PSA: About the Time I Had to Rescue My Kid from Drowning

It came to my attention after my previous PSA that I’ve never told, here on the blog, the full story of the time my four-year-old nearly drowned.  (She’s fine.) I write about this because it’s water season (in the northern hemisphere, anyhow), and for US children ages 1-4, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death.  Of all the things you worry about in your little kids, this one is, statistically speaking, one that *needs to be worried about*. I’m going to tell our story, and then you will know what you need to do in order to keep your young children safe while they are at the pool.

Spoiler: You, personally, watch them every single second.

As you’ll see, that is not me being dramatic and overbearing. That is just *how it is* with young children at the pool. Here’s the story.

Quiet Pool, Lifeguard on Duty

I had four kids in back-to-back swimming lessons at the local YMCA, and so while the youngest had her lesson the older kids would play in the pool, and then they’d switch.  We were at an indoor pool and I wasn’t myself swimming.  I was dressed business-casual (this gets relevant later) — my good real-leather loafers, slacks, tailored t-shirt, probably even make-up and jewelry. The pool was about four feet deep at the shallow end, and my kids aren’t that short.  The four-year-old was just inches shy of being able to hold her head above water — so she didn’t play there.

Where she played was on the broad, shallow concrete steps leading down into the pool, about an 8′ x 10′ area with handrails on both sides and the middle. I had her play on the first three steps, which were shallow enough for her to sit or kneel on, but she could stand with her head fully out of water on the fourth step.  The way the pool was constructed, if you stepped off that last step, at all times you were in immediate reach of either the last step, a bar, the wall of the pool, or all three.  She knew how to paddle to the wall from water over her head, and how to hold onto the wall to stay above water.

Still, she was in the habit of playing only on the shallowest area of those broad, flat steps with the non-slip surface.

That day, though, she asked me if she could play down on the bottom step.  “Are you sure?” I asked.  She was sure.  “Okay. Be careful.”

And down she went to play in slightly-deeper water.

Drowning is Silent

During this time, I was seated nearby on an Adirondack chair watching her.  Not reading.  Not checking my phone.  Not chatting with other parents. Just watching the kid.  Still, you glance around.  There are the other kids having their lessons (yes, I kept an eye on them, too), there might be people setting up for water aerobics, maybe a lifeguard on break passing by.  It was a quiet weekday morning off-season, and my attention was directed towards watching the four-year-old, but of course you sometimes aren’t focusing 100%.

What happened to my daughter is that she slipped off that last step.

I became aware that she was bobbing up and down in the 4′-foot area just slightly too deep for her.  She looked like a kid practicing a bobbing-excercise, except she wasn’t. As her face would almost surface, she was not getting air, and she was very clearly not doing this for fun.  But to someone who didn’t know her, you might have thought she was just splashing around, and splashing very quietly at that.  You did not hear a word of struggle.

Pro Technique: Pull Kid Out of Water

Fortunately, a pool is a relatively easy place to see someone drowning, and it’s a relatively easy place to effect a rescue.  –> If you’re at a pond, lake, river, or ocean, in all but the shallowest water you really do need life jackets, because it is much, much more difficult (often impossible) to find a drowning body, and it’s much more difficult to pull someone out, in open water.

The pool, though, is pretty straightforward: I stood up, marched down the steps, and picked up my child in my arms.

She breathed.

Good.

I carried her up to the deck of the pool and listened to her breath a bit more.

If you see your child starting to drown and can go grab your child immediately? You’re in great shape.

That only works if you are personally watching your child the entire time.

Does it need to be you? What about the lifeguard?

I’ll tell you about the lifeguard.

The Lifeguard Has a Whole Pool to Watch

I stood there on the deck, dripping wet, leather loafers soaked, business-casual clothing soaked, holding my kid and deciding what to do next.  Something you should know is that your child can seem fine but still be at risk due to water in the lungs.  So when the lifeguard on duty hopped down from his chair to come speak to me as I stood there having just rescued my kid, he looking visibly unsettled as he approached, I assumed it was to tell me he was going to have someone to listen to lung sounds.

Instead what he said was, “Um. I’m sorry, Ma’am. You’re not allowed to wear street clothes in the pool.”

I was speechless.

He had not seen anything of what had just happened.

I had literally identified a drowning swimmer and rescued her, and the lifeguard had not seen it.  He had no idea that someone had nearly drowned in his pool, on his watch.

