Lent Day 1: Father Gonzo Makes His Mark

1.1 This morning, an unwary child says: “I haven’t decided what to give up for Lent.”

Evil Dictator: “Not to worry.  I’ve got you covered.”

Between cutting out extraneous sugar and sending us all to bed on time, child, it’s gonna be a long Lent.  But a calm one, so we hope.

1.2 A different, diligent little Catholic bear, was determined to set a fixed penance.  “What if I give up Netflix and Amazon?”

“What’s your goal?” Evil Dictator inquires.

Discussion ensues.  Child finally resolves, after taking advice, to write on her card to turn in at school: “I will give up all TV and movies, with the exception of shows my parents or teacher tell me to watch.”

1.3 Good problems: And your Catholic school student wants you to come to the school Mass in the morning, which is always very good . . . and your spouse and your boy are going to be singing Allegri’s Misere Mei Deus at the evening service.  Here’s an abridged version:

Another version, unabridged, and with girls in it:

So yes, I went to both.  Ashes and Holy Communion at Mass #1, and then sat back and enjoyed the music and prayed along at Mass #2.

1.5 My school child wasn’t so keen to double-dip, and asked if maybe I could require her to watch a little Netflix while I was at the second Mass.  Well, darling, funny you should mention that.  Evil Dictator’s got quite the talent for finding all the kids’ French-language videos on YouTube, and that’s something you need to be watching over the next few months.

I pulled up tabs of French-language entertainment and . . . she read books instead.  Her English is gonna be excellent before Lent is out.

1.6 So I show up at church for Mass #2 and Father Gonzo takes a look at me and says: “Did I do that?!”

Jen with massive black ashen cross on her forehead.
I sure didn’t do this to myself.

“Yes you did.”  And let me say: There’s nothing like walking around all day with Father’s Revenge, as the guidebook calls it, to bring out all the evidence of your horrid inner disposition.

40 days to get my act together.  Or forty seconds, everyone’s hoping.

Lent for Slackers

This is a post for people who tend to be too lax with themselves.  We’ll start by kicking out those of you who don’t belong here.

If you are prone to scruples . . . don’t read this post. Go make an appointment with your pastor for a five-minute consultation.  Write down your plans for Lent, get him to sign off on that, tape your list to your fridge, and DON’T ADD A THING.

You may sprinkle on bits of supererogatory penance on your better Lenten days if the opportunity presents itself, but that’s pure bonus and you have to both (A) congratulate yourself for those days and (B) knock it off if your hot Lenten super days are wearing you down and making it too hard on ordinary days to do the thing you and your pastor agreed would be your thing.

That’s it.  Get out of here.

PS: If your pastor is a totally namby-pamby, flakey-wakey, wishy-washy cuddle puddle who wouldn’t know penance if it scourged him with briars . . . that’s God choosing to really lay it on you this Lent.  When Fr. Laxalot looks at your list of planned prayers and fasting and tells you that what he really needs is for you to smile during the sign of peace as your Lenten act of self-denial, honey you just do that. Tape it to your fridge.

If your life is inherently penitential . . . this post isn’t really for you, either.  But you can take a look, as long as you promise not to scruple.  Otherwise, it’s off to meet with Fr. Laxalot.

Slackers Quit Slacking

So there are people you know who glance at Lent and announce that The Really Important Thing conveniently does not include prayer, penance, and almsgiving.

Now let us agree, the Really Important Thing is you responding to God’s grace and accepting His gift of salvation and all that goes with.  Absolutely.  But you are a timebound meat-creature, so the ethereal glance towards Heaven is not something you are quite ready to sustain.  Your body and soul are inseparably glued together like a PB&J sandwich that’s been sitting on the dash of the car on a summer afternoon; therefore you must do things with your body now if you want to shine up your soul so it can embrace the beatific vision when the time comes.

Let us also acknowledge that if you are bitter, nasty, ungrateful wretch with seven mortal sins you commit before breakfast, you’ve got some rough work to blast through before getting to the fine-tuning.  Do please orient your Lent towards knocking off at least the most egregious outer layer so we can get to the deeper stuff in future years.

Furthermore, let us note that once the big crust of visible nastiness has been mostly brushed away, it’s possible that what we find inside is a festering wound of putrid moral ugliness.  In all likelihood you are so accustomed to the stench you don’t even notice.  Telltale Sign: You create complicated explanations about why your life doesn’t match the things Jesus says to do, but hey that’s okay!  It’s not okay.

Jesus came to save you from your sins, not to explain that drowning in the mire is just fine too.

Prayer, penance, and almsgiving are the physical tools God gives us, by His gift of unfathomable Grace, to help us not want to drown in the mire quite so much.

Prayer

Prayer takes many forms, but Not Praying isn’t one of them.

Please do not tell me that your work is your prayer.  No darling.  Your work is your work.  Your prayer is your prayer.  It may be that your state in life does not allow for the type of prayer you especially prefer or admire, but actual prayer is the thing we’re going for here.  Examples:

  • Prayerfully reading the day’s Mass readings.
  • Attending Mass and praying through it.
  • Adoring the Lord present in the Holy Eucharist.
  • Praying one of the hours of the Divine Office.
  • Prayerfully reading your Bible.
  • Praying the Rosary.  (Tips here.)
  • Praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
  • Praying the Jesus Prayer.
  • Praying some shorter (or longer) prayer that fits the occasion.
  • Setting aside a certain amount of time, alone and unbothered, to become aware of the presence of God and then converse with Him.
  • If you like to write: Prayerfully conversing with God via conversation with Him in a private journal.

There are other ways of course, but you get the idea.

You cannot pray all the prayers.  You must discern and choose.  I am well aware that there are times in life when your work or your vocation or your health does not allow you to pray as fully as you otherwise would.  But if you can read this post, you can definitely pray.

