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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


It is 12:30, and baby has just cried himself to sleep in the crib for the first time. There was a titanic struggle of wills as I walked him and patted him and replaced his pacifier every time he spat it out, and then I got wise and shut myself in the bathroom for twenty minutes while he screamed himself into oblivion. When I came out he was flopped face down in the corner of the crib. I had to do some tender extraction work to get him to a nice breathable spot without waking him and starting the process all over again.

Babies are essentially selfish, says Augustine, and I tend to agree with him. The child would sleep in any odd position as long as I was holding him in such a way that I could get nothing at all done. But he is appalled at the chamber of horrors that is his crib, with its comfy pillow and soft comforter. "If thees is torture, chain me to the wall!" as the Chihuahua says in the preview for Oliver and Company, which used to run before some VHS movie we watched as kids.

Speaking of the kids, my oldest, 15 years and 9 months, just got her temps. The night before her test, she came bouncing into the living room, where I was pinned under the baby  and the four-year-old.

"Dad says I can help drive to Cincinnati next weekend!"

"I...," I said. "Oh my," I said. "I eeeeee. Aiiiiii. Nooooo. Ahahaha I oh my oh aaaaaaaah eeeeeeee nnng hahahaha oh my goodness." I expounded on this theme for sixty seconds.

"Mom, are you going to cry?" asked the 14-year-old.

"My life is just flashing before my eyes," I said, and indeed, my mortality has never seemed so real to me than at the moment I realized that I would be placing myself in a large hunk of metal going 65 mph with a brand new driver. Not that I don't trust my oldest. I do. She's a good girl with a good head on her shoulders. But aaaaaah ng hahaha. Oh Lord have mercy.

Speaking of having mercy, I made a rookie mistake on Friday by waking up the four-year-old to take him to Stations of the Cross. He made this penitential for all of us. I left him in the care of his sister in the cry room while I went to confession, and even through the soundproof plexiglass the whole church could hear him bawl, "I want to go to Confession too!"

You need it, kid, I thought. If only he had achieved the age of reason.

Speaking of the age of reason, a few of his older siblings are in that happy-go-lucky phase we like to call "cruising for a bruising". This involves selective hearing and the strange belief that Mom probably isn't serious the first five times she tells you to do something. Mother is serious, my child, as you will find to your detriment if I have to ask you to place your derriere in that chair again and finish the math problem, or if I have to tell you to turn off the show again, or if that table does not get set this instant.

"I can correct you, or you can correct yourself. Which will it be?"

"I'll correct myself," said the prime offender, slouching in his chair and fiddling with his pencil. But he is essentially unmalicious. His main issue is that he is nine-going-on-ten, and that is an age of cheerful callousness. If only he would apply the industry that informs his study of paper airplanes to the study of obedience!

Speaking of industry, my seven-year-old has set herself to learning a song, because she is ready to audition with the older siblings and mother for the community theater's summer production of Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler is a big, big deal here, especially to the member of the household who finds that her age and seven-child figure are, for once, an asset in trying for a leading role. So there has been consideration given to auditioning, and it's not too early for a little girl to think about her first song. And so this evening, as I was reading an important document online, I also refreshed this video ten times so the girl could study her song.

"Honey," I finally said, "the auditions are three months away. You don't have to learn the whole song tonight. I need to read this through."

"But Mom!" she wailed. "I get to the third line and I can't remember anything! Can you play it again?"

This Gordian Knot I cut by singing the song myself into the voice memo app on my phone and setting her up with earphones so she could listen and look at her music to her heart's content. Some day, several months from now, I will wonder what this file is and click on it and be very surprised to hear me exhorting myself to whistle a happy tune.

Speaking of the theater, the 14 year-old and the 11-year-old tumbled out of drama today full of self-important giggles, and declared that they'd made a pact that I was to know nothing of the casting of the play until the night of the performance.

"Oh, I'll find out somehow," I said airily. "Someone's mom will tell me, or I'll talk to the director. You could have the fun of telling me yourself."

"We'll tell them all not to tell you. You'll never know."

Twenty minutes later, at home, they were going over in detail who had received which role, and how it lined up with their own fantasy casting, and the minute occurrences of the entire two hours of rehearsal.

