Sharing the Beauty of Catholicism
This site has been restored and archived by the university as part of the required reading list for Dr. David Ho's course Modern Religion. David comes to us from a hugely varied background including running an organic farm, obtaining a law degree (he's a member of the bar), and managing a medical research team for Biological Sciences. In the latter position he was responsible for personnel, provisioning the labs, guiding the direction of research, interfacing with government regulators, and hiring the medical waste disposal experts and overseeing the mitigation of biohazardous materials. His religious training originated with his fathers church were he was the pastor and chief administrator. His eclectic background is evident in his non-traditional approach to the subject matter related to the teachings and history of world religions.
In 2011 when Aimee Milburn Cooper created a new blog site, this site's domain registration eventually expired and the site disappeared from the web. The new owners of the site were so impressed with the blog posts they decided to provide some of the archived content so that readers could once again share Aimee Milburn Cooper's thoughts about the Catholic faith.
Content is from the site's 2007 & 2011 archived pages.
This blog is for the purpose of sharing the beauty of Catholicism, and my own thoughts and opinions on culture. Commenters are asked to be courteous and thoughtful, including when disagreeing with something. Comments out of keeping may be removed without warning rather than responded to.
In Union with Benedict
"In the human being, heaven and earth touch one another. In the human being God enters into his creation; the human being is directly related to God." - Ratzinger, In the Beginning
Come, Let Us Adore Him
Reflections on the Faith and Thoughts on Culture by Roman Catholic convert Aimee Milburn Cooper, M.A. Th.
July 24, 2011
New Blog Up
Finally got the new blog ready to go. Take a look! Just a heads up, this old one won’t be around much longer as I’ll disconnect it soon, but I transferred most of the good stuff from this blog over to the new one, so it’s still accessible.
It took a long time to make the transfer, for a couple reasons. The main reason for a new blog is I wanted to change blogging platforms. My old blogging platform, Typepad, has a lot of good things to offer, but the increasing zeal of the company to offer ever-unceasing “improvements” without thorough testing resulted in increasingly frustrating numbers of glitches.
In short, it became a drag and a hassle to blog, because I could never seem to just write a post and post it quickly – I was constantly running into technical issues that turned simple posting into a time-consuming exercise in frustration, to the point I found myself actually avoiding blogging – unacceptable for a paid service like Typepad. At that point I realized: it’s time for a change.
I then discovered a second problem with Typepad: it’s incompatible with common blogging platforms such as Wordpress or Blogger, who offer an easy import-export feature for changing platforms. Typepad, being built on a different structure, offers no such ease. I would have to transfer my hundreds of posts, and reformat them, by hand.
Problem is, I was embarking on an extremely busy year, with little time for sitting around transferring one post at the time, reformatting each, re-loading images and videos and such, fixing broken links – aaagh! What was I to do? It would take hours – and a corresponding fortune – to pay someone else to do it. Being a tremendously tedious and boring activity, I didn’t dare ask one of my friends to do it. But I didn’t want to blog on Typepad anymore, with all of its frustrations.
So I had to do it myself, and that took forever, basically putting me on blogging hiatus for a year, because there were so few times during the past year that I could actually sit down and focus on the tedious process of transferring, fixing, and reformatting, one post at a time.
But I finally got it done. Last week I found myself with a few days free, and decided it was time to bear down and finish it. Several days and an aching wrist and blurry vision later, all the posts are transferred and most of the re-design is complete. I didn’t transfer everything, only the things I really wanted to preserve – but that still came to nearly 250 posts. Some of the text formatting on the transferred posts is still funny and a few links may be bad, but at least I got the bulk of it done. I also transferred lots of comments, as past readers provided such a wealth of great discussion. Those are pasted right into the text of the post itself, as you’ll see.
One thing is for sure: I’ll never use Typepad again, or any blogging platform that’s not compatible with others. If there’s one lesson to be learned from all this: if you want to blog, use a platform that’s compatible with the other major blogging platforms out there, and that offers an automatic export/import feature for transferring posts from one platform to another. Otherwise you could get stuck like me, not blogging at all for an entire year!
BLOG POSTS 2007
June 09, 2007
Why Must the Church be One? A Meditation on the Meaning of Christian Unity
A Protestant reader lately has written to ask about unity, an issue that bothers him as a Protestant, and that bothered me also when I was a Protestant. All Christians are concerned about unity, because Christ told us to be one on his last night on earth as an important part of our witness for him, so the world may know him and believe in him.
The question is, why is unity, oneness, so important for witnessing and believing that Christ made it a command on his last night on earth? Why must we be one in order for Christ to be seen and believed in? In dialoguing with my reader, something came clear, several different strands of theology that I’ve been studying coalesced, that I shared with him and also want to share here: the meaning and significance of unity, of visibleoneness for the Church.
It came together in my mind this way: it is important because it is the nature of God Himself, the nature of creation, the nature of the Church, and the reason for existence itself. Simply put, the Church must be one because God is One, and the Church is His Body. It must be unified, though composed of many members, because God is unified, three Persons in perfect harmony as one: the Trinity - and Jesus prayed that we, though many, would be perfectly one (Jn 17:23). We are created in His image and likeness, so must show forth His image and likeness, which in essence is oneness and unity in love, not only in our individuality but also in our plurality, our relationships.