Penance

If you have big sins you’re trying to shed, penance can run two ways.  If your sin is something like using porn or committing slow suicide with your cigarette habit, then this particular Lent you might take on the “penance” of quitting that habit, stat.  It’s actually a gift to yourself, not a punishment, but such gifts can own you for a long while, and one can only do so much at a time.

On the other hand, if your persistent sin is something like wrath, or lust, or gluttony, there’s a point when cold turkey can’t happen.  Once you’ve eliminated the obvious don’t-or-die items, you’re left with a pile of wriggling worms of naughtiness that are constantly evading capture.  Fasting in its various forms, as well as acts of overt self-mortification (cold showers, for example), are the tools that fight sin and save lives.

Conveniently, if you take up such a penance you get a double-bonus: The miracles that are wrought by the combination of prayer and penance will flow both outward towards others and inward towards your soul.

Offering it up.  If your life comes with a significant built-in penance, then a reasonable Lenten resolution is to live out that God-ordained amount of suffering with a prayerful disposition.  This post was not for you, but there you go.

For those of you who are, in contrast, perfectly capable of additional acts of self-denial, don’t delude yourself.  You will not become a nicer person by resolving to be a nicer person.  You will become a more charitable person by training yourself, through self-denial, that it is not necessary to indulge your every whim.

Almsgiving

Sometimes people say, “Rather than giving up something for Lent, you can take up something for Lent.”  Certainly true, but if you are a slacker, you know very well how easily you can turn that observation into a shadow-play of Doing Nothing.

Slacker friends, let’s raise the bar one more: When you take on works of charity, don’t deceive yourself into Not Actually Giving.

If you have money to give, give it.  Give it freely and generously.  If you are the widow in the parable, this post was not for you.  This post is for those of you who so easily persuade yourself you are that widow, when really you’re the guy walking by the money box not even bothering to drop in a few coins.

Almsgiving is the triple whammy:

  • It is an act of self-denial, hence it works like a penance.
  • It teaches you to trust in God, because you are giving up your means of saving yourself.
  • It does some good for the recipient.

Most of us stink at it even more than we stink at fasting, and you know we pretty much stink at fasting, too.  If you are a person with significant wealth, you are far more likely to succeed at prayer and fasting than you are to succeed at almsgiving.

About those Poor People

Let me say a crazy thing, and you stay calm until you’ve read the details: Please don’t take on the works of mercy for Lent.  The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are your duty all year long.

It may well be that since you have no money to give, but you do have physical strength and free time, taking on one of the works of mercy will in fact be your best way of almsgiving.  Furthermore, taking on a work of mercy is often the necessary counterpart to a penance — if you don’t fill the void with something good, you’ll only go and fill it with a fresh vice.  Finally, if you are not currently practicing the works of mercy, or your life has changed so that you are now free to carry out works that were heretofore not open to you, please, take them on!

So it may in fact be best if you take up a work of mercy this Lent.  But slacker friends, do not say to yourself, “Oh yes, I feed the homeless every Lent!” or “Oh yes, I visit the sick every Advent!”  Love of neighbor is not a seasonal activity.  Take note of your spiritual gifts and the opportunities that your state in life allows, and do not shove off your portion of Christian charity on your fellow parishioners.

Chances are you stink at this even worse than you stink at prayer, penance, and almsgiving — and don’t even know it.  Love of neighbor flows from love of God.  Work on the Big Three this Lent, and the works of mercy should be the obvious fruit of your repentance and return to God.

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I searched Wikimedia for “camels” and came up with this.  More Lenten than you might think.  Giusto de’ Menabuoi – Re magi – Battistero del Duomo di Padova, fresco circa 1376 – 1378.

Learning to Appreciate the Big Things in Life

So the reason I vanished from the internet like I’d been kidnapped in broad daylight is that I had to quick plan a massive trip to Europe.  (I know!)  A different day, I will write more about the how-to’s of pulling off that feat; for now just know that yes, it consumed my every free minute from the moment the opportunity opened up until the transport, lodging, and insurance were firmly established.

You understand, because you, too, have something you want to do that, if you were suddenly given the chance, you’d drop everything and make it happen.  I want to talk about what it takes to make that thing happen for you.

The One Big Thing

I think “bucket lists” are nonsense.  Life isn’t like that.  My list of priorities looks like this:

  1. God.
  2. My vocation as a wife and mother.
  3. Everything else.

#1 and #2 are inseparably intertwined — doing one means doing the other, always.  #3 is composed of all the other things that might be important, but that when push comes to shove you can pout all you want, I’m not available to do that thing you think I should be doing, if it interferes with #1 and #2.

Still, there’s a pile of good stuff behind door #3, including a long list of, “It would sure be nice if . . .” items.  It would sure be nice to have a bigger, prettier house.  It would sure be nice to visit New England.  It would sure be nice to take the kids to Mount Vernon (God-willing, that’s next summer).  The One Big Thing also sits behind door #3, but in a different corner of the Everything Else room.

We have a friend whose One Big Thing was to invest in a large, well-appointed home for his eventual wife and children.  It was so important to him that he started saving up for that house while he was still in college.   It’s not that he would have felt like he’d failed in life, or “missed out,” or that his happiness depended on having that house.  It was just important enough to him that he was willing to sacrifice a lot of other good things in order to make it happen if he could.  (And he did.)

You have some things like that.  Things that maybe are achievable or maybe they aren’t, but if you do get the chance, you’d be willing to set aside a lot of other good stuff in order to make your One Big Thing happen.

The Things We Set Aside

So I’ve been thinking about taking my kids on this trip since I was sixteen years old.

