Movies about Saints my way

Temptation

Salvador Dali’s Temptation of St Anthony

With the Golden Globes finished, and the Academy Awards around the corner, I wanted to publish this long overdue. I often find Catholic Saints film a bore. For fifth grade catechesis, maybe, but not much for inspiration in my faith. For Greater Glory & There Be Dragons pushed the Action and Intrigue. They attempted to make Saint stories suitable for Big Budget / Big Screen Cinema. In 2014, we had Biblical epics picked up by Directors who may have been atheists. The Gospel According to St Matthew, directed by atheist, marxist, homosexual Pasolini, is on the Vatican’s list of top faith films.

While many Catholics dream of big budget, suround sound, 3-D, nationally screened Saint films, I wonder what could be lost. Some saints might get their action sequences. Most saints are dealing with interior dilemmas that just cannot be communicated in the same manner as Big Budget / Big Screen Cinema. You might have to talk to directors who have dealt with smaller scale, intimate portrayals, accompanied by character development. On the one hand, you might limit the audience. On the other hand you might reach an audience (that wouldn’t waste their time on a cheesy sentimental saint film) for an intelligent, thoughtful, artfully crafted film experience around a particular saint.

Classic Film Biopics often portray the subject’s life through a series of episodes. Contemporary Film Biopics typically center around a crystallizing event in the subject’s life. Unfortunately, most Saint films tend to rely exclusively on the classic biopic style. For example, Lincoln dealt with the passing of legislation, rather than entire series of episodes of his life. While the Song of Bernadette (1943) attempts her entire life, Bernadette (1988) captures the apparition event. Most Saint or Pope movies employ the Classic Episodic style Biopic.

Finally, they are portrayed as spiritually unconflicted and morally uncomplicated. That is not always a bad thing, but that would not work for many of the subjects that I haveselected. When I speak of character development, there has to be a mountain in the heart that is moved by faith. There has to be some sort of challenge that they are to face, and that is more meaningful and inspiring than watching a subject never flinch in the face of adversity. I am sure that some people would like to see movies about miracles, stigmata, or zapping fireballs at pagans (see Patrick below), but were we to be approaching stories of human persons becoming saints, it might be the most effective and powerful method. Besides, when you are focusing on covering 60 years in 100 minutes, you miss a the emotion, or you miss the passion

For my proposed ideas, some I have thought about for the past several years. A few have suggestions for a director. I have no interest in suggesting actors, so that it is clear that this list is meant to emphasize how having a skilled director could do a lot more for a film than having some attractive faces.

Augustine
One of my saint film disappointments in recent times was Restless Heart about Augustine. As an Augustinian, I certainly had high hopes. The central theme of Augustinian Friendship as a communal discovery of Truth was absent. The sort of personal conversations among confidants was missing. Sometimes I wonder if you had a director like Richard Linklater, you might be able to capture some of the banter which is essential for a film portraying Augustine. It wouldn’t hurt to also have an Augustinian scholar brought on board to consult, as they do in many other historical pieces. We are, after all, entrusted by the Church with the Spiritual and Theological Legacy of Saint Augustine.

Martyrs
Almost any group of martyrs in the history of the Church could be portrayed as a compelling drama for the big screen. Unfortunately, most Catholics filmmakers are more interested in making something that is okay for children. Films have been made portraying violence while minimizing gore, this would not be that hard. I do think of Cecilia, Felicitas, or Perpetua as possible protagonists if we are dealing with early Rome. Alfonso Cuaron, of Gravity and Children of Men has taken on complicated nuanced dramas, and I could see something like this being taken on by him.

Antony of Egypt
Lets face it, the early desert monks don’t look good on a vintage kitsch prayer card. They are not pasty-skinned enough, dainty blonde enough. Think, weathered face, squinty eyed (Clint Eastwood). The Temptation of Antony is one of the oft-repeated paintings throughout art history, and I wonder what an intelligent film director would do with it, and add his twiest. Because, let’s face it, a film like this could subvert the modern cultural paradigm which sees temptation as either insurmountable or as pleasurable. Out of the other ideas mentioned, this one wouldn’t lend itself easily to lighthearted humor. David Fincher and Tim Burton are two completely different director’s, who would take this in very different directions, but could do something awesome with it.

