The conference is, so far, blowing me away with the awesome group of people participating and the need we seem to have tapped. Perfect talk after perfect talk, and all of them completely different. (I don’t know whether other people needed my talk, but I did, so it was perfect for me, anyhow.) Life is good.
Also, I’m past peak intensity with the conference project now, and my mind is moving to Monday, when Marie Kondo arrives at my house. In preparation, a thing happened to me that caused a moment of aching clarity.
The thing that happened is that SuperHusband ran out of coffee, and we needed my daughter to pick up a resupply while she was running errands in the same direction.
Because we forget to use grocery lists (I know! How hard is that? Hard for us. I’m sorry.), our method for remembering we need infrequently-purchased staple items is to save the package as a reminder. Thus the other day I set in the garage-library this bag:
What with my daughter being the one sent out, I naturally retrieved the bag to hand off to her, to make sure she knows exactly what coffee to buy.
She did not need the bag. For one thing, her father texted her the info. For another, she usually ends up being the one to buy the coffee, so she already knows.
“You sure you don’t need the bag?”
“I don’t need the bag.”
I relented. Maybe it is possible to buy the correct coffee without physically bringing in the bag and double-checking the label very, very carefully. Some people have superpowers that way. Fair enough.
And thus I was left holding the bag.
I looked down at this bag. It is in excellent condition. It is a very convenient size for . . . something. Such a quality bag, eminently reusable. If you had rice you wanted to scent vaguely of coffee? Perfect for that.
Maybe yarn, if I ever attempted knitting again, and this time I wanted the baby booties to taste and smell just like home. Perfect.
So, so, many undreamt possibilities for how to use this bag.
It felt wrong to toss the bag. Irresponsible. Wasteful.
But, alas, I can’t keep all the bags, and I already have bags (though not one quite like this), and there is no public whatsoever who would like my old coffee bag. (Would you like my old coffee bag? I could set it out for you to pick up sometime.)
Which is why, come Monday, begins the firestorm of sparking joy.
Not, with a brain like mine, something that can be done in tiny spurts. Whole brain and will and spirit will need to show up and give it their all, because the world is brimming over with coffee bags, and not buying coffee is the wrong answer.
So that’s my situation.
Will post notes from my conference talk, about that different problem I have, when I get them cleaned up at some indeterminate date in the future.
Meanwhile, here is Simcha Fisher with a must-read post for those of us who have coffee-bag problems. Even if she isn’t usually your cuppa ‘spresso, this one is Simcha at the very top of her game and saying the thing that people who own extraneous stuff need to here.
Since this time last MLK day, our nation’s been through an awful lot of civil strife, too much of it violent.
I want to offer some hope.
Here is something I keep finding myself telling my teenagers: You need to understand, this is not normal for our country.
They don’t know. Maybe this is how contentious problems have always been handled. They have, after all, evidence in their history books that the United States has not always been an oasis of non-violence.
But we who are a few years older are recoiling in disbelief at the rage and hostility that has erupted in so many places, and from people we did not expect. Friends. Family members. Colleagues. How did we get to this place?
Today, in memory of one of our nation’s greatest leaders of civil discourse, let me suggest something hopeful: We aren’t too far gone.
Here we are, post-911, post-MLK, post-Floyd . . . a nation that knows threats. We know terrorism, we know corruption, we know lynching, we know rioting, and yet, even with threats detected and reported, even with a massive protest pouring into the nation’s capital on the day the electoral votes were being counted in a highly-contested election for one of the most powerful political posts on the planet, there was clearly no expectation that anyone would break into Congress.
It was so darn easy for the mob to break glass and push their way in because . . . no one ever does that. We are accustomed to massive protests gathering just feet from where Congress meets, and we are used to those protests being just fine.
I can remember my first national March for Life being astonished at just how uncontroversial our reception was. Need to use the restroom? Just dash up the steps into one of the Smithsonian Museums, file through some cursory security, and help yourself. Grab lunch in the cafeteria and take in a little art while you’re at it.
My kids joke about the roving street vendors of DC who tout their stash of MAGA hats one day, March for Women the next. It doesn’t matter what your cause is, here’s a button for it, just two dollars. No one bats an eye at dodgy entrepreneurs shifting political loyalties by the minute, because partisanship is normal, expected, and largely a non-issue.
This peacefulness is evident in the Post‘s assembled video coverage of the capitol insurrection. The police could have begun forcefully pushing away the crowds before they got close to the doors. They didn’t.
You see officers standing at an entry, and the mob is breaking the glass on the door and helping themselves into the building, and the police do not fire. It is not until members of Congress are directly threatened that a single shot is fired.
