What It Takes Not to Be a Nazi

Fourth of July a fellow on a bicycle saw me photographing the parish war memorial in Sigolsheim.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him the US, and he proceeded to thank me for coming.  Periodically throughout the conversation he thanked me again, and before leaving he repeated merci about seven times.  There was a reason for that, which I’ll get to.

A typical way of inscribing a war memorial in France is to write Mort Pour La France, but in Alsace that’s not usually the case, for the obvious reason.  A Nos Morts is the common alternative that glosses over the whole question of whom you died for, and gets to the point: You died.  Here’s the memorial outside the parish church in Uffholtz, A Ses Enfants Victime de Guerre:

Uffhotz War Memorial

Here’s Sigolsheim, in two parts.  You’ll notice WWII was disproportionately bloodier than WWI for Sigolsheim, including a significant number of civilian deaths:

Sigholsheim War Memorial 1

Sigolsheim War Memorial 2

That’s because the Nazis dug in and held hard, and a giant set of battles were held in the village itself, which you can read about in extensive detail here.  When German empires decide to assert themselves, annexing Alsace is the default method.  (And why not throw in Lorraine while you’re at it?)   This is the reason that headquartering European postwar peace initiatives in Strasbourg is so symbolically important.

Persuading the Third Reich to retreat from Alsace was bloody-difficult, and American soldiers played a major part in that work, which is half the reason the fellow on the bicycle was so profuse in his thanks for my coming to visit and taking an interest in the local history.

Here’s the village of Kayserberg’s thank-you plaque:

Kaysersberg Allies LIberation Memorial

The American flag flies above Sigolsheim at this war memorial:

US War Memorial Sigolsheim

Everything in red on this map of the the Allies’ Alsatian offensive is American forces:

Map of the Allied Offensive to Retake Alsace

American soldiers aren’t buried at the Sigolsheim memorial (there are American war cemeteries elsewhere).  There is a cemetery, though, for the French forces killed in battle in the immediate vicinity:

French war cemetery Sigolsheim

You’ll notice in the picture above that most of the graves are crosses, and a few are not.  Here’s a detail of the rounded-rectangle gravestone in the bottom right:
Detail of Jewish headstone

It would obviously not be kosher (pun intended) to use a cross to mark the grave of a Jewish soldier.   It is not only American and native-born French soldiers, however, who were instrumental in liberating Alsace.   The Zouave soldiers buried at the Sigolsheim war cemetery have grave markers like this:

Detail of Muslim headstone

In other words, if you’re grateful France is free, don’t just thank an American — thank a Muslim.  Ah, but how much did those Muslim soldiers contribute?  About like this:

As the video shows, the cemetery is built on a hill in a half-circle, and the graves are laid out in four equal sections.  The two flanking sections are Muslim graves, and the center two sections are mixed Christian and Jewish graves.  History is complicated.

Whether the fellow on the bicycle would have thanked me so profusely if I were a North African tourist I couldn’t say.  I’m not one.  What we do get mistaken for in Alsace is German tourists.  We look the part and come by it honestly, if distantly.  German tourists come up and ask us directions, in German, which doesn’t get them very far.  Locals either attempt to speak German with us or else apologize that they have no German (neither do we — how about French?).

So here are a couple of my cute German kids walking towards the gate out of the KL-Natzweiler Concentration Camp, up near the village of Struthof in the Vosges mountains:

Walking towards the gate - KL-Natzweiler (Struthof) concentration camp

People who didn’t walk out might have died here in the cell block:

Cell block, Natzweiler-Struthof

At which point they would have been incinerated in this crematorium:
Crematorium Natzweiler - Struthof

When we talk about concentration camps and the evil of the Nazi regime, the usual thing is to tell kids, “If you were Jewish . . .”

Struthof, as KL-Natzweiler is often called locally, is different, in that it was chiefly used not for eugenic purposes but for those who resisted the Nazi regime.  Thus more to the point for our nice German boy in the photo above: Let’s talk about the draft.