Francesco d’Asis
Many people’s visions of Francis are as a gleeful sprite gracefully prancing around Assisi singing like Snow White to the little birdies. They completely miss the fact that he left behind his urban dandy of a cloth-merchant old man for the callous hands of a wild and rugged stone chapel. Francis was a short man, kind of like X-Men’s Wolverine. I do believe that a Francis movie can find a good way of mixing playfulness with manliness. After seeing Prince Avalanche, something I would like to find in a Francis movie, David Gordon Greene might be able to pull something similar.

Thomas the Apostle
Christianity has existed in Southern India within a century of Christ’s crucifixion. All of the Eastern Christian Churches often appear different than what we expect Christianity to be. Having a film portraying early Malabar or Malankara Christians would, in many ways, be earth-shattering for our stereotypes of Christianity as a Western Religion. This could even be an enthralling story with Thomas as a supporting character or catalyst, rather than a protagonist. Slumdog Millionaire was a joint operation in England and India, and this would be what I would hope for with something like this, however, I wouldn’t want to see Danny Boyle (who did a work about Saints in Millions), as much as a local director.

Patrick
A few years ago, I saw a Saint Patrick movie, where he was going around zapping pagans with fire. There is a desperate yearning to make a Catholic movie into a big screen spectacle. I find my heart moved by his story, and would prefer to have something more dramatic. Years ago, there was a little Irish animated feature The Secret of Kells (2009). It portrayed a group of Christian Monks creating the Book of Kells. It had its share of fairies and folklore, and was meant to be for children. I have wondered what it were like to have short stories of some of the important Irish Saints: Cuthbert, Brendan, Brigid, and of course Patrick.

Mother Theresa
Here is someone that is still in the popular imagination among Catholics, as well as some secular humanist types. Younger Catholics don’t know who she is. I admit, that I am not a card carrying member of her fan club, and there could be a moment or two in her life that is worth capturing. I am impressed that she caused a ceasefire, she got a Nobel Peace Prize. These could be instances. It is also known that she did not feel internal spiritual consolations for the last part of her life. This is the sort of thing that works good on film. I don’t know that I have an idea of a director for this one (as I am not as familiar with her), but one person suggested Parish Hilton should be cast to play her.

Bonus: Hipster Pope Benedict
Ratzinger was forced to join the Nazi youth. He deserted, broke the law by going to the seminary, and became a priest. It could be a sort of wartime star crossed romance, except falling in love with God, and perhaps enjoying beer and having a friend cat. This wouldn’t go through the rest of his life, in fact becoming the pope would be irrelevant to this story that could be wrapped up in the climactic event of him being accepted into the seminary.

8 Reasons Why Augustine & The Confessions still Matter

20140826_152853I believe that plenty of people who call themselves atheists, agnostics, or renounced their Catholic faith are not irreedemably damned. I believe that not so much because God doesn’t damn people, but more, because many of them just think that they are atheists, agnostics or not-Catholic anymore. Augustine, as he describes in his Confessions, makes it clear that God drew close to him, in spite of Augustine’s sinful life, and drew him back.
Augustine was taught about Jesus as a child, by his Mother, Saint Monica. He was not necessarily raised pagan, he was just never baptized. He even would search for the name of Jesus in pagan literature. He drifted, joined a cult, became a skeptic, and eventually found his home in communion with the Church.

