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.

Why Chadwick Boseman Earned a Statesman’s Honors in SC

I got aggravated this morning at a friend, a recent arrival in South Carolina from points north, who questioned why Governor McMaster ordered flags to fly at half-staff for Chadwick Boseman.  In her experience, such an honor is reserved for politicians and other government emissaries — would we lower the flag for xyz other locally-grown actor who is just as talented?

Rather than continue to lose my temper, I’ll take my own advice to catechists and just answer the question.

***

Before we begin, let me tell you about a spider bite.  My kid was ten and he went off to summer camp and he got some kind of nasty bite on the back of his leg — painful but which barely created a mark.  He’s a tough kid and decided to self-treat.

This was not the right move. When we picked him up in the morning at the end of the week, he could no longer hide the injury because it hurt so badly he couldn’t walk without limping.

The bite had become infected and created an abscess.  In the doctor’s office I got to lay my body across his flailing limbs so that the pediatrician could drain the wound while my son screamed in pain. It was a procedure that hurt but would in no way harm; failing to drain the wound, in contrast, could have led to sepsis and death.

Hold onto that image of a wound hidden beneath the surface, and its aftermath.

***

Two aspects of Chadwick Boseman’s life make him worthy of the governor’s attention.

The first is that that he’s from here. If he were nothing more than a small town boy who grew up to be a wildly successful, world-renown celebrity, that would be sufficient in the eyes of most state residents to count him as a local hero.  (See: James Brown). It would not, however, quite warrant lowering the flag at the statehouse.

The second reason, though, is that his life’s work touches South Carolina’s history in a profound and very personal manner.

***

You can read here a brief, informative summary of the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina. If you are a person who has the same question as my friend, please do that.  It won’t take you long.

Okay, thanks.

So.  Civil Rights in South Carolina is a big, big, big deal.  We’re gonna tell a story or two below about that.

Now observe: Chadwick Boseman’s filmography includes not just Marshall and 42, which serve to rectify the longstanding problem of whitewashed history in South Carolina schools, but also Black Panther.

Oh, that’s just a pop film about a comic book superhero who’s been around for decades? Here’s a personal essay from a fan who found the film to be far more meaningful than that.  Read it.  Try for a moment to understand how important Chadwick Boseman’s role was for many, many people, in a way that touches very keenly on South Carolina public life.

***

Here’s a personal story my mom, a white lady, told me a few years before she died.

Her father was from a small town in South Carolina not unlike Boseman’s hometown.  He was career Navy, so my mother grew up all over the United States. She attended authentically integrated schools in California (I have her yearbooks, the photos of staff and student life are unequivocal), and witnessed the first round of integration at her high school alma mater in Virginia.

In college, though, there was a particular class that made the civil rights movement deeply personal for her — not because of the stated subject matter of the class, but because of the way it was graded. The professor announced that everyone’s grade would hinge on their final paper or project, and he advised: “Do a project.  I have never given a passing grade on a paper.”

My mom, who was the epitome of conscientious her entire life, and for whom the prospect of failing a class was an absolute nightmare, found herself having to face an ugly reality: She stunk at projects.  She never, ever, succeeded at projects.  She knew (I don’t know why she was so convinced of this, but she was) that there was no way she could create an adequate project.  She could, on the other hand, write an excellent paper.

So she decided she would just write the paper, fail the class, and accept her doom.

The paper she wrote was about visiting the family farm in rural South Carolina.

***

My grandfather’s family was skin-in-the-game heroic.  His mother christened an aircraft carrier during the war, an honor she earned because six of her seven sons had all enlisted and were actively serving in the armed forces.  (The eldest stayed home to run the farm, necessary because their father had been killed, shot in the back down in town in front of everybody, back when his mother was pregnant with two youngest.)

They were also brutally prejudiced, and did not treat the Black laborers who worked the farm with the respect and dignity my mother (or you or I today) would consider the bare minimum of humane consideration.

My mom’s paper was about that.

It was about witnessing, as a young adult, just how intensely heartless was the deep-seated racism that punctuated daily life at her own family’s farm.

