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.

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.

Racism and Parish Closings

Allow me to connect some dots: If your diocese is currently shutting down parishes, it is possible those closings are the result of many decades of racism.

Why do I propose this idea?

I say it because I see parishes closing in communities where people still live.  Look around your local closing or struggling parish.  Is the neighborhood devoid of occupants . . . or is it that the people living in your parish now aren’t the “same type” as the ones who founded your parish or who enlivened it a generation or two earlier?

I can attest this is not the only cause of parish closings. We see parishes closing or struggling in communities around the world where no major demographic change has taken place other than a persistent secularizing of the wider culture.  There can be multiple factors at play.  Simple busyness and exhaustion are often the reason we don’t evangelize.

But.  If you live in a place where your local parish does not look like the people who live in the community surrounding your parish, ask yourself: Why?

What are the obstacles keeping us from evangelizing our own neighborhoods?

Is it possible that some kind of social bias is causing us to say, “Those people wouldn’t be interested,” or “Those people are too difficult to reach,” or “Those people wouldn’t be comfortable here.”

Even if your diocese is booming — especially if it is booming — your parish may be overlooking neighbors who have just as much a need and right to hear the Gospel and worship Jesus Christ in your parish church.  What can you do to invite them in?

 Father Joseph Harris, left, a Roman Catholic priest in Trinidad and Tobago, celebrates mass with Lt. Cmdr. Paul Evers

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, public domain, click through for more details.

The Conversation You Truly Never Expect to Have with Your Child

I like to think of myself as a parent who is well-informed on the hazards that face teens and young adults.  You do what you can, hope for the best, and understand that sometimes your child’s free will is going to force an uncomfortable confrontation.  Still, I genuinely never so much as imagined, not even remotely, the conversation my husband and I had to have with our 19-year-old this morning.

He told us what he was planning to do.

We gave him our reasons for why that behavior was no longer acceptable in our home.  We observed that his decision affected the safety and well-being of not just himself but his sisters, his parents, his friends, and who knows how many others.  I suggested some readily-available, reliable, neutral, third-party, expert sources he could use for making an informed decision about his plan of action.

And then my husband summed it up: “Son, I’m sure your friends are fine people.  We respect that you are an adult, and you’re free to make your own decisions.  But if you insist on going to Bible study tonight, you’re going to have to find other living arrangements.”

Whoa.  Ha. #CoronaLife.

Never thought I’d hear those words.

I quick gave Mr. Boy a long list of alternatives that would allow him to continue hanging with his FOCUS buddies and maintain physical-distance too. I encouraged him with the hope that the US will quickly act to bring about a turning point in our present handling of the pandemic (via expanded testing, ramping up manufacture of protective equipment, etc.) such that we can become more targeted in our isolation practices.

But, at the moment, living amidst an unchecked outbreak, grateful our local hospitals are taking swift action to mitigate the situation, but also knowing that our go-to physician has not a single N-95 mask in her office? We need to be more careful than, on the face of it, one would assume the situation warrants.

That said, if we get to the point where his Bible study friends are Prepare Your Church for COVID compliant, we can talk.  Except of course we have a mild cough going around our house.  So home it is.

***

My coffee cup siting on a step ladder

Photo penance: I’ve upgraded my office-in-exile with an open step ladder squeezed between the water heater and the spare fridge to create a place to set my coffee while praying.  Yes, I am a chemically-dependent pray-er. Sorry to dash all your illusions about my piety.  Here, enjoy this charming video of a stubborn Italian man going out for coffee.

 

Give Your Bishop Benefit of the Doubt

The amount of vitriol directed towards bishops making coronavirus decisions is . . . telling.

I say this as someone who is not, at all, hesitant to call out egregious behavior at any level of the hierarchy.  I have spent enough time inside the sausage-making factory to know very well that there are serious, serious problems in the Catholic Church.  Your bishop having to make difficult decisions under immense time pressure with very little information?  Not the same thing.

If it’s not even your own bishop you’re sending the nastygrams to?  Oh please.  Who died and made you an expert on someone else’s diocese?

***

Let’s try an exercise in Benefit of the Doubt 101.  To recap, from the CCC:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

Now for our practice exercise, here are the extensive restrictions Bishop Guglielmone announced for the Diocese of Charleston on Sunday:

. . . I am granting dispensation for your Sunday Mass obligation for the weekends of March 21-22 and March 27-28. Additionally, all scheduled Confessions are cancelled. Any baptisms planned in the next sixteen days should be rescheduled. All quinceañeras must be canceled or rescheduled. Confirmations will be rescheduled according to each parish’s calendar. Funerals and weddings may occur but will be celebrated privately with just the immediate family present. Unfortunately, perpetual adoration will have to be temporarily discontinued. There will be no regularly scheduled parish activities until further notice. All scheduled penance services are cancelled, and there will be no Communion calls at hospitals, nursing homes, or private homes until further notice.