  1. God is not some bearded man in the sky who created the world in six 24 hour days, so many people leave the Church, and declare that they are agnostic or atheist. Augustine was deeply troubled by a literal interpretation of Genesis, probably just as troubled as many intelligent adults are by Modern Evangelical Fundamentalists. Augustine describes this in his Confessions.
  2. Young People swear that they had religion “crammed down their throat.” Augustine took a Sea Voyage at Night, from Africa to Rome, to get away from his Mom who wanted him to be Catholic.
  3. Temptations are tempting because they seem to feel good. Augustine makes no qualms about covering up the internal conflicts we face, about the gruesome delight of sin. He also does not justify himself by evading the fact that these same sins leave you incredibly bereft. Augustine’s candid discussion of Sin, Grace & Redemption would resonate with many young people.
  4. We both know what it is to have a Broken Heart. Many young people are putting off marriage, many of them are just as cynical about finding someone worth marrying as they are about finding a religion worth committing too. Augustine describes the heartbreak he experienced when it didn’t work out with a woman he loved.
  5. As Augustine matures, so does his perspective on God, Faith & the Church. I believe that many young people claim agnosticism without realizing this is part of maturation. I think they are turned away by Catholics who have had an easier time at their faith, not realizing that this Negative Way is part of Spiritual Maturation.
  6. People wonder if religions is useless. Augustine became disillusioned with a narrow perspective of Catholicism before returning. He also became disillusioned with many other Religious cults of his time, including Philosophy & Manicheanism. Conversely he also credits non-Christian pagans with being stepping stones on his way to the fullness of Truth in the Church. I think many people who leave the Church because they think that we teach that being non-Catholic instantly damns one to hell.
  7. Augustine does not always have easy answers, in fact his Confessions often presents unanswered questions. Some Catholics find genuine comfort in Church Teachings which are stated clearly. Many people, including myself, find quick, easy, and clear answers constricting. Augustine’s Confessions reminds us of the importance of Mystery.
  8. Ultimately, Augustine’s Confessions are not so much about himself, but about God’s work in his life. You can always read plenty about Augustine if you want to know him, including a biography from his long time friend Saint Possidius. Since his Confessions are about giving Glory to God, they will provoke readers to see God working in their own life.

UPDATE (8.30.14) Be sure to look up Reading & Studying Augustine to find the preferred translation of the Confessions, and some other easier to read works by Augustine.

5 Reasons I hate the term “Practicing Catholic”

The term Practicing Catholic merits little explanation. It is common. What deserves more critical attention is perhaps it’s origin.

There are Catholics that do not practice their faith, and still staunchly identify as Catholics. There are those who identify, and do not practice, nor believe any of the tenets of the faith, and are still unflinchingly, and irrationally, attached to an identifying label. I’m Catholic but [insert phrase here] I don’t go to Church, I don’t care about what the Church teaches, I don’t care much for the Pope, or my bishop, or the parish priest… the list goes on.

So, in an effort to make it clear that a self-identified Catholic actually attends Church, receives the Sacraments regularly, believes in Church teaching, tries to live it out in their daily life, and hopefully tries to maintain a close relationship with Jesus Christ, they identify themselves as a Practicing Catholic. Perhaps the amount of Catholics who do not actually live their faith or attend Mass has become so normative and rampant, that one feels it so significant to actually use the term. Also in the case of why I brought this up, sometimes people would prefer that Catholic Institutions be staffed exclusively by “Practicing Catholics.” (Although, I suspect that there are some that would wish to purge the world of anyone who isn’t a “practicing Catholic” but that’s another story).

I must admit, I don’t care much for the term.

Obviously, as a priest, it would be incredibly redundant for me to even describe myself as a “practicing Catholic,” that would begin to imply that you could be a priest who is not a “practicing Catholic.” I won’t even begin to imagine what that would entail.

I was impressed, on the flip-side, but by an alternative catchphrase. The high school that I work at never uses the term practicing Catholic in it’s faculty handbook, but it does say that faculty members must be involved in their parish communities. The omission of the term Catholic is not to suggest a watering down of Catholic identity, but merely to acknowledge that a minority of faculty members are not Catholic, and are still to be involved. Involved Catholics.

The majority, however, are very involved Catholics. Knowing the religion faculty, I am not worried about Catholic identity. In fact, I have found myself in numerous situations where faculty members nonchallantly mention something about their Catholic parish. They mention it, not to show off, not to prove they are “practicing Catholics,” They just talk about life, and life happens at their parish. A number of our faculty members lector or cantor at Mass, teach confirmation, give bible classes, and have a variety of connections in their parish.

I think that the term is incredibly outdated. A practicing Catholic made sense before the Second Vatican Council, and perhaps only made sense almost immediately preceding it. You attend Mass when required, you drop money in the collection plate, you say your prayers, you eat fish on fridays, and fast when required, etc. I really believe that this falls short of what the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, the Saints, the Second Vatican Council, and our current and recent Popes have called us to. It falls so incredibly short.

In brief, I can sum it up as follows.

