Custody of the Eyes, Revisited

Today’s topic is not a newsflash, but there might be someone out there who could benefit from hearing it again, this time with a little common-sense consolation thrown in.

***

So I’ve been running experiments on myself, and can confirm: Custody of the eyes works wonders.

You may recognize the term from chastity talks. For some of you, your introduction to the term was not during a kind of chastity talk you found very edifying; others may have had the opposite experience.  Anyhow, we aren’t talking about sex today.  Not even one bit.  Deep breath.

***

If you’re new to the term, “custody of the eyes” means taking steps to avoid leading yourself into temptation.  It refers specifically to choosing not to look at things that tempt you, but the concept expands to all the senses, physical and otherwise.

What kinds of things, other than sex since we are not talking about sex, might be tempting?

  • Eating that one kind of chips in the variety pack that your kids weirdly don’t like, even though they are the best flavor, and doing that eating despite the fact that there is no medical evidence your body would benefit, for any reason whatsoever, from eating another such chip again in your life.
  • Arguing manically with your beloved internet friend who is usually awesome, but happens to be horribly, horribly wrong about something. In your opinion.
  • Buying that perfect wardrobe item that you do not need because your closet is already full of other good-enough shoes and clothes and hats, ahembut it’s a really good deal and it is so cute/practical/snazzy/fantabulous, but seriously: You don’t need it, and that money would do more good applied someplace else.

Perhaps you face other temptations as well.  They could be temptations to do something that is always sinful under all circumstances, or they could be temptations that are sinful only because of how they affect you personally (example: a calmer spirit might be able to discuss that contentious issue without getting worked up into a frenzy), or they could be temptations that aren’t objectively sinful at all (buying that hat, if it’s part of your responsibly-budgeted splurge fund, and also it’s an awesome hat), but which sabotage your other, better goals.

We aren’t, on that last point, talking today about scrupling, where you obsessively worry that some harmless action is gravely sinful.  We’re just saying: For whatever reason you’ve determined that xyz action is not the way you want to live . . . and yet you’re tempted to do it anyway.

Enter one tool to include in your spiritual toolbox: Custody of the eyes.

***

“Custody of the eyes” means you take steps to change the way you are living in order to not be as tempted as you otherwise might be.  In emergency-mode, it means that if you’re walking past the hat store, look the other way.  My, what fabulous road work the city is doing this morning!

But you don’t want to live in emergency-mode all the time.

This is what it’s like living in the land of temptation, true story:

  • You’ve determined, for good, sound, scientific reasons, that you would be happier and healthier if you did not eat the chips.  Not the lousy chips, and not the fabulous flavor of chips that your children weirdly do not eat, even though the manufacturer has so generously included them in the variety pack that is the best price at your local mass-market merchant.
  • 99% of the time, you are able to practice amazing willpower! You walk by the chips, sitting out on the kitchen shelf where your children can easily access their school lunch supplies, and you don’t even think about grabbing just one tiny bag of chips even this once.
  • Alas, given enough minutes/hours/days/months, you must run the chip-gauntlet 100 times. Your 99% success rate in avoiding temptation is not quite enough.

You don’t need to beat yourself up over this.  It’s a tiny bag of chips.  You aren’t allergic.  They aren’t actually made of poison, despite the inflammatory rhetoric you read on that one healthy-eating website.  It’s fine. But why live this way?  Why constantly add to your already busy day that mental struggle?  You want to eat fewer chips because you are certain you’ll be happier and healthier that way, and yet having to constantly look at the chips and make yourself not eat them isn’t exactly filling you with joy.

You don’t have to choose between those two fates.

You can put the chips in your teenager’s ancient minivan and instruct her to take them to school and give them to her friends — the ones who have the sense to know what the good flavors are, thanks.

***

Practicing strategic avoidance is life-changing.

When you make small changes to reduce the number of times in a day you have to battle against yourself, you free up so much energy for other efforts.

When you don’t or can’t make those changes — we aren’t in control of the whole world and all that happens around us — you are left working harder to accomplish less.

So let’s talk about a healthy philosophy of can’t.

***

You are not the supreme ruler.

In your life there are many things you can control.  Maybe you can change your route to not walk past the hat store.  Maybe you can uninstall the social media app that’s always sucking you into the outrage machine.  Maybe you can move the deep freezer with the kids’ ice cream in it out of your new library in the old garage and down the hall to the laundry room you don’t visit nearly so often (sorry kids, I am not your ice cream bank; readers, we’ll discuss my laundry backlog some other time).

But you cannot necessarily always make the change you wish you could.

You might be able to convince your colleagues not to put the snack tray out in the hallway next to your desk, but maybe you can’t.

You might be able to automate some of the social media work you do, but maybe it’s impossible to carry out your career in a communications industry without actually, go figure, communicating with people.

You might be able to drop catalogs into the recycle bin without ever looking at them, but maybe you also have to sometimes purchase necessary items, and you really can’t help that the best vendor also sells hats.

You probably face a mixed bag of struggles.  Whether you’re working through serious addictions or just trying to live a somewhat more tranquil life, there is only so much reorganizing of your life that you can do.

Do the amount of temptation-reducing that you can, of course.  Be creative. Be willing to take drastic measures if you’re struggling with a danger to your spiritual, emotional, or physical health.

After that? Give yourself credit for the battles that are still left.

***

Living your life in emergency-mode temptation-fighting is exhausting.  If your choice is, for example, paying the bills by going to that job with the perpetual snack tray always sitting out, or serenely sinking into bankruptcy due to unemployment, you have to go do the job.  You have to spend all day passing the snack tray and telling yourself no and walking quickly and trying not think about it.

That stinks.

It’s hard work.

Realistically you are not going to have as much emotional energy for other spiritual activities after you’ve put so much willpower into avoiding the snacks as best you can using the only tool available to you at this time.

Acknowledge it.

Acknowledge that at this time in your life, you are running a spiritual marathon ten hours a day.  By fighting the good fight you are getting stronger — even if one time in a hundred you pass the snack table and cave — but you are getting stronger by working out.  Just like physical exercise, the spiritual and emotional exercise of resisting temptation is tiring.

Your capacity for that work can grow, but it can’t be instantly expanded to infinity.

So if your circumstances are such that you must constantly battle temptations you can find no way to avoid, applaud yourself for the work you are doing.

***

And of course, final note for those readers who aren’t presently dealing with this kind of practical struggle . . .

If you have been blessed with a low-temptation lifestyle, avail yourselves of the three pillars of the spiritual exercise regimen: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Otherwise your soul will grow flabby for want of spiritual work.

Horses grazing in mountain pasture at Parco Naturale Tre Cime.

