Four Ways to Avoid Becoming a Bitter Catholic

Up at the Register this morning, I’m talking about ways to not become a person you hate being, in the aftermath of other Catholics being truly horrid:

Bitterness isn’t born ex nihilo. Bitterness is the festering of a spiritual wound, and many Catholics are infected by bitterness because they have suffered real, penetrating, stinging wounds at the hands of their fellows.

When you see someone being rabidly ugly, that didn’t come from nowhere.

When it’s you being rabidly ugly, it often feels like “righteous anger.”

Hmmn.  Are you filled with a sense of peace? Do people generally agree that the way you speak and act is gentle and life-giving?  Do even some of your opponents speak of you respectfully, because your are well-known as someone who is rational, calm, and has good sound reasons for your beliefs?

Or is it maybe possible that, fault of the hurt you’ve endured at the hands of people who had no right to treat you that way, you’ve started to get a little bitter?

Maybe a lot bitter.

It isn’t easy, but there are some things you can do to help yourself heal.  These are some of the things.

And then there were ducks . . .

FYI it’s my editor Kevin Knight at NCR who wins the award for my favorite photo caption ever.  That’s his genius, not mine, concerning the ducks.  But he is so, so, right.  Ducks, guys.  Make that #5.

Related:  Do you you know Catholics who have grown parish-shy? This fine cat photo was my illustration for Taming the Feral Faithful: How to Lure Serious Catholics Back to Your Parish.  You can find an index with this and many other articles about discipleship and evangelization at my D&E index over at the Conspiracy.

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Photo: w:User:Stavrolo [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In Search of the “Real America”

There’s a meme going around right now about what “real Americans” are like.  We see pictures of heroic rescues in the Texas floods contrasted with recent racist or fascist violence.  The “real America” is the good one.  The real America is where people pull together, act bravely, and give everything to help their neighbor, no matter who that neighbor might be.

I don’t disagree.  America really is that, and we have the pictures to prove it.

The difficult bit is that we aren’t only that.

***

I have some assorted friends whom I profoundly love and respect, and to whom I owe a perpetual debt of gratitude for the goodness they have brought into my life.

These friends are like me, though, in that they are noticeably flawed.   (Like me in kind, not degree – evidence is I’m more flawed than they are.)

I don’t want to hear about that.  Even if I do sometimes notice their weaknesses, I want everyone else to shut their mouths.  What I see in them, what I want everyone to notice, is the beauty and goodness and truth they bring to this world.   I want to shout: Do you not understand what they did for me? For you?!

***

This instinct to see the good in our friends is how we get to an All Dogs Go To Heaven theology.  It’s a good instinct.  We can see that our friends are made in the image and likeness of God, inherently lovable and worth loving.  That’s an accurate view of who they are.  The thought of such a person going to Hell is unthinkable.  We’re not alone there.  God Himself has been quite explicit about His desire to save the world rather than condemn it.

***
Mercy is the thing that makes us see the part of our friends that must at all costs be saved.

Yes, yes, we know about the immense weaknesses and deplorable lapses and insufferable habits — but we know the other side!  We have seen selflessness to make your mouth gape, and virtues so indelibly marked on our friends’ souls that they track in purity and joy on their shoes even when they try their hardest to wipe their goodness off at the door.

***

Some people get so despicable that it’s hard to see the parts worth saving.   God can see those parts though.  The question of salvation isn’t how much nastiness needs to be removed to get down to the person you were created to be.  The question of salvation is: Are you willing to be saved?

***

We aren’t supposed to like nastiness.  It isn’t supposed to be easy and comfortable to live with horrid people.  We should want to be surrounded by peaceful, loving, generous folk who fully live out the commandments.  (Never ever forgetting Proverbs 27:14, but of course there are others as well).

So it’s understandable that we have low patience for certain sins.

***

What is lost in our national discourse is the appreciation of the complexity of other humans.  Someone can be terribly wrong in some ways and entirely right in others.  Someone can both commit serious sins and carry out marvelous good works.  (I’ve got the first part down, thanks.)

You can be a racist nationalist who risks your own life rescuing total strangers.

You can give away your fortune aiding the poor, and also devote yourself to killing the unborn.

You can be a notorious philanderer and also an unshakable civil rights martyr.

