Because God is the Only Hypothesis Necessary

In my work writing the history of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I have interviewed dozens upon dozens of leading physicians, surgeons, and biomedical researchers. Recently, I have begun asking many of them a question: Is there any room for God in your world of biomedical science? Friday I received an answer that took me aback.

Jack Szostak, PhD, is a 2009 Nobel Prize-winner for Physiology or Medicine. He has had a “bench,” lab space, at the MGH for over 25 years. He has moved on from the work for which he and two non-MGH colleagues won the coveted Nobel. Today, he and his lab are trying to create life as it might have been created 13 billion years ago. I can’t give you the technical specifics, but clearly Dr. Szostak, an engaging, mild-mannered native of Montreal, is working on the fundamental hypothesis that life resulted from random collisions of chemicals and mutations of the building-block molecules that resulted. I asked him if he thought there was a place for God in this world.

“No,” he said with a shy smile. “I’ve never been a religious person. Who was it who said that God is an unnecessary hypothesis?” He couldn’t recall, but I looked it up later. It was French scientist Pierre Laplace who said it.

My purpose in asking this question of doctors and scientists is not to launch an argument that would throw my writing project off track. It’s more of a personal inquiry, a spiritual curiosity question. I have no beef with Dr. Szostak, but I see the world differently.

God is really the only hypothesis that is necessary, and becoming a Catholic has given me day-to-day experience in trying to live that hypothesis in its fullness. In thinking about why God is necessary, I have been buoyed by the writing of Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation. Whatever the ultimate reality is, Don Giussani says, it must correspond not only with our minds (truth must be reasonable) but also with our hearts (truth must correspond to the deepest needs and stirrings of our nature). Science looks at the world with the mind alone. CL and all Catholicism look at the world with the mind and heart joined.

If you leave the heart out of the equation—and of course if you put aside fundamental questions about what made those first chemicals and the laws by which they interact and so on back to a Prime Mover—it’s quite easy to make God unnecessary for one’s mind alone.

But God didn’t make us mere brains on a stick, now did He?

An Anglican Asks: What About a Non-Catholic Spouse?

Last weekend, we posted a question from EPG, an Anglican reader of YIM Catholic. The question was, Do Catholics go overboard with Mary? Thirty of you answered, in a comment thread that is a virtual encyclopedia of Marian experience. Now here’s another question that some would-be converts might ask, and it’s not an easy one. It’s a question for those received into the Catholic Church as adults with a husband or wife who is not Catholic, not interested in Catholicism, or perhaps even hostile to Catholicism:

EPG asks: “How did you handle questions, biases, anger, misinformation, etc., in the middle of your own discernment?  Did resistance, opposition, confusion, feelings of hurt or betrayal from a husband or wife create difficulties in your process of discernment and reception?  How did you address the issues that did come up?”

Even if you aren’t in this narrow category, even if you’re a cradle Catholic married to another Catholic, I think you can shed some light on this for EPG. From my own experience, as a convert married to a cradle Catholic, I know that whenever two spouses practice their faith(s) in differing ways, it can create tensions in a marriage, sometimes simply through misunderstanding: She thinks she’s so devout! He thinks I think he’s not devout. . . .

So here’s message one for EPG: Converts discerning about Catholicism should not feel alone in this.

Your thoughts, readers?

For the Love of St. Joseph: A Novena (Day 3)

For the past two and a half years, I have been working on a history of the Massachusetts General Hospital, to be published in the MGH bicentennial year of 2011—if I can keep hitting the deadlines, that is. Many times I have walked between buildings at the hospital, but only yesterday did I pay attention to this statue, which stands behind the Catholic Church abutting the hospital complex. The church is St. Joseph’s.

What I find lovely and unusual about this vision of St. Joseph is that here he is not with Jesus but with a young, barefoot girl, who looks up hopefully into his eyes. I have decided to name the girl Teresa.

Devotion to St. Joseph, expressed beautifully in the statue, really got started in late medieval times, according to an essay by Joseph F. Chorpenning, OSFS, in the book Saint Joseph and the Third Millennium. Two influences were important, according to the author.

