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Why I’m Still Catholic: Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.

peter.

There’s a challenge going around for Catholic bloggers to come up with their reasons for being Catholic in light of the Pew poll about more and more people leaving religion.  It reminds me of a homily our priest gave last year where he urged us to come up with our “elevator speech”.  If you were riding in an elevator with your boss what would you say in that brief time to impress him?  If someone asked you why you were Catholic in an elevator what would be your most concise answer?  It boggles my mind.  I can’t imagine a short answer to that.  Because being Catholic to me is everything.  And I mean everything in every sense of the word everything.  I can trace every good thing in my life back to my faith.  Catholicism has given me what I prize of my childhood and the family I grew up in.  Catholicism has given me the personal principles by which I live.  Catholicism gave me my intellectual interests and my educational and vocational choices.  Catholicism absolutely brought me to my husband, forged the love that impelled us to marry, and has kept that marriage vibrant and strong for the last 9 years.  Catholicism has given me all my children.  No seriously, I would NEVER have been brave enough to take on all these kids, or have a baby right after getting married, if I had been raised to believe that marriage, big families, or early motherhood were stifling or unworthy.  No way.  And I am so so grateful that I thought otherwise.  I cannot imagine for a moment life without each one of them.  Catholicism has made my life what it is and I love what it is; so I couldn’t ever give up the source of all that.

At the same time that that is true, my entire life has been punctuated by periods of extreme doubt.  I jokingly say that I’m either a Catholic or an atheist.  For myriad reasons I’m certain that if there is a God he is the God I know.  Yet as far back as I can remember I have been plagued with the fear that there is no God at all.  One of my very earliest memories, one of those flickering disconnected images, is of one of these times of doubt.  I am in my first home, which we left when I was five or so.  There is a high chair in the room, I seem to remember it as mine but possibly it was my younger brother’s making me about four.  I remember fearing that God didn’t exist.  It was terrifying and confusing.  In my memory this fear went on a long time.  Perhaps it was only moments, or possibly days.  What I do remember very clearly is sitting at the table and very suddenly being certain God was there.  I remember blurting out to my mother “Mum!  God’s really up there you know!”  I think she said little more than yes with a rather confused look on her face.  I doubt she remembers the moment, it didn’t seem all that momentous from her point of view.  To me it was earth shattering.  I remember sitting very confidently, a fountain of happiness and peace  bursting in my chest and nodding to myself.  He’s really up there.

I’d like to say I’ve been sure ever since, but I haven’t.  Little moments of confusion happen often with deeper periods of doubt punctuating my entire life.  I remember a bad bout near the end of high school and another a few years ago.  Both of these I worked through by laboriously working through all the reasons I believed to check if I’d made a mistake.  I believe because of history, especially the long and even sometimes sordid history of the church itself.  I believe because of philosophy.  I believe because of theology.  I believe because wise men have believed.  I believe because I look at true believers and the more fully they live out their faith the happier and more admirable they become.  I believe because when I live my faith I am the best version of myself.  These intellectual tallying ups would allay my worries for a time.  Not only that but they satisfied my vanity.  They may not be reasons that convince a nonbeliever but they sound reasonably plausible.  I like that.  I want to look smart and sensible.  So these would be the reasons I would give on that elevator ride.

Then I found out my fifth child might die before he was born.  I thought: this will be the end.  If this child dies, I will no longer be able to believe.  This was not a slight worry.  I was basically certain.  I have fought off doubt this long but this will be the end.  I was frozen.  I could not think how to pray.  I ended up saying those exact words to God.  “Lord, I am afraid I will not believe in you anymore if you do not save my baby.” I imagined what I would do when this happened.  I decided I would pretend to believe, for my children.  That brought me up short.  How strange!  Why would I do this?  The answer made no sense at all:  because I believed that when I lost my faith, I would be wrong.  I believed that I would think I was right but that I would be wrong and I didn’t want to lead my children into my error.  I believed that they would not just be better off believing a lie, but that they would be better off believing the truth while I pursued my lie alone.  I did not want to rob them of the greatest treasure I knew of.  I realized this wasn’t really the thought pattern of someone who didn’t believe in God.  I also realized that it’s a little funny to talk to a person you don’t believe is there and beg him to keep you from forgetting he is real.  Although my son did die at 22 weeks, one miracle happened.  I became again the little girl at the kitchen table.  Suddenly I simply knew.  I did not lose my faith.  In fact I felt stronger in it than I have ever felt before.  I felt otherworldly peace.  It hasn’t lasted forever, the old problems have returned, but it was beautiful while it did.  God held me in the palm of his hand and I knew it with total certainty.