The combinations are unlimited, and Americans seem, collectively, to be trying out all of them.

***

Where our national discourse goes wrong is in trying to mount the opposite of the ad hominen attack — call it the ad hominen defense.  If my side is right, my men must be perfect.  An attack on my ideas is an attack on me and mine.

We are unable to admit the possibility of human weakness and complexity, nor to properly rank the seriousness of our failures.  Thus we end up in bizarre situations both divisive and falsely “unifying.”

Sometimes, out of fear of hurting somebody’s feelings or overlooking their virtues, we’re afraid to condemn their serious sins.  Better to get along and smooth things over for a day that never comes when somehow we’ll dialog our way past the impasse without ever opening our mouths.

Other times, out of fear of seeming to approve a vice or a poorly-formed conscience, we feel compelled to commit a course of Total Condemnation — economic, political, and personal.

***

Let me show you a video of the way of peace.  This is South Carolina removing the Confederate flag from the state house grounds.

It came down because of decades and decades of peaceful protest. Did it take too long? Yes.  The remedy for sin always takes too long.  Do people suffer injustice in the course of the long, slow path of peaceful protest? Yes.  But people suffer injustice from violent protest, calumny, and vicious personal attacks.  There’s not an option for waving the Fix Everything Wand and presto-change-o the world is magically better.

Peacefully refusing to accept injustice works.  It has worked marvels of healing and change in a place where you would never have said fifty years ago that all this would come to pass.  It worked in a place where people are still fallen.  Sinful people who do wretched things made that flag come down.  Gracious people doing their best to make the image of God shine in the darkness made that flag come down.  They were the same people.

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U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Martha Nigrelle: “Soldiers, fire fighters, paramedics and neighbors ensured more than 1,000 people and hundreds of dogs and cats were safe, evacuating them to dry ground and local shelters.”  Courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

Anti-Racist Jesus Visits Canaan

Today the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman came around in the readings again.  I once heard a deacon preach that this incident just shows that Jesus was “human” like the rest of us, where “human” is code for “sinful.”

I don’t think so, sir.

Back in 2014, I wrote a bit of Gospel fan fiction, taking the words of Scripture verbatim, but filling out the details Scripture doesn’t supply.  Everyone does this when they read, and sometimes our fill-in-the-blanks interpretations are justified and sometimes they are not.  I wrote a follow-up post on why I hold with the Jesus is Not a Jerk Thesis.  I still hold with that reasoning:

Thus when the infamous quote comes around full circle in conversation with the Canaanite woman and his disciples, we have a Jesus who:

  • Is master of the Law, not slave of it.
  • Has praised the faith of pagans.
  • Has spoken of the redemption of the very region they are now standing in.
  • Has willingly and freely healed non-Jews.
  • And has said that perseverance in prayer is desirable.

And then He pulls out a pun in his dialog, turning the meaning of the expression on its head.

Were I writing that same story today, I wouldn’t write it the way I wrote it back then.   Today my mind is on the idea of racism, and for the reasons I summarize above (see the original post for more details), I tend to view this encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman as the counterpart to what today we would call an anti-racist moment.  Jesus has been attempting, through word and action, to teach his disciples that salvation is for the whole world.

They will eventually get that message (“neither Jew nor Greek”), but they haven’t got it yet.

Here they are being asked to heal someone’s daughter of a demon.  A demon, guys!  This is serious, serious trouble, and it’s the kind of trouble that elite religious healing-commando people ought to be on the job taking care of.  Instead they say: Send her away. She’s bugging us.

What exactly do you do with people whose hearts are so hardened?

Give them another talk?   You can only give so many talks.

Our Lord, being fully God, had the ability to know this Canaanite woman.  He had the ability to know how she would react under pressure, and what sorts of things would wound her and which would not.

People are cured of their bigotry only when they get to see the world through the eyes of the person they’ve pushed off and objectified.  The disciples would have happily dismissed the woman as some noisy, intrusive, undeserving gentile.  Jesus says what needs to be said — he verbalizes what they are thinking — so they can see how unjust it is, and they can see in her response how deserving of their respect she is.

