Life and Death Decisions Made Beneath the Pedestal

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

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

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

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

Now, on to the Pedestal of Death.

Superman is Amazing

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

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

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

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

Hard Things Don’t Require Superman

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

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

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

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

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

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

No! No! No!

Not Killing Innocent People is an Ordinary Person’s Job

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

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

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

Death by Admiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

File:1527-Kalender Celebi Rebellion-Suleymanname.jpg

By Matrakci Nasuh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Meeting the Rich Young Man

This past Monday the Gospel was from the story of the Rich Young Man. We read it this year in Mark chapter 10, but you can find the account in Matthew 19 and Luke 18.

A week in, I still want to write about it, so I will.

MK 10:17-27
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

A lot of people are recorded in the Gospels asking our Lord questions, or asking Him for other stuff. The first thing I notice here is what the question is: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Now it’s possible that the man is just trying trip Jesus up or start an argument. But there’s evidence to follow that this is the thing he wants to know. Asking this is commendable, because I think a lot of us just don’t even care about the question or the answer. We assume we already know the answer – whether eternal life is possible, and if so, what it’s like and how we obtain it. But here’s someone who isn’t presuming.

Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

This initial answer has obvious rhetorical bearing on the fact that Jesus is God. But for we mere humans, the question of goodness comes around at the end, back to the question of eternal life.

Our Lord proceeds to lay out what goodness looks like:

You know the commandments:

You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”

Now here’s this shocking answer that I don’t think shocks enough:

He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”

How many people can you say this about? Some, I’m sure. But most of us? I don’t think so.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him

Catch that? I infer from this exchange a series things:

  1. The man was telling the truth. He really had been keeping the commandments.
  2. He knew that it wasn’t enough. That’s why he approached Jesus and asked the question: He’d been keeping the commandments, and was stirred by a sense that there was something greater for him. That being satisfied with his (impressive) observance of the law was not the way to eternal happiness.
  3. Jesus isn’t about to go all table-flipping. What follows isn’t a rebuke. It’s the next thing. Here’s someone who wants the next thing!

and [Jesus] said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

So this is the next thing. The man’s reaction isn’t all zip-a-dee-doo-dah:

At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

This is the moment when people love to hate the rich young man. But really? Have you done this? Have you done something close to this? Because if you’ve freely given up everything you owned and all your security and all your safety, you’re in rare company. You probably don’t read this blog, and you probably do know that it’s a big thing.

I don’t mean it was taken from you. I mean you gave it up freely.


Even the women who followed Jesus and supported the disciples from their wealth didn’t give up everything – hence that wealth. The Apostles still had their livelihood to turn back to. After Jesus died, they went back to fishing.

I would hazard that most serious Christians disciples whom I know personally are already feeling the pinch just by taking a bit of risk, or choosing to live a little more simply, or choosing to give a little more generously.

Now think about the man’s reaction from another angle: Why did his face fall?

Because the man took Jesus at his word.

He didn’t convert the command in his head to something less – something easier to live with. Nor did he take it to mean, “Here’s a suggestion, but you might have other ideas and those could work too.”

The Gospels tell us the man went away sad, but we don’t know what decision he made. What we do know is that when he left, he was actually wrestling with the decision. He was taking it seriously. He was counting the cost.

It’s really easy to follow Jesus when you’ve got nothing to lose. It’s a lot harder to convert when it means necessarily giving up things you’re not sure you can live without, or not sure you want to.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!”

This comment should scare you. You probably have things left to lose.

The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?”

Even the disciples had things left to lose, at that point. Eventually they’d get down to nothing, but that was later.

Meanwhile, back to that question of goodness:

Jesus looked at them and said, “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

Sooner or later, we reach the limits of our human perfection. Some of us are sufficiently bad that we hit the wall early and hard. Some, like the rich young man, have to be squeezed to find out where the faults lie.

Christianity isn’t the worship of our human goodness. It’s the worship of the Goodness that comes to rescue us when ours is fresh out.