How could that happen?!

Remember that drowning is silent.  My rescue was silent, too. I didn’t spend time shouting or flagging down help, I went and grabbed the kid.  Maybe the lifeguard really was a horrible lifeguard.  More likely: You can only focus on one place at a time.  As he scanned the pool, he happened to miss what was happening in one corner while he was looking elsewhere.

If you want to make sure your kid gets rescued in time, you have to be watching.

Parenting Young Kids is Hard

I will tell you right now that having four young children back-to-back did not make it easy to take the kids to the pool.  SuperHusband’s not really a pool guy (he’s a river guy, hence the name of this blog), and so we weren’t one of these families where both parents go hang out at the pool all summer long.  Watching four children in the pool by yourself is mentally exhausting, because if you don’t want to miss one going down, you literally have to count heads one-two-three-four, focusing from kid to kid in a non-stop cycle the entire time your children are at the pool.

–> Not just while they are in the water, but any time they are near the pool.

I didn’t love this.  I do not miss the years of being so, so tired of counting heads while other people were relaxing and having fun at the pool.  But if I weren’t absolutely obsessive about this, I could easily have had a drowned kid.  Instead I had a child who was very scared, but who got a clean bill of health from the pediatrician when we stopped in for a lung-check immediately after.

There is No Such Thing as 100% Failsafe Parenting

From the time your child is conceived, your child is in danger of death.  The death rate for human beings is 100%.  No matter how safety-obsessed you are, eventually you have to let your child out into the world.  As I write, my rescued four-year-old is now a teenager at the pool with her older sister, and they drove there together themselves.  Bit by bit as a parent you have to let go.  You have to let your children take risks. You cannot protect your child from every possible danger.

Still, you can improve your odds by putting your efforts into making risky activities as safe as possible, and being especially careful with the most-dangerous situations.

Cars are insanely dangerous, by the way. For US children ages 5-19, a motor vehicle accident is the most likely cause of accidental death.  And yet: Your 1-4 year old child is more likely to die by accidental drowning than in a car accident.

Anyone can get into a freak accident.  As parents we have a duty to do all we reasonably can to equip our kids with good skills and good decision-making support (including waiting on freedom-privileges if our child isn’t ready), and then one day we have to hold our breath and let our kids go out and do their thing. As parents we have to weigh costs and benefits, recognize our own limitations, and acknowledge that, at any moment, despite all our most diligent efforts, we could find ourselves in the horrifying situation of having just lost, out of the blue, a child more precious to us than anything else this world has to offer.

Let me emphasize here: You aren’t a bad parent if your child dies.  You aren’t a terrible person if your child dies of something that might have been preventable, but for some reason or another you just didn’t know or weren’t able to prevent the thing.  You cannot save your child from every possible danger.  You cannot.

Life is hard.

Watch Your Child Near Water

But still: Your young child is not able to make good decisions about water safety.  Your young child also lacks the emotional wherewithal to stay calm, cool, and collected in a terrifying situation.

When my daughter almost drowned? She was literally an inch from perfect safety.  All she had to do was take *one* step.  There is absolutely no reason she couldn’t have saved herself — except that she couldn’t.  She was four-years-old, and scared, and forgot everything she knew.

Fortunately someone was watching her, and so in the end she was fine.

Summer and Swimming Pool, children playing in the pool.

Photo of kids at a pool courtesy of Wikimedia CC 4.0.

Fun Stuff: Intro to Evangelization & Discipleship Webinar, Live with Me! Tues. 6/30 @1pm EST

Book launches this spring have a NASA-like quality: There is a plan in place, and there are a thousand reasons the plan might or might not unroll on the intended date.

Still, the webinar whiz at Our Sunday Visitor? She isn’t dependent on symptoms and exposures and whether the printing press is able to open safely this week.  She makes a living just zoom-zooming away.  Therefore, barring an asteroid hitting my garage-library or some other very high-bar-even-for-2020 level of disruption, my Live On the Internet part of the book launch will be this coming Tuesday, June 30th, at 1pm Eastern.

I asked a few fans (translation: Facebook friends, some of whom like what I write and the rest are probably just being nice to me) what I should put into my presentation, and here’s what they said:

  • What are the top 3-5 things we should know from the book?
  • What was your first experience evangelizing?
  • How do you know when to speak and when to shut up?
  • How do you keep from centering on yourself instead of Jesus?
  • How would you bring the Good News to someone who is disgusted with the criminal actions of Catholics, especially clergy?