St. Bonaventure (1221–1274) was a Franciscan theologian whose Meditations on the Passion are a sort of summary of medieval spirituality. Like the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius three centuries later, the Meditations exhorted readers to meditate imaginatively on the life of Christ, beginning with the life of the Holy Family. On the flight into Egypt, the reader is told, “Accompany them and help to carry the Child and serve them in every way you can.” Chorpenning’s essay shows how devotion to St. Joseph began growing alongside a widening awareness of the Holy Family.

Jean Gerson (1363–1429), a chancellor of the University of Paris, was more direct. He “conducted an active campaign to rescue St. Joseph from the relative neglect of earlier periods, to correct mistaken notions about him found in the apocryphal gospels and often reflected in art and in literature, and to promote his cult among the faithful. Gerson systematically reworked St. Joseph’s image from that of an aged, ineffective attendant to the Virgin and Christ Child to a vigorous, youthful man who was the divinely appointed head of God’s household, . . . an industrious provider for the Holy Family, and, along with his spouse Mary, an exemplar of holy matrimony.”

But enough history for one morning! Let’s continue with the homily for the Feast of St. Joseph by Karl Rahner, SJ, in which he begins to lay out reasons why St. Joseph is a saint for our times:

Certainly every Christian and every Christian nation are charged with the entire fullness of Christian perfection as a duty that is never completed. But every nation and every human being have, so to speak, their own door, their own approach, through which they alone can come nearer to the fullness of Christianity. Not all of us will find access to the boundless vistas of God’s world through the great gate of surging rapture and burning ardor. Some must go through the small gate of quiet loyalty and the ordinary, exact performance of duty. And it is this fact, I am inclined to think, that can help us to discover a rapport between earth and heaven, between Christians today and their heavenly intercessor.

[To be continued tomorrow]

Blessed St. Joseph, who stand at the “small gate of quiet loyalty and the ordinary, exact performance of duty,” pray for us!

For Your Lenten Friday Night at the Movies IV

This is your trusty co-pilot checking in again. We are continuing our slow descent and are currently at 17,000 feet with good visibility, but with reports of some heavy weather up ahead. So for your safety, please keep your seat belt fastened when you aren’t moving about the cabin. [Read more...]

Thanks to Christian Friends like Sue

Guest post by Allison 
In many ways, my friend Sue and I are as contrasting can be.The labels we wear? Sue: Sunny Californian. Single. Evangelical Christian. Me: Jersey Girl. Married. Practicing Catholic. Despite our asymmetry, and thanks to my sisterly friendship with Sue, I am becoming a better Catholic.

Sue grew up near me in our fancy New York suburb. Both our dads were surgeons. Her family was Evangelical and mine was Catholic. While we rode the same school bus, I didn’t know Sue and her sisters terribly well. Sue’s family moved away to Southern California in 1978, where her dad opened a plastic-surgery practice. Frankly, I had not thought of Sue or her family until her name popped up on my Facebook page, suggesting we become “friends.”

Over the past year, Sue and I have shared numerous emails about our lives and our faith journeys. As one would expect from two women with different Christian faith traditions, we disagree on some doctrinal issues. But what joins us is much more powerful than what separates us. Through our cyber-relationship (I have yet to talk with her on the phone or see her in person), I now consider Sue a spiritual sister.

Sue is a novelist and painter who works for Jews for Jesus in Westwood Village. She seems to have an unshakable faith in God. Life has handed her some heartaches, yet she always projects hope.

For example, when I had a run-in with someone in my parish and was contemplating leaving that particular ministry, I emailed Sue. I felt betrayed by this person and hurt to the core. How could someone behave this way in a church? “I don’t need this,” I wrote Sue. I was struggling. I knew Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother seventy-seven times. But did this rule really apply here? This person was toxic.

Sue offered a different perspective. “Stay with it,” she said. “I think they were just having a bad day.” Her generous heart and wise counsel enabled me to persevere. I am glad I did; we are all so flawed, aren’t we? I can learn far more as a Christian from bearing with my fellow travelers, and having them bear with me, than from walking away in anger, hurt, and condemnation.

Sue also has helped me in another difficult relationship in my life; someone with whom I once was close and who has done some terrible deeds. She regularly prays for them. She tells me God watches over all of us, even when we stumble and fall. She told me this person still is in God’s loving care.

