Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts 9 – The Enjoyment of Goodness

While the general good feeling that comes from having done a good thing is not normally thought of as a grace, since it lacks a corresponding sacrament, this earthly version of divine bliss may in fact be the most important form of grace of all. If I find a spider drowning in the sink and put her safely outside, I know that the spider will feel no gratitude, and nobody else will know what I have done. I don’t think that this small act will get me into heaven, or earn me any other kind of reward. Yet, I am rewarded for the act by feeling good about it. This is not the earned reward of a laborer, a thing expected as payment for a task performed. It is a grace, a gift freely given to anyone with faith enough to believe in the virtue of doing a good thing just because it is good. Like the other forms of grace, it is a gift that can only be received by a person who is prepared to receive it. If I do the good deed because I am forced to, or to avoid embarrassment, or to impress someone, I will not receive the feeling of bliss. To receive the gift, I must see the chance to do the good deed as an opportunity, a thing to be enjoyed, not as a task. It is only by seeing the opportunity to help as being in itself a gift, rather than as a job to be gotten through in order to receive the reward of feeling good, that the good feeling may be received. By recognizing and accepting this gift, then, we help to bring ourselves into alignment with God, and prepare ourselves to receive the gift of heavenly bliss.

The nature of free will prevents God from forcing us to learn to align ourselves with Him, but He freely gives us every chance to find that path ourselves. All that we need to do to receive these gifts is to open our hearts and minds to the grace that is offered to us. We do not earn them, for they are truly gifts, but we must prepare ourselves to receive them. The joy that flows from these gifts is not the fleeting pleasure of material recreations, but participation in a divine joy that builds upon itself, leading us upward towards the perpetual joy of heaven.

Conversation starters in the media:  A scene that springs to mind is the Tuppence a Bag sequence in Mary Poppins. Using your tuppence to feed the ungrateful pigeons rather than  putting them in the bank has no obvious utility, but the movie helps us to feel that it is a superior choice in terms of embracing giving for its own sake.  Charlotte’s Web likewise show’s that Fern’s kindness is proper, even if others don’t immediately understand it.

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Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 8 – Baptism

Baptism

Baptism of infants (adult baptism will be discussed further below) is unusual among the vehicles of grace in that it does not involve action by the beneficiary, but rather an action performed for her by others. The baptized, usually a baby, is commonly washed with the water over her loud objections, with no conception of the significance of the sacrament. How does this work to convey grace?

To understand baptism, one must realize that since the baptized person is commonly not a conscious participant in the process, she must not herself be the means by which grace is transmitted. She is not like the participant in Holy Communion, who receives grace through the opening of his own mind and heart to the participation in the body of the faithful. Baptism operates, if at all, through the persons around her.

The function of baptism is to cleanse the taint of original sin. Adam’s sin of pride was that of learning to realize that he had a choice between doing the right thing or doing something else, and succumbing to the temptation to do something else. As I have already discussed, Adam’s fall was, paradoxically, also our salvation, for it was only through the development of the ability to choose to do wrong that we gained the virtuous ability to choose to do right instead. Nonetheless, the resulting responsibility to choose to do right was a new burden, the burden of sin, which falls upon us all as soon as we are old enough to realize that we can choose to do wrong.[1] It is this burden that baptism is intended to ease.

Clearly, baptism does not wipe out this burden of choice – we still face temptation after baptism. What does it do? It shows to the parents, godparents, and other concerned assembled that the baptized has, as of that moment, a clean slate. Any taint or temptation will arise as she goes forward through her life in the world. The parents, godparents, and congregation make a commitment to help her to find the path of virtue, to give her love and guidance. They take on a heavy responsibility, but it is a sweet burden, for they by their efforts can help to bring this new soul to joy. Baptism brings the child in from the dark and lonely desert where she must see and resist sin on her own, and brings her into the warmth and protection of her family and congregation, who will do their best to throw light upon the shadows of temptation and deception so that she may clearly see the way to bliss. Baptism is a grace to parents, godparents and child together, if it is properly received. It is the gift of a bond of responsibility, an opportunity to guide and a chance to be guided. The child receives this gift simply by virtue of her birth. The parents and godparents will have to work hard for the child, but if they are open to the grace they will perform this function willingly. The gift to them, the chance to experience the pleasure of helping the young innocent to find bliss, is given to them not based upon their past merit, but in trust of their willingness to do right in the future.