I don’t have my mother here to fact-check me, so rather than risk mistelling, here’s an example of an article about the kind of things that happened across the South:

Employers and white employees went out of their way to engage in what can only be termed the ritual humiliation of blacks. It was not enough to have separate bathrooms for blacks and whites; the “black” bathrooms were often located far from specific workplaces, forcing employees to spend a good deal of their break getting there and coming back. It was not enough to have separate water fountains for blacks and whites; the “black” fountains were never cleaned, and the water was always warm. Federal Compress (where bales of cotton were readied for textile mills) resisted installing electric fans, though black workers were sweltering in concrete buildings that approached 100 degrees. The owner of a Memphis dry-cleaner fired women employees rather than let them talk to one another on the job.

Google around, you can find plenty of stories.  Or just ask one of the many people still alive if they are willing to dredge up the worst of what went down in those times.

***

My mom’s professor read the paper, and called her into his office, and informed her that she had dared to do the one thing no on else had ever done in his long career as an educator: She earned an A on a paper.

Also: Her father read the paper and nearly disowned her.

He was livid.

He accused her of lying.

But he loved her and somehow they got over it.

***

Governor Henry McMaster is about the same age as my mom.

For him and for countless South Carolinians alive today, all the cruelty of segregation and Jim Crow is not some ancient mystic legend, it’s their formative years.  His political career, his party . . . that’s the party of Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, who locked up the state’s Senate seats so tight that even I am old enough to remember the years when there was only one candidate on the ballot because no one else bothered to run.

McMaster can remember the Confederate Flag going up at the state house.  Understand that I of the next generation am old enough to have been fully an adult when it finally came down again.  My children are old enough to remember when it was finally moved off the statehouse grounds altogether.

***

I don’t travel in the same circles as Governor McMaster, though we certainly have some acquaintances in common.  If you live in South Carolina, and you are white, and you are paying attention, at all, you will amass plenty of evidence that racism remains a serious problem.  You can tell not because of demographic statistics but because of the words that come out of people’s mouths.  Are they lying? Are they just pretending to be racist when they get a chance to express themselves privately in what they think is “safe” company?

But also, in a nation where African-American senators are thin on the ground, Hollings and Thurmond are both dead, and Tim Scott is the new face of the Republican establishment.

***

When I look at Kenosha or Minneapolis, what I see is my son’s spider bite.

Here in the South, we have entrenched racism. It is no secret. Everybody knows it, including a whole lot of outsiders who look down on us as backwards and stupid.

But here’s what Minneapolis and Kenosha are: They are places that also have entrenched racism.  If racism in South Carolina is a gaping wound, up north it turns out to have been an abscess festering beneath the surface. Pretending everything’s fine leads to crippling pain. Like my son screaming on the examining table in the doctor’s office, we’re discovering that ignoring the rot among the “progressive”  states only pushes off the day of reckoning and makes the inevitable confrontation far, far worse.

***

That’s not me saying Kenosha can’t happen in South Carolina.

Sure it can.

Lord willing, it won’t.

Chadwick Boseman is an ambassador of that hope.

***

What I think a lot of people don’t understand is that the legacy of racism is everyone’s history.

You can’t, like my grandfather wanted to do, pretend it’s not there.  That way leads to destruction.

***

So how does the work of Chadwick Boseman fit into state politics?  It’s a reasonable question.  Historically, one lowers the statehouse flag for persons with clear ties to the state: Deceased politicians; soldiers, firefighters, and police killed in the line of duty; victims of terrorist attacks and acts of war.  How does an actor fit into all that?

The actor fits in because his artistic legacy is in culturally ground-breaking work on the issue that has defined the history, economy, and politics of his home state since its founding.

***

Is it exciting and inspiring that a small-town boy could grow up to be a famous celebrity? Sure. The governor could be excused for making a nod to the masses in a contentious election year.

I don’t know Governor McMaster’s heart.  It’s entirely possible he’s just doing the politically expedient thing.  If so, God bless democracy: We have a politician who will do something right for no other reason than he wants to be re-elected.

But consider the possibility that McMaster fully comprehends Chadwick Boseman’s legacy for this state.  This is our guy.  He’s us.  He comes from here and he knew exactly how crucial it is that we deal with our state’s history — so much so that even though he was literally dying he pushed through to step out on the shoulders of giants and take us another step forward in the renewing and transforming of our culture.

Boseman’s work has been a work of healing for exactly the wounds that have torn apart his home state for generations.

So sure.  Statesman’s honors.  Well earned.