  1. Labeling oneself a practicing Catholic does not seem to put the Person, Life & Mission of Jesus Christ at the forefront. It is not obvious that one has a living faith in, and relationship with Jesus Christ, recognizing him as the Son of God, and the Savior of humankind. It might be obvious from this term that one attends to the typical Catholic things: Mass, Rosaries, Baptisms, Weddings, Candles, etc.
  2. A “Practicing Catholic” can only be measured or verified by externals: Do they attend Mass? It cannot be verified by internal disposition or attitude, but only upon externals. Someone can easily succeed at making Mass weekly, but not open their heart to the grace of the Scriptures and Sacraments. There is really no way of confirming one’s purity of heart without immediately sounding pompous and conceited.
  3. Labeling oneself a practicing Catholic may not necessarily mean that one lives their faith in a healthy way. It is possible to create a solipsistic Catholic world, in which one does indeed attend Mass regularly, practice the faith, says prayers, believes Church teaching wholeheartedly. They can, at the same time, not have another family member who is Catholic, not have a faith-centered friendship with other Catholics, attend a Church without interacting with anyone, go Church-shopping for an extended period of time, have no familiarity with a particular priest as their Pastor, live their faith on Catholic blog message boards. A lot of people have been quite adept at living out the Teachings of the Church, while completely missing Jesus own ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom, and mercifully attending to the needy. It is really easy to imagine one to be in communion of Church, but not actually being in Communion with any particular Catholic Parish Community. That is problematic.
  4. Labeling oneself a practicing Catholic may or may not indicate that one is actively engaged in any actual outreach, Evangelization, or corporeal Works of Mercy. It is used only to emphasize one’s proximity to the Sacraments or Catholicism, with NO implication that they live out their faith after Sunday. This term falls dramatically short. In fact, Practicing Catholic might as well be the same as Mediocre Catholic: one who accomplishes the bare minimum. Although the bare minimum might be reception of the sacraments and acceptance of Church Teaching, and may be better off that many others. It is still a bare minimum, qualifying one as mediocre.
  5. Labeling oneself a practicing Catholic is 100% conditioned by our time and place. It depends entirely on there being individuals who identify themselves as Catholic who don’t even attend Mass or believe in what the Church teaches. At the rate that “nones” are the fastest growing religious group (those who have no religious affiliation), it is already clear that more people are hesitant to identify as Catholics when they do not practice. In a generation, this term will already be useless. It is entirely conditioned on there being an alleged group of non-practicing Catholics.

Really, if someone says that they are Catholic, shouldn’t it imply that they are practicing?

Profound Insights in my walk with Christ to Today.

Read the Introduction

Read Part I: My Perception of the Christ in my Youth

Read Part II: My struggle to follow the Christ

Read Part III: With Christ, I became Critical

Spiritual but not religious might be the dogma of choice my generation, but as this perspective dominated various classroom settings, I found it rather shallow and uncritical in and of itself. Jesus was, along these terms, to be accepted as another wise teacher with other philosophers, prophets, and mystics. This made it easy and convenient to dismiss the entire Gospel of Jesus should it inconvenience me. As a result, this wise teacher Jesus was not quite as subversive as it was probably intended to be. It ignored the urgency at which Jesus taught and ministered, separating the message and the deeds. Over the years I would find myself in several circumstances which become vivid in my mind, challenging me from limiting the Christ into something superficial or shallow.

The Passion of the Christ was released in movie theatres at a time when I took a Speech Class in Community College. With all the controversy across the media, and reasonable concern for anti-Semitism, the teacher allowed us a brief open forum in the classroom to discuss the phenomenon around the film. I was concerned that the person and message of Jesus was limited, in a way that limited the significance, power, and effect of the Resurrection. The students affirmed her criticism that the film was not purely and entirely historical, and I was even more troubled by this. It seemed to undermine the whole endeavor of art and imagination in general, if the only acceptable art was art verified by cold, literal, sensible data. It was as if a theology was not permitted on film because it went beyond the scope of historical facts. As I voiced this concern, it was met with confused looks.