We’ve got about thirty minutes set aside for the event, so I’ll hit those topics in my prepared remarks, and then if there’s time left over we’ll do open Q&A.  I have no idea whether the event will be captioned (probably not, and we all know how auto-caption does anyway), but I’ll post a transcript* immediately after, look for it here.

Warning about the top 3-5 things: I have nothing new to say.  I’m going to be hitting the same top 3-5 talking points that have been the contents of Divine Revelation over the past 5,000 years.  On the one hand, that’s making you go, “blah blah blah love God, pray, fast, behave yourself, blah blah blah,” and on the other hand? I kinda need that talk, and there’s evidence other people do too.

So maybe you don’t need a shot in the arm in that direction, but maybe you know someone who does.  Maybe you just need to be reminded that doing the basic things Christians do matters and makes a difference in people’s lives.

If so, you or they can come to my talk.  It’s free.

–> Also it will be a highly entertaining event, because unlike the entire rest of the planet I have not been doing internet video communication non-stop all spring.  So that’s gonna be big.  Bonus: You can see my scrapwood bookshelf, and if the camera gets pointed wrong, you can see the garage that is still very garage-like despite my calling it “the library” now.  We are hoping the camera doesn’t get pointed at the pile of junk I pulled off the shelves to make them look less disturbing.  You might or might not see cats.  No promises on that.

So that’s gonna be awesome.  Don’t judge me for my incomplete Hardy Boys collection, just send me the ones I haven’t read yet, thanks.

Register Here

How to get the book: It appears that the Kindle Edition is already available for sale! Amazon is telling me I can buy it with 1-click, so that’s pretty nice? FYI if you get the e-book and read it this weekend, come Tuesday a couple stories I tell will be ones that are not in the book.  I’m not actually going to read from the book or anything, because you can read a preview on Amazon if you want to find out what my book-writing is like.

As soon as I get word paperbacks are shipping, I’ll let you know.

The How-to Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You by [Jennifer Fitz]

Cover art of The How-to Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You, courtesy of Amazon.com and Our Sunday Visitor.

*Transcript of my prepared comments will be ready to post immediately.  Yes, I’ll be sticking to them religiously, ahem, because it is so, so, so very easy to say something dumb if you ad-lib on these topics.  If there is time for Q&A, what I’ll do for a text version is take the questions that came in and make a blog post or so fleshing out my quick answers and clearing up any confusion I created.  You’ll be dependent on whatever the tech team can bring you as far as a transcript of my bumbling attempts to answer questions on the fly.

White Privilege in a Nutshell

My daughter is, last-minute, looking seriously at a college we had no previous experience with. So Saturday night we drove over to campus.  The place was desolate — everyone’s been sent home due to coronavirus — though a police vehicle roamed the parking lots.  In the waning daylight we parked in a faculty space (no other cars in the lot) and wandered around.

We liked what we saw and grew more curious.  Brazenly we walked right up to the cafeteria window and peered inside.  We passed a dorm, and I crossed the lawn to a window with the blinds open so we could stand there on tiptoes looking into a ground-floor room.  And thus we wandered.

At no time did we fear, at all, that we would get in trouble.  It was possible we’d be approached by security and asked what we were doing and requested to please return on a weekday.  It was, and remains, unthinkable that our interaction with anyone, at any level, would escalate beyond a firm-but-courteous insistence that if we wished to walk the grounds, we park in the visitors’ lot and refrain from putting our noses up to the windows.

That’s white privilege.

***

I write this because Rod Dreher, with whom I often agree, shared a story of white poverty and black violence in “Race, Poverty, and Privilege” that misses the point.

“White privilege” doesn’t mean all white people are born into lives of affluence.  To say racism persists in American society doesn’t mean that black people never commit crimes.

I know that racism persists because I hear it from the mouths of other white people.  Am I to think they are lying to me when they make the comments that they do?  Are they only pretending to believe the derogatory generalizations they spontaneously assert?

What I am to think of stories like “A White Woman, Racism, and a Poodle”?  No matter what possible charitable explanation you can concoct to justify a woman getting repeatedly stopped by the police for a non-offense only when it appears she has a black man in her vehicle, the reality is: She only gets stopped when it appears there is a black man in her vehicle.

