Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Eli, Eli

Not an Orphan Opening, exactly.

Out of the depths I call to you, Lord.
When the prayer chain began to light up -- baby drowned, heart stopped for almost half an hour -- Kaye sprung into action. Within moments she had alerted the support group, found a contact email for the mother, written a blog post, and created a hashtag: #prayingforbabysam. The first familiar pangs of panic and grief subsided beneath the flurry of making a difference. As long as she was doing something to make things better, she could look at the pictures of little Sam in his hospital bed and keep breathing.
Like water my life drains away.
The support group buzzed with prayers and sage counsel, wisdom dearly bought. Each person knew the pain the parents were feeling, knew it in their bones, had buried it in tiny plots in small hometowns or manicured city memorial parks. Kaye had brought them together. She monitored the prayer line, moderated the comments, posted the memes, wrote the columns about What Not To Say to a Grieving Parent or Five Ways to Support Your Bereaved Friend. Within private forums, she gave the good advice about allowing yourself to mourn, about celebrating the anniversary, about visiting the grave, about seeking help when the waves of agony pulled you underneath as you tried in vain to reach your baby.
Save me God,
For the waters have reached my neck,
I have sunk into the mire of the deep,
where there is no foothold.
I have gone down to the watery depths;
the flood overwhelms me.
Kaye understood.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your torrents,
And all your waves and breakers sweep over me.
She had lived each step of the process. She knew everything that Sam's mother was going through. She knew the shock of discovery, the horror, the deadly hope, the helpless vigils over the small still body covered with tubes, the beeps and then the silence of the monitors. She knew the stresses that could tear a marriage and a family apart. And she knew how to rebuild, to channel her grief into something good and productive: a support network for parents like her, so that no one should have to go through the worst moments of their life alone. Eli's Miracle was named for her own son, the miracle being that life could go on after death. She couldn't save Eli, but in his name she did everything possible to save other parents. Time brought wisdom and solace. God's will was inscrutable, but now that Kaye was on the other side she could see how far she'd come. She was a #survivor.
He reached down from on high and seized me;
drew me out of the deep waters.
And now baby Sam's mother needed her. Kaye kept vigil with her, constantly monitoring for updates. In the middle of the night she checked her phone for fresh news to share with the support group. Sam's anguished mother was keeping in constant touch. Kaye knew too well not just her present sorrow, but the horrors of the coming days as the family would have to make decisions about removing life support. Nothing, nothing could prepare them for that awful moment, but Kaye would walk with them every step of the way, praying when they prayed, crying when they cried. And when they needed it, the GoFundMe account was there as well to cover the hospital bills. Kaye did not talk yet about the funeral expenses. The family was still choking on hope. It was wise to let them take the time they needed. After all, everyone was #prayingforbabysam, praying for that miracle.
I shall not die but live
and declare the deeds of the Lord.
Talitha koum, and Sam's eyes opened. He spoke. He ate. His brain activity was off the charts on the high side. "I'm not a religious man," Sam's doctor proclaimed, "but the only word for this is 'miraculous'." The hashtaggers, the memers, the prayer warriors on the other side of the screen watched the miracle unfold and proclaimed it #blessed.  His mother posted photo after teary photo of the child as each day some new wonder unfolded, and day after day Kaye shared them with all who were #prayingforbabySam.

But Kaye was not praying.
Then the waters would have engulfed us,
the torrent overwhelmed us,
the seething water would have drowned us.
She had sought for so little. Nothing unreasonable or extraordinary. The basic, common, decent process of healing for the shattered parents and sobbing siblings was all she requested of God. And God betrayed her, and betrayed Eli, by sending some other family a literal fucking obscene miracle. The years she'd spent in coming to terms and reaching peace and transmuting her suffering into ministry were a timeline of mockery. Everyone's suffering had been wasted. Baby Sam stirred in his bed, and walked, and talked, and said, "Mama", but her baby, her own sweet Eli for whom she prayed, was only in goddamn heaven.
Cast them into the watery pit never more to rise.
On the day that everyone posted the pictures of Sam toddling out of the hospital, Kaye went to Eli's grave. She smashed a vase of flowers against the small flat stone. She lay her body over the patch of earth that covered her son and begged God to give her baby back to her. No answer came but the prick and sting of shattered glass. As the blood trickled down her forehead, she lifted up her voice and cried, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

8th Grade American History: A Reading Course

Many wonderful people who provided book recommendations as I put together the reading list of our second eldest's eighth grade American History reading list, and so it seemed only fair to share out what I've put together.

The student in question professed herself bored by history, perhaps in part due to a poor textbook selection last year, and in part due to lack of desire to put in effort. Needless to say, this sort of statement puts pangs in my heart as someone who has history as a primary interest. My main goal this year was thus to put together a reading list of highly readable popular history books for adults (rather than a grade school or high school text book) and show the student that history can be involving. Because several of the books I've picked are very long, and I wanted to set the history reading quota at ~100 pages per week, this meant only covering a few major topics in American History. However, my hope was to make up for this by covering these with interesting enough books to make the student want to eventually go back and read more about other connecting topics.

I'm also trying to cover some gaps with my selections for reading/literature and for science. The student's main science course this year will be a video based astronomy course, but I'm also including some inventions/technology reading to cover elements of history that relate to science and technology.

History Books

Eyewitness to History (selections) I struggled with a number of options dealing with the Spanish discovery of the Americas and the following conquest, etc. However, I couldn't settle on something which looked interesting and balanced enough yet also wasn't hugely long, so we're going to start out with several short selections dealing with the discovery and conquest of the Americas from the collection of primary sources Eyewitness to History which I happened to have sitting around. It's a useful (though often British/European focused) collection of short primary source selections which I've turned to at times over the years.

One Small Candle: The Pilgrims' First Year in America by Thomas Fleming deals with the journey on the Mayflower and the first year in America in vivid narrative form. Fleming came highly recommended by Jay Anderson.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow The kids were all big fans of Hamilton the musical, and when she flamed out on her textbook last spring I had this student start reading Chernow's book, which although brick-like in length reads almost like a novel. She read the first part and said she liked it, though she dropped it over the summer, so I'm going to have her finish this to cover the American Revolution.

Selected Founding Sources: Declaration of Independence, Selected Federalist Papers, Preamble to the Constitution, Washington's Farewell Address

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson This is a fairly opinionated account of the civil war (and I actually haven't read all of it, though I'll be reading it along with the student to discuss it) but I picked it for two reasons: 1) It's only one volume, while Catton and Foote are three each. 2) Due to the nature of the course I needed a Civil War history which dealt in depth with slavery and racial issues as well.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes Again, a pretty opinionated history, but I wanted a history of the Great Depression which was heavy on anecdote and yet fairly sound on economics. This seemed to cover both.

Delivered from Evil: The Saga of World War Two by Robert Leckie This was a tough one for me, because the world wars and their interpretation is a topic which I care a lot about. However, looking over a number of general histories of the war, this looked like the most readable one for someone who is not currently a history geek. Thanks to Rich Leonardi for this recommendation. I knew of Leckie but not of this book.

High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Krushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis by Max Frankel This was a bit of a coin toss. I was looking for a short (200-300 page) book on a post-WW2 topic: Cold War, Civil Rights, 60s Revolution, Vietnam, Nixon, Gulf War & Middle East, 9-11 I struggled to find something which was a short, contained work that did a good job with it's topic. This looked like it would fit the bill.


End of Track Autobiography of a man who lost a leg as a teen soldier in the civil war but went to a career as a work gang manager building the railroads across the west.

By the Shores of Silver Lake Of the Little House books, this one is set when Laura is the student's age (and she mostly has only read the early books) and also deals with railroads and the westward expansion.

The Last Days of Night I discovered this recent novel set in 1888 when looking for a biography of Westinghouse. It deals with the War of Currents; Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison; the industrial barons, and the boom in business and technology of the late 1800s. I found it an enjoyable read and surprisingly for a modern novel for adults there's nothing at all one would hesitate to put in front of an eighth grader in it.

My Antonia or One of Ours I'm still trying to decide whether to go for the famous Willa Cather novel or the one that also gets in World War One.

To Kill a Mockingbird Somehow I didn't read this classic till a couple years ago, but 8th grade seems like a traditional time for it.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March Since the Civil Right Movement didn't make it into the history list, this autobiographical work seemed like a good one to include. (Thanks to Mar Grady for suggesting this and also the next one.)

A Night Divided Okay, so this isn't about American history, but I was a sucker for the idea when Mar pointed me to a historical novel for the age group which was about the building of the Berlin Wall, especially since my recent kick has been histories of post-war Europe. And it's not a bad idea to get in a book dealing with communism as it actually existed.


The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers

Confirmation #1

Given Topic: Faith and Baptism. What I actually talked about: Baptism and Confirmation, compare and contrast.