I don’t yet have as generous a heart as Sue, or as brave and forgiving a spirit. As a Catholic Christian, I appreciate the depth of her Christian experience and the wise counsel of my spiritual sister. We encourage one another in our walk of faith.

And now, let me ask you, what friends who are not Catholic have helped deepen your Catholic faith?

God Takes Care of Little Ones with Guardian Angels

Over the past day, we’ve had a crisis in our home, a crisis of epic dimensions with which anyone with a school-aged child is familiar: our son lost his homework.

Now, this wasn’t just any piece of homework. It was a book project in 12 sections. Our 10-year-old read a biography of Hank Aaron, not a kids’ book, but  a book for adults that he found on my husband Greg’s bookshelves.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve guided him step by step through the project, setting up deadlines for this bear of an assignment to make sure he met today’s deadline. And last night, as he was going to put the finishing touches on the project, he discovered he’d lost it. I knew, I just knew, there had to be a life lesson in this one. I told him so. But it took me a while to figure out what it was.

After our son discovered the project was missing from his school folder, all four of us searched our entire home for it without success. He was apopleptic. He was so upset with himself he could not finish the remaining pieces of the project, including putting a face on his bust of Hank Aaron, and copying over a small thesaurus he had written. He was so angry he could not study for today’s history test. Off to bed he went, in tears and with our prayers following him up the stairs. Before Greg went to bed, he went into our son’s room, gave him a big hug and told him how proud we are he works so hard in school. I prayed myself to sleep.

When I awoke at 6:30 this morning, our son was already awake and downstairs, putting the face on his Hank Aaron bust. (pictured above). He called upstairs and asked me to come downstairs as soon as I could to help him redo the thesaurus. When he finished, he asked me to prep him for the history test.

As I drove our son to school I told him I understood his frustration. I had lost important work myself. I told him  rewriting the project would be easier than writing it the first  time. “There is a life lesson in this,” I told him. “What is it?’ he asked. I was going to respond that perhaps next time he would figure out a way to keep track of his work better. But then I thought, making mistakes is an inevitable part of living. Surely that cannot be the life lesson.

As I pulled up to the school, I realized what I needed to say. “The life lesson is that God will take care of you, no matter what happens.” “Okay,” he said, nodding.

I watched our son walking through the school yard, his massive backpack hanging from his small frame. I imagined an angel walking beside him. I remembered how I learned as a child that each of us has a guardian angel.. I used to pray to mine before I went to sleep each night. As our catechism teaches: “From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their (the angels) watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united to God.”

I’ve never told our son about his angel, or how to pray to him. Angel of God, my guardian dear, To whom God’s love commits me here, Ever this day, be at my side, To light and guard, Rule and guide. Amen.

I could tell you whether our son found the project at school in his desk or locker or if I found it under a sofa at home. I could tell you whether the due date he cited was the actual one, or whether the project was already overdue or not due until next week. But none of that would be the point. I have come to believe that our son lost his project so that God could introduce him to His angels.

For the Love of St. Joseph: A Novena (Day 2)

As a reader commented yesterday, when I began a novena in anticipation of his feast day, March 19, St. Joseph is the silent man in the Gospels. He speaks not a word, although Matthew and Luke both show him acting decisively in response to the Word of God. Much of what we “know” about St. Joseph is apocryphal; many images of him, for example, the old man holding a staff from which a lily sprouts (left), are derived from the Protoevangelium of James and other texts discredited by Church Fathers. Most modern scholars seem to agree that Joseph was in fact a young man, making his virginal marriage far more impressive.

St. Joseph was silent and pretty much unnoticed for the first 1200 years of Christian history. There is little record of devotion to him during that period. In his essay “Theological Reflections on Devotion to Saint Joseph,” Michael Griffin, OCD, writes: “Though the Church from the beginning was aware that Mary was given to be the spiritual mother of all, it is a fact that consciousness of Saint Joseph as the spiritual father and protector of every Christian was only gradually arrived at.”