Speaking of rehearsal, this is the first night in a while without rehearsal or performance, since Twelve Angry Men closed on Sunday. Darwin put in an excellent turn as Juror No. 12, the self-important adman, looking natty in a summer suit which cost him a few bucks at Goodwill, and a few goodies to compensate the household seamstress (not me) for lengthening the trousers. But the show is over now, and Darwin had intended to spend an evening of great productivity and word count. Instead, he took the 15-year-old out for some night driving at the park, supervised a math lesson, worked on German homework, listened to the girls tell him about the casting of the play, walked the baby, scooped the cat box and took out the trash, and spent a long time trying to solve an electronics problem that turned out to be a dead power outlet. And when he came upstairs, he carefully rolled over the baby, who'd obstinately turned himself nosedown again. Perhaps baby is ready to go to the mat for his ideal sleep position, but like the rest of us, like it or not, he has to catch his breath.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: Gratitude Code

Every class, when written up, sounds a lot smoother than the class I actually presented. In reality, I jump around a lot in a disconnected way, and as I'm often actively trying to combat my audience's disinterest, class seems like a lot more of a slog than it may read here. Still! Confirmation is coming up, so the Holy Spirit is going to take everyone off of my hands.


Anyone watch National Treasure? Remember what it was about? Nic Cage hunting for treasure. "I'm going to steal the Declaration of Independence." And what did he spend most of his time doing? Yes, hunting for treasure, but for most of the movie he and his crack team were trying to break the code. People love code breaking.

Wait, can I digress? That movie was so historically inaccurate, it made my teeth hurt. Right at the beginning, we hear that the Knights Templar and the Freemasons were working together to hide the treasure. Guys, that is completely bogus. The Knights Templar were a crusading order who were suppressed in the 1300s because the King of France wanted their money. The Freemasons were founded around the time of the French Revolution, and they hated Catholics. So the Knights Templar and the Freemasons didn't exist at the same time, and they wouldn't have been working toward the same goal, or working together at all. End Rant.

Anyway, code. I've brought something in code for you today. Anyone understand this?


(I wrote this out on the board from memory, in what was probably the most impressive moment of my teaching career.)

What language is this? Not Arabic. Not Hebrew. Yes, it's Greek. Try writing it out yourself.

Let's break this code. εὐ means "well" or "good". χ is not "x"; it says "k", or as we'd write it, "ch". The fishy-looking α is "a", so that's not too hard. ρ is not "p", it's "r". ι is pretty easy, just like it looks. σ is "s" -- crazy, right? τ is... tau? That's right! How'd you know that? Get this: ή is not "n", but "e" that sounds like "a". And ς is a different way of writing "s" at the end of a word.

Eucharistesas. Want to take a crack at that?

Yes, eucharist, but in this case it's a verb. It means "having given thanks", and it's used 9 times in the New Testament.

In all but one case, it's used around food. In several cases, it's used when Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes: he took the break and having given thanks, gave it to the apostles to distribute. And in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it's the word used at the last supper when Jesus gives the bread that is his body. Look up Luke 22:18-19. Yes, you're right! We do hear those words at mass at the consecration. "Having given thanks" is important: Jesus has already given the perfect thanks to the Father, and in the mass, we're participating in his thanksgiving.

I read an article about gratitude in the paper this weekend that said that kids these days are ungrateful. What do you think of that? Of course, the article was written by an older person, so... Every generation thinks that the kids are less grateful now than they used to be. What do you have to be thankful for? Take a moment and write down a few things that you're grateful for. If you have clothes, if you have shelter, if you have a family that loves you... if your feet don't hurt, be grateful for that! Look, as you get older, you'll really appreciate it when parts of you don't hurt.

The Eucharist is our perfect prayer of gratitude, because all good gifts come from God. But we can show gratitude badly, can't we? Let's look at another instance of the verb eucharisto, from Luke 18:11: I give you thanks, Father, that I'm not like sinners, adulterers, cheats, or like that tax collector over there. Is the Pharisee expressing gratitude well? Oh, you think so? You think the proper way to thank God is to thank him that you're better than everyone else? We can express gratitude badly, and it can be harmful to our soul. We have to be careful about the attitude that we bring to the Eucharist, because we can cut ourselves off from God if we receive it poorly. That's why we have the penitential rite before we receive the Eucharist, and that's why we have the sacrament of Confession: to help us to approach God in a spirit of true gratitude.

Anyone feel like they're great at praying? Do you feel like you pray enough? Who can say, "I don't need to add any more prayer into my life"?

Now, who hates wasting time? (Girl: "I hate wasting time, but I always do it.") Who hates filling time with busy work? Do you like efficiency? You like to know that when you're doing something, it's effective, that it means something. The Mass is our most efficient prayer ever. It packs all the different ways we can pray into one total package, and it does so in words that have been carefully chosen to convey the deepest meaning. In one hour, the Mass has a more powerful, more efficient, more compact form of prayer than we can achieve by our own efforts. Let's go through the forms of prayer we'll find in the Mass. Write down on your page:


A is for adoration, the worship that we reserve for God alone. We don't adore any other person, even Mary the mother of God. Only God is worshipped, and the mass contains this form of prayer in the Gloria.