First off: We recited the first five popes. Every year the bishop gives the same confirmation homily -- why not? It's generally a different audience each year -- and each year he asks questions. This past year at my daughter's confirmation, I diligently wrote down each question so that I could cover them with my confirmation class. Of course the program on which I wrote them went missing the day I needed it, after weeks of floating around the library (don't ask me why I didn't put it in a safe place. Just don't do it.), so I'll have to wing it on the rest of the questions, but one thing I do know is that every year his gag question is to ask the names of the first x popes. I'd remembered the number being five, so my daughter memorized the first five popes, and then that year the bishop went and asked for the first 25 popes. So, this year, St. Mary's PSR is going to memorize the first 25 popes, and when the bishop asks, I want every kid to stand up and start reciting. Let's do this thing.

From memory, and assisted by my notes:

Why are we here? What's the purpose of sitting here in this Confirmation class? It's the same reason we're here at all, that we exist: to love God, to learn to be better able to respond to his love, and to share it with others. That's the reason for this class, for the Church, for your whole life: to love God. The Church provides us with the surest way to know and respond to God's love, and Confirmation is the sacrament that completes our initiation into that church.

Lots of great things come in trilogies: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings -- and the sacraments of initiation are no exception. Can anyone name them? Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation. This reflects another great trio of our faith: the Trinity. Baptism is the sacrament of the Father, the Eucharist is the sacrament of the Son, and Confirmation is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit. In some dioceses, they've restored the original order of the sacraments so that you receive Confirmation before your first communion, because the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith.

But why do we need Confirmation to be fully initiated into our faith? Isn't that what Baptism does? Why do we need an extra sacrament for that? Come to that, why do we need Baptism at all? Why couldn't God have just made us members of his family already without needing a special ceremony? He can do that, right?

Well, consider my co-teacher Baby Paul here. God could have made it so that he came into the world already able to feed himself and dress himself and change himself. But as it is, Paul relies on me for everything. All he knows is that he's warm and fed and dry and feels secure. I feed him, I change and clothe him, I protect him from dangers he isn't even aware of -- being too close to the edge of the bed, or his three-year-old brother coming at him with a lightsaber. We stand like that in relation to God. He guards and guides us in ways we don't even realize, and he provides us with a family, the Church. Baptism is our entry into that family. It also washes us free from the stain of original sin, that human urge to separate ourselves from God and do the wrong thing. You all know about this. You understand the temptation to do something wrong. Sometimes we even do the wrong thing while wishing we could do the right thing. Saint Paul says, "I do what I do not want to do." (From memory, so no citation.) Baptism makes us a new creation in Christ, 2 Cor. 5:17. Also, Jesus commanded us to baptize and be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Matt. 28:19. So we're baptized in obedience to that command.

But why Confirmation? How is it different from Baptism?

Confirmation is the deepening and completion of our Baptism. Let's look at it this way. Who here is involved in sports? Okay, wow, that's a lot of you. So, is it enough to just make the team? Are you ready then to go out on the field and win your first game? No, of course not. What sorts of things do you need? Yes, equipment, uniforms, practice, drills, coaching, the rules -- all these things go into making you ready to play the game. Making the team is necessary, but to fully play the game you have to go deeper.

Here's one I like: theater. How many of you are involved in drama? Okay, not enough of you. Why aren't you all in drama? Anyway, is it enough just to be cast in the play? Are you ready then to go out on opening night and perform? No, of course not! What else do you need? The script, a director, rehearsal, props, costumes, sets, lights, makeup... All these things are necessary for being able to put on a show. Getting cast is the necessary first step, but you have to go deeper if you want to give a good performance.

Let's try one more that ought to be increasingly relevant: college. The first step is getting admitted, right? Is that enough to be able to graduate? What else do you need? Intelligence, books, study, teachers, a library, room and board, financial aid -- and lots of that! To go to college of course you have to be admitted first, but if you want to get the most out of your experience you need more than just that acceptance letter.

In Confirmation, we receive the graces that we need to go deeper into the Christian life. We receive the Holy Spirit, and he gives us his gifts. Can anyone name them? Well then, good thing I have them written down here: Wisdom, Counsel, Knowledge, Understanding, Fortitude, Piety, Fear of the Lord. Let's try our college example again and see how these gifts might play out there, to get a feel for what they are.

Wisdom: an example of that could be knowing not to party hard, or to start your paper well before the deadline.

Counsel: counsel is the giving of good sound advice. Advisors fill that role, helping students know what courses to pick and how to get the most out of their class selection so they can graduate in four years instead of eight.

Knowledge: knowing the facts. Books, class, study -- all these things help you gain knowledge.

Understanding: But knowing just the facts isn't enough. Understanding helps you to order them, to see how they work together, to make connections and really get to the heart of what you're studying.

Fortitude: Anyone know what fortitude is? It's strength, but not physical strength. It's moral strength, courage. It's being able to say no when everyone else says yes, or to say yes when everyone else says no. It's being able to stand up for what's right and for those who are weak. Pretty applicable to college, or high school, or middle school for that matter.

Piety: the old Roman virtue of piety had to do with reverence for ancestors, parents and grandparents, etc. We can see that here as respect for teachers and those in authority -- administrators, bosses, RAs. Also it can be seen in love of your alma mater, such as when you cheer for Ohio State over Michigan (cheers from the class).

Fear of the Lord: What's this? Anyone fear your parents? I don't mean being afraid of being beaten or abused -- if that's the case, please talk to me after class! But when you obey your parents, often there's an element of knowing that they have the authority to discipline you if you don't listen to them. We know that God loves us, but we also fear him because he is all powerful and holds life and death in his hand. God makes himself weak and small for our sakes, so we can relate to him and also learn compassion for the weak. He comes as a tiny baby, or as a small round piece of bread. You can smash the Eucharist. You can spit on it, or break it. But does that mean that God himself is weak and mockable? No!

Did anyone see the eclipse? I did. When you look up at the total eclipse, you can look at it with your naked eye. The sky is all dark, and there's the black moon looking huge, and behind it the sun's corona is all white and flaming. You can look at the sun's light directly, because the round disc of the moon shields you from its blinding power. And the Eucharist is a small disc that allows us to look directly at God himself and live. We should have a healthy fear of that power and glory, and respect and love God in every form.

Oh yeah, how's that apply to college? You turn in your papers not just to please your professor and to know your knowledge of the subject, but because you know that if you don't, you might fail out. You respect the rules because there is power behind them. You can be thrown out of your dorm, or fail out, or be expelled if you don't have a healthy fear of the authority behind the rules and regulations and the syllabus.

Hey, look, it's break time! Ten minutes outside!

(I know that this isn't the most in-depth treatment of the gifts of the Spirit, but we do have another class devoted to that topic. I just wanted an intro so at least people would have something to hang the concepts on.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

In The Moon's Shadow

As MrsDarwin wrote, one of the legs of our recent family road trip was visit Nebraska and see the total solar eclipse.

It wasn't my first time going to try to see an eclipse. My family wasn't much of one for big vacations. To support a family on a planetarium lecturer's salary, my father always worked a patchwork of several side jobs, and since people visit museums and planetariums when they are on vacation, the times when other people were taking time off were often when he was busiest. There was, however, one big exception. In 1991 a total solar eclipse crossed over the tip of Baja California and also the Big Island of Hawaii. The community college where Dad worked agreed to send both Dad and one of the astronomy professors on eclipse viewing expeditions: Dad to Hawaii, the professor to Baja California.

With the college paying for Dad's travel and hotel room, the rest of us just needed plane tickets and other traveling expenses to tag along, and so we spent about a week in Hawaii: hiked through a rain forest, visited the volcano, tasted sugar cane, played on a black sand beach. We did all of the satisfying tourist things. And on the morning of July 11th, we got up early and boarded the buses with the rest of the big eclipse tour group, many of us wearing our eclipse tour t-shirts. (Being a tourist destination already and the only part of the US when the eclipse would touch, Hawaii was loaded with eclipse merchandise.)

They bused us out to an open field before sunrise, and we spread out picnic blankets, set up telescopes and cameras, and looked nervously up at the broken clouds overhead. Through the gaps between clouds, we saw most of the partial phases of the eclipse, but then a few minutes before totality the sun went behind a thick, low, cumulus cloud. Right on schedule the sky got dark. It stayed dark for the four minutes of totality, then it gradually brightened again. Several moments after totality, the sun emerged from behind the cloud.

Of course, the thing about missing the eclipse by such a small margin is that across the island experiences varied quite a bit. For us, it was during totality that the sun went behind a cloud. For others, including the staff back at our hotel, the sun had come out from behind a cloud just in time for totality.

Still, we had at least been in Hawaii. The astronomer who had led the group down to Baja California saw the eclipse, but on the way back their buses broke down, people suffered heat and lack of water, and the astronomer ended up in the hospital for a week with malaria. Perhaps in the end, missing the eclipse was the better part of the deal.