Despite the deadly violence that did occur, despite the death threats being called out from some in the invading mob, there is a remarkable level of courtesy and restraint between law enforcement officers and invaders. It is as if they recognize the primacy of peace even in a mob insurrection.
Is that practical? Tactical? Sure. We don’t need to deceive ourselves about the nature of deadly mobs and outnumbered police. We don’t need to brush from memory the genuine, inexcusable violence of this riot or any other. We don’t need to forget that police brutality and corruption remain unsolved problems in our nation.
But also: The only reason the invasion of the capitol unrolled with such odd calm — and likely the reason that the House continued with business as long as it did while the mob poured into the building — is that peaceful partisanship is our norm.
It is not too late to again give that norm pride of place in our national discourse.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the man, was in some ways deeply flawed. Those human faults did not change the truth of his message. When the people you know, flawed, sometimes wrong, hold firm to something that is true and good? That truth and goodness rests on its own merits. You don’t have to reject the message because of the messenger.
In contemplating what good discourse might be, MLK’s example could not be more on point today. Do yourself a favor and get hold of a copy of the Letter from Birmingham Jail. (It’s still under copyright, so I can’t hand it out like Mardi Gras beads. You’ll have to find it yourself, maybe even pay for it.) Read it.
What it is about? It is about not being nice anymore. Not quietly going along with the status quo. It is about speaking up in the face of grave evil. It is about protesting unequivocally in a manner that will upset the people who wish you wouldn’t be such a trouble-maker.
But also: Non-violently.
MLK is our national hero of both protesting injustice fearlessly and doing so peacefully.
His legacy is the reason the capitol was invadable. It is the reason no one anticipated the breaking of that fragile glass line separating Congress from its critics. It is the reason we did not see as much bloodshed as might have been.
It is easy, when people are being nasty and violent, to reject MLK’s legacy. It is easy to say, Well, those vile brutes are destroying all we hold dear, you expect me to just stand there and take it? And when you do that, you make a mockery of the intense suffering and injustice against which MLK fought. Do you think he didn’t know violence? Do you think he didn’t know viciousness and unfettered ignorance?
Like all Christians, Martin Luther King was a sinful man in need of a Savior. And yet: He also gave his life to our nation living out the Christian model of love. He followed the more excellent way.
Refuse to waste that legacy.
Refuse to toss in the garbage our national heritage of peaceful partisanship.
It is possible to speak boldly, protest courageously, persevere resolutely, and in so doing join with all persons of good will in making our nation a land of peace and freedom.
Spreading the word because we experienced a nasty system failure sometime on the 14th: If you registered for the Good Discourse conference-retreat, you should have received an e-mail from me (Jen Fitz) this morning, Saturday the 16th.
If for any reason you don’t have the e-mail in the account you gave us (check your spam, check your other e-mail account you forgot was the one you used to sign up, etc. etc.) please contact firstname.lastname@example.org ASAP.
We do still have spaces available if you know someone who meant to register and forgot all about it.
Kindly check on your friends and make sure they have gotten signed up if they are the sort who would thrive on just such a weekend.
Also, regardless of anything at all, please keep our speakers, hosts, and participants in prayer over the week ahead. The spiritual warfare on this event has been a sight to see.
I was in conversation with a Jordan Peterson fan, and this listener told me about Peterson’s interview with Wim Hof, dedicated world-record breaker. My comments that follow aren’t about that interview, but about the listener’s impressions of it . . . and then, of course, about some Catholic follow-ons.
So, JP Fan was enchanted by the notion that we moderns are far too coddled, and that we would benefit physically from assorted toughness practices, and here think: Cold showers. Wrapped into the mystique are stories of various real live persons who have undertaken legendary-level feats of extreme toughness, including Wim’s own exploits, but the whole idea is boxed in the reality that human history is mostly a tale of surviving not-comfortable not-modern not-affluent conditions of physical duress. Your ancestors didn’t have hot showers and HVAC.
These facts can be insightful, and maybe you would benefit from cold showers or lowering the thermostat or not eating out-of-season produce. Questions worth asking yourself. The fallacy to watch out for is this: If so-and-so thrived on these conditions of duress, then I will too.
That’s magical thinking that ignores the historical fact that real people die of hypothermia in conditions far less brutal than Wim Hof’s daredevil swims under the ice. The Toughness Fallacy ignores the reality that premature death is part and parcel of living in tough conditions. Some people endure, some people thrive, some people die. That’s what happens when conditions are brutal.