Artwork: Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10) – 1879, Beijing, China [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

Book Review: Getting the Marriage Conversation Right

(There’s a book review coming at the bottom of this, but I need to lay out some preliminary matter first.  And this is a post concerning sex.  Not for children.)

To be Catholic is to be aware of a long list of my own faults.  Let’s review a few of them:  I goof off too much (not just on the internet, everywhere).  I lack patience for the most trivial of inconveniences.  When I’m irritated, I use my verbal powers for evil and not good.  I spend way too much money on myself, and far too little on the poor.  I procrastinate.  On any given day, there’s a decent chance I spent the time I meant to spend praying (not an exorbitant quantity) doing some other more entertaining and entirely optional thing.  For those who are familiar with the Little Flower, we could safely describe me as the Little Weed.  The anti-Therese.

And that’s just my public sins.  For every one you see on the kitchen floor, there’s a hundred more in the walls. If Therese is one of our few Doctors of Church, I’m guaranteed a spot among the vast number of Patients of the Church.

So be it.  Some people talk about so-called “Catholic Guilt”, and those people are invariably the ones who missed out — in whole or in part — on the real deal: Catholic Mercy.  If I don’t crumble in despair at the state of my soul  (and yes, actually despair is one of my sins as well), it’s because there’s hope for me.  Not hope that I’m going to wake up one morning suddenly meriting Heaven.  But because Someone Else has gone ahead and opened Heaven for me.  He loves me with His whole being, and will do anything — anything — to give me an shot at eternal happiness, mine only for the asking.  And not just me — He loves everybody that way.

My experience with evangelization is that few of us are converted because we suddenly discover how wretched we are, and thus desire to jump into the cosmic shower.  Quite the opposite: We long to know God, and having been drawn to Him, we begin to see, bit by bit, what life in Heaven looks like.  And what kind of baggage we’ll be leaving at the door when we get there.  Some things we drop like an old stinky garbage bag, in a flash of horrified understanding. Other things we keep stuffed in our pockets, sure they are part of us, or sure that these are little treasures we can sneak through eternal security . . . and it is only late in this life, or at the beginning of the next, that we catch on to the fact that, oops, we’ve been running around with the spiritual equivalent of a moldy rotten banana shoved in that coat pocket.

I’ve got rotten bananas in my pocket. (Usually only spiritually, though there was that one time I waited a month to clean out my tote bag . . . ick.)  But if your argument consists of, “Jen, you stink!” my response is, “Um, why yes, I do.”

I hate the topic of Gay Marriage.

Hate it.  Let me count the ways:

1) Because I know that the people who favor gay marriage do so for entirely understandable reasons.

2) Because I’m not an idiot.  I’ve known plenty of folks who favor same-sex unions, and who are, put simply, better people than me.  And they’re far and away better people than some of our rotten-to-the-core unrepentant clergy who’ve spent decades hiding despicable offenses.

3) The division concerning gay marriage doesn’t have its roots in questions about homosexuality.  For the last fifty years, the going cultural norm has been that whatever I desire, sexually, should be acted upon.  That marriage vows are no vow at all.  That children and marriage have nothing to do with one another.  That children have no particular need to be raised in a home with their mother and father.  That any parent-type figure will do just fine.

An aside: People have a hard time accepting that adopted children feel a genuine grief concerning their biological parents.  That very illusion — that your parents were unable to care for you, but hey, you have nothing to cry about — feeds into the destruction of marriage.  Something my dad said to me very plainly when he remarried after my mother’s death — I knew it, but he was absolutely right to lay it on the table  — was, “Your stepmother is not a replacement for your mother.”

It is a beautiful and wonderful thing when some loving person can step in and fill some portion of the blank left by the loss of loved one.  But it doesn’t erase the loss.  Acknowledging the loss makes it possible to delight in the sheer gift of this new and full and lively relationship, because we can accept it on its own terms, not pretend it is the other gift now gone.

