Friday, July 01, 2005
Wayfaring Strangers, Part 19
(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)
Corinthians and Beyond
I haven't written a Wayfaring Strangers post in a while because I try to make these posts somewhat coherent and focused. Lately, my study and my thoughts have been even more scrambled than usual... so bear with me if I'm all over the place, here.
Epistles to Corinth
After fairly detailed studies of Acts and Romans, I thought it would be a good idea to devote similar studies to the other major books of the New Testament, one at a time. I Corinthians knocked me on my butt, however... and II Corinthians was just as difficult. In the first epistle, Paul seems law-obsessed, angry, and full of gloom and doom. In the second, he strikes me as a bit aloof and even seems to mock the reader at times. I can't get much out of either book as a whole, and I'm nowhere near ready to try to study them in terms of major themes, contextual threads. They aren't as purely theological as Romans, as instructive as Ephesians, or as lyrical as Philippians, and my grasp on them is limited. There are, however, passages and verses that seem to speak clearly to me, and I will write a little about them.
Paul Alludes to Purgatory
(I Corinthians, 3:11-15) ... no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one's work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
I don't claim to offer an authoritative interpretation of this passage, but as I read it, it supports my own understanding of Purgatory and how it works. The reference to being "revealed with fire" really got my attention. I have accepted Purgatory as an internal, personal belief. It makes sense to me and actually strengthens my faith in God. (My hero, C.S. Lewis, by the way, believed in Purgatory. I learned that recently.) Catholic or not, my belief in Purgatory and it's purpose will stay with me, I'm sure, from now on.
Treasures in Earthen Vessels
(II Corinthians, 4:7-12) ... we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Wow, what a beautiful passage. What a resonate image of how something as fragile and weak as a human being can actually be a vessel that receives the grace of God. It's heady stuff. In some translations, the phrase "earthen vessels" is read "jars of clay." I suppose that's where the Christian rock band got their name. Nice.
Was Paul Gay?
Bear with me here. To some, that's going to sound irreverent or even blasphemous, but that question has crossed my mind as I've read the Corinthian epistles. I'm not arguing for one answer or another to that question, I'm just saying that it has crossed my mind. Here's why.
In the first chapter of Romans, Paul expresses serious concern about Christians who sinfully engaged in homosexual acts. Sexual impurity is also a focus of I Corinthians. I know that there were specific issues in Corinth that needed to be addressed, but stay with me, here. In chapter 7 of I Corinthians, Paul writes about marriage, and while he doesn't forbid single people and widows in Corinth to marry, he does discourage it to some degree. He says it would be good for them to remain single, and only really sees marriage as preferable to succumbing to lust. He admits that he's expressing his own opinions in that passage and not speaking for the Lord. It's a very personal matter to him. In II Corinthians, Paul writes about a "thorn in his flesh," some sort of apparently physical affliction that plagues him. It might be a disease or an injury or a handicap, but it might be something else, too. Paul says that he's prayed three times to have the "thorn" taken from him, and that the Lord has basically told him that he'll have to live with it.
I think it's worth considering that the "thorn" in Paul's side may have been a very specific lust or attraction that was counter to his religious beliefs. It may even be that he was predisposed to gayness and that it was something he wanted to change and struggled with. If that is the case, that type of inner conflict and pain must have been torturous for him. The idea that Paul was struggling with something that monumental tends to temper my negative reaction to some of his angrier passages. The idea that Paul was dealing with that kind of duality is humbling for me, and a reminder that nobody is beyond a role in God's plan. Anyone can play an important, even formative role in the church. Any prejudice I might take on about other Christians is my problem, not theirs.
In church a few weeks ago, the Deacon who delivered the homily mentioned that we have a responsibility as Christians to reach out to those who've been spurned by their families and who are suffering, including homosexuals. I agree with that, I think it should be a given. It's nice to hear that kind of thing instead of the gay bashing I'd been hearing at the protestant church we used to go to. I suppose that whether Paul was gay or not isn't really as important as the humility, charity and compassion I might come closer to by considering the possibility.