Human bodies vary in their abilities and needs. Be discerning. Maybe you would benefit from less coddling in some area of your life. Maybe you would benefit from being gentler on yourself. Maybe you’re already living in the sweet spot, just tough enough on yourself but not too much. Strangers on the internet cannot know the answer to those questions for you.
The Toughness Fallacy in Catholic Community Life
The physical application of the toughness fallacy is pervasive, but I’m going to leave the exercise of identifying instances for your homework. For Catholics, a much more serious matter is the extent to which Catholic community life is infected with toughness fallacy magical thinking on a spiritual level.
The kind of suffering that hurts souls the most is not exhortations to greater austerity in prayer and fasting, though there are circles where that can be a problem. What drives people from the Church, or keeps them from entering, is the fallacy that “Come on in, it’s terrible!” is good for us.
The available liturgy leaves you cold, and no one will let you do the work to create an opportunity to worship in a way you find meaningful? Good for you!
Unable to make friends at your parish? Good for you!
Inane hurdles that have no bearing on your real spiritual needs laid out as barriers to the sacraments? Good for you!
We’re all St. John of the Cross now! If you can’t take it, you obviously don’t love Jesus.
This is the toughness fallacy. Is it good for you to be constantly coddled on the spiritual level? Of course not. Learning to die to self is fundamental to the pursuit of holiness.
(Curiously, too often it’s those who insist that financial or physical or spiritual barriers to the faith are no big deal and you just need to toughen up a little and muster some dedication turn out to be the same people who have a mountain of excuses for why xyz change that the Church allows, or even encourages, is “just not something we can do.”)
This is a problem across the spectrum in Catholic life. No one liturgical or theological or social faction has a monopoly on this fallacy. And here I emphasize: I am not speaking of the reality that your local parish is made of up humans who can only do so much. I am describing an attitude of shutting the mind to the possibility that felt-needs and expressed-needs are real needs. Just like many people really do need modern medicine in order to survive, many people really do have spiritual needs that toughness-fallacy thinking ignores.
And Then There Were Some
What happens when we dismiss out of hand the spiritual needs of people who aren’t doing well on parish-life-as-usual? Those people leave.
Mostly, those people disappear without a trace. When they can’t find a place in the local parish, they turn to non-Catholic houses of worship or to the secular world. The only sliver that remains trackable are those who flee to extremes on the Catholic margins, right or left.
Those who remain in your parish are the people who are able to endure what’s on offer, directed by a core who thrive on that status quo.
The Everyone-Here-is-Fine Fallacy
As a result, looking around your parish, what you see are the people who are managing with what you’ve got.
No Deaf Mass in your diocese? Well, who needs it — there are no Deaf Catholics here! No mental health support groups? Well, there’s just no demand for that, our parishioners are in great shape! No ministry for LGBT Catholics struggling with the faith? Well you know they all hate Jesus and hang out at the farmer’s market on Sunday mornings, except of course that one lector who keeps it in the closet and we all pretend not to notice.
And on, and on, and on. No one “needs” xyz liturgical, spiritual, or social ministry at your parish because the toughness fallacy has already killed their spiritual life.
How can one person fix all this?
One person cannot fix all this. One parish can’t offer All the Things. One pastor can’t oversee thirty bazillion new ministries. One DRE can’t institute ten different approaches to sacramental prep. One well-meaning volunteer can’t staff eighty different outreaches.
Ultimately, individuals can only do two things: Be available within our abilities, and be open to hope that others will step forward to handle the rest.
The application of that hope requires a willingness to let go of control. If I’m currently the queen bee of parish Bible study or outreach to the homeless or picking the weekend’s four-hymn sandwich, openness to hope means openness to some one else edging onto “my turf”. My hope should be that someone will come along who offers a different Bible study for a different type of student, or begins a different ministry serving the type of poor person my ministry doesn’t serve so well, or takes over responsibility for the music at one Mass a weekend, so that we have eight different hymns on offer.
My openness to hope is something I need to plan on. I can’t serve xyz need, but I fervently pray that someone will come along who can, and when they do, I will support them in whatever way I can. That might be with material assistance, but it might be with just a positive attitude towards expansion and change.
The Toughness Fallacy in Online Discourse
Finally, coming around to next week’s conference, which still has a few more open spaces: Lately the toughness fallacy has been killing the spiritual lives of Catholics looking for hope and encouragement on the internet.
It looks like this: Me? I thrive on the thrill of a rousing argument! Nothing gets my Jesus on more than hashing it out with so-and-so, that evil wrongheaded windbag who claims the name Catholic and it’s my mission in life to debunk! Therefore, anyone who can’t take the heat needs to get out of the kitchen.
