Custody of the Eyes, Revisited

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Practicing strategic avoidance is life-changing.

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

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

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

***

You are not the supreme ruler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

That stinks.

It’s hard work.

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

Acknowledge it.

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

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

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

***

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

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

Horses grazing in mountain pasture at Parco Naturale Tre Cime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Less evil” is not good.

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

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

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

That good intention doesn’t justify the evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • “Speaking of Clerical Corruption” 

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

  • “Education vs. Childcare vs. Public Goods”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, anonymous reader!

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

Thanks!

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

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

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

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

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.

My Vocation-Affirming Experience of Covidtide

I have not read the entirety of it, but Darwin’s posting a series on the pandemic that promises to be his usual clear-headed, data-oriented analysis.  What follows is not that at all.  I’m here to talk about my mid-life crisis, thanks.

***

So for us the pandemic has been . . . okay.  SuperHusband’s employer was ahead of the curve on shutting down travel and protecting employees.  South Carolina, meanwhile, has been blessed with a pretty good experience so far, all things considered — made even more so by the unseasonably pleasant weather.  In terms of cases that touch us personally, a longtime colleague (age 42) died after a long struggle with COVID-19, and another colleague who has a side business lost one of his employees (age 35) quite rapidly.  Otherwise we’ve been fortunate that our friends and family have fared quite well, and we firmly hope that continues.

In terms of practicalities, here’s how coronacation found us: Last year, I was teaching full time.  I opted not to renew for this year, even though the job was fun, meaningful, and kept me surrounded by awesome people, because the hours were significantly more than I wanted to take away from family life.  Summer, fall, and winter found me discombobulated in six different ways, which I’ll forbear from cataloging, but suffice to say that when the unexpected descended this spring, I did not come into the season feeling like my life was, at all, pulled together.

So here are some of the changes that the big shutdown entailed:

  • We have six people home full time — four teens doing school, one adult working full-time, one adult (me) working part-time freelancing.
  • Homemaking skills are suddenly at a premium as we’ve dealt with the minor shortages, the need to be very careful about outings, and the far more intensive usage of our home.
  • Because all activities are canceled — church, kids’ sports, school programs, substitute teaching, concerts, every. single. thing — we are home, and home, and home.

For my husband and I, this has been mostly-heavenly.  The time he’d spend commuting in the morning instead we drink our coffee together and converse.  We have lunch together, usually sitting outside enjoying the beautiful weather.  We have family dinner every single night.  My husband calls it his “working vacation” and even though he is working as much as ever, plus putting in a second shift on construction work finishing out the addition we started last fall, for him this is the perfect life.

We have, of course, had to work through assorted issues that were always there but never dealt with, all related to concerns I had long harbored about what life would be like after he retired, because for an introvert to never, ever, be alone at home can be rough.  I think — helped by construction reaching a critical threshold that has caused me to mostly have my own office now — we’ve worked through much of that.  Praise God.

Meanwhile, both my own experience and what I’m seeing all around me has been very illuminating, in terms of understanding my own vocation.  Here are a few of the things I’ve been getting my head around.

Affirmed: My kids are awesome.  I have no opinion whatsoever on the employment decisions of other mothers.  I’ve done the range, from full-time homeschool mom to full-time working mom, and lately I’ve been working part-time with all kids in school.  Having the kids back home full time?  It’s really nice.  I like these people.  I enjoy being with these people.  We are very close to the time when we expect our nest to rapidly empty, and getting these few months of all kids at home has been an affirmation that, for me, who had the privilege of being able to make such a choice, the decision to prioritize quantity-time with my kids over other pursuits has been the right path.  A risky choice, no doubt.  But a good one.

Affirmed: Relationships consume time.  I can remember many nights when my mom, who had to be up for work at four in the morning, would talk to me past midnight because there was something on my mind, or because we had suddenly hit our stride and to her the lost sleep was worth the gained connection with a willful teenager.  Talking to your kids take time.  Loads of time.

Parents find different ways to do it — time in the car, time spent doing chores together, late nights, weekends — whenever and however you’ve got it to give.  But there is no getting around the reality that kids want to spend time with their parents, and that time cannot be assigned to other mental work.

