Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapter 7, The Idol of Plans

What follows are my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapters 7: The Idols of Plans. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book. There’s more to read than my reflection contains. I highly recommend you check out the book for yourself.

Jacob wrestling with the angel, Eugène Delacroix, fresco (758 × 491 cm) — 1857-61

For so long I have been such an anxious worry-wart, such an intense planner that I approached this seventh chapter of Strange Gods, by Elizabeth Scalia, “the Idol of Plans,” fully prepared to accuse myself. Then I found something strange.

“There is a paradoxical kind of power in being willing to sweep away the idols we make of our plans. When Saint Paul writes that “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10), he is telling us when he surrenders the notion that he could accomplish anything on his own, he discovers that God, working through him, does wonders beyond his own meager imaginings. It is precisely the same with our plans. When we stop insisting upon them and permit God to throw us a curve, and answer it with trust, wonders come our way.”

I planned. How did I learn this? Linda Vanzzini, who is now and has been for a long time, Linda Gillum. Making plans were always framed as seeking a call or answering a call from God. The chapter opens with the Yiddish proverb, “man plans, God laughs.” I have been hearing this message since junior high when I first encountered Linda. What happened to Linda? She discerned for a long time. She entered. She was unhappy. She left. She entered a new order. She was happy. Her mother became ill. She returned to care for her. She met a man. She never returned to that convent. She is married now with four incredible children.

And what happened to me? I had her lessons and our late night retreat night chats in my mind as I grew older. I felt called to religious life. I planned in a way, but ever knew that I could be wrong. I was heartbroken when I discovered God was not calling me to marry him. But thanks to Linda and St. Therese, trust was ever the narrative of moving through life.

I graduated high school. I served on NET. I had no plans after that because I was waiting to hear if/when I would marry my Lord. I wanted to enter the Sisters of the Cross; I knew I had some home there. I attended two years of college locally and longed for community. A few steps later, we find me in Minnesota attending a new and different school. An interview with a graduate school I felt I should look into, but did not want to attend, caused me to fall in love with the school. It was logical to attend right away. God had other plans. My husband is grateful for that. I moved back.

Engaged, married, then off to graduate school. I would plan on attending the doctoral program. This was the second plan I think I ever really had, the first being to attend at all. These logical career steps, the ones I had put out there so boldly in order to defend my choice to attend such an expensive school so far away at such a time in my life. But my daughter came. We wanted to get pregnant. We wanted a child.

It was not God’s will for me to get a doctoral degree. Fully ready to accuse myself, I find, looking inward, that I have been flexible, confused at times, bewildered at changing plans, but flexible.

Scalia writes “it makes me wish the first scripture verse any of us are taught could be the line from Jeremiah 29:11: ‘For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, and not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope’.”

My ways are wild, compared to the way I was taught I ought to plan in my family of origin. I know better than to attribute those wild ways to anything other than the lessons I learned in that youth group and from those many readings of little Therese, and the grace of God. Where my mother might have questioned, she saw our joy and supported it, and that spurred us on. Having fulfilled so little of the “plan” I often say we don’t deserve to be so happy. I’m glad we’ve been so reckless.

Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapter 6, The Idols of Coolness and Sex

What follows are my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapters 6: The Idols of Coolness and Sex. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book. There’s more to read than my reflection contains. I highly recommend you check out the book for yourself.

Chapter 6: The Idols of Coolness and Sex.

Oh, to be cool. That word. With tongue-in-cheek Elizabeth Scalia writes this chapter smoothly pulling out cool slang from decades ago, emphasizing, I think, the absurdity of the worship of cool. Coolness, she writes in Chapter 6 of Strange Gods, is about the here and now. The here and now imply, sometimes overtly, a throwing out of traditions, of the old, of the way it used to be done. It is a phenomenon and worth examining our attitude towards the image of cool in our own lives.

I am grateful to acknowledge that I knew a long time ago that cool was beyond me. I looked over during class at the cool kids, preppy, wealthy, stylishly dressed with over-sized Addidas jackets, and boyfriends. I didn’t want to be like them, but I wanted to belong. This is Scalia’s insight, beyond the obsession with throwing off the old, idolatry of coolness is rooted in a desire to belong, to fit in. I wanted that, desperately. Many junior high and high school girls do.

I had individual friendships with older peers, but in their groups I had no place, which I learned time and again. I wanted the attention of boys, but did not get it, until later, when it was consistently boys too old for me, to the grief of my parents. I wanted friends. I prayed for it. I met Nia. Freshman year, sitting in class, “what’s your favorite book” on a getting to know you paper handed out by our teacher. I wrote “Story of a Soul.” I looked over at her’s. She wrote, “the Bible.”

