RIP to Science: One Hair Dryer (Mask Test)

I was attempting to answer the question for my kids of whether an improvised mask, such as a cowboy-style bandana over your mouth and nose, could help slow the spread of disease.

Hypothesis: Even though an improvised cloth mask won’t filter viruses, it does limit the distance air coming out your mouth travels, and therefore reduces how far any germs get spread while talking, coughing, sneezing, etc.

Experiment: Well, about that.  So my plan was to set up a measuring tape on the bathroom floor showing the six feet of “social distancing” and then blow various lightweight items (dust, loose powder, wadded up scrap paper) using the hair dryer.  We’d see how far the hair dryer blows these items when unmasked and how far it blows them when masked with various garments — my favorite scarf, a standard bandanna, etc.

I decided to run some preliminary tests before the kids woke up, because if my hypothesis (or my experiment) was obviously wrong, that was something I could learn on my own, thanks.

I got the measuring tape out, found a scrap of (clean!!) toilet paper on the floor (note to self: CLEAN BATHROOM), and dug out my circa-1994 Salon Selectives hair dryer, currently collecting dust thanks to social-distancing.

==>Thanks Mom! That was an awesome Christmas present, even though I wasn’t sure what to think about it at the time. Just a few months ago we were marveling it had held up so long and showed no signs of giving up the ghost.==>

With the dryer on its high setting, I could blow a scrap about four feet.  I put the bandanna over it, and could only blow it about one or two feet.  Also, there was this slight burning odor, which I figured was all that collected dust burning off.  No big deal.

I was pleased by my preliminary findings, but more pre-testing was in order before calling in my skeptical children.  It was possible, for example, that I was seeing such dramatic differences in how far the paper scrap would travel because I was not consistent in how I aimed the hair dryer.

I did some experimenting with holding the dryer at different angles, un-masked, chasing that scrap of unused toilet paper around the bathroom.  Then I put the bandanna over again.  Not nearly as much air-power, again with the burning smell, and then: Experiment over.  Hair-dryer shorted out.

Yikes.

No amount of hoping I’d tripped a breaker bore fruit. After a quarter-century of faithful service, my hair dryer is no more.

Conclusions:

(1) I should not be left unsupervised with valuable machinery.

(2) An ordinary bandanna provides enough airflow resistance that it can wreck a hair dryer.

(3) If you’re contagious and you want to share space with me, yes, I would much rather you covered your mouth and nose with one of those masks that “does nothing” because it sure seems to me like having your germs go not-very-far is better than having your germs fly closer to me.

(4) I can’t afford to resume this experiment on my kids’ hair dryer, because I have three teenage daughters who will mutiny if I wreck their machine, as they do style their hair in quarantine. Therefore,

(5) I’d be grateful if other people would take up the cause and run experiments to see if my preliminary findings are reproducible.

Thanks!

Me with bandana over my face.

Photo: The guilty parties (me and that bandanna), posing in my makeshift office in the garage.  I love having my family at home all day, and I’m grateful my husband and I can both work from home, no matter how crazy the set-up is. Not everyone is so lucky.  Pretty sure those on the front lines keeping our infrastructure together wish you’d do whatever you can to reduce the odds you make them sick when you run your essential errands, even if it isn’t perfect and 100% foolproof.

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.

 

 

The Prepper Life

So it appears that the US’s response to the coronavirus thus far is, “Good luck with that.” The saga of non-testing continues, with standard procedures still continuing to assume that travel to an outbreak area is required in order to catch the virus, and no real plan in place to do serious triage and infection control before exposing other patients and staff.

A few token patients get identified and quarantined, and everyone else gets a generic “stay home if you’re sick” message that in no way takes into account the reality that American society is almost entirely built on not staying home when you are sick.  School attendance policies don’t allow for it.  Workplace attendance policies don’t allow for it.

To make the spread of the virus even more certain, many school and work attendance policies require the provision of a doctor’s note in order to excuse absences and thereby avoid truancy charges or termination — thus the booming urgent-care industry, where you can pop in during extended hours and spend five minutes with a doctor who will write you an excuse.