What else is that if not racism?

***

A study I think is needed (and may well exist) is the incidence of crime verses the incidence of getting caught, sorted by demographic factors.  Such a study would require respondents to fess up to a reality: We all know people — perhaps even our own self is one of them — who has been spared an encounter with the justice system because they didn’t get caught.

Whether it’s over-dramatized trespassing charges (those noses on windows) or minor traffic violations or an officer following-up on a “hunch” and thus uncovering some more serious charge (drugs, weapons, outstanding warrants), if you are more likely to be policed, you are more likely to get caught. And thus: You are more likely to be considered a criminal — even though other people who did exactly what you did continue to hold positions of honor and power in our society.

(White person can verify: Plenty of leading bankers, physicians, politicians, etc., are guilty of assorted misdemeanors involving drugs, alcohol, and weapons offences that are only ever uncovered if the police decide to do some thorough searching, and therefore said persons now in power never get caught and thus go through life on the Upstanding Citizens Track while so-and-so who did get caught slides onto the Ne’er-Do-Well Track.  The difference isn’t in bad behaviors, it’s in whether you get caught.)

***

White privilege is the freedom to go through life being presumed innocent until you make a concerted effort to prove to the police otherwise.

I am well aware that there is more than just a question of race wound up in the privilege of being presumed innocent.  Being female increases your odds.  Being well-dressed and well-spoken increases your odds.  Having the social skills to fit into your milieu in a way that puts people at ease increases your odds.

Still, when everything else is equal, being white works in your favor.

***

Police brutality does affect white people.  It’s an issue that transcends race and class.

Likewise, violence against law enforcement officers is a real thing.  An epidemic of murders and suicides among our young men is a real thing.  The breakdown of the family, with its significant repercussions on all aspects of social life, is a real thing.  Lack of protection for victims of domestic violence is a real thing.  Lack of social support for vulnerable persons across the spectrum is a real thing.  There are many, many different ways that human beings hurt themselves and others terribly.

Acknowledging that racism is real does not erase any of that.

Seehof Phoenicurus ochruros female - grey bird holding green worm, perched on branch

Wikimedia Image of the Day by Reinhold Möller, CC 4.0.  The only relationship between this image of a female Phoenicurus ochruros and this blog post is that they lived on the internet on the same day.  But I’m confident skilled readers can find some way to read non-random significance into it.

On How You Get People to Kill Other People

I went on a brief social media fast for a personal intention, and, magic!, finished a book.  Go figure.  The book was On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by Dave Grossman.

It is the first book I’ve read on the topic (and I lack any pertinent firsthand experience), so I’m not knowledgeable enough to critically assess.  I did check the reviews and there seem to be a fair number of combat veterans who found the book to be on point.

I can tell you, caveat lector, that the author spirals through his arguments and evidence as the chapters progress, though I think at least some of that repetition is an essential part of laying out his thesis.  Personally I found it helpful to have him recall for me information I read previously that was needed again as he moved on to a new topic that built on previous concepts, though I did eventually wish he’d pull out some new data to freshen up with.

I can also tell you that this is not a book to read if you, for whatever reason, don’t need to be putting unvarnished descriptions of deadly violence into your head.

That said, here’s a short version of Lt. Col. Grossman’s thesis:

  • Studies that have looked at evidence from battle outcomes and from anecdotal experience demonstrate that consistently, across centuries and cultures, humans are reluctant to kill their own species.  (As can be said of other species.)  He makes a careful distinction between aggressive posturing, which soldiers do willingly, and the decision to personally kill another human, which soldiers do much more reluctantly.
  • There are various circumstances that make people more willing to kill, as well as managerial decisions that increase the likelihood someone will obey an order to kill regardless of their personal willingness.
  • Furthermore, in order to increase the willingness of soldiers to kill, and thus increase the firing (etc.) rate in battle, there are types of training the military can use to cause soldiers to overcome their natural reluctance to kill.

He concludes his book with a final section on civilian violence, which is a sobering bit of opinion-piece worthy of consideration, but not the primary point of my posting this review.

More pressing today: If you are puzzling over police violence, the information throughout the book pretty much answers your questions about what types of training and circumstances increase the likelihood of police brutality, and what types of training and circumstances would increase the likelihood of minimal use of force and increased use of deescalating techniques.