I was going to find a good hat picture to illustrate this post, but today’s Wikimedia Image of the Day is too beautiful to skip.  Photo of horses grazing in Parco Naturale Tre Cime by kallerna, CC 4.0.  Click through and scroll down for some related close-ups.

On Doing Evil that Good May Come of It (TLDR: Don’t)

So here’s something that happened yesterday: A guy who should have known better, a stalwart defender of virtue and reason, posted a video on Twitter of a group of tween girls dancing in an explicitly sexualized manner.

It was a long clip, to my memory (I’m not going to click on it again, so if my memory is faulty, we’re going to have to live with that) beginning with low-grade “this is not something I’d want my daughter doing.” Gradually the girls’ dancing became increasingly erotic, to the point that it definitely transitioned into “yes, this is blatantly, undeniably sexualized near-porn,” and I didn’t continue watching after that.

(The girls’ costumes, I should note, would have been fine as bathing suits, for children playing sharks-and-minnows or jumping off the diving board . . . but no amount of clothing could cause the dance this conservative Christian posted to be any other than erotic.)

Anyhow, that was my two minutes of previewing Cuties, a film I was willing to consider might not be nearly what Netflix promoted it as, and a film that I still suspect was attempting to be a serious entry in the discourse against the hypersexualization of tweens and young teens.  I even considered that the video this person-who-should-know-better posted was in fact a deepfake designed to hype up the political divide, though alas with a bit clicking around, the reports from those who viewed the film in its entirety confirm the dance sequence was genuine.  IMDB briefly posted a warning, in reference to another scene in the film, the FYI it was technically in violation of US child pornography laws.  Yikes.

So. We revisit a very old topic, and if you like, you can scoot on over to the The Junior Moral Theologian’s DIY Kit, where I lay out all the moral issues in more detail.  Here I’m just going to repeat myself a bunch of different ways:

You may not do evil that good may come of it.

Having a good intention does not make an evil action a good action.

The fact that something good resulted from an evil act does not make the evil act good.

This is the non-negotiable of any viable ethical system.  Might you find yourself in a horrible situation, in which you are forced to choose among several terrible options, and, in your desperation, choose the one with the least-bad outcome? Certainly.  It’s a fallen world and in the worst circumstances we might find ourselves doing the unthinkable.  It happens.

That does not make the evil action right.  It just makes it the thing you did at a time when you didn’t see any other way.

In the case of, say, a Christian commentator with a large following choosing to post erotica, or a secular filmmaker choosing to train and pay young girls to perform that erotica, we are not speaking of desperate persons forced into a corner and struggling to find any way out.

But, and let’s be very clear here, neither of these two is any different from the rest of us.

Both, we can charitably assume, are in fact seeking to accomplish something good.  The commentator was seeking to warn audiences that the film in question was morally objectionable. The director was seeking to warn audiences that the sexualization of young girls is a serious problem in our day — and before you scoff at that, I can attest from my viewing of the excerpt that the girls’ faces as they performed absolutely communicated a sense of being lost, of not understanding, of not liking, and yet of feeling like they had to do the thing in order to be approved.  The stated artistic goal was accomplished in the scene I saw.  The obvious (to you and me) problem, which makes the film unviewable for persons of good will who are duly forewarned, is that the director went about communicating her (valuable) message in a way that was, in fact, harmful to the girls working for her.

In the same way, the commentator who posted erotica in order to warn against erotica was exploiting the victimization of the girls, and also putting erotica in front of his readers, in the name of an otherwise good purpose.

The habit of using evil to do good is absolutely embedded in our culture.  

In theory we consider lying (that would be a direct, explicit violation of the Ten Commandments) wrong, but in reality our culture has long categories of lies that are acceptable because they are done with good purposes in mind.

If Catholics are wacko extremists on medical ethics, it’s because our society considers the killing of innocent persons to be only wrong if it’s done for unpopular reasons.

National Public Radio hosted a non-ironic, softball interview on the justification for the violent destruction and theft of the property of innocent persons.

I’d be remiss in this list not to mention the whole justifying of adultery as if the average man or woman just had “no choice” but forsake their vows? And yet people will say that, and think that, in the most banal of circumstances.

Maybe you aren’t guilty of any of these, or at least not lately.

Before you get too convinced you aren’t like those other sinners: I challenge you to try to get through a full week without doing something you know is wrong — even if it’s just a little bit wrong — with the motivation of seeking a higher good.

Sin is like this.  For most people, most of the time, sin is not fueled by a desire to do something horrible, it’s fueled by the twisted-up quest to experience something we’re convinced will be good.

“Less evil” is not good.

One of the reasons I expect it was so easy for the director of Mignonnes to justify her decision to pay young girls to perform erotica (and in one case, per IMDB’s original warning to viewers, to expose her breast on film) is that her film was about how normal these behaviors have become.

(FYI for those wondering: The acceptability of pornography is far more entrenched in respectable French society than in the United States.  That’s me reporting first hand experiences among the married-with-kids, stalwart-citizen, professional class of the late 1980’s.  Not something I read in a book.  What I have seen in real homes among people who met every definition of “respectable” in their era.)

The director of the film was not asking the girls to perform something forbidden and illegal (though Netflix should know that the reported frontal-nudity scene is in fact illegal in the US, however award-winning it may be elsewhere). She was asking them to recreate what persons like myself got accused of prudery for objecting to when it appeared at the Super Bowl half-time show this year — albeit in the wholesome USA we have adult women do this to show how “liberated” they are, while the girls from the dance companies, the very best girl-dancers, handpicked to perform on the field on the biggest TV night of the year, look up in adoration.  We reserve the actual girl-erotica for dance competitions on other weekends, thanks.  So, from the director’s point of view, she was requesting the girls repeat what they already were willing to do, and may well have done before, only this time framed in such a way that viewers would be shocked into realizing just how wrong and destructive it is.

That good intention doesn’t justify the evil.

And that’s a shame, because there’s every reason to believe the director was attempting to open a very important conversation on sexual exploitation — just like the commentator who posted the erotica was trying to legitimately warn viewers away from the film that fell so badly short of its mark.

Three girls dancing in a field, 1888: Paul Gauguin - Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven

Artwork: Paul Gaugin, Breton Girls Dancing (1888), via Wikimedia, Public Domain

How’s it Going, Jen? Mid-August 2020 News & Links

A few quick updates as I hopefully get back into the swing of things?  Maybe? Here’s all that’s been going on since I last fell off the internet:

(1) I took a leave of absence from social media because I had started losing my temper at people who were wrong.  The break was surprisingly beneficial — I say surprising because my primary mode self-correction consisted of watching Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. Best I can tell, it’s what happens if you cross C.S. Lewis with Tom Clancy with Hollywood Sci-Fi with an Evangelical Presbyterian. Season 3 is when it gets blatant.