Barring a major public health campaign to change these factors, people who value their jobs and their good relationship with the department of social services are going to carry on as usual.  Even with a public health campaign in place, unless there are serious provisions made for assistance covering lost childcare and lost wages, people are going to make the hard decision to continue faking their way through the day, as we do now.  Which means we continue to live behind the curve. Call it Italian-style.

***

The good news is that South Korea, which is testing vigorously and thus has the most reliable statistics, is showing only a half of a percent overall mortality rate (.62% at this writing).  That’s awesome news for the general public.

Italian-style, though, does not bode well for nursing home residents, people at high risk of complications, and Walmart employees.  Thus, prepping: If you buy your extra pack of toilet paper this week while you aren’t coughing and sneezing, you won’t need to run to the store in a pinch when you do come down with the thing, and thus go around infecting the people who cannot afford to be infected.

***

I do not have good prepping advice to give.  I am not a minimalist.  My house is cluttered.  My hoarding instincts have been steadily reinforced over the years thanks to hurricanes, ice storms, dam breaks, water main breaks, almost-a-snowstorms (you want to never truly *need* groceries, lest you get stuck going to the store the day before the snow doesn’t come), guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner and “by the way I need _________ by tomorrow morning.”  So maybe I have a closet we call “Prepperville”?  Yes I do.

But these are things that I know:

#1. Bleach.  It does so, so many useful things.  Good for all kinds of emergencies.  Get the plain stuff.

#2. You know you’re a born prepper if you hate going anywhere without dish soap.  It can be used on bodies of many species, clothes, dishes, your bathtub, your car . . . whatever needs to be washed.  You actually *can* put it in a laundry- or dish-washing machine, if you manage the dosage properly.  Gets the grease out.

#3. Duct tape and contractor bags, individually or in combination, can be used to solve so many different problems I can’t imagine you don’t keep both on hand at all times.  In a crisis, it’s therapeutic to go ahead and top off.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of crisis.

#4. My son buys the wrong coffee.  Actually every member of my family buys the wrong coffee, but 4/6ths of those people are not my problem, because they can just cope.  In a crisis, nobody wants the boy and I going cold turkey on the caffeine.  He buys this stuff:

Aldi brand dark roast coffee from Columbia

Photo penance of the day: Me holding a package of Aldi brand dark roast coffee labeled “Colombia.”

This is wrong.  In the same box from Aldi you can get either “Colombia” or “Sumatra.”  Both are dark roast.  Both are fair trade.  But one of them is just not as good as the other.  I confirmed this by accident this morning.

First week of any disaster, he and I are going to have the coffee we want.*  We can slowly adapt to our circumstances as we toughen up gradually.  Everyone will be happier that way.

#5. Your three teenage daughters do not want to adapt to improvised feminine hygiene products the first week of the disaster.  Give them at least a month into the apocalypse before you lay that one on them.

#6. Yes.  I know that most people throughout history did not have toilet paper.  Many manage just fine without even to this day.  I don’t care. Quit making fun of people who binged on toilet paper this week.

#7. Other people’s ideas of good prepper-food are usually disgusting.  You have to figure this one out on your own.  I go with ingredients that already feature in our regular menu, are pretty durable in a weather event, and can be consumed either uncooked or else can be cooked over an alternate cooking source (propane stove, charcoal, wood fire, etc). You’ll be pleased to know that the best popcorn recipe ever stands up to this rule.

In conclusion: In the face of any disaster, I’m totally prepared to live on coffee and popcorn.  We’ll be fine.

 

*The ability to improvise coffee-making** under nearly any circumstance is my chief super-power.

**I did not say you would like my improvised coffee.  Indeed, I prefer that you do not.

Why Black History Month Can Make Your Life Better

Last day of February, and because it’s a leap year we get one extra day of Black History Month.  This year I’ve been enjoying @Menny_Thoughts daily posts on Black Catholic history. (He blogs here.) The bulk of the mini-biographies he shared were familiar names to me, but not over-familiar by any stretch, and there were quite a few new-to-me stories, at least one of which made me briefly jealous I hadn’t included it in my array of saints for the book.