It seems to me that our present problem with police gratuitously killing civilians does not come from nowhere.  Possibly there are even handy infographics throughout the book to assist in reminding you how to cut down on all the bloodshed?

***
Dave Grossman is not a moral theologian, so plan to bring your own critical thinking skills to the book. But if you wish to understand how one might hope to curb police brutality, the info is there.

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by [Dave Grossman]

Enemies of the Thinking Man’s Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something is very wrong here.

***

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

Fact: Satan wants Catholic writers to fail.

The spiritual battle is real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give Your Bishop Benefit of the Doubt

The amount of vitriol directed towards bishops making coronavirus decisions is . . . telling.

I say this as someone who is not, at all, hesitant to call out egregious behavior at any level of the hierarchy.  I have spent enough time inside the sausage-making factory to know very well that there are serious, serious problems in the Catholic Church.  Your bishop having to make difficult decisions under immense time pressure with very little information?  Not the same thing.

If it’s not even your own bishop you’re sending the nastygrams to?  Oh please.  Who died and made you an expert on someone else’s diocese?

***

Let’s try an exercise in Benefit of the Doubt 101.  To recap, from the CCC:

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;

– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

Now for our practice exercise, here are the extensive restrictions Bishop Guglielmone announced for the Diocese of Charleston on Sunday:

. . . I am granting dispensation for your Sunday Mass obligation for the weekends of March 21-22 and March 27-28. Additionally, all scheduled Confessions are cancelled. Any baptisms planned in the next sixteen days should be rescheduled. All quinceañeras must be canceled or rescheduled. Confirmations will be rescheduled according to each parish’s calendar. Funerals and weddings may occur but will be celebrated privately with just the immediate family present. Unfortunately, perpetual adoration will have to be temporarily discontinued. There will be no regularly scheduled parish activities until further notice. All scheduled penance services are cancelled, and there will be no Communion calls at hospitals, nursing homes, or private homes until further notice.

The sole exception to this policy is the celebration of the final sacraments for those in danger of death. If you need a priest for the Anointing of the Sick or Last Rites, your pastor will provide a number you can call.

Parish churches will remain open during their normal hours so that you can come to pray.

Whoa!  Obviously he hates Jesus, right?  Not so fast.

We cannot, of course, know the inner thoughts of the bishop.  Experience tells us that even our own motivations are often difficult to fully understand. The exercise of using our imaginations to guess at a  favorable reason behind the bishop’s decision does not cause Instant Saintliness to descend upon the man.  But it is good for our souls to carry out this exercise, so let’s do it.  I’m gonna lay out my answer to the practice problem, but this is one of those open-ended essay questions that allows for multiple possible correct responses.

***

I observe that just this week, Bishop Guglielmone laid to rest a still-young priest. If ever there were an incident to make you keenly aware of the precariousness of life and the immeasurable value of a priest’s ministry, that was it.

Next I observe that at this writing, at least ten priests in Italy have died of COVID-19. Many more are infected, and note that survival of a serious case often entails long recovery and debilitating loss of lung function, at least temporarily. We have no information about the long term effects of infection.

Finally I observe that the priests of the Diocese of the Charleston are not known for their retiring manner or unwillingness to minister to the people.  Short of an unequivocal, clearly-defined order, there is just no locking these guys up for safekeeping.  You think your boomer parents are hard-headed? Smart money says that as we speak, countless stubborn old men across the diocese are fuming at being put on a leash by their bishop, convinced that having survived war / cholera / parish council, hell no they aren’t going to back down now.

And yet we know that statistically speaking, we can expect that COVID-19 is going to claim its share of priests.  If you wish to contemplate the role of faith in such outcomes, study the lives of the many saints who perished nobly while ministering to the sick.  The question, then, is not whether we will lose many priests to this epidemic, but rather how.