Charleston, SC George Floyd Protest : Backs of protesters on Calhoun Street, with a Black Lives Matter sign

Photo: Charleston, SC, May 2020,  courtesy of Wikimedia, CC 4.0

Quick update for the same friend, who was questioning the legality of the governor’s decision:

SC 10-1-161 (E): “Upon the occurrence of an extraordinary event resulting in death or upon the death of a person of extraordinary stature, the Governor may order that the flags atop the State Capitol Building be lowered to half-staff at a designated time or for a designated period of time.”

A quick compendium of all SC laws relating to flying flags at half-staff is here.

More Background Info on “Cuties” (“Mignonnes”) at Netflix

UPDATE: Having seen a snippet of one of the more salient portions of the film, I can categorically recommend that you not view the film.  (Assuming what I saw, an excerpt shared on Twitter by someone who should have known better than to post such a thing, was in fact taken from the film and not a deepfake. )

Whatever the artistic merits of the film may be overall, based on what I viewed the film violates the fundamental rule decency: If the only way you can film the shot is for the actors to do on camera (which means doing in front of the crew) what they ought not be doing in front any audience, ever, then you are not a director who cares about the well-being of your actors.

–> Find a different way to shoot the scene.

I will update again if I learn that the pertinent excerpt circulating is not from the film, but at first glance it appears genuine.

2nd Update: A little more research confirms that what I saw (excerpted on Twitter) is what multiple reviewers saw when watching the original film.  The film also includes, per a warning at IMDB now taken down, a scene which meets, unequivocally, the definition of child pornography per US law.  Not sure why Netflix isn’t being charged.  No shortages of witnesses.

Interesting side note: My Twitter account is set to hide “sensitive content” which results in all kinds of innocent media being hidden from my view unless I choose to click through — most memorably the time Twitter felt that the view of a priest praying at Mass was, it seems, too risky for tender eyes.  (Um.  It was just some priest.  At Mass.  Doing normal priest things.)  In contrast, I did not have to choose to click on the excerpt of the young girls dancing lasciviously, Twitter did not find that to be “sensitive content” at all. Hmmn.

***

The French film Mignonnes is (rightfully) causing a stir after Netflix ran a provocative publicity campaign and then failed to care very much that decent people don’t approve of sexualizing eleven-year-olds.

If you are looking for more information on the film, pull out Google Translate and get ready for a set of unsatisfying-but-enlightening answers:

Because none of the reviews include spoilers, I can’t give a final verdict (without having seen the film) on exactly where the director takes this.  But here, I think, are the key pieces of info for readers of this blog:

#1 It is in no way a film for children. Don’t let the promotional materials fool you.

#2 Maïmouna Doucouré is telling her own story, and (more below on this) the story of many girls growing up in France (and the US — all over the world, I suspect) today.  For her, the reality is one of coming from a strict, traditionalist, polygamous Muslim family where women were treated as sexual objects and forced into relationships that did not respect their dignity as human beings.  So when Netflix sets up a lazy conflict between “religious family” and the hypersexualized dance world into which Amy, the young protagonist, is pulled, it is important for Catholics and other parents of good will to understand that Amy, like Ms. Doucouré, is not coming from a sane, healthy, dignifying religious background.

–> A major early plot point is that Amy’s mother is charged with organizing the wedding of her still-husband to his second wife, and Amy’s grandmother is aggressively insisting that Mom do her duty and shut up and put up, this is how things are. For the purposes of this film (not the purposes of its promoters or the wider non-immigrant culture receiving it), tween conflict over family-of-origin’s “religion” is not a case of garden-variety boredom with the parent’s conventional, anodyne religious practices as familiar to readers growing up in most of western society.

2nd Update: In this video interview, near the end when asked what she’s viewed lately that made the most impression on her, Ms. Doucouré says with obvious enthusiasm the Swedish television drama Kalifat.  I think it’s a particularly good insight into her own worldview as a director — what she finds resonates with her in other productions out there right now.

#3 The problem of young girls being pressured into hypersexualized dance movement and attire is widespread. How widespread?  Longtime readers may remember my answering this question. Let me emphasize the setting of that question: We are talking about upper middle class (you have to be affluent to afford dance team), religiously-affiliated suburban professional families in one of the most religiously-conservative cities of the Bible Belt, and the question was posed by a guy who knows the family through church.  I cannot emphasize how many times I’ve been party to discussion among nice Catholic moms wondering what to do about the slutty dance routine problem.  Parents rearing daughters in the most religiously conservative corners of the western world have to work hard to find a dance school for their daughters that doesn’t consider sexually suggestive clothing and dance moves to be a normal part of the repertoire.