Nia taught me by her example and her confidence that coolness is meaningless. Each person has gifts and something to offer. It’s a shame when people hide it. When I served a year with NET Ministries, we often said a particular teammate had “instant cool.” And indeed he did. There was something about him. We didn’t address it so directly but a handful of others had that quality. Then there was me with my ridiculous, outlandish mingling tricks. Not cool.

Through my brother (in Christ), I learned deeper this distinction. With every bit of energy, he sought to affirm the dignity and goodness of those around him that year. He was the first “cool” person to love me (as a sister). And one day when we both were tired, our differences came out. I knew that the cool and the not-cool were meaningless. They were mere personality differences. We were bonded by Christ.

After NET I met a man, equally uncool, un-smooth, who like me, fit the description of a nerd because we are passionate about something. But he never was afraid of his personality, of his different-ness. He was never ashamed to admit who he was. He was proud of it, too. As an introvert, he did not desire so desperately to fit in. He was happy to be by himself. Nevertheless, he was hardly by himself at school as a likeable band member, handsome, always with a girlfriend. Together we are quite strange, and we hope to raise strange children, children who will know they belong, if only in their strange family, worshiping a God who made us like himself.

We have that power, in this school of love called the family. Richard John Neuhaus relates, “As Martin Buber classically explained, the I-you relationship between persons carries within it the hint of the I-Thou relationship to the mysterious, to the Divine, to the strange glory. Every child who is blessed with a loving mother first discerns in the mother’s smile the presence of a Thou by which the child is encompassed and by which his or her being is secured. ”

What a good thing that would be.

Reflections on Death on a Friday Afternoon, Chapter 3: A Strange Glory

Below are two reflections from Richard John Neuhaus’s book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, Chapter 3: A Strange Glory.

To read my reflections from Chapters 1 and 2, please click here.

“But at Cana, Mary is also learning, as all mothers must learn, to let go, to let him go on the way he must go.”

I admit it, I hate this. I hate that we can’t own them and have total security that what God has given us will be ours forever. “Our children are on loan,” and no one demonstrates that trust better than our Blessed Mother who was entrusted with the greatest gift imaginable, who, as Richard John Neuhaus explains in the third reflection of Death on a Friday Afternoon.

“The Greek word for this self-emptying is kenosis, it is the surrender of all that we hold most dear, and for Mary, it was the surrender of her dearest. Long before they looked at one another on Golgatha’s place of strangest glory, they had been prepared by many little surrenders for this surrender by which all was restored.”

If things go the way they should, we will have plenty of practice. They will learn to walk, they will fall, they will go to events without me, they will own their own beliefs, choose their own mind. There will be choices that hurt, choices that distance us, geographically, emotionally, perhaps spiritually. If it goes the way it should, all this will happen and one day they will bury me. With a faraway look in his eye, as my college professor expounded on Augustine’s Confessions, when Augustine’s writes of the death of his son, my professor said, “A parent should never have to bury his child.”

But it doesn’t go the way we want it to or the way he should. Something has gone wrong, and that something has gone wrong echoes down into the deepest chambers of the woman’s heart when she sees her child die.

Mater Dolorosa, Châteaux de Fayrac et Castelnaud

 “Mary had nowhere to rest her heart.’ and now it had come to this, she pondered in her broken heart, in her heart that by its breaking was made whole. That is the way it is with discipleship. The way of the cross is the way of broken hearts.”

Mater Dolorosa. Workshop of Dieric Bouts the Younger, c. 1470–75.

Why does God do this to us? Why does he allow us to hurt and ache? Why does he allow those to hurt who can hurt and ache on the deepest level imaginable, deeper than can be imagined, a mother?

“In all this, Mary was following her son, step by inexorable step. Her kenosis mirrored his kenosis, her life’s song was entirely attuned to his, a letting go into the vastness of whatever will be, trusting that at the end will be glory. Now his hour had come, and his hour was completely hers.”

It makes motherhood a fearful thing.

“To say that Mary’s way is not our way is to say that Christ’s way is not our way, for Mary was in every respect the disciple of her son. In all our promotion of empowerment, fulfillment, self-esteem and self-actualization, we should know what we are doing. We are rejecting the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. ‘The disciple is not above the master.'”

The disciple is not above the master.

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. (Hosea 11:3)

As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13)

“Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15)

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.” (Matthew 23:37)

Perhaps, because when a mother loves, she is most like God. Though Christ was male, though God is our Father, he loves with a perfect and complete love. So the love of a mother is as God loves. The love of a father is as God loves. They both are met in perfect unity with God.