Y’all. I have been watching people who were struggling with their faith give up altogether because what they see among widely-read public Catholics is nastiness. They sought out the online Catholic community for support, and got a brawl instead. I have seen how seemingly low-key, quiet corners of the Catholic internet designed to provide that much-needed support get plagued by a level of vehement discourse that is not appropriate in forums that aren’t intended to host debate on contentious issues.
Over the past few weeks my impression of the extent of this problem has been confirmed. I have heard from many who are coming to the Good Discourse conference because they are desperate to find or help create a place where Catholics can interact with good will and charity.
The toughness fallacy kills. It kills physically, and it kills spiritually. If you are interested in being part of the healing process in Catholic discourse, please join us.
I first used this photo of a feral cat to illustrate this post. It seemed time to pull it out again. FYI, I will probably have cats in my zoom presence. Said cats are contentious, ill-mannered, but loveable all the same. Photo credit: w:User:Stavrolo [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Related: If you liked this post, you might like this book on how to reach out to those people who also need Jesus, but don’t yet realize they can find Him in your local parish.
A frequent question we’ve been getting about the upcoming Good Discourse conference is a variation on “Am I the right type of Catholic for this?”
It looks like . . .
What? You’re inviting people from that publication?
Are you sure I should come? I don’t think the other people there are going to want someone like me.
I sorry but I can’t come, because if people saw I was attending a conference with that person, it could wreck my career.
These worries stem from candid recognition that there are significant, important disagreements among Catholics concerning liturgy, theology, politics — you name it. These issues matter.
I care deeply about some of these debates. I hold on certain questions the conviction that some well-known Catholics are pushing views that are not compatible with the Catholic faith. I consider it extremely important that we as Catholics accurately teach what is and is not essential to our faith.
And yet . . . I completely, 100% agree with Sherry Antonetti, genius mastermind behind the Good Discourse conference, that Catholics of every stripe belong at this event.
1. Ugly Infighting Hurts our Christian Witness
Catholicism is called “the thinking man’s religion” for good reason. We should argue in favor of what is true, and we should do so firmly, cogently, and honestly. We absolutely should not take a “hear no evil” attitude when someone touts as Catholic an opinion we find contrary to the faith, or announces as mandatory an opinion or practice that we know is not required.
Healthy debate and charitable correction are both essential parts of the Catholic faith. We aren’t DIY theologians, slapping Catholic externals on whatever we feel like believing.
But that does not mean we have to be horrible to our fellow Catholics.
Sooner or later — likely sooner, unless you are just an amazingly good person all on your own — some aspect of the faith is going to be Not What You Want.
You will have to wrestle with a moral issue that doesn’t make sense to you, or a devotion that rubs you the wrong way, or a teaching that you accept intellectually but fail at applying, or goodness knows what else. Catholicism is a demanding religion because Jesus Christ wants to rescue you from your fallenness and turn you into a spotless, pure, perfect-for-all-eternity image of Him that is also uniquely and unrepeatably you. (And He wants to do it with your freely-chosen cooperation, yikes.)
Therefore, someone who is considering converting, returning, or persevering in the Catholic faith should expect to have moments of discovering he or she is dead wrong about xyz Catholic thing.
Because that is a normal part of being Catholic, you shouldn’t have to steel yourself for all kinds of nastiness from the people who ought to be helping you see your way more clearly.
There will be plenty of times when you have to face the uncomfortable reality that you have not been living the way that you ought. We who love the Catholic faith should endeavor to make those moments easier to face. We can do that by learning to engage in sharp-witted but gentle-tongued* discourse with our worthy opponents sitting in the pews with us.
2. This is a Single-Topic Event
The Catholic faith applies to every part of our lives. In the course of your life as a Catholic, no doubt you’ll attend retreats on prayer, conferences on life issues, talks on dogmatic theology, workshops on the liturgy . . . lotsa stuff.
My heart was warmed the day I saw my parish music director get all stirred up in an internet Catholic food fight over a completely different topic, because it meant he cared, and I just loved that he was so passionate about this other aspect of the faith. But when someone comes to him for choir practice, he doesn’t ask at the door: How about NFP? How about Marian apologetics? He’s there to teach to music. It’s okay if a volunteer is still working on some other issues. They can grow in their Catholic over time.
(In fact, storytime: My husband reverted to the faith with some typical reservations about Mary due to his evangelical background. It was through music that he was able to gently make progress in that area, thanks to a music director who did not have a theological litmus test, but did have a profound love of the Blessed Mother.)