In the following few years, we managed to see partial and annular eclipses. We watched the spectacular comets of the 90s: Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, Comet Hyakutake, and Comet Hale–Bopp. But we never did see a total eclipse.

My father died in 2006, still never having seen a total solar eclipse. When my faithfully science minded brother reminded me that there would be an eclipse crossing the US in 2017, I decided that I owed it to family memory to try again. The older kids were also agitating for a visit to their friends in Texas, and so the great Darwin cross-country road trip was born.


My Dad used to describe his fatalistic streak as "being Irish", after his mother, who faithfully reared him in the Irish-American experience of the depression even though he was born in 1948. It's not surprising. Grandma was 19 when the stock market crashed in 1929. She came of age in the depression. Her family lost their farm in Iowa and drove out to the West Coast, where her father sold various things door-to-door in order to put food into his children's mouths. Eventually he hit upon selling insurance, and opened the first State Farm office in San Diego. Post-war, this would lead to security and something a bit like prosperity, but by then Grandma's view of the world was already formed.

I have have this fatalistic streak myself. Dad used to tell a story about how Grandma was convinced she wouldn't live past some age (I forget what exactly) in her mid-sixties, for the simple reason that everyone else in her family had died before that age. As it was, she lived into her 90s, but apparently right up until the night before that record-making birthday she was convinced she wouldn't last. Since I knew Grandma as someone who remained alert and tough past 90, this seemed a funny story to me. But now, as someone whose father died of cancer before turning 58, I myself find it hard to imagine that I'll turn 60.

Through some similar sense of fatalism, even as I planned the eclipse trip, I never quite imagined it would come off. This fear was not helped by the fact that as soon as a 10-day weather forecast became available for the eclipse day at our planned viewing location of Lincoln, NE the weather services predicted "partly cloudy".

It was going to happen again, my heart told me. I now had kids the age I had been when we were clouded out in Hawaii, and I was going to take them to be clouded out in turn.

The morning of the eclipse itself did not reassure. The sun was in blue skies overhead, but the wind was from the south and clouds were blowing up from that direction. As the hours passed, the clouds closed in. They were, at least, high, thin clouds. As we looked up through our solar filters, we could see the sun, but we could also see wisps of cloud passing in front of it. Here's the view six minutes before totality:

We gathered under partly cloudy skies at the Lincoln Diocese's seminary.

As the remaining exposed part of the sun narrows to a sliver, the quality of the light changes. Like everyone, I'd heard all the warnings not to look at the sun without a filter, lest the image burn into my cornea. Yet, catching brief glimpses from the corner of my eye, I could see that rather than its usual brilliant disk the sun now had the quality of a very brilliant star. A star brighter than any in the real sky, bright enough to cast crisp shadows. But now very close to a point of light rather than a disk of fire.

The older kids were worried that baby would in his bleary way stare at the sun in this condition, so they put a hat over his head while he slept:

At last, it went dark. You could no longer see anything through a solar filter. And to confirm what we already realized, the leaders of our viewing group blew a whistle to let everyone know that for the next minute it was safe to look directly at the sun.

I lowered the filter I had been looking through and saw perhaps the most beautiful natural sight of my life.

I'd seen plenty of photographs of the total phase of a solar eclipse, the black disk of the moon surrounded by the ghostly white corona of the sun -- the sun's thin upper atmosphere which is normally invisible because it is so much dimmer than the sun itself.

Those photographs are beautiful, but they don't at all capture what you see with your eyes during a total solar eclipse. The human eye is an amazing thing, able to deal with differences of brightness and scale which a camera cannot. You've probably noticed this if you've ever tried to take a picture of a full moon rising over a landscape. To your eye, the moon looks huge, and you can see all sorts of detail on the moon itself while at the same time seeing the landscape in twilight. Yet if you try to take a picture, you'll notice several things: The moon looks much smaller if you have a wide enough field of view to see the full landscape. Also, you either see the landscape, with the moon burned-in as an undifferentiated bright blob, or else you see the moon clearly and the landscape is dark.

In camera terms, your eye has the ability to zoom in and out instantly, giving you a sense of the moon looking huge against the landscape features it's rising behind and also of the wider landscape. Your eye is also hugely adaptable to different levels of light, so it can both focus on the bright surface of the moon and make out details on it and also see the dimly lit landscape in the foreground. The only way to reproduce this in a photograph is to take two different photographs (one getting the moon clearly and one getting the landscape clearly) and combine them after the fact. And even then, a photograph can't reproduce the ability of your eye to see both narrow focus and wide angle at the same time.

So when the eclipse becomes total and you lower your solar filter to look at the sun with the naked eye, you don't see the totally black sky and the fringe of corona around the sun such as you see in up close photographs taken through telephoto lenses or telescopes. You see a dark but not black sky, with a few stars dimly visible, like the twilight sky half an hour after sunset. All around the horizon, however, you see the orange light of sunset, because in every direction you are seeing areas of sky not in the path of totality.

The sun (covered by the moon) is itself small. Just as at any other time, you could cover the sun with a thunbnail held out at arm's length. And yet the ghostly light of the corona seems to light up the sky around the black disk of the moon for a good eight or twelve solar diameters in every direction around the sun. And since your eyes can both zoom in on that sight of the sun itself, and also zoom out to look at the wider landscape, you perceive the sun and the halo around it as huge even while seeing the landscape, the horizon, and the sky all at once.

I tried to take a quick picture with my iPhone, but the sun is totally burned-in so that you can't even see that the moon is covering it, and really all it does is give you a sense of how perfectly the clouds parted to make it visible for us.

I've been searching like crazy for an photograph which gives even a slight sense of what seeing totality looks like. I found examples like this:


However, reading the description of the photograph I see that even this (which does not fully capture the effect) is in fact a "composite of simultaneous telephoto and wide angle frames".

Seeing a total solar eclipse is different from seeing a partial one (or a lunar eclipse) in kind, not in degree. Having finally experienced it, I want very much to do so again. The only thing that strikes me might be similar might be seeing the northern lights (something I have yet to experience.) However, even that is a strange effect during a normal night. This is something that sweeps down upon you in the middle of the day.

I can see now why some people travel the world to see eclipse after eclipse, and why they were taken as signs and portents in the ancient world. I can see why ancient peoples developed mathematics in order to calculate celestial events such as this. If you ever get the chance to see one, do not pass it up. It is one of the most wondrous things you will see.

Friday, August 25, 2017


Dear Teacher, on my summer vacation I took a road trip across eleven states with seven children, including a seven-week-old baby, to see a total solar eclipse.

One feature of a long drive is the company you keep on the road. All across Tennessee, we kept pace with a compact white Hyundai towing a U-Haul and a horse trailer full of equines. Over 100 miles we bobbed and weaved, now passing each other, now being passed in our turn, jockeying for position. We began to look out for these friends and call them out when they surfaced. For a while we settled behind the horse trailer so we could watch the horses stamp and toss their heads and nudge around a little foal. Then we'd pass them so the kids could see all the horses further up. And then the little Hyundai would dart ahead, probably elated to pass up the big blue van from Ohio. We were saddened when we finally pulled off for dinner and fell behind our faithful companions. Goodbye, Hyundai; we hope your moving went well. Goodbye horses; may your manes grow ever thicker.

Other company was less congenial. We were stalked by turbines across the central Midwest. There may be things creepier than an oversized turbine rotating mindlessly, as oblivious to mere mortals as the eldritch gods, but I don't want to meet them. Not content to stand and haunt the farmland of middle America, they pursued us on trucks: vast blades arcing and tapering, flexing as we pulled alongside them, baring the serrated teeth along the thin edge of their fins. The size of them was all wrong, too big for comprehension. They lay in wait  us, though ever we fled them and their "Oversize Load" retinue forcing traffic into unnatural patterns, 65 in a 70 mph zone.

Perhaps due to being hounded by turbines, perhaps due to the motivation of the older girls, we made excellent time down to Texas. A joy of traveling is the chance to see old friends. We've known our hosts in Austin since college (and in Darwin's case, high school), and our children track in age. The kids are cultivating their own second-generation friendships now, emailing and video chatting and staying up too late when together. While the children were thus amused, Darwin and I were able to have some excellent and all-too-brief conversation with Brandon Watson, and at one point I stepped out for coffee with Leticia Adams. But the youngsters had other Texas friends to run around with too. We had dinner at Jennifer Fulwiler's house, where Darwin and I, just recovering from a laryngitis kind of cold, croaked out a radio interview about going eclipsing with kids, while the actual kids charged in and out and slammed the back door in a kind of aural punctuation. At one point Jennifer's husband Joe, out grilling on the porch, called in to his oldest son, "Bring me the blow torch!" And no one batted an eye.