4) A significant portion of the so-called Christian world doesn’t even acknowledge the horror of abortion.  An even larger chunk, including many people whose genuine faith in Christ I don’t doubt for a moment, think sterilization and contraception are AOK — desirable even.  And I don’t want to contemplate the numbers in the Church who approve or encourage the sin against purity we used to discreetly but emphatically call “self-abuse”.  Before you start citing the ancient Jewish law concerning homosexual acts, review the details concerning Onan, eh?  Struck dead on the spot?  Actions speak louder than words.  Disapproved.

5) I know that condemnation is the way of the world.  To ask for so-called “mercy” in the wider world is to heap condemnation upon yourself.  So I know that for many people dear to me, if I ever say, “Well, actually this one thing you’re doing is wrong,” those people I love will hear my words as code for, “Actually I hate you and I was just faking nice.”  Which isn’t true.  See my sins above — faking nice is not one of my virtues.

So to discuss gay marriage, at all, is to be accused of hatred.  I can discuss contraception, and people just think I’m a little daft.  I don’t mind that.  But I dislike the fact that to open this topic is to have a number of people I respect, admire, and count as friends, be tempted to assume the worst about me.  Well, the worst about me lies elsewhere.

[For the record: People hate you just as much if you talk about modesty in any specific terms.  Which I will be doing at in a couple weeks.  I’m racking up the voodoo rays this month.]

On to the Book Review

Getting the Marriage Conversation Right: A Guide for Effective Dialogue by William B. May is a short, readable booklet, written for a Catholic audience who wants to defend the sacrament of marriage, but suffer from poor rhetoric.  The assumption is that you the reader agree with the Catholic teaching, but perhaps you articulate it poorly.  You may even be currently basing your arguments on any number of details that simply aren’t Catholic.

Or you may be a Catholic who wants to follow Church teaching, but doesn’t understand why the bishops are so adamant about not allowing civil unions as a peaceful live-and-let-live alternative.

There is a single refrain that explains the disconnect between reality and popular culture.  The going definition of marriage in our society is this:

“Marriage is the public recognition of a committed relationship between two adults for their fulfillment”.

And let me observe right now: If this is your definition, it is logical to accept gay marriage.  Trouble being, that’s not what marriage is.  It is what civil marriage has become.  But it’s not what it is supposed to be.  Here’s the Real Ale definition of marriage, the one the Church is trying to defend, too little too late:

“Marriage unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union.”

This is the radical reality that animates the entirety of Christian thought on marriage and sexuality.  Each child has a need to be raised by his mother and father.

Sometimes bad things happen — death, or serious sins such as an abusive parent, or a rapist father — that make this need impossible to fulfill.  When that happens, we have no choice but to go with the next best thing, whether it be single parenting, or remarriage, or adoption.  The next best thing, in the context of a response to tragedy, becomes the very picture of self-giving love.  Anyone who steps into fill the void for a child who is unable to be reared by both his mother and his father?  A true hero.

We live in a fallen world, and marriage faces countless obstacles.  Getting the Marriage Conversation Right addresses each of these difficulties in turn, and explains how we are to understand a proper response to _______ problem.  The book repeatedly admonishes us to avoid the temptation to condemnation, and maintains a thoroughly Catholic — that is, merciful — response to the many problems that individuals may face.

No hate-spewing.  No tsk-tsking.  No “they deserve what they get”.  None of that.

Who Should Read This Book?

The audience is those who accept, or wish to more fully accept, Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage.  If you aren’t interested in being convinced, you won’t find this book convincing. It’s a book of explanations for why the Church teaches as she does, and how to effectively communicate that teaching to others.

The reading level is all-adults.  The tone is conversational and the word count is short and to-the-point.  This is an excellent resource for a parish study group.

Helpful for Outsiders?

If you are in favor of same-sex unions, will this book help you understand the other side?  A lot depends on your mentality.  This is an unabashed defense of the Catholic teaching, written by and for those who want to agree with it.  There is no effort to create, within the book, an apologetic geared towards the worthy opponent. Yes, if you read the booklet with a desire to understand, in the spirit of true dialogue, why people oppose same-sex unions, you will in fact learn why people oppose same-sex unions.

But if it’s going to make your blood boil to see anyone lay out a defense of a position you abhor, then yeah, it’s going to make your blood boil.  No way around it.