This last incident didn’t “change” why I am Catholic.  It just opened my eyes to what had been behind all my striving and searching so far.  This is why, in the end, I am Catholic: because of God’s love for me and mine for him.  He has always always been with me through every moment of my life.  Underneath all those other reasons, the reason FOR all those other reasons is that I have a deep, personal relationship with the God I believe in.  I talk to him every day.  I cry out to him, I get angry with him, I am grateful to him, I trust him, I am sorry when I hurt him.  I love him.  He is so intrinsically a part of me and of the world he created that in the end I do not know how not to believe in him.  I am Catholic because my God lives and every part of life sings of him.  He may not always grant the miracles we want but he performs miracles every moment.  The existence of everything is a miracle.  Every sacrament is an astonishing miracle, giving supernatural grace for every trial, forgiving sin, knitting together families, bringing God to dwell within us.  He telescopes all of time into the very moment that he died for and saved me in the miracle of the eucharist. All for me.  And for you.  For each of us and all of us.  He is my friend, my creator, my father, my savior, and he’s really up there.

It’s not a reason that makes me look good according to my usual criteria.  It’s the sort of reason a nonbeliever might scoff at, might have trouble understanding or respecting.  It can’t be proven or disproven or argued over.  It just is what it is. I am beginning to be willing to look a fool for the sake of the One I love.  My last reason is a relationship, as complex, indescribable, unexplainable, and powerful as any relationship and the best I will ever have.  It reminds me of the words in my title and of other words from Simon Peter.  These always sound to me like he delivered them almost with a shrug, with a sense of, not defeat, but surrender and humility.  “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.  And we have believed and have known that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.”

For many many more personal answers to this question, check out The Anchoress’ post where she is keeping a roll.

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Arguing Used To Be Fun

I used to really enjoy a rousing discussion about Big Things.  Now I’d pretty much rather have my teeth pulled.  Here’s why:

When we use the word “believe” I think we tend to use it like “believe in the Tooth Fairy”, ie something we believe because somebody told us once when we were very small and it sounded nice and was fun and we were pretty gullible so yes, we believed.  In the realm of adult discussion I think when we say “such and such believe such and such” it’s a way to downplay anything offensive in what we are about to say.  Well, sure I BELIEVE what you are doing isn’t the right thing to do, but hey, no biggie, it’s just a belief.  Yet this is not what I mean when I discuss what I believe.  I believe things because I have pondered them, studied them, and become convinced about them.  I believe things based on evidence, trust in the source, etc. and now I am certain.  I could more easily replace the word believe with “know” than with “suppose” or “think”.  Of course, belief is not synonymous with knowledge.  One way I know this is that I often meet other intelligent, thoughtful people, who firmly and certainly hold things to be true which are the opposite of those things I believe.  This can be an uncomfortable feeling.  If that person is as certain as I am, one of us, or I suppose possibly both of us, must be wrong.  And I’m sure it’s them.  I’m also sure they think it’s me.  Is the ground under my feet as firm as I think it is?  Eeeeeew doubt.  Doubt that is hard to remove.  I can go back and check my reasoning and say, yes that still all looks correct.  Good, I’m still sure I’m right, but then they do the same and here we are back again.  Perhaps this is the root of two common problems in debate today.