His great-grandfathers were all about his age (17) at the start of World War II.  They had the luxury of being second- or third- or more-generation Americans, and they all volunteered and served in the War for the US.  It was not a difficult decision.  They were the age your brother is now, I told the girls.

Had he been seventeen and American, the boy would have signed up too, I’m fairly certain.  But what if he had been seventeen and German — which, after a week of being mistaken for a German tourist (or an Alsatian local), is not at all a stretch of the imagination?  He would have had to decide between going into the Nazi army, or going to Struthof.

Which is why a guy on a bicycle, about my age, resident of a nearby village, passing by on July 4th evening outside the war memorial in Sigolsheim couldn’t stop thanking me for being an American who came to Alsace.  He saw I was interested in history, and started suggesting sites.  “Do you know there’s a US war memorial up on the hill?” he said.

Yes.  Just came from there, actually.

“And have you seen the three castles down by Eguisheim?”

Yes.  And the other one, and some other ones . . .

“Let’s see, so maybe you should go to –”

“Well actually,” I tell him, “we only have a few more days here.  We’re going to try to go to Mont Sainte Odile and to–” I try to remember the name —  “Struthof–?”

He stops.  “Oh.  Struthof.  That’s hard.”

I know.

But you can’t really appreciate the significance of the war unless you know the whole story.

“The concentration camp,” he says.  “Struthof.”

“Yes.”

“My grandfather was there.”

White flowers with red centers.detail of white blossom with magenta-red center.

Flowers at the Sigolsheim war memorial, in bloom on July 4th.

French Culture – Marriage, Family Life, and Sexuality – Interesting Links

My latest at the National Catholic Register touches on some interesting bits of French culture where marriage is concerned.   I didn’t have room in a short essay to create an annotated bibliography, and anyway I stumbled on more interesting stuff than I’ll ever write about.  Here’s a list of assorted links of potential interest to select readers, with a few comments at the bottom related to my essay topic.

In talking about cultural contrasts, here’s an article on France’s military-run brothel system, dating from World War I.  Here’s a short history of the United States’ approach to the problem of venereal diseases during the same period.  The differences are striking.

This Google preview of Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914-1945  has some history of the role of paternity during that time period.

 

All kinds of interesting parental-rights cases from the European Court of Human Rights are summarized here (in English).

On the question of legitmacy: Children Born Outside Marriage in France and their Parents. Recognitions and Legitimations since 1965.  Text is in English, and loaded with statistics concerning changes in practice over time.

Here’s a research paper exploring the range of issues in how biological versus social paternity is handled across Europe.  It is useful as an introduction to the kinds of issues that are in play, and how different countries have dealt with them.

Some Wikimedia articles that highlight the way French law handles questions of maternity and paternity:

A more academic discussion of the question of genetic testing legislation in Europe is here.  The European Journal of Human Genetics discusses the legal situation in Western Europe here.

Wikimedia’s English-language summary of the history of posthumous marriage is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthumous_marriage. Note there is a slight error, it is Article 171 that gives us the pertinent law.  The related topic of proxy-marriage is discussed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxy_marriage.

There’s a bit on the case law concerning posthumous marriage in Europe if you scroll down to paragragh 247 of Le Couple et la Convention Européenne des Droits de l’Homme .  Google translate struggles a bit on this one.  The French Code Civil (in French) is here.

On the topic of posthumous marriage, the only Church document, at all, which I could find was this: http://www.radiovaticana.va/Afr_bulletin/14_05_14.html.  The relevant part is here, boldface mine:

D. AUX CHEFS DE FAMILLE
24 – Chers chefs de famille, votre place n’est plus à démontrer, et votre responsabilité est capitale. L’impact de votre action peut être positif ou négatif, selon que vous agissez conformément ou non à la volonté de Dieu. Il vous donne de prendre soin des personnes qu’il vous confie. Votre mission est à la fois honorable et complexe. C’est sur vous que repose la cohésion de la famille, en matière de dot, de gestion d’héritage et de conflits, de traitement des veuves, des veufs et des orphelins. Dans cet ordre d’idées, à la lumière de la tradition et de l’Evangile, nous dénonçons la pratique illégale qui consiste à demander une dot trop élevée. Respectez ce que prévoit le code de la famille (art. 140). Nous condamnons la pratique du mariage posthume (versement de la dot lors du décès de la conjointe). Appliquez-vous avec courage, avec toute votre force, à accomplir dignement votre mission de chef de famille.