Turns out my reasoning agrees with the Catechism, which says, “The Church is one because of her source . . . the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God.” (CCC 813)
The following is my attempt to explain why that is.
Jesus’ Command to be One
One of the things that ancient writers used to structure and highlight important concepts in their writings (they hadn’t yet invented chapters and punctuation) was bracketing (also called inclusio): bracketing the beginning and end of important texts with important key concepts, to emphasize the key meaning of the text to readers. Such a bracket occurs in Jesus’ long discourse in John 13-17.
The first is Jn 13:34-35, at the beginning of the discourse: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”
The second is Jn 17:21-23, at the end of the discourse: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. … I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me.”’
Common to both verses is the key concept “By this all men will know,” “so that the world may believe;” i.e., witnessing for Christ so others may be saved. These two verses, which bracket the entire discourse, highlight the key concepts of the discourse: we are commanded to love one another, as one, as the important key witness to the world about the reality of Christ, so that the world may believe in him also and be saved.
These concepts are repeated, emphasized, and expanded on by Christ throughout the discourse. Without that loving, united witness, it is easy for the world to disregard Christ – and many souls are lost.
Why that is, however, hasn't always been clearly articulated. To articulate it, one must first understand something essential about God Himself, and then about the reason for creation, the purpose of man's creation, the effects of sin and the Fall on that purpose, and the purpose of the existence of the Church. Then it can be clearly seen why unity is so important - and what unity really is.
The Nature of God
God is One God, the eternal, infinite Being without beginning and without end, who exists eternally in one infinite act of being that has no beginning and will never cease. He is Life itself, and His nature is Love. It is because of His reality and His nature as living Love that while being One, God is also a Trinity, united as One in perfect, ceaseless, living Love.
God exists as a Trinity because it is the nature of love to love, to pour itself out in love to the other, and so God by His very act of being pours Himself out ceaselessly, totally and eternally, with neither beginning nor end, in living love, holding nothing back and yet without being diminished (for He is infinite), not in the limited way of finite beings, but in an unlimited way, a real outpouring of the whole Divine Self that results in God Himself in the Son, same God, but without diminishing God Himself in the Father, due to His infinitude.
The Son is also completely God, the same God, without beginning or end, without limit. The Son, sharing the same nature as the Father, also pours Himself out totally, yet without being diminished, in living love. This outpouring in living love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit, also totally God, the same God, without beginning or end, without limit, also pouring Himself out to the Father and the Son ceaselessly, in living love. This is why the One God is, due to His very nature, One God and a Trinity of Persons within Himself, the total outpouring of Himself in life and love that is the Trinity.
The Reason for Creation
So God is relational, which is the nature of love, within Himself. And He is such an overflowing, all-powerful wellspring of life and love that out of sheer goodness He also calls creation into existence, and pours Himself out into creation as, like an artist, an expression of His glorious self. God is glorious, and is not content to let His glory remain invisible, purely spiritual, seen only by Himself, but wants to make it visible, so that He can be seen and loved and worshiped by others, have relationships with others in love.
So, He created creation for the purpose of making His glory visible, and created us so there would be someone to see it, someone He could share His life and love with – someone He could have a relationship with. The purpose of creation, in other words, is visible relationship, making God visible so He can be known, and share Himself with others.
And more. The Hebrew symbolism and literary structure used in the creation story, though not obvious in English translations, indicates that creation itself is a temple, created for the glory and worship of God. Creation itself before the Fall was the original Church, the first Temple where God could be known and worshiped.
The Purpose of Man's Creation
God created man in His own image and likeness so there would be someone there to see Him and share life with Him, and love and worship Him in return. In the beginning, God even walked in the garden with Adam and Eve (Gen 3:8). Adam and Eve were God’s original created family, created in His image and likeness and destined to share life and love with Him.
Why a family? Because God is a family, the Trinity is the original family: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in perfect unity and harmony. Being created in His image and likeness means we reflect both His oneness and His Trinity, not only in our individuality, but also in our plurality, our relationships with others. The family itself is a reflection of the Trinity: the relationship of father, mother, and child reflecting the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Trinity is the inner reality of the nature of God. This means that as creation was created to show forth the glory of God, we ourselves were created to show forth the inner, Trinitarian reality of God. This is why the first human relationship was a family, and was Trinitarian: the marriage relationship of Adam and Eve with each other, a real union, and their relationship with God: Adam, Eve, and God; reflecting the image and likeness of the Trinity of God himself.
In other words, our visible relatedness helps make God visible. Visibility is the reason for creation, and the reason for the creation of man: to make God visible, both in His outward glory and in His inward, Trinitarian reality, so He can be seen, known, loved, and worshiped.
Sin and Redemption
The fall into sin disrupted this, broke relationship with God and with each other, hiding God and obscuring His image in us. Human history ever since has been marked by sin and broken relationships. But God has been working to restore man ever since to his rightful relationship with God and with each other. God used a series of covenants (or a growing covenant, handed on), beginning with Abraham and each with an expanded meaning: Adam/family, Noah/extended family, Abraham/tribe, Moses/People of God, David/Kingdom, Jesus/worldwide blessing.