(Yes, that’s right: I wasn’t dating anybody, I hadn’t yet met the man I’d eventually marry, it would be another decade before the first child was even born.  I was sixteen years old and walking along a misty tree-lined alley leading up to a historic French chateau, and I knew that one day I wanted to share that moment’s experience with my future children.)

Everybody has a different financial picture, so this isn’t a talk about how if you just do what I do you can have your big thing.  But I want to make it clear that there’s a long list of good, worthwhile things we’re forgoing to make the One Big Thing happen.  On that list:

  • All superfluous purchases.  I was going to bring home flowers for Valentine’s day, but I need that $2.99 to be in the bank this summer.
  • A laptop that works.  My trusty Surface Pro has given it up, and thus one of the reasons I don’t write as much lately is that I don’t have a computer I can take to another room when the family’s all home, and I do have to jockey for time on the shared machines.  So basically I’ve made the decision that something I really love, writing, is just not going to happen as much as I’d like, for a while.
  • A new-used car.  Our minivan has 170,000 miles on it.  The doors either don’t lock or don’t open or sometimes both.  The paint job is Green and Black Cheetah because we’ve filled in with primer where the original finish is rusting out.  There is no interior carpet anymore, just bare metal with strategically-placed rubber mats.  We’d been planning to upgrade to something conceived this millennium, but my mechanical engineer tells me we can get that baby to 200K, no problem.  So that’s what we’ll be doing.
  • Living room furniture.  When we updated the circa-1985 paint in the living room and hallways this Christmas, we donated our couch and recliner, from the same era and in the same general condition, to other worthy recipients.  What’s there instead?  Lawn chairs.  Really nice ones, yes: They’re the ones we got from Lowe’s on clearance and had previously been using to kit the screen porch.  They just got promoted to a full-time, permanent gig as Chief Living Room Furniture.
  • More house space.  Eventually that minivan is going to need to be replaced.  Good thing we just painted, because this family of six is going to be squeezed into the three-bedroom ranch for a long time to come.

I mention that last one not because it’s a big deal (I know larger families living in smaller houses), but because to a lot of people, a spacious home is their One Big Thing.

You just have to know yourself and know what trade-offs fit the kind of person you are.  No matter how rich you are, you can’t have everything you’re able to want.  We all have to prioritize, and give up some good things in order to have other good things that are more important to us.

Seizing the Day

I’m not omnipotent nor omniscient, and neither are you.  There’s no telling what will happen between now and the end of June.  Perhaps our plans all come to naught.  One of the ways you know you’ve hit your One Big Thing is because you can honestly say to yourself: Even if this doesn’t work out, I have to try it, because I will always regret not having taken my chance when it came.

[Tip: If you are making a significant financial investment in anything, get that investment insured.  You can insure a house, a car, a boat, a musical instrument, and yes, even a trip.]

In our case, what happened is that we were thinking about taking a much more reasonable, but still-ambitious, stateside family trip.  That was another thing we’ve always wanted to do and here we were: The kids were at the ideal age, my health was finally decent again, there was a slot when we could take the time off and make it happen.

So we talked about a variety of other, much more sane choices.  Then one day I came to my senses.  I told my husband: I would rather not go anywhere this summer, and save up for as long as it takes to make my One Big Thing happen.

And he briefly set aside all reason and scruples and determined that he really, really loves me, and that maybe we should talk about this.  I pointed out that I’ve been talking about doing this trip since as long as he’s known me, and also there has not been a single time in the past decade when I was physically able to make it happen.  Our son graduates high school next year.  If I wanted to do it, now was literally the only time.

So I did it.  Trip is booked.

File:1138357639 3c5c483074 o Haut Koenigsbourg CC by Fr Antunes.jpg

This is where we’re going.  Photo by Fr_Antunes (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. And no I won’t be live-blogging it, because: I don’t have a working laptop.  That’s fine.  My One Big Thing wasn’t “taking the internet on this trip,” it was, “taking my kids on this trip.”  I don’t recall ever giving birth to a computer, thanks.

Quick Tip: Organizing With Teenagers

Tip of the day: Once the teenagers are 4-6 inches taller than the mother, it’s time to reorganize.

–> Remove all the controlled-access food items (biscotti, etc.) from the high shelf, and store them down low instead.  Behind the cleaning supplies is most effective.

 

File:BazilleFamilyReunion.jpeg
If the mother is the only one who has to stand on the counters to reach what she wants, you’re doing it wrong.
Artwork: Bazille Family Reunion, courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]

The Physiology of Fasting and other Penitential Links

Link #1 The Physiology of Fasting

Late last Lent an Orthodox friend and I were whining about how much we hate fasting.  There are people in this world who don’t have much appetite, and he and I are not those people.  Furthermore, at his parish he knows these guys who fast for days and days during Holy Week, and hold up just fine.  We’re not talking St. Starvicus of the Empty, Empty Desert who lived on a weekly mouthful of bitter herbs in the second century. We’re talking about flesh-and-blood normal guys with day jobs in modern America.

How do they do it?  We had a number of theories, and mine were all wrong.

Not too long into Easter (happy happy feast feast) I stumbled on a website run by a physician whose practice includes overseeing a lot of clients who fast extensively for health reasons (primarily in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, as it happens).  Dr. Jason Fung is a normal (secular, slightly potty-mouthed) Canadian-guy MD with normal-people clients and a lot to say on how fasting affects your body, and why our non-eating Orthodox friends are experiencing something radically different when they fast than that misery you feel on Ash Wednesday when you eat one regular meal and two small snacks.

–> I have no opinion on whether or how you should fast, other than that you should mind the Precepts of the Church and also common sense regarding your own health and state of life.  But if you are bored, here’s a site with the answer to the question of What’s with those people who don’t eat for days on end?

Here’s the archives of the entire “Fasting” category on his website.

Here’s page 1, if you want to start at the beginning.