C is for contrition. Yes, it means sorrow, sorrow for sins and repentance. In the penitential rite, we confess that we are sinners and ask for pardon.

T is for thanksgiving, gratitude. Again: "having given thanks". We participate in Jesus's prayer of thanks to the Father, and we bring our thanks for all the blessings we've received, especially for the Eucharist.

S is for supplication. Yes, asking! We have a part of the mass for this, the Prayer of the Faithful. And we don't just ask God for spiritual things. We ask him for the physical things that we need as well: "give us this day our daily bread". We offer prayers for friends, for family, for the world, for ourselves. All good things come from God.

Let's review! What does Eucharist mean? Thanksgiving! What prayer is the "source and summit of our faith"? The Mass! Does National Treasure have anything to do with history? No! Alright, ten minutes in the gym: go!


It is fashionable in this day and age to write articles about how dress codes and talk of modesty impinge on females, and how girls feel demeaned by discussions of appropriate dress, and how the fashion industry is sexist and women are victims, and let's fight against demeaning standards of dress that put inordinate demands on girls.

My friends. Bosh. In discussing dress codes for Confirmation, the girls in my class were models of decorum and common sense. They all agreed that it was proper to cover one's shoulders in church, that cleavage was not appropriate, that they wanted to wear a dress long enough that when they bowed in front of the altar, their derriere was not exposed, that wobbling in stiletto heels made you look silly in front of everyone. They were eager for standards to help them find the right dress -- or pants; we're not drawing lines in the sand here.

But oh my stars and garters, try telling a bunch of teenage boys that they need to wear a suit and a tie, and a belt and dress shoes! Picture to yourself the moaning and agitation, the horror, that one cannot wear jeans or cargo shorts to a mass with the bishop to celebrate the reception of a sacrament! The bargaining, the groping for loopholes!

"Can I wear sneakers?"
"What about really nice Vans?"
"No, you need to wear dress shoes."
"That's not fair! What if I wear a jacket and cargo shorts?"
"Then that demonstrates that you don't really have a proper understanding of and attitude toward the sacrament of Confirmation, even after a year of classes, so you'll probably be asked to leave."
"Oh, snap!"
"You can rent a suit. You can borrow a suit. You can wear a dress jacket and slacks. But wearing appropriate clothes for an occasion is a signal that you understand the importance of the event and want to show your respect for the occasion and the people involved. And we want you to be confirmed! We don't want to kick you out. So if you come without a jacket, we'll find you a jacket. If you come without a tie, we'll find you a tie. If you come with bare shoulders, we'll find you a sweater. But it may not fit, and it may not look good. So avoid that situation by finding your own suitable outfit."

The girls nodded, the boys wept like babies. Oh, the unreasonable demands we place upon guys!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

In Praise of Bourgeois Art

I've had reason to think lately about how the making of art and the hum drum professional life intersect. This would normally be a busy time at work, but this year it is even more so, in part because I'm going through one of those gradual increases of responsibilities which may or may not eventually lead to a promotion and a new, busier status quo. This busyness at work intersects with my own self imposed busyness. This is also production weekend for our community theater production of Twelve Angry Men, so I've been down at the old courthouse for two-and-a-half hours a night for the last couple weeks, sitting at the jury table in dress rehearsals as self important adman Juror #12.

And on Monday night I finally finished the latest installment of the The Great War. This was a necessary first step to my commitment to get serious about the revise-and-submit part of being a novelist. Goal for the next month or two: revise and expand If You Can Get It so that Kristy and Katie can get a shot at having their day in print. (I'll probably de-publish all those posts when I send the novel out, so this represents a last call on the original version.)

At a certain point, thinking of all this writing, I was telling myself: What I need to do is get away from all this. Once the play is over, I should arrange to take a long weekend off, go away somewhere, and just write all day long. A writer's retreat. I could get so much writing and revising done. It would be like being a real writer for a couple days.

But of course, that's a false siren call. Not only would it be really jerky to stick MrsDarwin alone for a couple days due to a needless trip right after the time stresses of a show's production week, but the fact is that the life of a "real writer" is not some airy thing where one is free to spend all day at the keyboard in some picturesque locale far from the worries of cleaning the living room, reading bedtime stories, and justifying the sell in story for 2019 pricing. Being a real writer consists of writing while in the life one actually has. Sure, if I had a couple days and a good outline, I could probably write more than I do in my normal routine during a month or two of time stolen between ten at night and one in the morning. But fantasizing about writing in such unrealistic conditions is self defeating. The distraction free life is not mine, and I don't evenP really want it to be.

