The Body of Christ at the Organ and Cellular Level: The Circulatory System

I have been reflecting on how the imagery of the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere) resonates at all levels of the human body. This idea first struck me while waiting in line to receive Holy Communion when I noticed the similarity of the flow of people to the flow of blood within the body. (I plan to develop connections to other aspects of the body in future posts.)

When we come to Mass, we are worn down by the cares and worries of life. We are in need of refreshment and renewal. Likewise, when our blood cells are depleted of oxygen, they travel in the veins of the body to the heart to be re-oxygenated. The faithful standing in line at church making their way towards the altar are like the blood cells in the veins. When we receive the Eucharist at the heart of the church (the altar), we are given a new infusion of life. Then we are sent back into the world to do our work and share Christ’s life with the world–just as the blood cells are sent back to bring oxygen throughout the body in the arterial system.

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Mary, the Completion of Redeemed Humanity

While contemplating the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary, I was struck by the parallels between the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption and Coronation of Mary.  Hence the following musings:

When God created humankind in His image and likeness, it required both male and female to express that image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).  In his Theology of the Body 9:3, Pope St. John Paul II writes that it is in relationship with each other that we particularly express that image and likeness:  “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning.”  This reality is especially evident in the life-giving, self-gifting love of marriage which brings about the third person of the child, thus mirroring more completely the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

It thus seems very fitting that redemption would be made manifest in both a male (Jesus) and a female (Mary).  An important aspect of masculinity is that of initiating.  Jesus, God Incarnate, initiates and effects our redemption from sin and death.  He triumphs over the grave in the Resurrection and brings redeemed humanity into the presence of God in the Ascension.  To femininity belongs the gift of responding to that male initiation.  Mary responds with her whole heart to God’s initiative in redemption and helps to complete the beautiful drama of redemption when female humanity is also drawn, magnet-like, into God’s presence in the Assumption and shares in His triumph in the Coronation.

And who is the child, the third person of this redeemed image and likeness of God?  The Church, born when the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost (the third Glorious Mystery).

Now-Bishop, then-Father, Robert Barron articulates a fascinating theological principle in his Catholicism DVD series that may prove helpful here.  He says that when God intends to work something in the Church as a whole, He first accomplishes it in one person (my paraphrase).  I believe that we are all meant to follow the example and path of Mary in responding wholeheartedly to God’s offer of salvation.  In a sense, all of humanity is in the role of responder to God’s initiative.  This is what is conveyed in the Biblical image of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

Let us give a resounding “Yes!” to God’s invitation to join Him in glory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

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Handmaid of Your Handmaid

Luke 1:38 from the Vulgate:

“dixit autem Maria

ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”

Vanessa:  “Ecce ancilla ancillae tuae (Behold, I am the handmaid of Your Handmaid).”

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Contra Sola Scriptura, from Peter Kreeft

I just love a good analogy.  Here is one I recently came across in Catholic Christianity, Peter Kreeft’s summary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This is from his section 7, “Faith and Scripture,” and is given to illustrate one of the reasons for rejecting Sola Scriptura:

“Scripture should be interpreted from within the living tradition of the Church.  This is not narrow and limiting, but expansive and deep.  It is also reasonable; [here is the analogy:] for suppose a living author had written a book many years ago and had been teaching that book every day.  Who could interpret that book better than he?”

The Catholic Church, following the inspiration of the promised Holy Spirit, wrote the Bible.  She teaches it every day in Mass and all of the other liturgies of the Church.  She alone is divinely protected from misinterpreting it.

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NFP Leads to Vocations?

We once had a young seminarian over for dinner, and I asked him if his fellow seminarians were willing to speak the truth about the evils of contraception to their flock (something I see many current priests unwilling to do).  His response surprised and inspired me.  He said that if he ever became director of vocations, he would start by establishing good Natural Family Planning programs because he sees a vital link between the two.  When a married couple rejects contraception and instead uses Natural Family Planning if they need to space children, they are asking the Lord what He wants from their marriage instead of pursuing their own desires without reference to Him.  If children grow up with such an example, they will come to ask God what He wants of their lives (which might include a vocation to the priesthood or religious life) instead of living those lives without reference to Him.  The spirit of self-sacrifice in living Natural Family Planning could carry over into living a religious vocation.