I mention it now during Advent because if you want to run pre-Lent experiments on yourself, now’s the time.

Link #2 Vader Did You Know?

A profound thank you to Jane Lebak for sharing this link.  Sometimes a song is so bad that the only good use for it is turning it into a Star Wars plot summary.

#3: Not a link, just a PSA

Dear Adults Who Edit Hymnals,

Did you know that young people are linguistically competent?  You might have noticed the way they are constantly making up words and phrases that confound you to pieces.  This is because they are able to learn languages, even English.

Therefore, it is not necessary to wipe every use of the word “Thou” from your hymnal.  People under the age of 150 are able to learn new words, just like people in previous eras were able to learn new words like “telegraph” and “wireless” and eventually even “social security check.”

Also, you look very stupid when you “fix” a hymn for us by making it grammatically incoherent in the effort to remove verbs ending in “est.”  So perhaps you are not able to master the English language. But the rest of us can pick it up pretty well, thanks.

Sincerely,

Jennifer  <– So done with offering it up.  Just done.  Get me to confession, please.

Link #4: My Classic Collection of Advent Links

When I moved the blog to the new location, I didn’t pull over the entire old sidebar.  FYI the new sidebar has lots of good stuff, including a freshly-harvested crop of internet reading now that I’m back to goofing off on the internet.  But if you’re looking for the annual collection of Old Reliable Advent Links, here they are:

This is not the year I grow the list, but look, when I searched Wikimedia for “Advent” this slightly-wrinkled manuscript page from the “O Antiophons” category popped right up:

File:Sapientia.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Benedictine monastery of Podlažice [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

St. Nicholas Magic, even in the off-year

St. Nicholas 2015 was more festive, but this year, thanks to the wonders of iBreviary, a poor spiritual life, and my top most annoying-to-other-parents parenting habit, we just scraped out an observance of the feast.

What happened is that late last night I finally unearthed my long-interred blogging computer.  Things have been good here.  I took about two weeks to get over a cold, then a third week to pounce on the opportunity to turn my bed into a work table while the SuperHusband was in Canada for three nights on business, and forsook a return to blogging in order to sort and purge the wall of backlogged paper files that had been looming over me for about a year.  Now, finally, the layer of dust on the screen of my tablet has trails of finger-marks where I returned to the internet last night, briefly, and am trying again today.

How to make me have a crush on you like I’ve got a crush on Ronald Knox: Announce that you’re hosting Stations of the Cross during Advent!  Yes, friends, I’m living in the wonderland.  Mind you I have not actually attended Stations at my parish this Advent, because the timing hasn’t worked out yet, but I can be all happy and joyous that other people are having their spiritual lives put in proper order, anyway.

Me?  My 1st Week of Advent gift was showing up to Adoration for a half an hour before fetching the kids from school, and sitting there in the pew when guess who walks in? My own kid. The whole fifth grade, not just my kid, but my kid’s the one I was particularly pleased to see.  How to make me have a crush on your parish school? Random acts of Eucharistic Adoration, thanks.

So that was last week.  This week, the gift iBreviary gives to good little children with bad parents: Time Zone Problems.  If you check my sidebar on this blog (click through if you are reading this from e-mail or a feed-reader), the iBreviary widget will take you to today’s readings.  Except that iBreviary is from Italy, so today means What Italian people are experiencing.  And thus, late in the evening in North America on December 5th, what you see is the feast of St. Nicholas of Bari.

Ack! A celebration!

So I quick summon children and remind them to put out their shoes, then wrack my brain trying to think up some festive item already on hand that I can stick in those shoes to mark the feast.  Fortunately, the SuperHusband has had a bucket of biscotti from Costco stashed in a secret location.  Italian-American is our theme for this year.

But sadly, no, it’s not that simple.

Naturally, I completely forgot to put the biscotti in the shoes.  Thus it was a cold, dark, wet, barren St. Nicholas waking for us.

So let’s talk about lying.

People hate this.  I mean, they can’t stand it.  It makes heads spin.  But here’s what we do at our house: We let our kids know how the world works.

I know!  Thus over time they learn all kinds of  adult secrets, like where babies come from, and that there’s a moment in the mandatory confirmation retreat when you open a heart-warming letter from your parents, and also that Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are all games of pretend.

Is our home life thus devoid of all magic?  By no means.

The real world is far more, dare I say it, amazing than some cheap sleight-of-hand holiday trick.

If you tell your kids Santa is real, whatever.  Not my problem (I’m not going to tell your kid that, but you can).  So be it.  To me, orchestrating such moments of artifice is a pale and pathetic imitation of the beauty of faith in the real world, where real miracles, both natural and supernatural, happen all the time.

I don’t object to figurines of Santa at the Nativity; but today (December 6th) in particular, and every day more generally, we get St. Nicholas adoring Christ, for real, at the Holy Mass.

Is that too abstract for children?  By no means.  Children know very well that what something looks like is different than what it is. They know that there is real supernatural power in this world.  The game of Santa or St. Nicholas is, if you let your children play the game rather than hogging it for yourself, like a game of house or soldiers or any other dress-up: We’re children playing at real things, trying them out.

The game is marvelously fun, even when you nearly forget it, twice.

If your children are in on the game, the wonder of it no longer depends on falliable you.  It now can rest on its own power, and wreak its real marvels even when you yourself are a few marvels short of a shooting match.

Thus, today, as I was rushing out the door at 7:10 to quick drive a teenager to school before coming back for the 5th grader, said 5th grader noticed the shoes were still empty.

Oops. Time is tight, but the feast is only once a year.  “Run back to your room, quick, so St. Nicholas can come.”

I grabbed a stool, she went and hid in her room for a minute, and I found St. Nick’s stash of biscotti and quick doled it out, one-per-shoe.  Magic accomplished.