Nous vous assurons, de notre soutien, de notre proximité, de notre prière et de notre bénédiction.

The context is not (at all whatsoever) the French civil law on posthumous marriage.  Rather, the bishops are condemning the practice of asking too high of a dowry, and therefore also the practice of “posthumous marriage” as a vehicle for receiving the payment of the dowry when the bride has died.

By way of comparison on the topic of the French civil code’s practice of posthumous marriage, here’s the Code of Canon Law on the topic of “radical sanation,” which is something completely different.  It’s of interest because it shares the concept of “going back in time and fixing things” where marriage is concerned.  And that’s it — no other connection between the two.

 

File:Zingende boerenfamilie Rijksmuseum SK-A-376.jpeg "Singing Peasant Family"

I searched on “French Family” and the results came up Dutch.  Thanks Wikimedia!

The Makings of a Psychiatric Service Dog – Meet Frank and Josef

I’ve long been interested in service dogs, but something new to me is the idea of a psychiatric service dog.  You may have heard of “emotional support animals,” companion animals that help a person stay calm and cope with challenging situations just by being around in a general way.  You might think of it as passive support.

A psychiatric service dog, in contrast, is trained to perform specific tasks that actively help the handler through PTSD, anxiety, or other crisis episodes.  The dog actively monitors the handler’s well-being, and takes action to intervene or assist when needed.

Now a dear friend of mine is in the process of seeing if he and his dog have what it takes to be formally trained as a psychiatric support dog team — and all signs are very promising.

 

This is Josef Hathaway:

Image contains: 1 person, sunglasses, hat and closeup

Josef being himself.  Photo by Mary Hathaway, used with permission. 

He’s creative and insightful and a natural problem-solver.  His father John writes:

Josef was asking about getting an outside cat. Mary facetiously suggested, about an hour before Mass, that he catch one of the feral cats that prowl our yard. A bit later, we’re in our room getting ready and hear a loud crash! I thought another tree had fallen. We heard the girls, but no Joe.

Josef?!” Mary called.

“Yes?!” called a voice from below our feet.

“What are you doing?”

“You said I could trap a cat!” He was in the basement, pulling out the old dog cages.

“I also suggested you clean your room!”

“Yeah, but that’s boring!”

He’s funny and playful and loving.  This is a story Mary tells about Joseph and one of his three sisters:

Josef (menacingly): Gianna, you’re about to have a HEART ATTACK!

Me: Josef!

I turn around, and he proceeds to attack her by throwing paper hearts at her. (Phew.) LOL

Josef also has high functioning autism (Asperger’s) with a mood disorder, for which he receives professional treatment supervised by a psychologist specializing in his diagnoses.  At home, his parents provide the structure, diet, behavioral interventions, medical care, and family life adaptations designed by his care team for his situation.

One thing that helps him is time spent with animals.   Josef volunteered for about seven months in the puppy room at the  CSRA Humane Society.  The decision to adopt Frank the dog, though, was inspired by another Frank:

Dean Koontz (dog aficionado) led me to Frank Redman, who recommended we get Josef a lab, and we ended up adopting a lab already named Frank, rescued from Hurricane Matthew. That’s his back story. The SPCA brought him over from Charleston to their shelter during the hurricane.

When the family adopted Frank the dog, they were looking for a good companion who enjoyed chasing balls.  They had no idea how attuned he would be to the moods of the members of his adopted pack.  With no training at all, Frank has already started actively working as a psychiatric service dog.

Mary shares an example of way the Frank helps Josef calm down from a panic attack:

Josef had another panic attack.

Fifteen minutes before “Contractors for Christ” [coming to help the family with yard maintenance] showed up…he locked himself in his bedroom (John has now removed the door handle), and he was sobbing.