Our conference is about learning how to not be quite such a jerk when debating other Catholics. If someone is a radical progressive on some other issue about which I’m ultra-conservative, or vice versa, so what? If we both want to learn how to be more peaceful and more productive in our dialog, we can work together on this.
Maybe we’ll be a good influence on each other in some of our areas of disagreement as well. But at the very least, we can be a good influence on each other in this one thing we both know is important.
3. This is Not an Exercise in Self-Congratulations
So maybe you, too, need a membership in Cantankerous Anonymous. You have realized you need to change.
Guess what? No one’s going to be like, “Wow! That bellicose ol’ jerk really turned over a new leaf!” when you’re busy gushing over the brilliance of someone you agree with.
It’s your ability to behave like a civilized creature towards people you strongly disagree with that we are attempting to cultivate.
So if you’re puzzling over why we have encouraged other Catholics who are so, so wrong about xyz hot-button issue that seriously gets your dander up — maybe it’s the issue that you feel is the most serious threat to all that is good and holy in our precious faith — why we have invited that person to also come to the Good Discourse conference . . . maybe it’s so you can practice being nice for 48 hours?
Scrolling through the registrations so far, we have a super group already signed up. The names I recognize are all people who are nicer than me, just FYI. There are still some spaces though, if you want to spice things up for us. Zoom format, so request your Zoom invite here.
Personal story, and then the invitation I am going to continuously extend for the next two weeks, and then some.
I am one of those people who has a love/hate relationship with “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace,” the hymn that US Catholic parishes are contractually obligated to sing at least three times a year if they want to keep their pet-blessing license.
(That’s a joke. Also, my cat needs his blessing renewed.)
Not a joke: Sometimes the song annoys me, sometimes the song inspires me, but being a peacemaker is not something that falls naturally within my wheelhouse. Longtime readers and meat-life friends can attest, the thing I am very, very good at is identifying problems and complaining about them.
So, end of November, I was at Mass on a Sunday evening. No person living inside my soul could testify that I arrived at that Mass disposed to attentiveness and holiness. During the introductory rites, however, the priest announced the Mass intention. It was for the repose of the soul of a priest I had met perhaps twice in my life, but whom I “knew” very well because he had been a brief but tremendous influence on one of my children as chaplain at that child’s school.
Friends, during that Mass, I felt that this holy (and extremely outspoken) priest was praying the Mass with me — coaching me through it, getting my head back in the game. And after communion, I felt to called to answer a single, private question from the Lord: Would I be willing to be His vessel of mercy?
It’s not a trick question, and it’s no stunning revelation for me alone. All of us are asked that question. When you receive Holy Communion, you are receiving into your body Mercy itself. You can let it work through you or you can fight it, but the plain fact is that your calling is to be a physical temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is a Spirit of Mercy.
*** I’ve been blogging since 2006. When I began, St. Blogs was the land of opiniated Catholic hotheads like myself who cheerfully banded together for debate and online camaraderie. Over the past five-and-some years, though, the online tone has changed. Public Catholics, both media professionals and amateur social-media conversationalists, have grown increasingly bitter towards one another.
I think that this week’s shocking events at the Capitol show just how much we have imbibed the spirit of the age.
(2) Host the conversation at your own place. Please feel free to post links to your blog posts, podcasts, or personally-hosted discussion group over at this blog’s discussion group, so that others can find you.
(3) Keep the discussion going! I’m delighted to report that several of my colleagues at The Catholic Conspiracy have volunteered to host a post-conference private support group for Catholics who wish to change their online debate-behavior. I am hoping that many other such partners in this work of mercy quietly step forward to do the same.
*** The growing violence in our nation needs to stop. In whatever way you feel called, please become one of the people who answers “Yes” when the Lord asks you to become His vessel of Mercy.
It’s resolution season, but I want to talk about something deeper and more difficult. Resolutions are good. Less sugar, more sunlight, regular bedtime . . . some of these small changes can bring out a happier, more energetic, more you person, one you hadn’t fully understood was hiding inside. If you’ve resolved to start flossing, your dentist thanks you. Run with it.
But what if the thing you are struggling to let go of is tied to your very identity?
New Year’s resolutions don’t involve identity changes, I hope. If you have said to yourself, “I am a person who binges on junk food, and my very self would be annihilated if I were to limit that behavior to Sundays and solemnities, for that bag of Reese’s cups (the large ones loaded with peanut butter, like the Good Lord intended, not those pathetic minis) are who I am, and I should cease to be the person God created me to be if I didn’t help myself to the snack bowl every hour on the hour . . .” If you have said that to yourself, then I guess you have a situation on your hands, don’t you?