I went on to join religious life, and continued my undergrad studies in San Diego. I took a class about the psychology of the religious experience. We read excerpts from some of the notable writers in western mysticism. I had wondered in what way the Divine was being described in semi-scientific terms, which made the Divine appear to be overly impersonal, and automatic. I think the teacher was satisfied with my criticism, but one of the students in the class was not. I have this vivid memory of her aggressive retort that I could not dare to make God into a person, because people are imperfect. I don’t know her whole story, but she was not a Christian. In fact more students in the class, who described themselves as spiritual but not religious, were more uncomfortable with my criticism.

Finally, my experience in a Philosophy of Science helped me to put the pieces together. We came across a school of thought called “Logical Positivism.” It was characterized by coming to knowledge of facts only by those things which can be verified through sensible data beyond any doubt. Based upon a rigid dogmatic acceptance of an Enlightenment exaltation of Rationalism, that would only allow things to be held as truth should they be verified through severe scientific analysis. Logical Positivism, subconsciously grips the minds of western humanity, while we postmoderns are fighting to deny it. Everyone in this class found Logical Positivism disgusting, but hard to imagine that it was not immensely influential. Even as I was reading much of our Christology texts, I found this lingering within, as the writers felt compelled to respond to “Positivism.”

Alongside some of the academic exercises that I was undertaking, my Augustinian formation was taking shape. For Augustine one of the most important images of The Christ is drawn from John 14:6, where Jesus proposes himself as the only Way to the Father. Augustine, therefore, would describe Christ as the Way on which we travel, as well as the destination to which we travel to, and our own friend on the Way. This puts some of the initiative on Christ, while recognizing our own humble incapacity to attain the Divine Life by our own meager efforts. This is also a recognition of the character of Augustinian Spirituality, of “One Mind and One Heart Intent upon God.” Sometimes Intent is replaced with “On the Way to,” to characterize the Christological focus, as well as the dynamic experience of the journey. We are, therefore, shaped by the journey, and shaped by our experience of the Christ.

At school, with a program committed to the Reform of the Second Vatican Council, we began many of our courses reading the Documents of the Council. I was amazed to find the Christological emphasis on the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. We speak of God’s Word as revealed to us in Scripture, but the Council Fathers point to God’s Word, or God’s Revelation in the person of Christ. Jesus Christ is the fullness of God’s Revelation to Mankind. That puts the person in primacy over the inspired word, which foreshadows, and reveals the Incarnate Word.

Finally, in my Christological course, I have been mutually enriched by Ratzinger and Schillebeeckx theology, which has shaped the central concern of our course. In the past century, there has been a sincere effort to recover the message of Jesus, as if it had allegedly subsided to concerns over the nature of His person. That is, the proclamation of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels focus on the “Kingdom of God,” while the Apostolic Church focuses the proclamation on the person of Jesus the Christ. Ratzinger and Schillebeeckx manage to successfully point out the consistency and unity between the message of the Kingdom of God with the person of Jesus. Ratzinger also draws the term from Origen titling Christ as the “Augobasilaea” which literally translates as “Self-Kingdom.” Jesus parables point to His very person, while the message and challenge of that Dangerous Gospel further compels us to live with a similar unity between who we are and what we do.

I have also found myself concerned, perhaps with my own experience, in which the Incarnation or the Resurrection of the Christ as often seen as a more “Spiritualized and Subjective” events, rather then actual Historical events. The real danger, I have found is to profess the Incarnation or the Resurrection as they have actually happened. That leaves no room for us to be hypocrites or moral cowards. The Incarnation, and the Resurrection verify the Inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Jesus, the Christ, is the verification, therefore, of God’s continuing engagement, activity, and deep affection for humankind. Jesus, the Christ, is the supreme and concrete manifestation of God’s love for humankind, in that The Christ has chosen to be with us, and to invite us to Divine Life. Further, this Christ has been Raised from the Dead to continually verify the promise for each of us.

With Christ I become critical

Read the Introduction

Read Part I: My Perception of the Christ in my Youth

Read Part II: My struggle to follow the Christ

You may recall, a few weeks ago, that I began telling my story about my journey to Christ. Instead of “searching” for God, God was searching for me. Instead of finding God, God found me. After this discovery, a lot changed.

The major consequence of my walk with Christ had begun to put me at odds with the status quo of the prevailing culture. It also gave me insight causing me to be critical of the often narrow focus of some of the leaders in my youth ministry. For all the good that they did, I was finding that what was missing actually begun to give me a greater conviction in that direction.