#4 So, after reading what the director has to say about her film, here’s where she was trying to take it: She grew up in an immigrant household where religion was used as cover, among people her in native culture, to justify the objectifying, subjugation, and sexual exploitation of women.  As a teen she was torn between that world and a permissive hedonism in teen culture that any reader coming of age after 1965 would recognize.  And yet, as a grown woman attending a community event in her home neighborhood in Paris, she was absolutely shocked to see tween girls performing, with no one batting an eye, in a manner that you see in the trailer for the film.

–> The director’s statement of purpose for the film is that she wanted to show how girls growing up in her culture are pressured into choosing among two different kinds of sexually exploitive cultures.

(More below on that.)

#5 One thing Ms. Doucouré says in one of the interviews is that, in fact, she had to use quite a lot of restraint and under-tell just how sordid is the world that real middle school girls are living in today.  In her words: Parents aren’t ready to see this.  In my words: It would be illegal.

Is it morally problematic for Ms. Doucouré to be filming girls doing the dance moves, in the costumes, as she is? Absolutely.  I do not approve.  I do not say to you, “Go watch this film!” I do not say to you, “Subscribe to Netflix!” But understand that, from the director’s point of view, she is literally only having girls perform exactly what they are already doing in real life.  She is having girls perform on film exactly what parents of competitive dancers in affluent, even nominally religious families, already pay buckets of money to have their girls do.

Her stated purpose in doing this (and I cannot confirm how well she pulls it off) is to show the harm that comes from this.  Dance moms? Ms. Doucouré is after you.

#6 Let’s talk about that directorial restraint.

Ms. Doucouré’s research confirmed what I’ve known ever since I first sent an undercover agent into the world of affluent, mainstream suburban middle schoolers here in the Bible Belt: Girls these days expect to have to perform sexual favors for their peers.

Not just girls from poor immigrant families living in tough neighborhoods.  We are talking girls at private schools, girls in club sports (read: thousands of dollars on her sports hobby), girls growing up in McMansions.

How normal is the promiscuity among tweens and teens?  It is so widespread, and so self-sabotaging, that my kid’s class got abstinence talks from the atheist public-school biology teacher — a person with no moral reason to object to consensual sex, no reservations about contraception or abortion, but who could not help but see how teens were destroying themselves with the sheer quantity of premarital sex that had become the norm among the students.

If you are shocked by what you see in Cuties trailer, God bless you.  Yes.  Yes.  It is two inches from child porn.

Why those two inches? Because it is a film about girls who are entering the now-normal world of actual child porn that is your teenager’s daily reality.

#7 Your middle schooler’s porn problem doesn’t come from nowhere.

I have no expectation that Mignonnes (Cuties) resolves in a manner that would win a Theology of the Body award.  Mainstream, traditional French culture is not a culture of chastity.  I love France.  I love many things about French culture.  But this is also a place where adultery is normal and accepted.  What has changed in recent years, in terms of sexual morals as explored in this film, is not a change of kind but of degree. Traditional French culture at the highest, most respectable levels demanded discretion.  Americans who disparage the French president’s having a mistress commit the fault of being uncouth.  From the traditional French point of view, it would be like complaining the president uses the toilet — everyone does, but that doesn’t mean we have to chat about it.

Americans have our own, differently-flavored unchastity problems.  (We, too, have adulterous presidents. For example.)  Keep in mind that the parents and grandparents now approving of their daughter’s participation in Little Ho-House Dance Team grew up believing that Risky Business, Top Gun, and Officer and a Gentleman were all great films.  Classics!  I can remember watching what was supposed to be clean-cut classic Western — and one featuring boys and teens is co-stars in a youth-can-do-it themed film — and turning it off when we hit the Happy Prostitute trope.  The US is the place where sweet old ladies at the antique mall try to convince your kids that porn is just fine.

So no, I don’t expect Mignonnes resolves a story about an eleven-year-old torn between two bad choices by finding the third way that is chastity.  If nothing else, it’s an award-winning French film, and let me tell you, it is hard to find a French film that doesn’t glorify unchastity.  It’s hard to find a French film that didn’t require someone to strip naked on the set in the making-of, and here I’m using the very, very low bar of “if it could have been filmed in a way that kept the naughty bits covered, it might can get a pass, but if there was simply no way to film this scene without the actor or actress actually being required to work nude in front of the camera, then we’re done, movie over.”