This is valuable for them and precious for me.  The only time I have with my kids is this time, right now. So my husband and I — but especially me because without a regimented work day my time is much easier for the kids to claim — find ourselves wondering why we can never get done half the things we thing should get done.  It’s because we’re talking to our kids.

Affirmed: Good meals take time to prepare.  We’ve eaten better, even during the weeks when groceries were hard to come by, than we have in . . . ever.  Prior to coronatide, in twenty years of parenting my husband and I had never succeeded at sitting down to family dinner every night.  Over many months prior to the shutdown when I was neither working outside the home nor homeschooling anyone, dinner was still a rushed and hit-or-miss affair.  I thought, for years, this failure was due to some inherent defect on my part.

Nope.  It turns out that if you spend the hours of 3pm to 5:45 shuttling children around to various events, you can’t also be cooking during that time.  It turns out that if every single night of the week your schedule is different, with different family members rushing off in different directions (every single one of them a worthwhile pursuit), you can’t get into a dinner routine.  And furthermore, it turns out that giving yourself a full sixty minutes to prepare dinner allows for way more options, and much better quality food, than trying to quick throw something together in twenty.

So now we’re eating really well.  People like my cooking better.  Our food is more nutritious.  I honestly have no desire to go out to eat.  Complication: Even though my husband and I both strongly prefer this way of living, we have no idea how to achieve it when the world opens back up again.

Affirmed: Homemaking is its own full-time job. I’ve been watching, remotely, all these really accomplished professionals struggle to keep on with their careers, only now from home and with kids around.  Doesn’t work.  Last year teaching, I got all kinds of thing done.  It worked because I was not present to my family. Getting the beast  written and re-written?  For lack of an office I found myself ordering three dollars worth of food and coffee from McDonald’s and then sitting in the backseat of my car with my laptop, using the free WiFi from my improvised remote office.

Being present to your family is work.  It’s good work. Pleasurable work. Energizing work.  But providing that presence — even if the kids are older and self-starters and half of them are legally adults — and attending to the needs of the family takes time and energy.  It’s time and energy that you can’t be doing other things.  We can prove it is work by the simple fact that if you the parent don’t do it, if you want it done you’ll have to pay someone else to do it.  People will line up for rides at Disney.  They don’t line up to conduct your home life for you.

My point in observing all this is not to conclude that there is a specific way any particular family should organize its hours and distribute its labor.  My point is to share a very reassuring discovery: All these years I felt inadequate because our society sells this illusion that somehow parents can both be full-time homemakers and be full-time professionals. But it’s not so, and the experience of the many, many parents now struggling to work from home is the affirmation of this reality.

Affirmed: Twice as many meals, twice as many dishes.  I’m not doing them, the kids are.  Interestingly, now that the kids can choose whatever they want to eat for lunch, the school snacks are languishing untouched and the leftovers get eaten.  Pretty nifty.

***

I don’t have a big point to all this self-discovery other than that now more than ever I want to punch all the people who saddle parents with “if you loved your kids/neighbor/America/Jesus you would _______.”  If  the parents are working full time outside the home? They definitely do not have time to do your ‘one little thing’ in addition to their other very real responsibilities at work and home.

***

Beyond that, I have no particular resolutions or vision for our future.  SuperHusband and I know that we like the slower pace of life; we also know that the faster pace of life was there for a reason.  I can’t think of a single thing we were doing all these years that was not a worthwhile use of our time.

We’ll have to see.  Meanwhile, here’s a story for you by way of conclusion: Last spring as the school year wrapped up, at one of our all-faculty teacher meetings, the head of school had those of us not planning to return in the fall share what our next plans were.  Most people had the usual — moving for the spouse’s job, expecting a baby, retiring after many years of service.

My answer? “I’ve learned not to make plans.”

If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know how I’ve come by that habit.

Coronatide stamped a big fat Affirmed on that one, too.

Celebración de Todos los Santos, cementerio de la Santa Cruz, Gniezno, Polonia, 2017-11-01

Photo: Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.  

Life Coaching Tip, since after all that rambling you surely deserve at least one, right?  Here it is: If you aren’t already a Diego Delso fan, you need to change that.