Again, though, the grace can only be given to willing recipients. If the parents and godparents fail to realize the significance of the charge they are given in having this clean soul delivered into their hands, they are unlikely to provide the support the child needs to begin life aright. Like any trust, the one formed at baptism can be violated, and the grace forming the trust can be squandered.

Adult baptism adds an additional element similar to confirmation. An adult who chooses to receive baptism is taking an intentional action to wash away not just the sin of Adam but the sins of his youth. Children make mistakes and may stray along misguided pathways. A person who properly receives the grace of adult baptism is making a choice to turn away from those errors and begin anew, again with family and community undertaking to help them. In sects that practice confirmation, the person having reached the age of independent decision likewise makes a firm choice to follow the ways of virtue with the support of family, sponsors, and church.  Christianity is not the only religion that has celebrated the concept of washing away sin with water.[2] It is an ancient notion, but I believe that every religion that followed this practice rejected the idea that sin could simply be washed away like dirt by an unrepentant person. The practitioner must have the correct intention, viewing the washing as the physical sign of a spiritual process in which they reject sin and seek purity of heart. Those who undertake these processes thoughtfully and sincerely, not as empty rituals, receive grace through them. The person must recognize that he bears Adam’s burden, the free ability to choose his own destiny. He must use the knowledge he has acquired through the teachings of others and through his own experience and prayer to recognize that he will be subject to temptations to stray, and he must make a real choice to follow a path that will avoid falling into the pit of those temptations. If he makes that choice, he will receive the grace he needs to succeed. If he rejects that grace and merely goes through the motions, he will receive what inevitably follows. Decisions have consequences.

[1] Any parent will recognize that this ability comes early. Little children lie and scheme and need help to find the path to virtue. Sadly, a few even become remarkably evil at an early age.

[2] Again, the kind and generous Christian God would not leave his children without guidance. People have an inborn sense of the teachings and concepts of Christianity, and that sense can be seen in different forms amongst those who were raised in different pagan or modern faiths.

Conversation starters in the Media: Both The Godfather and Ed Wood  have scenes involving baptisms that are obviously of the wrong sort. Tess is sort of at the other end of things, with a mother who desperately wants  to give her baby the grace but who is denied the ritual.

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Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 7 – Communion

The Grace of Holy Communion

Many Christian sects have, of course, abandoned the sacrament of Holy Communion, a point which I will address momentarily. My discussion of it here does not, I think, depend on the sect of the reader, however, for the grace that I will discuss flows (or fails to flow) from within the participant, rather than from the rite itself, and as such is available to all, whether or not they consume the bread and wine as Christ requested of his disciples.

In Holy Communion the communicant receives the body of Christ – the physical object that contains the spiritual body much as a person’s physical body contains their spirit – into their own, in the process making themselves a part of the body of the Church. This is not the consumption of a magical potion that performs miracles of its own accord. Children are expected to learn the significance of communion before they take it (but how many really do?), because communion depends upon the cooperation of the communicant for its effect. The successful communicant will think of the communion wafer as the container of the spirit of Christ flowing into her body and taking her into the body of the Church. This thought will, as the name of the ritual implies, bring forth a refreshed awareness of her role in the community of God’s children. She will open her feelings to the community, feeling the shell that is her own body dissolve like the wafer, liberating her spirit to join the greater body of the faithful. She will draw strength from that body, a strength beyond herself, renewing her spirit and healing the damage done by the assaults of daily existence. The grace, then, consists of this healing communion with the greater spirit of the body of the Church. It is an experience that helps us to correct our drift away from God by focusing our eyes back upon the guiding light of faith, and to overcome the obstacles that we cannot overcome in isolation.

