Don’t Abandon MLK Just Yet

Since this time last MLK day, our nation’s been through an awful lot of civil strife, too much of it violent.

I want to offer some hope.

Here is something I keep finding myself telling my teenagers: You need to understand, this is not normal for our country.

They don’t know. Maybe this is how contentious problems have always been handled. They have, after all, evidence in their history books that the United States has not always been an oasis of non-violence.

But we who are a few years older are recoiling in disbelief at the rage and hostility that has erupted in so many places, and from people we did not expect. Friends. Family members. Colleagues. How did we get to this place?

Today, in memory of one of our nation’s greatest leaders of civil discourse, let me suggest something hopeful: We aren’t too far gone.

Over at the blog of Rod Dreher, with whom I often disagree, I watched the Washington Post’s extensively documented play-by-play of mob-infiltration of the capitol. It answered for me a question I’d been asking myself: Why wasn’t congressional security better prepared for this?

Answer: No one was much expecting it.

Here we are, post-911, post-MLK, post-Floyd . . . a nation that knows threats. We know terrorism, we know corruption, we know lynching, we know rioting, and yet, even with threats detected and reported, even with a massive protest pouring into the nation’s capital on the day the electoral votes were being counted in a highly-contested election for one of the most powerful political posts on the planet, there was clearly no expectation that anyone would break into Congress.

It was so darn easy for the mob to break glass and push their way in because . . . no one ever does that. We are accustomed to massive protests gathering just feet from where Congress meets, and we are used to those protests being just fine.

I can remember my first national March for Life being astonished at just how uncontroversial our reception was. Need to use the restroom? Just dash up the steps into one of the Smithsonian Museums, file through some cursory security, and help yourself. Grab lunch in the cafeteria and take in a little art while you’re at it.

My kids joke about the roving street vendors of DC who tout their stash of MAGA hats one day, March for Women the next. It doesn’t matter what your cause is, here’s a button for it, just two dollars. No one bats an eye at dodgy entrepreneurs shifting political loyalties by the minute, because partisanship is normal, expected, and largely a non-issue.

This peacefulness is evident in the Post‘s assembled video coverage of the capitol insurrection. The police could have begun forcefully pushing away the crowds before they got close to the doors. They didn’t.

You see officers standing at an entry, and the mob is breaking the glass on the door and helping themselves into the building, and the police do not fire. It is not until members of Congress are directly threatened that a single shot is fired.

Despite the deadly violence that did occur, despite the death threats being called out from some in the invading mob, there is a remarkable level of courtesy and restraint between law enforcement officers and invaders. It is as if they recognize the primacy of peace even in a mob insurrection.

+Update: ProPublica has posted extensive video coverage of the insurrection. Law enforcement deserves immense credit for not turning this into a massacre.+

Is that practical? Tactical? Sure. We don’t need to deceive ourselves about the nature of deadly mobs and outnumbered police. We don’t need to brush from memory the genuine, inexcusable violence of this riot or any other. We don’t need to forget that police brutality and corruption remain unsolved problems in our nation.

But also: The only reason the invasion of the capitol unrolled with such odd calm — and likely the reason that the House continued with business as long as it did while the mob poured into the building — is that peaceful partisanship is our norm.

It is not too late to again give that norm pride of place in our national discourse.

***

Martin Luther King, Jr., the man, was in some ways deeply flawed. Those human faults did not change the truth of his message. When the people you know, flawed, sometimes wrong, hold firm to something that is true and good? That truth and goodness rests on its own merits. You don’t have to reject the message because of the messenger.

In contemplating what good discourse might be, MLK’s example could not be more on point today. Do yourself a favor and get hold of a copy of the Letter from Birmingham Jail. (It’s still under copyright, so I can’t hand it out like Mardi Gras beads. You’ll have to find it yourself, maybe even pay for it.) Read it.

What it is about? It is about not being nice anymore. Not quietly going along with the status quo. It is about speaking up in the face of grave evil. It is about protesting unequivocally in a manner that will upset the people who wish you wouldn’t be such a trouble-maker.

But also: Non-violently.