So. In conclusion:

  • Per her own words, the director of Mignonnes (Cuties) was attempting to show that the sexualization of tweens is a serious problem;
  • I agree;
  • I have no reason to believe that the film resolves in favor of chastity, though I’m certainly open to being surprised, if anyone who’s already seen the film wants to cough up spoilers.

The Cobbler (mountainous land feature), photo by Ben Arthur, Arrochar Alps, Scotland

Here, have a palate cleanser, courtesy of Wikimedia’s Image of the Day (CC 4.0).  Look here for a detailed description.

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.

How to Pick Comfortable Mask Fabric

TLDR: Choose any single 100% natural fabric.

Details follow.

***

The CDC has finally come around on the usage of cloth masks by the general public.  Amen.

Masks aren’t magic.  They are one piece in a whole collection of safety tactics that, when combined, make things less-bad.  It’s just like how your car has many safety features that work together with your safe driving skills, or your table saw comes with safety features that are in addition to, not instead of, your decision to always know where all your fingers are.

But covering one’s mouth and nose does help.  So do that.  This is the post where I explain to you the trick of how to cover your face with a fabric that will be relatively more comfortable.

My credentials: I spend a lot of time playing outside in a hot, humid climate.

***

Now you might live someplace cool and dry.  But your mouth and nose are little heat-n-humidity factories. The whole point of wearing a cloth mask is to keep your hot, moist exhalations to yourself.  In other words, by masking up you are getting the Southern Summer Experience plastered to your face.

Please. Allow me to guide you on how to take the edge off, because the last thing we want is your desperate panting miserable self to rip off your mask as you let out a primal scream in the Walmart checkout line.

To spare us all, here’s the fabric you need:

  • Any single
  • 100%
  • natural fiber.

Working backwards:

NATURAL means: Cotton, wool, silk, or linen.

You’ll need to get out your reading glasses to read the fine print.  Cotton is the most widely used, but any of these can work.  You may find tightly-woven silk in the upholstery department.  You may find tightly-woven linen in the form of a table cloth or napkin.  We’ll talk about wool below.

Yes, I know there are hi-tech wicking fabrics.  If you have a garment you find very comfortable in hot sweaty conditions, perhaps an old pair of hi-performance long underwear from your trekking expedition or something, have at it.

But if you must buy new fabric, buy natural because it’s widely available, cheap, and proven.  “Wicking” or “breathable” synthetics sometimes are what they promise (more likely so if coming from a reputable purveyor of technical mountaineering gear, just sayin’), and sometimes they are hype.  You’ll have to test for yourself, and not everyone has the money to gamble on tests.

Be warned: “Natural” fibers do not include, for this purpose, bamboo or other modern-day recycling projects.  Those kinda-natural inventions don’t function the way traditional natural fibers do.  Cotton, wool, linen, or silk. Those are the ones you want.

Review Q&A: What does natural mean?  It means cotton, wool, linen or silk.

100% means: ONLY the single natural fabric you have chosen, no other material of any other kind.

Your cotton skinny jeans with “just a touch” of spandex are NOT 100%.  Your cotton socks are highly unlikely to be only cotton, they probably have some kind of stretchy thing that makes them hold their shape.

Many, many, many natural fabrics used in clothing or sold at fabric stores contain either a poly-blend (looking at you, t-shirts) or a small amount of spandex or lycra to improve fit.

Read the label.  Your stash of old t-shirts probably contains both 100% cotton and cotton-poly blend t-shirts.  Read every label.  Your favorite bandanna might be 100% cotton or might be cotton-poly. Read the label.  Your worn-out wool sweater (blazer, skirt, etc.) you could never quite bring yourself to throw away (more below) might be 100% wool or it might be a wool-blend.  Read. the. label.

Review Q&A: What does 100% mean?  It means that when you read the label, it says 100% of either cotton, silk, linen, or wool, and NOTHING else.

SINGLE means: I don’t trust you with that 100% concept.

Ha!  It means this: ONLY cotton, or ONLY wool, or ONLY linen, or ONLY silk.