 

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Artwork: The Canaanite Woman, via Wikimedia [Public Domain]

 

Ushers of Divine Mercy

Saturday afternoon found me in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and in need of a trip to the confessional.  (No, I’m not scrupulous.  Just wretched.)   Holy Cross Catholic Church is about the size of a large convenience store, done in the style of 1970’s Neo-Traditional with a vigorous nod to Appalachian folk art.  Like the town itself, it is everything lovely and nuts and comfortable and joyful about American popular culture, Southern style.

For all that the parish embodies Americana, Holy Cross has something I’ve almost never seen in any of the many parishes I’ve visited: A greeter at the door during the hour for Confessions.

It makes sense of course.  If you know you’re likely to have visitors, it’s logical that you’d want to be ready for them.  I showed up, and the usher, with name tag and friendly welcome suited to his post, pointed out where the confessional was and where the line was forming and generally made sure I was all set.

Pigeon Forge is a small town in a rural county, and on any given Saturday the bulk of the Catholics on the ground are probably not parishioners.  I don’t think people usually come to Pigeon Forge for the purpose of confessing, though if you wanted to make the trip for that purpose, I can vouch for the place in that regard.  I do know that a lot of people come to Pigeon Forge for other reasons, and every single one of those visitors is a dreadful sinner just like the rest of us.  A few of them perhaps want to give the soul a good sprucing up after a visit to the Nike Clearance Store (or whatever else it is people do in town — evidence is I did that).

I suspect the parish has a particular charism for the Sacrament of Penance and for Divine Mercy.  In addition to the artwork in the nave and sanctuary, on the Lighthouse Media display rack in the lobby, there were exactly two talks on CD available for you to take home: Scott Hahn’s “The Healing Power of Confession” and a Spanish-language version of Scott Hahn’s “The Healing Power of Confession.”  Somebody wants you to be good and forgiven.

CD cover art courtesy of Lighthouse Talks / Augustine Institute.

FYI if you dislike face-to-face confession, be assured that as you step into the combination classroom / office / confessional / room-with-a-view, there’s a solid screen with a kneeler so you have the option of confessing anonymously if you so desire.  If you’ve ever sat in line at the parish, you know why I’m making that assurance. Don’t panic when you see people sitting in the window. You have other options.

The Wet Pants of Poverty

This week down at the laundry-shower place, a guy named Phil pees on himself.*

Oh, crazy street people, you say.

Nah, I don’t think so.  When you meet Phil, one of the things that stands out is that he almost certainly has miserable health problems.  A lot of the clients have that look.  From the way Phil has trouble walking, you might guess, for example, that he’s got a spinal injury or something.

Something else you notice after spending a little time in the same room, and getting to wash his clothes and to observe the care he puts into straightening himself up at the shaving sink, is that this is a guy who cares about his appearance.  He knows odds are against him, and he’s making the effort.  He doesn’t want to be that unkempt crazy street person.

No one who comes into the shower-laundry does.  That’s why they come.

So today from my post at the machines I notice the odd whiff of urine-fresh-scent, and it seems to pick up when Phil walks by, and sure enough when I glance over at him sitting waiting his turn for a shower, evidence is he either dropped a cup of water in his lap or he’s the guy.

He does what any sane person would do in his position: He stays cool and pretends it didn’t happen.  Maybe no one will notice.  Maybe people will think he spilled his ice water.

What else is he going to do?  In a minute he’s going to be able to shower and put his clothes in the wash and take care of the situation, but until then he’s stuck.  And I’m telling you: Phil is not a guy who wants to be sitting there with wet pants.  He just isn’t.  He hates it as much as you would.

***

Here are two things about being homeless:

  • You have to scratch together every bit of help from seven different places.
  • Poverty doesn’t wait until you’re ready for it.

When people with good stiff bootstraps visualize homelessness, they visualize a weekend with the Boy Scouts.  Be hard-working and resourceful!  No-match fires and a foraged meal?  Sure!  Except of course that if the Scouts went on a camping trip but you were in no condition to go, your mother made you stay home.

Poverty doesn’t check to see if you’re feeling well.

If you are homeless or nearly, depending on your area there may well be help for you with food and clothing, with shelter if you can get along in a group, and sporadically with medical care and so forth.  I’m not aware of any programs that stock incontinence supplies.  I checked our supply shelves — we don’t.  You have to have cash to cover that one.