One is to simply pull a Pontius Pilate, shrug and say “what is truth?”  Everybody’s opinions are equally valid.  Which of course simply means that they’re all equally invalid, or at least pointless.  This way lies madness.  I once tried to argue with a firm relativist.  (Is that an oxymoron?) The discussion quickly devolved into a search for some starting point where we could agree.  In the end, he argued that 2+2 might equal 4 to me, but it might equal 5 to someone else.  I suggested that that would simply be a word game where the word 5 simply meant what everyone accepted 4 to mean.  To which he replied, “well that’s your opinion.”  At which point I decided to enjoy my beer and stop trying.  Also, this method usually ends with dishonesty because sooner or later it becomes clear that while “everyone is entitled to their opinion” those who think that is silly, certainly are not.  Those people are judgmental meanies.  They should be stopped.  Overall I would say it’s a method invented to avoid conflict and general unpleasantness, relieve any discomfort with one’s own doubts and make sure nobody can disagree with you because disagreement loses any actual meaning.

At first blush, the relativist approach seems pretty ridiculous, until you see just what kind of unpleasantness these folks are trying to avoid.  On the other side of the pendulum’s swing is the other solution to our problem of opposing beliefs.  Those who disagree with you must be utter idiots, supremely lazy, or just plain evil.  Reducing everyone who disagrees with you to pathetic fools is very comforting, but it simply flies in the face of reality.  The reality is, I may disagree with Stephen Hawking’s atheism but I cannot reasonably say he’s just plain stupid.  On the other hand, many incredible minds throughout history have believed in God, and it would be equally arrogant and lazy to dismiss the works of Thomas Aquinas, for one example, as religious fiddle faddle.  If you watch the news you’d think ALL intelligent economists agree that raising taxes is baaaaad.  Except that if you change the channel you’ll learn that ALL intelligent economists agree that taxes MUST be raised!!  Odd… could it be that intelligent people disagree and some are occasionally wrong?  Somehow though, in every realm of debate this is what we do.  Don’t like my politics?  I must be a bigot or a communist.  Don’t like my religion or lack thereof?  I’m ignorant or angry.  It seems like the signs of a great debater today are that he can most fully ridicule his opposition rather than most reasonably argue his case.  Mockery is not a proof.  Offending people is not a virtue.  Yet how often do people hold up their willingness to sneer at others as some sort of badge of honour and evidence of how firmly they believe what they believe?  The other flaw in all this, aside from being shabby debating, is that being a better debater doesn’t necessarily make someone  more right anyway.  Verbally expressing your reasons for a belief is a skill separate from reasoning to a belief.  Where does all this condescension, smugness, and mean spiritedness get us?  Precisely nowhere.  We haven’t proven we’re right, we’ve just proven we can yell down the opposition.  No wonder most people would rather crawl back into that safe, quiet, non-confrontational space where everybody is right and nobody is.

Of course, these two schools feed each other.  The more people try to say that the only thing that matters is that everyone be “nice” and nobody feel bad, the more those who actually hold something to be true want to yell “stop worrying about everyone’s feelings and STAND for something already!”   The more the clever debaters slice and dice with nasty witty mockery the more the average person wants to say “ugh this is just so unpleasant let’s never talk about anything important.”  So next time we find ourselves believing something in opposition to another let’s remember a few things we have in common.  Let’s remember we’re both human beings yearning for and sincerely searching for truth.  That’s generally the case, even when the person really isn’t the brightest or the nicest.  And let us not be too disheartened by the doubts this situation may engender.  They are an invitation to learn more and more about what we believe.  They are also an opportunity for humility.  My amazingly but often secretly brilliant husband said the other day that the best way to ensure our children didn’t fall into crazy errors in life was to make sure they were humble.  I hope that they are able to see what they know, what they have yet to learn, and when they must be guided by faith and by the wisdom of others.  Humility allows you to see that reasoning can only take you so far.  Faith gives you peace as you continue to learn.  Humility and Faith go hand in hand.

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