Dear young people: Be fully alive.
Dear young people,
It's strange to write those words because it still seems like I too am a young person. Relatively speaking, I suppose I am, but on the cusp of 40, it's time for me to realize that I have more in my rear view mirror now than I sometimes like to admit. I know it's hard to understand at your age but, I am thankful for 'almost 40'. It has afforded me real growth of character (often times through failure), longtime friendships, over a decade of marriage and motherhood, and years of meaningful work in ministry and education with hundreds of amazing, and bright young people. Teaching you Theology has been and continues to be a great honor in my life. I am entrusted with the most precious task of sharing truth, but not just any truth; the truths about the meaning of life; the very core of your identity. You have allowed me to usher you into a place that is safe, yet challenging so that you can sincerely ask these big questions about your life while you are still surrounded by the people who love you and the places that have formed you. Be that as it may, I know that this time of questioning can be scary. It's hard to see whats on the other side. What IS the meaning of life? What does it mean to be human? to be a Christian? to be...me? Is God real? How can I know that He is? Does He love me? How can I be sure? Together we ask those questions honestly and openly, and together we continue to explore the solid and beautiful suggestion that the Church's answers just might be THE answers.
How could they be, though? How could this Church of sinners know the answer to what it means to be human? How can you put your faith in an organization that causes harm? And, even if you can put the sinfulness of it's leaders and members aside, how could this Church that is so familiar, the one you have been a part of your whole life, just happen to be the one that has the fullness of truth? What are the chances that you would be here in this time, in this place, at the end of the line of 2000 years of unbroken tradition that God himself initiated? It seems improbable. Impossible. Furthermore, the voice of the Church lies in such contrast to the voice of the world in so many ways. How can you know which voice to listen to?
The absurdity of the suggestion
The Catholic Church, that is, the tradition and teaching of the Church, not always the humans who lead it necessarily, but the universal Church, who's purpose is to continue the mission of Jesus Christ on earth, claims to be an expert in humanity. Full stop. This seems unlikely to you. Her teachings, at face value, can seem contradictory to culture, backwards and out of touch. It can feel as if she is a mother who arbitrarily makes rules to keep you miserable and under her thumb. When you're raised in a cradle Catholic home and yet are still a member of the greater society, sometimes the teachings of the Church can feel imposed; posited on your being like a new pair of dress shoes that you have to wear for an event you don't want to attend; pinching, tight and uncomfortable. I get that. In contrast, the message that the media and society give you is one of comfort and identity with your experience. "You do you." "Embrace your unique desires and don't let anyone put restrictions on the validity of your experiences, no matter what they are." Well, who doesn't want to hear that? We all want to be heard. We all want validation. We all want to kick off those tight leather shoes and put on our old familiar treads. And, it's usually in this place that you and I meet. This place of new found intellectual independence. This place of skepticism. This place where you desire to be who you are and live that fully! And it's in this place that I propose to you the ridiculous suggestion that the Church knows you and seeks your happiness in ways the world could never dream of. That by considering the Church's answer to the question "What does it mean to be human?" you will find your purpose and your fulfillment. (As I'm typing these words I realize that I should get paid more.) Our journey then if we are going to consider the truth of the human person must take us back to the beginning. How can we think about the Church with fresh eyes? How can we step outside of our preconceived notions? How do we ask the questions and consider the answers, anew?
The logic of creation
For just a moment, let us put our fears and notions and reactions toward the Church aside. In fact, let us put the Church aside. Like little children learning to speak, and see and understand, let us approach the world with wonder. Look at the sky. Look at how the clouds move and suggest we are so small on this planet. "What is a tree?" "Why is the sky blue?" When we evaluate the observable world around us we see something that seems ordinary simply because it is familiar. Leaves are green, flowers grow, birds fly in formation. It's simply how things are. But if we look with new eyes we see a deeper reality. Is it all arbitrary? On the contrary. The world moves and functions with purpose. Creation exists and continues with little help from (and sometimes in spite of) humanity. Leaves are green because they contain chlorophyll and convert light to food that makes the lilies grow. Birds fly in formation to minimize wind resistance and maximize their flight time for migration. The natural world around us has order and purpose and works in accord with those functions without consideration for any other option. Leaves do not consider if they should not be green. Birds do not hold council to decide if they should fly in other formations. Things act in accord with what they are. The same is true about manmade objects. Even simple machines have structure and a logic that helps them to achieve a particular function and end. It was created with an intent. Open a watch and see how the parts are made with such intention, how they fit and work together. Craftsmanship of that type; order and purpose...is beautiful. Likewise, a work of Shakespeare, a painting by Degas, or a Symphony by Mozart are crafted with intent and beauty from start to finish. Design implies a designer in mans creations and in nature.