Summary: Good book.  Short, readable, gets straight to the heart of the matter.  This is the first title I’ve read on this topic, and it does a good job at what it does.  For those who oppose same-sex unions, but don’t really know why, or how to explain their position, this book makes a good start.

Boilerplate:This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Getting the Marriage Conversation Right. The Catholic Company is the best resource for all your seasonal needs such as First Communion gifts as well as ideas and gifts for the special papal Year of Faith.

Gregory the Great Academy – Marketing Genius

Just arrived in the mail from the monks at Clear Creek Monastery, a free CD and this pitch for Gregory Great the Academy:

I was recently talking to a mother of two SGA graduates.  As her sons transitioned to college, she marveled at their development of character . . . Once, during his first home break from SGA, she asked her oldest son to help her with the laundry.  Without any comment or complaint, her son proceeded to gather up the laundry in the house and clean his own room as well.

Inferior schools talk about college acceptance rates.  Before you put down your tuition deposit, ask the questions that really count.

Theology of the Body Conference, Simpsonville, SC July 6th & 7th

Why is Church teaching worth standing up for?  I’d be remiss if  I didn’t tell you about the Theology of the Body Conference in upstate SC this summer – July 6th & 7th.  I won’t make it out this year — I’ll be home attending a wedding, yay! — but I was able to go to Family Honor’s TOTB conference in 2002, and it was top notch.  Speakers this year include Janet Smith & Ray Guarendi . . . you can’t go far wrong with talent like that.  Check it out.

Hey and if you ever wondered where my header and sidebar photos came from . . . yeah, upstate SC has a few little secrets in those mountains.  Good place.

Faith and Morals: Willful “Confusion”

Via The Pulpit I discovered this great article at Catholic Lane on the morality of genetic enhancements: “Catholic Confusion on Enhancements” which is worth a read.  I’d never considered the question one way or another (we have no genes we are particularly keen to improve — want of ambition, as always), and now I know.  It’s not confusing at all — the Catholic teaching comes down to the old standby, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

But the cries of, “But I just . . . can’t . . . figure this out . . .” are so familiar.  It’s the line used to justify ignoring all the most obnoxious moral principles:

  • Torture: I can’t tell whether I’m really torturing someone or not — I guess I’ll just keep at it.
  • Theft: Is taking this one small thing really theft? Who knows — just don’t tell anyone and it’ll be okay.
  • Lying: Is it really a lie, or am I just being deceptive?  Well it’s a good cause, so why worry?

You might also recall willful confusion was used back in the day for abortion — is this really a baby? — but now everyone knows it’s a baby, we just don’t worry about the very little ones no one much wants, that would be absurd.  Like worrying about little white lies and tax evasion and torturing people who surely deserved it anyway.

The most entertaining sort of pseudo-confusion is about NFP. Seriously, I kid you not, people will say with a straight face things like:

  • “I don’t understand how NFP and contraception are different.”  Um, the part about not having sex, maybe?
  • “But what’s the difference between using chemicals or latex to prevent conception, versus using time to prevent it?” I think if you can’t tell the difference between sex and abstinence . . . you’re doing it wrong.

These are excuses.  No one who is serious about avoiding immoral genetic manipulation, or torture, or theft, or lying, or contraception, asks these questions.

Excuses are different from honest inquiry.  When people are really trying to find out answers, they act differently.  Honest inquirers ask precise questions: Not, “I can’t know whether taking office supplies is stealing, I’ll help myself to this case of pencils,” but “Is it okay to make personal phone calls from the office phone?  I’ll e-mail the new boss and find out what the policy is.” And then are prepared to accept difficult answers: If the policy is no personal calls, I’ll wait and call later.

Excuses are different from honest mistakes.  A very, very common honest mistake is believing that the withdrawal method is a legitimate and morally acceptable form of NFP.  It isn’t.  But between some going jokes (now dated, but these things persist), the fact that no artificial devices or chemicals are involved, and the the insidious feeling that anything with as low an effectiveness rating as the rhythm method* must be okay, people get the wrong idea.