But usually resolutions are more about polishing and refining, bringing into the limelight the person you have already determined is the better you.
What if the change you are struggling with involves an aspect of yourself that feels essential to who you are? What if you examine your life, and discover your besetting sin, the thing that makes you most miserable, the thing you sometimes confess but usually rationalize, what if you discover that you love that sin because you view it as part of your very self?
To let go of that sin would be to lose your life, you fear.
It takes precision surgery to be able to say, “I could still be meticulous and conscientious without being a slave to obsessive anxiety.” Or “I could still be passionate and spontaneous without following my every whim with no regard for what gets lost in the frenzy.” Or “I could still be a firm, authoritative, responsible parent without losing my temper when my children misbehave.”
My only message here is: It’s okay to free yourself from the part of “you” that is destroying your relationships and making you miserable. It’s okay to say goodbye, as many times as it takes, to that aspect of yourself that isn’t about your God-given calling, but in fact is overshadowing and dragging that calling down.
It’s a process. You didn’t get into this jumbled-up identity overnight. Even when you firmly resolve, “I am going to hold onto my talents and passions and spiritual gifts, but I am no longer going to let the vice I’ve been sheltering keep hogging up this space in my soul,” even then, the vice is so strongly planted that it will take years of persistent weeding (or a miraculous healing) to root it out.
So my new year’s wish for you is that, if you have been mistakenly embracing one of your faults as if it were integral to your self, that you’d muster the courage to bid it good riddance. Show it to the door. And when it comes back again and again, insisting it belongs in your heart and you can’t survive without it, kindly tell it you’ve had enough and it needs to move on.
In light of that pep-talk:
(a) If you are a Catholic writer, media personality, or social media conversationalist of any type, amateur or pro, and
(b) if the fault you’ve been confusing for your very identity as a communicator and evangelist is the “charism of being a jerk”, but,
(c) you don’t want to be bitter and angry and obnoxious anymore, then,
It won’t fix you overnight. You’ll probably discover that some of the people in attendance, people like you who don’t want to be nasty online Catholics anymore, but also have no intention of abandoning their passion for communicating the truth and engaging in rousing, high-spirited discussions on controversial topics . . . you’ll probably discover some of your fellow retreatants are people you passionately despise.
And that’s rough, because we’ll be providing opportunities to overcome your bitterness and reconcile with those wrong-headed dunderpuffs who had the nerve to show face at your life-changing retreat.
SuperHusband got me an early Christmas present, and it’s created a vocational challenge for me.
The gift was a Kindle Paperwhite. I did not anticipate wanting one of these, because I love paper books and dislike reading on machines. But my shelf-builder-in-chief asked if I’d be interested, and after polling my internet friends for advice about e-book readers and doing some math on our ability to physically store the quantities of books we can anticipate coming into my life over the years ahead (because I’m like that) we decided to give it a try.
So this machine is not like other digital devices.
A Kindle Paperwhite, I have learned, is good for exactly one thing: Reading books full of words.
It is excellent for that application, which is perfect for me, because I like to read books full of words.
It is no good for picture books, so I will still have some future shelving needs, thanks.
It doesn’t make phone calls, text the kids, tweet hot takes, or surf the internet — all of which make it easier to focus on reading books. Even its relationship with the Kindle Store is tortured at best.
But if what you want to to is send yourself e-books, and then read them efficiently and comfortably any place you go, this little machine is magic. If you are the kind of person who needs — needs — to pack a backpack of books to bring along when you go places, just in case, this machine is a game-changer.
But it completely fails at any other job except being the one thing that it is.
And that, friends, is what I have been thinking about over the past month.
What am I made for?
Another thing SuperHusband and I did this autumn was host a campfire study of Rerum Novarum.
It was a small group (surprise), but it was so, so, so much fun. For me. SuperHusband kinda got into it? But also he got worn out. A couple months of reading and discussing, a paragraph at a time, a 19th century encyclical on applied economic policy . . . it was a little more than he bargained for. It turns out we are not exactly identical to each other in our taste for Sunday evening R&R.
So I could be irritated at him, or I could value who he is a person — someone different from me, which is a godsend when it’s time to make bookshelves, because my carpentry skills leave much to be desired.
Likewise, there’s me to learn how to value. I’m in a transition phase of life. The baby is a freshman in high school, so I’m starting to consider what ought to be next on the horizon, and also I’m constantly evaluating what these final years of kids-at-home should involve for me. In an interesting twist, my kids (ages 14-20) and I are in parallel phases, all of us wondering: What do we with ourselves next?
And we all have to answer some important questions. One of them is: What kind of person was I made to be?