 

Enemies of the Thinking Man’s Religion

UPDATE: RR Reno apologized.  My comments on that are over at the blorg.

***
Over at the blorg yesterday
, I broke radio silence not because my life is finally pulled together again, but because I couldn’t resist the siren song of bad logic in need of correction.

The internet, mirror of the world, is of course full of people who are wrong.  It holds up just fine without me.  So why this one?

Because in this particular case, the stakes are both high and personal.

First Things magazine — printed on paper and arriving via USPS once a month — is an institution worth preserving. Year after year, issue after issue, it is invariably laden with wrong opinions. That is the nature of a forum dedicated to exploring ideas and hosting discourse on anything and everything that touches the public square.

It’s a good magazine. There are the monthly puff pieces pandering to base (ode to learning Latin, much?); there is superb poetry hidden among the pretty good poetry and the occasional “we’re just glad conservatives are still attempting poetry”; there is someone around to take down the hot new liberal sensation posing as a history book; and there’s the unavoidable Theology of the Body segment (not always so-labelled), the thought-provoking memoirs, and the mish-mash of intellectual headiness including plenty of within- and across-issue back and forth on stuff that deserves to be thought about.

Very few pictures or advertisements.  Sometimes you go pages at a time with nothing but words.  It’s nice.

Complain all you want, and it’s impossible not to when assessing the successors of Richard John Neuhaus, RR Reno has done a decent job as general editor of the place.  That he would post something I think is wrong?  Sure.  Many people I respect disagree with me on all kinds of stuff.

But that he would completely fall off the ledge and lose all grasp of the most elemental understanding of logic?

Something is very wrong here.

***

This is not the first time a notable Catholic writer has gone completely bonkers on the internet.  The Catholic Conspiracy exists because we who write here wanted a place that was a hangout for ordinary faithful Catholics, devoid of the sensation and hypiness that has been the downfall of so many previously-worthwhile Catholic blogs and websites.

Fact: Satan wants Catholic writers to fail.

The spiritual battle is real.

Few things help the cause of the enemy more than watching smart, insightful, faithful men and women evolve into crazypants reactionaries in front of their adoring public.  (“Adoring public” is likely a contributing factor.)

Lord willing, what RR Reno needs is fresh air and new friends and a gracious audience who can allow that yes, we all lose it sometimes.  Presumably his thinking problems are personal issues that are, professional hazard, unraveling in public.  It happens.  Catholic writers are fallen humans beleaguered by the same sorts of problems that beset us all.  So be it.

When the human who’s sinking into this pit, however, is the editor of First Things, now we have a personal problem that’s affecting the common welfare.

So pray for the guy.  Since we mustn’t tolerate falling for false dichotomies, don’t get sucked into Canonize-or-Cancel.  It’s possible to be the head of a storied institution who’s lately been foaming at the mouth like a man who’s spent too much time caged up with Pop Culture, Elite Edition, and still be capable of pulling it together and resuming the good work.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep on pandering to moderates over at the blorg.  Being crazypants only makes half the people mad.  If you want to make everyone hate you, use logic.

Photo: Red Clover, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.  I couldn’t think of a good photo to go with this post, so I resorted to that old standby, Image of the Day.  Apply the metaphor of your choice to make it meaningful.

How’s it Going, Jen?

It’s been, oh, thirty-seven years since last I blogged?

Quick recap tonight of what you’ve missed, and then as soon as I finally complete the task that is constantly getting shoved to #2 on my to-do list, presumably blogging resumes.  Since last we spoke:

I had some form of minor plague. No opinion on what it was or wasn’t.  Sore throat, headache, muscle aches, world’s lowest fever that still managed to feel like a fever, mild cough, and award-winning fatigue.

That last one I would have chalked up to old-and-out-of-shape, except two days before the plague descended, I was out running sprints and felt just fine.  Within a week of plague lifting, went out and ran sprints and felt just fine.

In between? Found myself watching Samurai Cat (loved it in a cult-classic kinda way, until I got tired of waiting for better plot developments), and then Frozen (mmnn, no, wasn’t sick enough yet), and then at the nadir I came to love Twitter, because I had enough energy to hold my phone, but not enough to hold the laptop.  At worst, sitting up even a few minutes was too tiring.