The thing that bugs me every year, though, is the implicit question when you set aside a specia- month-for-special-people: What about the other 11/12ths of the year?  Goes for womens’ history too, and don’t get me started on that one.

It’s a question I asked myself at the start of the month, and now that I’ve had twenty-nine days to think about it, here are three reasons I think Black History Month is important.

#1 Sooner or later you discover there’s more to Black History than MLK and Harriet Tubman.

Start there by all means.  Those are need-to-know stories.  But if enough years of enough days go by, eventually you start digging into lesser-known luminaries.  This is important because of something a friend of mine said way back in high school.

The topic was a television show neither of us watched much.  I found the characters one-dimensional, the plots predictable, and the dialog stilted.  His complaint: “There’s that character who is supposed to be the spoiled rich girl from the elite family, but there’s no such thing as black people like that.”

I instinctively knew he was wrong?  But I had no evidence with which to make my case.

My friend was not alone. What we learned about African-American history in school consisted of slave, slave, slave, slave, emancipation, Jim Crow, MLK, and then somehow magically you are surrounded by all these black professionals you encounter in daily life, but actually black people are mostly poor and helpless and need social workers to save them? (Always them.)  And also there’s that guy who made the pottery.

Mmmn . . . not so much.

Thus even though it’s fantastically dumb that we need such a thing, it’s good that we eventually get so bored of the same half-dozen African-American figures getting shared around every February that we start to uncover, bit by bit, that there’s a whole lot more to know.  And it’s interesting.

#2 African-American history is American history.

Let’s talk about white people.

White people can get uncomfortable admitting to an interest in Black History.  It’s like if you’re white you are contractually obligated to either have an Official Reason to study such a thing, or else you must use the word “vibrant” to gush about those special special people who are just as good as you — honest! even better! — because of course they are so vibrant.

Me with a copy of All Blood Runs Red, a biography of Eugene Ballard by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin

Actually we know this is true, because look at our daily penitential photo.  That’s me posing with the cover of All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard — Boxer, Pilot, Solider, Spy. You’ll notice that Eugene Ballard looks a little skeptical on his cover photo.  He’s totally thinking: Why do I have to pose with this white lady I don’t even know?

Or maybe he’s thinking: Why yes, I am a World War I flying ace, thank you very much.

(I can’t promise you the book’s any good, but the dogfight sequence in the prologue made it well worth the trouble of grabbing it off the new books shelf at the library today. Looks promising.)

You don’t need an official reason to study this or that type of history.  If you feel like you have to explain yourself because you take an interest in the actions or language or heritage of people who aren’t part of your officially-designated special-interest group? Then you need to give yourself some desensitization therapy.

#3 You deserve to be well-educated.

By way of example: If you are a teacher in any capacity, you owe it to yourself to read Up from Slavery.

Yes indeed, it is a massive fundraising letter (missionaries take note, if you need ideas).  Yes it’s also one of those things you need to read in order to claim to be knowledgeable of African-American history (I make no such claim — I’m strictly an amateur). But if you are a teacher?  Booker T. Washington happens to have written a practical philosophy of education that is far more useful than the bulk of the pedagogical blather that gets shoved at education majors.

If you want to learn the art of rhetoric from a master of the English language, read Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you want to learn how to be a saint during an epidemic in a city with neighborhoods under quarantine, read the life of Venerable Pierre Toussaint.

Black History is human history.  You might show up for some other reason, but you stay because you found something of enduring value.

7QT: Hoppy Lent

#1 It’s Friday, so double the penance.  Over at the Blorg I’m writing about the economic fallout of quarantine and what that means for the ordinary Catholic. Includes a photo of me and my red dinosaur plush toy.  I’m really getting into the penitential mood.