Related:

You Can Have Santa Magic Without Lying to Your Kids

Catholic Life Hacks: St. Nicholas Day S’Mores

 

File:Icon c 1500 St Nicholas.JPG

St. Nicholas Icon courtesy of Bjoertvedt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

5 Reasons Slacker Catholics Do Advent Best – #2 Will Shock You

This is a post that sounds like satire but is not.  This is a post about cold, hard, liturgical reality: The best Catholics are the slackers.

That’s right friends.  You agonize every year about whether you’re doing Advent, or Christmas, or Lent, or Easter just right, and you have the pictures on Pinterest to prove it.  Dear, dear one, lose your life and you’ll find it.  The best way to be liturgically on the ball is to drag through life barely holding your head above water.

Here are five proofs hidden in the couch cushions at the home of that friend who never invites you over because her life is such a trainwreck.  Not kidding.  This works.  Especially #2.

#1 No new music.

New music is for people who have time to learn things.  Now mind you, I don’t object to the odd innovator.  But nothing says in step with the season like singing last millennium’s music.  Or the millennium before that.  If it was good enough for Advent 1016, it’s good enough for me.

#2 No gratuitous shopping trips.

Christmas is so commercial! they weep.  Not if you don’t have the time, money, or energy to go the store, it’s not.  You don’t have to be poor in the spirit, just poor in something that keeps you out of the mall.  I’ve tried it both ways.  Not shopping is better.

#3 No decorating and entertaining excess.

Yes love, we’ve heard all about how so very tired you are from all the time and energy you spend getting your house (and office, and wardrobe) just so for the holiday season, and how much work it was to put on your fabulous collection of carefully tailored parties (one for clients, one for employees, one for the neighbors, one for the close friends, one for the other friends, one for the friends who can’t be with the other friends . . .).  Sweetie pie, if you were really tired?  You wouldn’t be doing all that stuff.

You know how tired people entertain?  By sleeping. That’s how.  It’s very entertaining, try it sometime.

Liturgical tip: Start the season utterly exhausted, and you’ll never, ever have to wonder if you’re losing the “real meaning of Christmas” amid all your busyness.

#4 Your Christmas tree will always go up at exactly the right time.

This is the great thing about trees: They look great anywhere.  Your Christmas tree might be sojourning in the forest all winter this year — that’s very contemplative, you know.  But imagine for a moment that you mustered the wherewithal to drag a tree, or some inventive product that reminds the casual viewer of a tree, into your home this holiday season.

Some Catholics, under those circumstances, would have to worry: Have I done this too early? Too late?  When exactly is the tree supposed to enter the home?

Not you, exhausted slacker friend!  If it arrives early, it’s an Advent tree, or else it’s you managing to get something done ahead of a time for a change.  If it comes in the 24th, hey, perfect!

But what if, say, you pull it off the neighbor’s curb on the 26th? You’re a shining example of good stewardship, both financial and environmental.  Rejoice — you’ve been heralded in a century-and-change of papal encyclicals. Woohoo!

#5 No skimping on the fullness of the season.

What’s the big rush in taking down the Christmas decorations?

Would it really be the feast of the Presentation if there weren’t a few reminders of the Nativity artfully displayed about your home? What about the Annunciation, huh?  Are you so spiritually adrift on the tides of the seasons that you’ve never noticed the parallel between the manger and the tomb?  It might be easier to catch those connections if you weren’t so keen to whisk away your baby Jesus to His summer home in the attic.

And of course there would have been no Easter if we hadn’t had Christmas first.  Leaving out your past-due decorations is like living every day of your life in a dusty, slightly dented, but arguably beatific living Gospel.

While organized, industrious people pack up their holiday spirit in order to bustle onto the next big source of ennui, we slackers bask in the glow of eternity, our living-rooms perpetually witness to timeless truths.

Happy Advent! And other seasons, too, while we’re at it.

File:The giant Advent Calendar at 383 Smith St. Fitzroy, VIC.jpg

Photo by Eag383 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

What Happens When You Go Out to Eat on Sundays

Before we begin, let’s clear something up: Sometimes I go out to eat on Sundays.  Credible witnesses can attest to this fact.

***

A friend recently shared St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Dies Domini (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy).   It’s a long, rich exploration of the what’s and why’s of Sundays, so naturally I just skimmed it and made a note to come back later and read it more carefully.  But I link to it now because I’ve been meaning to write about the restaurant problem since last summer.  Here are some pertinent quotes:

65. By contrast, the link between the Lord’s Day and the day of rest in civil society has a meaning and importance which go beyond the distinctly Christian point of view. The alternation between work and rest, built into human nature, is willed by God himself, as appears in the creation story in the Book of Genesis (cf. 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11): rest is something “sacred”, because it is man’s way of withdrawing from the sometimes excessively demanding cycle of earthly tasks in order to renew his awareness that everything is the work of God. . . .

66. Finally, it should not be forgotten that even in our own day work is very oppressive for many people, either because of miserable working conditions and long hours — especially in the poorer regions of the world — or because of the persistence in economically more developed societies of too many cases of injustice and exploitation of man by man. When, through the centuries, she has made laws concerning Sunday rest, (109) the Church has had in mind above all the work of servants and workers, certainly not because this work was any less worthy when compared to the spiritual requirements of Sunday observance, but rather because it needed greater regulation to lighten its burden and thus enable everyone to keep the Lord’s Day holy. In this matter, my predecessor Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum spoke of Sunday rest as a worker’s right which the State must guarantee. (110)

FYI, Rerum Novarum is no commie pinko manifesto.  Actually it’s an anti-communist manifesto.  [And some other things, too.] Go read it sometime, it’s really fun.  If you’re local, you can bait me into a conversation (bring the text, please) basically any time you want.