MLK is our national hero of both protesting injustice fearlessly and doing so peacefully.

His legacy is the reason the capitol was invadable. It is the reason no one anticipated the breaking of that fragile glass line separating Congress from its critics. It is the reason we did not see as much bloodshed as might have been.

It is easy, when people are being nasty and violent, to reject MLK’s legacy. It is easy to say, Well, those vile brutes are destroying all we hold dear, you expect me to just stand there and take it? And when you do that, you make a mockery of the intense suffering and injustice against which MLK fought. Do you think he didn’t know violence? Do you think he didn’t know viciousness and unfettered ignorance?

Like all Christians, Martin Luther King was a sinful man in need of a Savior. And yet: He also gave his life to our nation living out the Christian model of love. He followed the more excellent way.

Refuse to waste that legacy.

Refuse to toss in the garbage our national heritage of peaceful partisanship.

It is possible to speak boldly, protest courageously, persevere resolutely, and in so doing join with all persons of good will in making our nation a land of peace and freedom.

View of Washington DC filled with people for MLK's I Have a Dream Speech

Photo of the crowd gathered for the “I Have a Dream” speech via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Saying Goodbye to the Person You Don’t Want to Be

It’s resolution season, but I want to talk about something deeper and more difficult. Resolutions are good. Less sugar, more sunlight, regular bedtime . . . some of these small changes can bring out a happier, more energetic, more you person, one you hadn’t fully understood was hiding inside. If you’ve resolved to start flossing, your dentist thanks you. Run with it.

But what if the thing you are struggling to let go of is tied to your very identity?

New Year’s resolutions don’t involve identity changes, I hope. If you have said to yourself, “I am a person who binges on junk food, and my very self would be annihilated if I were to limit that behavior to Sundays and solemnities, for that bag of Reese’s cups (the large ones loaded with peanut butter, like the Good Lord intended, not those pathetic minis) are who I am, and I should cease to be the person God created me to be if I didn’t help myself to the snack bowl every hour on the hour . . .” If you have said that to yourself, then I guess you have a situation on your hands, don’t you?

But usually resolutions are more about polishing and refining, bringing into the limelight the person you have already determined is the better you.

What if the change you are struggling with involves an aspect of yourself that feels essential to who you are? What if you examine your life, and discover your besetting sin, the thing that makes you most miserable, the thing you sometimes confess but usually rationalize, what if you discover that you love that sin because you view it as part of your very self?

To let go of that sin would be to lose your life, you fear.

That’s harder.

It takes precision surgery to be able to say, “I could still be meticulous and conscientious without being a slave to obsessive anxiety.” Or “I could still be passionate and spontaneous without following my every whim with no regard for what gets lost in the frenzy.” Or “I could still be a firm, authoritative, responsible parent without losing my temper when my children misbehave.”

My only message here is: It’s okay to free yourself from the part of “you” that is destroying your relationships and making you miserable. It’s okay to say goodbye, as many times as it takes, to that aspect of yourself that isn’t about your God-given calling, but in fact is overshadowing and dragging that calling down.

It’s a process. You didn’t get into this jumbled-up identity overnight. Even when you firmly resolve, “I am going to hold onto my talents and passions and spiritual gifts, but I am no longer going to let the vice I’ve been sheltering keep hogging up this space in my soul,” even then, the vice is so strongly planted that it will take years of persistent weeding (or a miraculous healing) to root it out.

So my new year’s wish for you is that, if you have been mistakenly embracing one of your faults as if it were integral to your self, that you’d muster the courage to bid it good riddance. Show it to the door. And when it comes back again and again, insisting it belongs in your heart and you can’t survive without it, kindly tell it you’ve had enough and it needs to move on.

***

In light of that pep-talk:

(a) If you are a Catholic writer, media personality, or social media conversationalist of any type, amateur or pro, and

(b) if the fault you’ve been confusing for your very identity as a communicator and evangelist is the “charism of being a jerk”, but,

(c) you don’t want to be bitter and angry and obnoxious anymore, then,

(d) please consider joining me and a number of others for a small, free, online retreat-conference being hosted later this month.