The answer is no — a very rough approximation of Catholic sexual morality would be more along the lines of “Don’t start what you aren’t gonna finish.”  The difference between the honest mistake and faux “confusion” is that the honest man might grumble about being corrected, but he won’t sit there acting like he can’t tell the difference between select body parts and a hole in the ground.

*Withdrawal and the Rhythm Method are both somewhat effective for avoiding pregnancy, though I wouldn’t want to bet on them myself.  The one is immoral, the other is not.  History buff though I am, when it comes to having babies, or not having them, give me nice shiny modern NFP over the quaint forbears any day.

7 Takes on Modesty: The Case for Rules

Pray for Allie Hathaway, then click to find more quick takes at

Whenever I gather with Catholic women, we all agree: Modesty is important, and we want more of it.  Especially at church.

But many of the same people who want more modesty do not want rules.  And there are some good arguments from the no-dress-code crowd:

  • Modesty is context-dependent.
  • Any rule can be “worked” to create an immodest outfit that meets the letter of the law.
  • Unless the rules are too strict.
  • Burkas burkas burkas.
  • Pants.  Pants. Pants.  Paaaaaants.

Add to that two bad arguments that fill us out at seven:

Today I give you seven reasons parishes, schools, and families ought to consider making some specific rules to define modest dress.

1.  Modest is not only about interior disposition. I refer you, for a start, to this excellent post by Rebecca Frech on how guys are different from girls.  Can a guy work himself into a sweat just imagining things?  Certainly.  But that doesn’t change the reality that having a woman’s body in front of his eyes provokes a physiological response — the same way putting a plate of fresh-baked brownies in front of a girl makes her . . . well, you know.  Put the brownies away.  Away.  Please.  Now.

2. You have to get dressed.  Everyday. Modesty is not some abstract principle debated by philosophers and mathemeticians.  Girls have to choose what clothes to buy, and then which ones to wear in which combination.  This is not some theoretical exercise, like wondering what you’ll do if a hurricane should hit your corner of North Dakota.  Either the clothes you put on today are modest, or they are not.  You have to know.

3. It’s not fair to leave girls with nothing but judgement calls, and no hope of getting it right.  Yes, there are many, many classy outfits on the border between modest and not.  At home with mom, or in the fitting room with a trusted friend, you can say, “Yeah, that skirt’s a smidge short, but it’s a heavy fabric that won’t fly away, and with opaque tights and a sweater, you’re okay.”  Given how hard it is to find decent clothes on short notice and a tight budget, yes, this is sometimes the reality.

But what if you’re a teen who wants to get it right?  Girls deserve reliable guidelines — a set of simple tactics for choosing an outfit that will work.  It’s no fair to tell teens “cultivate a sense of modesty,” but refuse to tell them what they need to do in order to avoid being gossiped about prayed for by the ministry team.   Modesty isn’t hard.  99% of the time, if you follow a few basic rules suitable to your time and place, you’re gonna be good.

4. Clear rules help you better judge the judgement calls.  Fashion is weird and unpredictable.  Pretend for a moment you have a rule along the lines of “skirt needs to touch the knees”.  Just pretend with me, it won’t hurt.  It’s only pretend.

Okay, so we’re pretending about our rule . . . and now we have a skirt with a slit up the side.  Having already said, “Well, this much leg is okay, that much is too much,” we have a basis for deciding whether the slit is revealing or just convenient.  How does it compare with other skirts we’ve decided are A-OK?

5.  Clear rules end arguments.  If you’re the youth minister charged with deciding whether an outfit meets spec, you don’t have to use your imagination.  You can say, “Shoulders not covered.  Go grab a t-shirt from the supply closet.  Not my rule, parish policy.”  End of argument.

At home, of course, you have to admit you’re the bad guy and just stick to your guns.  And of course your daughter is going to try to negotiate all the stylish concessions she can.  But at least she can shop knowing that no matter how obnoxiously tacky you think the new sequins-and-puff-balls day-glow-bubble-skirt style is, if it’s below the knee and not too tight, and she buys it with her own money, you have to let her wear it somewhere.  Not necessarily anywhere you, your family, or your nationality are known.  But somewhere.