I returned to my senior of high school a strange person, studying Ancient Greek Philosophy and Church History while a stoner friend of mind was becoming enthralled with gnosticism. Along with some other friends of his, we spent time in the public library researching. I picked up the Jesus Seminar piece The Five Gospels, if only to read the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. I did not find any of their conclusions startling, as if there was some Church or Jesus that I was sentimental or nostalgic for. It was easy to entertain it. However, the Gnostic Gospel was too spiritual, and the Jesus Seminar was not quite spiritual enough. Concurrently, I was reading a book about Catholicism from a Progressive Theologian that wrote almost exclusively to deconstruct and disprove every traditional doctrine. It was nice for speculation, but it was rather boring. After deeper reflection, I felt the Gnostics, the Jesus Seminar, and this particular progressive theologian had an elitist Jesus that set them above and apart from the Masses.

By the end of the year, I found that many of my non-religious classmates were becoming obsessed with end-times prophecies and the Book of Revelations. I began to find it ironic, that again there was a group of people who hardly attempted to imitate the life and message of Jesus, who felt that they had an exclusive access to Jesus. The consequence of their obsession was a rather bleak and cynical disposition toward humanity. I just had a hard time fitting in with them. It was difficult for me to agree that our actions in this life, had no connection to our relationship with Jesus.

I think it gave me a greater respect for the context of Scripture. It also gave me a conviction of the necessity for a more normative, inclusive, institutional, and culturally positive religious expression. I found that in my home parish. I found that in the Catholic Church throughout the ages. I found that in my Church throughout the world. I also found it liberating to be in a community of sinners, saints, hypocrites, and human beings, without these other exclusive limits on Jesus.

My participation in my youth group allowed something of a safe haven for me to grow in the faith, to which I had very little encouragement elsewhere. In my first few years of college, I was finding various issues that put me at odds ever so slightly. In many ways, this was an acknowledgment of an imbalanced presentation of the faith, and consequently an imbalanced image of Jesus.

Many of the charismatic Catholics in my youth group were highly influenced by Evangelical Protestant literature and culture. This assumed that there must be a hostile confrontation to a hostile anti-Christian culture. This resulted in a Christian bubble “family-values” entertainment culture, where they insisted we throw away all of our “secular” music, and instead listen to “christian” music. Often times, some of this “Christian” entertainment was like a cheap knock-off variation of a pop-culture chart topper. I had experienced Jesus in Hip Hop, even if it could not appropriately be labeled “christian” music. I also found this adversarial attitude troubling for the life of a Christian disciple. I did believe that I benefited from some of the Apologetics that I studied because of hostility that I experienced, but I found it overall severely limited to the entire Gospel message.

Second, I found their focus on an Atonement Sotieriology constricting to the entire Gospel. At youth events, they would say “Jesus died for you!” as if the suggestion was to provoke me to become a disciple. I felt myself becoming a disciple, not for guilt, but because Jesus invited me to New Life in the Resurrection. Of course, as I understood the Jewish tradition of the Paschal Lamb and the Exodus story and Passover, it gave me a new appreciation for the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. I was coming to see more power for our salvation in the Incarnation and Resurrection events. The locus of our salvation, as I saw it, was in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, because these events enabled us to participate in divine life. All the crucifixion was doing to some of the leaders, was teaching us how to hate ourselves, and to hate the world. The Resurrection gave us hope in a world restored to God’s Reign. I soon found that many Eastern Christians found the locus of salvation in the Incarnation.

Third, my youth group was lacking a clear conviction of the Gospel demand for Social Justice. As I studied the Gospels, the lives of the Saints, and a few contemporary Church documents, it was alarming at how our youth group was going to train us to pretend like this life did not matter. Although our youth group did not change, I think something did happen, since so many of my friends became social workers.

I have often heard it said by my elders that a High-Christology incapacitates us for Social Justice. This was hardly the case with my own relationship with Jesus. A High Christology only gave more urgency, timelessness, and relevance to the Gospel. My prayer life also became characterized by something a bit more romantic and special than I feel capable of explaining here. If God was passionate lover, that defined my passionate prayer life. Despite this intensity in my prayer, it never meant escape, only transformation for myself and for the world.