As I will be telling in subsequent posts, devotion to St. Joseph and, by extension, to the Holy Family began at the time of the Franciscans (13th Century) and St. Joseph alone has been an increasingly important figure for Popes since the late 19th century. I’ll conclude this short post today with the next paragraphs in a homily for the Feast of St. Joseph written by Karl Rahner, SJ, which began yesterday. It reflects a consensus that in some way the Holy Spirit “reserved” devotion to St. Joseph for our troubled times:

The blessed men and women with whom we have fellowship in the communion of saints are not pale shadows. Rather, they have brought over into the eternal life of God the fruits of their earthly life, and thus have brought with them their own personal uniqueness.

Their God even calls them by name in the one today of eternity. They are ever the same as they were in the unique history of their own lives. We single out one individual from among them to honor him as our heavenly protector and intercessor, because his own individuality means something unique and irreplaceable to us. We mean that between him and us there exists a specific rapport that makes him a special blessing for us and assigns a special duty to us, if we are to be worthy of his protection.

From this point of view, is it possible to think that Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Virgin and foster father of our Lord, is particularly suited to be a patron of a twentieth-century person? Is it possible to think that anyone living today will be able to see himself reflected in Joseph? Are there not people today who, if they are true to their character as willed by God, are a people of small means, of hard work, of only a few words, of loyalty of heart and simple sincerity?

[To be continued tomorrow]

Oh blessed St. Joseph, virginal husband of Mary, pray for us!

YIMC Book Club, “Mere Christianity” Week 8

This week we read Book IV, Chapters 6, 7, and 8.
I have a close friend who suggested to me to give you lubberly book club members questions to help motivate you to read and comment on CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity. To which I say, Phooey on that! Maybe you guys all finished the book three weeks ago and didn’t tell me about it. Jimmy-crack-corn and-I don’t-care!

Oh, what’s that? You don’t know what lubberly means? Look it up, lazy bones. Because here’s the thing: if you quit reading or you’ve gotten side-tracked, or you just don’t understand what CSL is saying, that’s not my fault. And it’s your loss too, because Jack has been saving the best for last.

Much like last week, I’ll skip the chapter by chapter grind and leave the majority of comments up to you. That didn’t work really well last time but so be it. Interestingly, Jack issues a wake-up call this week and quite frankly we all need to hear it. I wrote a post last week on the difficulties of walking The Way. Jack backs me up this week but also clarifies something. The Way is hard and easy. But before we tackle that concept, look what Jack says here:

Teachers will tell you that the laziest boy in the class is the one who works hardest in the end. They mean this. If you give two boys, say, a proposition in geometry to do, the one who is prepared to take trouble will try to understand it. The lazy boy will try to learn it by heart because, for the moment, that needs less effort. But six months later, when they are preparing for an exam, that lazy boy is doing hours and hours of miserable drudgery over things the other boy understands, and positively enjoys, in a few minutes. Laziness means more work in the long run.

Lots of great stuff like that from Jack this week. He discusses why we were given free will by God. Sure, it’s a two-edged sword, but it’s better than being a slave or a robot. Want to make everybody into a little you? Jack talks about why that is a bad idea, and why it isn’t Gods plan. Tempted not to give a hoot about anyone but yourself? Sure you are, but Jack sheds light on why that is no solution either. For practical application of this, see Webster’s post on Anna Deveare Smith.

Jack’s writings in these chapters force you to look deep inside at the real you. Courage, me hearties! Are you an Individualist, a Totalitarian, or somewhere in between?  And

What difference does all this theology make? It can start making a difference tonight. If you are interested enough to have read thus far you are probably interested enough to make a shot at saying your prayers: and, whatever else you say, you will probably say the Lord’s Prayer.

The fact that Jesus taught us to pray by first saying the words Our Father should astound you from reading Mere Christianity this far, if it didn’t amaze you already. You may or may not know that this alone, calling God Father, is impossible for Muslims, for example.

Have you ever heard the expression fake it until you make it? Jack endorses this as a way to begin the process of transforming ourselves into the new person we must become to be Christians. Now we are getting to the hard and the easy I alluded to earlier. Jack even flips this on its head by claiming that maybe God is the one doing the pretending:

The Three-Personal God, so to speak, sees before Him in fact a self-centered, greedy, grumbling, rebellious human animal. But He says, “Let us pretend that this is not a mere creature, but our Son. It is like Christ in so far as it is a Man, for He became Man. Let us pretend that it is also like Him in Spirit. Let us treat it as if it were what in fact it is not. Let us pretend in order to make the pretence into a reality.”