Those that do not take Holy Communion may receive a similar sort of grace in many ways, ranging from quiet contemplation of nature to adding their voice to a rousing hymn; God does not deprive those who seek Him just because their sect has given up a ritual intended as the vehicle for this form of grace.[1] Everyone is offered the chance to feel communion with God and with the community of the faithful, if they are only willing to reach out and accept the offer.

It is important to realize that the grace and the ritual are not one and the same. Just as the grace may be obtained outside of the specific ritual, empty practice of the ritual will not bring grace. Whatever a given sect’s opinion may be regarding the process of transubstantiation, I believe all would agree that a person who takes the communion wafer and murmurs a reflexive “amen” while thinking about mowing the lawn or the taste in clothing of some other parishioner will not receive grace. The sacrament is a vehicle for grace, an opportunity for an experience that would be difficult to obtain while sitting down on a break from doing the vacuuming. The vehicle cannot reach its destination unless we open the gates of our minds and focus on the meaning of communion. Likewise, the alternative vehicles cannot serve the purpose unless we allow them to. One person may sit alone looking at a starry sky and feel spiritual communion with the universe, a participation in the glory of nature’s God, whose warm presence may be most strongly felt when we are alone and quiet. Another may sit beneath the same sky and wonder what’s on television. One person may be roused by a hymn to a feeling of oneness with the voices rising together in harmony, feeling the strength of communion in the beauty and power of the music. Meanwhile, the man next to her may be thinking: “That guy’s off key, and that woman always sings too loudly.” One receives grace, the other pushes it away.

In my view, the reason behind the Catholic Church’s teaching that communicants should cleanse themselves of serious sins through confession prior to taking communion is the desire to keep the taking of the bread from becoming a mere empty ritual. A person distracted by unrepented sin – that is, by a focus on desires incompatible with faith in religious virtue – is unlikely to be transported by the experience of communion. He must first prepare himself to want the benefits of the grace, to want to feel the sufficiency of union with the bliss of the faithful, before communion can have its effect. Those who habitually undergo the ritual without this preparation will fail to receive the grace that comes through successful participation in communion, and indeed the vehicle for grace will be destroyed by this bad habit.

[1] In fairness, the Catholic Church would contend that Holy Communion is unique, and my intent is not to quarrel with that proposition as such. But the Catholic Church does not offer Holy Communion to non-Catholics, so it cannot object to the advice that persons of other sects seek the essence of Communion in other ways, and Catholics do not contend that God condemns non-Catholics, so He must allow other paths to virtue.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 6 – Grace and Marriage

Grace – The Reward to Him That Works is Not Reckoned of Grace, But of Debt

My previous explanation of prayer may help to illustrate the concept of grace. We say that we receive God’s grace in prayer, in the sacraments, or in our daily lives. What does this mean? What does grace do for us, and how do we obtain it? Why is it important for us to recognize our opportunities to receive grace?

Grace by definition is not a thing that we earn. It is something that we receive, or at least have available to us, by virtue of the generosity of the giver, not the merit of the receiver. As has already been noted, God should not be confused with a petty human monarch, who dispenses favors to those that please him and punishments to those who go against his will. God loves everyone and gives everyone a chance to use their free will to find their way to divine bliss. God’s grace is offered freely to all who will take it. It is not denied because a person has sinned, or held back until the proper ritual is performed using the right magic words. A loving parent would not deprive her child of helpful advice just because the child had been irritating, nor would she withhold it until the child said “pretty please”, but rather gives it as a grace simply because she loves her child, and will continue to give it even if her child turns away from her for a time. If the child will receive the advice, it will be freely given, whatever the circumstances. God is no less generous or loving. If a person is willing to receive grace, it will be given.

