Monday, January 25, 2016

The Occult and You

I had the privilege of listening to one of the bravest homilies I have ever heard on Sunday. Father John rolled up his sleeves (figuratively. I guess chasubles don't really have sleeves) and took on a topic that is not very easy to speak about, nor that is usually received well. He spoke about breaking the first commandment. There are the obvious situations and the ones you think about in Sunday school. Basically, when we let the things of the world come before our relationship with God. Money, sexual pleasure, drugs can all become the gods of our life. Father took on the other aspect of this. The actual act of worshiping at the altar of another god. This list is by no means comprehensive but it includes fortune telling, tarot card reading, ouija boards, transcendental mediation, mediums, practicing magic, etc. I think you get what I'm getting at.

So why do I think he was so brave for broaching this topic? It really comes down to two things. It's hard to talk about this stuff without sounding like a kook. We've relegated so much of these activities to entertainment, that most people think of it as something harmless. He went out on a limb, hoping that people would realize that he has real experience in the negative effects these activities have had on people. Priests get to see a really dark side of the human soul. I can't imagine how it must weigh on them to hear the horrible things that get brought into the light in the confessional; or the serious problems that they deal with when they are sought out by truly tortured souls. The second part is that it makes people really uncomfortable to talk to them about their transgressions. No one wants to be the finger pointer. No one wants to be the guy that has to tell someone that they are out of line. Especially when that person doesn't think they did anything wrong. But I think he was finally moved, after seeing too any people in bad places, that he finally had to speak up. He even told us that he has never spoken of this topic in a homily. Knowing him for that past couple of years, I've known him to not be afraid to speak about spiritual warfare, but in those cases, he knew his audience.

So here it is. Here's my brave moment. The devil is real. Demons are real. Demonic possession is real. So please be careful. I've known enough people who have dealt with the negative effects of inviting the devil in. Perfectly good people, mind you, people of faith, have gotten too close to things they thought were innocent enough and paid a horrible price for their curiosity. Father spoke of the popularity of two things that, I agree with him, is currently growing. The first are mediums. These are the folks that claim they can speak to your dead loved ones. I think for the most part, they are snake oil salesman, using parlor tricks to make you believe they really can communicate with the hereafter. They want to use our gullibility to make a buck.Then there are the really dangerous ones, the ones that actually believe they have the power to speak to the dead. Jesus tells us in the Lazarus story that there is a huge divide between the two worlds, and that the dead cannot cross over. Any perceived communication with the departed must be a trick of the devil. Only angels and demons have the power to come into our world from the beyond, not souls. Even the prophets in the Bible cannot see the future. Prophet simply means "witness". They understand God's divine plan and try to warn others that they are off the path.

The second thing is new age healing. I am not all that well-versed in the world of alternative medicine, but I know I don't have to go into detail. Things that involve fixing your chi, aligning your chakras, or directing positive energies are fallacious at best. The majority of these practices have shown to have a placebo effect at best. I was going to link to studies that support this, but then I realized you believe what you believe, and I'm confident in your ability to use Google. Once again though, if we place our faith in something other than God and provable science, we are wandering into the world of the occult. Our psyche is a delicate and highly nuanced thing. It doesn't take much to convince us of something if we want to believe. These things may have some real effects, but the benefits should frighten us even more. I'm a naturally skeptic, so when something unrelated events produces an unexpected result, I get freaked out. I want to know what exactly is causing it. If you tell me that you're whistling because it keeps tigers away, and that Levittown is happily tiger free, I start to question the real connection between the cause and the effect. In an Occam's razor sort of way, I look for the simplest explanation. If you tell me that putting crystals on my back will relieve my lower back pain, I'm going to assume that it's either my mind playing a trick on me, or something much more malevolent is playing a trick on me. Oh boy, I hope it's the former.

I feel like a should put a disclaimer here, that I'm not writing this as a holy roller, or that I'm trying to win you over to start attending daily mass or go to confession weekly. I'm just someone who has seen the dark side and knows it is real. I'm sorry if I scared you or made you uncomfortable. I'm sorry if you think I am a crazy person now. I just know what I know, I felt compelled to share it. If I can save one person from ending up in a very bad place, then this blog entry was worth it. If you do believe me and are nervous, go to confession and then renounce the practice in the name of Jesus of whatever you are currently thinking has put your soul in jeopardy. If you're not Catholic, please talk to a person of spiritual authority. I feel the need to apologize again, but the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the only rite I know of that guarantees fixing what is broken between you and God. If you aren't Christian, then you probably feel like you'd like the past 15 minutes or so back. Again, sorry.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Scary Garfield

I stumbled across this article linked by Garfield Minus Garfield. First of all, G-G is perhaps one of the most surreal, hilarious ideas I have ever come across. If you have a warped sense of humor, it might be worth the click. Although, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you already have a perverse sense of what's funny. Essentially, the author of the website removes Garfield from the comic strips and it makes Jon look like he belongs in a painting by Edvard Munch.