When it comes to humans, however. This get a little more complicated. We are unique in the realm of nature; part of the natural world yet with a spark of something else. Animal like, yet complex, self reflective with desires and senses and intellect. We are capable of relationships. We participate in creation. We have memory and imagination. We make choices that carry implications for those around us. Unlike animals and plants, who always only act in accord with their nature, there is a moral value to our actions. We have an innate sense of basic good and evil. We are able to control the things that we do. We are deliberate. We are able to not intentionally cause harm to ourselves and others and we are capable of more good than we can measure. We are self motivated, amazing beings, and yet it seems illogical that we could be the origins of ourselves. The human person is incredible and nothing suggests design more than the intricacies of the human body, mind, and soul. Hunger suggests that there is food, desire that there is love. The very fact that we can and do wonder at our beginnings and our end suggests that someone placed that wonder in us. Our bodies function with the same order and purpose that the rest of the natural world ascribes to. And so it makes sense that likewise, our whole person, like the lillies of the field and the birds of the air, has a purpose and a meaning as well. But unlike the rest of creation, we have the freedom to act in accord with our being, or not. Alas, along with our abilities to rise and have dominion over all of creation comes the ability to debase ourselves and choose things that are not in our best interest, things that are out of order with the way we are.
Here's a little secret you should know. You will not stop having disordered desires simply because you grow older. Grownups are as lost as you are, sometimes more so. We are all broken and on this journey together.
The culture of the world will tell you that you ARE your desires. That you are limited to your sensual appetites. Ultimately they will try to tell you that you are not strong enough to desire something that is not good for you and at the same time not indulge in it. In fact, the world will bank on the fact that you are weak. They will mask this message in campaigns that claim to protect your true self. They will put a wall around your most vulnerable self and say "This is who you are." Marketing campaigns depend on our appetites. Those seeking power count on your demise. Those blind to the truth want you to continue in ignorance because when you do not, its a reminder to them that they are not living the life they had hoped for and they would rather champion your sin to make themselves feel better than change their own lives. The culture of the world diminishes your whole personhood to only one part of you. But we are made to be so much more than that. We are made to live out our FULL humanity. Our will seeks the GOOD, our intellect seeks the TRUTH, our desires seek what is truly BEAUTIFUL.
Now, lets bring mother Church back into the picture. What does she have to say about who you are? The Church sees our whole humanity. She sees that we have senses, bodies, intellects, wills and the spark of the divine, our souls. She sees that we are more than just the sum of these parts, we are human persons, created by THE designer with a purpose and a beauty and an order and therefore indebted with an innate dignity that cannot be lost. Like the rest of creation, we have a design; a beautiful purpose; we are given bodies and souls that have function and order and that we are created ultimately for a specific end. Because of this, she invites us always and everywhere to live fully integrated human lives, with our WHOLE being. In accord with the way we are made. We have an identity infinitely bigger than our earthly appetites and experiences. We are sons and daughters of God. When the world tell us we are not strong enough, the Church says we are made in the Image and Likeness of the one who is all powerful. We are intended for virtue; for excellence. To become the greatest version of ourselves. To see ourselves as the designer sees us. When the world says our worldly appetites define us, the Church says we are called to eternal happiness as Saints. When the world says "you can't possibly." The Church says, "I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me." She makes the audacious claim that you are capable of saying YES to the fullness of your creation by saying no to an immediate desire. And, that even when you say yes to those disordered desires, even when you say yes over and over again to what doesn't make you most fully human, that you are loved and invited to repentance and healing in Christ who makes all things new.
I know we won't answer all of the questions in our time together. But here in this space we can begin to answer the questions that seek our true happiness. Together we can learn to see with new eyes, with the eyes of the Father who created and loves us. And as you go out and continue this conversation in your lives I implore you to not settle but be FULLY alive.
"The Glory of God is Man FULLY alive." - St. Irenaeus
"Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible." Hebrews 11:12