Linen-cotton blends, for example, are popular for summer shirts and for table linens.  This is a trick! Don’t fall for it!  Yes, the two fibers are both 100% natural. But when you blend them, you lose the comfort of a single-fiber natural fabric.

Trust me on this.  I know.

Other common combos, especially in scarves and luxury fabrics, are wool-and-silk or linen-and-silk.

These will not help you.  Do not use these in your homemade or improvised face mask or you will become a sweaty mess.  Go for a SINGLE natural fiber in your 100% natural fabric.

Review Q&A: What does single mean?  It means that your fabric is composed of only one type of natural fiber.

Readily Available Sources of Single-Fiber 100% Natural Fabric

There’s a good chance you already have something sitting around your house that can be converted into an improvised face covering.  Some sources to look for:

  • T-shirts
  • Pillowcases or sheets
  • Cloth napkins
  • Table cloths
  • Mom-jeans, Dad-jeans, and cargo shorts
  • Flannel shirts
  • Dress shirts
  • Curtains
  • Tote bags
  • Bandannas
  • Jackets

And yes, sweaters.  (See below!)  Naturally you aren’t going to cut up a perfectly good garment unless you have no other choice, but you might have something that is stained, pilled, worn through at the knees or elbows, or otherwise ready for re-purposing.

In the average household, your best bets for re-purposing are going to be:

  • That ratty old thing your husband won’t quit wearing because he loves it, but seriously, it’s time.
  • That awful dress your six-year-old loves, and insists she still wear, but hello it was her favorite when she was TWO and now not only is it permanently ketchup-marked, it is also no longer working even as a shirt.
  • The fabulous piece you got on clearance because you love the fabric, but the cut of the garment is horribly unflattering and no amount of belting or cardigans can fix that, and you need to move on.

Find these things, read the labels, and if they are a 100% natural single-fiber fabric, they are perfect for your home-made or improvised face covering.

Finally, let’s talk about wool.

Two things you need to know:

  • Usually knitted items are a very loose fabric that won’t help much for keeping your cough to yourself.
  • Wool shrinks in the wash.

If you know what you’re doing, you can use this to your advantage.  “Felting” is the process of washing and drying a wool fabric until it shrinks up into a tight fabric.  When you do this to your gorgeous handmade Christmas sweater, by accident, instead of hand-washing and laying flat to dry, you end up with a doll-sized sweater.  Oops.

But fast forward to today, when you are now eyeing up that wool garment you own that is either no longer presentable, or else it never really was suitable for any human to wear anyway, no matter how much the giver meant well when she gave it to you.

You can use this item for mask-making (having confirmed by reading the label that it is indeed 100% natural single-fiber-type wool), but first you need to felt it.  Do that by running it through the hot wash and dryer a bunch of times until it quits shrinking.

That’s it.  Not complicated.  You need to do this not only because you want to tighten-up that weave or knit, but also because it’s no good to have a mask you can’t wash and dry — you’ll just end up making doll masks.  Ha.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Okay that’s it for today’s lecture.  Remember, if you don’t want to pass out from heatstroke or infect the world in a sweat-crazed rage as you tear your drenched mask-of-misery from your overheated face, make your homemade mask out of fabric that’s:

  • 100%
  • natural
  • single-fiber

That’s 100% of or cotton or linen or silk or wool.

You’re welcome.

File:GreenMask1.jpg

Artwork: The Green Mask comic book cover, circa 1940, via Wikimedia, public domain.  This is not the right pattern for slowing the spread of respiratory illness.  Pretty sure your forehead is not a major vector of contagion.

On the other hand, let’s say it now right now: If you would also wear whatever glasses you have on hand when you must venture out, that, too, would add yet another layer of protection, however minimal.

 

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.

Lenten Metaphors for Non-Gardeners

So there’s this image circulating in my diocese, which I will not publish lest I propagate weeds, that shows a seedling and a Ven. Fulton Sheen quote. It’s not a bad quote.  Here’s the latter part of it, which does not accompany the seedling:

A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.

Absolutely true.  And with that conclusion attached, the beginning makes perfect sense:

We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue, a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative.

The trouble is that if you have just the beginning portion, and also you garden, the incomplete quote is nonsense.

You have to weed.  You have to prune.  Sometimes you have to irrigate, sometimes you have to anti-irrigate. You have to mulch, and you have to rake away would-be mulch that harbors disease.  You have to select the right plants for the right micro-climate, and sometimes that means moving a plant to a better location.  Sometimes you need to thin out plants that have grown in too densely, and other times you allow a plant to fill in copiously so that it suppresses weeds.