#2 It turns out I was wrong yesterday.  A week and some ago I wrote “5 Ways to Stay Sane During Lent” now up the Register.  Which includes the lines the Internet is not your spiritual director. But when I quoted it yesterday, I’d forgotten I’d written it, but remembered I saw it on Twitter spoken by someone else.  So that’s interesting.  Apparently I am not the only person getting tired of the annual scolding about how everybody’s doing Lent wrong.

#3 Advance praise for the book!  From a reader who shall remain anonymous, but FYI this a person who was forced to read the book, did not choose to read the book, and who admits to being rather worn out on the whole topic of evangelization:

This left me going “Hey, that thing over there – I could maybe do that.” So, kudos. You got me to actually like a book on evangelization.

Didn’t see that coming.  Woohoo!  It really is a good book, and in very good news, I’m done with major edits, unless on my final read-through this weekend I find something I desperately want to change.  So prayers, please, that if there is something that needs to be fixed I find it?  Yes?  Because this is a very broad-audience book, and y’all know just how ornery I can be, when I’m let loose with my words and things.

#4 I’ll just get ornery right now.  Read today about an American bishop who’s mandated communion in the hand. He’d like people to maybe quit holding and shaking hands during Mass, but he’s not going to insist, so I guess its up to people in the pews to withstand the glares if they decline to shake hands right before, you know, eating with their hands. Yikes.

So anyway, here’s what happened to me this week: I popped into daily Mass Thursday, and the Mass I attended draws a fairly traditionalist crowd.  Majority in attendance receive on the tongue habitually.  Father announced that he was going to distribute the sacred host only, no chalice, on account of infection risk.  No announcement about how one may or may not receive.

When I went up to receive, sure enough, Father’s perfectly capable of giving communion on the tongue without any contact between his hand and the recipient’s body.

It’s a skill, it’s a skill that can be learned, and sadly it’s not a skill I’ve ever observed practiced among people distributing hand-to-hand.

Thus for the moment, if you have significant reasons to be concerned about catching something, your only safe bet is to only visit ministers of the Eucharist who don’t touch people’s hands or mouths (or other body parts) when they distribute communion, and who also are particular about washing their hands thoroughly before Mass and not touching germy surfaces from there on out.

I’d like to see some parishes get serious about making that happen.

I’d very like to see some dioceses get serious about putting together a plan to protect our priests from highly contagious viruses that disproportionately kill older men and especially older men with various underlying health conditions that are extremely common in the USA, while still allowing those men to carry out their God-given vocations.

#5 Back to gratitude.  Earlier this month I was one of the moderators for the Catholic Quiz Bowl of South Carolina.  It was a ton of fun and I was thrilled to be able to do it, and considered the free lunch that came with to be all the more thanks required.  Still, the organizers not only arranged to have a Mass said in honor of each individual volunteer moderator’s intentions, they also had gift bags for us!

Mine contained this beautiful rosary, one of many prizes donated by The Catholic Company:

Blue and silver rosary with Sacred Heart medal. Blue and silver rosary with mother-and-Child medal

Which was what I’ve needed, though I didn’t realize it until I got home.

#6 The reason I need it is because ever since the death of my previous prayer partner, Rosary Dog, I’ve been struggling with getting my rosary prayed, or too often and too consistently just neglecting to pray it. So a shiny new beautiful thing half-enticed and half-guilted me into getting my act together.

It’s sorta working?

So tonight the sun was getting low in the sky and I had a chance to get out for a quick walk after supper, and grabbed that rosary and hit the road, but I woke up with a bit of a cough today and was ready to give up halfway through the Crowning with Thorns.  I know!

But then I got back to the yard and decided I’d just wander a little and maybe persevere.  I picked at a few weeds coming up in the mint, and before I knew it I’d prayed all the things and also gotten a nice fistful of greens for a rabbit I know.

Me with Miffy, a white Jersey Woolie rabbit

Photo: Me and Miffy, my new prayer-assistant.  Once you have a rabbit, your yard never looks the same again.

And that’s why I can write books on evangelization for people who hate evangelization, and I can write diatribes on shut up already and leave people alone to enjoy their Lent in peace, because I am a person whose prayer life depends largely on the presence of pets.