Read Part IV: Profound Insights In My Walk With Christ Today

My struggle to follow the Christ

Read the Introduction

Read Part I: My Perception of the Christ in my Youth

By the 8th grade, we studied world religions, and suddenly I became infatuated by Buddhism and Islam. At least in the way it was presented, I believed that there were many people of deep conviction out there, while my Church lacked deep conviction. I would soon find this overly ambitious as my high school classmates in public school who were Buddhists and still superficial. This only left me feeling more isolated, and there did not appear to be a single person on the face of the planet that I could talk about my spiritual intuitions. I think I felt guilty for even having them, and tried to be another reckless drug and sex obsessed teenager. Nowadays, kids cut themselves, and I often wonder if I would have too. Over the years, I found that stoners could speculate on everything, and I fit right in. I had an outlet for my spirituality for once, giving me the confidence to acknowledge what was in my heart. I also felt free to speculate on the person of Jesus, although he was almost exclusively a moral or political philosopher and revolutionary.

I had consistently opted out of going to confirmation at fifteen like everyone else. I actually believed at 16 that I would be brainwashed. I also thought the introduction of youth group at my parish would have been more lame. I always thought of youth group as a bunch of old people trying to make Jesus look hip. I cannot exactly figure out why at the time, that I thought a ‘cool’ Jesus was problematic. A few months afterward, confronted by the death of biology lab partner to a drug overdose as well as my grandfather to natural causes, I stood over the vast chasm of despair of my mortality upon the cracking foundation of a meaningless life.

Hip Hop Rapper and Singer Lauryn Hill received a Grammy. In her brief acceptance speech she said that she could not find herself until she found God. That moment still displays vivid in my memory. Several months later I would be motivated to sign up for confirmation, if at least to learn for myself in the Church as opposed to continuing to speculate with stoners. I actually thought that this would be something I would move through, onto the next religion, perhaps Buddhism.

At that time, I took up my bible, I think I started backwards from Revelations. The Apocalypse of John was always so sensational, and it was what everyone I knew seemed to be talking about at that time. I read the side notes that put the book in historical context, and it lost its mystery and vitality. I swiftly went to the Gospels, and read forward from Matthew, paying attention to the notes. I had been under the supposition that for years that the Gospels were deceptive fabrications, however, the New American Bible analysis sections made a decent case for the historicity of the texts.

My approach to the person of Jesus had been opening up in various ways. Since I was convinced that the Scriptures need not be either a literal word for word historical fact or fabricated allegorical myth, it left me some room for human and religious interpretations. I was also fascinated with the religious focus of the person of Jesus, whereas previously I assumed he had a purely moral or political mission. If I were to describe it now, the unity of the person and message of Jesus made both the person and message of Jesus more compelling than ever. Jesus claims to divinity, as well as actions of equating himself to God were more numerous than I expected. I think I had heard that Jesus was God, but I never gave it much thought. The consequence of reflecting on the Incarnation would turn my world upside down.

I was convinced that a Church youth group retreat was going to mean being brainwashed. I think seeing people returning so happy was more terrifying then anything that I had known. So despite my inhibitions, I reluctantly went. It was strange, but I was surprised to find everyone in the youth group to not be full of hypocrisy, and they were genuinely good people. Since I went to the retreat, it did mean that I was open to whatever might happen, otherwise I would not have gone. Then we had Eucharistic Adoration.

The host in the monstrance there before me, in the context of the Scriptures that I had been reading, and the reflections of the retreat invigorated me with a deep conviction: God entered into history to be in solidarity with humanity was evidence that God loved us passionately. God loved me passionately. Until then, I had accepted that there was a distant impersonal sort of God, that transcended everything, who vaguely and disinterestedly wanted us to be good to each other. The Creator of the universe was like a rationalist disinterested scientist. There was something more exciting about a passionate lover God who manifests Godself in the human person of Jesus Christ. There was also something troubling about it all. If God entered into history, God entered into my personal life. If God loved me directly, and came all this way for me, I could no longer be the hypocrite that I was. I could no longer have a disunity between what I knew deep down in my heart was right, God’s will for humanity, and the life I had lived.