That stuff’s expensive.   Price it yourself — everyone pays out of pocket, not just homeless people.   There’s a lot of help to be had for homeless people, but none of it involves handing out cash.  So if the problem’s new or infrequent, financially the calculus may well lean heavily towards hoping that if you have an accident it happens right before you go in to get your weekly shower.

 

*Heck no, I’m not telling you people’s private business.  All names and identifying info are totally changed.

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Artwork: The Dressing Table, 1879, Gribkov.  Via Wikimedia [Public Domain].

The Blessings of Being Flipped Off

by: Vincent Weaver

Something a lot of people involved in the pro-life movement do is to stand up for the unborn by praying outside of abortion clinics. Happily, this effort has gone in a much more positive, loving direction over the last 15 years. It’s not even accurate, in most cases, to call these “protests” anymore. Make no mistake, this presence is intended to bring attention to the defense of the most vulnerable in our society. To take an innocent human life is objectively wrong. To take the most innocent of all human lives is unacceptable. There should be no minced words about that. To be silent is false compassion – it’s spiritual and emotional euthanasia.

However, it is incredibly important to heed that ancient axiom to ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner’. We all have an obligation to point out injustice and wrongdoing. However, none of us has any right to condemn the person carrying out that act, as only God knows their heart. So, if you see or hear someone telling a woman considering an abortion that she’s going to Hell, then they clearly don’t understand the point here, nor do they understand Christ-like love.

The much more common scenario these days is people calmly and quietly standing outside abortion clinics praying. Sometimes they hold signs with slogans like, “Pray to End Abortion”, or “Adoption: The Loving Option”. We’re there to provide women in unplanned pregnancies real choices (having literature on alternatives to abortion available) and to let them know how much they (and their babies) are loved.

This reality makes it that much more bewildering when you’re standing there peacefully praying and someone drives by and gives you the finger.  Admittedly, there was a time when such actions irritated me. They fed a desire deep down in my heart to give that person “what for”. While I knew that wasn’t the proper reaction, it seemed instinctive.

Then, I read Abby Johnson’s book, “Unplanned” a few years ago. For those who don’t know Abby, she was a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic. Then, one day (through some fluky circumstances), she ended up witnessing an actual abortion at her clinic. (This was the first time she saw the product of the business she was running.) She had a visceral reaction and knew she had to quit. And she did. Since then, she’s been an outspoken voice for life, and she wrote this book.

What “Unplanned” showed me (much to my surprise) was the humanity of abortion clinic workers. Honestly, I had never given these people much thought, other than as some kind of faceless monsters. That caused my praying for a culture of life to take on a much broader focus. Only then did a human face start to appear on these folks for me. These are real human beings who deserve our love, who deserve MY love, because to cast them aside would mean I just don’t get what it means to be a Christian.

That realization also helped my attitude towards the bird flippers driving by. (You know who you are!) J All of a sudden, my immediate response when being flipped off was to have compassion. I’d immediately think to myself, “What kind of pain must that person have suffered to feel this way?” “What is the source of that anger?” And by making that pain and anger clear to me, therein lay the ‘blessing’. By having a reaction – of any sort – that person gave my prayer a target. I would launch into a ‘Hail Mary’ or a Divine Mercy chaplet asking God to rain down His love and mercy on that person. I’d pray that they find healing, peace, and the presence of God.

So, if you see me (or any of the 1000s of other regulars) standing outside an abortion clinic praying and encouraging others to choose life, it’s okay if you feel the need to tell us we’re #1 with your middle finger. But know that prayer is powerful, and that I’m calling for all God’s truth, mercy, and love to come showering down on you very soon. And I thank you for giving me that blessing – that reminder of your humanity. Please pray for me, as well. I need all I can get.

And for all you awesome pro-life prayer warriors out there, please consider this unsolicited advice. Arguments don’t help. Love, prayer, and genuine compassion (and the willingness to listen) do.

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.

A Love Fully Human and Fully Divine

I always have trouble when Christians say, “Jesus had to die on the cross in order to save us.”  It makes me think: I suspect God could have saved us however He liked.

But He did it this way, so here we are.

Humans are thick about the nature of God.  You’ve just been created out of dust and given domain over the earth, and yet you’re unclear on God meaning what He said when He told you not to eat that one fruit.  Never mind ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army — did God really say . . .?