Now let us review some facts from your fifth grade catechism class:

  • Any person (Catholic or not) can baptize validly, and in an emergency can baptize licitly.  Furthermore, baptism of desire is effective for salvation. Therefore, if you must choose where to kill your priests, this is not the best place.
  • Marriage is probably not the best hill to die on (and you can have your wedding if you’re okay with a small service), and priests cannot ordain so that’s a moot point. Confirmation would be worth considering, and here I’ll insert my rant that I wish all bishops would get more on the stick about the value of confirmation.  Okay, end rant, let’s move on.
  • Confession is a tough one.  There are workarounds, like the drive-through method.   Ask your bishops, charitably, to please consider figuring out ways to safely administer general absolution.  Still, perfect contrition does suffice.  For the moment we will charitably assume that having suspended the sacrament of Reconciliation, the bishop is working diligently on good tactics in view of reinstating it in a priest-protecting manner.  But, remember: Perfect contrition suffices.  Cultivate in your heart a more fervent love of God.
  • Last Rites, in contrast, cannot be delayed (as with Matrimony, Confirmation, or the Eucharist), it cannot be carried out by laymen (as with baptism), there are no substitutes available (as with perfect contrition in place of Confession), and its effects are soul-saving.

My conclusion:

It is horrifying to have to be making these sorts of spiritual-triage decisions, just as it is horrifying for a doctor to have to decide which patients to treat and not to treat.  And yet, your priest can only catch the virus once and then it’s caught.

The bishop’s decision that his men will be deployed to go straight to the most dangerous field of ministry, encountering those who are actively sick, and who are to be ministered to in environments where contagion is rife, suggests that cowardice is not, at all, a factor here.

Pray for your priests, pray for your bishop, and knock it off with the rash judgement.

File:Extreme Unction LACMA AC1994.171.5.jpg

Artwork: Extreme Unction, etching of a priest visiting a deathbed while the family prays, Italy circa 1755, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Pro-Tip: My kids talked me onto Spotify this winter, and on my way to the most recent parish council* meeting, this bit of colorful music was playing as I prayed for myself and for our priests:

I can report that internalizing the refrain “Don’t Murder Me” was highly effective.  I had resolved to speak at least three peaceful sentences before devolving into yelling at my pastor, and get this: I made it all the way to the end of the night!  And then I yelled.  But not in front of everyone? So that was better?  Maybe?

*Note well: The very moment my pastor asked me to volunteer for the council, I instructed him to kick me off as soon as he got sick of me, no hard feelings, this is what it’s like to have me in your parish. So either he likes having a contrarian in the group or he’s taken on one of those masochist St. Rose of Lima  penances and now secretly wishes he had vowed to roll in nettles every night instead.  I dunno.  Pray for your priests.

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.

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

COVID-19 Mind Games II

[Quick update: Fr. Marcin died this morning.]

I’ve had this weird on-and-off cold over the past week.  Sore throat and headache Tuesday, perfectly fine Wednesday and Thursday.  Slight cough Friday morning, then fine all day.  Fine Saturday.  Woke up today with a definite sore throat and runny nose.  So . . . any other year, it would be no big deal.  Not even on the radar.

Meanwhile, an interesting bit of science-ness via Trevor Bedford confirms what many of us have suspected, that in the absence of widespread testing (S. Korea being a counter-example), there’s a significant delay between when the virus first begins circulating in a community and when it is finally recognized in the form of serious cases that get correctly diagnosed. Which causes one to think: Is my child’s runny nose just another round of the sniffles, or are these SNIFFLES OF DEATH?

And thus a surreal moment for my youngest child, when I told her that no, I would not be allowing her to pack into the pews with all the old ladies at Mass this morning, but yes, she may still go mountain biking with her father this afternoon.  Unheard of happenings in this house.

My logic? The trees will be fine, whereas we do not need the backbone of the American church getting infected with who-knows-what.  Think about this: If you unwittingly kill off scores of old church ladies . . . Who’s gonna do the funeral meals?  Who’s gonna get those altar linens CLEAN? Who’s gonna torment Father while the rest of us are distracted with pre-retirement busyness and can only whine and scold on evenings and weekends?

***

Even in a “young” parish, a disproportionate share of the load, lay and priestly, falls on older shoulders.  When we received the news this morning concerning Fr. Marcin Zahuta (our son attends his parish), SuperHusband asked, stunned, “But isn’t he young?”  Weeellll, dear . . . I don’t know his age exactly, but he’s at least as old as us.  Turns out if you have adult children, then you might not be so young anymore.  Fr. Marcin was already well-established as “that young priest” who wasn’t so so young way back when the boy was attending Catholic summer camp in elementary school and Father was the chaplain.