6. Clear rules give girls something to stand on against their friends.  It’s not easy to be that kid who doesn’t get to wear what everyone else is wearing.  Yes, of course girls ought to have lots of guts and inner convictions, and be totally unafraid to stand up to their idiotic “friends” and get new ones if necessary.  Yes, of course a girl should rather face death itself than ever utter a single word against her honorable, admirable, eminently reasonable parents.  But seriously?  Give the poor kid an easy out.  “It’s the dress code for youth group events,” or “My parents have a rule against it.”

7. Clear rules sharpen the debate.  So your right-wing fanatic friend (or pastor, or DRE) swears that exposed ankles are the first step on the way to Hell, and that many a collarbone had led a man to perdition.  Putting together a tentative list of rules, and then opening it up to scrutiny, helps better answer the question.  You can flip through photos from the parish picnic and say, “Look, Sister Immaculata is showing some calf and it’s okay.  Let’s up our hemline rule a few inches, I think the guys can take it.”

You have to get dressed.  Every day, every woman in the universe answers a question with her body: “I think this outfit is just fine.” Why not do it with the confidence?  Make some rules.  Ask for input. Try them out.  Adjust as needed.

Catholic Blog Day: Penance

Welcome to the first Catholic Blog Day!  Read more here. The theme today is, fittingly, Penance.

Sunday afternoon the Superhusband and I sat around complaining about all the things that Catholics like to complain about.   “Too bad,” I finally said, far too late into our festival of grumpiness, “That we’re so lousy at prayer and fasting.”

Monday morning the readings came as no surprise:

Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seeds which will bear fruit in holiness. (James chapter 3.)

When Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why were we unable to cast it out?”

“This is the kind,” he answered, “that can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.”  (Mark chapter 9.)

I’m convinced there is a particular demon, I call him the church-ocracy demon, who tries to stir up all kinds of trouble in the Church.  He’s the one behind those weird bureaucratic moments where kind, loving Christians find themselves at odds, because each is trying to do the Lord’s will, and do it diligently.   He’s the one who tries to change the famous verse to read, “Wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, there will be a policy, paper, or program that drives at least one of you to distraction.”

Jesus promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church; we should not be surprised, therefore, when our parishes become the front lines of the enemy’s advances.  In order to win a battle, there must have been a battle to win.

The Church Militant is not an army of automatons.  There is a time for simply shutting up and following orders, yes.  Today we fast and abstain in part merely because the Church has said we will.  This is the day, this is how you will proceed; the direction is clear, and we follow it.  It is no hollow exercise, for certain; but nor is this the day, for example, to say with either jealousy or scruples, “Gosh, meat isn’t any big deal for vegetarians, shouldn’t they be made to do something extra?”  Eat less, pray more, today is the day, here are the orders on who what when where and how.

But the virtue of obedience is not the virtue of idiocy.  The critics of the Church imagine we are all little robot-agents, wired by microchip to a master-controller sending orders from his lair in a Vatican basement.  We do crazy things, after all, like saving sex for marriage, and only marrying one person at a time.  Surely there must be some kind of drug in the holy water, right?

Inside the Church, we pervert the virtue a different way, bickering over minutia, or actively dissenting from the clear teaching of the Magisterium, but then using the cover of “obedience” to spare ourselves the long, lonely walk to Calvary that comes from refusing to follow illegal orders.

But the church-ocracy demon comes into his own in the vast middle between extremes, where we are neither complaining bitterly the tile is just the wrong shade of beige, nor being asked embezzle funds or cover for a child abuser.  There is a great wide territory where it is difficult to find the balance between engaged, thoughtful participation in the life of the Church on the one hand, and peaceful, joyful obedience on the other.  And what does obedience look like, anyhow?

Good Christians disagree.  Good Christians who love one another, who love Christ, and love the Church, disagree about what policies and procedures need be put in place.  Sometimes we disagree lightly — mere tastes or preferences are involved.  Other times, we each feel the other is making a grave and damaging mistake.