It won’t fix you overnight. You’ll probably discover that some of the people in attendance, people like you who don’t want to be nasty online Catholics anymore, but also have no intention of abandoning their passion for communicating the truth and engaging in rousing, high-spirited discussions on controversial topics . . . you’ll probably discover some of your fellow retreatants are people you passionately despise.

And that’s rough, because we’ll be providing opportunities to overcome your bitterness and reconcile with those wrong-headed dunderpuffs who had the nerve to show face at your life-changing retreat.

If you’re feeling brave, please join us.

File:Wilsons Promontory National Park (AU), Big Drift -- 2019 -- 1683.jpg
Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Wilsons Promontory National Park (AU), Big Drift — 2019 — 1683” / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Person You Were Made to Be

SuperHusband got me an early Christmas present, and it’s created a vocational challenge for me.

The gift was a Kindle Paperwhite. I did not anticipate wanting one of these, because I love paper books and dislike reading on machines. But my shelf-builder-in-chief asked if I’d be interested, and after polling my internet friends for advice about e-book readers and doing some math on our ability to physically store the quantities of books we can anticipate coming into my life over the years ahead (because I’m like that) we decided to give it a try.

Wow.

So this machine is not like other digital devices.

A Kindle Paperwhite, I have learned, is good for exactly one thing: Reading books full of words.

It is excellent for that application, which is perfect for me, because I like to read books full of words.

It is no good for picture books, so I will still have some future shelving needs, thanks.

It doesn’t make phone calls, text the kids, tweet hot takes, or surf the internet — all of which make it easier to focus on reading books. Even its relationship with the Kindle Store is tortured at best.

But if what you want to to is send yourself e-books, and then read them efficiently and comfortably any place you go, this little machine is magic. If you are the kind of person who needs — needs — to pack a backpack of books to bring along when you go places, just in case, this machine is a game-changer.

But it completely fails at any other job except being the one thing that it is.

And that, friends, is what I have been thinking about over the past month.

What am I made for?

Another thing SuperHusband and I did this autumn was host a campfire study of Rerum Novarum.

It was a small group (surprise), but it was so, so, so much fun. For me. SuperHusband kinda got into it? But also he got worn out. A couple months of reading and discussing, a paragraph at a time, a 19th century encyclical on applied economic policy . . . it was a little more than he bargained for. It turns out we are not exactly identical to each other in our taste for Sunday evening R&R.

So I could be irritated at him, or I could value who he is a person — someone different from me, which is a godsend when it’s time to make bookshelves, because my carpentry skills leave much to be desired.

Likewise, there’s me to learn how to value. I’m in a transition phase of life. The baby is a freshman in high school, so I’m starting to consider what ought to be next on the horizon, and also I’m constantly evaluating what these final years of kids-at-home should involve for me. In an interesting twist, my kids (ages 14-20) and I are in parallel phases, all of us wondering: What do we with ourselves next?

And we all have to answer some important questions. One of them is: What kind of person was I made to be?

Myself as Buried Treasure

The Kindle was pretty easy to figure out. For one thing, it’s just a machine. It doesn’t grow and breath and change over time. It doesn’t have to discern whether this limitation or that failure is something it needs to rectify, or whether it’s just a part of its programming. Its creators do all that fine-tuning, no cooperation or discernment from the machine required.

Also, the Kindle is marketed. We know it’s meant to be an e-book reader because it says so in the sales hype.

We humans, in contrast, are like mystery-gadgets. Imagine going to Best Buy and pulling down an unmarked box with some kind of computer in it, and you take it home, open the box, look it over, and try to figure out how best to use the thing.

No manual. No labels. You can see its size. You can see whether it has, or doesn’t, various input devices. You can experiment until you figure out how to power it up, and how to keep it charged. (Does it even have a battery, or does it need to always be plugged in?)

Then you have to guess: Does it make phone calls? Does it create spreadsheets? Play music? Would it do those things if we found the right software? If we connected to the right source? If we added a peripheral to assist it?

And if doesn’t do the thing, does it need to be re-charged, does it need to be repaired, or is it just not made for that?

