The new millennium began with the devastating and psychologically damaging attacks on 9/11, followed by a decade of lost and confusing wars on terror, amidst the general decline of American cultural life. This has given many cause to revisit our fundamental religious beliefs with a new urgency.
Years ago Robert Fulghum wrote a best seller entitled, Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. I can top him easily! His book reminded me of the third question in my first-grade religion book, the sorely missed Baltimore Catechism. Succinctly, it asked Why did God make me? This may be an elementary question but it is one pregnant with deep philosophical and theological mysteries that have sparked bitter debates, wars and persecutions for two millennia.
The answer my 6-year-old mind was given was To know, love and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him in the next life. It is a simple yet profound thought that provokes serious soul-searching into the meaning and direction of one’s life. If we really believe it, everything else we do, crave, strive for, lust after or sell our souls for to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas on his 14th-century deathbed, is cotton candy.
I wonder how many of the 50 Catholic 6-year olds that learned this basic question with me in 1949 still believe its inherent wisdom. Given the intellectual and moral drift of this past half century, I fear not too many. American cultural life has suffered a regression that has warped our very institutions, such as our Constitution, political process, the sacrament of marriage and even the meaning of the English language.
Thanks to the putative rigidity of some religious strictures and a long-range decline in organized religion and its devotions and practices, the left has made measured progress in the unfinished business of the French Revolution’s subversion and relegation of all religious values to the ashcan of history.
Most Americans are essentially seekers, looking for that spiritual lift that will help them get through the dark nights of doubt, fear and insecurity that plague mostly everyone. Without the support of religion and a moral compass, they are left to flounder aimlessly on a beach of doubt and despair. Unfortunately millions of Americans have chosen the winding, lazy road of shallow thinking and empty spirituality to fill the existential void the decline of religion has created.
In search of an inner holiness they have substituted a New Age spirituality for the black-and-white honesty of the Baltimore Catechism. Their refrain of I’m OK, you’re OK is nothing more than a jargon of psychobabble that provides nothing more than the warm and fuzzy feeling of thinking oneself a good person for helping the poor build a house or two.
Too many pride themselves on these good feelings while ignoring a slough of sordid personal behaviors that would make a Marine blush.
A real commitment to the Catholic faith and a mature belief in the afterlife has seemingly descended into the dark void of society’s self-consciousness. This trend is arguably in league with the world’s pagan forbears, who made gods out of the sun, rivers and anything in nature that they feared or respected. In doing so they have lost sight of their reasons for being born.
We have forgotten the Baltimore Catechism because few teach it any more. The sad fact is that without the longstanding anchor the catechism once provided, it is just too easy for people to float adrift with nothing more than their own petty selves to cling to.
Having lost or discarded the basic metaphysical knowledge in the third question of the catechism, too many Catholics have no clue why their lives don’t seem to make any sense. Unless the Church returns to that vital third question in the Baltimore Catechism, there will be little hope for any real progress in human rights and the end of futile wars.
During a Men’s Bible Study years ago, one of the men in my group said he was reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. His religious’ curiosity got me to thinking about my own journey as a cradle Catholic.
I was born into a faith that has existed for nearly 2000 years. It has survived devastating attacks from within and from without. It has endured a history of bloody persecution in which thousands of its faithful were ripped apart by wild beasts, crucified, burned alive and thrown off high cliffs, drawn and quartered–all because they believed in the Divinity of the Christ. It has launched crusades and burned a few thousand heretics at the stake in defense of the faith. It is a religion that is filled with mystery, ceremony, pomp and high circumstance.
The Catholic Church also has its unique smells that excite and calm, music that raises the spirit and comforts the soul. Theologically it soars like the eagle as it tries to touch the hand of God. It can cure disease, ease suffering and prepare for the final moments of life. It is a church of over one billion people with as many different strains of thinking as a university library.
However being a faith of deep and high-minded ideas and ideals sometimes it confuses. Sometimes it frightens. For all its attendant holiness, its leaders sometimes seem caught in a whirling vortex of charity and unadulterated power that idly dismisses reason and moral logic in favor of pragmatic goals. Some of its popes have been saintly! Others have done the work of the devil. Most have been ambitious while others mediocre.
The Church is a very human institution— a living contradiction. I once asked a priest during a parish Christmas Mission if he had any advice for someone who had been born into the pre-Vatican Church but came to his full religious maturity during the initial reforms of the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII. I do not think he answered my question nor did anyone understand my dilemma.
I am caught twixt and tween the old and new Catholic Church. There are many things about the old church of my youth, which is vastly different from my adult church, that I still relish. As a child, the many rules, moral laws and order of the faith were deeply ingrained in me by habited nuns and humorless priests. Along with the Baltimore Catechism they laid the foundation for my adult faith.