#7 All you holy men and women?  Pray for us.

***

Guys, I’m thrilled to be back on Seven Quick Takes, however inconsistently, because joining in reminds me to go look, and when I go look I find all kinds of good reading.  There are some super links posted this week.  Check them out.

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.”

In Which I Offer the Reader So, So Much Penance

#1 Melanie Bettinelli’s aiming for a blog post a day during Lent, and I think I’m in.  Just as a goal, not as a penance.  I’m happier if I’m blogging.  So that’s like a good deed for my family?  Or something? We’ll see.

#2 I’m stalking my spot at the Register waiting for my rant about Lenten penances to show up.  Sooner or later it’s supposed to get there.  Meanwhile, here’s bonus content: There’s a nasty bit of contagion going around today about how the USCCB’s guidance for fasting isn’t really fasting, get it together you wimps.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the shocking world of people who can’t gain weight.  It’s a thing.  It’s an annoying thing, if you happen to be a person who is perfectly capable of storing away all kinds of emergency fuel reserves, and you must grocery shop and cook for the people whose bodies don’t do that.

I don’t have any particular difficulty fasting.  I dislike it.  I’d rather be eating.  But sure enough, unless I’m sick or pregnant or something, my body does a great job of saving up fat for future usage, and carefully doling out a ration of that stored energy if I happen to be not eating.

Not everyone’s body does that.  I live with people who have to plan, for serious, in order to get through a day doing the two little meals and the one normal meal, and yes they totally depend on the part about being able to have a glass of milk in between times.  It’s not about diet.  It’s about having a body that is wonderfully adapted to our world of abundance (unlike mine, which keeps insisting there could be a famine any minute, better stock up!), and very poorly adapted to fluctuations in food supply.

And get this: We have a priest shortage.  Thus the Church in her wisdom, rather than setting a bar ideal for the robust among us and directing those who need to do so to bother Father about a dispensation, has instead made it acheivable to do the minimum.

If you are able to do more than the minimum, I sure hope that’s what you’re doing today.  I also hope you’ve contrived to make sure it’s not so obvious what you’re up to.

#3 I used to be bothered by today’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells us to keep our fasting and prayers a secret, and then there we go getting ashes on our heads two minutes after. I’m over that now.

Jen Fitz, Self Portrait with Ashes on Forehead

Photo: Me with a sample of Fr. Gonzo’s latest artwork.

There’s two reasons why. The first is that the warning is about prayer and fasting, and listen guys, just because my body is in Mass doesn’t mean I’m praying, so that’s a big fat secret, and anyway how do you know I’m not spending the day having two ice cream bars and a giant plate of lasagna?  You don’t.  So I’m good.

Meanwhile . . . the thing about the ashes is that they aren’t a sign of holiness.  I’m sorry if someone got you all confused about that.  The annual application of ashes is like putting on a blanket apology to the world.  Yeah, I suck.  I know it.  Probably don’t know it enough, but I’m at least making a nod that direction?

So FYI, anyone at all can go get ashes.  If you’re wretched and you know it, Catholic Church has you covered.

#4 I’m thinking maybe I should post a selfie a day for Lent.  As penance for us all?

Ha.  Can’t decide if I’m kidding or not.

#5 Since I am no St. Therese, allow me to complain about church music for a bit.  There are two tunes that I have grown possessive about, in a case of sacredness-by-association.  Picardy, the setting for “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” is the first.  Once you’ve created a link between a catchy, soulful tune and a description of the absolutely most intimate moment between creature and Creator this side of Heaven, I just can’t bear to hear the tune co-opted for other, not-so-exalted topics.  Even if the lyrics in question are otherwise unobjectionable (and sometimes they are not, but there are limits to how much I’m willing to make you suffer today), that’s a no.