So we have the original covenant family of Adam, Eve, and God, broken through sin. The new covenant began with Noah’s household, saved from the flood. It expanded with Abraham to include the whole tribe. With Moses it made the whole people of Israel, all the tribes, God’s people (Lev. 26:12). With David it established the kingdom of Israel, and with Jesus it expanded to include all the nations, the worldwide blessing intended by God before the Fall, promised to Abraham and his descendants after the Fall (Gen 22:18).
But God hasn’t been working just to restore man. He’s also been working to restore the Church. The theme of all nations streaming to the Temple abounds in the Old Testament from Abraham through the prophets. But what is the Temple? The Temple is not the physical temple at Jerusalem, from which the presence of God departed at the Babylonian exile and never returned. The temple is the Church, the original meaning of creation, the place where God becomes visible and where God and man meet in a loving family relationship of love and worship.
Creation itself has fallen, due to sin, which means that the original church is fallen, and so must be restored: the new creation, a new Church. Christ is the first stone in the new creation, his resurrected body literally the first stone of the new physical creation, which is the first stone in the new Church. We also become stones for the new creation, the new Church, when we are incorporated into Christ through baptism and Eucharist, to be fulfilled at our own resurrection.
The Church, then, is the beginning of the new creation, the new Temple for the right worship of God, the new family of God, constantly growing, to be fully revealed at the end of time, when Christ comes again. As the Old Testament was a prefigurement and preparation for the coming of Christ, the Jewish temple and people were a prefiguration and preparation for the founding of the Church, the restoration of creation and of the family of God.
The Church is the Body of Christ, and because Christ is the image of the invisible God (Cor 1:15), so is the Church, His Body in union with Him, also the image of the invisible God, making God visible on earth, the reason for creation in the first place. So to make God truly visible, to make visible His inner, invisible nature, the Church must of necessity be visibly one, united as one though with many members, a true family, to reflect the united, Trinitarian, perfect harmony of the inner nature of God, so that God may be seen and known.
It is not enough to claim mystical union alone, because mystical union is invisible, by itself contrary to God's purpose of visibility, and meaningless to outsiders in the face of visible disunity. One of the most important components of our witness to the world is visible oneness, because our visible unity, oneness, harmony, itself is the Trinitarian image and likeness of God on earth, which helps make Him known to others, so they can worship Him, too. Jesus commanded us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48), and prayed that we would be perfectly one, even though many, because that is how God is, and we are created in His image and likeness so we can help make Him visible. This is the only way we can truly fulfill the purpose of our creation as image and likeness of the perfect oneness of the Trinity of God.
That’s why unity is so important. Unity itself has profound theological meaning and urgency. Real unity isn’t just a nice thing to help us get along better or make us look better to others. In a very real way it is the image and likeness of God on earth and reason for our own existence. Lack of unity is not. It is a broken image, a broken family – and thus a damaged witness. And many people reject Christianity in part because of the visible disunity among Christians. It makes us look like hypocrites. That’s why the brokenness of the Body is so bad. It has broken and obscured what was to have been the visible image of the Trinitarian life and love of God on earth, making God knowable and lovable.
This is an argument for what the Catholic Church teaches about itself, alone among all the churches on earth: that it is One, visibly one, along with being Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. This is not only an invisible, mystical communion, an interior thing for believers (though it is that, too, which includes all believers, not just Catholics), but also, and most importantly, a visible communion, in a visible, single institution on earth, externally, for non-believers, so they can believe, too. Oneness is one of the marks of the true Church that Jesus founded, and one of his commandments to the leaders of the Church before he departed the earth.
As the Trinity is united under the headship of the Father, the mystical Body is united under the headship of Christ the invisible head, and a healthy earthly family is united under the earthly father, so the visible Body must be united under a visible head, a single head, not many competing heads. Otherwise there is no unity.
The Catholic Church does have a single, visible head, the original head of the original Body: the successor to Peter, the leader chosen by Christ, the Pope today. It’s the only church in the world that does, and that has consistently from the beginning. Now, I realize this brings up issues for my non-Catholic readers, issues that take time to understand and work out. But under Peter we are and always have been unified as a single Body, with a single head, a consistent image of Christ from the beginning. We have not only good relationship with God and with our local congregation, but unbroken, real, visible worldwide relationship as one, real unity, a truly single worldwide Body under a single visible head – the way Jesus set it up to be, before he left the earth.
Unity is the Image and Likeness of God and the Meaning of Life
I asked in the beginning why visible unity, oneness, is so important for witnessing and believing that Christ made it a command on his last night on earth. In a nutshell, the answer is because the Church is supposed to be the image and likeness of God on earth, is supposed to make God visible, and so must be united as one because God is united as One, so that God may be seen, loved, and worshiped. We must look and be like God. That is the whole reason for creation, the whole reason for our existence: to make God visible, in all His Trinitarian beauty and harmony, so that He may be loved and worshiped, and share Himself with others. That is the meaning of life.
I close with a dictionary definition of unity (from dictionary.com):
- the state of being one; oneness.
- a whole or totality as combining all its parts into one.
- the state or fact of being united or combined into one, as of the parts of a whole; unification.
- absence of diversity; unvaried or uniform character.
- oneness of mind, feeling, etc., as among a number of persons; concord, harmony, or agreement.
The word unity itself comes from the Latin root for one. The Greek word catholicmeans universal, which is based on same root: one. Seems pretty clear to me. We really are supposed to be one, actually one, not just in some mystical sense. Jesus told us to. It’s up to us to be it.