Didn’t see that coming, though, tip: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. is a straight-up pro-life morality tale, except seedy and brilliant — if you happen to like campy sci-fi comedy-adventure infused with a potty-mouthed and hilarious Theology of the Body theme.  (Parental supervision strongly recommended.  None of this is for little kids.)

(2) Had to take a healthy, athletic teenager to the ER for extreme shortness of breath on exertion associated with a respiratory virus of unknown nature.  She’s fine now. Also, our ER experience provides a few theories on why certain minority communities might be experiencing a higher rate of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality.  –> All is not well in public health, guys.

(3) I’ve got two more here at the castle who’ve succumbed to a respiratory ailment of unknown nature, possibly the same one as the teen, possibly something else. In the effort to keep those three distanced from the remaining residents, I was doing an awful lot of zig-zagging around providing food service and so forth.  That’ll keep you busy.  I finally gave two men a kitchen in the camper in the yard so they could do some of their own cooking.  Mr. Boy was appreciative, SuperHusband is not amused. Heh.

(4) Oh oh! and during all that?  Our 18 y.o. came back from college for the one week we get to see her until Thanskgiving, we think, and it was absolutely vital, if she wished to return to school, which she does, that she not catch any kind of respiratory ailment.  Huge thanks to the friends who housed her, fed her, and did airport shuttle so that she could limit her time with us to sitting outdoors and far away.  Fun times.  People prayed for us, though, and it was fine.

So that’s been most of it.  In writing news:

NCRegister: “On the Limits of Identity Politics” If you missed it, it’s up and some people liked it.  There should be another piece running soon on a Catholic approach to the problem of gender dysphoria, but I don’t see it yet?  Next in my queue is an essay I’ve been failing at pulling together for an embarrassingly long time, but which introduces Cathy Lins, who specializes in parish mental health ministry, and who has a brand new forum here: Trauma-Informed Parishes. Go say hello to Cathy and soak up everything, because she knows what she’s about.

FYI the rumor that I “started a new job” at the Register is a product of Facebook’s determination to turn everything, at all, ever, into click-bait hype for your friends.  What happened is that I realized I had put my blogging status at Patheos and here at the Conspiracy in my “about” details, but that the Register was missing.  Crazy me went to rectify that oversight and next thing we know everyone’s congratulating me on my new promotion.

Um.  I’ve been promoted to someone whose author bio is slightly more accurate? Kinda?

Books I finished reading, highly recommend, and plan to review in the days ahead:

Blorging: Ads aren’t functioning as well as usual (possible cause: widespread power outages?) so it’s a great time to wade through my latest entries at the mosh pit of religious plurality, if you haven’t taken the plunge lately:

  • “Speaking of Clerical Corruption” 

    We the laity are capable, if we work together, of investigating allegations like the ones above, and we are capable of creating landing places for discarded priests, seminarians, and religious to build new lives for themselves after they are persecuted for whistle-blowing.  It’s too big a job to be done by one person, and too important a job to be left solely to one faction or another among the increasingly fragmented faithful.

  • “Education vs. Childcare vs. Public Goods”

    Because of these harsh economic realities, there is tremendous pressure for schools to open back up, full-time as-per-usual. Parents need the low-tuition* childcare that schools provide, and to not provide that care is to leave parents in a serious bind.

    Catholic social teaching has a different answer, and yes I know when I say it most people will swear it’s preposterous, but here me out below. There’s another way, and its worth considering.

  • “Breathtaking Beauty in Church Controversies over Kinda-Boring Stuff”

    If you are like me, you never for a moment even considered the possibility that the I in “I baptize you . . .” was a make-or-break part of the baptismal formula. (I also never contemplated varying from it.) It was simply there, and it seemed logical, and what else was there to know? Now we have something to ponder. What’s going on with this one little pronoun the CDF is so worked up about? Turns out the answer is more interesting than I had guessed.

And today, prompted by this morning’s readings, and weirdly taking a twist into presidential politics (I didn’t see that coming even if you did): “How to Treat Gentiles and Tax Collectors”.

–> If you don’t care to think about the voting question, scroll directly down to the bottom to see the photo that inspired me to wrap up my meditation on what to do about terrible Catholics with a link to the Epic Vacation series here at the Conspiracy, because, top of page 2 of the E.V. category, I was reminded of my “What it Takes Not to Be a Nazi” photo tour and reflection on visiting a WWII cemetery, many memorials, and a concentration camp in eastern France.

Book reviews!  Spoiler alert: I answer the question of what to do about terrible Catholics in those 300 fun-filled pages of The Beast. So far there’s one review up at Amazon, which I dared read because the reviewer kindly gave the book five stars. I quote the review in full:

Jen Fitz’s clear, sensible advice for the modern evangelist is a must-read. She has years of experience with dealing with many situations a lay Catholic may experience in explaining their faith. The book is well-organized and helpful for anyone who wishes to learn more about how to spread the Gospel.

Thank you, anonymous reader!

FYI – if you’ve read the book and would like to say something good about it, I’d be most grateful if you’d say so over at Amazon, where book publicity ekes out its living these days.  Even more? I’d like you to loan your copy to someone who could use the inspiration or affirmation.

Thanks!

Ella the Snow Dog - adorable cream-colored puppy looking up at the camera in a field of snow

Today we illustrate our post with this photo of Ella the Snow Dog (CC 2.0) because:

  • Presently the 9th grader’s multi-year campaign to get a dog is gaining momentum but also hit a snag in the road called “Parents are doing their best to make sane, responsible decisions,” and
  • It’s mid-August in the Deep South, so even though it is unseasonably cool (low 90’s!?!!), “snow” is a very popular theme around here.

FYI because I love you, I scrolled through many pages of search results for “cute dog photo” in Wikimedia to bring you the very best.  You’re welcome.

OSV Book Launch Webcast – Transcript Draft

Thank you to everyone who came to the webcast today!   A link to the recording is forthcoming (whenever it’s ready to go — I don’t know how much work is involved in that, so I’m going to assume OSV’s tech people are superheros and it might not be this. exact. instant, but the event went well so it’s not headed to the circular file, we know that).  I did confirm that OSV’s software does not have an option for creating captions, so here’s the first pass at a transcript:
Jennifer Fitz Webcast Notes – Temp Draft – June 30, 2020

There are some typos in there — surprisingly few — and I am proud of myself for using the spirit of self-control to not fix them live on the air while viewers waited, so you’re welcome, but as a result I was only able to go back and fix the one that was especially terribly bad, but not the others that are harder to remember and will take more time to find again.  So a better draft will be issued at a later date.  This is still word-for-word ten gazillion times better than you get off YouTube’s auto-transcript function, though if you want I could replace every theology term with a brand of beer in order to give you that experience?  If you like?  Nah. You do it yourself.