On Sunday we joined the Great American Migration of 2017, heading up into the path of the eclipse. I have never seen such fertile grounds for the license plate game -- 40 states and 3 Canadian provinces. Perhaps it's because the eclipse lines up with that other great lifetime event, Back To School, but the nation seemed to be converging on certain trails. Certainly the highway managers were aware of the coming traffic -- interstates across America had up signs that said, "No stopping during the eclipse. No parking on the shoulder." We trekked due north across the plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas to Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln is uniformly charming. The Capitol building stands like a beacon, the dome capped with a farmer sowing visible for miles over the prairie. Blocks of trim cottages give testimony to the homey work ethic of the Nebraska citizen. "I could leave a pile of hundred-dollar bills on my porch, and someone would come up with an armful of them and say, 'Your money is blowing away,'" said our host JD Flynn.

JD and his lovely wife were remarkably good sports about hosting a family of seven, considering that the last time we saw him was 16 years ago in college. It was a trip for old school reunions: just hours before the eclipse, which we were going out to view at a school event at the diocesan seminary, I discovered that a pair of college drama classmates, now married and coaching speech for two of Nebraska's famously competitive high school teams, were going to be chaperoning their school groups there. We had a delightful reunion -- just one more example of old friendships blossoming again when you least expect it.


Weather conditions on the day of the eclipse were iffy. Layers of clouds drifted across the sun, muting shadows. We sat out on unzipped sleeping bags, adjusting eclipse glasses and binoculars and passing around the big solar telescope filter. The filter was mostly used by the three-year-old because it covered his face. Baby napped with a big hat shading his eyes. Through our glasses, the waning sun was more and less visible through the haze, and anxiety and excitement grew apace. We could only expect about 67 seconds of totality. A wayward cloud could blot the entire eclipse, and it would be too late to seek bluer skies.

I didn't see the bands of shadow racing along the ground, but it started growing cooler. As the darkness approached, the quality of the light began to change and desaturate. The sun shrank to a sliver, then flared out in one last protest -- the "diamond ring" effect. A whistle blew, and we took off our glasses.

In a deep sky, the disc of the moon was surrounded by waves and flares of pure white light -- a phenomenon of incredible beauty and power. Just enough clouds remained to glow silver and violet in a halo behind the corona. The entire horizon glowed sunset orange. Two or three stars, less than I'd expected, twinkled. Voices all around were gasping and exclaiming, or choking with emotion, but it was impossible to look at people, to look anywhere but the sky where the black moon glowed.

And the whistle blew again, and we all covered our eyes, and the blinding light of the emerging sun was filtered and dampened to something dull and inconsequential. The crowd of students dispersed under the lightening sky to their buses, but we stayed. The sun emerging was not less impressive for being the mirror image of the sun disappearing a few moments earlier. And the clouds burned off, ushering in a beautiful, blue, breezy Nebraska day.


Our trip home was more leisurely than the long drives out. We had two days of easy treks, finally rid of the company of a fly we'd picked up in Texas and transported across three state lines. And we amused ourselves. On the drive out we'd listened to Northanger Abbey, part of The Odyssey (read by Dan Stevens, sigh), Hamilton, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, and a vacation playlist created for a trip four years ago. Coming home, we played car games. Someone finally wrote up an itemized list of the license plates we'd seen. We tracked turbines. I resolved to write down the roadside jingles posted in fields, and virtuously made a note of what turned out to be the last one we saw on the trip:

Got a gun
It's pretty and pink
Made the bad guy
Stop and think. (altered to
--Vermilion County, Illinois

We also expanded our family vocabulary of Mad Lib quotes, most of which come from Penguin Classics Mad Libs.

Mr. Rochester to Jane Eyre: "I owe you a McDonalds."
Little Women: "Say what, Jo! I can never show my bum at the party now."
Pride and Prejudice: "In vain have I lounged."
"In the name of Wog."
"punishable by mandate"
"buried in a plot hole"

Thanks to the miracle of iPhones, we learned about the landmarks we were passing:
The Nazareth Convent and Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia
The Holy Family Shrine
The Amana Colonies: self-sufficient villages founded by German immigrants, known for a tradition of handiwork (and also Amana refrigerators).

And the miles of farmland rolled on.


But all good things must come to an end. The first thing to end was the easy traveling. The kids had been real champs up until the last night, but at our hotel the three-year-old started unraveling in the way children his age do: by bouncing off the walls. Half an hour in a local park took a little steam out of him, but he revived and tormented his sister and baby brother until forcibly suppressed. There's not much you can do in a hotel room to take a young man down a few notches, without provoking screams that will get you reported to the authorities. So we spent all evening hushing him. Hushing has its own irritations. Frequently it's louder than the noise it attempts to quell. Only total lights out would stem his unvanquished spirits, so we all went to bed ASAP.

On our last day of the trip we had one more unexpected joy: a two-hour layover with Elizabeth Duffy at her farmhouse, where we sat in comfy chairs and chatted over coffee and tea. The children tore around again, the once-a-year friendships revived as if they saw each other every weekend. We get snapshots of the other family's growth. Every time we see them, her older sons are taller and broader, whereas my daughters have gotten curves and lost their braces. The changes are more noticeable from the outside. No one can see such incremental changes in the course of day-to-day life. It is a gift to know the golden age while you're living in it. Usually we can only see the rapidity of the sun's progress when it's being eclipsed.


The next total eclipse will be in 2024. To our delight, our hometown, our very house, is in the path of totality. By our calculations, we'll only have four children at home by then, so the house will be practically empty. You're all invited to Delaware, Ohio in seven years! Everyone should experience a total eclipse if they can -- such beauty must be viewed, and viewed with friends, their awed voices in your ear as you gaze together at the hidden sun.

Monday, August 21, 2017


We're in Nebraska, anxiously watching the clouds in hopes that our eclipse experience will not be... eclipsed. But no matter! I've just discovered that an old college friend and family will be watching the eclipse at the same place we will be, so it will have been worth it to travel this far just for that happy reunion. Natural phenomena are all very well in their place, but the chance to see old friends -- that is worth venturing any distance.

                'If the stars should appear one night in
                a thousand years,  how would  men  believe
                and  adore,  and  preserve  for  many  generations
                the remembrance of the city of God?'

Isaac Asimov, after reading this quotation, said: "I think men would go mad." In 1941, he wrote the short story Nightfall, about the effect of an eclipse on a six-sunned planet that only experiences total darkness once every two millenia. The inhabitants are already fearful of the dark, and scientists are excited that they may be able to see the mythical objects called stars -- maybe as many as a dozen!

In 1990, the story was expanded into a novel by Robert Silverberg. The novel is an entertaining read and better written, but the story is compact and effective enough. You can read it here.

I beg of you all not to go mad today.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 9

My dear souls, you are seeking for secret ways of belonging to God, but there is only one: making use of whatever he offers you. Everything leads you to this union with him. Everything guides you to perfection except what is sinful or not a duty. Accept everything and let him act. All things conduct you and support you. Your way is lined with banners as you advance along it in your carriage. All is in the hand of God. His action is vaster and more pervasive than all the elements of earth, air and water. It enters you through every one of your senses so long as you use them only as he directs, for you must never use them against his will. God's action penetrates every atom of your body, into the very marrow of your bones. The state of your health, whether you are weak or strong, lively or languid, your life and death, all spring from from his will, and all your bodily conditions are the workings of grace. Every feeling and every thought you have, no matter how they arise, all come from God's invisible hand. There is no created being who can tell you what his action will achieve within you, but continuing experience will teach you. Uninterruptedly your life will flow through this unfathomed abyss where you have nothing to do but love and cherish what each moment brings, considering it as the best possible thing for you and having perfect confidence in God's activities, which cannot do anything but good.  
...How, my Lord, can I make people value what I offer them? I possess so great a treasure that I could shower wealth on everything, and yet I see souls withering like plants in an arid waste.
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 4, 2.
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 8

If we wish to reach the state of abandonment, we must get rid of any love for created things. 
No thought, no mental effort will teach us anything about pure love. We can learn of it only through the activity of God, and God teaches us, both through our reason and through difficulties and setbacks. What we learn by these teachings is that there is nothing good except God. To know this we must get rid of all we hold dear. We must strip ourselves of everything. We cannot be settled in the state of pure love until we have experienced a lot of setbacks and many humiliations. We must reach the stage when all that the world contains ceases to exist and God is everything to us. Now for this to happen, God destroys all our personal affections. It does not matter what they are. We may take up some special kind of devotion, a particular pious practice, try to become perfect by following certain paths and seek the guidance of other people. No matter what it is we attach ourselves to, God will step in and upset our plans so that, instead of peace, we shall find ourselves in the midst of confusion, trouble and folly. As soon as we say, "I must go this way, I must consult this person, I must act like this," God at once says the opposite and withdraws his power from those means which we ourselves have chosen. So we discover the emptiness of all created things, are forced to turn to God and be content with him. 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 4, 2.
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 7

So, dear souls, let us love, for love will give us everything. It gives us holiness and all that accompanies it. It is all around us and flows into every receptive heart. O what a thing is this holy seed which ripens into eternal life! We cannot praise it enough. But why even speak about it? How much better it is to possess it in silence than praise it in wholly inadequate words. But what am I saying? We must praise this love, but only because we are possessed by it, for, from the very moment it seizes us, reading, writing, speaking and everything else mean nothing to us. We can take or leave anything, we can stay at home or go out into the marketplace, we can be fighting fit or ill, dull or lively -- according to what the heart dictates. For this love-filled heart governs the rest of us. We are a mixture of the flesh and the spirit, and the heart reigns supreme over both, and all that is inspired by love delights it.