Golly, looking in the mirror like that makes me wince. How’s that for shaking up your world view? I was bantering with Webster via e-mail the other day about an upcoming post, and I said something that prompted him to respond that he is glad he isn’t married to a Marine. I sent him back this from Jack with the reply of “Yeah, look what you’ve married into now”—

The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked-the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

I think I’ve said before that, for me anyway, the Marine Corps was a cake-walk compared to being a Christian. Jack summed it up nicely here, don’t you think? You really can’t continue on as you were before. And in case you think you can, I’ll leave you to ponder how Our Lord considers the lukewarm.

Your thoughts on this week’s readings (and even the previous weeks’—sheesh!) in the comment box are appreciated.

Next week, we finish by reading Book IV, Chapters 9, 10, and 11.

For the Love of St. Joseph: A Novena

As I have written before, I took Joseph as my confirmation name and have a personal devotion to him. His feast day, March 19, is nine days away, counting from today, and so this seemed a perfect time to say my first novena. (We converts don’t know a novena from novella. This is a big deal for me.) I am using this text from the EWTN web site, and am praying for a private intention, but I would encourage anyone in special need to follow along with me. As St. Teresa of Avila knew, Joseph is a powerful saint.

As a complement to this novena, each day I will post an excerpt from a homily for the Feast of St. Joseph, written by Karl Rahner, S.J. I found the homily in a book loaned me by Father Barnes (another good father). The book is Saint Joseph and the Third Millennium, edited by Michael D. Griffin, OCD. I commend it to your attention.

Here is the beginning of Karl Rahner’s homily:

The Catholic Church today [March 19] celebrates the feast of her patron, her heavenly protector. We can understand such a feast only if we believe in the communion of saints, if we know by faith that God is not a God of the dead, but a God of the living, if we confess that whoever has died in God’s grace lives with God and precisely for that reason is close to us, and if we are convinced that these citizens of heaven intercede for their brothers and sisters on earth in the eternal liturgy of heaven.

The meaning of such a feast can be grasped only if we believe that after death all the events of this earthly life are not simply gone and past, over and done with forever, but that they are preparatory steps that belong to us for eternity, that belong to us as our living future. For our mortality does not change to eternity in an instant; rather, it is slowly transformed into life.

[To be continued tomorrow]

Oh blessed St. Joseph, pray for us!

Because You Can See Christ in Anyone

Anna Deveare Smith is an extraordinary actress, teacher, woman. Katie and I had an opportunity to appreciate that last evening at a private command performance put on by a client of mine. I do not know whether the long-time performer on West Wing is a Catholic. But she taught me about being a Catholic, and challenged me to be a better one.

Trained as an actress, Smith is a former winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and is now a professor at NYU. She has created a new form of one-woman show, in which she presents a broad range of American characters as she has encountered them in one-on-one interviews. In the YouTube clip below, you can appreciate her acting talent. But what you might not realize is that each small performance piece is taken verbatim from an interview she conducted.

This makes her performance an extraodinary act of incarnating another person—often someone of another culture, sometimes a person of the opposite gender (she plays Studs Terkel in the first piece). She incarnates these characters with complete acceptance and boundless compassion. She never makes fun of her characters; she embodies them completely.

I have been thinking about her performance since it ended last night. I have been wondering why I have been thinking about her performance. And this is the conclusion I have come to.

Anna Deveare Smith demonstrates how it is possible to see beauty, truth, and goodness in anyone. And she has made this seeing and telling her life’s work. Seeing another person this way, I imagine, I am about as close to seeing Christ in that person as I would be face to face with Jesus. Watch, listen, ponder the meaning of this remarkable woman’s work.

Language warning: If you are going to watch this with a young person, turn it off after the piece about the Korean woman. Because the final character, a rodeo rider, uses the F-word. To my mind, even this “lapse of taste” (if that is really what it is) is an act of total acceptance of a character encountered.

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