We did have time for some open Q&A at the end, and that is not in my notes above, but I will write up better, more succinct and accurate answers to all the questions we covered in the Q&A so we have that.

***
Meanwhile, a follow-up question: Would you be interested in more webcasts in the future, and if so, what would like me to talk about?  Ideally topics that don’t involve more embarrassing stories about myself.  Thanks!  (You can weigh in at the discussion group.)

The How-to Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You by [Jennifer Fitz]

Got the word today that my book is shipping, and by that they mean my Christmas Present author copies are on their way. Woohoo!  

What to Expect from a Saint

Over at the blorg yesterday I wrote about how, whatever St. Junipero Serra’s sins might have been, an authentic desire to evangelize is not one of them.  Figures I’d say something like that.  Today I want to address a deeper question: What are we to think about the problematic behavior of saints and other heroes?

Let’s begin with some foundational principles.

We know that the Christian faith is unchanging, and we know that the moral law is unchanging.  Murder is wrong yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever and ever amen.  Jesus Christ is the Savior of humanity yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever and ever amen.  Thus, the first thing we should look for in a saint: The moral and spiritual ideals towards which a saint strives are unchanging ideals.

–> We expect a saint to love Jesus Christ and to practice and proclaim the Catholic faith as best he or she is able.

Saints overcome obstacles, but they aren’t omnipotent.

From our lives, from common sense, and from the historical record, we can know that there are obstacles to living out our Christian ideals.

Some obstacles are internal, such as physical or mental illness.  These roadblocks to practicing the faith don’t make us less faithful.  What they do is cause us to have to put more effort into loving God, who sees and acknowledges the heart.  While some saints may have awe-inspiring external, easily-visible accomplishments to their name, others do not.

Other obstacles are created by our society, our culture, or the people around us. In another era, a saint might have been able to care for orphaned children by simply opening the doors and welcoming those in need.  In our time, extensive regulations may prevent an individual, family, or religious association from being legally allowed to provide care.

–> When we look at a saint’s life, we have to realistically assess the resources and opportunities that were available to that person living in that era.

Culture clouds our human thinking.

While the natural law is written on the human heart, we know that human beings are fallen creatures. We are tempted to do what is comfortable and self-serving, and often we let our desire for gratification color our understanding of the Gospel.

Thus it is hard for a saint, or anyone, to overcome his or her weaknesses.

Furthermore, our culture affects our ability even to contemplate what the Gospel might be asking of us.  A type of generosity or piety or morality that was encouraged and accepted in one time or place might be rare or nonexistent in another.   When a given concept of Christian morality or devotion is simply not on the radar in our own time and place, it is very, very hard to look over the walls of our native culture and consider a better way of living.

I’m hard pressed even to provide an example, because I know that for any specific suggestion I make of an area where modern Americans struggle with recognizing and articulating the faith (and some other cultures did not), my suggestion will be dismissed as “ridiculous” or “extraneous” or “old fashioned” or “obsolete” or something else.  We cannot see what lies beyond the walls of our own cultural prison.

–> We can expect a saint to respond freely and generously to those aspects of the faith which were understood and practiced in his or her culture, and to make sincere but not always successful attempts to discern and apply Christian doctrine counter-culturally.

Culture feeds certain types of piety.

In contrast, every culture has its virtues as well.  What is often very confounding in the lives of the saints are the examples of virtues that are foreign to our time, but were considered ordinary piety in the saint’s time.  Here I will give an example.

In our time, the practice of physical penance is virtually unknown.  We allow for the merits of offering up unavoidable suffering, but even that is counter-cultural.  One of the great challenges of our time is fighting evils such as abortion and euthanasia, which are fueled by a culturally-driven placing of the avoidance of suffering as the highest good.  Even Christians have difficulty understanding why some of the suffering that life brings might, at times, have to be endured when there is no moral way to avoid it.

We do have a limited understanding of the value of physical penance.  Specific acts of self-discipline are practiced by the most-rigorous of religious associations, and minor acts of self-denial are encouraged for all Catholics during the penitential season of Lent.  However, even there, in our time we always temper any mention of corporal penance with warnings not to overdo it, not to commit self-harm, and so forth.  I am absolutely at one with my wider spiritual culture in that regard.

In contrast, in other eras, we see that the benefit of physical penance was considered of greater value than the avoidance of physical harm that might result.  Hence we have countless examples of saints and ordinary Catholics and even non-Christians carrying on astonishing displays of self-inflicted or self-allowed suffering that, to our modern mind, are contrary to faith and reason.

What’s going on with that? Shouldn’t the saint have known better?

Keep in mind those cultural walls.  When your spiritual culture is telling you that xyz is the greater good . . . if your greatest desire is holiness, you will seek after that good.

–> We can expect saints to be willing to go to extremes to pursue paths of holiness encouraged in their time and place.

Saints take strange shapes.

Where does this leave us?  It leaves us with saints who consistently love Jesus Christ, and everything else is a toss-up.  Saints are people who strive for holiness, but that striving is going to be shaped by his or her personal limitations, by cultural boundaries, and by the types of piety and service that are most encouraged in his or her time and place.

Saints can still surprise.  We look with special awe at those saints whose lives were wildly counter-cultural, because they stand out not only in their time but in ours.

All the same, some saints can make us uncomfortable with just how wrong they seem.  When that happens, there are three questions we should ask:

  • Is the legacy of this saint the right legacy?  Perhaps I’ve been passed a message about this saint that is honestly not what makes this saint an example of holiness.
  • Is this attribute of the saint just a plain old sin?  Every saint recognizes his or her need for the Redeemer.  Unless it’s the Blessed Mother we’re talking about, we know for a fact that some of this saint’s actions were sinful.
  • Is this attribute of the saint a virtue I need to know about?  One of the great gifts of the saints is that they allow us to peek over our cultural walls.

What we don’t need to do is be afraid.  It’s okay to have weird saints in our spiritual family tree.  We are not a religion that worships mortal men. We are a religion that worships Jesus Christ.  Allow the Lord to show when and how to learn from this or that saint, and when you need to recognize that so-and-so just isn’t the best spiritual companion for you right now.

Is this person helping you grow in love? Is this person drawing you closer to Jesus Christ?  Whether it’s a saint in heaven or someone you know here on earth, those are the qualities we look for in spiritual friendships.  It doesn’t matter whether so-and-so is so helpful to your friend or your mom or you favorite priest. Choose to surround yourself with the people who make you a better Christian.