Sometimes you want to have annuals growing in that enormous planter by the front door, but the cat keeps sleeping in the dirt and rolling on your flowers, so you have to find a little flower pot to put inside the big flower pot, so that you can have your cat and your flowers too.  Definitely a metaphor for the spiritual life, because the cats aren’t going away any time soon.

Lent means spring, and in spring we do all these things, and also we worry about cold snaps getting the plum blossoms, so . . . probably that is the only applicable Lenten metaphor that stands on its own: Quit worrying about your plums, there’s nothing you can do and anyway they always get some nasty rot in June if you do get fruit, so why do you even bother? — Attributed to St. Francis, St. Augustine, and of course Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ven. Fulton Sheen is absolutely right, the goal of weeding is so that your garden can flourish.  The goal is not to create sterile ground, free of all life.  So make sure your Lenten weeding, if that’s what your soul needs this year, is ordered towards cultivating your love of God.

The feel-good abridged version? Makes one sound like one of those ignorant types who imagines farming unskilled labor.  It is not.

Obviously you need to plant the good seed of faith or else your weeding is to no purpose.  Obviously you need to be careful in your weeding so you don’t uproot your fragile faith.

And here’s an advanced gardening tip: With enough years experience, you can start making educated decisions about what weeding to prioritize, because you understand better which weeds propagate when and how, which are most likely to cause serious problems, what times of year (or weather-week) each are easiest to root out, and which plants that seemed like weeds will actually help your garden flourish.

Thus we get to the moral of today’s rant:  If you can tell a weed of vice from the seedling of faith you are trying to cultivate, feel free to root out the vice this Lent if you so discern.

Up to you.  It’s your Lent.  To quote GK Chesterton some smart person on Catholic Twitter (not me): The Internet is not your spiritual director.

Me holding a vase with mint rooting in it.

Photo: Continuing with our photo-penance at least one more day, here’s me holding a vase with mint in it.  I was weeding the mint bed and accidentally pulled up this cutting, so I stuck it in water and let it root, and soon I’ll put it in the ground.  “Soon.”

Meanwhile, here is your deep spiritual metaphor from the garden for today: If you root mint or basil or any other easily-rooted plant on your kitchen windowsill in the summer, every few days you need to dump the glass jar, rinse it out, and thoroughly rinse the roots of the plants as well.  Otherwise you’ll have mosquitoes.*

You have to rinse even the plant roots because the mosquito larvae will stick to them.  And that is a perfect metaphor for __[fill in the blank] __.  I’m sure you can think of something. Probably related to Pentecost.  Since it’s a summer** metaphor.

 

*Unless you live someplace without mosquitoes.  If that’s you, kindly give up gloating for Lent.  We don’t want to hear about your magical land.  I bet your plums don’t rot either.  Hush.

*By “summer” we mean “when the mosquitos are.”

Q&A: What Does it Take for a Rosary to “Count”?

On another forum the question was raised, and if it’s being asked there then it is probably of interest elsewhere: What does it take for a rosary to “count”?  If you want to be able to honestly claim you prayed the rosary, what is the minimum that must be done?

My answer . . .

There are some very limited situations where it matters whether your rosary “counts”:

  1. If it is the penance assigned to you in Confession. If so, follow the instructions in a booklet or similar resource on how to pray the rosary; presumably the priest who assigned the penance has such a thing on hand or else confirmed in advance you knew how to pray the penance.
  2. You are committed to praying the rosary daily because of your affiliation with a religious order or apostolate, such as being an auxiliary member of the Legion of Mary. If so, follow the instructions set forth by the organization to which you belong.
  3. You’ve pledged to say a rosary on someone’s behalf, and you were quite specific it would be a rosary, not just prayers in general. If so, go with booklet instructions as above.

Otherwise: Doesn’t matter. It’s you and God spending time together loving one another. Think of it as going on a date . . . you wouldn’t spend your time wondering whether the date “counted”.  I hope?

UPDATED

Over in the discussion group, a reader kindly reminds us that if you wish to receive a plenary indulgence for praying the rosary, there are instructions on that.  Which you’ll want to keep straight.

Two nice links to go with the update:

Enjoy.