The sole exception to this policy is the celebration of the final sacraments for those in danger of death. If you need a priest for the Anointing of the Sick or Last Rites, your pastor will provide a number you can call.

Parish churches will remain open during their normal hours so that you can come to pray.

Whoa!  Obviously he hates Jesus, right?  Not so fast.

We cannot, of course, know the inner thoughts of the bishop.  Experience tells us that even our own motivations are often difficult to fully understand. The exercise of using our imaginations to guess at a  favorable reason behind the bishop’s decision does not cause Instant Saintliness to descend upon the man.  But it is good for our souls to carry out this exercise, so let’s do it.  I’m gonna lay out my answer to the practice problem, but this is one of those open-ended essay questions that allows for multiple possible correct responses.

***

I observe that just this week, Bishop Guglielmone laid to rest a still-young priest. If ever there were an incident to make you keenly aware of the precariousness of life and the immeasurable value of a priest’s ministry, that was it.

Next I observe that at this writing, at least ten priests in Italy have died of COVID-19. Many more are infected, and note that survival of a serious case often entails long recovery and debilitating loss of lung function, at least temporarily. We have no information about the long term effects of infection.

Finally I observe that the priests of the Diocese of the Charleston are not known for their retiring manner or unwillingness to minister to the people.  Short of an unequivocal, clearly-defined order, there is just no locking these guys up for safekeeping.  You think your boomer parents are hard-headed? Smart money says that as we speak, countless stubborn old men across the diocese are fuming at being put on a leash by their bishop, convinced that having survived war / cholera / parish council, hell no they aren’t going to back down now.

And yet we know that statistically speaking, we can expect that COVID-19 is going to claim its share of priests.  If you wish to contemplate the role of faith in such outcomes, study the lives of the many saints who perished nobly while ministering to the sick.  The question, then, is not whether we will lose many priests to this epidemic, but rather how.

Now let us review some facts from your fifth grade catechism class:

  • Any person (Catholic or not) can baptize validly, and in an emergency can baptize licitly.  Furthermore, baptism of desire is effective for salvation. Therefore, if you must choose where to kill your priests, this is not the best place.
  • Marriage is probably not the best hill to die on (and you can have your wedding if you’re okay with a small service), and priests cannot ordain so that’s a moot point. Confirmation would be worth considering, and here I’ll insert my rant that I wish all bishops would get more on the stick about the value of confirmation.  Okay, end rant, let’s move on.
  • Confession is a tough one.  There are workarounds, like the drive-through method.   Ask your bishops, charitably, to please consider figuring out ways to safely administer general absolution.  Still, perfect contrition does suffice.  For the moment we will charitably assume that having suspended the sacrament of Reconciliation, the bishop is working diligently on good tactics in view of reinstating it in a priest-protecting manner.  But, remember: Perfect contrition suffices.  Cultivate in your heart a more fervent love of God.
  • Last Rites, in contrast, cannot be delayed (as with Matrimony, Confirmation, or the Eucharist), it cannot be carried out by laymen (as with baptism), there are no substitutes available (as with perfect contrition in place of Confession), and its effects are soul-saving.

My conclusion:

It is horrifying to have to be making these sorts of spiritual-triage decisions, just as it is horrifying for a doctor to have to decide which patients to treat and not to treat.  And yet, your priest can only catch the virus once and then it’s caught.

The bishop’s decision that his men will be deployed to go straight to the most dangerous field of ministry, encountering those who are actively sick, and who are to be ministered to in environments where contagion is rife, suggests that cowardice is not, at all, a factor here.

Pray for your priests, pray for your bishop, and knock it off with the rash judgement.

File:Extreme Unction LACMA AC1994.171.5.jpg

Artwork: Extreme Unction, etching of a priest visiting a deathbed while the family prays, Italy circa 1755, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Pro-Tip: My kids talked me onto Spotify this winter, and on my way to the most recent parish council* meeting, this bit of colorful music was playing as I prayed for myself and for our priests:

I can report that internalizing the refrain “Don’t Murder Me” was highly effective.  I had resolved to speak at least three peaceful sentences before devolving into yelling at my pastor, and get this: I made it all the way to the end of the night!  And then I yelled.  But not in front of everyone? So that was better?  Maybe?