What does this mean for non-Catholics? I’m reluctant to make a blanket assertion. People are in different places, and the Church recognizes that all believers are at least invisibly joined in some way. I trust that everyone is capable of deciding for themselves where they need to be, according to how God is working in their lives. I decided for myself, and acted accordingly.
I write about why unity is important, because it really isn’t just an invisible thing. I write in order, I hope, to get people thinking more deeply, more seriously, about what it really is, to confront the reality of it so that we not only pray for it, but take concrete action to make it the reality that Christ intended, commanded, and prayed for on his last night on earth.
An aside: Although I am not affiliated with any particular Christian faith, Aimee Milburn Cooper's thoughtful posts still resonant. Recently I decided to spend some time on Maui as a sort of retreat from the divisive politics of the White House and Trump's administration. I found a studio condo rental in Lahaina, which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the center of the global whaling industry. The town is full of the tourist trappings one finds in many places, but it is also a central location that allows the visitor to travel easily to many beautiful locations. I particularly enjoyed hiking the strange frosty, multi-hued, cinder-coned trails that start at the summit of Haleakala, the largest dormant volcano in the world. In many ways Maui is a microcosm of the beauty of God's world. From the peaceful aquatic moments that borders on transcendental when snorkeling with sea turtles to leisurely driving the Hana Road and hiking in to the 400 feet of Waimoku Falls. It is accessible via the Pipiwai Trail that weaves through groves of bamboo. The waterfall is arguably one of Maui’s most mystical, magical spots, perfect for meditation or simply embracing the beauty and magnificence of nature. Aimee writes of unity which should include the unity of humans with the rest of the earth. I believe that exploration has the power to change us, to challenge us and to help us see the world from new perspectives. My trip to Maui renewed my spirit which has been sorely tested over these past three years.
March 24, 2007
On Vocational Discernment and Spiritual Direction
A reader wrote in the other day, a recent convert to Catholicism, to ask about vocational discernment and spiritual direction. Though I’m not a trained spiritual director, I’ve spent time in vocational discernment and went through a process of finding a good spiritual director, so shared what I’ve learned with him, and now share it here, with a few of his comments (with his permission) for context:
I grew up "high church" Episcopalian and was active in my parish for many years. Even so, I always felt it was "Catholic lite" and not the real thing. And then, to make matters worse, the Episcopal Church began to become heretical and apostate, as I'm sure you know. I became Catholic in April 2003.
… One of the issues that troubles me is finding God's will for my life in terms of a vocation and many other things. (I'm not necessarily referring to a priestly vocation, but to a more specific purpose for my life.) As an Episcopalian, I seldom thought about "God's will for my life." I just went through the sacramental motions and rituals. Now that I am Catholic and have a deeper faith, I ponder these things.
Your conversion is very beautiful – and your deepened sense of spirituality not surprising. You are receiving the sacraments now (the real ones, if you don’t mind my saying so), and the grace that comes from them does have an effect in the soul.
My priest is a good man, orthodox and devout, but his answer to that question does not satisfy me, and I'm not even sure he's reflecting what the Church teaches on that subject. He says, somewhat flippantly, "God is not concerned about whether you eat chicken or beef for dinner, for example. He's not concerned about those details. He wants you to love Him and He wants to enter into your life with His grace so that you may respond to that grace with your free will." Well, that's all fine, but when I ask my priest, "Yes, but how can I know what God want me to do with my life specifically?", my priest simply says, "God does not predestine you like that. You can choose whatever path you want. You have free will. All he wants is for you to respond to his grace with love, no matter where that leads you." He also says, "If you have a flat tire or a wreck, that's not in God's plan. That's just what happens in the physical world when we make mistakes. But God is there to help you in time of need."
Is this theologically sound? I mean, I know he's right as far as he goes, but he keeps saying God's will for our lives is just "to love" and to "respond" to His love. Yes...but doesn't God specifically want some people to be priests, some people to be doctors, some people to be artists, some people to be married and have children, etc? I think my priest is so concerned that his parishioners will become infected by Calvinism (which is dominant in our area of the country) until I think he goes too far in the other direction and rejects any intentional desire on God's part to have a plan for each individual. If God does not have a plan for each of our lives, then why pray for God to show us His plan? Nonetheless, many Christians pray that very prayer.
Your intuition is correct on this. And if you are feeling restless and dissatisfied with what you have been told, I would suspect that this in itself is a sign that God is speaking to you at some level, and you are right to keep on seeking and asking.
I’m not a trained spiritual director and not qualified to give a lot of personal advice, but I can tell you from the reading I’ve done, and from my own on-going process of discernment, that God does indeed work very specifically at times to show us specific things He wills for us to do, or specific vocations He wills for us to have. And when He makes something clear to us, we use our free will to respond and follow – to will what He wills.
That is one of the goals of sanctification and the pursuit of holiness: to will what, and as, God wills, both in general and in the specific circumstances of our lives – and that can include flat tires, considering our God is a God who numbers the hairs on our heads! Our God is a God of love; He is personal and relational, and wants to be involved in our lives on a very personal, intimate level. And there are things we can do on our end to help foster a very personal, close relationship with God.
I don’t know your priest, and I trust that he is, as you say, a good and orthodox priest with good intentions. But not all priests are well-formed in spiritual theology and the theology of discernment. It depends on when and where they went to seminary, how they are gifted, and whether or not they’ve been able, or willing, to study and develop in this area. Not all have. I would not blame him for that – but I would work and pray for discernment.