And so in motherhood, I can learn the way God has laid for out for me to love him more perfectly by loving with a self-emptying love. By nursing as long as she needs to. By waking again and again and again.

Mary is the model of discipleship in her total availability to the will of God.

In her total availability to God, Mary is totally independent and totally dependent upon God’s providing. True availability to God overcomes the fear of being dependent on others, for God provides. It is our determination to be independent by being in control that makes us unavailable to God.

 It is indeed a strange glory, paved with broken hearts.

Reflections on the Sacrifice of Issac

In time for Holy Week, a reflection on the Old Testament story, the Sacrifice of Issac, inspired by Meditations on Vatican Art, Mark Haydu.

Sacrifice of Isaac, Attributed to Ludovico Carracci, 1555-1619, Vatican Museums

I have never really reflected on the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me.” Reading Strange Gods, by Elizabeth Scalia, has opened my awareness of how this commandment, and the breaking of this commandment is part of every moment of our lives, since the worship of God (pray without ceasing) is part of every moment of our lives.

I’ll bet that, if you are a Christian, no matter how faithful you are there are Bible stories that perplex you. This morning I attempted to pray using Meditations on Vatican Art by Mark Haydu. Today’s meditation focused on The Sacrifice of Issac by Carracci. This is the story that I continue to approach with confusion. I could accept it with faith, but it never fully made sense.

Here the pieces came together. Inspired by Greydanus’ review and reflections on the controversial movie Noah, I came to a appreciate in a deeper way the development of our understanding of God. God revealed himself gradually to the Israelite people. Noah, as portrayed in the movie, did not always understand God and how to carry out his will. But he was righteous in that he did all he could to fulfill God’s will, even if it is was a mistaken interpretation.

God asks Abraham to show he will not put his progeny before God. What are all one’s accumulations, in this time and culture, if you cannot pass it on through an inheritance? Abraham is nothing without a proper heir, yet God asks Abraham to show that God has primacy in his life. Is he willing to sacrifice his only son, his own hope for a future, a possible idol? Perhaps it is an idol of self because it would be the carrying on his glory into a next generation.

Second, perhaps God asks Abraham to sacrifice the idol of prosperity. But not prosperity in the sense of accumulated things, rather the idol that we make of God when we look to God to be our personal candy machine. I will love you if you give me this, if you provide for me the things I believe I need to have. This is a strong American ethic, if I understand correctly, a common Protestant ethic (I’m not an expert on that) and comes from a strong Jewish ethic. That devotion will be rewarded, in some measure, in this life. God asks Abraham to cut that away and be faithful to God as God, not the God who gave him all he ever wanted. Will he love God when even that is stripped away? The same question was put to Job.

But God is faithful to himself. God never changes even though he reveals himself gradually to us. Isn’t it common, when we first experience conversion, giving our heart to Christ, to have an overwhelming sense of joy? It is only later when the spiritual honeymoon has settled that we encounter the cross again, strengthened by what God gave us. Even though he did shower joy in this life on us, that is a gradual revelation of his constant goodness. He never was the candy store even though we might have interpreted it that way.

So even though God asks Abraham to kill his only son, he stops him. God does not want parents to kill their children. He stays Abraham’s hand, though the word of an angel. He put Abraham to the test.

We will be put to the test. Our children will stray. Are we willing to face God as the one true God, putting aside idols we may have accumulated in our chapel? Facing God with empty hands, will we remember our children are “on loan”? What a terrible place that is, to have to learn that lesson, and we must learn it again and again. Every parent faces this cross, gradually or acutely.

God wants us to do all we can to protect our children. Yet, the reminder that “God works all things for those who love him” reminds me that he will take the terrible situations we face as parents as opportunities to affirm our devotion to God and that we should have no strange gods before him.

Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapter 5, The Idol of Technology

What follows are my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapters 5: The Idol of Technology. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book. There’s more to read than my reflection contains. I highly recommend you check out the book for yourself.

Chapter 5: The Idol of Technology

Family brought us home. No tragedy, no crises, just wanting our daughter to know her grandparents. We moved back to California without a plan, other than to work on making it work here. It was not long before we missed the culture and art of the big city. I have continue to yearn for the life and people I knew in Minnesota while in college. We don’t fit in here, just like we didn’t fit in while were in school. And we know it.

But it is worth it to be here. Some time ago I read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher. His book taught me the why it is important for us to be here and the benefits we’ll derive. We know from the spiritual life that what matters is relationships, God is relationship. The search after art and culture can be talked about as a search for beauty, one of those very important transcendentals. But to seek a life that revolves around it, choosing to enjoy the art and food over family or community, is in a way, a search for pleasure. If pleasure is the goal of life, in the end, it turns up empty, because we are made for relationship.

In Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Chapter 5, The Idol of Technology, Elizabeth Scalia gets to the heart of the matter. Like seeking out a town solely based on pleasure (albeit, pleasure that has to do with the good and the beautiful, trancendentals), is like the personal reinforcement we seek through an internet community. I look at what makes me feel good, what reinforces my beliefs, either about life or myself. I can click away if it disturbs me or challenges me. It is my world and I make it for myself. Pandora and Netflix uses my preferences to introduce me to new things, but never new things that will shake me up, only once that cater to what I already know I like. I’m simplifying of course, but why not?

If I come back to my roots, living in a town for higher reasons (relationship, family), I find myself less comfortable. We have to seek more. We have to accept more. Instead of locking ourselves away in a lovely artistic tower of a narrowed culture, we live side by side with people who continually make us assess our values, keep our radical ideas in check, and cause us not to live by the letter of any law, but approach with a pastoral and open mind. On paper and online it is easy to say, “this is way it should be in liturgy,” for example. But to meet with a variety of mindsets and learn to communicate not just on the level of ideas but on the level of the human person. This forces us to grow. This is for our good. This is the good of a relationship.

As Scalia and Dreher point out, living and loving a community or country, are a lot like loving a person. You take the good with the bad, the quirks with the charm, and in the end, because your love has been tested and tried, you love them better for it. You can’t plant roots in an asphalt jungle. We’d grow, but wouldn’t grow well without a little fertilizer. We need people, both to help us grow, and to remind us that we are capable of having that role in other people’s lives, keeping that idol of self molten and not molded.

Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapter 4: The Idol of Prosperity

What follows are the excerpts that stood out to me and my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapter 4: The Idol of the Idea. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book. There’s more to read than my reflection contains. I highly recommend you check out the book for yourself.


“He was warning us that holding on to anything too tightly—our lives and the stuff in it—will prevent us from being able to open ourselves up to him.”

A young woman desired to emulate the poverty St. Francis. This balanced the love of things she admitted to having and was tempted to indulge. Desiring to be holy, I wondered if I should feel this way as well. As time went on, I knew I loved stuff. I did seek to eliminate clutter, to not own what I did not use. But each time we moved, I came to the same conclusion, I need this stuff; I have too much stuff. How I could I need it when other do with so much less? I felt guilty for my lack of detachment.

“Benedict said, instead of being a source of pride, it should be a source of humility, because it is better to need less. Every worldly, every thing you “need” is something else that can come between you and God.”

St. Benedict used examples of those who are unable to fast, as I have been through pregnancy and nursing, or those who need a nightlight to sleep, which would seem to some as a less obvious “need.” On a pilgrimage the young woman said she would travel like St. Francis, with a spirit of poverty. I decided I would do the same, in the spirit of poverty. My bag was twice the size of her’s! I thought to myself, to be truly poor, I will just use what I have; I won’t buy anything new or special for this trip. Hence the size of the bag. I shed some belongings as the journey went on.

Each time we move, I cannot believe the amount of stuff we own. But certain things I won’t get rid of because, anticipating future children, I would have to buy it again. We don’t have the funds for that. In my guilt of owning so much stuff, Elizabeth Scalia’s words and Benedict’s rules are comforting to me. I’m not wrong to want to need less, because it is better to need less. For years I told myself, I should need less. Now I understand that some people do, realistically need more. I don’t need my candle holders and all my trays, but I have needed a changing table because of back pain, a crib so baby can sleep in a quiet room, the millions of bibs because babies have little faucets just inside their heads that leak. I have needed the ridiculous amount of clothes because they span 50 pounds of weight that I put on and take off depending on whether or not I’m carrying someone inside me. That’s life. That’s a message I needed to hear.

And it turned out, I was not as bad as I thought. When we moved to a smaller home, it was not difficult to get rid of things. I saw that I am not as attached to things as I thought. I’m not trying to praise myself here, because my primary temptation is to condemn myself or be anxious, so these are important lessons for me. To see that I am a little closer than I thought to the way I think I ought to be, to the way I know it is good to be, detached.

But there is another area that could stand some growth.

Scalia writes this about Dorothy Day.

“Divesting herself of material things, she also rejected prestige, power, and office (Given her influence, her connections, and the high regard many held for her intelligence and energy, she could have had them.) She encouraged others to reject power and its trappings, too, because she knew them for the false gods of busy-bodiness and tyranny they were.”