That’s what being human is like. You are custodian of some combination of God-given abilities, talents, and spiritual gifts . . . but what are they? Given your time and place, your friends and family, your collection of external resources . . . what makes you go? What do you excel at, and how should you use that excellence?

What can you do well enough? What can you not do at all?

How do you need to be cared for? What will damage you? What will make you thrive? What will either damage you or make you thrive, depending on proportions and timing?

Being a Magic Book

I call my new machine The Magic Book. As in, “Has anyone seen my magic book?” or “Don’t worry if you’re running late, I’ve got my magic book along, I don’t mind waiting.” A compact, lightweight, waterproof book-that-holds-all-books is magic to me.

Because of the kind of person I am, I can easily reload the magic anytime it runs low by visiting the Free Magic supplier. It’s nice.

But, other than early 20th-century detective novels, the thing I am thinking about lately is this: I am also magic.

I’m made to do amazing things. Some of them I know about. (Example: ability to cause good dinner out of disparate leftovers.) A lot of it I am still trying to understand, because who you are and what you are made for is different at mid-life than it was at twenty.

Indeed, the whole question of What kind of magic am I? is one that is always there for us, because unlike the machine, we are constantly growing and changing, and our tactical purpose — What should I be doing with myself right now? — is constantly shifting.

So you can be like, “I don’t know what to do with myself!” or you can be like, “Hey, look, there’s magic in here! Give me a little time to figure out how it works.”

And that’s where I’ve been lately. Thanks for sticking around.

File:Pingüinos de El Cabo (Spheniscus demersus), Playa de Boulders, Simon's Town, Sudáfrica, 2018-07-23, DD PAN 40-42.jpg

This is today’s Wikimedia Image of the Day. It’s a panoramic view of penguins on the beach in South Africa, and if penguins aren’t a perfect example of the need for respecting one’s limits and abilities in the discernment process, I don’t know what is. On-theme: Longtime readers will be no more surprised than I was to learn the photo credit is Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA. Heh.

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

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.

The Conversation You Truly Never Expect to Have with Your Child

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

He told us what he was planning to do.

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

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

Whoa.  Ha. #CoronaLife.

Never thought I’d hear those words.

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

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

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

***

My coffee cup siting on a step ladder

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

 

View from My Office: Social Distance

As of this morning we’ve got six people working from home in our 2.5 bedroom house — and one them is a child with a cough who’s taken over the master bedroom because she’s in quarantine.  Thus, picking back up with our intermittent penance, my office now looks like this:

Laptop on a shelf in a crammed-full workshop

Photo: Yes, I fled to a corner of our crammed-full “garage”, because it is the one space that no one else wants, and there’s a solid door separating me from the rest of the house.  I’m happy about the arrangement:

Me posing next to the water heater

Photo: Me just finishing up morning prayers in the warm, consoling presence of the water heater, perhaps a little too smug in having stolen the SuperHusband’s folding lawn chair from his exile in the camper (because: we’ve been evicted from our bedroom by the sick child).  I need a folding chair, not one of the good lawn chairs from the patio, because I need to be able to clear the emergency exit out the back door of the garage when I’m not using the chair, and we’re not working with the kind of spaciousness that lets you just put the chair somewhere else.

This would be why there’s a construction project in my yard.

***

At least until everyone starts remembering I can now be found hiding behind crates of books and a table saw in my 16 square feet of personal space, this move is game-changer.  I’ve been struggling for the last two years with no office space of my own, and due to construction the SuperHusband has been working from home several days a week all fall, therefore needing during the day the small, cluttered office we previously shared in shifts.  Many colleagues can attest that this has not had a winning effect on my productivity.

Hence my one recommendation for those now embarking on the everything-at-home lifestyle: Even if it means setting up your office in a closet or a bathroom or behind stacks of crates in the corner of the garage, get yourself your OWN space.

Think about the work that you do. When SuperHusband works from home, he has two needs.  One is the big computer with all the monitors (which I kinda need too, buuuut . . . some office chores are going to have to wait), and the other is the ability to pace around while he conducts phone calls in his booming made-for-the-choir-loft voice.  Our shared office is, acoustically, in the same space as our kitchen and living area — in which living area our college student is now going to be doing all his classes online, since the university shut down.