We all learned the dogmas of the faith by rote memory with a diligence and certitude that armed us to face the three major enemies, who competed for our immortal souls–the world, the flesh and the devil. To paraphrase TV’s Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday in the 1950s, we knew the facts. I doubt if the same could be said today.
The Church’s teachings on sexual morality were complicated. We were taught our bodies were the temples of the Holy Ghost yet they were also the snares of the devil. We were warned about improper touches to ourselves and others. Girls were taught to dress modestly—no long pants, though I do remember a few occasions when they wore Bermuda shorts.
Most dirty magazines of the day were, not what anyone would call pornographic, but more of the naturalist pulp magazines of nude sunbathers. It was over such a stack of weather-beaten magazines in the bushes of a local high school that a friend instructed me and another friend in the “facts of life.” Another time, a priest threatened me with eternal damnation for beating around the bush in the Confessional. I was 11 years old.
The rules did work. I have kept the faith all these years. I have avoided most of the near occasions of sins. After studying in Jesuit institutions for 11 year, I was able to rationalize those I couldn’t avoid. I have been faithfully married to the same woman for nearly 50 years and still look at women in the same positive way that I adopted in the weeds at Forest Hills high school. However the Church’s abject legalism did take a toll on my understanding of God’s divine mercy and the Agape reflection of His unlimited personality.
For most of my life I have been a habitual worrier who is relieved when things are over, instead of enjoying the joyful moments of my life. But the new church is much different. The church of love and forgiveness has replaced the church of law and order. In the Church of divine rules, I had tried to micromanage everything and had left nothing up to God.
But the freedoms of the modern church is the worst nightmare of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, in his classic The Brothers Karamazov who cursed God for making men with a free will. During Holy Hour I have learned to open my heart and soul so that my life is more open to His grace. I find this happens best when I listen to God in the silence of His presence.
I have learned to accept my body as it is and realize that it was made in the image and likeness of God and was not something dirty and offensive. However people still need honest and realistic rules—like the 10 Commandments and Jesus’ emphasis on loving all other human beings.
The modern ideas of relativism and secularism permeate our culture. These dangerous ideas have infiltrated church thinking on many levels. The modern church has in some respects thrown the Christ child out with the bath water. Scandal, indifference and moral confusion abound. I see many others who do not have the double grounding in the faith that I have. While the journey never gets easier, God’s presence in my life helps me stay on the right path more nearly.
I have often paraphrase Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Needed to Know I Learned In Kindergarten.
Since my Catholic school did not have a kindergarten, I learned everything I need by the end of the first month of first grade.
It was all contained in a single question in thew Baltimore Catechism–the third one I believe.
Why did God make me?
The answer is of course: To know, love and serve Him in this world and be happy with him in the next.
As basic as that pity answer is it is loaded with high-minded theology and pregnant with all the philosophy and wisdom that any person, no matter how old or young needs to know.
Everything I have learned since then have ben postscript.
The word serve reminds me of the quote attributed to Lucifer right after the world’s first great rebellion of the defiant angels.
In his epic poem, Paradise Lost, John Milton quoted Lucifer’s after his fall that it was better to reign in Hell forever than serve in heaven for one day.
That statement goes a long way in explaining the behavior of atheists.
I guess that makes Lucifer the first atheist.
As we go more deeply into the 21st century, atheism is generating a lot more currency.
Prominent atheists are spreading their anti-gospel message in increasing numbers and generating many public debate on the place of religion in governments and societies in the modern world.
Thanks to the Internet they have been able to network together around the world.
Today about 2.3 percent of the world’s population identifies themselves as atheist with another 12 percent more describe themselves as agnostic or non-believers in any deity.
The ranks of scientists boast probably the largest concentration of atheists.
This is true because the very power and majesty of science instills a false sense of their own elevated intellectual abilities that adorns itself in godlike attire.
Supreme egotists, such as that fear the competition from a Being more divine than they are.
I was shocked to learn that many famous and highly regarded men and women are numbered in their ranks.
Their recorded ranks include Epicurus, Mick Jagger of the Rollin Stones, Andrew Carnegie, Freud, Clarence Darrow, Ayn Rand, and radical college professor, Noam Chomsky, Facebook’s Steve Zuckerberg, comedian George Carlin, and George Soros, one of the most ardent supporters of Barack Obama.
If I am not mistaken, Obama’s mother declared her atheism at one time.
While most of the above list will not surprise, the declarations of actresses Jodie Foster and the late Katherine Hepburn should raise a few eyebrows.
Warren Buffet the richest man in America might also be surprise.
He describes himself as religiously agnostic.