*Note well: The very moment my pastor asked me to volunteer for the council, I instructed him to kick me off as soon as he got sick of me, no hard feelings, this is what it’s like to have me in your parish. So either he likes having a contrarian in the group or he’s taken on one of those masochist St. Rose of Lima  penances and now secretly wishes he had vowed to roll in nettles every night instead.  I dunno.  Pray for your priests.

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.

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau The Virgin With Angels.jpg

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

7QT: Hoppy Lent

#1 It’s Friday, so double the penance.  Over at the Blorg I’m writing about the economic fallout of quarantine and what that means for the ordinary Catholic. Includes a photo of me and my red dinosaur plush toy.  I’m really getting into the penitential mood.

#2 It turns out I was wrong yesterday.  A week and some ago I wrote “5 Ways to Stay Sane During Lent” now up the Register.  Which includes the lines the Internet is not your spiritual director. But when I quoted it yesterday, I’d forgotten I’d written it, but remembered I saw it on Twitter spoken by someone else.  So that’s interesting.  Apparently I am not the only person getting tired of the annual scolding about how everybody’s doing Lent wrong.

#3 Advance praise for the book!  From a reader who shall remain anonymous, but FYI this a person who was forced to read the book, did not choose to read the book, and who admits to being rather worn out on the whole topic of evangelization:

This left me going “Hey, that thing over there – I could maybe do that.” So, kudos. You got me to actually like a book on evangelization.

Didn’t see that coming.  Woohoo!  It really is a good book, and in very good news, I’m done with major edits, unless on my final read-through this weekend I find something I desperately want to change.  So prayers, please, that if there is something that needs to be fixed I find it?  Yes?  Because this is a very broad-audience book, and y’all know just how ornery I can be, when I’m let loose with my words and things.

#4 I’ll just get ornery right now.  Read today about an American bishop who’s mandated communion in the hand. He’d like people to maybe quit holding and shaking hands during Mass, but he’s not going to insist, so I guess its up to people in the pews to withstand the glares if they decline to shake hands right before, you know, eating with their hands. Yikes.

So anyway, here’s what happened to me this week: I popped into daily Mass Thursday, and the Mass I attended draws a fairly traditionalist crowd.  Majority in attendance receive on the tongue habitually.  Father announced that he was going to distribute the sacred host only, no chalice, on account of infection risk.  No announcement about how one may or may not receive.

When I went up to receive, sure enough, Father’s perfectly capable of giving communion on the tongue without any contact between his hand and the recipient’s body.

It’s a skill, it’s a skill that can be learned, and sadly it’s not a skill I’ve ever observed practiced among people distributing hand-to-hand.

Thus for the moment, if you have significant reasons to be concerned about catching something, your only safe bet is to only visit ministers of the Eucharist who don’t touch people’s hands or mouths (or other body parts) when they distribute communion, and who also are particular about washing their hands thoroughly before Mass and not touching germy surfaces from there on out.

I’d like to see some parishes get serious about making that happen.

I’d very like to see some dioceses get serious about putting together a plan to protect our priests from highly contagious viruses that disproportionately kill older men and especially older men with various underlying health conditions that are extremely common in the USA, while still allowing those men to carry out their God-given vocations.

#5 Back to gratitude.  Earlier this month I was one of the moderators for the Catholic Quiz Bowl of South Carolina.  It was a ton of fun and I was thrilled to be able to do it, and considered the free lunch that came with to be all the more thanks required.  Still, the organizers not only arranged to have a Mass said in honor of each individual volunteer moderator’s intentions, they also had gift bags for us!

Mine contained this beautiful rosary, one of many prizes donated by The Catholic Company:

Blue and silver rosary with Sacred Heart medal. Blue and silver rosary with mother-and-Child medal

Which was what I’ve needed, though I didn’t realize it until I got home.

#6 The reason I need it is because ever since the death of my previous prayer partner, Rosary Dog, I’ve been struggling with getting my rosary prayed, or too often and too consistently just neglecting to pray it. So a shiny new beautiful thing half-enticed and half-guilted me into getting my act together.

It’s sorta working?

So tonight the sun was getting low in the sky and I had a chance to get out for a quick walk after supper, and grabbed that rosary and hit the road, but I woke up with a bit of a cough today and was ready to give up halfway through the Crowning with Thorns.  I know!