Anyway, the point for today is that Sunday rest, worship, and Christian fellowship are so important it just keeps coming up and coming up century, after century, after century.  It’s like the Church just. won’t. shut-up. about it.

So let me tell you about my kid.

Woohoo! Gainful Employment!

I have this boy who can cook really well.  Just last night I came home with a tray of chicken, pointed him to the grill, and he caused there to be dinner an hour later.  So last summer we sent him out to find a job, and yes we all considered it providential when he got hired by the local sandwich shop.  A few weeks of doing dishes and then on to cooking and he’s never left the kitchen.  He’s still working there and everyone’s happy.

When he interviewed, he said up front that he had to have Sunday mornings off.  Non-negotiable.  Since this place gets most of its traffic on weekdays, the boss was good with that.  But the restaurant is open Sundays, and so he does get assigned his share of Sunday afternoon-evening shifts.

As a result, he misses out on a lot of the Sunday-afternoon Christian fellowship activities that happen in our area.  He can’t do Sunday afternoon youth group events, and he ends up leaving early to get to work if a friend hosts, say, a relaxing family get-together.  We have some Christian friends with a pile of kids who are getting trained now to cut the birthday cake by 3pm so Mr. Boy can sing, eat, and run.  Everyone else can stick around for hours of heavenly conversation and camaraderie, exactly like St. John Paul II writes about, but the boy gets to go to work.

How Do You Use Your Servants?

The reason he gets to go work is because other people want to eat.

People need to eat.  Every single day, even multiple times a day.  There are situations in which people have good reasons to need to hire someone to prepare food for them on a Sunday, and many more situations in which people have good reasons to want someone to prepare that food.

There are other services we likewise avail ourselves of on a Sunday, for various good reasons.  I do this.  You’re not the only one.

When we do this, it causes the people we hire to work for us to lose a bit of their Sunday.

This is an Evangelization Problem

There are people like my boy who aren’t under a ton of pressure.  Sunday is not a high-traffic day for his restaurant.  He is only working part-time, and if he were fired for not being available when the boss wanted him, he’d still have his parents at home gainfully employed.  He’s not supporting himself, let alone a family, on this job.

Other people aren’t so lucky.  If they are Catholic, they end up scrambling just to find an hour to run into Mass sometime during the weekend.  If they aren’t Catholic and you tried to invite them to join you for Mass, or RCIA, or that fun thing you do on Sundays, they’d chuckle-cough and say, “Yeah. Sure.  I’ll let you know when I get an opening.”

It is extremely difficult to evangelize someone who literally cannot go to church.

You Only Control a Slice of the Problem

There are parts of this problem that you can’t control.  Some services (medical, police) are non-negotiables.  Unless you’re in charge of the hospital or what have you, you don’t decide what the shifts will look like; unless you’re in charge of the parish, you don’t decide whether Mass times will line up with the local police and hospital and pharmacy shifts.

If that’s not your responsibility, it just isn’t.

Likewise, you probably don’t set restaurant hours.  You’re not the one who decided to keep the amusement park open until midnight and then re-open at 8AM.  To a certain extent, you can’t control whether the worker-bees get an opening for Mass or not.

But you do control a small slice.

When you make the decision to go out to lunch after Mass, you are making the decision that two or three people will report to work a couple hours before you arrive, and they’ll stay on a couple hours after you leave.  What does that do to their day?

File:Paris - A waitress making a Phone call - 4588.jpg

Photo: © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Presidential Candidates, Internet Life, and the Company You Keep

The latest on Donald Trump’s lewd exploits have unleashed a flurry of “all guys talk that way” defenses from desperate supporters.  When it was Bill Clinton extorting sexual favors from interns, we heard roughly the same thing.

All men are not like this.

While every one of us sins, there are differences in behavior among persons.  That’s why some people can be trusted to watch your children, or your money, or your new car, and other people cannot be.

As voters, it is our job to be discerning.  The right sinner for the job is the order of the day, as I discussed on a different but related question of fallen men and women in positions of authority.

Here is a related fact: Not everyone on the internet is a pompous boor.  I have a fairly active presence on Facebook, and my friends list runs the gamut politically, religiously, and socially.  I have friends who, in this election, are posting strong political opinions that also happen to be terribly, terribly wrong.  (They feel the same way about me.)

I have friends on the internet who promote the products they sell to make cash on the side.  I have friends on the internet who post endless pictures of their crafts or their kids or their favorite inspiring-quote-du-jour.

None of these people are narcissists.  None of them are bent on stirring up drama.  All those horrible things you hear about, and perhaps experience, in social media relationships?  Not happening among my friends.

Another related fact: This doesn’t happen among my real-life friends either.

It isn’t because I live in some special protected bubble.  It isn’t because fairies and unicorns circle around me every day, keeping out the criminals and crazy people.  Real world nasty situations find me just the same as they find anyone else.

And yet I and other men and women I know manage, all the same, to avoid surrounding ourselves with toxic, dangerous people as a matter of course.

What’s the secret?

Refuse to cooperate.

That means you can’t be so concerned about your career that you’ll tolerate the lewdness of a Bill Clinton or a Donald Trump because you desperately hunger for the glamour or the promotion that comes with it.  When someone behaves badly towards you, that’s on them.  Your virtue will not deter someone determined to violate you.  But when you realize someone is a dangerous person, you can make choices about how to respond.

You can choose to resist and to avoid.  You can choose to cultivate an awareness of warning signs so that you are less likely (not guaranteed — just less likely) to be preyed upon in the future.

You can choose not to be friends on social media with that toxic drama queen.  When some guy thinks he’s got a right to grab your genitals?  You can show him what knees are for, thanks.

Yes, I said that.