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The Sign of the Moth

As the moth is drawn irresistibly towards a light, sometimes resulting in its death, so we must let ourselves be drawn irresistibly towards God, who is Light (1 John 1:5), which will result in the death of our sinful selves…and the emergence from the ashes of the true selves that He wants to give us.

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My Weekly Prayer Intentions

Several years ago, I came up with this weekly schedule of prayer intentions that correlates with the mysteries of the rosary.  Throughout each day I offer my “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings” for the following intentions.

On Mondays we meditate on the Joyful Mysteries.  On Mondays I pray for a Culture of Life.  Pregnant mothers, unborn children, and the elderly (such as Simeon and Anna) are front and center in the Joyful Mysteries.  Every life is fraught with difficulty, yet every life contributes something “irreplaceable and unrepeatable” (St. John Paul II) to the Plan of God.

On Tuesdays we meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries.  On Tuesdays I pray for persecuted Christians around the world.  Christians are the Body of Christ, connected one to another as intimately as the cells of one organism.  Corporately we are called to share in Christ’s sufferings, and when one part of the body hurts, the whole body suffers.

On Wednesdays we meditate on the Glorious Mysteries.  On Wednesdays I pray for Christian unity.  Christians of all different traditions are united by our common faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit draws us closer to each other in the bond of Love that is the life of the Blessed Trinity.  Please God, we will be finally and gloriously united in heaven when we follow Him and Mary into the presence of God.

On Thursdays we meditate on the Luminous Mysteries.  On Thursdays I pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.  Our priests and deacons baptize us as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.  Consecrated people are mystically married to Our Lord and His Church and stand as signs for the union with God that we are all called to.  The ordained preach the Word of God and call us to repentance.  They urge us to pray and grow in holiness so that we may be transfigured.  Our priests, by the gift of God, make Jesus present as the Eucharist.

On Fridays we meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries.  On Fridays I pray for the conversion of sinners, myself included.  Every Friday is an invitation to meditate on Jesus’s total gift of Self for us and an opportunity to deepen our own conversion as well as pray for the conversion of the whole world.

On Saturdays we meditate on the Joyful Mysteries.  On Saturdays I pray for my friends and family.  Mary and Elizabeth rejoicing in each other’s presence (and in the hidden presence of others); the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; the shepherds and the Wise Men; Simeon and Anna rejoicing in the culmination of God’s Plan; a beloved child lost and found…all of these can be related to our own human ties and concerns.

On Sundays we meditate on the Glorious Mysteries.  On Sundays I pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.  The entire Church–Militant, Suffering, and Triumphant–will one day be together in glory in the presence of God because of the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Church Militant is especially close to the other members of the Body of Christ when we gather for the Mass and partake of His most precious Body and Blood in Holy Communion.

When we pray the rosary in our family during the long period of Ordinary Time between Pentecost and Advent, we meditate on all of the mysteries as described above.  During Advent and Christmas, we meditate on the Joyful Mysteries throughout the week to help keep our focus on the particular season.  Likewise, we meditate on the Luminous Mysteries in the first, briefer period of Ordinary Time between Christmas and Lent.  During Lent we meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries, and during Easter and Pentecost we meditate on the Glorious Mysteries.  It is intriguing and fruitful to search for connections between all of the mysteries and the above prayer intentions.

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Catholic and Christian: Surprise!

An important step on my journey to the Catholic Church was finding and reading Catholic and Christian: An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs by Alan Schreck (the 1984 version).  It was the summer of 1999, and I was preparing to spend my junior year of college in Spain.  I found the book in my local bookstore and planned to read it to guard against losing my (then Protestant) faith in a predominantly Catholic country.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the unfamiliar Catholic beliefs had strong foundations in Scripture and reason!  This book removed many of the obstacles between me and Catholicism.  (See “My Journey to the Catholic Church” under Autobiography to read more about that.)

Since my entrance into the Catholic Church in 2004, I have recommended this book to many people—Protestants with mistaken views of the Catholic Church as well as Catholics who were on the verge of leaving the Catholic Church.  One of those people was a dear family member, who ended up misplacing the book for several years.  It was recently returned to me, and I fondly turned to the Introduction.  A few minutes later, I was blown away and very humbled.

