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.

White Privilege in a Nutshell

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

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

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

That’s white privilege.

***

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

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

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

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

What else is that if not racism?

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Racism and Parish Closings

Allow me to connect some dots: If your diocese is currently shutting down parishes, it is possible those closings are the result of many decades of racism.

Why do I propose this idea?

I say it because I see parishes closing in communities where people still live.  Look around your local closing or struggling parish.  Is the neighborhood devoid of occupants . . . or is it that the people living in your parish now aren’t the “same type” as the ones who founded your parish or who enlivened it a generation or two earlier?

I can attest this is not the only cause of parish closings. We see parishes closing or struggling in communities around the world where no major demographic change has taken place other than a persistent secularizing of the wider culture.  There can be multiple factors at play.  Simple busyness and exhaustion are often the reason we don’t evangelize.

But.  If you live in a place where your local parish does not look like the people who live in the community surrounding your parish, ask yourself: Why?

What are the obstacles keeping us from evangelizing our own neighborhoods?

Is it possible that some kind of social bias is causing us to say, “Those people wouldn’t be interested,” or “Those people are too difficult to reach,” or “Those people wouldn’t be comfortable here.”

Even if your diocese is booming — especially if it is booming — your parish may be overlooking neighbors who have just as much a need and right to hear the Gospel and worship Jesus Christ in your parish church.  What can you do to invite them in?

 Father Joseph Harris, left, a Roman Catholic priest in Trinidad and Tobago, celebrates mass with Lt. Cmdr. Paul Evers

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, public domain, click through for more details.

On How You Get People to Kill Other People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Vocation-Affirming Experience of Covidtide

I have not read the entirety of it, but Darwin’s posting a series on the pandemic that promises to be his usual clear-headed, data-oriented analysis.  What follows is not that at all.  I’m here to talk about my mid-life crisis, thanks.

***

So for us the pandemic has been . . . okay.  SuperHusband’s employer was ahead of the curve on shutting down travel and protecting employees.  South Carolina, meanwhile, has been blessed with a pretty good experience so far, all things considered — made even more so by the unseasonably pleasant weather.  In terms of cases that touch us personally, a longtime colleague (age 42) died after a long struggle with COVID-19, and another colleague who has a side business lost one of his employees (age 35) quite rapidly.  Otherwise we’ve been fortunate that our friends and family have fared quite well, and we firmly hope that continues.

In terms of practicalities, here’s how coronacation found us: Last year, I was teaching full time.  I opted not to renew for this year, even though the job was fun, meaningful, and kept me surrounded by awesome people, because the hours were significantly more than I wanted to take away from family life.  Summer, fall, and winter found me discombobulated in six different ways, which I’ll forbear from cataloging, but suffice to say that when the unexpected descended this spring, I did not come into the season feeling like my life was, at all, pulled together.

So here are some of the changes that the big shutdown entailed:

  • We have six people home full time — four teens doing school, one adult working full-time, one adult (me) working part-time freelancing.
  • Homemaking skills are suddenly at a premium as we’ve dealt with the minor shortages, the need to be very careful about outings, and the far more intensive usage of our home.
  • Because all activities are canceled — church, kids’ sports, school programs, substitute teaching, concerts, every. single. thing — we are home, and home, and home.

For my husband and I, this has been mostly-heavenly.  The time he’d spend commuting in the morning instead we drink our coffee together and converse.  We have lunch together, usually sitting outside enjoying the beautiful weather.  We have family dinner every single night.  My husband calls it his “working vacation” and even though he is working as much as ever, plus putting in a second shift on construction work finishing out the addition we started last fall, for him this is the perfect life.

We have, of course, had to work through assorted issues that were always there but never dealt with, all related to concerns I had long harbored about what life would be like after he retired, because for an introvert to never, ever, be alone at home can be rough.  I think — helped by construction reaching a critical threshold that has caused me to mostly have my own office now — we’ve worked through much of that.  Praise God.

Meanwhile, both my own experience and what I’m seeing all around me has been very illuminating, in terms of understanding my own vocation.  Here are a few of the things I’ve been getting my head around.

