Light of the World

I grew up in a religion with a lot of rules. No coffee, tea, piercings except for one per ear on the lobe for women only, and certainly no tattoos allowed. Strict sexual rules as well: no masturbation, no dating until 16, no short shorts and no shoulders lest we tempt a good, LDS boy, no sex of any variety until marriage -- proper heterosexual marriage, in a Temple, where only "worthy" people could attend and be wed. The whole goal was to be "worthy" and to find a "worthy" mate. It was hard because I couldn't live up to it. Who could? Everyone else, I supposed, for quite a long time.

Worthy. Acceptable.

I was drawn to the Catholic faith because of a message I received clearly and quickly: We are all worthy. We hurt ourselves and others because we don't realize our worth.

I have a tendency to fall back into the way of thinking from my youth. I'm not good enough. I am not acceptable. I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy to enter into the Lord's House -- literally, in LDS terms.

And yesterday, I noticed it. I listen to Catholic Answers occasionally. It helps me stay awake at work and on the road because it raises my blood pressure a good amount and I start arguing in my head with the apologists. Ha. Some of it is useful but some of it is not helpful. I was listening to a week old podcast and a listener had called in saying they are sorta-kinda-agnostic-atheist because they don't understand how being a semi-lapsed Catholic but a good person means that they will go to hell. Why isn't being a good person enough?

The answer? "None of us are worthy to enter heaven." The answer was so pessimistic, negative, and harsh. Thinking that way doesn't do anyone any good. It makes us feel ashamed. And I will argue that it is incorrect. All of us are worthy to enter heaven. As children of God, we are inherently worthy. God accepts us, as we are, because God created us.

I have been reading Father Greg Boyle's book Tattoos on the Heart. I read it for about a half hour each morning and find it so inspiring and heartbreaking. It is about a ministry with gang-related youth and young adults in Los Angeles. I wanted to share an excerpt, which I read yesterday morning before listening to the Catholic Answers podcast, which speaks for itself.
Jason's appearance in my office was a first. Though I had known him most of his life, he was an expert in resisting my offers of help. In this interim, Jason had done his share of dirt for his gang. He would rather be employed selling crack than in anything else. He was cemented in his resistance to me. And yet there he was, that day, in my office.
 "Y ese milagro?"--"I can't believe you're here," I say.
Jason was uncharacteristically quiet, humble in the face of whatever it was that was happening to him. I wish I could flesh out more why and how Jason managed to show up in my office that day. It's all quite mysterious to me. With my ear to the ground, I knew only of his total commitment to his barrio and drug-dealing and general criminality. I couldn't draw a straight line between the fact of his appearance in my office that day and some pivotal, recent moment in the past. I still could only see the goofy kid I had met fifteen years earlier, who had no recourse but to let the streets raise him.
I send him one of our job developers who in turn sends him to a job interview that very day. Not two hours later, he's back, brimming with excitement.
He stands in the doorway of my office, "I GOT THE JOB!"
"That's great," I say.
"Yeah," he says, "The manager said I fit the description."
He's got me here. "Well, I suppose," I say, "if you're America's Most Wanted, he might have said, 'fit the description.' Or did he say, you 'met the qualifications'?"
Jason convulses, giggles, and slaps his forehead. "Yeah, dat one--'met the qualifications'--sheesh--what was I thinkin' 'fit the description'--stooopid."
Jason dropped by often after that. To just get "his fix," I suppose. Hoping to get an even better job, he'd get help on his resume. More often than not, he'd just check in with me. This seemed easy for him, no longer saddled with the shame of his previous "knucklehead" existence, he held his head high and could face me. He could gaze at himself in the mirror and not move. It had been a long time (if ever) since he was able to do that.
"I finally realized why I was out there so long," he tells me in one of his visits, referring to the gangbanging and drug-dealing.
"Yeah, I can see why now. It's just, I was so fuckin' angry all the time."
And of course why wouldn't he be? Both parents were heroin addicts, and he was left to raise himself--which kids are meant not to be good at.
"And now," he says, "I just let it all go--the anger, I mean."
In one of his drop-bys on a Wednesday, I ask him, "So, are we all set for your daughter's baptism on Saturday?"
"Oh yeah," he says, "I bought the dress yesterday. She's gonna look so beautiful."
The next morning, on the way to a job interview for a better position, Jason was gunned down. Someone drove by and saw him and perhaps all his past had become present again. I buried him a week later and baptized his daughter at his funeral Mass. Water, oil, flame.
I landed on the gospel that I wanted to use at his liturgy. Jesus says, "You are the light of the world." I like even more what Jesus doesn't say. He does not say, "One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you'll be light." He doesn't say, "If you play by the rules, cross your T's and dot your I's, then maybe you'll become light." No. He says, straight out, "You are light." It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it. So, for God's sake, don't move. No need to contort yourself to be anything other than who you are. Jason was who he was. He made a lot of mistakes, he was not perfect, and his rage called the shots for a goodly chunk of his life. And he was the light of the world. He fit the description.


Reflections from Easter Vigil: Part III

Bringing forth the gifts!
I think I have talked about the "easy" sacraments: Baptism and Confirmation. Eucharist, or communion, involves a whole lot of mystery, beauty, and confusion. Eucharist is the cornerstone of Catholicism in my opinion. It is the core of what makes it different from any other Christian church.

From the very first time I attended mass, at about age 15 or 16, I have been overwhelmingly curious about the Eucharist. The Catholic Church does not have an open table, meaning you must be a Catholic in order to receive. So the curiosity stems from not knowing or understanding what happens when people receive communion. And a deep desire to receive occurs when one cannot do so. If I had to pick one of the three sacraments that I received during Easter Vigil as the one I was most looking forward to it would be Eucharist.