I had remembered the book primarily as a work of apologetics in favor of Catholicism.  In fact, the author explained that he had written it with rather different purposes in mind.  He did indeed want to demonstrate the Scriptural basis of peculiarly Catholic beliefs (the pope, Purgatory, prayers to the saints, etc.), but his stated purpose was twofold.  First, he wanted to help Catholics understand their own beliefs more clearly so that they would not be thrown into doubt by other Christians who called those beliefs into question.  Secondly (this was the part that really surprised me), he wanted to help non-Catholic Christians understand Catholicism better so that they could recognize Catholics as their Christian brothers and sisters.  A book that I thought was a work of Catholic apologetics was written to further Christian unity!

Schreck laments the divisions in Christianity and suspects that it is a tactic of the Devil to make Christians waste their energy arguing with each other about their differing beliefs rather than standing together to reach out to a broken world in desperate need of Jesus Christ.  Schreck recommends that we consider the differences in belief that Christians of other traditions have as mistakes that any well-intentioned Christian could make.  I was very humbled by this reflection because I, driven by the zeal of the convert, have definitely been guilty of trying to argue non-Catholic Christians into Catholicism.  The version of the book I read was written in 1984; how much more urgent is the need for Christian unity today!  As our bewildered culture slides further and further into darkness, we must set aside our differences to let the Light of Christ shine ever more brightly so that more people can find their way to the Source of that Light.

Another surprise for me was the validation I felt of my pre-Catholic Christian faith.  Schreck states that Catholic Christianity is not the only authentic way to be Christian.  Thanks be to God, I did know and love Jesus for the first 24 years of my life before I entered the Catholic Church.  Such an affirmation of course in turn strengthens my respect for non-Catholic Christians.

I thank the Lord and Alan Schreck for the great help that Catholic and Christian has been to me, both as a help towards the Catholic Church and as a needed corrective in my relationship with non-Catholic Christians—my brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Life is a Parable

As Father David Kuetner explained in a homily at St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church (Sunday, June 17, 2012), Jesus taught so much in parables because life is itself a parable.  A parable is a story about something that we are familiar with (such as a merchant in search of fine pearls) that is meant to point to something else more mysterious (the kingdom of God) (see Matthew 13:45-46).  Everything in this life can help us learn about God–a gift that is meant to point us to the Giver.  Jesus taught in parables to orient us to that reality.

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My Journey to the Catholic Church

(The original version of this piece appeared in Fuller Theological Seminary’s student publication, the Semi, in 2004 under the title “From Campus Crusade to Catholicism.”)

In the summer of 1999, I flew to Colorado to attend Campus Crusade for Christ’s Junior/Senior Weekend, a segment of their national staff conference.  While I was there, I attended a seminar entitled “Reaching Today’s Catholics.”  I had not thought much about the Catholic Church at that point outside of history class, but a voice inside me wondered, “Aren’t Catholics Christians, too?”  Based on some of the questions that staff members were asking, the answer for some of them was apparently “No.”

After I returned from my Crusade Summer Project in Newport Beach, CA, I began to feel nervous about my pending junior year abroad in Spain and what that historically Catholic nation might do to my faith.  Figuring I ought to arm myself by learning more about Catholicism, I wandered into Barnes and Noble and bought Catholic and Christian by Alan Schreck.  To my surprise, the author presented biblical evidence for every Catholic doctrine he was explaining.  Why had my Evangelical friends been so convinced that the Catholic Church taught unbiblical beliefs?

An unexpected illness cut my year in Spain down to about three weeks and brought me back home to Houston.  I naturally returned to my home church, an orthodox Episcopalian parish.  One day in the church bookstore, I picked up another book that would impact me dramatically:  Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard.  Though I had benefited greatly from my time with Campus Crusade, I was beginning to feel dissatisfied with its neatly packaged version of the gospel and with Evangelical spirituality in general.  Howard helped me to articulate this dissatisfaction and prompted me to return to the historically-anchored, liturgical worship that I had grown up with.  In his book, Howard speaks without much distinction of the apostolic churches (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism, of which the Episcopal Church is a subset), but I noted his postscript with interest.  Just months after completing the book, Howard had joined the Catholic Church.