I didn’t just say it, I’ve done it.  I don’t tell a lot of personal stories, but here’s one: I was staying with another family as a teenager, and the teenage son, same age as me, got the idea that he should to come to my bedroom and inform me he’d arrived for intercourse.  The tone was a little difficult to read — was he joking? He claimed afterwards he was.   But the words were not difficult to understand at all, rather unequivocal, so I kneed him in the groin.

(The fact that he was close enough to be on the receiving end of that response tells you a little more.  I didn’t have to disturb myself and cross the room to carry out the counter-offensive.)

He proceeded to get upset at me for doing that, and to inform me that I needed to be more careful, as such behavior on my part could cause serious injury.

Well, darling, that behavior on your part is what got you injured.

Another word was never said.  I’m sure I immediately garnered the reputation among our mutual friends as the resident prude.  I also never had another untoward advance during the time I was staying with that family.  Guess what?  My reputation was deserved and earned.  Call it prudery or call it clear communication, do not present yourself in my bedroom even jokingly soliciting sexual favors.

Nothing I did brought on that advance.

Whatever caused that young man to think he could get away with that behavior, it wasn’t me.  Not every intern who’s been groped by a Clinton or Trump was “asking for it.”  People who want to get away with deviant behavior aren’t sitting around wringing their hands waiting for an invitation.  You cannot control the fact that there are people like Trump out there in this world.

You can control whether you tolerate their behavior.

Your options may vary, but you can choose to use the ones you have.

There’s not always a quick, easy way to stop an aggressor.

You have to assess the situation and do the best you can.

But among your limited options, choose to resist in whatever way you can.

Don’t settle for excuses.

People who make themselves lists of the reasons they need to tolerate bad behavior are people who invite continued bad behavior.  Don’t act so shocked you’re surrounded by evil when you keep choosing to surround yourself with evil.

You do not have to cooperate with the people who want you to put a crude, immoral, inept candidate into office.

If your state’s ballot includes third party candidates, vote third party.  If there is no moral choice on the ballot, write-in a moral choice.

As a last resort, if your state offers neither of those options, protest by going to the polls and participating in all the elections that have moral options, and abstaining only from those races where there is no moral choice.  Follow-up by publicly voicing your opposition to the slate of candidates and pointing to the better options.

There Exist Decent People in the World

There are men who treat women decently.  There are women who stand up for the lives and rights of all women, even the very young ones. There are politicians who follow the law in all matters, and do their best to act in the interest of the public good.  There are principled men and women who would go into politics, or go farther into politics, if they knew they were wanted.

There are even unprincipled people who would back any likely winner, and so if they knew that what it took to win the power game was an honest candidate, they’d back an honest candidate.

Stop shutting up and putting up.  This year and every year, refuse to be screwed.

 

File:Stamp US 1977 2-cents Americana.jpg "Freedom to Speak Out - A Root of Democracy"

Image courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

 

Physician Assisted PTSD – When Bad Medicine is Disguised in a Mental Health Diagnosis

Rebecca Frech wrote last year about her doctor-induced case of PTSD:

And in that moment, I can tell by her face that no one has updated the chart. It still says Conversion on the line for diagnosis. Nobody has put in the test results and new diagnosis from last October. I can see it as plainly as I can see that her eyes are brown. We’re still suspect, and this still isn’t over.

This week she updated with the news of the definitive diagnosis for the medical reasons behind her daughter’s paralysis.  It would be easy to think that Ella Frech’s case is an anomaly.  We might think that it’s unusual for a serious medical condition to be dismissed as a pscyhological disorder.

It isn’t.  It is woefully common, and there’s a reason for it.

The Diagnosis that Doesn’t Discriminate

It isn’t only Acute Motor Axonal Neuropathy that gets the nutcase treatment.

Stephen Gaudet writes here about being accused of faking his severe asthma:

Feeling proud about what I had accomplished through daily exercise, I shared my marathon story with one of the intern doctors who was assigned to me. Rather than congratulating me, he basically accused me of faking my asthma. His words were ” There’s no way you could’ve walked a marathon if you have severe asthma.” I found out later that in my chart he actually wrote, “patient presents with factitious asthma, claims he walked a marathon“. That probably explains why some of the nurses were treating me so strange during the hospitalization. A rumor had spread that my asthma was very mild and probably psychosomatic in nature. I remember some of the medical staff trying to convince me that my breathing difficulties were all in my head and that I had some kind of generalized anxiety disorder. Are you freaking kidding me! And even scarier, this happened at a well respected teaching hospital.

That incident caused me a lot of grief and took over 3 years with lots of letter writing by my pulmonologists to have that false information removed from my medical record. The reality is that these are the kinds of screwy preconceived generalizations that people have about the way sick people should look and behave. And if I want to be completely honest here, there have been times when I’ve guilty of the same.

For background: Gaudet is a respiratory therapist who is treated by one of the top pulmonologists in the nation.

Here’s Dr. Michelle Roger, a neuropsychologist, writing about the mental health misdiagnoses of patients with dysautonomia:

Just about every Dysautonomia patient with whom I’ve spoken over the last few years has, at one time or another, been told that the symptoms they were experiencing were all in their head. Diagnoses such as Anxiety disorders, Depression, Conversion or Somatoform disorders, and even Bipolar disorder are haphazardly applied to patients when no clear aetiology can be discovered to explain their symptoms. Normal reactions to abnormal situations, and purely medical/physiological symptoms are over-pathologised or misdiagnosed with alarming regularity, and to the detriment of the patient.

When unfounded these diagnoses leave a mark on the patient, a wound which if left untended will follow and influence all future relationships with the medical professionals. It also leaves a glaring mark on medical records that will be incorporated into future investigations and the overall diagnostic process. Even when unsubstantiated or proven to be untrue following psychological assessment, it can prove extremely difficult to remove such diagnoses from a patient’s medical file.