Crystals of dried Coca-Cola: Individual rainbow-colored crystals distributed in a globe-pattern on a black background.

Photo: Crystals of dried Coca-Cola, courtesy of Wikimedia Image of the Day, CC 4.0, by Alexander Klepnev.  I was going to settle for a renaissance peoplescape of Heaven, but then there was this. So this is what you get.  Probably the best use of Coca-Cola yet.

Making the Mass Present in Your Soul When Your Body is Absent from It

I want to talk about making use of the interior life.

For me, and sometime soon I will lay out the whole long story, the Eucharist is the center of my faith.  No matter how miserably I’m spacing out during Mass, from the moment of the Sanctus I suddenly wake up to God; from there the consecration, the Agnus Dei and fraction rite, Ecce, and finally my own reception of the sacrament are when the Mass really does something life-changing for me.

Y’all wish that change would last a little longer and be a little more visible in my life, but to God a thousand years is a like a day, so hang on, He’s working.  This is the time of week (or time of day, when I can get it) that I am most aware of that work happening.

Therefore having to not go to Mass is something I dislike intensely.

Reading prayers, even very good prayers, or watching the Mass on TV are not the same.  They can be valuable, but I don’t love them and I don’t get the same sense of God’s presence and intimacy apart from the Mass.

And yet sometimes I have to not go to Mass.

You might be in this situation right now, and you might be struggling with that reality, because you want, more than anything, to be with our Lord in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.  So I’m going to talk to you about my interior life, and maybe it can help you with yours.

Slacking vs. Slaking

I can be a pretty lousy Catholic.  Everything I am going to say does not apply to situations where I’m spiritually slacking.  There are times when I let myself get so wrapped up in the delusion of being “self sufficient” from God that what prayer I do manage, what obligations I do fulfill, are not about intimacy with the Lord.

But, fortunately we have the Sunday obligation, and the Mass does its work on me, and so I can count on most weeks getting some spiritual first aid by the time the consecration rolls around, even if I’ve been committing low-level spiritual self-harm all week long.  And of course some times I am, in fact, seeking God throughout my week, and taking time to be with Him, and that’s the spiritual state I’m going to be talking about now.

See, when you are seeking God, if something happens that keeps you from Mass, your soul can be disposed to receiving Him even when you are separated.

This is a mystical thing, not a theological treatise, so don’t get hung up on vocabulary.  I am talking from the point of view of my lived experience, and if you would like to translate that into precise definitions of this or that category of prayer, you can do that.  I’m just going to tell you what I know.

And what I know is that when you are thirsting for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the Lord will slake that thirst.

How to Be Not Afraid

This is the thing that has worked for me, so if you are now facing the absence of the sacraments and that fills you with anxiety, try this thing:

Mentally put yourself there in the sacrament.  If it’s the Eucharist, mentally put yourself in Adoration before the Lord.  See, feel, hear, smell, taste in your mind that moment when you and Jesus are together at Mass.  If it is confession you cannot access, as you make your act of perfect contrition at home, see, feel, hear, smell, taste in your mind that moment when you and Jesus are together in Confession.  The scene or the thought or the quiver in your gut that you experience will be unique to you, so I’m not going to give you too many words of instruction.  Just mentally try to make present that moment of spiritual lightning that strikes, or that wave of spiritual refreshment, or that warm, powerful embrace of consolation, that in the past you have felt when you diligently seek the Lord in the sacrament.

I don’t have your brain.  Maybe there is a hymn, or an image, or the wafting scent of incense, or some other tangible thing that helps you make your experience of the sacrament again present to you.  Maybe it is the position of your body.  Maybe it is the memory of a particular person who touched you profoundly at a time when you received the sacrament — a priest’s advice in the confessional, or the lady in the pew who held your hand at the sign of peace, or whatever it is — there could be some particular memory that helps you re-call, re-summon, your experience of the sacrament.  Don’t be afraid if it’s something weird.  Maybe the wood of your kitchen table reminds you of the wood of the pew and somehow that’s your thing.  I don’t know what crazy way God has put together the connections in your brain.

But figure that out.

And then when you are saying to yourself, “I hate that I can’t go to Mass on Sunday,” or whatever it is that you are missing, stop and take some time to mentally make present that sacrament. Allow yourself to experience it again.  Allow God to bring to you, right in your bed or at your desk or at your kitchen sink, the grace that you experienced before.

Time with an Infinite God

The thing is that though we live in time, God lives outside of it.

God is able, with your willingness and cooperation, to deliver back to your awareness the grace that He bestowed on you already, about which you have forgotten.  He who knew what would happen today, and tomorrow, and three weeks from now, has poured out on you all that you need to survive this time of desolation.

I don’t mean that this is a substitute for the sacraments.  I don’t mean that if you ought to be going to Confession today or Mass today, and though you could obey the Lord’s call, instead you plan to sit in your lounge chair and surf the internet, that you can just sub out thirty seconds of imagination and prayer for the Lord’s desire and command for you to find Him in the sacrament.  No way no how.

But if for some reason (perhaps acting on obedience to your bishop though you do not agree with his reasoning, and yet you know very well his authority is divinely-ordained, or perhaps acting in justice towards those to whom you owe care and protection) you are kept from the sacrament you desire, I do know that in those times, the Lord can supply what is lacking.

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Artwork: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Virgin With Angels, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

How to Look Like a Saint While Heading to Hell*

Head’s up: This post is not g-rated, and it does dissect the allegations in a real abuse case.

To all but those few who knew his secrets, the news about Jean Vanier comes as a complete shock.  (Count me among the shocked).  How can this guy who did so much good — a guy who was seriously being considered for canonization — have been guilty of such crimes?

This is a question we can’t just set aside as impossible to answer.  It is not impossible to answer, and since sin didn’t go to the grave with this latest scandal, we have a responsibility to understand and act on the answer.  So, unpleasant though it be to launch into this topic right now, here are the three things that make it possible for an evangelist to live a double life.

#1 Stealth Predators Test the Waters

It doesn’t matter whether we are speaking of consensual affairs among willing adults or the most nefarious rape, if you want to live a double life, you have to move carefully.  Read this account of an abuse-survivor’s story to see how it’s done.  I chose this story in particular because it shows you exactly how a predator avoids detection (though in this case he got caught sooner rather than later), because we’re looking at a case where the predator tested the waters, fish got away, man had to move on.

What to note:

  • The predator (priest in this case) starts by building a trusting relationship.
  • Early on, the idea of secrecy or covert-ops is introduced (“tell your mom you’re seeing me for spiritual direction”).
  • The first abuse is an action that can be explained away.