After a period of recovery in Houston, I returned to Stanford to resume my undergraduate studies.  At the beginning of my senior year, I met Robert, the wonderful young man who would later become my husband.  Robert grew up Catholic, and we agreed to learn more about each other’s denominations.  We took turns attending Episcopalian Eucharist and Catholic Mass.  Once again, everything I learned about Catholicism made sense to me, and the tiny Episcopal parish we attended was downright disappointing compared to the robust congregation of Stanford’s Catholic Community.

After graduation, Robert and I began a two-year long-distance relationship.  I was placed back in Houston by Teach For America and again returned to my home church where I was dissuaded from immediate conversion.  Yet as time went on and the Anglican Communion faced major crises in the summer of 2003, I became less and less confident about asking Robert to become Episcopalian.  (The Episcopal Church of the United States of America consecrated Gene Robinson, a divorced man living openly with his homosexual partner, as the bishop of New Hampshire against the desires of the worldwide Anglican Communion.)  We resigned ourselves to being of different denominations.

Then I began my studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in the fall of 2003.  There are very few Catholic students at Fuller, but as fate (or Providence) would have it, three of them were in my very small Hebrew class:  Michael Barber, Kimberly Gilmore, and Travis Lawmaster.  These students love sharing the gospel and can quote Scripture like Evangelicals, and they are passionately committed to Catholicism.  Meeting them reawakened the possibility that I too could be such a Christian.  Michael, who was also in my Early Church History class, boiled the Catholic Question down to a question of authority.  All of the other Catholic beliefs that are strange to Protestants stem from this one issue.

As I began to grow in my Christian faith during my time with Campus Crusade, I was always taught to regard the Bible as the highest authority in matters of faith.  Yet in my church history class at a Protestant seminary, I learned that the Church existed for centuries without the Bible as we have it today.  How did the Church “get by” for so long?  Also, what do we do when seemingly valid interpretations of Scripture conflict?  The answer lies with Jesus.

When our Lord walked the earth, He did not hand us the completed New Testament.  Rather, He selected twelve men to be His disciples and apostles.  Day after day, He taught them about the kingdom of God and about how they were to spread the gospel after He was glorified.  One man in particular, whom Jesus surnamed Peter (“rock”), stands out as the leader of the Twelve.  Jesus invested him with special authority, declaring that on this rock He would build His church “and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”  Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power of binding and loosing, rabbinic terms that refer to excommunication and to forbidding or allowing something (see Matthew 16:18-19; for a prophecy concerning the steward of God’s kingdom on earth, see Isaiah 22:20-23).  The rest of the disciples were also given a share in Peter’s authority to bind and loose (Matthew 18:18), and Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to teach them all things (John 14:26).  As history tells us, the apostles appointed successors after them, and the bishop of Rome (that is, the pope) was recognized very early on as Peter’s successor.

As the Church expanded and as heretics devised their own “canons” of Scripture, it became necessary to decide on an authorized list of books to be read in the congregations.  It was the successors of the apostles who decided which books were inspired Scripture and which books were not.  As I learned about this process I began to wonder how Protestants could put so much faith in the Bible without trusting in the apostolic authority that assembled the Bible in the first place.  The Catholic Church is the one church that can claim unbroken apostolic succession and that continues to recognize Peter’s successor as possessing all of the authority that Jesus gave him.  I became convinced that it was inconsistent to accept the Bible as inspired without accepting the teaching office of the Catholic Church as uniquely authoritative.

And so, here I am, incredibly grateful to be Catholic.  The fall of 2003 witnessed a peaceful yet sudden gift of faith in my heart.  I ask Mary and the Saints to pray for me.  I believe in Purgatory.  I look to Pope Francis as the Holy Father of our Church.  By the grace and mercy of God, Robert and I were married in a state of grace in the Catholic Church in June 2004.  There is no doubt that my marriage to Robert has been strengthened and enriched by our unity of tradition, and I rejoice that God led me to this decision with reasons that convinced me on their own merit.

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