The Godliness of God is hard for us to grasp.

Even harder, judging from the pagan pantheons and our own understandable tendency to despair in the face of so much evil, is believing that God is good.  The gods of myth are fickle and self-serving; they come to our aid when it suits their own cause, not ours.

Thus the Incarnation.  Here comes God in the form of a man, which the mythical gods have done in their way, but this one is different.  This one loves the way that men love when they are very, very good men.

Mostly we humans like to push off thinking too carefully about love, because what we want is for the satisfaction of the present moment’s desire to be counted as “good enough.” But we do know real live goodness when we see it.  We honor the sacrifices of those who have given of themselves for others.  We know deep in our hearts that the very best people, the ones who embody Goodness itself, are those who care entirely about others and don’t consider what it might cost to give, they just give.

We know that.

And we’re not very bright about what God is like, so it is helpful for us to see that when God is a man, He loves the way that the very best men love.

***

There were good men living in the time of Jesus, just like there are good men living now.  Men who were heroic in their willingness to do what others needed them to do, in the mission of love and justice and mercy.  The Samaritan.  St. Joseph.  St. John the Baptist.  No doubt others as well.

Pontius Pilate was given the chance to be a heroic man.  His wife had been warned in a dream concerning Jesus, and passed on that message to her husband: Don’t mess with this guy.  Let him go.  Gentleman, recall that you chose your wife for this purpose. You elected her to be the one person whose advice you value most, so don’t squirm when she gives it.

He could have been a heroic man, sacrificing himself for the sake of love, justice, and mercy.  He knew very well that Jesus was innocent — he said so himself.

Instead he chose to be the coward of cowards.  What is the suffering of one innocent man compared to the danger I face?  And it was danger.  He was facing the end of everything, and so he pushed away the plain truth and talked himself into the crucifixion.

***

I do this all the time.  I push away what I know to be the right thing to do, because I do not want to lose some good I’ve convinced myself is more urgent.

***

The difference between God and us is that He’s God and we aren’t.  He’s all-powerful, our powers are limited.

We are capable of being fully human.  We are capable of being entirely the persons God created each of us to be.  We are capable of choosing heroic sacrifice rather than cowardice.  But we would still only be men.  Limited.

God-made-Man remained fully God even as He took on the fullness of humanity as well.   As man, he could be fully the best sort of man, giving of himself entirely.  But He was still God, and thus His powers were not limited.

***

Think of the best people you know.  Perhaps you have moments when you would gladly sacrifice yourself for someone else.  Perhaps you are a parent who would do anything to take on the suffering of your child so that your child can be spared.  Perhaps you see someone in grave danger, and know that if you could, you would give over even your very life to rescue that person.

Sometimes we get the chance to act on that impulse, but usually we don’t.  No matter how fully your heart is filled with generosity and a willingness to sacrifice, your powers are limited.  You would joyfully give your life to save that starving orphan in the war-torn country, but you can’t. You are limited by distance and other obstacles.   Maybe you can’t even give your life adopting some local orphan, because your means or the local bureaucracy or the other people who already require your help prevent you from being able to rescue that other one.

You and I can give everything we have, but we can’t give it to everyone.

***

We also can’t cause our sacrifices to do exactly what we want done.  My abilities are limited.  I can save some people in some situations, but other problems are beyond my powers.  I lack the mechanism to make the rescue happen.

***

Fully Man, Jesus was the best of men.  He was willing to sacrifice everything for the good of others.

Fully God, the power of His sacrifice is not limited.

He can save everyone, everywhere, everyhow.

He can breathe into dirt and cause humans to live on earth.  He can hang on a cross and cause humans to live in eternity.

He has the willingness and also the ability.

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain].

FYI we have a family custom of unplugging for the Triduum.  Some of us will still be on the machine doing things like taxes and homework, but if you’re looking for me, I finally have a legitimate excuse for being gone.  Happy Easter!

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 for Slackers

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

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

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

That’s it.  Get out of here.

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

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

Slackers Quit Slacking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

Penance

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

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

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

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

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

Almsgiving

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

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

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

Almsgiving is the triple whammy:

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

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

About those Poor People

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

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

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

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

File:Battistero 1.jpg

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

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].