Thus my thesis: If you love the Church at all, do what you can to slow the inevitable so you don’t overwhelm your local hospital.  We have an incredible amount of medical technology at our disposal to deal with pulmonary diseases, we have skilled healthcare workers who excel at helping marginal lungs hold it together, but we don’t have magic.  We can’t snap our fingers and quadruple our capacity for treating highly infectious patients with extreme respiratory distress.

Hence the mind game.  Am I being ridiculously paranoid, or am I just doing my civic duty?  I don’t know.  We’re muddling through, refraining from blatant acts of infectiousness like sneezing on elderly people but not going into complete isolation over the sniffles either.  Maybe we’re not being careful enough.  You don’t know.

***

Meanwhile, my brother called the other day to ask about bringing his family to visit over spring break.  (Yes!  Please!) They’d be flying, which is a germy proposition regardless of hot new respiratory viruses, but I don’t think for healthy, low-risk travelers the threat of infection is the chief concern.  The big question mark is whether you’ll accidentally end up quarantined.

Worse things could happen than getting home from a trip only to be told you’re now on forced-staycation because you traveled through a freshly-declared epidemic zone, and of course you’ve got no milk in the fridge because you were just out of town for a week.  The more serious question he needs to answer is . . . what if my town is that place, and he’s here when the airlines quit servicing our nearby airports, and neighboring states shut their overland borders, and he gets stuck with us for a month?

He’s a brave a guy, but how brave?

If this thing goes pandemic the just the right way, we could end up with some genius help finishing our construction project.

Me with my laptop on a folding table in our unfinished garage / office.

Our Daily Photo Penance: Evidence my office needs drywall, plumbing, HVAC, and oh, and um, lots to be done outside with dirt and pavers.  Family reunion time for sure. 

Related: Darwin Catholic has a superb reflection, “Life in Uncertain Times.” Worth your minutes.

 

 

 

How to Look Like a Saint While Heading to Hell*

Head’s up: This post is not g-rated, and it does dissect the allegations in a real abuse case.

To all but those few who knew his secrets, the news about Jean Vanier comes as a complete shock.  (Count me among the shocked).  How can this guy who did so much good — a guy who was seriously being considered for canonization — have been guilty of such crimes?

This is a question we can’t just set aside as impossible to answer.  It is not impossible to answer, and since sin didn’t go to the grave with this latest scandal, we have a responsibility to understand and act on the answer.  So, unpleasant though it be to launch into this topic right now, here are the three things that make it possible for an evangelist to live a double life.

#1 Stealth Predators Test the Waters

It doesn’t matter whether we are speaking of consensual affairs among willing adults or the most nefarious rape, if you want to live a double life, you have to move carefully.  Read this account of an abuse-survivor’s story to see how it’s done.  I chose this story in particular because it shows you exactly how a predator avoids detection (though in this case he got caught sooner rather than later), because we’re looking at a case where the predator tested the waters, fish got away, man had to move on.

What to note:

  • The predator (priest in this case) starts by building a trusting relationship.
  • Early on, the idea of secrecy or covert-ops is introduced (“tell your mom you’re seeing me for spiritual direction”).
  • The first abuse is an action that can be explained away.

Hence the insistence by the predator’s superiors that the abusive encounter was merely a “boundary violation.”  Let’s be clear: A man pressing his erect penis against a woman’s body, even through the barrier of clothing, is engaging in sexual activity.  No decent man will know he has an erection (this is not something men are unable to detect) and choose to physically press his pelvis against the body of a woman who is not his wife.

Legit foreplay for a married couple.  Not legit under any other circumstance, and no sane adult man is going to let a teenage girl become aware he has an erection by physically putting her in contact, even through clothing, with that part of his body.  Nope.

And yet we see in this sample case that the behavior gets excused.  Why? Because it was chosen by the predator for the ease with which he could wiggle away from the charges.  The girl was mistaken.  Either she doesn’t know what she’s talking about (because how does a young teen know what an erection is), or if she does know, then obviously she’s a hussy and she’s making a false accusation — bad family, dontcha know.  I’m concerned someone might be abusing her, and that’s why she’s acting out.  And gosh, I shouldn’t have hugged her, I shouldn’t have let her sit on my lap, it’s just that she reminded me so much of my niece, and she really seemed like she wanted a hug, and listen guys, I realize I had a lapse in judgment.  I’m so sorry.  I realize my mistake, and I’m not going to let it happen again.