But I digress. The article itself references a dark comic done by the Jim Davis which imagines Garfield in different settings and times. One of these versions is "Primal Self". How is this the first time I am hearing of it?! I'm not usually a comic guy, but this is intriguing.

What is it exactly about seeing something we've taken for granted in another light? If someone just wrote an existential graphic novel, I would most likely be nonplussed. But seeing Garfield as this dark, creepy being is something that truly piques my curiosity. *SPOILER ALERT: don't read the next sentence* It's like when you find out Alan Alda is the killer in Murder at 1600. Hawkeye?! I couldn't believe it. If it was any other actor, I probably wouldn't be so surprised. It really knocked me for a loop. He's always so likeable and genial. I never saw it coming. Perhaps that's it. It's the truly surprising that gets our attention. The human brain loves novelty.

This brings me to another somewhat unrelated, but relevant topic. Why I wasn't truly in love with the new Star Wars. It didn't really broach anything new and exciting. Even Lucas was finally quoted as saying that he would've never done a movie like that because he doesn't do "retro pieces". And that nicely summed up how I felt. It's kind of a rehashing of the old story lines. It doesn't do justice to the vision that was so intriguing about the first trilogy. As long as I'm getting on everyone's nerves. I actually liked the prequel trilogy. It painted for me a world exactly how I exactly envisioned it. It had political intrigue, major turning points and summed up nicely a lot of the things only hinted at in the original movies. I really was giving the film a chance. I finally punched out when the resistance was talking about the "Star Killer Base". I distinctly remember it being something like.

"So it's another Death Star?"

"Yeah, but this one is a really, REALLY big Death Star!"

It was like an unintentional punchline. I waited around for the credits just to see if Mel Brooks was credited as a writer. I mean seriously.

Glad I finally got that off my chest. Also, Skellig Island was a horrible choice for a location. If Luke was hiding out somewhere off the charts, why would you put him on a place that's recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site? Might as well had the Jawas roll by the pyramids in Giza.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


So, I've been blogging a lot of religiousy stuff on my other blog. Which is here if you don't already know So I was trying to offset that by blogging something not religiousy here. Literally, nothing is currently interesting me enough to type about right now, so I'm going to start with something that happened here in the parish center tonight. I began a new group that is a copy of a group that already meets. The point of it is for people to read the gospel for the upcoming Sunday and reflect and discuss how it speaks to them. That was just to set the stage. Moving on,

It got me thinking about people who get involved versus those that don't. You have that chosen few who I like to call the seekers. They look for stuff to throw themselves into. They love volunteering, attending events, making new friends. Then there are those that wouldn't know a good time if it hit them in the face. They don't seem to enjoy anything. Let's imagine it's a bell curve.

I particularly like this bell curve, because 1. I didn't have to make. I stole it from Google. and 2. I like the point it makes. Early adopters, "joiners", are a rare thing, and are somewhat oddball. Same thing for the people that never do anything. Now here's the point. The middle, the fat part of the bell curve, probably roughly 80%, are the "social norm". "Why is that?" you might be saying right now. Here's what I think. We like doing stuff that has proven to be stuff worth doing. The majority of us watch football and not rugby, or eat burgers more frequently than pad thai. The majority of people do stuff because they've been introduced to it. How many things do we participate in that we discovered on our own? Probably not a lot, unless you're that person in the upper 10%.

So that's my New Years resolution. I'm going to make a better effort of inviting people to do stuff I like to do. I like it, so it can't be all bad. I am becoming more and more convinced that people do stuff because someone else invited them to it. This is different than telling someone they should do something. This is getting personal and actually asking someone to do something new for them with you. Be part of their first experience. Renew my own commitment to something by watching someone else see it with fresh eyes. This might be a good time to block my cell phone or unfriend me on Facebook if you're part of the lower 10%. On the other hand, please invite me to try something new. Maybe I'll like it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

John 1:1

I was asked to share the details of my conversion. I'll try to be concise (yeah right).

Backstory: A little over a year ago, I was presented with the opportunity to work for the Church. A friend of mine was the Faith Formation Director at Queen of the Universe Parish. He accepted a tenured position in Florida and could no longer continue on at his position at church. I inquired if there was an heir apparent to the position. I was encouraged to talk to our pastor, Fr. Mike. Long story short, there was not another person lined up for the position and Father seemed very enthusiastic about my interest. There were several factors that convinced me that I was not the man for the job. It was then though, that I became very dissatisfied with my current job. I had devoted 15 years of my life to sleep disorders. I managed a relatively large sleep center, trained new technologists, taught continuing ed classes, served on the board of New Jersey Association of Polysomnography Technologists, and facilitated sessions and screenings to educate people on the need for sleep testing. I was under the impression I was fulfilled in my current job, and was committed to the advocacy of an underrepresented medical field.