Affirmed: My kids are awesome.  I have no opinion whatsoever on the employment decisions of other mothers.  I’ve done the range, from full-time homeschool mom to full-time working mom, and lately I’ve been working part-time with all kids in school.  Having the kids back home full time?  It’s really nice.  I like these people.  I enjoy being with these people.  We are very close to the time when we expect our nest to rapidly empty, and getting these few months of all kids at home has been an affirmation that, for me, who had the privilege of being able to make such a choice, the decision to prioritize quantity-time with my kids over other pursuits has been the right path.  A risky choice, no doubt.  But a good one.

Affirmed: Relationships consume time.  I can remember many nights when my mom, who had to be up for work at four in the morning, would talk to me past midnight because there was something on my mind, or because we had suddenly hit our stride and to her the lost sleep was worth the gained connection with a willful teenager.  Talking to your kids take time.  Loads of time.

Parents find different ways to do it — time in the car, time spent doing chores together, late nights, weekends — whenever and however you’ve got it to give.  But there is no getting around the reality that kids want to spend time with their parents, and that time cannot be assigned to other mental work.

This is valuable for them and precious for me.  The only time I have with my kids is this time, right now. So my husband and I — but especially me because without a regimented work day my time is much easier for the kids to claim — find ourselves wondering why we can never get done half the things we thing should get done.  It’s because we’re talking to our kids.

Affirmed: Good meals take time to prepare.  We’ve eaten better, even during the weeks when groceries were hard to come by, than we have in . . . ever.  Prior to coronatide, in twenty years of parenting my husband and I had never succeeded at sitting down to family dinner every night.  Over many months prior to the shutdown when I was neither working outside the home nor homeschooling anyone, dinner was still a rushed and hit-or-miss affair.  I thought, for years, this failure was due to some inherent defect on my part.

Nope.  It turns out that if you spend the hours of 3pm to 5:45 shuttling children around to various events, you can’t also be cooking during that time.  It turns out that if every single night of the week your schedule is different, with different family members rushing off in different directions (every single one of them a worthwhile pursuit), you can’t get into a dinner routine.  And furthermore, it turns out that giving yourself a full sixty minutes to prepare dinner allows for way more options, and much better quality food, than trying to quick throw something together in twenty.

So now we’re eating really well.  People like my cooking better.  Our food is more nutritious.  I honestly have no desire to go out to eat.  Complication: Even though my husband and I both strongly prefer this way of living, we have no idea how to achieve it when the world opens back up again.

Affirmed: Homemaking is its own full-time job. I’ve been watching, remotely, all these really accomplished professionals struggle to keep on with their careers, only now from home and with kids around.  Doesn’t work.  Last year teaching, I got all kinds of thing done.  It worked because I was not present to my family. Getting the beast  written and re-written?  For lack of an office I found myself ordering three dollars worth of food and coffee from McDonald’s and then sitting in the backseat of my car with my laptop, using the free WiFi from my improvised remote office.

Being present to your family is work.  It’s good work. Pleasurable work. Energizing work.  But providing that presence — even if the kids are older and self-starters and half of them are legally adults — and attending to the needs of the family takes time and energy.  It’s time and energy that you can’t be doing other things.  We can prove it is work by the simple fact that if you the parent don’t do it, if you want it done you’ll have to pay someone else to do it.  People will line up for rides at Disney.  They don’t line up to conduct your home life for you.

My point in observing all this is not to conclude that there is a specific way any particular family should organize its hours and distribute its labor.  My point is to share a very reassuring discovery: All these years I felt inadequate because our society sells this illusion that somehow parents can both be full-time homemakers and be full-time professionals. But it’s not so, and the experience of the many, many parents now struggling to work from home is the affirmation of this reality.

Affirmed: Twice as many meals, twice as many dishes.  I’m not doing them, the kids are.  Interestingly, now that the kids can choose whatever they want to eat for lunch, the school snacks are languishing untouched and the leftovers get eaten.  Pretty nifty.

***

I don’t have a big point to all this self-discovery other than that now more than ever I want to punch all the people who saddle parents with “if you loved your kids/neighbor/America/Jesus you would _______.”  If  the parents are working full time outside the home? They definitely do not have time to do your ‘one little thing’ in addition to their other very real responsibilities at work and home.