The boy is already a pro at claiming the 11pm-2am shift for getting work done, and since we have all teenagers now, SuperHusband can pace and exclaim on the phone all he wants before noon, the dead aren’t rising unless they absolutely must.  Once the kids emerge from their slumber and start needing to do schoolwork, though, we agreed that the Dad is gonna need to go out to the dried-in construction zone and do his phone calls there.

Just as well I cede that space, which I’d been using as a day office when too many people were home and I had a lot of editing to knock out, because it is possible for contractors to keep on keeping on without spreading contagion (not a real touchy-feely profession), so SuperHusband’s planning to take a few vacation days this spring to accelerate construction.

***

Notes on separating kids during illness: In the past, we didn’t strictly quarantine sick children for cold-type symptoms.  We did our best to keep actively ill children out of the kitchen, but beyond that to an extent we accepted the inevitable.  With COVID-19, however, the parents decided that if at all possible, we’d like to not have two parents sick at the same time.  Yes, our young adults living at home can run things in a pinch — we have two now old enough to wield a power of attorney if it comes to it — but it would be better not to have to lay that much responsibility on them.

For our kids, the decision to make the master bedroom sick-central is victory.  Many many years ago we did start strict quarantine for vomiting children.  We have the luxury of a second bathroom, and once we began the practice of setting up a camping mattress, portable DVD player, and a collection of easily-bleached toys in the spare bathroom, and insisting ‘lil puker stay put until the coast was clear, we stopped having stomach viruses run through the whole family.

That arrangement is just fine for a clearly-defined illness of short duration; a nasty cough, in contrast, can linger ambiguously for weeks, and COVID-19 is growing notorious for its waxing and waning.  So our current exile is thrilled to have her own bedroom for the first time in her life, with private bath, big bed, space for all the Legos on the square of open floor (I insist a path be cleared before delivering room service), and even a sunny window seat on top of a big ol’ storage box.

If our system works, corner of the garage is a small price to pay.

***

Related Links

The Darwins are blogging about many aspects of pandemic-living, including some pro-tips on homeschooling.  If you aren’t already a regular reader, that’s something you need to change in your life.

Looking through my years of homeschool-blogging, here are a few that may be of help:

And finally, Finding Writing Time, Homeschool Mom Edition. Two things to learn from this older post:

  • No, you really cannot work full time from home and homeschool simultaneously;
  • Scheduling is everything.

At the time I wrote this one my kids were younger, so the natural flow was kids in the morning, mom-work in the afternoon.  With teens, I’d say it’s the other way around.  If you’re Simcha Fisher and have it all? The job from home, the morning shift getting littles out the door, the  big kids trickling home in the afternoon, the babies hanging around all day, and the dinner on the table? I don’t care if your kids do wear odd mittens and think that’s normal. You’re my hero.

Listen people: You can’t fully-totally-amazingly homeschool and work a full time job from home with no adult help.  Childcare is work.  Educating people is work. Work is work. There’s no magic.  Pandemic season is going to be hard.  Drop your expectations. Hold together the absolute minimum and you’ll be ahead of the game.

What More Do Old People Have to Give?

If you have not already seen it, watch this sorrowful video showing the increase in deaths in Bergamo, Italy, since the coronavirus outbreak began.  The speaker shows you first a newspaper from mid-Febuary: One and a half pages of obituaries. Typical for the area, apparently.  By mid-March, flipping through the paper as the coronavirus epidemic intensifies: Ten pages of obituaries.

Most of these deaths are elderly people.  At this writing, my own grandmother is 96 years old, and though now facing what will probably be her final illness, she’s had many long years of healthy retirement.  My mom died when our children were ages 0-6, and her mother became very ill with dementia about that same time, so for my children, their experience of “visiting grandma” on my side of the family is long road trips to Florida to see their great-grandmother.