But then I got back to the yard and decided I’d just wander a little and maybe persevere.  I picked at a few weeds coming up in the mint, and before I knew it I’d prayed all the things and also gotten a nice fistful of greens for a rabbit I know.

Me with Miffy, a white Jersey Woolie rabbit

Photo: Me and Miffy, my new prayer-assistant.  Once you have a rabbit, your yard never looks the same again.

And that’s why I can write books on evangelization for people who hate evangelization, and I can write diatribes on shut up already and leave people alone to enjoy their Lent in peace, because I am a person whose prayer life depends largely on the presence of pets.

#7 All you holy men and women?  Pray for us.

***

Guys, I’m thrilled to be back on Seven Quick Takes, however inconsistently, because joining in reminds me to go look, and when I go look I find all kinds of good reading.  There are some super links posted this week.  Check them out.

Lenten Metaphors for Non-Gardeners

So there’s this image circulating in my diocese, which I will not publish lest I propagate weeds, that shows a seedling and a Ven. Fulton Sheen quote. It’s not a bad quote.  Here’s the latter part of it, which does not accompany the seedling:

A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.

Absolutely true.  And with that conclusion attached, the beginning makes perfect sense:

We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue, a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative.

The trouble is that if you have just the beginning portion, and also you garden, the incomplete quote is nonsense.

You have to weed.  You have to prune.  Sometimes you have to irrigate, sometimes you have to anti-irrigate. You have to mulch, and you have to rake away would-be mulch that harbors disease.  You have to select the right plants for the right micro-climate, and sometimes that means moving a plant to a better location.  Sometimes you need to thin out plants that have grown in too densely, and other times you allow a plant to fill in copiously so that it suppresses weeds.

Sometimes you want to have annuals growing in that enormous planter by the front door, but the cat keeps sleeping in the dirt and rolling on your flowers, so you have to find a little flower pot to put inside the big flower pot, so that you can have your cat and your flowers too.  Definitely a metaphor for the spiritual life, because the cats aren’t going away any time soon.

Lent means spring, and in spring we do all these things, and also we worry about cold snaps getting the plum blossoms, so . . . probably that is the only applicable Lenten metaphor that stands on its own: Quit worrying about your plums, there’s nothing you can do and anyway they always get some nasty rot in June if you do get fruit, so why do you even bother? — Attributed to St. Francis, St. Augustine, and of course Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ven. Fulton Sheen is absolutely right, the goal of weeding is so that your garden can flourish.  The goal is not to create sterile ground, free of all life.  So make sure your Lenten weeding, if that’s what your soul needs this year, is ordered towards cultivating your love of God.

The feel-good abridged version? Makes one sound like one of those ignorant types who imagines farming unskilled labor.  It is not.

Obviously you need to plant the good seed of faith or else your weeding is to no purpose.  Obviously you need to be careful in your weeding so you don’t uproot your fragile faith.

And here’s an advanced gardening tip: With enough years experience, you can start making educated decisions about what weeding to prioritize, because you understand better which weeds propagate when and how, which are most likely to cause serious problems, what times of year (or weather-week) each are easiest to root out, and which plants that seemed like weeds will actually help your garden flourish.

Thus we get to the moral of today’s rant:  If you can tell a weed of vice from the seedling of faith you are trying to cultivate, feel free to root out the vice this Lent if you so discern.

Up to you.  It’s your Lent.  To quote GK Chesterton some smart person on Catholic Twitter (not me): The Internet is not your spiritual director.

Me holding a vase with mint rooting in it.

Photo: Continuing with our photo-penance at least one more day, here’s me holding a vase with mint in it.  I was weeding the mint bed and accidentally pulled up this cutting, so I stuck it in water and let it root, and soon I’ll put it in the ground.  “Soon.”

Meanwhile, here is your deep spiritual metaphor from the garden for today: If you root mint or basil or any other easily-rooted plant on your kitchen windowsill in the summer, every few days you need to dump the glass jar, rinse it out, and thoroughly rinse the roots of the plants as well.  Otherwise you’ll have mosquitoes.*

You have to rinse even the plant roots because the mosquito larvae will stick to them.  And that is a perfect metaphor for __[fill in the blank] __.  I’m sure you can think of something. Probably related to Pentecost.  Since it’s a summer** metaphor.

 

*Unless you live someplace without mosquitoes.  If that’s you, kindly give up gloating for Lent.  We don’t want to hear about your magical land.  I bet your plums don’t rot either.  Hush.