Frank came back and started barking at the door. John was able to get in, and Frank kept jumping up on Josef (kindly–not vicious) and barking at him and pawing at his hands so he would have to stop hurting himself.

Josef then went and closed himself in the closet, and then Frank barked at the door, I opened it, and he again came in and sat down with Josef and barked at him gently to calm down.

Josef was pretty stirred up–he gets anxious about anyone coming over, even if it’s someone he’s known for a while–so, he was still not 100%. But, thanks to Frank, he calmed down, thankfully.

Here’s an example of how attuned Frank is to Josef’s mood, and how quickly he intervenes to help:

Josef just talked to Frank Redman via Skype, and Josef joked that he was scared of something and fake whimpered. Frank came bolting into the room and started licking his hand.

This is all raw talent.  The Hathaways are arranging to consult with a professional psychiatric service dog trainer, to determine if Frank and Josef are candidates for training as a team.

Frank, black Labrador retriever, resting on the couch with Josef.

Photo of Frank and Josef, copyright John & Mary Hathaway, used with permission.

The Unbearable Sameness of “Cool”

When you study buzzwords or fad words from each generation, very few stand the test of time. “Groovy”? “Hep”? “Tight”? “Gnarly”? (Really?) Nope. All of them – gone from our lexicon. However, one has stood strong for at least 3 generations. That is “cool”.

I don’t know why this specific word has lasted for so long, but I think I understand why what the word represents has endured. The idea is that you not only fit in, but that you fit in very nicely. Cool is comfortable. It fills that 3rd level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It means we are accepted and maybe even respected by the tribe.

Long ago, ‘cool’ meant being different in some sort of interesting way. The ‘differentness’ is what made the person (or the action) ‘cool’. However, ‘cool’ wasn’t usually associated with virtue or engaging in something ‘good’ or particularly healthy or virtuous. And that’s the downside – the dark side – of ‘cool’. It was never about becoming fully alive. It was never about growing as a person or being the best version of oneself. It was typically about wearing masks and aspiring to something that wasn’t worth the effort.

That differentness imbued with a general lack of goodness or virtue has become sameness. When you look around these days, ‘cool’ is about blending and conformity. Challenging traditional values was once considered ‘cool’. Now, if you don’t challenge them and conform to the ‘new normal’, you’re likely to be marginalized with visceral enthusiasm. Wearing underwear on the outside of one’s clothing (or in place of outer garments) used to be reserved for Superman. (Probably not the impression he was trying to give, though.) Now, if you leave anything to others’ imagination, you’re prudish. Getting a tattoo was once a unique thing to do. Now, it’s not a matter of getting a tattoo to express individuality – it’s that you’re kind of strange if you don’t get one. (This is not a judgment on tattoos, by the way – just saying that they hold no inherent ‘goodness’ or value.)

This new definition of ‘cool’ doesn’t just lack virtue, though – it’s not even cool. It’s now about fitting the beautiful diversity of what every single person brings to the table into a very small box – and a boring box of sameness, to boot.

But perhaps herein lies opportunity to rekindle ‘cool’ in a whole new way – a way that makes goodness and virtue desirable as something ‘different’. Recall those words from 1 Corinthians 12 where St. Paul says, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.’”

There is a reason each of us is different. We all have unique talents which aren’t always appreciated by others, but that shouldn’t stop us from fully developing them for the good of mankind and for the glory of God. We’re meant to strive for goodness and virtue. Becoming more virtuous means becoming more like God. Anything else is disordered and a waste of our efforts. It’s just not ‘cool’ (in this new sense, of course).

Dare to be different. Dare to be the best you imaginable. Dare to let others see God through your actions. How cool would that be?

Vincent married up more than a quarter century ago and is a proud father of 5 wonderful daughters. He teaches business classes at a college in Greenville, SC, but thrives on discussing controversial topics, especially as they relate to Church teachings on sexual morality.

Lent Days 10-15: No Silence

Monday evening SuperHusband walks in the door and he’s got a business call, important.  The children know what that means.  Time for quiet in the house.