--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 8.
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 6

We are on vacation, so I've scheduled the novena to post until Saturday. I'm still praying it, even on the road, but this way I don't have to type it up while traveling.

Come, then, my beloved souls, let us run and fly to that love which calls us. Why are we waiting? Let us set out at once, lose ourselves in the very heart of God and become intoxicated with his love. Let us snatch from his heart the key to all the treasures of heaven and then start out right away on the road to heaven. There is no need to fear that anything will be locked against us. Our key will open every door. There is no room we cannot enter. We can make ourselves free of the garden, the cellar and the vineyard. If we want to explore the countryside, no one will hinder us. We can come and go, enter and leave anyplace we want to because we have the key of David (Rev. 3:7), the key of knowledge (Luke 11:52), the key of the abyss (Rev. 9:1), in which are all the hidden treasures of the divine wisdom (Wis. 8:14). It is this key which opens the doors of mystical death and its sacred darkness. By it we can enter the deepest dungeons and emerge safe and sound. It gives us entrance into that blessed spot where the light of knowledge shines and the bridegroom takes his noonday rest (Song of Songs 1:7). There we quickly learn how to win his kiss (Song of Songs 1:1) and ascend with confidence the steps of the nuptial couch and learn there the secrets of love -- divine secrets which must not be revealed and which no human tongue can describe.
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 8.

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Riding Shotgun

Heading out across country today in the name of education: we're going eclipse-viewing, like most of the country. We're going to spend long hours in the car with teens, tweens, youngsters, and a newborn. I expect to spend a good portion of the drive holding Shotgun Court.

Don't blow up the internet while we're gone, please.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 5

A pure heart and perfect abandonment bring us all the treasures of grace. 

If we wish to enjoy an abundance of blessings we have only one thing to do: purify our hearts by emptying them of all desire for creating things and surrender ourselves wholly to God. By doing this we shall get all we want. Let others, Lord, ask you for all sorts of gifts. Let them increase their prayers and entreaties. But I, my Lord, ask for one thing only and have only a single prayer -- give me a pure heart! How happy we are if our hearts are pure! Through the ardor of our faith we see God as he is. We see him in everything and at every moment working within and around us. And in all things we are both his subject and his instrument. He guides us everywhere and leads us to everything. Very often we do not think about it, but he thinks for us. It is enough that we have desired what is happening to us and must happen to us by his will. He understands our readiness. We are bewildered and seek to find this desire within ourselves, but we cannot. He, though, sees it very clearly. How silly we are! Surely we know what a well-disposed heart is: one where God is found. He sees all the good intentions there and consequently knows that this heart will always be submissive to his will. He is also aware that we do not know what is useful for us, so he makes it his business to give it to us. He cares nothing about thwarting us. If we are going eastward, he makes us turn to the west. If we are about to run onto the rocks, he takes the helm and brings us into port. We have neither map nor compass, know nothing of winds or tides, yet we always make a prosperous voyage. If pirates try to board us, and unexpected gust of wind sweeps us beyond their reach. 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 8. 
Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 4

Everyone is called to enjoy the infinite benefits of this state. 
This is why I preach self-abandonment and not any particular way of life. I love whatever is the state in which your grace places souls and have no liking for one more than another. I teach all souls a general method by which they can attain that state you have designed for them. I ask of them nothing but an eagerness to abandon themselves completely to your guidance, for you will lead them very surely to what is best for them. It is faith I preach to them: abandonment, confidence and faith. They must long to be subject to and the tool of God's action, believe that at every moment and through all things this action is at work for them according to the measure of their good will. This is the faith I preach. It is not a special state of faith and pure love, but a general one by which all souls can find God in whatever guise he assumes and can take that form which his grace has ready for them. I am speaking to all kinds of souls. My deepest instinct is to belong to everyone, to proclaim to all the secret of the Gospel, and to be "all things to all men" (I Cor. 9:22). 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 7.

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely.

Nazis: Left or Right?

Self described Nazis are, sadly, in the news at the moment. When people who actively identify as neo-Nazis (or their close kin among white supremacists who don't quite want to own that title) make the news, there's a sort of guilt by association blame game that goes on. Commentators on the left make sure to identify neo-Nazis as "right wing" and thus suggest that this means that the neo-Nazis have simply taken the beliefs of the Christian Coalition or the Chamber of Commerce to their logical conclusion. Then someone on the right inevitably replies, "Ah, but the Nazis were actually a party of the left. After all, it was called 'National Socialism'." Since knowing that Nazi was a shorthand for "Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei" (National Socialist German Workers Party) is already displaying more knowledge about them than the average bear, this tends to cause conversation to trail off. Is this a fair claim, however? Were the Nazis a party of the left or the right?

As is so often the case with historical questions, the answer is a bit complicated. I recently read Ian Kershaw's massive two volume biography of Hitler, which goes into a lot of detail not only about the dictator's personal history but the development of his party. Since I think the more detailed history of the rise of the Nazis is interesting not just as a matter of past events but in order to understand how it might (and might now) serve in analyzing current events, I'll provide a quick overview here. If you want the more detailed version, I definitely recommend Kershaw.

Often, you hear people say that they wish we had more options than the two tired old parties. Germany between the wars had a huge number of options, and understanding how they related to one another can be difficult for modern Americans.

The true Left in German politics was split between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which had been the largest party during the initial formation of the Weimar Republic after Germany's defeat in World War One and which continued to be one of the major parties throughout the inter-war period, and the Communist Party (KPD) which was aligned with the Soviet Union. These two parties did not get along. In the immediate aftermath of World War One, communists had staged violent revolutions and tried to institute soviet style people's republics in several cities around Germany. With the help of the army and of paramilitary nationalist militias, the new government of the republic, whose president from 1919-1925 was SPD leader Friedrich Ebert, put down these communist uprisings after brutal fighting that at times saw machine guns and artillery being used in city streets. The relations between the communists and socialists did not improve, as Moscow directed its satellite parties not to align with "social fascists" as they labeled the social democrats. (Shortly after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Stalin would come to regret this approach and instead encouraged communist parties to form "popular front" coalitions with other left wing parties and then try to co-opt the coalitions from the inside.)

The socialists and communists came in second and third respectively to the Nazis in the July 1932 German federal election.

The political center was inhabited by the Catholic Centre Party, a sort of Catholic unity party which dated back to efforts under the German Empire to fight back against Bismark's Kulturkampf. The Centre party supported specifically Catholic concerns such as protecting the existence of religious schools and seeking a concordat between the German Republican and the Vatican, but also was one of the parties most committed to the stable government of the republic. In this regard, it allied often with the Social Democrats and the German Democratic Party (a secular centrist party which in a sign of how badly things were trending had nearly faded from existence by the 1932 election.) It supported paying off the reparations imposed in the Versailles Treaty and Germany continuing on as a republic (rather than reverting to a monarchy or authoritarian state as the more extreme right desired or undergoing a people's revolution as the communists advocated.)

The largest party of the German right was the German National People's Party. This party drew support from large land owners and industrialists, but also a broad array of nationalists and those with pan-German sentiments. It opposed paying the reparations in the Versailles treaty. Significant factions opposed the Republic as a whole and wanted a return of the German monarchy. The party also had a significant anti-Semitic element. Jews were, from its foundation in 1918, forbidden from joining that party.

So how did the Nazi party fit into the mix of parties?

When first formed in 1919-1920, the Nazi Party combined the anti-Semitism and German nationalism of the right with anti-business and pro-welfare state policies of the left. It also opposed both the democratic state that Germany currently had, but also the old monarchy, supporting instead a new authoritarian form of government. As time went on, some of the anti-business elements of the Nazi platform were downplayed or converted into anti-Semitic rhetoric, as Hitler consistently identified banking and big big business with Jews. Thus, the Nazi party did combine elements of ideology from the German interwar Left and Right.

However, when we look at where the Nazis drew their electoral support in their sudden rise to popularity from 1928 to 1932, we see that parties of the left (Socialists and Communists) lost 11% of their voters to the Nazis. The Center parties (Catholic Centre, Bavarian People's Party, German State Party, and German Democratic Party) lost 22% of their voters to the Nazis. Small and regional parties (of which there were many) lost 45% of their voters to the Nazis. While the parties of the right (German National People's Party, German People's Party, Reich Party of the German Middle Class, and Christian-National Peasants' and Farmers' Party) lost a whopping 78% of their voters to the Nazis over those four years.