At the worst.  Large parts of the plague were not that bad.  Other than being someone who really, really loved Samurai Cat for a while. Honestly I’m half considering going back sometime and finding out if our hero ever works through his marital problems, or if he’ll just continue to stare moodily at the cat for another season.

My family attempted to run the house without me.  If this were any other year, I might have begged out of chores on the most intently plague-ridden days, and otherwise slogged through the daily grind, albeit with a little more R&R than usual.  Cover that cough but don’t let it keep you from making dinner.

But this is not any other year, so into the designated isolation ward I went.  My people muddled through as best they could, but it turns out I do a few things around this place?  So on the one hand, my convalescence was the most relaxing on record as I was forbidden to get back to work until I finally mounted a rebellion and we all googled probabilities of on-going contagiousness; on the other hand, there was plenty waiting to be remedied when I was finally set free.

Oh look! 300 pages of typos! So I spent a couple weeks digging toward the light at the end of the tunnel, none of it bad, lots of good developments on the construction front, but blogging takes a back seat.  As I was working my way through the catch-up-with-reality list, the proof of The Beast came into my hands.  It turns out that some author we know put many, many, typos into her manuscript.

Ahem.

Also: Splits infinitives.  You may have noticed.

A beloved editor of mine has a ministry of reconciliation, bringing estranged infinitives back into couplehood.  I wish her well.  I do not claim to be cured of my affliction so easily.  Will probably require several more shock-treatments.

Now what? On the to-do list:

  • Help a friend with her taxes, and maybe another friend with her taxes, and also do my own taxes, ha.
  • FINALLY write up the awesome interview I did AGES AGO that has been sitting on my desk begging for attention.  Hoping to see it at you-know-where, but if not there than the blorg or here or some other venue.
  • Got another good one in the wings, and a gazillion more I’d like to hunt down.  We have a lot of people in Catholic world doing good work on the evangelization front.
  • Continued improvements here at the castle, where life is good and check it out: I sorta have an office!  Of my own!  Still sharing it with lumber and a few remaining tools.   Plus cats.  Can’t bring myself to kick them out, even though it’s warm enough.

FYI for those who are curious, the pink binder on the desk behind Mr. Purrkins contains my marked-up copy of The Beast.

Improvised desk and bookshelves made out of crates and boards, cat in foreground. Occupies old garage space.

Sorry, no selfie, my camera has apparently given up that work.  Lent must have been too much for it.  I suppose it was for most of us.

On my bookshelf, Holy Week 2020 and beyond

This is my long overdue post on what I’ve been reading and what I’ve got in the queue, some of it Lenten some of it not (except, of course, that everything is Lenten).

For my top picks of family-friendly Holy Week videos, look here.

Simcha’s Lenten Family Film Festival is here, and Julie Davis has a starter pack of Lenten viewing here, but her whole blog is a treasure trove of reading and viewing suggestions.

***

My Good Friday go-to is Thomas à Kempis’s On the Passion of Christ.  I read a little bit more of it every year.

On the Passion of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

So no, I wasn’t kidding when I recommend partial-book reading as a Lenten strategy.  It’s a thing. Sometimes a very spiritually fruitful thing.  This is definitely a book for which a single meditation — even just a few paragraphs — can go a long, long ways.

Not recommended for those prone to scrupulosity.  Ideal for those prone to laxity.  Great example of using one’s imagination to immerse oneself in Scripture as a method of prayer, btw.

And hence: Not for the scrupulous. Just no.  NO!

If you are prone to scruples, for goodness sakes do like my kid did today, unbidden, and grab a few of Pauline Media’s Encounter the Saints books.  Good for kids, ideal for busy adults who need a quick inspiring read that will challenge your faith.  Can’t have too many of these.

Just finished: All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Ballard — Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin.  I give it . . . I dunno.  A lot of stars.  Also, I demand a mini-series.  Talk about non-stop fodder for period drama . . . the adventures just. never. quit.

Of Catholic interest: Somewhere along the way, Eugene Ballard managed to become a Catholic, often a lousy but also compulsively-heroic Catholic, and he died reconciled to the Church.  The biography doesn’t treat his faith very extensively, which is probably just as well; when THEY MAKE THE MINI-SERIES, which I demand, they’d better not screw up the Catholic part.