Perhaps due to its creative nature, the artistic life seems prey to more than the usual number of illusions, and some of these have to do with what it means to do art. There are images of what the artistic life should be like: The starving artist living on nothing in some exotic locale while devoting all time to art. The self destructive artist destroying relationships and splitting time between substance abuse and creating brilliant art.

Yes, some people have fit these molds, but many haven't, and none of them are necessary in order to produce good art. Indeed, when actually lived rather than watched in some costume drama, poverty or dysfunctional relationships or substance abuse are things which can eat up attention and keep someone from investing the time necessary to produce good art. Producing art requires just that, sitting down and producing it. Following some trope of 'the artistic life' is in no sense necessary to it.

I was struck by this recently when reading a piece which sought to contemplate to what extent it was possible to do art (in the case of the article, acting) in a "safe space" during the current moment of heightened awareness of harassment. The author argued that art couldn't really be safe, and that while it was important that those in the artistic world engage in abuses of power, that something as small scale as a community theater production must necessarily involve lots of drinking and despair and yelling and melodrama and hookups.

Nonsense. Not only does theater not require these things, but the more your theater group can focus on their job, putting on a play, and avoid bringing personal chaos into it, the better the art you will produce. Fighting and melodrama aren't essential to acting, they're detrimental to it. The audience doesn't come to see your artistic experience, they come to see a play that actually goes well, and for a play to go well requires organization and a cast and crew that are dedicated to working hard on the project at hand.

This is why I'm always inspired by hearing about artists, writers in my case, who produced good art while also holding down a solid job in an ordinary, middle class sort of way.

Anthony Trollope, in addition to being one of the great English novelists of the 19th century, put in a full career in the post office. Even his writing routine was orderly and professional: He'd sit down each day for a set amount of time and try hard to produce a set number of pages. If his time was up in the middle of a sentence, he'd leave off there and resume the next day. If he finished one novel during a day's writing time, he'd start the next one without skipping a beat.

Even the notably cutting edge poet T. S. Eliot simultaneously pursued a successful career as a banker at Loyd's Bank in London.
The novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot at Lloyd’s and wrote: “(Eliot) was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.”

And while Eliot’s banking days are no secret, what is less appreciated is that he was really good at his day job. Huxley observed that Eliot was indeed “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” And an officer of Lloyd’s, upon hearing of Eliot’s success with his “hobby,” remarked that Eliot had a bright future at Lloyd’s if he wanted it. “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become Branch Manager.”

I find it inspiring that our cast is made up, not of edgy personalities living 'artistic' lives, but of half a dozen lawyers and assorted other holders of mundane jobs (project manager, math teacher, pricing director, etc.) who show up every night to put the work to make a good show. And as a writer I try to remind myself often of the good writers, writers better than I will ever be, who held down solid jobs and were good at them. Being a writer, or any other kind of artist, does not require adherence to some edgy trope. It requires only one thing, that whoever we are, whatever our vocation and employment, we sit down and create works that help others see the world a little more truly through the lens of our creations.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Family That Stays Together

If you're free this weekend and find yourself in central Ohio, you can catch Darwin as Juror No. 12 (the jerk) in Twelve Angry Men, performed at the local courthouse. We're a theatrical household, and production week is a given in our house, but as I'm on the audience side of the show this time, I confess to breathing a sigh of relief that the long nights of rehearsals are coming to an end. Make no mistake: I support Darwin being in the show with my whole heart, and practically blackmailed him into auditioning since I couldn't do try out myself, what with the baby and all. Still, the intensive nature of rehearsal is a strain on the household, pushing the evening later and later as everyone waits up for Daddy to come home and tell us all the news from the night's run.

When, at age 18, we pictured our future married life, we had a very hazy image of what life would be like with our imaginary large family. We pictured children who were us in miniature, great family achievements, an exciting career path, and of course lots of sex. Somehow, we didn't factor in the petty distractions: a soft baby in bed next to us looking at us with big eyes just as things are heating up, someone pounding on the door demanding how to spell "juror", the cat throwing up on the floor, someone having a tantrum downstairs. And these are simply the happy, normal parts of family life that test us in small ways. There's nothing big or dramatic that happens to us -- all that is for the stage. Our marriage and our family is built on the minor happenings of everyday life. "The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones." (Lk. 16:10) Always look to the small matters first; the great ones are of almost no consequence.