They are finishing up the evening clean-up, but thoughtfully withdraw from the kitchen so their dear father won’t be disturbed by the clatter of dishes being washed.  Two children, surveying the mess in their bedroom, decide the old sheets of bubble wrap need to be tossed.  Immediately.  Which means bubbles need to be popped, immediately.

Well aware their father is on the phone, they cross the hall to the bathroom, shut the door, and start jumping on those bubbles.

Children never cleaned so vigorously.

I knock and open and thank them for their consideration, but explain that one mustn’t pop bubble wrap at all while someone is taking an important phone call just meters away.

***

And that summarizes the State of Lent, Days 10-15.  FYI the reason for the radio silence here was not a fit of holiness but a significant computer problem which required the services of Senior IT Guy, who was out of town.  Seems to be fixed now and we are back on track.  Perhaps Lent is likewise. We’ll see.

Trappist monk, back to the photographer, sitting at his desk attending to spiritual reading.

Photo by Daniel Tibi (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons.  If you enter the search term “Trappist” in Wikimedia, most of the results are for beer.

Why Annulments Matter

From this morning’s Gospel:

He [Jesus] said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

One of the reasons I think that people get upset about the question of divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion is that they don’t understand what’s happening.  I’d like to look today at the question of what an annulment is, and I want to do so by way of an analogy.  Like all analogies, it is imperfect.  Still, I think it sheds light on the overall situation.

An Otherwise Decent Guy Gets Into a Mess

Imagine you’re a young man in your twenties.  Like many young people, you were a tad promiscuous during college, something you shouldn’t have done, but, well, you did.  One Saturday morning you answer the door and one of your college girlfriends is standing there, with a darling little boy at her side.  He’s the spitting image of his mother.

Your ex-girlfriend explains that the boy is probably yours. She apologizes for not informing you sooner, and appeals to your better self and asks you to do the right thing.  The boy needs his father to be in his life.

A Decent Guy Becomes a Stand-up Guy

After you recover from the shock if it all, you do exactly what she was hoping: You agree that of course you will do your best to be a good father to any child of yours.

This isn’t going to be easy.  There are good reasons you and the boy’s mother stopped dating each other.  There will be lots of complications to work through.  You are now going to have to devote a massive amount of time and income and emotional reserve to the rearing of this boy.  You’ll have to reorganize your career and personal plans to make sure you can give this boy the attention from you that he deserves. It’s not easy to be a parent, and it’s even harder when you aren’t married to your child’s mother.

But you are a decent human being, and the least you can do in this world is be a good father to your own child.  It’s not something you have to think about.  Of course you’ll do it, you tell her.

Except There’s This Other Guy

There’s one hitch though: Neither of you are 100% sure you’re the father.

The dates all work out, but honestly? She was a tad promiscuous herself.  There’s at least one other college friend who might be the father instead.

Your ex-girlfriend thinks it’s more likely that you are the father, which is why she came to you first.  She asks you to take a paternity test, which will clear up all doubt.  You agree that’s a good idea.

Why Does Paternity Matter?

Let’s review two important facts:

  • It’s quite likely you are the father.
  • You have every intention of being the best father you can to this little boy, if he is in fact your son.

But still, it’s important in this complicated situation to ascertain paternity if possible.  Why?  Two reasons:

  • It’s important because the boy has a right to be reared by his own father, if possible.  There are many situations in which, unfortunately, a child cannot be raised by his own biological parents.  But if it is possible, he and his parents will both rightly want that to happen.
  • Likewise it’s important because the responsibilities of a man towards his own child are significantly different than his responsibilities towards children in general.

You’re a stand-up guy.  If the boy isn’t yours, you’ll still wish him and his mother well, and you’ll do all the things that any decent man does to help the children of his community.  But it would not be fair to you to expect you to rear a child to whom you have no particular connection, and it also would not be fair to the boy and his real father.

The two of them deserve the opportunity to be father and son, if that is possible.  It would be an injustice for you to step in and presume the rights that properly belong to some other man.

What’s a Marriage Tribunal?

A marriage tribunal is something like a paternity test.  A paternity test attempts to answer the question: Am I the father of this child?  A marriage tribunal attempts to answer the question: Am I married to this person we’ve assumed until now was my spouse?