I will ask myself, why do I want to step forward in my career? I love my job in a deeply, incredible way. I benefited from my education. We’re making payments on loans. We have all we need financially. Why do I want to advance? I know I want to be able to meet with clients for longer periods of time, and provide therapy for them, beyond the coping skill building and support I provide now. This is cause for my to examine myself. How much of it is for prestige or more money?

We can fall into worshiping a god of prosperity, setting up one’s retirement, make-a-buck, make-a-buck. On Sunday, the priest preached a message on prioritizing. Money can be replaced; possessions can be replaced, but time cannot be replaced. I looked at my husband as he held our baby. For us, for our state of life, for our financial status, our parental status, for the moment, I knew we were doing it right. We were answering the call as God has called us.

Reflections on Death on a Friday Afternoon, Chapter 2: Judge Not

Below are two reflections from Richard John Neuhaus’s book, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, Chapter 2: Judge Not. To read my reflections from Chapter 1, please click here.

An Approach to Faith

As a 8th grader, attending daily mass, I fell in love with the Lord through the Holy Eucharist. After high school I served one year with the National Evangelization Team, NET Ministries. In that year I learned how to pray using the lectio divina. Following that year, a friend invited me to make a holy hour every day. Throughout college I planned my courses around daily mass and my holy hour. It was a blessed time.

Then came adulthood. In my first year of full time work, I struggled to find rhythm in my prayer life. Then marriage, then pregnancy, then baby, so on and so on. During pregnancy I regained my spiritual strength to pray upon waking, but then baby. “Routine is beauty,” Mark Berchum, founder of NET Ministries said. How to find the beauty when the routine continues to change?

I struggled for a long time with this. The markers I used to diagnose my spiritual life had all changed. With a new vocation I had to look at it with a totally different tool. When I sought counsel, some excused me, some accused me. One day I attended mass, either without my child or with my child asleep. After communion I felt the Lord, I knew that presence, I knew him. “That’s right,” I said, “I love you.”

In the second meditation on Christ’s last words in his book, Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus has this to say:

When our faith is weak, when we are assailed by contradictions and doubts, we are tempted to look at our faith, to worry about our faith to try to work p more faith. At such times, however, we must not look to our faith but look to him.

Look to him with whatever faith you have and know that your worry about your lack of faith is itself as a sign of faith.

I learned to stop worrying. Periodically I have glimpses of his light and I am reminded, yes, I know you, I love you. I am the same person and you are the same God and our relationship still exists. Step by step, I will continue to follow his path. I have to remind myself to accuse myself, to confess. Each season I need to seek out ways to pray, to read, to grow. I try to be more merciful towards myself and how far we are from the goals we set for our family prayer.

So this is good advice for me.

Desire all to be saved

As Neuhaus reflects on the interaction between the Good Thief and Christ, specifically Christ’s response to him, “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” Neuhaus considers whether all can or should be saved.

“For paradise we long. Fer perfection we were made.”

“Given the evidence of Scripture and tradition, we cannot deny that hell exists. We can, however, hope that hell is empty. We cannot know that, but we can hope it is the case.”

Some might object to such a notion, and indeed many intelligent minds have. To one objection, Neuhaus reminds the reader of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, called at different times throughout the day, but paid the same wage. In response to the indignation,

“‘What is the point of being a Christian if, in the end, everyone is saved?’ People who ask that should listen to themselves. what is the point of being first rather than last in serving the Lord whom you love? what is the point of being found rather than lost? what is the point of knowing the truth rather than living in ignorance.”

Some would say that since no one can be saved except through Christ, that those without Christ do not know the truth, and thus cannot be saved.

“Everything that is true—in religion, philosophy, mathematics or the art of baseball—is true by virtue of participation in the truth who is Christ. The problem is not that non-Christians do not know truth; he problem is that they do not know the truth they know is the truth of Christ.”

At length, Neuhaus lays the foundation of understanding that God has made us for paradise and wants all men to be saved. So we must pray as the persistent widow.

“Prayer creates space for possibilities that would not otherwise be possible.”

We must care, we must desire that all be saved because this is what God desires.

“A Christian is not saved against the rest of humanity, to be separated out from the rest of humanity. Rather, we are saved, as it were, on behalf of all—to be reconcilers, intercessors, mediators for all.”

And we must make an effort to share that truth. We should not be bashful.

“Many Christians are embarrassed by this claim (that there is salvation by no one else). They are intimidated by a culture that decrees that all truths are equal. Who are you to claim that you have the truth and other do not? That is indeed an intimidating question, unless we understand that we do not have the truth in the sense that is it ours by virtue of our having discovered it; we do not have the truth in the sense of its being possession under our control.”