The other one, and this is where we get all Lenten, is Passion Chorale.  Please.  People.  I know that it’s not Good Friday yet.  I know that you have composed many lovely meditations on Lenten spirituality that have the same meter.  I get that you are trying to make a mental connection on this path to the cross or something.  You are wrong.  Wrong! Stop it!  Give me “Oh Sacred Head Surrounded” or give me silence.  Or a different tune, same meter, that’ll be fine.  There’s nothing wrong with your little Lenty-chit-chat dog ear poetry. But hands off Passion Chorale.  It’s taken.

#6 My husband wishes I would show up at church this evening to hear a rendition of this absolutely awesome music:

But here is the truth about me. This other little chant, which the cantor sung at Mass earlier today, was like getting a late Valentine:

One of my favorite songs.  I only know the chorus, and every year I mean to fix that, and maybe one day I will.  But it sure was easy to keep my Lenten smiley face up, just like Jesus says, with that for our ash-walk music.

Life is good.

Request for Contributions: Effective Communication on Parish Access for You, a Person with a Disability

Hey everyone, I am looking for help, quickly.  My awesome editor of the new book surprised me by wanting more, not less, info on making parishes accessible to persons with disabilities.

The question we need to cover: What is the best way for a parish to communicate with you, and vice-versa, so that your disability (medical condition, etc – so celiac, diabetes, severe allergies, chronic illness . . . all that can have parish-life implications too) can be accommodated right from the start?

Leave your comments at the blog discussion group, or message me on Facebook or Twitter @JenFitz_Reads.

We’re envisioning here both scenarios where the accommodations might already be present but you still have to know about them, and situations where you show up and have to start the process (however simple or complicated) of getting full access to parish life.

I’m looking for firsthand experience from the user-end, not stories of what your parish has provided to accommodate someone else, but what you as the person being accommodated (or the parent, etc., if appropriate) find most helpful in terms of effective communication to make the accommodation happen. Anything at all relevant to that topic.

[Include here also anything related to overcoming human stupidity, when your disability is not something that should be an access issue at all, but weirdly it is because people are dumb sometimes.]

Although I do not know what our total word count for this section will be (and therefore how many detailed stories or quotes I can use), please indicate with your comment whether you are up for being directly quoted or whether you are providing background info only. If you are game for being quoted, let me know what to call you in the book. If you need to be quoted anonymously, PM me (so it doesn’t show up in a public FB feed).  You can refer to yourself by full name, job title, and credentials, or you can give me something descriptive but vague such as “Mary, a retired accountant on the Gulf coast,” or “John, a new convert working with an inner city ministry to street performers,” or whatever suits.

If I already have your story, we’re set, just remind me I’ve got it and give me permission and quoting info if you haven’t done so already. But you might have more to say, or particular details that are pertinent to this specific question. If so, repeat with fresh info or emphasis, please.

***

Related: If you have more stories of excellent examples of being a person with a disability who is involved in evangelizing* (discipling) ministry in some manner in your parish or the community you serve, I’d be interested in hearing two things:

  • The big-picture story of your work (who you serve, how you serve, stories of people growing closer to Jesus), which will just as likely end up *elsewhere* in the book, not related to disability at all.
  • Possibly to be put in the same quote or possibly to be used as info elsewhere, stories on the details of making access happen, whether that be something already built into your ministry or something that had to be organized.

*If you’re doing it right it’s all evangelizing. Don’t get hung up on vocabulary.

What doesn’t make the book will end up getting used somewhere, if you give me permission to do so.  Let me know that.

Thank you!

Cover Art/ Image Description: This is the cover of the book I’m asking you to contribute to, The How to Book of Evangelization, coming out in June 2020 from Our Sunday Visitor.  FYI for those who don’t know, publishers come up with book covers all on their own, without the author’s input on the design (they get info from the author all about the book, of course).  So it’s magical that they chose a shade of purple I love, and a big ol’ crucifix splashed across the cover that looks an awful lot the like one I have a view of from my office.  God provides.

Catechesis vs. Evangelization in the Pediatric Hospital for Sinners

So the US Bishops have assembled again, and following a hot tip I watched the session with Bishop Barron’s report on evangelization.  You can view the whole thing here.