One of my favorite writers on the spiritual life, Dom Vitalis Lehodey (an early 20th-century Cistercian priest) makes a distinction between the “signified will of God,” which is the teachings, commandments, and precepts of the Church; and God’s “will of good-pleasure,” which is how He works in our individual circumstances. We are to obey His signified will, and conform ourselves to His will of good-pleasure. In his book Holy Abandonment (Tan Books, 2003), one of my very favorite books on the spiritual life, he writes:
Nothing happens in this world except by the order or permission of God. Nothing exists except through Him. And all that He has created He conserves and governs with love, in order to conduct it to its end. Whilst ruling the stars and presiding over the revolutions of the earth, He concurs with the ants in their labours, with the insects that throng the air in their least movements, and with the countless millions of atoms constituting a single drop of water in their invisible activities. . . . He keeps a solicitous watch over the birds of the air, over the lilies of the field; and as each of us is worth more than many birds, He does not forget His human children. A thousand details of daily life will escape the notice of the father of the family and the most attentive of mothers; but God in His infinite intelligence possesses the secret of providing without effort for the most trivial incidents as well as for the most important events. (p. 76-77)
The key to discernment is, in a nutshell, strive to live for God, to get as close to Him as you can, each and every day of your life. Strive to know Him, love Him, listen to Him, and follow Him. Let nothing be more important to you than God, living for God, carrying out your life and all your duties for Him, for His sake – and ordering your life as much as possible to this end. He has to be first in your life. This means living out both His signified will in the teachings of the Church, and His will of good-pleasure in your individual circumstances.
(I don’t know how old you are, or if you’re married or single. If you’re married, this advice does not mean abandoning your family or your job. It means carrying out your marriage, family, and work life for the sake of God.)
Here are a few general things I can share about discernment, things that help in the process:
- Develop a good, daily prayer life, converse with God daily, tell Him everything, ask Him questions, above all ask Him to show you what He wants from you.
- Cultivate willingness to do whatever He wants, and tell Him that you are willing. Offer Him your life, regularly.
- Listen to Him, listen to His leading in your life. Make sure you have daily quiet time so you can really hear. If you have a lot of unnecessary distractions in your life, such as having the TV on all the time or listening to music constantly, wean yourself of them to make time for God. Cultivate interior silence.
- Study your faith constantly, always getting to know it better, and really strive to live it. Study and meditate on scripture. Read classics of Catholic spirituality, and read the lives of great saints in history. Tan Books and Ignatius Press are both excellent sources for saints biographies and spiritual theology.
- Go to mass and confession regularly – mass at least once a week on Sunday, and confession at least once a month, more if needed, if you don’t already. The grace from confession is wonderful and you will grow very much from regular self-examination and confession, be more receptive to the grace of the Eucharist, and more attuned to God. I usually go a couple of times a month, and love it (and need it).
- Pray for God to lead you to a holy priest spiritual director. This can take time – years, even, depending on how many truly good and holy priests there are in your area. Also pray for a good confessor, as a good confessor can sometimes also give good direction in the absence of a spiritual director.
A good spiritual director can help you in the development of your prayer life, and also be a good person for you to bounce discernment issues off of, to help you know if something really is coming from God or not. It’s very important to have good spiritual advisors if possible when in discernment, if one is really serious about following God in whatever circumstances of life He would have you. They can help guide you in the right direction, and keep you from straying in the wrong direction.
I looked, and prayed, for a long time to find a good spiritual director, as they tend to be a little hard to find. I did one time meet with a priest who told me I could do whatever I wanted, and I should go out and “make my mark” on the world. That wasn’t what I was looking for - and he has a good reputation in my area for being orthodox. Judging from his response to me (and from the books in his study that I looked at while waiting for him, which tended more to pop psychology than classic Catholic spirituality), I decided not to go back to him. But God did later bless me with a wonderful spiritual director, and I cannot express enough his worth to me.
Two key signs for discerning a good spiritual director:
- Does he say the mass with great reverence and prayerfulness and care, great holiness? If he seems inattentive, too casual or business-like, he probably does not have the level of spiritual development a good director needs.
- Does he hear confessions with great prayerfulness and attentiveness? Does he take sin seriously? Is it like sitting with Jesus in the confessional? If he seems rushed or inattentive, or doesn’t take sin seriously, again he probably doesn’t have the development you need.
Keep your eyes and ears open for priests with reputations for holiness, and who manifest it in the way they say mass and hear confessions. If you find such a priest, don’t hesitate to ask him if he is available for spiritual direction. It may take a few tries to find one who is free, as good priests like that tend to be in demand. But one may be able to refer you to another. That’s how I found mine – I had asked several priests who it turns out were too busy with others to help me, but the last one I asked referred me to the one I have now.
You might also see if there are retreat centers in your area with good reputations for offering spiritual direction.
In my experience, it can take years to really understand God’s will for you (though not always). Understand that during this time, if you are doing the right things, really striving to grow as close to God as possible in prayer and grow in virtue, He will be working in you, preparing you in ways you will not even be aware of, purifying and humbling you, giving you patience, developing virtue in you. When the time is right, He will let you know what He wants – and you will know it instantly, with no doubts. That has been my experience, and the experience of the saints.