It is God’s truth, it is he who has made us aware of it. And so we should share it, and share in his desires that all men be saved. This is the way of evangelization. One more piece of the puzzle.

Fresco depicting the friar preaching to the Florentines



Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapters 2 & 3, the idols of I and the idol of the idea

What follows are the fragments that stood out to me and my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapter 2: God after Us: the Idol of I and Chapter 3: the Idol of the Idea. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book.

Chapter 2: God after Us: The Idol of I

“And the most painful trust is that the first and most difficult idol to dislodge is the idol of oneself.”

This makes sense, doesn’t it? If Adam and Eve wanted to be like gods, want to determine or themselves what is good, then we will be no better. It will start with us. I have always been distant from this concept. Never thought idolatry would be possible in my life.

The great evil of murder, then, is the fruit of the idolatry that is first an idea, and the idea is almost always about the self.

Objectifying another (whether we do so in lust or in anger) is a key component to idolatry, but that object is most often not the idol.

Those objectified become sacrifices to the idea. Elizabeth Scalia, in her book, Strange gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Chapter 2, walks us through the concept and how the breaking of this first of the Ten Commandments explains first what is so wrong with breaking all the others. To put anything before God is to give it primacy of place, to worship it. This happens to us all at one time or another.

How do we prevent those thoughts of rage or lust from become idolatry?

“[God] wants us to deprive [our wayward thoughts] of power. Saint Benedict of Nursia tells his monks that when evil thoughts arise, they are to ‘dash them against Christ immediately.'”

“…doing so begins with awareness and a willingness to admit our imperfections.”

Following the Commandments will lead us to perfect joy, because it leads us to freedom. To worship another god enslaves us to it. The author points to the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate what God has in store for those who love him.

“Those beatitudes are the promise of what is ours, in all of those aspects of ourselves, once we have cast off the attachments to ideas, the idols Jesus illustrated throughout the Sermon, that keep us so self-involved and forever fragmented. If we are attentive to Christ call for detachment—not so much from our limbs and eyes but from our furies and fancies—we remain more closely aligned with God, more direct in our focus, and more mindful of keeping God alone before us.”

Detachment from the things of this world. Detachment in order to keep right order. How difficult this seems. I wonder if I am detached. I buy new clothes as I outgrow my old. From before bearing children to four years after my first was born, my style has changed. My size continues to change, though I thought it had finally settled. Time to buy new clothes. Again and again and again. I wonder if I am a slave to the new.

I will return to this question. I return to it again and again. I continue on the path of Scalia’s thoughts.

“This finally explains the paradoxical coda with which Jesus ties up his list: to be happy to be abused, persecuted and lied about because you are no longer ensnared and enslaved by the idols of your mind or the idols of anyone else. You have been freed from the shackles of conformity; you’ve come detached from the ever-whirling collective.”

The collective. There is something in this chapter that sparks remembrance of a painful episode at a parish. “Why wouldn’t they want Latin?” a woman asks. We can name two parishes where we are not wanted. We try to never be pushy, arrogant, know-it-all, but to share what the Church teaches, to aim for something higher, to say, “we can do more!” But my husband and his organ playing, Latin-chanting, are not wanted. We were pushed out. Our new parish has welcomed us and wanted us and appreciated the gifts and skills we desire to offer to the parish. What happened before was a mystery.

Then I come to these words. “persecuted and lied about because you are no longer ensnared and enslaved by the idols of your mind or the idols of anyone else.”

We are not being cast out from out homes. We are not being cursed at, told we are going to hell. We are not being spit upon, legislated against, sued. Never once did it occur to us that being excluded in this way was a form of persecution. But could it have been?

I continue to the next chapter.

Chapter 3: The Idol of the Idea

…this community had embraced their idea so wholeheartedly they’d stopped wonderful whether there might be other perspectives out there. Because they’d stopped wondering, they couldn’t know that, as Sister admitted that night, another perspective could have validity.

When I finished Chapter 2 I was left with a thought that what we experienced at a parish may have been a form of persecution, although, even now it feels strange to use the word, since whatever we experienced pales in comparison to what others have suffered.

“In every parish,” [the priest] sighed, “the first thing they want a priest to do is bow down to the god of ‘but we’ve always done it this way.’”

“We’ve always done it this way” yes, this is what we encountered. My husband and I feel free. We love the Church and her Traditions. We take from it. We are not at all opposed to that which is new, but it ought to respect the Tradition. The parish he worked at wanted to do the same music, something “traditional” was unwelcome, even if it had been new, if it sounded too “old” I imagine it would not have been welcome. Whatever my husband could have done better to navigate the emotions and politics, he wasn’t given a Christian chance. He challenged the group-think and for that, was pushed out.