So were the Nazis a party of the right? In the context of the Weimar Republic, yes. However, it's important when saying that to realize how different the Weimar Republic's political spectrum war from our own. It ranged from communists who favored a violent revolution to establish a worker's state to nationalists who favored overthrowing the republic and replacing it with a monarchy or dictatorship. Our political spectrum in the modern United States is arguably not much wider than the spectrum of views within the Center parties of the Weimar Republic.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Novena for Order, Day 3

I thought today's first reading was apt for the novena.

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
"Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by."
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
(1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a)
The point of abandonment to Divine Providence is not that the earthquakes and the storms and the fire will not come. They will come, and they shake and damage and terrify. But God is not in them.

God does come accompanied by signs and wonders. Moses finds the burning bush a remarkable sight, and later on the mountain of the Lord, God's presence is accompanied by smoke, thunder, lightning, and loud blasts. But Moses doesn't interact with the bush. The voice of God is much more personal: cajoling, soothing, commanding, revealing his name. On the mountain of the Lord, when Moses asks to see God's glory, God tucks him safely away in the darkness of a cleft in the rock, sheltering Moses with the divine hand so that he may not die. God speaks in the silence of our hearts, and if there is nothing in our hearts but the earthquake and the storm and the fire, his voice may not be heard.

"The LORD says to you: Do not fear or be dismayed at the sight of this vast multitude, for the battle is not yours but God’s. ...You will not have to fight in this encounter. Take your places, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD". (2 Chron. 20:15,17)

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely, by Thomas Aquinas

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 2

Sometimes we live in God and sometimes God lives in us. These are very different states. When God lives in us, we should abandon ourselves completely to him, but when we live in him, we have to take care to employ every possible means to achieve a complete surrender to him. These mean are clear enough: courses of reading, self-analysis, regular examination of our progress -- everything is done by rule. Even the hours for conversation are fixed, and a spiritual director is always available. But when God lives in us, we have nothing to help us beyond what he gives us moment by moment. Nothing else is provided and no road is marked out. We are like a child who can be led about wherever one wishes and who is ignorant of everything except what is put in front of it. We are given no books with carefully marked passages, and very often we have no regular director, for God leaves us without any support except himself. We are abandoned and live in darkness. We are forgotten. Death and nothingness are our portion. We are aware of our needs and of our wretchedness, but we do not know from where or if any help will come. Meanwhile we do not worry and we wait quietly for someone to come and help us, and we keep our thoughts fixed on heaven. 
God sees nothing better in us that this total resignation of ourselves, and he himself provides us with books, gives us insight into our souls, together with advice and examples from the lives of the good and wise. Other people have great difficulty in discovering spiritual truths, but we, who have given ourselves to God, have no trouble. These others hold on to their spiritual discoveries, keep coming back and brooding over them, but we in whom God lives seize what each moment brings and then forget it, eager only to be alert to respond to God and live for him alone. They who live in God perform countless good works for his glory, but those in whom God lives are often flung into a corner like a useless bit of broken pottery. There they lie, forsaken by everyone, but yet enjoying God's very real and active love and knowing they have to do nothing but stay in his hands and be used as he wishes. Often they have no idea how they will be used, but he knows. The world thinks them useless and it seems as if they are. Yet is quite certain that by various means and through hidden channels they pour out spiritual help on people who are often quite unaware of it and of whom they themselves never think. For those who have surrendered themselves completely to God, all they are and do has power. Their lives are sermons. They are apostles. God gives a special force to all they say and do, even to their silence, their tranquillity and their detachment, which, quite unknown to them, profoundly influences other people. They themselves are influenced by others who by grace unknowingly benefit them; and in turn, they are used to guide and support other people who have no direct connection with them. God works through them by unexpected and hidden impulses. In this respect, they are like Jesus, who produced a secret healing power. The difference between him and them is that they are often unaware of this discharge of power and so do not co-operate with it. It is like a hidden scent which gives off its sweetness unknowingly and is quite ignorant of its strength. 
--Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Chapter 3, 1
Paul, six weeks old today, has not yet developed the ability to anticipate. One reason I have to watch him constantly is that he has no way to defend himself against the loving predations of his brother. The baby doesn't know to protect his head or cry out when he sees the three-year-old approaching. Even when he does get whapped, he doesn't see it coming in advance to worry about, and, if I comfort him quickly enough, he doesn't remember the pain past the moment he was hit. Although he doesn't know it, he is abandoned to my will. Not totally, of course -- he knows when he is hungry or when his diaper is uncomfortable, and his instincts lead him to anticipate being fed whenever something brushes his cheek. But he is the quintessential innocent child of the gospels, completely trusting, yet unaware that he trusts. He has no idea of the harms he's sheltered from, or the good that is coming to him. All his needs are provided for, past his expectations of comfort and safety and full tummy. Most of what I provide him he can't see, and won't understand until he's older, perhaps not even until he has a child himself.

Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely

Friday, August 11, 2017

Novena for Order 2017, Day 1

The school year is getting ready to begin, so it's time for a novena.

I've prayed a Novena for Order on and off since 2009. I love the prayer for ordering a life wisely by Thomas Aquinas, and I'll post it here and link back to it each day. This year, I'm going to post excerpts from Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751). Say the prayer with me, or read the excerpt, or use the posts as a reminder for your own devotion, but pray with me.

(Chapter 2, 12) The marvels of God's activity which delight us when we read about them only serve to make us bored with the small happenings around us. Yet it is these trivialities, as we consider them, which would do marvels for us if only we did not despise them. We are so stupid! We are astonished by and glorify God's activities when we read about them, yet when he wishes to continue writing about them on our hearts we become restive and prevent him from doing so by our curiosity to see what he is doing in and around us. Forgive me, divine Love, for I am setting down here those faults which are mine, and I cannot yet understand how to let you act freely on me. I have not yet myself been cast in the mold designed for me. I have visited all your studios and admired all your creations, but I have not yet become abandoned enough to accept the strokes of your brush. Yet I have found in you a beloved master, a teacher, a father and a most dear friend. I will be your disciple and go to no other school that yours. Like the prodigal son, I will come home hungry for your bread. I will abandon all ideas and books about spiritual matters and have nothing to do with them unless they work together with your will. All I want to do is love you and devote myself to the duties of each moment, and so allow you to act on me as you wish.

I cannot yet understand how to let you act freely on me. This is my meditation for the day.

For Ordering a Life Wisely
St. Thomas Aquinas

O merciful God, grant that I may
desire ardently,
search prudently,
recognize truly,
and bring to perfect completion
whatever is pleasing to You
for the praise and glory of Your name.

Put my life in good order, O my God

Grant that I may know
what You require me to do.

Bestow upon me
the power to accomplish your will,
as is necessary and fitting
for the salvation of my soul.

Grant to me, O Lord my God,
that I may not falter in times
of prosperity or adversity,
so that I may not be exalted in the former,
nor dejected in the latter.

May I not rejoice in anything
unless it leads me to You;
may I not be saddened by anything
unless it turns me from You.

May I desire to please no one,
nor fear to displease anyone,
but You.

May all transitory things, O Lord,
be worthless to me
and may all things eternal
be ever cherished by me.

May any joy without You
be burdensome for me
and may I not desire anything else
besides You.

May all work, O Lord
delight me when done for Your sake.
and may all repose not centered in You
be ever wearisome for me.

Grant unto me, my God,
that I may direct my heart to You
and that in my failures
I may ever feel remorse for my sins
and never lose the resolve to change.

O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,
poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,

patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.

O Lord my God, let me
fear You without losing hope,
be truthful without guile,
do good works without presumption,
rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness,
and -- without hypocrisy --
strengthen him by word and example.

Give to me, O Lord God,
a watchful heart,
which no capricious thought
can lure away from You.

Give to me,
a noble heart,
which no unworthy desire can debase.

Give to me
a resolute heart,
which no evil intention can divert.

Give to me
a stalwart heart,
which no tribulation can overcome.

Give to me
a temperate heart,
which no violent passion can enslave.

Give to me, O Lord my God,
understanding of You,
diligence in seeking You,
wisdom in finding You,
discourse ever pleasing to You,
perseverance in waiting for You,
and confidence in finally embracing You.

that with Your hardships
I may be burdened in reparation here,
that Your benefits
I may use in gratitude upon the way,
that in Your joys
I may delight by glorifying You
in the Kingdom of Heaven.