All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard-Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy

Did I mention I demand a mini-series?  This is a great story.

Currently reading: 

I apologize if you thought I was reading Lentier-stuff.  Well, these are Lenty each in their way.  Everything is Lenty.

Okay but I have another one open that is properly Lent-themed:

Just Sayeth the Lord: A Fresh Take on the Prophets by Julie Davis.

Thus Sayeth the Lord by Julie Davis

I’m a few chapters in, and so far so good.  Down-to-earth recaps, explanations, and meditations on the stories of various prophets.  Based on the what I’ve read, I’d definitely consider this one as a choice for a parish book club or Bible study, ages teen and up.

Readable, does not assume a particular level of background knowledge, does provide spiritual insights useful to those who are already well-studied.

It is of course no secret I’m a Julie Davis fan.  Her other two books are quite different and heartily recommended:

(Head’s up: At this writing I am not active on Goodreads, so please don’t try to message me there and then wonder why I’m ignoring you.)

Next Up:

Living Memento Mori: My Journey Through the Stations of the Cross by Emily DeArdo.  I’ve actually kinda sorta already read this book? But not exactly.

Living Momento Mori by Emily DeArdo

Emily is one of my favorite internet writer-friends, and she let me take a look at the original manuscript for this book back when we were trying to figure out who would be the ideal publisher.

Ave Maria was the winner, and their request was that she organize her memoir around the Stations of the Cross — if you didn’t know this already, one of the things publishers do with book proposals and manuscript drafts is come back to the author with requests for how to modify the book to better serve their readers.  It’s up to the author, of course, to decide which suggested changes fit with the goals of the book and when it’s time to stand firm (even at the cost of walking, if it comes to it); Emily obviously decided that the stations theme worked with her story, and I trust her instincts on that one.

I haven’t read the Stations of the Cross version, and no, I don’t feel, for a moment, that somehow that framework will become obsolete come Easter.  I have a sneaking suspicion, sorry to say, that Momento Mori is going to remain a pertinent theme for many months to come.

In the future I am going to recommend that Emily write something like My Memoir of Everything Being Awesome and Life is a Cakewalk, and maybe world events will take a hint?

And finally, you knew it was coming, I’m eager to finally be able to crack open The Contagious Catholic: The Art of Practical Evangelization by Marcel LeJeune.

The Contagious Catholic by Marcel LeJeune

Call it Providence or coincidence, but I assure you Catholic publishers don’t get six months advance notice on upcoming world events and tailor their book titles accordingly.

In what is definitely Providence, here’s the story of how we ended up writing overlapping books coming out within just months of each other: I had a brief online conversation with Marcel about the same time I was pitching my book proposal to OSV.  He mentioned in conversation that he had a book (he didn’t elaborate on the specific topic) in mind but had no idea when he’d get around to writing it or finding a publisher for it.

So I figure: Okay, he’s the guy to write about a book about this, but he’s not writing the book.

Makes sense. He’s a really busy guy running a major ministry teaching people how to evangelize, and his priority is to do the thing.  So someone needs to write the book on how to do the thing.  We get lots and lots of people who are excited about evangelization but are seriously wondering, “Okay, how do we do this?” because they’ve never been in a parish where evangelization and discipleship happen for serious.

I’m a writer.  I’m not running a major ministry that is sucking up all my time.  He can do the thing and I can write about the thing.  I guess I’ll do that.

There is no way — let me repeat: NO WAY — I would have even proposed my book if I’d known Marcel was writing his.  So it’s a good thing I did not know that he was going to end up finding time to get his manuscript together, because he has read my book now, and here’s his verdict in his email feedback to me:

You hit a lot of areas that I did not, and it seems the most  important ones were covered in our own ways by both of us.

That sounds about right.  You can check out the Catholic Missionary Disciples blog here to get a feel for Marcel’s writing style and the topics that interest him, how he and I overlap each other, and how is depth of experience is going to bring a different perspective than mine.