“When we over-identify with our thoughts, the result is always inhibition, narrowness, and constraint, instead of the freedom that resides in a trusting and true relationship with God.”

“To say yes to God is to say yes to the very essence of what is positive, expansive, and co-creative—and for anything creative to happen, there must first be space.”

We feel energetic to begin something new, to help it to grow. This is not always welcome. Yet we have made a home in a parish new to us where the priest desires this very much. He is eager to engage us, eager to begin new things. The people of the parish are tired and wounded. Others are dismissive. I pray for this priest that his creative, expansive energy will not be drained.

I fell into this thinking before. Trying to make sense of certain teachings of the truth, the idea itself because the god and my view was narrowed, unmerciful. God can make us free. A true understanding of God, looking at God for who he is, not in our own terms, leads us to freedom. Having no gods before him.

Reflections from Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life

It isn’t often an introduction keeps you thinking. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, written by Elizabeth Scalia, is a wake-up call to our way of life. She wastes no time. The introduction sets the stage and opens up the reader’s understanding that those passions and pursuits of our life, on dangerous ground, dancing a dangerous line which can tip the scale into idolatry.

She sets the stage then spends the book helping us to unmask those idols.

First, ease us into understanding:

“Idols are not like opinions or even convictions. They don’t ask for consensus or even strong advocacy—they demand worshippers.”

“If God created humankind in his image, we humans tend to create gods in our own image—or perhaps more correctly, we humans create gods so reflective and shiny, they keep us looking at ourselves.”

I have read about this before. The sin of Adam and Eve was not that they ate an apple, but rather that, having heard the commandment of God, they decided for themselves what would be good. This is how they would be like gods. Scalia rightly points out that when the modern Christian-mind thinks of idolatry, we think of golden calves and silly looking orgies from Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments. It is a concept so far removed that it becomes easy to gloss over the commandment. Of course we would not worship another god. That commandment must reference some other culture where that might be more likely to happen.

Recognizing where we’re at, Scalia leads us another step in understanding:

“We stop and think of what it means to have something “before God”? It means to put something “first,” yes, but more fundamentally, it means to put something “in front” of God, as one might put a screen in front of a fireplace and therefore place it “before” the fire…it stands before God and us; it separates us from him.”

What is an idol in every day life?

St. Gregory of Nyssa said “ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing.” “I’ve come to believe that an idol is an idea, fleshed out or formed by craftiness and a certain needy self-centeredness.”

An idol is an idea, fleshed out. It takes on a life of its own. Her definition will help us identify them in our own lives. They will be creative, deep, well-formed and multi-faceted. They will reflect a need we have, a need projected outward but points inward to ourselves.

A pretty weighty introduction indeed.

To carry her introduction, Scalia related the story of an incident she witnessed in an online forum where Scalia saw unfold a love of security that seemed somewhat deeper and close-minded than it ought to be. She looked deeper into the words of those on the forum. Could this be a form of idolatry?

“Rather, I decided, it was the anxiety beneath it—lying coiled like a snake under the mist—that the America they had known might be over. It was in service to this strange god of anxiety—which hissed of threats to everything familiar, sure, and safe, and played to naturally protective instincts—that our rural friend was chased away.”

A god of anxiety? My reflection becomes personal.

Coming from one direction to my thoughts: I have struggled with anxiety. The struggle continues. It is an ongoing effort to maintain a calm so I will not get too near the edge.

Coming from another direction: I am alarmed by the atrocities committed by ISIS. I’ve written on that only once, in “The Christian Mission“, but it stays in my thoughts and prayers. My husband and I watched the The Pianist. The parallels of what I imagine the innocent suffering at the hand of ISIS and what the Nazi’s did in Poland and other counties were undeniable. ISIS is moving and their goal is to destroy Christendom. They have stated goals to attack the US, the President, destroy Rome and Pope Francis. Is the world as I know it being destroyed? Do my children face a radically different future in the US, in the Catholic Church, without the security I have known all my life?

The feelings Scalia describes following 9/11 reflect my current fears. Fifteen years ago, I was a teenager when the towers were struck. I mourned the loss of countrymen, but living in California, was so distant that my world was not shaken, only my heart. I am older now and better see the bigger picture, and with that comes questions.