It is worth watching if you have the time.  I started jotting down a few of Bishop Barron’s points on post-it notes for reference as the new book goes into final edits in December, and ended up annotating the whole transcript instead.   [FYI for those tempted to create snarky hierarchy-themed bingo boards, ahem, YouTube’s auto-generated captions and transcript do some fascinating things with the words ad limina.]

There were many valuable points raised, but the one I want to talk about now occurs around the 46-minutes mark. Bishop Daniel Conlon raises the question of evangelization versus catechesis. In his comments and Bishop Barron’s reply, a thorny problem for catechists is discussed: How do we both provide the rigorous catechesis that young people need (discussed extensively earlier in the presentation), and evangelize the barely-Catholic youth in our parishes?

As the bishops’ review of the state of evangelization rightly points out, it is no good throwing a pile of commands and directions at someone who is still asking basic questions about life, the universe, and everything. But at the same time, for the young person (or older person) who has largely accepted the Catholic faith, and in a different but crucial way for the young person whose mode of grappling with the faith is headily intellectual, the hunger for theology is a survival drive.  Serious examination of the faith for some young people is life-saving nourishment.

And yet that same theologically-intensive approach to the faith would absolutely drown a different kid also sitting in the circle at the youth group ice-breaker.

So what do you do?

The present solution — parish food fight, and last man standing gets to organize the youth program along his or her favorite lines — is not a good solution.  It’s not just a bad idea because yelling at your pastor is poor form (so I’ve been told, more than once), but also because “young people” are not a homogenous lump of catechetical tumor.

The young people who attend your parish are not identical to one another.  They have differing academic abilities, differing faith backgrounds, and differing spiritual needs.

Imagine if pediatricians organized conferences where they attempted to hash out a single mode of treatment for every child. Imagine showing up at your child’s doctor’s office, and the appointment went like this:

Parent: My kid has a badly swollen knee.  It started about three weeks ago.

Doctor, nodding gravely: Ah yes.  I see.  You will definitely want to start our regimen of asthma treatments.  It’s a shame you didn’t come in sooner, but it’s not too late.

Parent: I don’t think you understand.  It’s the knee.

Kid: My knee really hurts.  I can’t play soccer anymore.

Doctor: Yes!  It’s impossible to play soccer if you can’t breathe well!  What we need you to do is come in once a week for breathing treatments.

Kid: I can breath just fine.  I don’t need breathing treatments.  It’s my knee that hurts.

Doctor: Well, it never hurts to improve your breathing.  Many children have undiagnosed asthma, and so it’s important that we focus on making sure you can breathe well first.  When you’re older there will be plenty of time to look into your knee, if that’s important to you.

Parent: But if we don’t treat the knee, isn’t my child likely to get out of shape and have a worse time keeping up?

Doctor: Yes.  Exercise is so important!  That’s why we require all patients to receive weekly breathing treatments, to make sure they can exercise well.

Parent: I don’t think that we want to do the weekly breathing treatments.  We’re looking to understand why the knee is swollen.

Doctor: I’m sorry.  With an attitude like that, obviously your child is not going to get any better.  In all my years of medical practice, I’ve found that if we don’t require breathing treatments, children with undiagnosed asthma can get seriously ill, and even die.  I’m concerned you don’t take your child’s health seriously.

Parent: Could you refer us to a knee specialist, perhaps?

Doctor: Of course!  After you child finishes college, it might be possible to find a doctor’s office with a knee program. Though honestly, most Singles Doctors and Young Adult Doctors don’t do knees.  We did have an OB-GYN who treated a sprained ankle once, though.  Knees are more likely to come up in the Seniors treatment center.

Kid: I hate doctor’s offices.  Last year I had to spend six weeks in a cast because four of the kids in our treatment group had broken wrists.

Doctor: Oh yes.  I’m so glad your group was treated for that! Many children hurt their wrists skating or climbing trees.  In any case, I doubt it’s your knee.  We have extensive research showing that breathing treatments are far more effective at keeping young people in your grade alive and healthy.  Let’s just go ahead and sign you up, and you can give it a try, and I think if you have a good attitude it will work wonders for you.  Remember, you only get out of treatment as much as you put in, right?  Big smile for me, okay?