Anyway, now that I’m finally done with edits (other than a final look after the copy-editor has finished cleaning up the no-good, horrible, very-bad typos I’ve already identified from my “final” draft after pushing the send button), I’m free to read Marcel’s book with no risk of accidental plagiarizing, and so that’s what I am itching to do.*

Girl with preztels covering her eyes, in front of bookshelf.

For today’s photo penance, let’s do a fresh young face from the camera roll: A child of mine in attendance at a Family Honor parent workshop SuperHusband and I were giving last year.  This is what happens when you let her borrow your laptop.

*If you’re wondering: I’m pretty strict with myself about not reading other people’s blog posts or books on a topic I’m actively writing on, except if I’m explicitly researching a response to that literature. So I spent many months not clicking through on Marcel’s blog links because I didn’t want his voice getting confused with my own while I was actively writing.

Could I recommend you read, memorize, and internalize every single thing he writes on his blog?  Yes.  I recommend that.

And then go do the thing. DO. THE. THING.  Thank you.

 

RIP to Science: One Hair Dryer (Mask Test)

I was attempting to answer the question for my kids of whether an improvised mask, such as a cowboy-style bandana over your mouth and nose, could help slow the spread of disease.

Hypothesis: Even though an improvised cloth mask won’t filter viruses, it does limit the distance air coming out your mouth travels, and therefore reduces how far any germs get spread while talking, coughing, sneezing, etc.

Experiment: Well, about that.  So my plan was to set up a measuring tape on the bathroom floor showing the six feet of “social distancing” and then blow various lightweight items (dust, loose powder, wadded up scrap paper) using the hair dryer.  We’d see how far the hair dryer blows these items when unmasked and how far it blows them when masked with various garments — my favorite scarf, a standard bandanna, etc.

I decided to run some preliminary tests before the kids woke up, because if my hypothesis (or my experiment) was obviously wrong, that was something I could learn on my own, thanks.

I got the measuring tape out, found a scrap of (clean!!) toilet paper on the floor (note to self: CLEAN BATHROOM), and dug out my circa-1994 Salon Selectives hair dryer, currently collecting dust thanks to social-distancing.

==>Thanks Mom! That was an awesome Christmas present, even though I wasn’t sure what to think about it at the time. Just a few months ago we were marveling it had held up so long and showed no signs of giving up the ghost.==>

With the dryer on its high setting, I could blow a scrap about four feet.  I put the bandanna over it, and could only blow it about one or two feet.  Also, there was this slight burning odor, which I figured was all that collected dust burning off.  No big deal.

I was pleased by my preliminary findings, but more pre-testing was in order before calling in my skeptical children.  It was possible, for example, that I was seeing such dramatic differences in how far the paper scrap would travel because I was not consistent in how I aimed the hair dryer.

I did some experimenting with holding the dryer at different angles, un-masked, chasing that scrap of unused toilet paper around the bathroom.  Then I put the bandanna over again.  Not nearly as much air-power, again with the burning smell, and then: Experiment over.  Hair-dryer shorted out.

Yikes.

No amount of hoping I’d tripped a breaker bore fruit. After a quarter-century of faithful service, my hair dryer is no more.

Conclusions:

(1) I should not be left unsupervised with valuable machinery.

(2) An ordinary bandanna provides enough airflow resistance that it can wreck a hair dryer.

(3) If you’re contagious and you want to share space with me, yes, I would much rather you covered your mouth and nose with one of those masks that “does nothing” because it sure seems to me like having your germs go not-very-far is better than having your germs fly closer to me.

(4) I can’t afford to resume this experiment on my kids’ hair dryer, because I have three teenage daughters who will mutiny if I wreck their machine, as they do style their hair in quarantine. Therefore,

(5) I’d be grateful if other people would take up the cause and run experiments to see if my preliminary findings are reproducible.

Thanks!

Me with bandana over my face.

Photo: The guilty parties (me and that bandanna), posing in my makeshift office in the garage.  I love having my family at home all day, and I’m grateful my husband and I can both work from home, no matter how crazy the set-up is. Not everyone is so lucky.  Pretty sure those on the front lines keeping our infrastructure together wish you’d do whatever you can to reduce the odds you make them sick when you run your essential errands, even if it isn’t perfect and 100% foolproof.

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.