In addition to Lehody’s book above, I can also recommend Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Fr. J.P. de Caussade, S.J. Caussade lived from 1675-1751, and his book is considered one of the great spiritual classics. There's a couple of editions floating around. I use the Tan Books edition, which includes his letters of spiritual direction. There's also a couple of translations that have just the book itself, one by Saint Benedict Press, and the other, called The Sacrament of the Present Moment, put out by Harper San Francisco. I don't know how these two translations compare to the Tan Books one - but I think it's hard to go wrong with Caussade.
Neither Caussade nor Lehodey are specifically about vocational discernment, but both are about the pre-dispositions necessary for discerning and following God’s will in general and in individual circumstances, which is a great help to vocational discernment.
My reader also made a request at the end:
So, I'm hoping you might find some time to write a blog entry (or several) on topics that take a look at the idea of how the Church wants its members to find God's will for our lives. …Frankly, I'm very confused at how the Church stands on all this.
Well, I just turned my response to you into a blog entry! Thanks for the request; it’s certainly a good one, and one many people do have questions about. I share from my own experiences and reading on the subject, so I hope it is helpful to others!
March 07, 2007
Why I Became a Catholic
A reader e-mailed me the other day with some questions, one of them being about why I became a Catholic. I wrote her an answer and thought I'd share it here. I do need to tell the story at some point of the circumstances around my conversion to Catholicism, but my reasons are here in nutshell form.
Also, I'm not blogging much right now thanks to a very busy, and thoughtful, semester. Too much information, and too rich, for me to formulate much in the way of blog posts at present! But I'll get back to it whenever the present flood recedes enough....
So, here's why I became a Catholic, unedited except for replacing the inquirer's name with asterisks:
I have written some parts of my conversion story on my blog, such as how I first came to encounter Christ, and how my experience of Christ has changed during my journey from Evangelicalism to Catholicism.
In a nutshell, through a long period of study and reflection I simply became convinced that the Catholic Church really was founded by Jesus, grown from a small mustard seed into a mighty tree, as he promised it would. In studying Catholic doctrine, which formerly I had been told was “man-made” and had nothing to do with scripture, I found that it is actually more consistent with scripture than the Evangelical theology I had studied before. In fact, it is completely consistent with scripture – I still cannot find a single contradiction, when studied and understood at depth. And I have been a studious Catholic for nearly 10 years, and am now earning a master’s degree in theology.
In coming to the conclusion that the Catholic Church really was founded by Jesus himself, in person, I also realized that if I am truly serious about following him regardless of the cost, and really take everything the bible says seriously, like the parts about being one Body and not getting caught up in division and controversy (which is endless in the Protestant world, in my experience), then I must become a Catholic. My ancestors left Catholicism either by choice or by compulsion during the English Reformation (I don’t know which); regardless, I needed to reverse the break and come back into union with the original Church.
I also realized that if I really, really trust Christ, then I must trust his words that he founded the Church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it – and so they never have. To say that the Catholic Church failed and some ordinary man had to come along and re-found Christianity is to say that Christ failed. That is the implication in what Protestants say – and Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and any number of other groups who claim to have “found” the truth that was “lost.” But Christ could not have failed – and he does keep his promises, and always has. I trust that. And history bears it out, if you study the history of the faith in the first 1500 years of Christianity. It did not die out, and there have always been men and women of very great faith in Christ, in every era.
I realized, in the end, that if I really believe that Christ is in control, then he also is in control of the Catholic Church, knows what he is doing there, and always has. Appearances to the contrary at different times in history, including our own present time, are due to a combination of human weakness and sin, and interference from the evil realm. These are prophesied in the bible, and the answer always given in the bible is to keep one’s eyes on Christ and remain as one, growing in knowledge of him. The bible does not give leaving and founding one’s own church as an option during difficult times – to do so is a direct contradiction of scripture. On the contrary, we are to stay put, keep our eyes on Christ, and refuse to get caught up in division and controversy. Our job is not to run the church or run away from the church, but to love the Church and each other in the Church, and Christ above all, as one, and stay put in the Church.
The Protestant Reformers were living during a difficult era of Church history, and came to their own conclusions about things, and did what they felt they had to do. I’ve also come to mine – and reversed what they did, because I became convinced that it is the better, more biblical course.
And I have not been disappointed. I have learned so much since I entered the Church – and yet feel that I have so, so much more to learn. There are untold riches here, *****, that so deepen and enrich our faith, that can deepen and enrich our faith endlessly, our whole lives long. Just to be a part of this world-wide, unified Body of faith is an incredible, indescribable gift, a real gift of God that takes my breath away daily, every time I think of it.
And the faith is not a static thing – it is eternally growing, deepening, unfolding, from a tiny mustard seed into an ever greater Tree, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and will continue to do so until Christ comes again, and the whole creation, heaven and earth, are made new. And the more closely I follow the Church, the closer I come to Jesus himself, the more closely I am conformed to Him. Because the Church is Him; it is His Body, the expression, the on-going earthy incarnation of His Mind and Will and Love. It is very beautiful.