***

Beyond that, I have no particular resolutions or vision for our future.  SuperHusband and I know that we like the slower pace of life; we also know that the faster pace of life was there for a reason.  I can’t think of a single thing we were doing all these years that was not a worthwhile use of our time.

We’ll have to see.  Meanwhile, here’s a story for you by way of conclusion: Last spring as the school year wrapped up, at one of our all-faculty teacher meetings, the head of school had those of us not planning to return in the fall share what our next plans were.  Most people had the usual — moving for the spouse’s job, expecting a baby, retiring after many years of service.

My answer? “I’ve learned not to make plans.”

If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know how I’ve come by that habit.

Coronatide stamped a big fat Affirmed on that one, too.

Celebración de Todos los Santos, cementerio de la Santa Cruz, Gniezno, Polonia, 2017-11-01

Photo: Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.  

Life Coaching Tip, since after all that rambling you surely deserve at least one, right?  Here it is: If you aren’t already a Diego Delso fan, you need to change that.

 

On my bookshelf, Holy Week 2020 and beyond

This is my long overdue post on what I’ve been reading and what I’ve got in the queue, some of it Lenten some of it not (except, of course, that everything is Lenten).

For my top picks of family-friendly Holy Week videos, look here.

Simcha’s Lenten Family Film Festival is here, and Julie Davis has a starter pack of Lenten viewing here, but her whole blog is a treasure trove of reading and viewing suggestions.

***

My Good Friday go-to is Thomas à Kempis’s On the Passion of Christ.  I read a little bit more of it every year.

On the Passion of Christ by Thomas a Kempis

So no, I wasn’t kidding when I recommend partial-book reading as a Lenten strategy.  It’s a thing. Sometimes a very spiritually fruitful thing.  This is definitely a book for which a single meditation — even just a few paragraphs — can go a long, long ways.

Not recommended for those prone to scrupulosity.  Ideal for those prone to laxity.  Great example of using one’s imagination to immerse oneself in Scripture as a method of prayer, btw.

And hence: Not for the scrupulous. Just no.  NO!

If you are prone to scruples, for goodness sakes do like my kid did today, unbidden, and grab a few of Pauline Media’s Encounter the Saints books.  Good for kids, ideal for busy adults who need a quick inspiring read that will challenge your faith.  Can’t have too many of these.

Just finished: All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Ballard — Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin.  I give it . . . I dunno.  A lot of stars.  Also, I demand a mini-series.  Talk about non-stop fodder for period drama . . . the adventures just. never. quit.

Of Catholic interest: Somewhere along the way, Eugene Ballard managed to become a Catholic, often a lousy but also compulsively-heroic Catholic, and he died reconciled to the Church.  The biography doesn’t treat his faith very extensively, which is probably just as well; when THEY MAKE THE MINI-SERIES, which I demand, they’d better not screw up the Catholic part.

All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard-Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy

Did I mention I demand a mini-series?  This is a great story.

Currently reading: 

I apologize if you thought I was reading Lentier-stuff.  Well, these are Lenty each in their way.  Everything is Lenty.

Okay but I have another one open that is properly Lent-themed:

Just Sayeth the Lord: A Fresh Take on the Prophets by Julie Davis.

Thus Sayeth the Lord by Julie Davis

I’m a few chapters in, and so far so good.  Down-to-earth recaps, explanations, and meditations on the stories of various prophets.  Based on the what I’ve read, I’d definitely consider this one as a choice for a parish book club or Bible study, ages teen and up.

Readable, does not assume a particular level of background knowledge, does provide spiritual insights useful to those who are already well-studied.

It is of course no secret I’m a Julie Davis fan.  Her other two books are quite different and heartily recommended:

(Head’s up: At this writing I am not active on Goodreads, so please don’t try to message me there and then wonder why I’m ignoring you.)

Next Up:

Living Memento Mori: My Journey Through the Stations of the Cross by Emily DeArdo.  I’ve actually kinda sorta already read this book? But not exactly.