Myself as Buried Treasure
The Kindle was pretty easy to figure out. For one thing, it’s just a machine. It doesn’t grow and breath and change over time. It doesn’t have to discern whether this limitation or that failure is something it needs to rectify, or whether it’s just a part of its programming. Its creators do all that fine-tuning, no cooperation or discernment from the machine required.
Also, the Kindle is marketed. We know it’s meant to be an e-book reader because it says so in the sales hype.
We humans, in contrast, are like mystery-gadgets. Imagine going to Best Buy and pulling down an unmarked box with some kind of computer in it, and you take it home, open the box, look it over, and try to figure out how best to use the thing.
No manual. No labels. You can see its size. You can see whether it has, or doesn’t, various input devices. You can experiment until you figure out how to power it up, and how to keep it charged. (Does it even have a battery, or does it need to always be plugged in?)
Then you have to guess: Does it make phone calls? Does it create spreadsheets? Play music? Would it do those things if we found the right software? If we connected to the right source? If we added a peripheral to assist it?
And if doesn’t do the thing, does it need to be re-charged, does it need to be repaired, or is it just not made for that?
That’s what being human is like. You are custodian of some combination of God-given abilities, talents, and spiritual gifts . . . but what are they? Given your time and place, your friends and family, your collection of external resources . . . what makes you go? What do you excel at, and how should you use that excellence?
What can you do well enough? What can you not do at all?
How do you need to be cared for? What will damage you? What will make you thrive? What will either damage you or make you thrive, depending on proportions and timing?
Being a Magic Book
I call my new machine The Magic Book. As in, “Has anyone seen my magic book?” or “Don’t worry if you’re running late, I’ve got my magic book along, I don’t mind waiting.” A compact, lightweight, waterproof book-that-holds-all-books is magic to me.
Because of the kind of person I am, I can easily reload the magic anytime it runs low by visiting the Free Magic supplier. It’s nice.
But, other than early 20th-century detective novels, the thing I am thinking about lately is this: I am also magic.
I’m made to do amazing things. Some of them I know about. (Example: ability to cause good dinner out of disparate leftovers.) A lot of it I am still trying to understand, because who you are and what you are made for is different at mid-life than it was at twenty.
Indeed, the whole question of What kind of magic am I? is one that is always there for us, because unlike the machine, we are constantly growing and changing, and our tactical purpose — What should I be doing with myself right now? — is constantly shifting.
So you can be like, “I don’t know what to do with myself!” or you can be like, “Hey, look, there’s magic in here! Give me a little time to figure out how it works.”
And that’s where I’ve been lately. Thanks for sticking around.
This is today’s Wikimedia Image of the Day. It’s a panoramic view of penguins on the beach in South Africa, and if penguins aren’t a perfect example of the need for respecting one’s limits and abilities in the discernment process, I don’t know what is. On-theme: Longtime readers will be no more surprised than I was to learn the photo credit is Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA. Heh.
November 2nd, All Souls Day, is easily passed over. Catholics get busy (guilty as charged), Protestants get spooked, and at best the wider culture has a quirky, tattoo-shop fascination with Día de los Muertos on account of the decorations. As feast days go, it sits in a humble slot.
And yet, I would argue, it is in its way the greatest day of the year. If Christmas and Easter and Pentecost are the how of salvation, All Souls is the why. From today’s readings:
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”
Why is death so overwhelming? Because our deepest longing as human beings is for eternal happiness.
Every religion, every strand of agnosticism or atheism, seeks desperately to make peace with the reality of death. It’s a peace that can only be made if we believe that the time after death is good enough, pleasant enough, to be endured and enjoyed. Some religions do this via elaborate funerary rites that negotiate a more fortunate passage into the underworld. Atheism’s offer is that at least after you are annihilated, you won’t suffer any more. It might be eternal nothing, but at least it’s a painless nothing.
But deep inside, we know we are made for more.
Today is the day 100% centered on that more. On the reality of eternal life. Not a deep sleep, but a deep awakening. An eternity more alive, more joyful, more real than anything we have ever known.
That reality is what animates the rest of the Church calendar. Christmas is just gluttony and bad budgeting, unless Christ is coming to save us. Good Friday is needless torment, unless Christ is working to save us. Easter is perhaps the world’s most impressive showmanship, but no more than that, unless Christ is victorious in the work of saving us.
The glory of God is His divine love. That love is why His creation, His miracles, His death and resurrection, all His works are good. If those actions were not the embodiment of love, God would be at best sterile, and more likely a horror.
Love is for someone or something. That’s what love is. It is the act of willing the good of another.