The demon is not in the disagreement.  The demon is not in holding our ground when we honestly feel we must, even though it mean we find ourselves at odds with our friends.  The demon is in the voice that whispers bitterness, fear, jealousy, and rage into a situation that is, simply, two or more Christians disagreeing on some matter.

And it is only driven out by prayer and fasting.


Love and Priestly Ministry at the End of Life

On the way home from the funeral vigil, my seven-year-old told me, “This weekend I’m going to give up donuts and playground for Father Fix.” For the repose of his soul.

It had been her idea to attend the wake. Had she had her way, we would have gone to “all the funeral things,” as she put it, even to the point of calculating whether we could beat the hearse to New Jersey for the burial. (No, darling, we are not driving to New Jersey for the burial. If I’m going to drive that distance, we will go to Florida to see your great-grandmother.) She saw all the funeral flowers at the church and tried to figure out where, at eight at night, we could quick go out and buy some flowers of our own to put on that altar in Father’s honor.

She had loved that man.

And I didn’t even know she knew him.

Father Fix was the retired pastor of our parish, retired before ever we joined the parish when my daughter was a baby. He lived in a nearby nursing home, and on Sunday mornings a pair of parishioners would bring him to Mass.

He’d sit up by the front pews in his clericals, and receive Holy Communion right after the priest and deacon, and then during the communion procession, about half the congregation would pat his shoulder or shake his hand as they passed him on their way back to their own seats. During donuts after mass people who knew him would sit with him, and one time I thanked him for donating the (stunning) remnants of his library to the parish. He told me he was glad someone was reading his books. I am not smart enough to read most of his books, but I can admire them.

On Sunday morning before he died, I remember seeing him at mass and thinking, “He will not be with us much longer.” And how sorry we would be at that loss.

Wednesday when I learned he had died, I wasn’t sure whether to attend his funeral services. I had barely known him, I thought. There were so many others who had known him for decades, who remembered him as their pastor and friend. I didn’t want to crowd the church, stealing precious seat space from people who had known him so much of their lives.

But my daughter? She had known him since forever.

He was one of her priests. By her reckoning, he was more reliably present than any other priest to grace our parish. The way she counted it, Father Fix sitting in his nursing-home-issue wheelchair, shaking hands and whispering good wishes to all who wanted his blessing, he was doing as great a work as anything else that happened at mass.

He was doing a work that even a toddler can understand. Long before she could tell you about transubstantiation, or make sense of the Gospel, or figure out that the homily was something that might be meant for her little ears, she could understand the ministry of Father Fix. When I told her he had died, she said to me, “He was always so nice to everybody.”

How could you not love a man who had been kind to you at mass every week of your life?

So we went to the funeral vigil. We signed the guest register, and took extra prayer cards to bring home to the siblings, and sat in a wedge-corner pew perfect for two. She studied the picture of Father Fix on one side of the memorial card, and was delighted when I flipped it over to show her the image on the other side – the Sacred Heart of Jesus. After the eulogy, she directed me to get in line to visit the casket.

When it was her turn, she knelt before Father’s body and prayed.

He was decked out in the gold vestments he’d requested – a request she had learned of on her class’s church tour that week. Her teacher had told them about the liturgical colors, and explained why we wouldn’t be seeing gold again for a while, until new ones could be obtained.

After my daughter prayed, we looked through the the scrapbooks on the table in the narthex. Pictures, newspaper articles, all documenting that other life he had lived.

People will say of someone who suffers great infirmity at the end of life, “He is not the man we once knew.” I felt that betrayal in reverse: Looking through pictures of earlier honors and busy parish events, the man my daughter and I had known was not there. Where was the peaceful, quiet man who loved everybody?

Oh sure, a parish needs a pastor. Somebody’s got to confer sacraments and manage the building fund, and on an ordinary day I’d agree those are essentials of the priestly vocation. Through the sacrament of holy orders, the Holy Spirit confers a grace and a distinctive mark upon a man, setting him aside for these works.