Hence the insistence by the predator’s superiors that the abusive encounter was merely a “boundary violation.”  Let’s be clear: A man pressing his erect penis against a woman’s body, even through the barrier of clothing, is engaging in sexual activity.  No decent man will know he has an erection (this is not something men are unable to detect) and choose to physically press his pelvis against the body of a woman who is not his wife.

Legit foreplay for a married couple.  Not legit under any other circumstance, and no sane adult man is going to let a teenage girl become aware he has an erection by physically putting her in contact, even through clothing, with that part of his body.  Nope.

And yet we see in this sample case that the behavior gets excused.  Why? Because it was chosen by the predator for the ease with which he could wiggle away from the charges.  The girl was mistaken.  Either she doesn’t know what she’s talking about (because how does a young teen know what an erection is), or if she does know, then obviously she’s a hussy and she’s making a false accusation — bad family, dontcha know.  I’m concerned someone might be abusing her, and that’s why she’s acting out.  And gosh, I shouldn’t have hugged her, I shouldn’t have let her sit on my lap, it’s just that she reminded me so much of my niece, and she really seemed like she wanted a hug, and listen guys, I realize I had a lapse in judgment.  I’m so sorry.  I realize my mistake, and I’m not going to let it happen again.

A predator who gets away with his or her crimes is someone who operates carefully.

#2 Toxic People Choose to Surround Themselves with Enablers

Obviously the predator has to move beyond those initial tests.  So how do you get away with your abusive behavior when sooner or later word is bound to get out?  You do this by making sure that no one close to the facts is going to report.

To a toxic person, there are two types of people in the world: Those who will tolerate the abusive behavior and those who will not.  The non-tolerators are systematically removed from the toxic person’s circle of friends.

Much of this is self-chosen by the healthy person.  If you have a boss who underpays and overworks, the simplest thing to do is look for another job.  If that friend is always dragging you down with gossip and drama, you start hanging out with different friends.  If a relative is taking advantage of your generosity, you set firm boundaries.

In ministry, self-respecting volunteers and paid staff don’t stick around long if toxic people are in charge.  They move on early. Gradually, without ever having been caught at any serious crime, the predator-in-charge finds him or herself surrounded only by those who will, for whatever reason, look the other way at sinful behavior.

And of course the career-climbing predator has additional tools available to help clean out the org chart.  Whereas a holy person will not lie to sabotage a fellow employee, a skilled predator is well able to build a case against those who need to be eliminated.  An insinuation there, a careful retelling of the facts here, and next thing you know that volunteer who wouldn’t shut up about actually following child safety procedures is out the door.  Once you are in charge of a ministry, it’s easy enough to find some pretext for making a staffing or organizational decision to unload the contingent who gets in your way.

Reality to consider as we pray for our priests?  It is almost impossible for a pastor of souls to know what is really going on in his parish or diocese.  Unless he makes a powerful effort otherwise, his life is going to be saturated by the company of people who revel in winning the game of being part of the priest or bishop’s inner circle, and people who want to play that game are not healthy people. Thus even a holy man is likely to end up enabling toxic behavior — and it’s hard to be a holy man.

#3 The Devil is Prowling and Sinners Lie to Ourselves

Allow me to quote the St. Joseph’s Baltimore Catechism: Venial sin is worse than the measles.

As an expert sinner, let me tell you, it is very, very easy to talk yourself into sin.  Venial sin, mortal sin, all sin.  The smarter you are, the better you can be at making up rationalizations for why this sin here is not a sin at all, and that one over there is maybe just a teeny tiny sin, especially after you consider all the mitigating circumstances.

The degrading nature of sin is plain as day to those who aren’t caught up in the self-built snare of lies used to justify the sinful behavior. That’s why sin hates daylight.  When you suspect you are sinning, you work hard to hide to the sin.  Sometimes you do this by acting in secret; other times you camouflage the sin so it passes as no-big-deal. If it must be discussed, you come up with words and phrases that make the sin sound like something harmless, or perhaps even something healthy.

This does not mean that adultery is just the same as making a frowny-face at your husband when he interrupts your phone call.  This does not mean that abusing a child is the same thing as that time you let the kids have brownies for dinner.  What it means is that the more intentionally we engage in the battle against even our smallest sins, the more easily we can understand how people who are dedicated to a life of good can also be deceiving themselves into committing serious evils.

The teeny-tiny devil who helps us justify our little sins is just a miniature, cute-faced version of the big devil haunting the peripheries.  To commit a little sin, tell yourself a little lie. To commit a big sin, tell yourself a big lie.  Same process.

There is no easy solution to all this.

What we want is to be able to say, “Now that I understand how this happens, I can prevent it from ever happening again!”

Not so much.  All we can really control is our own behavior.  We can choose not to be complicit in corrupt activities.  We can grow in our own holiness so that we are more aware when someone else is pulling out the excuses to justify a sin. We can teach our children and other souls in our care how to recognize and avoid sin in ourselves and others.

To the extent that we have authority to do so, we can take steps to battle against the structures and excuses that enable serious sin to flourish.

Meanwhile, free will’s a bear.  Be as good as you can, help fight evil where you can, and then fast and pray.

That’s what you can do.

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Photograph: French cuirassier during a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 3.0.

Related: Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence

*Lord willing, Jean Vanier repented of his sins and is now enjoying the delights of Heaven.  May we all benefit from the bountiful mercy of Jesus Christ who will do anything He can, even die for us, that we each might be saved from our two worst enemies.

Q&A: What Does it Take for a Rosary to “Count”?

On another forum the question was raised, and if it’s being asked there then it is probably of interest elsewhere: What does it take for a rosary to “count”?  If you want to be able to honestly claim you prayed the rosary, what is the minimum that must be done?

My answer . . .

There are some very limited situations where it matters whether your rosary “counts”:

  1. If it is the penance assigned to you in Confession. If so, follow the instructions in a booklet or similar resource on how to pray the rosary; presumably the priest who assigned the penance has such a thing on hand or else confirmed in advance you knew how to pray the penance.
  2. You are committed to praying the rosary daily because of your affiliation with a religious order or apostolate, such as being an auxiliary member of the Legion of Mary. If so, follow the instructions set forth by the organization to which you belong.
  3. You’ve pledged to say a rosary on someone’s behalf, and you were quite specific it would be a rosary, not just prayers in general. If so, go with booklet instructions as above.

Otherwise: Doesn’t matter. It’s you and God spending time together loving one another. Think of it as going on a date . . . you wouldn’t spend your time wondering whether the date “counted”.  I hope?