They have many happy memories of playing dominoes and taking Grandma to eat out at local chain restaurants, and listening to her approve and disapprove of various styles and habits. Two years ago there was the never-to-be-forgotten discovery of toy bananas when we all went to Walmart, in which the elder and younger generations ganged up against the mother in the middle in the Great Banana Impulse Buy Debate.  (They eventually won, but I exacted my price. Totally worth it.)

It is not unlikely, now, that my grandmother’s final illness will be COVID-19 instead of the slow-moving cancer she’s currently dealing with.  “But she was old and sick,” people will say. Well, yes, but we were hoping to see her again in June.

She’s 96.  We knew last summer that our visit then might be the last. But what if she were eighty?  We’d have lost an entire lifetime of visits for most of the children; none of them would have any but the faintest memory of her.  I would have lost nearly two decades of mentoring from a woman whose vocation and outlook on life is so much like my own, and whose differences are like iron sharpening iron (clean your house, Jennifer!).  I think I can safely say that her children and other grandchildren and great-great-children feel the same: These last nearly twenty years she has enriched our lives so much, despite “doing nothing.”

Suppose you’re sixty right now.  You are looking at retirement soon, you’re tired out, thinking about downsizing, probably dealing with some health problems, and maybe beginning to feel like you haven’t got much more to offer the world.  And yet, if you don’t die of COVID-19, you may yet make it to eighty.  During which time:

  • You could grandparent a child (your own or a neighbor’s) from birth to adulthood.
  • You could mentor a young professional from young adulthood into the peak of his or her career.
  • You could, from the comfort of your desk, armchair, front porch or fishing hole, provide another ten or twenty years of incisive analysis and otherwise-forgotten experience related to difficult issues developing in your area of expertise.
  • You could finally write that memoir or novel, learn to paint, play the piano, or perfect your putting game, and in the process encourage some younger person who needs to hear by your example, your words, or your companionship, “What you are doing is worth it.”
  • You could write letters to the editor and bless out upstart politicians and conceited middle managers, in the process saying what the rest of us wish we had the nerve to say, but aren’t old enough not to care what other people think.
  • If you’re a priest, you could . . . well, you don’t get to retire.  Sorry.  Nice try.

People with “not much more time” still have much to contribute.

I won’t say that every old person is therefore wise.  I won’t say that every younger person facing a shortened lifespan due to medical problems is therefore living the well-examined life.  Nor do I say that the value of human life can be measured in utilitarian terms; your life is of infinite worth even if you can’t do anything at all.

But sick people and old people and the perfectly healthy young person who also dies of this thing do bring value to the world.

Nothing we can do, individually or as a society, can eliminate every untimely death that this new coronavirus will cause.  We can, however, delay the spread of this disease so that our healthcare systems are not swamped, and therefore no one needs suffer for lack of all the current treatments medical science has to offer. Slowing the epidemic also buys us more time for doctors and nurses to learn which existing treatments are most effective, and for researchers to develop new treatments or preventatives that will save people who would otherwise perish.

They are worth it.  Stay home.

File:St. Wolfgang kath. Pfarrkirche Pacher-Altar Sonntagsseite 01.jpg

Photo: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, Austria, showing scenes from the life of Christ.  I’m sure you can think of ways it relates to this post, but honestly I just thought it was cool looking.  You can read about the artist here. Image courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0.

 

 

Making the Mass Present in Your Soul When Your Body is Absent from It

I want to talk about making use of the interior life.

For me, and sometime soon I will lay out the whole long story, the Eucharist is the center of my faith.  No matter how miserably I’m spacing out during Mass, from the moment of the Sanctus I suddenly wake up to God; from there the consecration, the Agnus Dei and fraction rite, Ecce, and finally my own reception of the sacrament are when the Mass really does something life-changing for me.

Y’all wish that change would last a little longer and be a little more visible in my life, but to God a thousand years is a like a day, so hang on, He’s working.  This is the time of week (or time of day, when I can get it) that I am most aware of that work happening.

Therefore having to not go to Mass is something I dislike intensely.

Reading prayers, even very good prayers, or watching the Mass on TV are not the same.  They can be valuable, but I don’t love them and I don’t get the same sense of God’s presence and intimacy apart from the Mass.