Not that it is always easy – Christ did tell us that to follow Him means we must take up the cross – but even difficulties, endured with patience and faith, cause us to grow ever closer to Christ, in union with the Church, his Body on earth. It is a spiritual battle, *****, and we must not let appearances fool us. The battle is for the salvation of souls, and the evil that wants to snatch souls away from Christ also wants to discredit and disfigure his Church as much as possible. But believe me when I say that it is only a superficial disfiguring. Christ was disfigured on the cross; the Church is disfigured on earth; but Christ remains, and lives, as does the Church. The truth is there, *****, and it shines when you find it. And it is Christ, who has already won the battle, and who will prevail. And our trust is in Him.
To me, Protestants who keep trying to found new, pure, churches based on “original” Christianity or the book of Acts are like people who don’t like the direction a tree is growing – and so chop it down, and start a new tree. Not to be overly harsh – they sense, rightly, that something is wrong, and are trying to fix it. And their faith is real, and saving.
But they miss the point, because they do not know it: there already is a Tree, the original Tree that’s been there all along, and there is a Master Pruner, and He prunes the Tree in His own time, in His own way, and so keeps the Tree healthy and growing in the direction He wants it to grow. Our own natural impatience makes us want to take matters into our own hands, and force things to be right, right now, rather than letting God truly be in control, and make things right according to His own way, in His own time (remember: with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day – 2 Pet 3:8).
Yes, some things about Catholicism may at first seem strange or unscriptural, but there are two reasons for that. First, lack of knowledge about the doctrine itself and what it really means (including lack of knowledge of the scriptural underpinnings). Second, the simple fact that most Protestants have spent their lives being told that certain doctrines or practices are unscriptural without ever examining them, and so believe they are, with a kind of (understandable, under the circumstances) knee-jerk “that’s not biblical!” reaction whenever they hear of certain Catholic beliefs or practices. In some extreme groups, they have even been told their whole lives that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon and the Pope is the anti-Christ, so there is not only misunderstanding but actual fear of Catholicism (I had friends like that in my old Evangelical church), which makes it even harder to consider the truth.
There is also the simple fact that, whatever you think, Catholicism has been around, and growing, for 2,000 years. You simply can’t wrap your mind around it in a day or two, or a year or two. Or maybe even a decade or two. It is, in my opinion, the Mind and Life of Christ expressing and growing on earth, ever since he planted it here in his own flesh and watered it with his own blood, and continues to feed it with his own flesh and blood. And that is a great mystery, for it is the Mind and Life of our eternal, infinite God, whom the Church brings to us, and whom we enter into, and Who enters into us, endlessly, in the midst of the Church.
And it doesn’t really matter how well people understand it. We are like sheep – and sheep aren’t very smart, and do wander off and get lost, frequently. And Christ is our Shepherd – and he always comes and finds us again, and brings us back, and helps us to understand once again. He is in control, not us.
So, in sum, I converted because I became convinced that the Catholic Church is Jesus’ Church, the original Church that He founded while on earth. And I stay because I have since become convinced that it is not only His, it is Him, living and working, suffering and saving, through the Church on earth – and always has, throughout all of history. For me, knowing what I now know, to be true to the Church is to be true to Christ. To leave the Church is to leave Christ. But being true to Him, I touch Him and am united to Him more closely than in any other way possible, every time I receive Him in the Holy Eucharist.
January 10, 2007
My First Encounter with Christ, Part I: The Background
Previously on this blog I wrote about how my experience of Jesus has changed and grown over the course of my Evangelical and Catholic experience, but I have never told my actual conversion story, how I first encountered Christ. I think the time has come to do this. I’ll do so in a couple of posts so as not to wear my readers out with one long post.
I’ve written a little about my background elsewhere, such as on the About page on this blog. I’ll begin by expanding on that a little here.
I was infant baptized in the Episcopalian Church, as were my siblings. Initially my parents attended a large, “high church” conservative cathedral in a large southern city, where I was baptized, but when I was four years old, they moved to a small university town in a western state where they attended a much smaller church. I don’t remember the cathedral at all.
I do remember the small church, which we attended until I was 12. What I remember is that it was very boring, very dry. It was hard not to fidget around in the pews. The Sunday school classes which my parents took me to were uninvolving. In our home, my parents didn’t really talk about Christianity much, and I never heard either of them speak of Jesus. I think it was something they took for granted as a part of the (southern) culture they grew up in, and assumed we would just “get it” as we grew up if they took us to church.
We didn’t. We were growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, in a small, liberal university town that in the late 60’s got very caught up in the Vietnam war protest, the hippie movement, counter-culturalism, feminism, and the sexual revolution. My siblings and I were affected by all of it.
So, apparently, was the pastor of our church. My parents resigned from it when I was 12 when they found out he was smoking pot and having an affair with the church secretary. We never went back to a traditional Christian church of any kind after that, though my parents continued to believe in God. Afterwards, my father went through a period for a few years where he explored different kinds of alternative and Eastern beliefs, which he shared with us kids.
When I was 15 they both joined the Christian Science Church, where I attended church and Sunday school until I was 18 and moved out on my own (though it was interesting, I never became a Christian Scientist myself). They’ve been Christian Scientists ever since.
So, in a nutshell, I was not exactly well-grounded in traditional Christianity. To me it was a dry, rote thing that we did because we were supposed to. The most exciting thing to me about church on Sunday was not church, but going out to eat at our favorite restaurant afterwards, at the end of which we kids would run down to the comic book store a block away while our parents relaxed and talked after the meal. As a teenager, it was more a way to meet and flirt with cute boys than anything else.