As with paternity tests, we don’t examine the validity of marriages except in difficult circumstances — situations where there is reasonable doubt.  If you are separated or divorced, the question might reasonably come up.  Whatever circumstances led to the separation might hint that no valid marriage was ever contracted in the first place.

Like a paternity test, the purpose of a marriage tribunal isn’t to give you the answer you want, its purpose is to give you the truth: Do I have a solemn and irrevocable bond with this other person, or do I not?

 

File:Biertan house for divorcing people.jpg

Photo: The Beirtan house for divorcing people, via Wikimedia.  The photographer’s description explains: “This small building stands next to the church of Biertan (Birthälm). There was the habit to close there for two weeks the couples that wanted to divorce. Inside there was only a bed and the necessary to eat. It actually worked because in 400 years only one couple eventually decided to break up.”  By Alessio Damato [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0].

 

 

Authority in Marriage, a Free Retreat, and The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

Working backward through the title, we begin with some thoughts on the feast of the Chair St. Peter, as written several years ago in anticipation of today’s feast.  Jesus has just given the eat-my-flesh ultimatum, and as others are leaving, our Lord asks Peter if he’s going, too.  Peter’s response is one of my two favorite St. Peter quotes:

“To whom should we go, Lord? You alone have the words of everlasting life.”

. . . He doesn’t say, “Goodness, no, Lord! We know what you really have planned, and it all makes perfect sense.” He doesn’t even say, “Well, your forearm looks like it might be palatable enough, if I could call dibs.” Peter doesn’t have an argument. He cannot make the case that what Jesus is telling him he must do is perfectly reasonable. What Jesus is telling him to do is perfectly unreasonable. . .

Peter’s answer? Well. I don’t know how this can possibly work. I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make sense. But I know you, and I know what you have done so far. I know you can forgive sins. I know you can open the very gates of Heaven. Where exactly else am I going to go? You’re all I’ve got.

Um, I don’t really have any place better to be, Lord, so I guess I’ll stay.

This is an excerpt from the free Lord You Know I Love You retreat. (You can find out my other favorite quote by clicking through and scrolling to p. 7.)   The retreat is suited for use on your own or in a group, and comes with a pile of suggestions for how to adapt it for different situations.  Two ways to use it this time of year:

  1. Use it over the next week to reflect on what you’d like to undertake for Lent.
  2. Use it during Lent to reflect on where you need to grow in your faith over the next year.

Both versatile and free. That and my other free downloads can all be found here.

And finally, at Mass this morning, Father brought up in passing the topic of authority in the home.  He was using the example of a father’s authority over his household as a way to explain to the children the idea of the pope’s authority.

People get upset about this idea.  I think they are not paying close attention.

Here is something you must understand about marriage: No man becomes the head of his household until his would-be wife appoints him to that position.  Likewise, every man who heads the family home has on hand for advice, admonishment, and loyal opposition the woman he chose for that work.   This is not despotism.  Marriage is the purest democracy we’ve got.

In celebration of the Met making its collection available online for download, enjoy these Cypresses [public domain].  Details about the painting are here, including related works of interest and loads of other good stuff.  Bless these guys, amen.

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.

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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.

Life and Death Decisions Made Beneath the Pedestal

The other week when I posted my rant-o-rama about the misuse of the label “amazing,” John Hathaway went right to work at the blog discussion group pulling out of me the what’s really going on here??  We managed to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and below I’m going to explain what I think is the biggest, most deadly part of going around thinking other people are “amazing.”

But first, a few side issues that deserve some resolution:

  • We quickly agreed on the usual explanation for surly bloggers: I was being cranky.
  • I do concede that the word “amazing” has shifted to take on a second, diluted meaning of generally “nice” or “good.” I’ll spare you a long talk about how we already had words that meant those things.  (To wit: nice and good are still around.)
  • Furthermore, I generally don’t care if other people have the odd shoddy linguistic habit — don’t we all?  If you’re itching for a fight, you’ll get more fervor out of me if you bring up the Oxford Comma.