And yet sometimes I have to not go to Mass.

You might be in this situation right now, and you might be struggling with that reality, because you want, more than anything, to be with our Lord in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.  So I’m going to talk to you about my interior life, and maybe it can help you with yours.

Slacking vs. Slaking

I can be a pretty lousy Catholic.  Everything I am going to say does not apply to situations where I’m spiritually slacking.  There are times when I let myself get so wrapped up in the delusion of being “self sufficient” from God that what prayer I do manage, what obligations I do fulfill, are not about intimacy with the Lord.

But, fortunately we have the Sunday obligation, and the Mass does its work on me, and so I can count on most weeks getting some spiritual first aid by the time the consecration rolls around, even if I’ve been committing low-level spiritual self-harm all week long.  And of course some times I am, in fact, seeking God throughout my week, and taking time to be with Him, and that’s the spiritual state I’m going to be talking about now.

See, when you are seeking God, if something happens that keeps you from Mass, your soul can be disposed to receiving Him even when you are separated.

This is a mystical thing, not a theological treatise, so don’t get hung up on vocabulary.  I am talking from the point of view of my lived experience, and if you would like to translate that into precise definitions of this or that category of prayer, you can do that.  I’m just going to tell you what I know.

And what I know is that when you are thirsting for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the Lord will slake that thirst.

How to Be Not Afraid

This is the thing that has worked for me, so if you are now facing the absence of the sacraments and that fills you with anxiety, try this thing:

Mentally put yourself there in the sacrament.  If it’s the Eucharist, mentally put yourself in Adoration before the Lord.  See, feel, hear, smell, taste in your mind that moment when you and Jesus are together at Mass.  If it is confession you cannot access, as you make your act of perfect contrition at home, see, feel, hear, smell, taste in your mind that moment when you and Jesus are together in Confession.  The scene or the thought or the quiver in your gut that you experience will be unique to you, so I’m not going to give you too many words of instruction.  Just mentally try to make present that moment of spiritual lightning that strikes, or that wave of spiritual refreshment, or that warm, powerful embrace of consolation, that in the past you have felt when you diligently seek the Lord in the sacrament.

I don’t have your brain.  Maybe there is a hymn, or an image, or the wafting scent of incense, or some other tangible thing that helps you make your experience of the sacrament again present to you.  Maybe it is the position of your body.  Maybe it is the memory of a particular person who touched you profoundly at a time when you received the sacrament — a priest’s advice in the confessional, or the lady in the pew who held your hand at the sign of peace, or whatever it is — there could be some particular memory that helps you re-call, re-summon, your experience of the sacrament.  Don’t be afraid if it’s something weird.  Maybe the wood of your kitchen table reminds you of the wood of the pew and somehow that’s your thing.  I don’t know what crazy way God has put together the connections in your brain.

But figure that out.

And then when you are saying to yourself, “I hate that I can’t go to Mass on Sunday,” or whatever it is that you are missing, stop and take some time to mentally make present that sacrament. Allow yourself to experience it again.  Allow God to bring to you, right in your bed or at your desk or at your kitchen sink, the grace that you experienced before.

Time with an Infinite God

The thing is that though we live in time, God lives outside of it.

God is able, with your willingness and cooperation, to deliver back to your awareness the grace that He bestowed on you already, about which you have forgotten.  He who knew what would happen today, and tomorrow, and three weeks from now, has poured out on you all that you need to survive this time of desolation.

I don’t mean that this is a substitute for the sacraments.  I don’t mean that if you ought to be going to Confession today or Mass today, and though you could obey the Lord’s call, instead you plan to sit in your lounge chair and surf the internet, that you can just sub out thirty seconds of imagination and prayer for the Lord’s desire and command for you to find Him in the sacrament.  No way no how.

But if for some reason (perhaps acting on obedience to your bishop though you do not agree with his reasoning, and yet you know very well his authority is divinely-ordained, or perhaps acting in justice towards those to whom you owe care and protection) you are kept from the sacrament you desire, I do know that in those times, the Lord can supply what is lacking.

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

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