You Who live and reign,
God, world without end.


translation by Robert Anderson and Johann Moser
from The Aquinas Prayer Book

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

That Old, Royal Road of our Fathers

(9) The present moment is an ever-flowing source of holiness. 
Are we thirsty? Then we have not far to go to find the fountain of living water. It bubbles up near us at every moment. How foolish it is to tire ourselves by searching for tiny rivulets which can never quench our thirst. Only the fountain can satisfy us. It is inexhaustible. Do you want to think, write and live like prophets, apostles and saints? Then you must surrender, as they did, to the inspirations of God. 
O unknown Love! It would seem that all your wonders are over and done with and that there is nothing left to do but copy your old works and repeat your utterances of the past. We do not see that your activity can ever be exhausted and that it is an endless source of fresh thoughts, new sufferings, new deeds, a source of new patriarchs, prophets, apostles and saints who have no need to copy anything written and done before their time but simply spend their lives in continual abandonment of themselves to your hidden guidance. We are always hearing of "the early centuries" and "the days of the saints." What a way to speak! Surely we must realize that in every age including this one, God's will works through every moment, making each one holy and giving it a supernatural quality. Cn we imagine that in the days of old there was a secret method of abandoning oneself to the divine will that is now out of date? And had the saints of those early times any other secret apart from that of obeying God's will from moment to moment? And will not God continue until the end of the world to pour out his grace upon all the souls who utterly abandon themselves to him?  
O adorable Love, eternal, ever fruitful and ever marvelous! You give me all the knowledge and learning I need. You embrace all I think, say, do and suffer. I shall not become what you want me to be by studying your earlier works, but only by welcoming you in all things. By following that old, royal road of our fathers, I shall be enlightened and shall think and speak as they did. That is the way I want to imitate, quote and copy all of them. 
--Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
Too often it seem like when I'm engaged in some important work, or spiritual practice, or just trying to get through my daily life, some trial or obstacle is dropped in the middle of my path. And I get frustrated and feel like I've been wronged. I was doing so well until this thing came along! Why can't I just get anything done? And I miss the point -- the goal is not that I should have an unbroken path to success in my projects or my daily routine. The goal is that I do the will of God at each moment, which means accepting the trial or roadblock as God's will for that moment. It's true that things need to get done, but I don't have a God-given right to do things the easiest way possible, or the way I think would be best. What I see as a nuisance or an actively destructive situation is God's will for me at that moment, and my only path to holiness.

How I deal with that may vary. The problem I face may demand that I adjust my own will, that I accept the roadblock, that I confront an injustice, that I take a stand, that I embrace suffering, that I turn in some new direction. The only thing I may not do is sin.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Venn Diagram Ideology

The last presidential election has left a lot of Catholics in America doing some self examination on where, if anywhere, they fit within American electoral politics. One particularly strong trend (in the small pond which constitutes online Catholicism) has been towards seeking a new "whole life" coalition which splits off protection of the unborn from its traditional place over the last thirty years within Republican Party politics, and seeks to instead join anti-abortion politics with other issues such as universal health care, environmentalism, and a higher minimum wage or universal basic income. This sort of approach is more congenial for people who, fifty years ago, would have felt themselves a good fit with the Democratic Party (which once upon a time drew much of its support from Catholic immigrant communities), but in recent decades have felt forced to support the GOP because of the abortion issue.

However, the argument made in favor of this blending of issues is not just that its supporters would prefer to a center-left party that was pro-life, the argument is rather that you can't be truly "pro-life" (as opposed to "pro-birth") unless you support a number of other issues which are conducive to the overall thriving of the vulnerable among us. This fits with one of the buzzwords of the moment: intersectionality. While the term is used a lot, there seems to be some disagreement as to its meaning. Perhaps that's because the meaning is still evolving. However, here are the two basic explanations of intersectionality that I've found:

1) "Your oppression is connected to my oppression." In this view there is an overall "system" which oppresses many different victim groups: women, homosexuals, immigrants, etc. Since the same overall system is oppressing all of them, it makes sense for them to bend together to fight back against the system.

2) Another formulation looks at the ways that different types of bias overlap and reinforce. By this view, someone who is a Black trans-woman is triply oppressed, because there are three forms of bias against them: racism, sexism, and anti-trans bias. However, these biases are not simply additive. The person suffering oppression because of these three factors experiences oppression which is more than the sum of the parts because the prejudices are reinforcing. Thus, to help this person it's necessary to fight against all these prejudices simultaneously. Fighting against just one would not relieve the problem much.

(As you can see from the example, intersectionality is a phenomenon of the left.)

When it comes to getting people mobilized to advocate on specific political causes, whether this approach is useful depends a lot on what the patterns of agreement are. Looking at the above examples which I drew from explanations of intersectionality that I found, it might well be that within the wider left there are a lot of people who are passionate about one of the issues mentioned (say fighting racism) but also quietly in agreement on advocating against what they see as sexism and trans-phobia. In that case, telling those people that these issues are all connected and that they need to advocate for all of them is probably going to be effective.

However, that effectiveness relies entirely on the fact that those people happen to agree with all the issues listed. And that's the issue faced by people who want to take a intersectional approach to fighting abortion. Rightly or wrongly, issues like environmentalism and universal health care primarily live on the political left in American politics, while issues like restricting abortion live on the political right. This means that if you insist that a truly pro-life advocacy must combine all these issues, you'll only get the small group of people who already agree on all of them. Throw even more issues into the mix (universal basic income, religious freedom, traditional marriage) and you're only going to narrow the potential support even further. Because most people don't hold this particular group of views, rather than activating people who already basically agree with you but aren't loud about some of the issues, you're telling a lot of people who agree with you on one issue (abortion) that they can take a hike if they don't agree with you on all the others.

It would be wise for pro-life groups to focus tightly on their mission of fighting abortion and not allow themselves to get sucked into supporting a broader Republican agenda, because that too will end up making some people who oppose abortion less likely to support those groups. However, I don't think it's wise for the pro-life movement as a whole to adopt a sort of Venn Diagram ideology in which only those who agree on a wide range of topics are considered "truly pro-life". It's entirely healthy to have a wide variety of pro-life viewpoints. Feminists For Life is already a well known group. Many have also heard of Atheists For Life. Why not have Social Democrats For Life or Greens For Life? But what is not a good idea is to spend lots of energy attacking other pro-life groups as "not truly pro-life" because they don't hold a set collection of view on issues other than abortion. Given the wide distribution of views on other issues among people who agree on wanting to reduce abortion, any attempt at intersectionality in the pro-life movement will end up being exclusionary rather than coalition building.

Monday, August 07, 2017

This Book of Life

(5) God continues to write his work in our hearts, but the characters will not be seen until the day of judgment. 

...We are now living in a time of faith. The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel of the Holy Spirit. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and our actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel; but it will never be read until that last day of glory when it leaves the printing press of this life. 
And what a splendid book it will be - the book the Holy Spirit is still writing! The book is on press and never a day passes when type is not set, ink applied and pages pulled. But we remain in the light of faith. The paper is blacker than the ink and the type is pied; the language is not of this world and we understand nothing. We shall be able to read it only in heaven. We could understand something of the complexity of God's activity if we could see our fellow humans not just as they appear superficially but in their very essence and see, too, how God is working on and within them. Yet there are difficulties. How can we read this book when its letters are unknown, of infinite variety and upside down, and its pages smeared with ink? Just think what an infinite number of different and worthwhile books are produced by the mixing up of twenty-six letters. We cannot understand this wonder, so how can we comprehend what God is doing in the universe? How can we read and understand so vast a book, one in which every single letter has its own special meaning and, within its tiny shape, contains the most profound mysteries? We can neither see nor feel these mysteries. Only by faith can they be known.  
And it is by their origin that faith judges how true and good they are, for in themselves these mysteries are so obscure that our mere reason can understand nothing of them.
So teach me, Holy Spirit, to read in this book of life! I long to become your disciple and, like a little child, to believe in what I cannot see. It is enough for me that my master speaks. He talks and explains, arranges the letters of the book and makes it comprehensible. That is all I need. I am convinced that everything is just as he says, although I cannot see why. But I know he is truth itself and he says nothing but the truth. He puts letters together to make a word, assembles more to form another. There are perhaps only three or six. But they are exactly right. Any different number would make nonsense. After all, he alone knows the thoughts of men, and so he alone can put them into words. Everything is significant and everything makes perfect sense. A line ends because he wants it to. There is not a single comma missing, or one full stop too many. Although I believe now, when the day of glory dawns the secrets of so many mysteries will be shown during my earthly life. What now seems to me so confused, so incoherent, so foolish and so fanciful will then delight and entrance me by its order, its beauty, its wisdom and the incomprehensible wonders I shall explore for all eternity. 
--Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
This is a lovely little book that I borrowed from my brother's shelf last week. It is imperative for my spiritual life that I always have a devotional book going lest I grow weary. As some need the rosary, I need words and images to direct my prayers and meditations. "Drug of choice" jokes are cliché, but I really do see a change in the structure and quality of my spiritual life when I leave off reading, or when I'm between books and haven't settled on the next thing. "Know thyself" -- myself must read, or perish.

