Reflections on Strange Gods, Chapter Eight: The Super Idols

What follows are my reflections on Elizabeth Scalia’s book Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Every Day Life, Chapters 8: The Super Idols. 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.

 First things first. A definition:

“Super idolatry grows out of ideologies watered too well. A super idol is not one but two steps removed from God. If all ideologies contain elements of self-enthrallment, the enthronement of a collection of our ideologies ramps things up by endowing the ego with a heavy veneer of moral authority. Dress up tribal identifications that accompany one’s participation in a party or a movement, determine that the opposition is not merely wrong but evil, and suddenly mere ideas become glittering certainties.”

Two steps removed is pretty intense. I have seen it. I’ve seen it in Republican radio, I’ve seen it in pro-life activists, I’ve seen it in traditionalist Roman Catholics. It exists on the other “side” as well, but I haven’t seen it because we don’t tend to cross paths in conversation too often.

How does the super idol work?

“We begin to measure every headline, every news story, every sermon, every comment and tweet that comes our way by how it conforms to our worldview.”

Scalia adeptly uses the word “enthrallment” to describe this. One gets excited, one gets passionate, but one becomes so taken up they can no longer see clearly.

Some time after high school I experience something along these lines. I had always felt strongly about modesty, but as a way to fight the difficulty I felt upon hearing just how pornogrpahy or immodesty work on a man’s brain, I became very nearly obsessed with the whole concept. I couldn’t look at another person without judging his or her (usually her) modesty or lack thereof. I was distracted when speaking with someone who was immodestly dressed. I wasn’t sexually attracted to the person, but was preoccupied thinking, “could she be tempting someone?”

Charitably, Scalia identifies that very thing.

“Ironically, that spiritually deforming hatred is very often conceived in love. We love our country; we love our community; we love our church; we love our traditions; we love our perception of ourselves; we love life; and we love babies.”

In my case, I loved my brothers in Christ and did not want to be tempted. I wanted to protect those in my life who I cared for.

But if we become preoccupied with anything in this way, what happens?

“We lose the willingness to bear with the imperfect, flawed, and sinful humanity of another in light of our own broken propensity to sin.”

I stopped seeing the people. I saw only the exterior. I do not recall the path of realization that woke me up from this phase, but I think it had to do principally with realizing that I was so taken up in judgment of what people were wearing that I lost sight of who they are.

I once was so strict, so rigorous, so zealous that I probably missed many opportunities to learn something wonderful.

“We all do that from time to time; we get caught up in our cause, and we become careless with our words. Sometimes that’s about busyness and distraction, and not idolatry. But when we catch ourselves being thoughtless (or when someone points it out to us), we should consider the first commandment and ask ourselves if we have not elevated the object of our enthrallment to that position where it blocks God.

“A good way to tell if God is being blocked is if we have lost sight of the hope for mercy for the sake of another.”

 And that’s the key isn’t it? When Christ says, judge not, he isn’t saying to excuse it, but to never put weaknesses or differences before God and the image of God in the people we encounter. I’m learning to put first things first. People are different, some people do not have the fullness of truth. Many who have the fullness of truth neglect to own it. We all have a long way to go and different journeys to get there. I thank God for that. I do indeed.

If you think someone you love has made a super idol of some cause or passion, pray for them. But have a little fun with them too. When they make comments about the people on the other “side” point out the humanity of that person, say something that any normal person would have sympathy for or could relate. Make excuses for how that person may have become that way. If someone comments on the aggressively pro-abortion activist, say, I wonder if she feels so strongly because she or someone she loved was raped. Or when the anti-Hilary bashing starts, “I wonder if she pursues things like this because her parents taught it the way to success was through power. It’s funny to think what messages we get from our parents on what will make us happy.” You’ll stop the conversation dead, and make it very awkward, but you know what, it’s kind of fun.

There’s more to read from Elizabeth Scalia, and I’d encourage anyone who has enjoyed these posts to get a copy of her book as soon as possible. My reflections will not be your reflections. There is a wealth of ideas in this little book, relevant to all walks of life.

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 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 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.

Fitting thoughts for St. Patrick’s Day; Reflections from reading Strange Gods, Chapter 1: God Before Us

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 1: God before Us. Click here to read my other reflections on Scalia’s book.

I waxed poetic over Scalia’s introduction. It’s time to dive into the first chapter “God before us.” In order to diagnose the condition, we need a definition:

“To place anything—be it another deity or something more commonplace like romantic love, anger, ambition, or fear—before the Almighty is to give it preeminence in our regard. To become too attached to a thought or feeling or thing is to place it between God and ourselves.”

In order to treat the condition, let us look at the cause, as Scalia describes it.

Why do people allow their relationship with God to become disoriented? Sadly, the problem usually starts with love. The human heart craves attention and love—love is the common longing of our lives…Finding this kind of love can be difficult. Giving love can be more difficult still. Sometimes, discouraged or impatient in our search, we chase illusions and yearn not for the give-and-take of a lifetime of sacrificial love but the fifteen minutes of fame…

Of course, read the book for yourself to see these points fleshed out. Every bad or evil thing is a good thing twisted. Scalia recognizes this.

It’s not a bad thing to want to be loved…ego and pride can push us to achieve excellence…but left unchecked or knocked out of balance, they can enslave us.

With our vision bedazzled by our fears, insecurities, egos…out distractions cease to look like pale imitations of love, but instead, becomes reasonable facsimiles.

Convinced that what has enticed us unto obsession is about love, we gather it all unto ourselves.

This approach to things that are not God, idols, becomes a dangerous cycle because they can never fulfill us. Looking at the Ten Commandments, Scalia explains how the last seven reinforce the first overarching commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” If one follows the first, the others are “moot” because everything will fall into place. Taking the time to articulate the final seven, beginning with “honor thy mother and father” are meant to keep us on the road. If I am willing to kill (or defame), to commit adultery (or lust in my heart), than I see the signs that I have fallen from the first and greatest commandment.

There are those who will object to this conversation all together. Scalia recognizes this.

What does it even mean, to put something “before God,” and why would it matter to God, anyway? He’s God! How insecure and needy and manipulative could God be to even make such a command?

But then we make an idol of God himself, fashioning him in our image, modeling him after our human love, which is so prone to the weaknesses of insecurity, neediness and manipulation.

In the later chapters, Scalia will explore some of the major idols of our lives: ideas, prosperity, technology, coolness and sex, and plans.

To frame this chapter, Scalia shared with us about a police officer who would ask God to be with him on dangerous calls. He would pray, “stand among them and subdue them; stand before them in majesty to that your peace and your truth are unimpeded as we work through this difficulty.”

We need to make a prayer of this in our daily life. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day today, let’s take a look at the Lorica of St. Patrick as an inspiration to keep us on track in following that first Commandment. This is but one verse of many amazing verses.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me

When you read aloud it in its entirety, the rhythm takes you deeper.

I could see this as a perfect morning prayer for a busy family, and I may propose this to my husband of adding this to our meager repetoire. For our family, the Consecration to the Holy Spirit has been our regular morning prayer/breakfast meal grace.

Consecration to the Holy Spirit

O Holy Spirit, receive the perfect and complete consecration of my whole being. In all my actions grant me the grace of being my light, my guide, my strength and the love of my heart. I surrender myself to you, and I ask of you the grace to be faithful to your inspirations. Transform me, through Mary and with Mary into a true image of Christ Jesus , for the glory of the Father and the salvation of the world. Amen.

What do you do to keep God on your mind or first in your heart?

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.