(Yes!  Even though I am a convicted comma abuser!  We pundits would have nothing to do all day if we sat around waiting for our holiness to arrive before we opened our mouths.)

Now, on to the Pedestal of Death.

Superman is Amazing

Let’s talk about Superman.  He stops speeding bullets.  He leaps tall buildings in a single bound.  He’s the guy you look for when you need something done that ordinary people just can’t do.  He’s called “amazing” because he does things you and I never could.

Ordinary people of course are “amazing” in the sense that we are each the precious and intricate handiwork of God.  Spend half an hour learning about the things we’ve discovered to date about, say, the way a human nerve cell functions, and you’ll be rightly amazed.  Furthermore, our loved ones bring all kinds of invaluable gifts to the world simply by being themselves.  Despite my cantankerous headline the other day, your children are in fact amazing even when all they’re doing is drooling over their baby food.  There’s that.

But sometimes we call someone “amazing” not out of simple wonder at the marvel of human worth and dignity, but more in the Superman-sense of amazing.  We have gotten to where certain classes of people who happen to be doing hard things are given the Superman label.

Doing this isn’t just over-enthusiasm.  Such labeling actually causes humans to die.

Hard Things Don’t Require Superman

Life is hard.  Humans — all of us — are called to do hard things.

When somebody is dealing with some tremendous difficulty, they aren’t being Superman. They are experiencing human life.

Lately though, our society has gotten that idea that difficulties are only for Very Special People.  We consider suffering to be the sole province of amazing superheros, and do all that we can to excuse everyone else — people who are “like us.”

If you have a baby with an adverse prenatal diagnosis and you don’t choose to abort that baby, people call you “amazing.”  Only special superhero people can do that; ordinary people would have to abort, because they just can’t take it the way Amazing SuperParents can.

Thus it follows that if you happen to be raising a child with a serious illness or disability, or you happen to be such a person yourself, surely you are “amazing” for experiencing such a life.

If you reach a point where your family member’s illness or disability becomes overwhelming, you’re “amazing” if you continue to care for that person rather than opting to go ahead and put the sufferer to death.  If you yourself are the one directly suffering and you choose not to commit suicide, again you are “amazing” for enduring what “ordinary” people just couldn’t do.

No! No! No!

Not Killing Innocent People is an Ordinary Person’s Job

There’s just nothing “amazing” about not committing murder.  Ordinary old you is a person who is called to man-up and do your best to muddle through difficult circumstances.

Some people endure their hardships with admirable fortitude and good grace, while others of us aren’t winning any prizes for Sufferer of the Year.  But all of us, by mere dint of our humanity, should anticipate the time when we, too, will bear our share of hardship.  We don’t have to seek it out; it will find us.

When it comes, we will not be Amazing Supermen.  We’ll feel the sting of the bullet and the penetrating wound and the leaking of life from our bodies in an unstoppable river of blood.  Suffering hurts.  Suffering is difficult.  Suffering eventually robs you of this mortal life.

Death by Admiration

The going expression is that if you put someone on a pedestal you’ll see their clay feet, but I don’t think that’s the gravest risk anymore. Anymore, the pedestal is where we put people we want to admire from a safe distance.  If you keep far enough back from someone who’s working through a difficult part of life, and you squint so you don’t see the messy parts, you can convince yourself you’re looking at Superman.

You can say to yourself, “I could never do that.  I’m not Superman like that person is.”

You can say to other people, “I don’t expect you to do that difficult thing, because if you’re not Superman it’ll be just too hard for you.”

You can say, “Well, they are the ones who chose not to abort or euthanize — if they’re having a hard time, it’s not my fault they tried to act like Superman.”

These are lies.  The people you know who are doing hard things right now? They are ordinary people.

If you admire someone’s fortitude or good grace, don’t say, “Wow you are so amazing!” as if your friend were from another planet, possessing super-human attributes.  Rather, say, “Wow. When my time comes to face some similar trial, I hope I’ll have learned enough from your example to be able to do you proud.”

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By Matrakci Nasuh [Public domain], 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?

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