Indeed, if I had to pick one thing I was most looking forward to when going to Italy, Catholic paradise, it would be communion. But, alas, I did not receive communion even once there. But, in a way, communion was brought to me at many of our beautiful meals...

Above is just one example of non-consecrated Eucharist, or literally Thanksgiving, that we received at our meals in Italy. House red wine (so delicious!) and bread (I never ate any :( )... communion is such a part of Italian culture.

At my home parish, I can receive under both species -- bread and wine. My home parish provides a very, very low gluten host for Celiacs like myself. But, when out and about, I can only receive Eucharist through wine for medical reasons. And sometimes, like at weekday mass or anytime in Italy or at a Eucharistic Adoration in Yosemite, I was unable to take communion because... no wine! So I had to simply be OK with simply being in the presence of Christ. It should be enough. But oh that desire. After becoming Catholic, it is even stronger than before.

We Catholics believe that during Mass the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. It is not symbolic, it is real. There is no doubt that this sounds strange, maybe even cannibalistic, to some people. But in the context of Catholicism, it is not all that strange.

Catholicism is incredibly sensual. We have the smells of incense and oils, the touching of Rosary beads, sprinkling of water, the elaborate sights of art, architecture, statues, and crucifixes, the kissing of sacred objects, and, yes, the consumption of Christ's body and blood. It is a religion where you feel your beliefs. And for me, the core of my beliefs is that God is love.

I used to be freaked out by crucifixes. Maybe I still am a little. But now I focus on the love that God had for us when God laid down God's life for us, God's friends. I think about the friends who were there for Christ, especially Mary Magdalene, as he died. I think about how I am called to be with people through rough times.

When I consume Christ's body, I am consuming love. I am becoming love. With and being a part of Eucharist, I am to go out and spread love, the good news, where I can. And that is from where that desire, that craving, for Eucharist stems. A desire to receive love and to give love to others.

So I think those deep feelings of disappointment when I cannot receive Eucharist are justified by these beliefs. There is something important and transformative when I receive communion. It is not just enough to adore it. In order for me to feel whole, I need to receive it. But I can be sustained through adoration and seeing communion all around me. Every meal I share with another is communion. Now, if only every meal included those delightful house red wines we enjoyed in Italy!


Five Years

The first day of the quarter is tomorrow, marking the beginning of my sixth year in graduate school. I've been thinking a lot about the wonderful experiences I've had in the past five years.

I moved to Davis, California in September of 2009. My mother helped me set up my first apartment and we bonded while building furniture from IKEA and drinking, as always, Diet Coke. The day my mom left, I cried. And cried. And cried. I had never been so far away from home, so permanently. When I got back inside my apartment, after watching my mom drive down and away on A Street, I picked myself up. It was time to get going. To push through. I went to the Co-Op, became a member, and bought some organic, gluten-free delicious foods. Purple bell pepper.

That first quarter of graduate school was hard but I came in with a good group of people. They were immediate family, with support and advice a plenty. But by October, I was so homesick, that my mom bought me a plane ticket to Salt Lake. I went home, made caramels with my sister, and realized that home was still there. My mom had told me that home would always be there. It was a very comforting trip.

I spent the weekend dog sitting for my friend and she let me borrow her car. It was November, the month of the crush. I drove around Napa smelling that incredible, intoxicating smell. This was California. Adventure. Good food with real, fresh, local ingredients. Suddenly even the grapes I drank had a home. Zinfandel. Coincidentally, in my friend's apartment complex were LDS Missionaries. While I was not LDS, they were a little bit of home -- quirky, strange home -- right here in a new place.

Life was school. Worked hard, worked late. I had a lot of camaraderie. Good, good people. But it came time to apply to PhD programs. The decision came down to two. One in far, far away Alabama and the other one right here. While the school in Alabama had some incredible opportunities, I knew I couldn't beat having a great advisor and living in the best place in the world. So I finally decided on Davis. As soon as I told the other school, immediately I knew, I had made the right decision. Knowing where I'd be spending the next 3-4 years of my life meant I could do something I hadn't done seriously in a long time: Date.

My first, only, and last online date was with Sean. And from the beginning it was perfect. Sean figured me out quickly. I need adventure. Not necessarily big adventures but I love experiencing the novel. Immediately my life became frequent trips to the Bay Area, sushi and hole-in-the-wall Mexican, and soon I fell not only in love with Sean, but with the de Guzman family.

I moved here as an agnostic and fell in love with Christ and His strange little church. Two and a half years of learning and discernment, I became Catholic. Which now only seems natural.

I've become a more confident researcher and maybe a better one. I've gathered a good selection of professional experiences. After years of being unsure of what I wanted to do once I got out of graduate school, I now have a plan and the pieces in place to make it happen.

In five years, things have come together for me. I saw it all happen this summer. I worked an internship in sexual health, where they were flexible enough for me to take off for a wedding and honeymoon of my dreams. My Catholic wedding was attended by those friends who made living to California and being in graduate school a pleasure. My family, supportive at every step of the way, was there. We drank California wine, ate avocados, and spent the next day on the beach, toes buried in the sand.

It has been a beautiful five years in California. A lot of hard work but a lot of pure joy too. Good friends, true love, and community. Good food, places to be, and sights to see. There have been rough days, weeks, and months. It has all been worth it to be here and to find myself in this place with my love, family, and my friends. But I still tear up as I think of cooking those purple bell peppers alone, my mother on her way back to my home.