A predator who gets away with his or her crimes is someone who operates carefully.

#2 Toxic People Choose to Surround Themselves with Enablers

Obviously the predator has to move beyond those initial tests.  So how do you get away with your abusive behavior when sooner or later word is bound to get out?  You do this by making sure that no one close to the facts is going to report.

To a toxic person, there are two types of people in the world: Those who will tolerate the abusive behavior and those who will not.  The non-tolerators are systematically removed from the toxic person’s circle of friends.

Much of this is self-chosen by the healthy person.  If you have a boss who underpays and overworks, the simplest thing to do is look for another job.  If that friend is always dragging you down with gossip and drama, you start hanging out with different friends.  If a relative is taking advantage of your generosity, you set firm boundaries.

In ministry, self-respecting volunteers and paid staff don’t stick around long if toxic people are in charge.  They move on early. Gradually, without ever having been caught at any serious crime, the predator-in-charge finds him or herself surrounded only by those who will, for whatever reason, look the other way at sinful behavior.

And of course the career-climbing predator has additional tools available to help clean out the org chart.  Whereas a holy person will not lie to sabotage a fellow employee, a skilled predator is well able to build a case against those who need to be eliminated.  An insinuation there, a careful retelling of the facts here, and next thing you know that volunteer who wouldn’t shut up about actually following child safety procedures is out the door.  Once you are in charge of a ministry, it’s easy enough to find some pretext for making a staffing or organizational decision to unload the contingent who gets in your way.

Reality to consider as we pray for our priests?  It is almost impossible for a pastor of souls to know what is really going on in his parish or diocese.  Unless he makes a powerful effort otherwise, his life is going to be saturated by the company of people who revel in winning the game of being part of the priest or bishop’s inner circle, and people who want to play that game are not healthy people. Thus even a holy man is likely to end up enabling toxic behavior — and it’s hard to be a holy man.

#3 The Devil is Prowling and Sinners Lie to Ourselves

Allow me to quote the St. Joseph’s Baltimore Catechism: Venial sin is worse than the measles.

As an expert sinner, let me tell you, it is very, very easy to talk yourself into sin.  Venial sin, mortal sin, all sin.  The smarter you are, the better you can be at making up rationalizations for why this sin here is not a sin at all, and that one over there is maybe just a teeny tiny sin, especially after you consider all the mitigating circumstances.

The degrading nature of sin is plain as day to those who aren’t caught up in the self-built snare of lies used to justify the sinful behavior. That’s why sin hates daylight.  When you suspect you are sinning, you work hard to hide to the sin.  Sometimes you do this by acting in secret; other times you camouflage the sin so it passes as no-big-deal. If it must be discussed, you come up with words and phrases that make the sin sound like something harmless, or perhaps even something healthy.

This does not mean that adultery is just the same as making a frowny-face at your husband when he interrupts your phone call.  This does not mean that abusing a child is the same thing as that time you let the kids have brownies for dinner.  What it means is that the more intentionally we engage in the battle against even our smallest sins, the more easily we can understand how people who are dedicated to a life of good can also be deceiving themselves into committing serious evils.

The teeny-tiny devil who helps us justify our little sins is just a miniature, cute-faced version of the big devil haunting the peripheries.  To commit a little sin, tell yourself a little lie. To commit a big sin, tell yourself a big lie.  Same process.

There is no easy solution to all this.

What we want is to be able to say, “Now that I understand how this happens, I can prevent it from ever happening again!”

Not so much.  All we can really control is our own behavior.  We can choose not to be complicit in corrupt activities.  We can grow in our own holiness so that we are more aware when someone else is pulling out the excuses to justify a sin. We can teach our children and other souls in our care how to recognize and avoid sin in ourselves and others.

To the extent that we have authority to do so, we can take steps to battle against the structures and excuses that enable serious sin to flourish.

Meanwhile, free will’s a bear.  Be as good as you can, help fight evil where you can, and then fast and pray.

That’s what you can do.

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Photograph: French cuirassier during a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 3.0.

Related: Repentance, Mercy, and Prudence

*Lord willing, Jean Vanier repented of his sins and is now enjoying the delights of Heaven.  May we all benefit from the bountiful mercy of Jesus Christ who will do anything He can, even die for us, that we each might be saved from our two worst enemies.