Living Momento Mori by Emily DeArdo

Emily is one of my favorite internet writer-friends, and she let me take a look at the original manuscript for this book back when we were trying to figure out who would be the ideal publisher.

Ave Maria was the winner, and their request was that she organize her memoir around the Stations of the Cross — if you didn’t know this already, one of the things publishers do with book proposals and manuscript drafts is come back to the author with requests for how to modify the book to better serve their readers.  It’s up to the author, of course, to decide which suggested changes fit with the goals of the book and when it’s time to stand firm (even at the cost of walking, if it comes to it); Emily obviously decided that the stations theme worked with her story, and I trust her instincts on that one.

I haven’t read the Stations of the Cross version, and no, I don’t feel, for a moment, that somehow that framework will become obsolete come Easter.  I have a sneaking suspicion, sorry to say, that Momento Mori is going to remain a pertinent theme for many months to come.

In the future I am going to recommend that Emily write something like My Memoir of Everything Being Awesome and Life is a Cakewalk, and maybe world events will take a hint?

And finally, you knew it was coming, I’m eager to finally be able to crack open The Contagious Catholic: The Art of Practical Evangelization by Marcel LeJeune.

The Contagious Catholic by Marcel LeJeune

Call it Providence or coincidence, but I assure you Catholic publishers don’t get six months advance notice on upcoming world events and tailor their book titles accordingly.

In what is definitely Providence, here’s the story of how we ended up writing overlapping books coming out within just months of each other: I had a brief online conversation with Marcel about the same time I was pitching my book proposal to OSV.  He mentioned in conversation that he had a book (he didn’t elaborate on the specific topic) in mind but had no idea when he’d get around to writing it or finding a publisher for it.

So I figure: Okay, he’s the guy to write about a book about this, but he’s not writing the book.

Makes sense. He’s a really busy guy running a major ministry teaching people how to evangelize, and his priority is to do the thing.  So someone needs to write the book on how to do the thing.  We get lots and lots of people who are excited about evangelization but are seriously wondering, “Okay, how do we do this?” because they’ve never been in a parish where evangelization and discipleship happen for serious.

I’m a writer.  I’m not running a major ministry that is sucking up all my time.  He can do the thing and I can write about the thing.  I guess I’ll do that.

There is no way — let me repeat: NO WAY — I would have even proposed my book if I’d known Marcel was writing his.  So it’s a good thing I did not know that he was going to end up finding time to get his manuscript together, because he has read my book now, and here’s his verdict in his email feedback to me:

You hit a lot of areas that I did not, and it seems the most  important ones were covered in our own ways by both of us.

That sounds about right.  You can check out the Catholic Missionary Disciples blog here to get a feel for Marcel’s writing style and the topics that interest him, how he and I overlap each other, and how is depth of experience is going to bring a different perspective than mine.

Anyway, now that I’m finally done with edits (other than a final look after the copy-editor has finished cleaning up the no-good, horrible, very-bad typos I’ve already identified from my “final” draft after pushing the send button), I’m free to read Marcel’s book with no risk of accidental plagiarizing, and so that’s what I am itching to do.*

Girl with preztels covering her eyes, in front of bookshelf.

For today’s photo penance, let’s do a fresh young face from the camera roll: A child of mine in attendance at a Family Honor parent workshop SuperHusband and I were giving last year.  This is what happens when you let her borrow your laptop.

*If you’re wondering: I’m pretty strict with myself about not reading other people’s blog posts or books on a topic I’m actively writing on, except if I’m explicitly researching a response to that literature. So I spent many months not clicking through on Marcel’s blog links because I didn’t want his voice getting confused with my own while I was actively writing.

Could I recommend you read, memorize, and internalize every single thing he writes on his blog?  Yes.  I recommend that.

And then go do the thing. DO. THE. THING.  Thank you.

 

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.

View from My Office: Social Distance

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

Laptop on a shelf in a crammed-full workshop

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

Me posing next to the water heater

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

Related Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

What More Do Old People Have to Give?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are worth it.  Stay home.

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

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

 

 

COVID-19 Mind Games II

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

He’s a brave a guy, but how brave?

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

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

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

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