Here’s a summary of Dr. Alex Flore’s presentation on the problem of mitochondrial disease being misdiagnosed as Munchausen syndrome by proxy:

It is possible that what may be interpreted as “red flags” of Munchausen’s may alternatively  be attributed to the demands and anxiety related to care of a very sick child.  For example, anxious parents may not give a good history, or may “doctor shop” because they are unsatisfied and may be unhappy with the care their child is getting, especially when they feel that no one can actually diagnose, treat or understand the problem.  Certain conditions, especially mitochondrial disease, will present with intermittent symptoms, and it will take a skilled and patient clinician to arrive at the right diagnosis – one that is an illness not Munchausen’s by proxy.

Psychologists have described that the population of patients and parents of children with Mitochondrial Disease are much more vulnerable to a false Munchausen’s by proxy accusation simply due to the nature of the disease.  In fact, a hallmark characteristic of mitochondrial disease is the presentation of several unrelated symptoms that together, “don’t make sense”.  Clinicians who feel that a parent is intentionally making symptoms appear, is behaving to insure that the illness continues, and consults multiple physicians may suspect Munchausen’s – but should still “trust, then verify.” In other words, believe the parents, run appropriate diagnostic tests, seek the input of every part of the child’s team, and take very seriously the responsibility to the child to act as an advocate and do no harm.

Non-psychiatric misdiagnoses happen, too, of course.  It is frustrating when a physician (or team of physcians) flubs a diagnosis through honest error — we humans aren’t ominiscient, so it’s bound to happen.  It’s galling when the misdiagnosis involves dismissing serious serious symptoms as some much more benign illness that doesn’t fit with the case history.  But pushing off a poorly-substantiated mental health label on a patient with an atypical presentation is both physically and emotionally harmful to the patient.

Unfortunately, this dangerous habit is actually enshrined in medical practice.

I Guess You’re Just Nuts, Then?

Many misdiagnoses are just idiocy.  Some popular lazy-diagnoses include fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety disorders.  All of these disorders have specific criteria you can use to evaluate yourself (or your patient) and see if they apply.  It’s almost helpful when a physician throws out with confidence, “I think it’s probably just ________” and inserts some illness utterly outside his or her specialty, and which a quick Google search would immediately rule out. Then you know you have a stupid doctor, done.  It’s wearying, and can put you off the medical profession for a while, but it’s possible to come to a definitive conclusion one way or another.

There’s at least one mental health diagnosis, however, that can’t be ruled out by logic and good medicine.

Conversion Disorder, which is what Ella Frech was persistently misdiagnosed with (despite presenting with symptoms of a known side effect of one of the medications she was taking), is where modern medical practice bares its hubris.

Here’s the Mayo Clinic describing how Conversion Disorder is diagnosed:

There are no standard tests to check for conversion disorder. The tests will depend on what kind of signs and symptoms you have — the main purpose is to rule out any medical or neurological disease.

In other words, and you can read the whole page and see for yourself, if you’re definitely sick but no one can figure out why, then conversion disorder.

That’s it.

Dr. Allen Frances writes at Psychology Today about the failed effort to get the DSM to attempt even a modest stab at valid diagnostic criteria above and beyond heck if we know:

Many of you would argue that I didn’t go nearly far enough- that there should be no ‘Somatic Symptom Disorder’ at all in DSM 5 because there is no substantial body of evidence to support either its reliability or its validity.

. . . I am sympathetic to this view, but realized that it would have no traction with the work group and chose instead to lobby for what seemed to be clearly essential and relatively easy changes that would solve most, if not all, of the problem.

. . . My letter cautioned DSM 5 that it was invading dangerous territory. Here was my warning to the DSM 5 work group:

• ‘Clearly you have paid close attention only to the need to reduce false negatives, but have not protected sufficiently against the serious problem of creating false positives. You are not alone in this blind spot—in my experience, inattention to false positive risk is an endemic problem for all experts in any field. But your prior oversight needs urgent correction before you go to press with a criteria set that is so unbalanced that it will cause grave harms.’

• ‘When psychiatric problems are misdiagnosed in the medically ill, the patients are stigmatized as ‘crocks’ and the possible underlying medical causes of their problems are much more likely to be missed.’

• ‘Continuing with your current loose wording will be bad for the patients who are mislabeled and will also be extremely harmful to DSM 5, to APA, and to your own professional reputations.’

I also raised the point that this could lead to a boycott of DSM 5. Pretty strong stuff, I thought. But totally ineffective.

Somatic Symptom Disorder (which is the umbrella term in the current terminology under which Conversion Disorder falls) is thus a particularly hazardous diagnosis because it has no symptoms of its own.

It is literally a disorder whose defining symptom is, “We the physicians don’t know what you have.  Therefore, it must be psychological.”  This is an awkward assertion for a profession that has evolved more in the past century than any other field of human endeavor.  The developments in medical research just in the past twenty years are astonishing and marvelous.  My children’s high school biology textbooks are utterly different than mine, because the depth and scope of our knowledge about human cells and the chemistry of the human body is orders of magnitude past what we knew a generation ago.

It seems, therefore, ludicrous that any sane person could hold that our knowledge of medicine is now perfectly complete.  But this is the implicit assertion of somatic symptom disorders.

***

I sometimes joke that idiopathic means that you and your doctor both agree the other person is an idiot.  But really it just means we don’t know.  That happens.  Humans aren’t all-knowing.   What is the sane response to ignorance?  It isn’t to fabricate some fanciful explanation to cover over your lapse.  The sane response is to humbly admit, “I’m sorry I don’t know.”  And, where the stakes are high, the sane person adds, “And we should keep investigating until we get a solid answer.”

File:Cartoon; the nervous system. Wellcome L0004861.jpg

Illustration contains a bit of humor in the fine print, [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.