It was not my idea that she make a sacrifice on Father’s behalf. It was her idea, born of her love for her priest, unbidden by anyone.

What is a priest for?

He proclaims the Gospel. In a particular way, through the sacraments, he brings God to us and us to God. The Holy Spirit works through a priest, to share the life of Christ with each of us.

For seven years my daughter was in-between sacraments. A lifetime.

And during those long seven years, God who is Love Himself put a particular priest in our pews. “What is your name?” Moses had asked of God. The answer wasn’t, “I am He who does.” It was: I am.

In those pews was a little girl who didn’t need a doing-priest. She needed a being-priest.

Father put himself at the service of the Lord. His life’s mission was to share the love of Christ in whatever way God required. And he did.

The Catholic Faith – Serve that shot neat, please.

Gun season opens Wednesday night at religious ed.   It’s time to study the Sacrament of Confession, which means another exciting of round of the game I do love, Is it a Mortal Sin?  I say things like, “If you commit a mortal sin, you need to go to Confession,” and “Here are the three conditions for a sin to be mortal.” Then I say something really outrageous, like, “Do you have any questions?”

This is the students’ cue to inquire about the pizza guy who got mugged, and what if a Nazi comes to your door*, and what do you do if you think the bad guy is going to shoot your best friend but you aren’t 100% sure . . . all that stuff.

Last year was surprisingly quiet on the shooting scenarios, though I did get asked if a person who murders his spouse is free to re-marry?  (No.)  But here’s what I love about teaching fifth graders: They want to know the answers.  I’ve had more than one student ask if it were a sin for a soldier to shoot the enemy during combat — fully ready to accept that if that were the case (no), they’d need to put away the plastic Army men and think hard about how to break the news to friends and family.

The other fun part of 10,000 Gun Questions Night is keeping it strictly Catholic.  I often hear a double complaint about the Church:

  1. How can we possibly have a firm teaching on anything?
  2. And if so, why don’t we have a firm teaching on everything?

As if it were somehow more logical to worship a god who gave out brains and then refused to let you use them.  [Catholic moral theology tip: If God gives you something, He’s got a plan for how it’s supposed to be used.  Thy body is not a knick knack.]   The challenge with the 5th grade questions is that within the guidelines of just warfare and legitimate self-defense, Catholics are free to hold any number of opinions on what makes a good gun law, or whether those soldiers ought to be over there doing that.


I enjoy teaching as precisely as I can.  To be as aware of the limits and definitions of Catholic doctrine as I am able, and therefore hopefully pass on a view of the faith that veers neither right nor left.

In the short run, I avoid undermining the student’s family, and I like that.  If your mom has chained herself to the gate of  a nuclear weapons facility, or your dad is president of Kids Need More Guns Inc., those are positions a Catholic of good will could hold and still be faithful to the teachings of the Church.  At any age, students deserve to learn the faith without having it mixed up with personal opinion; in fifth grade it is particularly important to stay in the middle of the narrow road.

–> At ten and eleven, kids aren’t ready to form their own opinions on open questions. They do delight in wearing the opinions of the people they love. Politics is best left to parents.  (It is bad enough I’ve got to break the news about divorce and remarriage, and also about how, yes, you really do need to come to Mass every week.)  It makes for a better course if I acknowledge there is more than one legitimate opinion, and leave my own opinions home.

In the longer run, teaching plain old Catholicism gives students a firmer grounding in their faith.  As they grow older and are wondering if Mom should have chosen a different sort of peaceful resistance, or maybe Dad carried it a tad too far in his love of the Bill of Rights, they have already been told that the Catholic faith is not the whole crazy package of everything every Catholic they ever loved might have said.  They’ve already been told: You can disagree about _________________ and still be Catholic.

Teens and adults need to be able to sort through the world of ideas;  the Faith has to stand up to testing, and it will.  But to do that effectively, you have to know where the faith ends and opinion begins.

*Actually Nazis threaten the hypothetical doors of internet grown-ups much more than they disturb 5th graders.  10-year-olds tend to stick to situations being reported in the local news.  But sometimes, yes, the Nazis make their appearance.