Abandonment to Divine Providence is a word in season. The measure of a devotional book is whether it takes root past the moment of reading to bear fruit in the moment of action. This book, this week, has turned me away many times from unproductive or actively sinful courses of thought and redirected me toward Jesus.

(3) Every moment is crammed with infinite riches which are given us according to the extent of our faith and love.
 Once we can grasp that each moment contains some sign of the will of God, we shall find in it all we can possibly desire, for there is nothing more reasonable, more excellent, more holy that his will. Can any variations of time, place or circumstance add anything to its infinite value? If you are taught the secret of finding its presence in every moment of our lives, then you possess all that is most precious and supremely worthwhile. What is it that you want - those of you seeking perfection? Give your desires free reign, setting absolutely no limits, no boundaries to them. Listen to me: let your hearts demand the infinite, for I can tell you how to fill them. There is never one moment in which I cannot show you how to find whatever you can desire. The present moment is always overflowing with immeasurable riches, far more than you are able to hold. Your faith will measure it out to you: as you believe, so you will receive. Love, too, is also a measure. The more you love the more you will want and the more you will get. Every moment the will of God is stretched out before us like a vast ocean which the desires of our hearts can never empty, but more and more of it will be ours as our souls grow in in faith in trust and in love. The entire universe cannot fill and satisfy our hearts, for they are greater than all apart from God. Mountains which overawe us are but tiny grains to our hearts. We must draw upon that will veiled and hidden beneath every little detail of our lives and shall find there a fullness, an amplitude infinitely more vast than all our longings. Fawn upon on one and have no illusions. They can do nothing for us. The will of God alone can satisfy us. That is what we must adore and drive direct toward it, casting aside all superficialities. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Becoming Flesh

Some days I think it's preposterous to call myself a writer any more, as the one thing I'm not doing is writing. I compose all the time -- snippets of posts, sentences that I polish up and down, descriptions, analysis, repartee, little lapidary phrases. I arrange my days in words. But those words live in my head. They gestate and are never born. No one interacts with them, interprets them, lets them come to fruition in their own minds. 

This is the opposite of the Rhapsodic Theater championed by Karol Wojytła, later to be Pope John Paul II. In the rhapsodic style, a problem is posed through the spoken word, and that spoken word takes root in the hearer's heart and starts him or her meditating on a solution along with the actors. It's a theatrical version of God's own creative powers: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

None of my words are becoming flesh, but I've been co-creating in other ways, of course. Writing may be comparable to labor, but it's not actually anything like; giving birth is sui generis for pain and reward. It also consumes all other forms of creativity. At first I was sustaining life in my body. Now I'm sustaining life with my body, dispensing milk every hour or two to a grunting, squishy infant. 

(Here I pause to nurse.)

 I wrote about William's birth three days afterwards, because I needed to put it into words to process it. I haven't written about Paul's birth three weeks afterwards, because I haven't needed to. If art is born from suffering, this was a lot less artistic than last time.

For twenty-four hours before birth, I'd been having mild contractions on and off, nothing strong enough or close enough to count on. I was definitely miserable. At one point on Saturday afternoon, I laid my head on the table and told my older daughters, "Girls, if you're ever tempted to have sex before marriage, remember this day." They nodded solemnly, though I can't say whether that was because they were impressed or because Mom was just being weird and needed to be humored. 

At 3:15, I thought I'd try to lay down during a contraction. Then I thought I wouldn't lay down. Then, as I was struggling painfully to sit up, or change position, or something, my water broke. "That's it for the water," I said somewhat incoherently to Darwin, who was reading a book in bed. Ten minutes later we were out the door, headed for the hospital. When my water breaks, I'm on the clock -- 90 minutes left.

And may I never ride in a car in labor again. Amen.

We'd never actually been in the hospital before, so we had to ask the lady at the desk where Labor and Delivery was. 

"Is she in labor?" the lady asked.

Understand that I was bent over, gasping, twisting, clutching Darwin's arm. I was in about the same state at the check-in desk up in L&D, except by now I was crying. The lady at that desk was unfazed after she'd ascertained that I didn't have to push.

Fortunately the nurses, who are not worried about the prospect of catching a sudden baby, were all attention and kindness. I was admitted at 4:00 at 6 cm. ("Only 6?" I groaned.) 

"Will you want an epidural?" the nurse asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Probably not. Maybe. I don't know."

"Okay, we'll just see," she said. 

There were plenty of distractions with the monitoring and the IV -- how I hate an IV! But the contractions were getting worse, and I was running out of strategies. I'd gone from my timing stand-by of an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and Glory Be to simply talking myself through them. Somewhere I'd read that a laboring mother should tell herself that she is strong, so I tried it. "I'm strong," I whispered. "I'm strong, I'm strong, I'M STRONG." That lasted for two contractions. I tried piety. "I am weak, but he is strong." That too was discarded. Finally I was reduced to, "I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay..."

And then, as I was up on my tiptoes riding it out, the pressure changed, and it was time to push. I looked at the clock -- 4:40 -- and told myself, "Done by 5. Done by 5." At this point, you don't just say a thing and be done with it. You go on saying it and saying it until you're knocked out of the groove and have to say something else instead.

I hate pushing. You can't ever tell where you are. You think that the baby must surely be out, because how can it get any worse, and they tell you, "Oh, look, there's his head! Just one more push!" And how can he not be out? My coping strategy here, on my hands and knees in a hospital bed, was sheer protest. "I don't want to have a baby!" I insisted. "I don't want to have a baby!"

These are the strange things one says under extreme duress, even as one knows how ridiculous it sounds. I mean, I wanted the baby. I just didn't want to have the baby. And I knew it was silly as I was saying it, and I said it anyway because it was the only thing I had any power over at the moment. Darwin tells me that I threw up on him, but I don't remember that. All I remember is stupidly protesting against this labor, and then the door opened and the doctor and everyone finally arrived at the very moment I pushed the baby out. 4:47.

And then it was done! That's what I said: "I'm done!" And "I'm not pregnant anymore!" And someone maneuvered me off the drenched pad and put a dry one underneath, and someone helped me lay down without pulling the cord (the feeling of the cord between your legs is the weirdest thing), and someone handed me a warm, wet, slithery, purple baby. And I was done! And there was a baby boy! And I wasn't pregnant anymore!

The nurses were very sweet and said I'd been so strong, so I guess people say odder things in labor, and they got us all set up in a room, and Darwin brought me tacos. Overall, the hospital experience was a good one, and I have to give lots of credit to all the nurses and doctors. You guys are great! Keep being awesome! Sure, even in the hospital I was fashioning a narrative, this eventual post, but by and by I left off, content to lay in bed with baby and watch the second hand of the clock tick by. 

I spent the next week in bed feeling pretty good, and the next week not in bed feeling not so good, but young Paul is pretty fine. We've been feeling around for the right nickname for him, since Paul doesn't sound like a baby name to me -- probably because it's my dear father's name. So baby has been Polliwog, and Wog, and Pog, and sometimes Podge (P. Hodge, you know), but mostly we've called him William. He doesn't seem to mind. He is loved, and held, and warm and safe unless the real William tries to squeeze his head. He nurses on one side until he falls off, and then he can't latch on again, so he must be burped and fed on the other side. He's not of those babies who saves up his poop for a week -- after almost every feeding thar he blows, and sometimes while he's on the changing table all opened up, too. His hair is dark and velvety, and his cheeks are filling out. He grunts most amiably. His gaze is vague and milky, but he turns his head to hear Daddy. He is only fussy when he wants to eat, which is much of the time.

I've gone from feeling like a supermodel because I have ankles again, to sighing because my stomach sits on my lap -- no, really! My stomach can actually sit on my lap if it's not held in. The human body is odder than advertised, and the shape of a three-week-postpartum woman has nothing to do with anything you've ever seen in a movie or photo. Sometimes I wish we had more honest images of people, but to be honest, I don't even want to see my own stomach sitting on my lap, nor my soft upper arms, nor my developing double chin. I hope all these things will eventually be ameliorated as I lose baby weight. Am I contributing to the problematic public image of the mostly glossy human body? I want to be real, but I want to leave the house in something other than the black sweatpants I've worn for three weeks. 

I also want to write, but a new baby demands all the time, even when you have a house full of people to love him and squeeze him and call him William. At night I'm tired and want to lay down. During the day I'm distracted and slow, and when I have free time I have to think about things like schoolwork and vacations and the confirmation class I'm teaching this year and what is that on the floor and who's going to unload this dishwasher and can we not leave the fridge open? When I sit down to write the words come slowly, as if I've forgotten how this works. When I stand up, my hips move slowly, as if they've forgotten how they work. Every part of me is learning a new way of moving. For now I'm listening to the sounds of my rusty gears turning, and his brand new bottom rumbling. We're quite the symphony.