I had grown comfortable with Jesus as another moral teacher. I had also been comfortable with a God that ‘accepted us unconditionally,’ which really meant that we did not have to be responsible, and that God was really not interested in our lives. Now everything mattered. I mattered. Jesus mattered. God mattered. God’s will mattered. Every other person on the planet mattered. Morals mattered. Love mattered. Heartbreak mattered. Every time I had been hurt mattered. Every time I hurt someone mattered. And this was troubling, because I had seriously wondered if nothing mattered. This new understanding was exciting, and distressing. I was horrified being handed a mission that I accepted. I do not know what got into me. What was even stranger was that I wanted all of this.

I struggled at times, even resisted this movement of grace. For the scope of four months, from May through August, nothing was certain. I seriously could not take satisfaction in things, but I desperately wanted to. It was a psychosis or something. I just could not take satisfaction in drugs or sex, and my awareness of the emptiness was immensely acute. Near the end of summer, I attended another youth gathering. In my next experience of Eucharistic Adoration, I knew it was time to commit. God’s interaction with humankind, through the Incarnation of Jesus, had consequence for this life.

Read Part III: With Christ, I became Critical

Read Part IV: Profound Insights In My Walk With Christ Today

My perception of the Christ in my youth.

I was baptized Catholic at an early age, and brought up by Irish and Italian parents, in a predominantly Hispanic cultural setting. It is nearly impossible for me to identify how any characteristic cultural images of Jesus in any of these cultures actually effected me. I chose to go to Mass with my Dad earlier, to have more time to play with the neighborhood kids who did not attend Church. We were sent through our parish Catholic school.

In the same way that I thought it was unfair that the other kids got cooler toys, I wondered if it was unfair that I would have to go to Church. It mattered a lot to my dad, although he could never articulate why. By the 5th grade, I think that I was beginning to believe that religion was becoming obsolete and useless. There were videos we watched in class of a priest explaining the events commemorated during Liturgical year, and the experience was almost as dreadful as his lame sweater. Cartoons were interspersed with this priest’s lectures, but I thought they lacked the quality of the other cartoons I watched on Saturday mornings. Likewise, the happy clappy songs we sung at Church epitomized irrelevance in my childhood world.

I was fascinated by science, the universe, and history. I used to spend hours looking at the pictures and reading the articles in children’s encyclopedia. The wonder of the cosmos often provoked my imagination in defining the games that I played. It was not clear to me how God fit into the universe, but I never imagined that some old white bearded man sat on a cloud somewhere. Further, I do not quite remember how or when I came to a broader more abstract philosophical perception of a transcendent God, it must have been somewhat early. Science had the answers, so I believed. At about puberty a growing dissatisfaction was brewing within me.

Looking back, I think I was dissatisfied with a Darwinian philosophy on life, which saw the weak necessary victims of their own weakness. I think I was also dissatisfied with my materialist beliefs in the universe that saw my existence determined by random accidents. Perhaps I felt excluded because I was not like other kids. My existential loneliness colored everything grey. I was not an atheist, but I had no indication that God took interest in our life, he was more of a scientific creator then a loving parent. I did, however, question the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, and imagined the entire bible to be a complete fabrication.

I really struggled to believe that everyone who showed up to Mass on Sunday to be genuine. I was dumbfounded that the families of my classmates called themselves Catholic as if it had no consequence on their life. Neither was I any more impressed by the libertine lifestyles of the families of the neighborhood kids who did not have a religious affiliation. I think I had a desire to experience someone with a solid, genuine, and visible conviction. I do not believe I was aware, but I was somehow a nihilist who wanted to be shaken out of it. As far as Jesus was presented during his life, he appeared to be an individual of the real kind of conviction that I had hungered for, if he was not a pure fabrication. He was killed for something that I was not quite sure what. He must have upset somebody important. I think I began to become interested in this person, but only insofar as I could eliminate non-scientific things like miracles and the Resurrection. Therefore, I perceived Jesus as merely a moral teacher of some sort, which did not make him any more relevant than any other moral teacher. Therefore, it was quite easy for me to be a moral coward when I approached Jesus, because his message and person were not intrinsic to my life. The Gospel that Jesus Christ was a little too Dangerous for me, and this helped to keep me “safe” from its implications.

Read Part II: My struggle to follow the Christ

Read Part III: With Christ, I became Critical

Read Part IV: Profound Insights In My Walk With Christ Today