However, as any parent who has offered advice to a child well knows, merely offering a grace is no guarantee that it will be accepted, no matter how valuable it may be. While God can offer grace, if a person’s mind and heart are closed to the gift it will do them no good. We must recognize and desire grace or we cannot receive it.

Of what, then, does God’s grace consist? It is assistance in achieving alignment with God. In the discussion of prayer I explained that the things we properly pray for are things that God has already made available to us; prayer is the vehicle by which we receive and use the gift that has already been given. That gift, in its various forms, is part of the grace of God.  Through it we find bliss in virtue. To understand how this works, or fails to work, it may be helpful to walk through a number of the common opportunities to receive grace, and clarify how the grace is transmitted to a willing recipient.

Marriage

Let’s begin with marriage. In the sacrament of marriage we commit ourselves to lifelong, unselfish love of another person. A person who takes the marriage vows is promising to attend to the happiness and well-being of his new spouse, come thick or thin. In practice, however, brides and bridegrooms can generally be sorted into two categories with regard to the significance that they attach to this vow. To one group, it means: “This person has a lot of attractive features, and so I promise to stick with her in a monogamous relationship for so long as I continue to find her attractive and find marriage to be compatible with the things that I want out of life. However, if I ever feel that my marriage is constraining me and keeping me from doing things that I think would make me happier, then I can always get divorced.” To the other group (which, unfortunately, no longer appears to be a majority) it means: “I vow to do whatever I can to help my spouse to be happy, and I have faith that my own path to happiness lies in keeping true to this vow and understanding that happiness does not lie on the other side of the fence, but rather here in our home, together. I have faith that I can never increase my own happiness by chasing ambition, freedom from duties, or a younger and prettier face, but must find happiness in my own heart and the heart of the person who loves me. I have faith that I cannot improve my happiness in marriage by asking my spouse to give me more, but that I may continue to increase my wedded bliss if I offer to give her more every day, for her happiness will be my happiness, and her sorrows my sorrows, tomorrow as today, forever.”

A bridegroom in the second category participates in the sacrament with full understanding, faith and love. In so doing, he achieves, with respect to one other person, the state of divine bliss in which he will receive pleasure from the very act of trying to please and help his bride. That gift of marital bliss, which most are offered but many fail to accept, is part of the grace of God, a chance to participate in a significant way in the full glory of the love that is God. It is not a self-maintaining gift. The bridegroom will need faith in the importance and value of the grace in order to resist the temptation to chase other, inferior goals that would interfere with marital bliss. He will also need some luck in his choice of a bride, for it takes two to make a marriage.  If the spouse becomes extremely selfish and abusive, or is led astray by some worldly ambition that cannot coexist with the continuation of the marriage, or becomes so preoccupied that the love offered by her spouse no longer produces joy, then the sacrament will fail despite the faith and efforts of the bridegroom. Where a marriage begins in love and faith, though, the power of worldly temptations will be weak, for each partner will know the height of joy that love brings. The gilding on the worldly distraction would need to be very shiny indeed to unfasten the gaze of a true lover from the joy that he possesses in his spouse.

Couples living together without the benefit of marriage often ask “what difference can a ceremony and a piece of paper make to two people who love each other?” The sacrament of marriage is not just a ceremony. It is a vow, the heartfelt vow of the bride and bridegroom in the second category.  Without that heartfelt vow a marriage ceremony does not make much difference – there is no sacrament, just a hollow ritual followed by a nice party. Where the vow is truly present, on the other hand, the sacrament exists no matter how it is administered or what form of words is used, or even with no ceremony at all, but it is difficult to imagine that such a couple would not want to celebrate their joy with a marriage ceremony attended by the people they care about, the people who will help them through any difficult times ahead.[1]