Disaster.  But before you lay into the “doctor” in this situation, keep in mind the doctor is only doing what we’ve asked. We’ve spent generations now commanding youth ministers and faith formation directors to develop a single program that somehow effectively treats every patient in the pediatric hospital for sinners — and then we heap on the blame when an overworked, underpaid staff member isn’t able to magically cure all the youth of the parish in that sacred hour a week of instructional time.

There’s an alternative to this approach, and your pediatrician is already doing it, and interestingly it’s the same thing the Church prescribes: Parents as primary educators, passing on the faith in the domestic church.

What would happen if we abandoned the orphanage-model of faith formation and operated the hospital for sinners more like a good doctor’s office?

We’d quit scolding and start educating parents.   When public health professionals notice parents aren’t getting their kids treated, they don’t rely on general admonitions to “Take your child’s health more seriously!”  At my doctor’s office there are posters on the wall and racks of pamphlets explaining common medical problems, and signs to look for, and treatments to pursue.  Does your parish educate parents on the common spiritual illnesses of youth, and how to prevent and treat them?

We’d give parents realistic ideas for how to educate their children in the faith, and expect them to follow-through. At the annual well-visit, the nurse runs through a list of age-appropriate potential concerns.  The advice that goes with is concrete.  Not a vague: Are you protecting your child from head injuries? but Does your child wear a helmet when bike riding?  The best doctors take into account the family’s resources and limitations, and the child’s true needs, and work with parents to find solutions when, say, the kid won’t eat fruits and vegetables, or constantly unbuckles in the car. [Duct tape? Not kidding.]  Parents usually will rise to expectations if the medical team can find a solution that the parent can reasonably hope to carry out.

We’d focus heavily on helping parents instill everyday spiritual health habits, but train parish staff in the diagnosis and treatment of serious problems.  Our pediatrician is an excellent cook as it happens . . . but it’s not her job to feed our family.  That’s my job.  Do I sometimes slack on that job?  You bet.  But even on days when my kids have popcorn and ice cream for dinner, it’s better that our doctor focus her time on becoming as knowledgeable as she can on detecting and treating (either herself or via referral) the serious problems.  Most appointments will end up with our doctor prescribing a simple course of treatment at home; every now and then, one of the kids will need more advanced care.

What would happen if we didn’t divide-and-conquer this way?  I’d probably have a dead kid, thanks for asking.  My pediatrician would be so bogged down with the weight of attempting to somehow feed our family a balanced diet (and do it in one weekly dinner twenty-five nights a year) that she’d never have the time and energy to stay current in her specialty and schedule one-on-one appointments.  She’d never have discovered, in a routine five-minute check-up before a vaccine, the thing that could have killed my child.  But because she specializes in treating the hard stuff, and leaves the day-to-day to me, when we need her expertise, she’s able to give it.

But the parents are neglectful! We lament.  Well, yes.  The parents are dropping like flies themselves, and Bishop Barron’s presentation addresses that.  You can’t care for someone else when you yourself are dead.

Build Better Orphanages! is not the solution to the spiritual death of the adults in the congregation.  You cannot bypass the parents.  There are not enough youth ministers in the world, and never will be, because that is not God’s plan for the human family.  Evangelize the parents, catechize the parents, and deploy the parents to do likewise for their children.

This is a constant, all-at-once process.  Our pediatrician is effective because she assumes the goodwill of parents.  We parents might know nothing at all about medicine, but we do love our kids.  That’s all she needs for a start.  If a parent is coming to your parish, that parent is ripe for the Good News.  Who doesn’t want eternal life for themselves and their children, if only they know it’s attainable?

The How-To Book of Evangelization: Everything You Need to Know but No One Ever Taught You

Here, enjoy this book cover.  I am. Last round of edits starts in December, speak up at the blog discussion group if you have any final requests.