Catholics love conversion stories, for the same reason everybody loves rom-coms. We get to watch somebody fall in love with the faith, overcome obstacles, and at last reach the altar -- and then we fade to black. The story stops right when it gets interesting; right when the hard part starts. 
The radio program This American Life made the point in their 2009 episode "Somewhere Out There". Ira Glass interviews an American man who went on a ridiculously romantic quest for a Chinese opera musician -- a woman he'd fallen for, thought he didn't even know her name. 
But the interview isn't really about that. It's about the rest of the story: They did marry, but as Glass explains, "it was really hard. The novelty had worn off and the framework of their entire relationship was an ocean away... After going through those rough years when they even considered splitting up, the story of how they met came to feel less and less important and they didn't talk about it as much. Now that have a different story." The husband, Eric Hayot, describes it as "the story of struggle and pain passed through, and fought through, and overcome. And that's a story that you don't tell in public because no one ever asks how did you two stay together? Everyone always asks how did you two meet?"
This blog, though it is a small thing, and not particularly about our marriage, is in fact an account of how we have stayed together over the years. Not that there's much drama about that; we never doubted that we would stay together, and "staying together" seems rather fraught language to describe our uneventful life and family. But we have here a nearly thirteen year account of how we've grown as individuals and as a couple and as a family, and how growth in one of those areas is truly growth in all of them. What strengthens me as a person strengthens our family, strengthens me as a mother and wife as well as an individual. In fact, I would question any experience which I felt made me stronger at the expense of being a wife and a mother, since those are not just elements of my personality but bound up with my vocation -- and therefore, my salvation. 

In this present instance, the theatrical vocation I thought I had for myself is coming to fruition in my family while I sit and watch and my baby sits and nurses. And this is only for a season. My turn is coming up with the summer musical, because God has so split his gifts among us that Darwin does not sing and so the musical is mine, all mine -- mine to share with the five older kids who can perform, anyway, and the baby who will probably be at all rehearsals. Baby always comes, because I'm faithful in small things. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Great War, Volume Two, Chapter 4-3

This section ends Chapter Four and our time with Jozef for now.

Prerau, Moravia. June 14th, 1915. “Major, I believe there’s something wrong with the tracking of the requisitions.”

The officers were milling about on Monday morning as the enlisted men from the Major’s detail got the civilians in order to begin the second day of the requisition fair.

“Eh? What’s the trouble, m’boy?” asked the major, puffing to get a new cigar lit.

“I went to the stables last night to look in on a particularly choice mount I’d requisitioned for the regiment. I remember them painting the requisition number on his flank. Yet when I found the horse with that number in the stables, it was a completely different horse. Perhaps some horses were double numbered, or the clerks are covering for some mistake, but this was definitely not the horse I had chosen.”

The major shrugged. “Easy to misremember a number, and hard to find one horse among a crowd. I wouldn’t let it trouble you. The men are very practiced in these fairs, and the horses will all arrive in the end. Best not to worry yourself and to concentrate upon finding more good horses to round out your quota today.”

Before Jozef could ask any more questions, the major turned away went to join another knot of officers. Jozef felt a moment’s wash of frustration as he watched his receding back in its crisp dress uniform which was little changed in the last fifty years since the wars against Napoleon III and Wilhelm I. It was natural enough this old man would not remember which was horse was which, would assume that everything could be smoothed over by the clerks who managed his books and thus his whole operation. Perhaps that was the explanation. Men with the poor wages of enlisted men had been given the power over hundreds of valuable horses because their commanding officer was too old to bother himself with details, and so of course the temptation might become too great to take the odd horse here or there, take his beautiful black hunter and substitute for it a common gray cart horse. Still, if the major could not be bothered to investigate the issue, there were surely others who could.

He was thus surprised that when he managed to draw Rittmeister Hofer aside during a pause in the morning’s fair, he got little more interest than from the major. “Doubtless you just confused the numbers, von Revay. A day full of horses followed up by good champagne is hardly a spur to precise memory. It’ll all sort out in the end.”

It wasn’t until lunch that Jozef found a ready audience for his concerns in Rittmeister Korzeniowski.

“How many horses do you believe are missing?”

“I don’t know. There was just the one that I was looking for. If it is indeed some scheme to make off with the better horses, we need to check more.”

The Polish officer drew a little notebook from the breast pocket of his uniform tunic. “There I think I can help you.” He turned a few pages and then held it out for Jozef’s inspection. Neatly listed out were all the horses that Korzeniowski had chosen, with a note of both the requisition number and the appearance of the animal. ‘263 Chestnut Mare, 281 Bay Gelding,’ and so forth. More than forty were listed, with a line drawn between Saturday’s choices and today’s. “The little stars mark particularly choice mounts,” Korzeniowski explained. “If there’s some sort of scheme afoot, those are the ones we should check first.”