After the idea crossed my mind, I checked on the net and found out that if I am crazy for considering it, I'm not the only crazy person out there.
The Didache (pronounced DID-Uh-Kay) is one of the earliest authenticated documents of the Catholic church. It was probably written in the first century. I discovered it recently after hearing it mentioned on The Journey Home. I read it and I couldn't get over how beautiful it is. Passages of the Didache are some of the most meaningful nonbiblical Church writing I've ever read:
Where is the merit in loving only those who return your love? Even the heathens do as much as that. But if you love those who hate you, you will have nobody to be your enemy.
You are to have no malicious designs on a neighbour. You are to cherish no feelings of hatred for anybody; some you are to reprove, some to pray for, and some again to love more than your own life.
Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with persons of eminence, but
choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.
Give without hesitating and without grumbling, and you will see Whose generosity will requite you. Never turn away the needy; share all your possessions with your brother, and do not claim that anything is your own. If you and he are joint participators in things immortal, how much more so in things that are mortal?
Thou, O Almighty Lord, hast created all things for thine own Name's sake; to all men thou hast given meat and drink to enjoy, that they may give thanks to thee, but to us thou hast graciously given spiritual meat and drink, together with life eternal, through thy Servant. Especially, and above all, do we give thanks to thee for the mightiness of thy power.
I'd never have discovered the Didache in our old church. I thank God for it, and for the history of Catholic tradition that has preserved it.
The Eucharist and Transubstantiation
Every week at mass, Wendy and I watch the sacrament of the Eucharist and every week I long more and more to participate. At this point, I can't wait to be confirmed so that I can receive the Host. The concept of transubstantiation has struck me as important and real ever since I first learned about it years ago. I've always been aware of it's absence in protestant communion. As I draw closer and closer to the day when I can receive the Real Presence, I become more and more certain that the Catholic Church is my spiritual home. In fact, with regard to transubstantiation, the only real adjustment I've had to make over the past few months was to overcome my fear that my protestant loved ones will think I'm crazy. That's been a real fear and I've been very self conscious about it. I've been afraid that my protestant family members will wonder how I can actually believe in a concept like transubstantiation; how I can say that the emblems become the Real Presence inside of me when I receive them. That self conscious fear is gone, now. I don't even think about it anymore during Mass. All I find myself thinking is that I really long to participate in that two thousand year old Communion. I want the fullness of the Eucharist, to be part of it, to bring it into me and to bring myself into it.
Progress on Mary
Did you know that Martin Luther and John Calvin both believed in Mary's perpetual virginity? I didn't until recently. Learning that makes the doctrine seem less Catholic-specific and more generally Christian. I've come to believe in the Immaculate Conception, by the way, as it relates to my belief in Purgatory. If I believe that we must be purged of the residue of sin on our way to God, it follows that Mary would have had to have been conceived without original sin in order to be capable of bearing God himself on Earth. I realize now, though, that the idea of Immaculate Conception doesn't mean that Mary was stainless and sinless in the same way that Christ was. That was my big hang-up with the concept. Rather than deifying the Holy Mother, Immaculate Conception is a doctrine that presents her as the first Christian, entirely mortal, and saved from conception by the Grace of Christ. Her relationship with Jesus was very special, that goes without saying. She was, after all, his only blood relative on earth. It was her great honor, her unique gift, to be the first to receive his saving grace through her faith in him. How can that have happened? How can she have been saved by her Son previous to her own birth? Beats me. I never said I believed in a Savior I could completely understand or explain on my own terms, though.
I still have problems understanding the Assumption and, to a greater extent, the Coronation. I've put those issues in God's hands, though. He will reveal to me the understanding that He wills for me in His own time. My job is to receive it, not to schedule it.
Regardless, the Holy Mother has become for me the best possible example of Christian obedience. I think that my goal as a Christian should be to try to relate to the Savior as she did; to receive him readily and without qualification, to devote myself entirely to him, to suffer when he suffers, to celebrate when he celebrates, and to say of him "Do whatever he tells you."
So that's where I am as of now with Catholicism. The experience becomes less of a study and more of a homecoming with each Mass.
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