Coming from, yet another direction: the four-year old son of a family we hold dear to our hearts died last week. His funeral was yesterday. As I reflect on the pain of my friend, I think to myself how we never have the hold on our children we imagine we have. She may have understood it better than I, as he was born with a heart condition. Perhaps she daily made the prayer to God offering her son to his protection and love. I am the one under an illusion that these children are mine. In trust, they can be snatched away in an instant. I had to learn this when I miscarried, but in the economic, environmental and philosophy stability I wonder if I have grown complacent.

I am pondering all these things. Scalia’s words act as a scale by which I can weigh them. Do I put my fears before God? Have I offered them to God, essentially putting them behind him so I see only him? Can I come to place of trust, a willingness to endure the storm should the storm arise, from whatever direction? Or do I make a god of my fear, willing to sacrifice to its appetite, willing to organize my life around its worship?

I will trust. As Lent evolves, my health improves and I can think productively again. I have begun praying through the meditations and art provided in Mark Haydu‘s beautiful work, Meditations on Vatican Art. Day 1’s meditation on St. Helena, dressed in fine robes, pondering a vision of the Cross, reminds me that holiness is possible in stability, I can trust God even though we do not suffer as we did when we were un- or under-employed. What are my treasures?

Thirty minutes into Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the man says he lost everything. He has a son with him. It does not seem to me that he lost everything if his son is still with him.

Let me always remember where my treasure is. Let me find my security in God.

And all this from only the introduction.

Death on a Friday Afternoon, 1: Coming to our Senses

For Lent, we are reading Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus. In Chapter 1, Coming to our Senses, Neuhaus reflects on the first word from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The reflection is vast and deep as it sweeps across reality, the problem of evil, the madness of the Cross. It seems impossible to summarize or hit highlights, as any real reflection takes one step at a time, a scavenger hunt for truth. What are the questions Richard John Neuhaus asks?

Why is Good Friday called good?

For whom does he pray forgiveness?

Who is at fault? Who is guilty?

I will share two concepts, but I highly recommend you read it yourself. Neuhaus’ prose is pure poetry.

The truths at the heart of atonement

These are truths we know instinctively, reflexively.

“First, something has gone terribly wrong. We find ourselves in a distant country far from home.

“Second, whatever the measure of our guilt, we are responsible.

“Then, third, something must be done about it.

“[Fourth], whatever it is that needs to be done, we cannot do it. Each of us, individually, the entirety of the human race collectively—what can we do to make up for one innocent child tortured and killed?

“Somebody else will have to do it.

“It must be someone who is in no way responsible for what has gone wrong. It must be done by an act that is perfectly gratuitous, that is not driven by necessity, by an act that is perfectly free.”

Theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God

From this nuanced understanding of atonement, at-one-ment, Neuhaus’ thoughts brings us to the concept of theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God. I give you an excerpt.

All the Adams and all the Eves join with the brightest and the best of philosophers to declare that this is just the way the world is. And who is responsible for that?

…if God is good and God is almighty how did evil come about?

…In order to adjudicate these questions, we constituted ourselves the jury and the judge and we put God on the dock. And soon enough we would constitute ourselves as executioner as well

…The jury deliberated and reached its verdict. The decision was unanimous. With one voice, poor deluded humanity pointed to the prisoner in the dock and declared, “God is guilty!”

Why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.

“Only by submitting to our folly could he save us from our folly.”

“God must become what we are in order that we might become what God is.”

Personal Reflections

When I began to see the world imbued with God’s life and guidance, I saw every facet of the world being touched by him. That was before I knew suffering. As I shared in a previous post, The Madness of Miscarriage, when I encountered suffering for the first time, I struggled deeply not to see God as the arbitrator of this suffering. Consolations such as “it just wasn’t time” or “God wanted this little one in Heaven” deepened my suffering, because it is good that a child should be with his mother. No child should have a life without having been held and no mother should suffer to not be able hold her child. It just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Neuhaus hits this point head on. From the suffering inflicted by one on another to the maddening suffering of the innocent to natural disasters or disease, we know something has gone wrong. “Spare me that sentimental love that says what I do or what I am does not matter.”

And so, as I engage with that first sin, the line which Neuhaus draws from the temptation to determine for myself what is good and what is evil, to the judgment of God, theodicy, I suffer with anger at my heart that God is guilty, the he caused the suffering. I experienced this anger at that dark time of grief in our lives, at the times of economic insecurity as I watched my husband suffer to provide for us, at times of illness and colds that seem not to let up. Why doesn’t God make it better? Implicit in that question is the judgement of God, trying to square God with the way I see the world and how I think it ought to be and how I think God ought to act.

But God is not guilty and how desperately we must realize that. As my husband or I remind the other at times of conflict, “we are on the same side,” God is that lover that longs to reconcile, who holds it out to us.