*By “summer” we mean “when the mosquitos are.”

In Which I Offer the Reader So, So Much Penance

#1 Melanie Bettinelli’s aiming for a blog post a day during Lent, and I think I’m in.  Just as a goal, not as a penance.  I’m happier if I’m blogging.  So that’s like a good deed for my family?  Or something? We’ll see.

#2 I’m stalking my spot at the Register waiting for my rant about Lenten penances to show up.  Sooner or later it’s supposed to get there.  Meanwhile, here’s bonus content: There’s a nasty bit of contagion going around today about how the USCCB’s guidance for fasting isn’t really fasting, get it together you wimps.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the shocking world of people who can’t gain weight.  It’s a thing.  It’s an annoying thing, if you happen to be a person who is perfectly capable of storing away all kinds of emergency fuel reserves, and you must grocery shop and cook for the people whose bodies don’t do that.

I don’t have any particular difficulty fasting.  I dislike it.  I’d rather be eating.  But sure enough, unless I’m sick or pregnant or something, my body does a great job of saving up fat for future usage, and carefully doling out a ration of that stored energy if I happen to be not eating.

Not everyone’s body does that.  I live with people who have to plan, for serious, in order to get through a day doing the two little meals and the one normal meal, and yes they totally depend on the part about being able to have a glass of milk in between times.  It’s not about diet.  It’s about having a body that is wonderfully adapted to our world of abundance (unlike mine, which keeps insisting there could be a famine any minute, better stock up!), and very poorly adapted to fluctuations in food supply.

And get this: We have a priest shortage.  Thus the Church in her wisdom, rather than setting a bar ideal for the robust among us and directing those who need to do so to bother Father about a dispensation, has instead made it acheivable to do the minimum.

If you are able to do more than the minimum, I sure hope that’s what you’re doing today.  I also hope you’ve contrived to make sure it’s not so obvious what you’re up to.

#3 I used to be bothered by today’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells us to keep our fasting and prayers a secret, and then there we go getting ashes on our heads two minutes after. I’m over that now.

Jen Fitz, Self Portrait with Ashes on Forehead

Photo: Me with a sample of Fr. Gonzo’s latest artwork.

There’s two reasons why. The first is that the warning is about prayer and fasting, and listen guys, just because my body is in Mass doesn’t mean I’m praying, so that’s a big fat secret, and anyway how do you know I’m not spending the day having two ice cream bars and a giant plate of lasagna?  You don’t.  So I’m good.

Meanwhile . . . the thing about the ashes is that they aren’t a sign of holiness.  I’m sorry if someone got you all confused about that.  The annual application of ashes is like putting on a blanket apology to the world.  Yeah, I suck.  I know it.  Probably don’t know it enough, but I’m at least making a nod that direction?

So FYI, anyone at all can go get ashes.  If you’re wretched and you know it, Catholic Church has you covered.

#4 I’m thinking maybe I should post a selfie a day for Lent.  As penance for us all?

Ha.  Can’t decide if I’m kidding or not.

#5 Since I am no St. Therese, allow me to complain about church music for a bit.  There are two tunes that I have grown possessive about, in a case of sacredness-by-association.  Picardy, the setting for “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” is the first.  Once you’ve created a link between a catchy, soulful tune and a description of the absolutely most intimate moment between creature and Creator this side of Heaven, I just can’t bear to hear the tune co-opted for other, not-so-exalted topics.  Even if the lyrics in question are otherwise unobjectionable (and sometimes they are not, but there are limits to how much I’m willing to make you suffer today), that’s a no.

The other one, and this is where we get all Lenten, is Passion Chorale.  Please.  People.  I know that it’s not Good Friday yet.  I know that you have composed many lovely meditations on Lenten spirituality that have the same meter.  I get that you are trying to make a mental connection on this path to the cross or something.  You are wrong.  Wrong! Stop it!  Give me “Oh Sacred Head Surrounded” or give me silence.  Or a different tune, same meter, that’ll be fine.  There’s nothing wrong with your little Lenty-chit-chat dog ear poetry. But hands off Passion Chorale.  It’s taken.

#6 My husband wishes I would show up at church this evening to hear a rendition of this absolutely awesome music:

But here is the truth about me. This other little chant, which the cantor sung at Mass earlier today, was like getting a late Valentine:

One of my favorite songs.  I only know the chorus, and every year I mean to fix that, and maybe one day I will.  But it sure was easy to keep my Lenten smiley face up, just like Jesus says, with that for our ash-walk music.

Life is good.

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.