And so after the requisition fair wound to its close for the day at three in the afternoon, while the rest of the officers returned to the hotel for some pre-dinner refreshment, Rittmeister Korzeniowski stayed behind with Jozef. The requisitioned horses now filled two of the long stable buildings.

Jozef led the way to the stable he had visited the night before, which contained the horses that had been requisitioned on the first day. It took time to find each horse listed in Korzeniowski’s book among the quietly milling herd of animals. It soon became clear that Jozef’s experience with his black hunter was by no means unique. Nine of the horses Korzeniowski had selected on the first day were gone, including all but one of the ones he had marked with a star, each replaced another horse that was older or heavier than he had chosen.

“This must truly be my lucky horse,” Korzeniowski said, rubbing the nose of the dappled mare which was the only remaining of his choice picks. “It was a farm lad leading her through. Perhaps that’s why the others didn’t give him a full look. Nothing grand about the owner, but the horse I could see was a very fine one. Even so I almost let him go. I could see the hope building in that farm boy’s eyes. He loved that horse, that much I could tell, and had seen its potential and given it every care.” He paused to drop a kiss on the horse’s forehead. “You won’t have nearly such a pleasant life in the cavalry, poor creature. But any trooper who gets you will love you. And Poland needs you.” He scratched the horse gently behind the ears and then turned it loose to mill among others. “Wretched, isn’t it, how war turns honorable men into thieves. And yet we honorable thieves must track down the common thief who is making off with the horses that we have lawfully taken.”

Continue Reading...

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Long Retreat

Over the course of my lifetime Lenten observance, I've tried all the tacks. 

The Standard -- when I was 14, I gave up soda, which led to better lifetime habits.
The Rigorous -- the year I gave up sugar, and didn't even eat a piece of the cake at my brother's surprise Leap Day birthday party.
The Basic -- years I've been pregnant and have just stuck with the meatless Fridays and Ash Wednesday observance.
The Habit-Breaker -- the year I tackled getting up early and being organized. It didn't stick.

There's nothing wrong with these sacrifices. They were done for love of God, and God sees all our sacrifices, small and large, and honors them. However, I feel like I've always made my Lenten observance about myself: my bad habits, my lifestyle, my self-improvement. 

When Jesus went into the desert for forty days, he wasn't trying to kick a bad habit. He didn't need spiritual self-improvement. The forty day sojourn in the desert was a time of preparation and deep communication with the Father before Jesus started his public ministry -- a retreat. I wish I could remember where I recently read that ministry to the public depleted Jesus's human nature, so that he needed to withdraw to pray. If Jesus needed that, how much more do we?

This year, I'm taking a Lenten retreat. I'm giving up Facebook -- not because I think it's bad, but because it's so full of noise and instant gratification that it consumes my mental and spiritual space. I want to spend time with the people, in my town and in my parish, that God has put into my life -- people whose very differences from me push me to smooth the edges of my personality that are rough and hone the edges that are dull. 

I'd like to use the space that giving up social media affords me to do more reading and writing. Reading is easy -- I spend a lot of time nursing the baby, enforced sitting, and it's time that can be turned to reading books without detracting from the rest of my day. Writing I need to choose more consciously. I'll keep writing here, of course, and I want to turn my mindless evening Facebook scrolls into editing time for my novel. And, inspired by this Dappled Things post about Why Should You Write?:
So, that’s a lot of correspondence for you all. And I must say, while we’re on the topic, that some of the most meaningful and effective things I have written have been in letters. Unless you get to be someone like O’Connor, your letters are really only read by one person, sometimes two. But boy do they come to mean a lot! So write some letters, if nothing else.
I'm going to put my new fountain pen to use by writing letters for Lent, and I'd be delighted to send one to any reader who will send name and address to me at (I suppose it goes without saying, but that information won't be passed on or used for any other purpose.) If you're a longtime commenter and I never seem to respond to anything you say, please let me send you a letter this Lent! If you read but never comment, let me write to you! If we're friends who never see each other, I'll send you a letter! If you live in my town and we run into each other every Sunday, I still want to write you a letter.