UPDATED

Over in the discussion group, a reader kindly reminds us that if you wish to receive a plenary indulgence for praying the rosary, there are instructions on that.  Which you’ll want to keep straight.

Two nice links to go with the update:

Enjoy.

Catechesis vs. Evangelization in the Pediatric Hospital for Sinners

So the US Bishops have assembled again, and following a hot tip I watched the session with Bishop Barron’s report on evangelization.  You can view the whole thing here.

It is worth watching if you have the time.  I started jotting down a few of Bishop Barron’s points on post-it notes for reference as the new book goes into final edits in December, and ended up annotating the whole transcript instead.   [FYI for those tempted to create snarky hierarchy-themed bingo boards, ahem, YouTube’s auto-generated captions and transcript do some fascinating things with the words ad limina.]

There were many valuable points raised, but the one I want to talk about now occurs around the 46-minutes mark. Bishop Daniel Conlon raises the question of evangelization versus catechesis. In his comments and Bishop Barron’s reply, a thorny problem for catechists is discussed: How do we both provide the rigorous catechesis that young people need (discussed extensively earlier in the presentation), and evangelize the barely-Catholic youth in our parishes?

As the bishops’ review of the state of evangelization rightly points out, it is no good throwing a pile of commands and directions at someone who is still asking basic questions about life, the universe, and everything. But at the same time, for the young person (or older person) who has largely accepted the Catholic faith, and in a different but crucial way for the young person whose mode of grappling with the faith is headily intellectual, the hunger for theology is a survival drive.  Serious examination of the faith for some young people is life-saving nourishment.

And yet that same theologically-intensive approach to the faith would absolutely drown a different kid also sitting in the circle at the youth group ice-breaker.

So what do you do?

The present solution — parish food fight, and last man standing gets to organize the youth program along his or her favorite lines — is not a good solution.  It’s not just a bad idea because yelling at your pastor is poor form (so I’ve been told, more than once), but also because “young people” are not a homogenous lump of catechetical tumor.

The young people who attend your parish are not identical to one another.  They have differing academic abilities, differing faith backgrounds, and differing spiritual needs.

Imagine if pediatricians organized conferences where they attempted to hash out a single mode of treatment for every child. Imagine showing up at your child’s doctor’s office, and the appointment went like this:

Parent: My kid has a badly swollen knee.  It started about three weeks ago.

Doctor, nodding gravely: Ah yes.  I see.  You will definitely want to start our regimen of asthma treatments.  It’s a shame you didn’t come in sooner, but it’s not too late.

Parent: I don’t think you understand.  It’s the knee.

Kid: My knee really hurts.  I can’t play soccer anymore.

Doctor: Yes!  It’s impossible to play soccer if you can’t breathe well!  What we need you to do is come in once a week for breathing treatments.

Kid: I can breath just fine.  I don’t need breathing treatments.  It’s my knee that hurts.

Doctor: Well, it never hurts to improve your breathing.  Many children have undiagnosed asthma, and so it’s important that we focus on making sure you can breathe well first.  When you’re older there will be plenty of time to look into your knee, if that’s important to you.

Parent: But if we don’t treat the knee, isn’t my child likely to get out of shape and have a worse time keeping up?

Doctor: Yes.  Exercise is so important!  That’s why we require all patients to receive weekly breathing treatments, to make sure they can exercise well.

Parent: I don’t think that we want to do the weekly breathing treatments.  We’re looking to understand why the knee is swollen.

Doctor: I’m sorry.  With an attitude like that, obviously your child is not going to get any better.  In all my years of medical practice, I’ve found that if we don’t require breathing treatments, children with undiagnosed asthma can get seriously ill, and even die.  I’m concerned you don’t take your child’s health seriously.

Parent: Could you refer us to a knee specialist, perhaps?

Doctor: Of course!  After you child finishes college, it might be possible to find a doctor’s office with a knee program. Though honestly, most Singles Doctors and Young Adult Doctors don’t do knees.  We did have an OB-GYN who treated a sprained ankle once, though.  Knees are more likely to come up in the Seniors treatment center.

Kid: I hate doctor’s offices.  Last year I had to spend six weeks in a cast because four of the kids in our treatment group had broken wrists.

Doctor: Oh yes.  I’m so glad your group was treated for that! Many children hurt their wrists skating or climbing trees.  In any case, I doubt it’s your knee.  We have extensive research showing that breathing treatments are far more effective at keeping young people in your grade alive and healthy.  Let’s just go ahead and sign you up, and you can give it a try, and I think if you have a good attitude it will work wonders for you.  Remember, you only get out of treatment as much as you put in, right?  Big smile for me, okay?

Disaster.  But before you lay into the “doctor” in this situation, keep in mind the doctor is only doing what we’ve asked. We’ve spent generations now commanding youth ministers and faith formation directors to develop a single program that somehow effectively treats every patient in the pediatric hospital for sinners — and then we heap on the blame when an overworked, underpaid staff member isn’t able to magically cure all the youth of the parish in that sacred hour a week of instructional time.

There’s an alternative to this approach, and your pediatrician is already doing it, and interestingly it’s the same thing the Church prescribes: Parents as primary educators, passing on the faith in the domestic church.

What would happen if we abandoned the orphanage-model of faith formation and operated the hospital for sinners more like a good doctor’s office?

We’d quit scolding and start educating parents.   When public health professionals notice parents aren’t getting their kids treated, they don’t rely on general admonitions to “Take your child’s health more seriously!”  At my doctor’s office there are posters on the wall and racks of pamphlets explaining common medical problems, and signs to look for, and treatments to pursue.  Does your parish educate parents on the common spiritual illnesses of youth, and how to prevent and treat them?

We’d give parents realistic ideas for how to educate their children in the faith, and expect them to follow-through. At the annual well-visit, the nurse runs through a list of age-appropriate potential concerns.  The advice that goes with is concrete.  Not a vague: Are you protecting your child from head injuries? but Does your child wear a helmet when bike riding?  The best doctors take into account the family’s resources and limitations, and the child’s true needs, and work with parents to find solutions when, say, the kid won’t eat fruits and vegetables, or constantly unbuckles in the car. [Duct tape? Not kidding.]  Parents usually will rise to expectations if the medical team can find a solution that the parent can reasonably hope to carry out.

We’d focus heavily on helping parents instill everyday spiritual health habits, but train parish staff in the diagnosis and treatment of serious problems.  Our pediatrician is an excellent cook as it happens . . . but it’s not her job to feed our family.  That’s my job.  Do I sometimes slack on that job?  You bet.  But even on days when my kids have popcorn and ice cream for dinner, it’s better that our doctor focus her time on becoming as knowledgeable as she can on detecting and treating (either herself or via referral) the serious problems.  Most appointments will end up with our doctor prescribing a simple course of treatment at home; every now and then, one of the kids will need more advanced care.