The whole time I was growing up, I had no sense of God, no personal experience or encounter, certainly no experience of Jesus, who seemed very far away and abstract, having nothing to do with me. But I did suppose there probably was a God, due to my parent’s belief in God. One thing that helped was my father, who has always been a very deeply spiritual man, if not the most traditional Christian. He was also an outdoorsman and mountaineer, and experienced the presence of God most powerfully when outdoors, in the wilderness.
He would talk about it while on camping or picnicking trips, which we did frequently. I remember once on a trip when I was ten, he was staring at some distant rocky peaks with a faraway look on his face, then turned to me and said, “God’s thoughts are printed on the rocks of the Rocky Mountains.” I saw those rocks in a whole different way after that – the lines and wrinkles in the rocky faces appeared almost as lines of text. Those kinds of experiences with my father affected me more than church did, and predisposed me at least to the possibility of God’s existence.
As a teenager, I got caught up in a lot of the social upheavals that were happening, as pretty much all the kids in my town did, especially feminism and the sexual revolution. I decided that I was a feminist and free to do whatever I wanted, and rejected any vestiges of Christianity that may have still been hanging around me. I moved out when I was 18, and embarked on a free-wheeling, adventuresome (if confused) lifestyle, which I pursued freely for the next six years, until I was 24 years old when, without warning, an interior alarm went off in my life and woke me up to the reality that there is a God, and I had to find Him.
About the original creator of this site
aimee milburn cooper | Biography
Writer, teacher, speaker, and evangelist for the Roman Catholic faith. Live in the western US. Grew up in the Southwest and Rocky Mountains; as an adult have lived in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, and Rocky Mountains. Married to my wonderful beau Joe, my own personal St. Joseph. Have no children of my own, but many spiritual children through this blog and elsewhere. I love to answer questions about Catholicism - feel free to e-mail me your questions.
Evangelization Training Program Developer and Instructor, including theological and door to door training.
Teach at the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization
and parishes within the Archdiocese of Denver
Have also taught at the St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.
Give talks on the meaning of the gospel message in the Catholic Tradition to a variety of groups, including RCIA, Adult Faith Formation, FOCUS and college campus groups, Serra Club, and am a speaker at the 2010 Living the Catholic Faith Conference in Denver.
Undergraduate degree: Smith College, with honors.
Master’s Degree in Theology: Augustine Institute. Class Valedictorian.
My faith path:
Was infant baptized in the Episcopalian Church, but my parents resigned when I was a child and the faith never “took” with me. Grew up in a small, liberal university town in the 60’s and 70’s; became a mainstream feminist; had a spiritual awakening when 24 and realized there is a God and I had to find Him.
Spent the next 12 years looking everywhere except Christianity (because, as a feminist, I was very closed to it): Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Shamanism, Native American Spirituality, and many new age things as well. Moved around a lot during those years, but didn’t find God in any of those places. Finally, through personal breaking circumstances, had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, realized He was the God I had been looking for, and committed my life to him. Made a real about-face in my life at that time, surrendered and renounced everything that had gone before in favor of Christ.
After that, realized that since now I was a Christian, I’d better start attending church and learning about Christianity. But where? Ever look at the number of churches in the phone book? I prayed for the Lord to show me where, and He led me to an Evangelical megachurch, where I was given great training and formation, and unleashed into lay ministry: evangelism (was a trainer in door-to-door for my megachurch), prayer ministry, biblical counseling (certified), and singles leadership for a large regional ministry. Also affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ and founded a bible study for students on the campus where I was working at the time (it’s still operating, to my pleasure).
Then, through interesting circumstances, the Lord began to draw me to Catholicism. After a long period of study and prayer (not to mention, making waves and losing, or nearly losing, friends) was confirmed a Catholic in 1999. Was hired a week before confirmation to work in a parish, and within the first year was moved into the position of Music Director (my undergraduate degree is in music; I’m a classical pianist by training, also compose and sing a bit and have learned my way around the organ), where I worked for six years to both implement the liturgical guidelines of Vatican II, and draw my congregation closer to Jesus through the kind and quality of music I chose. The last year there I implemented a monthly Novus Ordo Latin mass in addition to our regular masses, and formed and trained a Gregorian Chant Schola to lead the chant.
Resigned from the parish job summer of 2005 to go back to school, and completed a master’s degree in theology in the spring of 2008, a long-time dream of mine. For my thesis project, designed a door-to-door and outdoor evangelism training program, which I am continuing to develop, and am developing and testing other classes and presentations on the theology of the Catholic gospel, the core of my work. Have begun giving talks on Catholic evangelism, including a presentation of “The Catholic Gospel” to different groups, including retreats, adult faith formation, RCIA and Catholics Come Home groups. My first book is planned, which I am now working on.
I love to write and speak about the Catholic faith, which I dearly love, and I try to speak in union with the Magisterium of the Church. I have voluntarily taken the Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity. However, I am not the Magisterium, happily submit everything I say to the oversight of the Church, and willingly correct anything She may find me in error on (Heb 13:17). I say this because I don't want anyone here to have any misperceptions about me. I'm not the horse's mouth; I'm just a signpost along the way.
My personal motto: I spend my money on books, and with what's left over I buy food and clothing.