time, think the same logic applied to humans and I was not sure why I made this distinction. In my worldview then, humans were simply animals that happened to be more intelligent and higher on the food chain.

Now that I am Catholic I understand why I felt this way.

Suffering for animals is useless. This is why when we see animals suffering we feel for them deeply. They do not have the capacity to make anything of their suffering. Their suffering does not make them better animals, as our suffering can make us more fully human. And I would argue that it is not their lesser intellectual capacity that makes animals unable to reap any fruit from their suffering. Rather, it is something uniquely human that makes us able to grow and become wiser through our suffering.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Spe Salvi:
To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves - these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.
Of course, it is part of our duty as Christians to alleviate suffering in the world and to combat injustice. However, our modern society takes this truth and runs too far, wanting to eliminate any kind of physical and psychological pain at any cost. We lose sight of what is ethical in the blind scramble to avoid pain. Abortion is acceptable because we cannot force a woman to endure the suffering of bringing a baby to term. Assisted suicide is acceptable because we must not allow anyone to go through the pain of losing autonomy or enduring chronic pain. In saying this, I am not diminishing the pain that people experience in these situations, I am simply saying that as a society, we cannot compromise what we know to be right and wrong to take away another's pain - no matter how much we would like to.

So this is the most tragic element of this trend of thought in our society that is evident in initiatives like "Death with Dignity." When we lose a sense of our humanity, we begin to lose a sense of what makes us more fully human. It may sound masochistic to the non-Catholics out there but God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to make the evil of suffering, a vehicle for grace, beauty and transformation in our lives. If we, as a society, do all that we can to avoid suffering, we may avoid pain but we also avoid the opportunity to grow more deeply in the school of love. Some might think this is useless if a person's life is going to end anyway, but so much transformation can happen in one minute, one hour, one day. We never know what we are cutting short by choosing the hour of our death.

So, let us fight this culture of death. Let us be prophets of the dignity and beauty of human life in all of its stages, the beginning and the very end. Please spread the word about this ballot initiative in Massachusetts and the many more that will be coming to other states. And please pray that this law is not passed in the state of Massachusetts in November.

Peace to everyone.