What would happen if we didn’t divide-and-conquer this way?  I’d probably have a dead kid, thanks for asking.  My pediatrician would be so bogged down with the weight of attempting to somehow feed our family a balanced diet (and do it in one weekly dinner twenty-five nights a year) that she’d never have the time and energy to stay current in her specialty and schedule one-on-one appointments.  She’d never have discovered, in a routine five-minute check-up before a vaccine, the thing that could have killed my child.  But because she specializes in treating the hard stuff, and leaves the day-to-day to me, when we need her expertise, she’s able to give it.

But the parents are neglectful! We lament.  Well, yes.  The parents are dropping like flies themselves, and Bishop Barron’s presentation addresses that.  You can’t care for someone else when you yourself are dead.

Build Better Orphanages! is not the solution to the spiritual death of the adults in the congregation.  You cannot bypass the parents.  There are not enough youth ministers in the world, and never will be, because that is not God’s plan for the human family.  Evangelize the parents, catechize the parents, and deploy the parents to do likewise for their children.

This is a constant, all-at-once process.  Our pediatrician is effective because she assumes the goodwill of parents.  We parents might know nothing at all about medicine, but we do love our kids.  That’s all she needs for a start.  If a parent is coming to your parish, that parent is ripe for the Good News.  Who doesn’t want eternal life for themselves and their children, if only they know it’s attainable?

The How-To Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know but No One Ever Taught You

Here, enjoy this book cover.  I am. Last round of edits starts in December, speak up at the blog discussion group if you have any final requests.

Confirmation as a Near-Baptist Experience

As promised, up at the Register: Is Your Parish Bogged Down in a Pay-to-Pray Evangelism?

Feedback on this topic has been about 90% AMEN from people who have lived the experience of getting priced out of parish life, 5% Doesn’t Happen Here from people who live in awesome parishes and dioceses where making the sacraments accessible to all is the central goal (looking at you, Wichita), and 5% But How Would We Pay Our Staff???

If you’re in that last group, consider aiming for some doable, baby-step Non-Scale Victories in the serving-the-poor department.  Change is hard.  Keep pointing yourself in the right direction whenever you can, even if you can’t transform your parish overnight.

And on that note, here’s a thought that came up in a private discussion of the pay-to-pray problem:  What the heck is Confirmation???

For most of us Latin-rite folk, our experience of Confirmation happens sometime between 3rd and 12th grade, and involves taking classes and doing service projects and attending retreats in order to “prepare” ourselves for the sacrament.  A friend and I both observed that the whole scheme was much more pared down back in the day (1990’s).  My best guess is that with each new crop of fallen-away college students, bishop-panic escalates and graduation-requirements become more stringent.

(Recap: Confirmation is not “graduation.”  It is a free gift of God that can only be obtained by paying tuition, attending classes, completing assignments, and undergoing an evaluation once you have accomplished all your check-off requirements.  If you don’t do the things, you can’t be confirmed, and there’s a form for you to sign stating you understand you have to do the things.  But it is definitely a free gift. That you earn the right to receive by doing the things.)

For non-Latin-rite folk, though, the experience of Confirmation is typically quite different: You’re born, your parents haul you to church, and you bob around wiggling and fussing while your infant self receives all three sacraments of initiation in one fell swoop.

Interestingly the Latin-non-Latin divide extends into the wider Christian community.  If you are Orthodox, you probably received confirmation (chrismation) as an infant.  If you are part of the Protestant communiy, and hence your congregation traces its lineage back to Latin-rite western Europe, you probably experienced confirmation, or a non-sacramental equivalent, as an age-of-reason, formally and publicly pronounced, personal decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Catholics across the Rites maintain the course on infant baptism, pointing out that there’s nothing like it for underscoring the “free gift” aspect of salvation.  Catholics and Orthodox agree with Protestants that once someone reaches the age reason, he or she must make the on-going decision to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

What is troubling in the Confirmation Prep arms race is that by out-Baptisting-the-Baptists Catholics are increasingly turning, lex vivendi, a sacrament of initiation into a sacrament of service.

Marriage and Ordination are sacraments of service.  They are sacraments that commission a vocation.  While we would hope that growing up in a Christian home, being properly educated by one’s parents, and carrying out the appropriate course of discernment would go far in preparing someone for either vocation, it is reasonable that we take certain steps to ensure those embarking on their lifelong vocation are as equipped as possible to begin the task.

What seems to be happening with Confirmation in the Latin rite is that because we have (for now) the practice of delaying the sacrament until after the age of reason, we are losing hold on the free gift of the Holy Spirit reality of what this sacrament of initiation is.  We are instead treating it like a sacrament of service.  We are demanding proof of our young people not that they wish to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, but that they are already able to use them.

This is not what the sacrament is.  Confirmation confers the gifts that we need to live our Christian vocation.  Furthermore, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are limitless and divine.  We don’t have to fear, like handing a child an enormous check on his eighteenth birthday, that he’ll run out and spend the money foolishly for lack of adequate budgeting skills.  You aren’t going to blow all your gift of piety in one wild afternoon of Adoration and be left broke and wondering what you’ll pray tomorrow.

Confirmation Prep as typically prescribed, though, isn’t usually about cultivating a spiritual state of desire for intimate union with Holy Spirit.  Rather, our bishops look at the results of Confirmation — the fruits — of the Spirit, and prescribe a set of lessons and practice exercises to prove the child already possesses what the sacrament is supposed to confer and unleash.

Frankly, this verges on spiritual fornication.  You say you want to be a fully-initiated disciple? Well act like one by doing these requirements that put you through the paces of disciple-activities!  Show yourself able and worthy!  To freely receive something you can never deserve, and which is about God’s action in you, not you working of your own power, we’d like to see ten hours of it accomplished and documented!

This is not the way God’s glory is made manifest.  Repentance, the calling of sinners, the invitation to sit at the table of the Lord . . . these are preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The sacraments of service are vocations to love our neighbor as Christ loves us.  They come after the sacraments of initiation because the ability to love our neighbor flows from Christ.  First we receive from God, then we give to others what we have received.  Confirmation is a sacrament of receiving.

Rather than a checklist of activities proving we are worthy and able to give what we do not yet possess, the question for those us of tasked with preparing young people for Confirmation is: How can I help you open your heart to receive this gift for which you were created, and which, so hard to believe in our meritocratic society, you can never earn?

File:Brooklyn Museum - God the Father with Four Angels and the Dove of the Holy Spirit - Giovanni Francesco da Rimini.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.