Today is the feast of God’s ultimate purpose in loving us. Amen.
I have a kid who loves haunted houses. She went with a group of her classmates to the local very-scary haunted event this year, and one of her friends sheepishly exited just a few minutes in. I was sympathetic. I’d happily pay the price of admission for the privilege of not enduring half an hour in the corridors of horror.
And yet, witness the part where I drove my child to and from the event, I have no qualms whatsoever about the spooky parts of Halloween, and that is today’s topic.
Fear is Your Friend
Years ago No Fear was the marketing slogan slapped on the back windshields of pick-up trucks, and lately Faith Not Fear has been showing up on church signs. Both are symptoms of hubris and foolishness; our Lord’s dread at His pending crucifixion seems to be the definitive statement that it is normal and healthy to fear horrible things.
Fear can be disordered, as with any emotion. If you are afraid of harmless things, that’s something to work on. If you are not afraid of harmful things, that, too, is something to be addressed. A healthy, functional fear-system alerts you to potential threats, awakening your senses and urging you to proceed with caution.
Thus, the more vulnerable you are, the more likely you are to be spooked by some circumstance that turns out to be entirely harmless. That, too, is healthy: The more vulnerable you are, the more cautious you need to be, because you have fewer back-up strategies in the face of danger.
When we find ourselves in a scary situation, the healthy response is to take steps to make ourselves more safe. In bad weather, we slow down on the interstate. Late at night, we verify the identity of the person knocking at the door before we open. Before heading off into the woods, we tell someone where we’ll be going and when to expect us back.
Sometimes we let our friends talk us into taking a poor risk. The resulting uneasiness we feel is our common sense rightly rebuking our (hopefully temporary) stupidity.
Because we are not omniscient, sometimes we will experience fear when we are in no danger at all. Still, the rational response to a sense that something dangerous could be afoot is to carry out a plan to mitigate that danger. After the fact, sometimes people will think it’s foolish or silly to take have taken precautions in a situation where our fears turned out to unfounded; well, if you knew were in no danger, then yes, you were being silly — but did you know that? Probably not. That’s why your fear system was shouting at you to be careful.
So. Back to Halloween.
Saintliness Doesn’t Mean Fearlessness
On All Saints Day, November 1, we honor and give thanks for the many, many people who lived heroic lives for Jesus Christ. All of them dealt with fear of genuine dangers, and all of them showed fortitude in the face of those dangers.
Some faced the horrors of torture and martyrdom. Some faced the misery of loneliness and rejection when they were mocked for following God’s call in their life. Some lived quiet lives of faith, setting aside the natural doubts that plague us all in order to live and die in confidence of the Lord’s loving mercy and promise of eternal life for all who love Him.
Saints are people who were brave. Bravery isn’t fearlessness; bravery is doing what you need to do despite your real and valid fears.
So it is fitting that on All Saints Eve we playfully and joyfully face our fears.
Playing at Bravery Builds Bravery
When my daughter and her friends went through the haunted maze on a dark night in the middle of the countryside, they were never in any danger. The sets were scary, but they were fake. The actors were intimidating, but it said right on the waiver that at no point would an actor harm you in any way. Scary music is just noise. The whole thing was nothing but a game of pretend.
Still: It’s a valuable game of pretend. Sooner or later, every one of those kids has to face terrifying situations. Sometimes it will be physical danger; sometimes it will be the pain of an awful relationship; sometimes it will be the daunting prospects of acquiring a profession and making a living. The experience of having been scared witless in a safe setting builds up the ability to cope with other fears.
Haunted houses aren’t for everyone though — certainly they aren’t for me. No thanks. What are other Halloween activities that prepare us for a heroic life?
Children dress up as the people they admire — astronauts or disney princesses — and for an evening they put on the virtues of their heroes. Adults make fun of political figures, news events — all those monsters we can’t control.
Creepy decorations and devilish costumes, rightly used, teach us that we need not quake at the mere sight of something that gives us pause. We can overcome our natural revulsion and carry on.
Trick-or-Treating is the act, meanwhile, of finding out that your community has your back — that you have a network of people who wish you well and want good things for you in your life. In the face of real-life dangers, other people are the go-to resource.
You Can Do Halloween Wrong
Evil is real, and the humans are capable of it. If your Halloween is spent glorifying sin, you’re doing it wrong. People who take advantage of the annual festivities to harm others are the anti-Halloween. That people abuse the holiday, however, does not negate its right use.
It’s the eve of All Saints, and the feast — even among non-Christians — is rightly ordered towards a joyful exulting in our ability as humans to face down darkness.