I haven't said much in all this about spiritual development or prayer for Lent. That's because I find that when I know it's Lent, I naturally pull back from indulging in foods, and I add in prayers like Stations of the Cross with the parish. For a discipline, I'm not going to be putting sugar in my tea, but that's so that I have something to be consistent about. I don't want to layer on the practices this Lent because I want to take it as a time to assess what God wants me to do where he's put me -- in this family, in this parish, with these gifts and these flaws. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hiding The Truth is not Pastoral

Mark Shea wades into the recent controversy about Cardinal Marx's suggestion that perhaps the Church may in certain individual cases come up with some sort of blessing to be applied to same sex unions. (There's some dispute as to what Cardinal Marx meant, with initial reports suggesting he proposed a standard approach to blessing such unions and clarification from his spokesmen suggesting that he was more ambiguous, but that ambiguity does not come into Shea's piece so I won't bring it up here further.)

Shea proposes nothing definite, but argues that the cardinal may be onto something because the presence of same sex marriages will be an established fact that the Church must deal with, and failure to do so will, he argues, result in rejection by many younger people who support same sex marriage in large numbers. It's a long post, but I'll try to quote the key sections below:

[H]ow do the people who are currently shouting denunciations at Cdl. Marx propose the Church proceed in a world where, like it or not, gay unions are here to stay? Put bluntly, if they do not want some kind of blessing on gay people, would they prefer the Church devise a curse for them?

My guess is no. Very well then, my question is this: what do we want to do, as Catholics committed to the evangelization of the entire world, including gay people? What concrete course of action do we propose for the Church to engage the here-to-stay, not going anywhere, immovable, staring-us-in-the-face sociological fact of a world which not only has gay unions, but has a rising generation of people, gay and straight, who have absolutely no problem with gay unions and who are increasingly alienated from a Church that does, in fact, appear to them to curse gay people? (We’re talking roughly 75% of Millennials here.)

If you say (as I suspect most of Cdl. Marx’s critics do) that the Church should simply do nothing, then at least be aware that “nothing” will, in fact, be read as rejection, not as nothing–by that 75% of Millennials. Mark you, I’m not talking about gay unions per se. I’m simply talking about the mere existence of gay people and the straight people who care about them.
If the message the Church is sending to every gay person on the planet–and to their straight Millennial friend–is “You are rejected” then it will be only the most extraordinary and motivated person who persists in seeking Jesus in the face of such rejection. And make no mistake, the most zealous and vocal Catholics are typically the ones sending just that message to gays and the straight people who love them. Indeed, they send it even to gay people who have committed to live in chastity and celibacy. I cannot count the number of times I have seen gay Catholics I know–faithful, chaste, celibate ones–spoken of as sinister fifth columnists within the Church and regarded with suspicion simply because they are open, frank, and honest that they are sexually attracted to people of the same sex.
I think the entire “burn heretics, not make converts” approach to the Catholic life is radically wrong and foreign to the mind of Christ. So I return to my question: what do we propose about evangelizing people in a world where gay unions–and an entire generation of people who do not even see a problem with them–are already an established sociological fact?
Jesus didn’t tell the centurion, “Get out of my sight, slaveowner!” He commended him for the progress in grace he had made. He didn’t tell the Samaritan woman to depart from him. He met her where she was and helped her take a step toward faith in him. At no point, does he order her to go home and break it off with her fifth husband.

I suspect something similar is where the Church will wind up with gay unions. Gay people, like everybody else, will come to the Church for spiritual help sooner or later because the Holy Spirit cannot be denied and gay humans, like all humans, hunger for God. And when they do, real shepherds are not going to slap their faces and send them away any more than Jesus slapped the centurion for daring to approach him while still owning other human beings. Shepherds are going to meet them where they are in all the complexity of their lives.

This will offend Puritans, whose first and last impulse is always to drive the impure away from Fortress Katolicus. But it seems to me that the Church is pretty much bound to take this route. It will not mean sacramentalizing gay unions. Rather, it will mean finding some way to help gay people take steps toward Jesus (who is the only one who can untangle the human heart) where they are.
[You can read the full post here.]
Now I think it's important to say that Mark is right that there is a faction within the Church which is so suspicious of people who are gay (in the sense of being consistently sexually attracted to those of the same sex, regardless of whether they act sexually on those attractions) that they do indeed attack even faithful gay Catholic writers who write about ways for people who are gay to live chastely according to the Church's teachings. This is a problem. Christ came to being salvation to all who are willing to follow Him, and that includes people who are gay. We must have a welcoming place within the Church for those who are living according to the Church's teachings under difficult circumstances: those who are gay, those who are divorced, those who are unwillingly single, those who struggle to follow the Church's teachings within their marriages.