A bridegroom in the first category, in contrast, will not receive grace through the sacrament of marriage, no matter how elaborate the ceremony.  He views marriage as a bargain, “I’ll love you if you’ll love me, but I can break the contract and pay money damages if a new opportunity comes along that makes it seem worth it.” He sees value in being loved, but fails to understand the value of giving love. He lacks faith that loving his wife is more important than anything else in his life, and by lacking that faith he fails to feel the unassailable bliss that such a conviction would give. He feels he must weigh his options, pay attention to other opportunities, wonder if he has done the right thing. If his wife has a bad day and is crabby, he will wonder “why do I have to put up with this?” instead of thinking “the poor dear, what can I do to cheer her up?” If he finds himself without time to pursue the recreations of his idle youth he will wonder “why don’t I get a chance to have fun anymore?” instead of thinking “I love just being with her – when we were dating I would have dropped anything for a chance to be with her, and that feeling just keeps growing stronger.” If the demands of parenthood cause her to slip a bit in maintaining her appearance, he will think “gee, why doesn’t my wife look like that film star?” instead of “gee, I’m glad I’m not married to someone whose whole shallow life is her looks, like that film star – my wife is far more beautiful to me than a plastic doll like that could ever be.” In thinking such thoughts he plants the seeds of his own suffering. He loses his chance for bliss, a chance offered but not taken. We would pity the lottery winner who, misreading his ticket, throws it away thinking it is worthless and loses his fortune. Far more pitiful is the person who wins the greater prize of love, and lets it slip away because he fails to recognize the significance of the gift.

How can a person fail to accept this grace? Why would he be so blind that he fails to see the value of giving love? When mankind has devoted so much of its art, literature and music to expressing the joys of love, how can people be so lacking in faith that they demand constant tangible rewards of marriage, at the cost of losing its true value? In part it is a matter of ignorance. How often have you heard a sermon in church that really pointed out the joys of loving your spouse? Did you ever have a Sunday school class where the topic was “some day, you may be lucky enough to have the chance to devote yourself to loving someone with all your heart, to pouring yourself into their happiness, and the joy that it will bring you will be heaven on earth, for you will then feel the joyous love that is God, and it will transport you above all the petty concerns of daily life. It is wonderful to be loved, but when you find that chance to love in return seize it, for it is a prize without equal in the world”? Despite the art and the poetry, the plays and the songs all celebrating the joys of love, we are not well schooled to recognize the grace when it is offered. This ignorance leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable to distractions that may blind us to God’s grace.

The siren songs of the material world can be a very powerful distraction.  In a “winning is everything” culture, nothing is seen as having intrinsic value.  Everything is just a counter keeping score in the game of life. Is your spouse as good looking, as rich, as smart, as famous as someone else’s? If not, can you trade in for a higher-status spouse? In an advertising-centered culture of manufactured desires, we are constantly assaulted by commercial demons luring us towards dissatisfaction. They tell us that we cannot possibly be happy if we are not spending our time earning enough money to buy an ever-growing list of amazing objects that we never knew we desperately needed, or if we are not spending any leftover time pursuing extreme sports or other new recreations. They use beautiful models to convince us that we should want some beer or cola, and in the process sell us on the idea that we should want the beautiful models. We would find it pleasant to look at beautiful models without any help from the advertising agencies, of course, but would the mindset of the average person be different if products were sold with ordinary-looking models made beautiful by the warm smile of a loving disposition? There are in fact actresses who are very attractive despite having less than ideal anatomical features, so it’s not such a ridiculous idea. The great power of advertising is that it can induce us not only to believe that we can get what we want by buying their product, but to urgently want something that would otherwise have been of minor interest. In practice, advertising convinces us to covet the kind of beauty that is immediately apparent in a ten-second shot in a television ad or in a billboard photograph.[2]