Then something changed. The job always had its challenges, but now even the wins were not gratifying. I felt like I was on some kind of hamster wheel. It was about this time that I was unexpectedly volunteered to facilitate a discussion group in a program called Discovering Christ. Seeing as that I thought I was pretty well associated with Jesus, my first inclination was to pass. God wasn't having it, however. I received an email about two weeks after my declination, outlining my group and and the time requirements. I took it as a sign that I should be attending, or that I wasn't going to outmatch the stubbornness of the program coordinator. I grudgingly accepted the invitation. It was pretty much what I expected. A communal meal, some light faith sharing, a video, and contemporary worship music. For those that know me well, you know that I don't really get excited about many of those aspects (except for the food).

Things changed for me when we went on the retreat. The retreat itself was much of the same, except that is was held at the Shrine of St. Katherine Drexel in Bensalem. Up until this point we had been meeting at the parish hall. We had a wonderful speaker elucidate the existence of God as pure love and that the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was the embodiment of this love. Something in me began to stir as I thought more deeply about this concept. That love was the all encompassing force that created the universe. I saw love for what it was. Something that we experience as an emotion, obviously; but now I saw it as a thing entirely unto itself. I went from the knowledge level of love to a wisdom understanding of it. I wish I could put it into words for you the difference. It was much more like a divine revelation or a beatific vision. I saw love for what it really was. I had been searching for a long time for God, through philosophy, prayer, scripture. I still felt this gap, that there was something else. The something else was about to hit me like a ton of bricks. With this vision in my head, I went to confession, and I sat through the following prayer service.

Then we were asked if we'd like a priest to pray over us. I was tentative at first. It sounded a little too "charismatic" to me. I had convinced myself long ago that this was not my kind of Catholicism. I didn't buy into the whole "moved by the spirit" stuff. I thought it was just plain weird and somewhat phony. As an aside, I was always profoundly curious about the mystics of the church, what it must be like to have a direct experience of the divine. I still was not convinced anyway, but I thought it foolish to turn down an opportunity to have a priest pray for me. Perhaps I'd receive some graces.

I sat in a pew, that was positioned parallel not perpendicular to the altar like we find in our regular parishes, and waited my turn. Everyone before me just sat quietly while the priest stood behind them and prayed in an unintelligible whisper. Then it was my turn. I exhaled and prepared myself to receive what ever blessing would come to me. The same as all the others, his finger lightly touched my scalp and he began to pray in the same hushed whisper, so quiet that I was unable to ascertain what he was saying. Then it began. Slowly at first. A soft excitation, a buzz almost, that began where his fingertips touched me and began to radiate down into my whole body. I felt my body become lighter, not weightlessness, but as if I was being pulled upwards. My whole person was in a state of vibration (It was more than that, but the right word to describe it escapes me to this day). I felt an internal presence, like my soul was being directly plugged into some inexplicable power source. I felt every emotion all at once. What I'm sure was a couple seconds, felt like hours. I was no longer in that chapel, but some where outside of time and space. It wasn't transcendental. I still knew where I was, and still aware of my body, but I was aware of being part of a greater whole. I felt naked. I felt exposed. I had no control over what was happening to me. The emotions continued to get stronger to the point where I thought I couldn't take it anymore. I was praying it would end, but wishing I could hold onto it forever. When Father John ended his prayer, he made no sign or gesture. He just simply lifted his hands and moved on to the next person. I immediately went to the altar. I sobbed. Not cried, I let out the emotion that was now bottled up inside. It was a bittersweet sobbing. I was so many things at that moment. Grateful for this experience, overwhelmed with the love I was feeling, and distressed by all the times that I had failed to recognize it. It was an existential cry. I had sinned. I had failed to believe. My very being was being torn apart between elation and sorrow. It was like I was the person standing in Edvard Munch's The Scream.

Once the emotions subsided enough where I could catch my breath, I walked down the stairs to the side of the altar into the room where St. Katherine's tomb was. I asked Jesus what all of this meant and what he wanted from me. The answer didn't come immediately. I was tortured with thoughts of my shortcomings for the next few weeks. I thought about what I was doing with my life. I was saddened that I couldn't recreate my recent experience no matter how deeply I prayed or mediated. Then it hit me. This experience wasn't for me alone. It was a message. We can directly receive God's love in the here and now. Instant gratification! I thought, as I'm sure so many Catholics do, that we are supposed to wait patiently for Heaven. We try to be good enough here on Earth so one day we can be called home and experience the fullness and wonder that is direct contact with God. I reread the Gospels in a new way. I heard the readings at Mass completely differently. Jesus wasn't telling us how to gain salvation, he already did that with his ultimate sacrifice. He's telling us how to be happy now! The Gospels are a prescription for happiness.

I had to find a way to share this. It finally dawned on me that the answer had been staring me in the face for a year. I needed to take that job! I have joked that I am now Jesus' wingman. My job, in essence, is now to help people find that feeling in this world. It's slow going, and I know I have a heck of a job cut out for me. But I persevere. Knowing now what it is to really know God's presence.I know that faith doesn't have to be an exercise in blind hoping. Jesus will really come to us and let us put our fingers in the nail holes and his side, as he did for Thomas. He is standing there right in front of you, arms outstretched, waiting to embrace you. All you have to do is let go and lean in. He'll do the rest.