However, there's another problem which Shea's 'will we bless them or curse them?' dichotomy fails to address. There are many within the Church who believe that while perhaps the Church's official, on paper teachings on issues such as contraception, gay marriage, and divorce cannot change, that the Church can route around those teachings in her practice. Cardinal Marx seems to some degree to be aligning himself with this allegedly pastoral approach, in which the Church loudly affirms the good aspects of such things while never mentioning that by the way they are against God's law. The proposal that the Church perhaps in some cases offer some sort of non-sacramental blessing for same sex unions must necessarily be seen as participating in this kind of "let's pretend the Church's teachings don't exist" exercise.

The Church's job is in fact more difficult that Shea seems to acknowledge. Yes, a large and increasing percentage of the culture are not only accepting of same sex marriage but ready to reject as a bigot anyone who does not accept it. The Church has a divine mission to reach everyone with Christ's message: gay or straight, pro or anti same sex marriage. And yet the Church also has a duty not to conceal and obfuscate God's law. The Church cannot offer a blessing ceremony for civil marriages that follow the breakup of a valid marriage, nor can it offer a blessing ceremony for same sex couples. There might be those who would argue the Church should offer a blessing ceremony of sorts for same sex couples who are committing to live together chastely, and indeed there is nothing immoral about sharing a roof with someone who you love but are not able to sleep with. But because of our current cultural moment it seems particularly imprudent to offer something that would look so very much like a winking approval for a sexual relationship. We must be honest with ourselves: Many of those who find proposals such as Cardinal Marx's appealing are indeed looking for a tacit approval of sexual relationships that the Church considers wrong. Under the guise of being pastoral, what is actually being sought here is a change in practice if not yet of doctrine.

Jesus does not just accompany us where we are. He also calls us to do hard things. To see this we need look no further than the story of the rich young man, the young man who said he followed all the commandments and on whom Jesus looked with love. What does Jesus do then? Ask the young man to do something even harder: sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. And when the young man goes away sad, Jesus lets him go. He doesn't hold a blessing ceremony for the young man's attachment to riches.

This is the thing which all factions within the Church can forget too often. Jesus asks us to do hard things. He asks us to love people who seem unlovable to us. He asks us to give up things we love. He asks us to abide by God's law even when it seems impossible. He asks us to give up much in order to follow him. And in return, he offers us God's love and eternal life. This is hard, hard stuff which should not leave anyone feeling self satisfied. If you feel you're a great Christian, you're probably doing it wrong. And this is what those who are so eager to label themselves "pastoral" these days need to remember. That Jesus was willing to talk to anyone, to eat with anyone, to love anyone, but that he also called us all to take up our cross and follow Him.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Immediate Book Meme: Sick Day Edition

photo by Evan Laurence Bench
There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

We are all in various stages of recovering from the flu and/or a cold, so there's been plenty of reading and watching going on.

1. What book are you reading now?

The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge.

The Four Cardinal Virtues, by Josef Pieper.

The First Four Notes, by Matthew Guerierri
About Beethoven's Fifth. Not always the lightest material, especially when it's covering various Enlightenment and Romantic philosophers, but the author's style is compulsively readable. And then you get gems like this.

1a. Readaloud

Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

2. What book did you just finish?

3. What do you plan to read next?

Christ's Body, Christ's Wounds: Staying Catholic When You've Been Hurt In The Church, by Eve Tushnet.

Letters of Love and Deception, by Emily C.A. Snyder.
A new collection of stories inspired by Austen, by playwright (and my college roommate) Emily Snyder.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, by Flannery O'Connor.

Essays on Woman, by Edith Stein.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

The Power of Silence, by Robert Cardinal Sarah.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, by Pope Benedict.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Nothing on my conscience at this particular second.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West. Our copy was a favor from Leah Libresco Sargeant's wedding reception, and it's been sitting on our library mantel waiting for an opening in the reading schedule.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Re-reads; books I've been given as gifts; WSJ reviewed books.


And an addition because I have some fine recommendations:

7. What are you watching?

Over the Garden Wall

A ten-episode series from Cartoon Network, about two brothers halfway through the journey of their life who find themselves in a dark wood. Chockful of storybook archetypes, fantastic voicework, and music in various shades of Americana (including some shapenote singing!). We received this as a Christmas gift and have watched it through three times already.

April and the Extraordinary World

A steampunk adventure story set in a world where the Franco-Prussian war never happened (yes, that’s actually a key plot element). Within the first five seconds my daughter sighed, "I  love this." Streaming on Netflix

The Long, Long Holiday (from the French: Le Grandes Grandes Vacances)

A five-episode series about children living in occupied Normandy during WWII. Tintin-style animation against lovely backdrops; exciting and poignant, but not too scary for children. The Canadian dubbing from the French provides some excellent accents. Streaming on Netflix.