In a society where traditions are swept away by dramatic change, we learn of life and love through television rather than from the happily married couples in our village. Television teaches us the rules of a world that has been transformed since the days when our parents were our age; it is the mirror and the propagator of an ever-shifting culture that derives its unity and substance from mass communication. A stable and happy marriage does not make for exciting television, and so we tend to grow up with role models who love for a season and then move on. We see proof on the screen that the people who bail out of a relationship and bounce right on to the next one succeed and are happy. When people stay stubbornly married, one of them is bound to be shot dead in the last episode of the season, the inevitable result of a placid lifestyle. Confused by these images, unprotected by significant efforts by parents or church to point out the importance of a relationship in which one has the privilege of giving love, it is easy to be blind to grace. We see love as in a mirror, pale reflections of the brilliant substance. Now it requires a degree of luck to be one of those who turn around by chance and become transfixed by the beauty of the real thing. Helping a child to turn and behold this grace, to recognize and pursue it when it the chance appears, is one of the great services that a parent can do. Helping Johnny to understand trigonometry so that he can get admitted to a good college will have far less effect on Johnny’s future happiness than would helping him to understand the value of loving.

I said above that marital bliss is a gift that most are offered. Sadly, it is not offered to all. There are those who fully understand the value of loving, yet who never find love, or love hopelessly. This does not mean that they are not offered the grace that flows from the sacrament, for the grace at its core consists of having the power to love. They have this power, and may exercise it, but under circumstances that bring the pain of longing together with the pleasure of loving. Why is fate so cruel to them? How can they bear such a precious gift, yet fail to find someone to receive it?

It is not that the human heart is unduly particular about specific criteria for its target. We are not all waiting for Mr. or Miss Perfection to come along. Indeed, while many of us find a true soul mate who thinks and reacts to the world as we do, it is interesting to note that a study of identical twins – who tend to have very similar personalities – found that their chosen spouses are not significantly more similar in personality than are the spouses of randomly selected unrelated people. Further, for the most part the twins did not find their co-twin’s spouse to be notably attractive. Even in the case of conjoined (“Siamese”) twins, one of the pair will find a partner who loves her alone, not the co-twin. Cupid aims his arrows by his own rules, not by a matchmaking service checklist of compatibility factors, and love may be found in unexpected places. It is not thwarted by superficial matters.

I would suggest instead that forlorn love is a product of the general failure of society to teach the value of love. One who knows the value of love and wishes to give his or her heart completely will not be drawn by someone who is obviously superficial and self-centered (or if he is, then the love may end in sadness anyway). When society does not foster true love, the task of sifting through the shallow sands of ego and materialism for the gem of affection becomes more difficult. Thus the deserving are thwarted by the multiplication of the undeserving, and love’s labor is made more difficult by the scarcity of lovers. Because of this, by teaching one person the value of loving it may be possible to bring joy to two souls, the newly wise and his previously unmatched loving companion. This two-for-one offer on the multiplication of grace gives special value to educating one’s children on the merit of giving love, beginning with providing them with an instructive example of parents who show their love for each other every day, in every word.

[1] True friends or the bride or groom will be deeply supportive of the marriage, checking to see if there are indicia of a bad and abusive relationship, but if there are no such indicia then providing support to find a way forward.

[2] Okay, this has nothing to do with religion, but the new habit of altering models’ photos to enlarge their eyes and so forth seems to be creating a sense of beauty that only space aliens could meet, which seems very strange to me, and rather disturbing.

Summary:

God offers his grace to all, not just to the most outwardly churchy or those who say the right words.

Grace is an opportunity to advance your  alignment with God.

The grace of marriage lies in having someone that you can focus on loving unselfishly, and experience the joy that such divine-expired love brings. Those who view marriage as a contract do not experience this grace.

Conversation starters in popular culture:

As discussed above, this is one where movies tend not to provide great examples, because pure mutual love in itself is not very dramatic. While there are plenty of romances, the movie tends to focus on the drama that the lovers overcome rather than on their ongoing relationship. In my humble opinion, one of the best screen romances is that of Castle and Beckett on Castle. The series takes time to make it clear not only that  these two  would die for each other, but that they take real and enduring pleasure in making each other happy. Beckett cures Castle of his worst habits because he knows he has found what makes his life truly worthwhile, and Castle cures Beckett of her psychological wounds and leads her back to joy. Screen representations of bad, selfish and ineffective marriages are too common to mention.

 

 

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