According to a 1995 biography, he adopted his father’s ethical underpinnings, but not his belief in an unseen divinity.
In case no one has noticed there is a new brand of militant atheists on the march.
They are angrily led by such non-believing luminaries, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Dawkins, the author of the 2006 best-seller, The God Delusion is their presumptive leader.
In his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Religion, Harris takes more of an apocalyptic approach.
He believes that people must renounce religious faith or it will mark the end of civilization, conveniently ignoring the destruction of more than 175 million people at the bloody hands of atheistic governments during the 20th century.
Taken as a group these few angry men believe they have Christianity on the ropes because of it sexual scandals, loss of universal membership and the general demise of a religious and moral society.
Like their forebears from the French Revolution, they see the Church as an institution founded on unreason and superstition.
It is their sacred mission to chase such foolish ideas from the public marketplace.
Atheism has fascinated me for a long time.
For some reason I seem drawn to them.
While at WGNU radio I developed a long personal relationship with a fellow who sometimes used the handles of Gunboy Jim or Jim from Ferguson.
He was very bright, more of a library-educated philosopher who loudly proclaimed his atheism.
He was also ardently pro-abortion.
He would come up with the most creative arguments that he believed justified abortion.
One time in the 1980s in an off-air phone conversation he said that abortion was a noble act.
So great was my visceral reaction that I could not restrain my contempt for him and his ideas.
Despite my rage, Jim continued to call and challenge me.
These calls made me a much better talk show host.
I eventually put away my anger and tried to understand him and his atheism.
I realized that he was my neighbor and he needed something more than my righteous indignation.
I never did fathom why he wanted to protect a woman’s right to choose…death for her child.
He lived with his mom, rode a bike, seemed to have no job, never talked about dating or having a lady friend.
One time in an e-mail he casually mentioned how he had been doing the dishes and the housework for his mother who had been seriously ill.
I told him in a near apologetic tone that what he was doing was the work of sainthood.
I was taken aback when he thanked me for seeing some good in him.
That nearly reduced me to tears.
I told Jim I would pray for him.
Jim was a seeker who wanted to know and understand the reality of life but had been looking in all the wrong places.
I haven’t heard from him in a long time. I often wonder if he ever filled the void, that spiritual vacuum in his life that the absence of God leaves.
I really miss the exchanges.
Last July we were on a plane, flying to the West Coast when I started talking with a pretty blonde lady from Tennessee.
We talked for three and a half hours.
She told me about a physical malady she had–Titanium poisoning from the fillings in her teeth–that caused her to lose her job as a nurse and had virtually incapacitated her.
Vanity prevented her from removing the teeth.
She also mentioned a wayward husband whose philandering made her blame God for her misfortune.
I suggested she read Bishop Fulton’ J. Sheen’s book Life is Worth Living to raise her spirits and enhance her life.ecause she was done on life in general…at least her life.
We made a deal.
I had told her I told her my long interest in becoming a lector at our Church during Mass.
It as something I had on my mind for five years.
She would read the book and I would sign up in church.
Last January, I finally expressed my interest and told our pastor the whg\ole story, which is a lot longer than recounted here.
He asked if she had kept her part of the bargain.
I told him, I had no idea.
I didn’t even remember her name.
But I had given my word and it was between her and….God to keep her end.
My last example involves a morning at the abortion center in St. Louis.
I go there a few times every year to witness with my fellow pro-lifers.
One time there was this solitary figure who was witnessing against us!!
I engaged him a conversation that lasted over an hour.
My fellow picketers later thanked me for keeping him occupied as he does this on a regular basis.
His atheism was founded on an anger director toward the creator and by proxy His innocent human creations.
God’s crime was sending him a son who was a violent schizophrenic he tried to stab his wife in the neck.
He also floored me with his statement that he wished his mother had aborted him, so that he would be in Heaven with God.
I don’t know what his standing would have been.
He might know more than I do because I think Limbo is literally history.
I guess Paco, 12-year-old, I encountered on his video game connection,the other while my grandson and I were parallel playing, was right when he said that he didn’t believe in God because religion was too confusing.
So is the meaning of life and that’s really what it’s all about as Alfie once said.
I try to use my treadmill twice a week.
I doubt is if there is a better metaphor for American life now than that instrument of self-torture.
The economic and political situations, not to mention the many threats from terrorism at home and abroad are so unsettling that relaxation is hardly possible.
So many of us are stuck in an endless cycle of work, eat, shop, kids, carpool and maybe sleep that there is little time to contemplate what does it all mean.
Millions of people are like the the wanderer who seeks out the Buddhist monk on a mountain top in the Himalays, trying to find the meaning of life.
Even the denizens of the shanties and haunts of the poorest neighborhood, some people wonder what their lives must mean if anything.
This is probably the eternal question—why was I born?
As a first grader at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, the third question of the Baltimore Catechism purported to answer that question.
This natural examination of one’s life, according to Socrates makes life worth living.
Scholars spend an entire lifetime attempting trying to understand the near unfathomable mysteries of life wih little recognition from the general public.
Even Hollywood has to get into the act.
Cinema directors and producers produce big budget films with the philosophical input of a sophomore in college that usually experience a broad appeal at the box office.
The most important of these have been Month Python’s The Meaning of Life and Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life.
The Meaning of Life is a 1983 comedy film by the Monty Python team.The feature film properly opens with the human faces of the six Pythons placed on the bodies of fish who are swimming aimlessly in a tank at a restaurant.
Upon seeing that one of their fellow fish is being served to a customer they begin to engage in a brief philosophical conversation on the meaning of life.
As the movie painfully trudges along through the Seven Stages of Life, including sex, war and old age, it takes a satirical look at the Catholic Church’s view on masturbation and contraception.
It is replete with such catchy songs, as Every sperm is sacred!
Their MOL is no threat to William Shakespeare.
Quite simply people are born, fight wars, get married, have sex, get fat and old and die.
There is little of a coherent philosophy underscoring that the fact that its producers were in it strictly for the laughs than any pretense at making any meaningful explanation for human life and history.
Terrance Malick, known for his serious cinematic exploits, took a much more ambitious route with his TOL.
Malick’s film chronicles the origins and meaning of life by way of a middle-aged man’s childhood memories of his family living in 1950s Texas, interspersed with imagery of the origins of the universe and the inception of life on Earth.
A mysterious, wavering light that resembles a flame flickers in the darkness. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) recalls a lesson taught to her that people must choose to either follow the path of grace or the path of nature.
In the mid 1960s, she receives a telegram informing her of her son’s death at age nineteen.
Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is notified by telephone.
Five billion years in the future, life on the planet Earth is destroyed, incinerated by the Sun as it expands into a red giant and then left alone as a desolate, lifeless frozen planet still orbiting the Sun, which by that time has turned into a feeble white dwarf.
The film relies heavily on flashbacks.
In the present, adult Jack leaves work.
Riding the elevator down he experiences a vision of walking on rocky terrain.
He tentatively walks through a wooden door frame which is erected on the rocks.
On a sandbar, Jack is reunited with his family and all the people who populate his memory.
His father is happy to see him.
His mother is overjoyed when Jack’s memory resurrects his dead brother.
She thanks Jack, kissing his arm twice.
Jack’s vision ends and he leaves his building smiling.
The mysterious, wavering light continues to flicker in the darkness.
I think Malick is like so many armchair theologians, who are clueless as to what the meaning of life really is.
It was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen who pointed out that the human heart–the anatomical one , not what you see in ads for Valentine’s Day, is missing a piece at the top.
It is that missing piece that all human beings seek.
Unfortunately most look in all the wrong places.
They look in accumulating more wealth, finer clothing, faster cars, larger homes, more elegant trips to Europe.
They look for better or at least more frequent sex with a faceless line of thinner, fleshier, taller, shorter partners whose names seem to fade to black as soon as the moment of passion has started to wane.
At the end none of these fleeting moments of satisfaction, ever seem to be enough.
Some will say that life is like eating at a Chinese restaurant every night.
Their souls are hungry for more just three hours later.
Why is that?
There can never be a heaven on earth.
Our pleasures were made, not to satisfy but to entice for the real pleasures that will undoubtedly come in the next world.
All here is but a dim reflection of what the Lord has prepared for us.
The momentary high of good feeling from a jog in the park or a delicious meal fades as the realities of life replace the physical sense of exhilaration.
No matter how great the sensation, reality always sets in as life moves on.
This explains why millions have dropped out of society with drug, alcohol and even sexual addictions.
They keep looking for their next artificially-induced high.
At my age I have decided to smell the roses—I don’t really like the smell of coffee.
I have been trying to find those fleeting moments of wonder in a child’s smile, a pretty girl walking past me, a good book or film.
I have a massage twice a week no and for that time I can just let my soul and mind drift all over my interior universe.
I have learned to let my physical high transcend my body so that my soul soars even higher than my bodily sensations.
Then there is the flowglow as I call it that can last a few more days until the reality of everyday living intrudes.
This is not a New Age kind of high.
It is deeply rooted in my Catholic as I have tried to link it with John Paul II’s revolutionary Theology of the Body.
My massage gives me what can best be described as a foretaste of Heaven.
St. Augustine knew all about special highs.
He knew from painful experience that our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
Only then can we satisfy the insatiable emptiness of of our hungry hearts..