God vs. me

Several years ago, I started saying a novena to St. Michael. There were several serious situations that needed rescue, and I thought, there’s clearly a battle going on here; why not go to the guy with the giant wings and the big, flaming sword?

Imagine my surprise when the novena talked mostly about . . . humility.

Opening prayer:

St. Michael the Archangel, we honor you as a powerful protector of the Church and guardian of our souls. Inspire us with your humility, courage and strength that we may reject sin and perfect our love for our Heavenly Father.

In your strength and humility, slay the evil and pride in our hearts so that nothing will keep us from God.

And the closing prayer is even more striking:

St. Michael the Archangel, you are the prince of angels but in your humility you recognized that God is God and you are but His servant. Unlike satan, you were not overcome with pride but were steadfast in humility. Pray that we will have this same humility.

It is in the spirit of that humility that we ask for your intercession for our petitions…

A strange virtue to emphasize for a figure we’re used to thinking of as a conquering hero. Why would the prayer stress Michael’s humility?

One reason is to draw out a contrast between him and his virtue, and their opposites. We’ve all heard very often that Satan’s downfall was pride. Without thinking too deeply, we might be led to believe that this means Satan just got too confident, and God had to squish him down into hell to avoid competition. This is, of course, a comic-book version of cosmology, and has nothing to do with actual theology.

Let’s be clear: When we talk about the sin of pride, whether it’s Satan’s fateful cosmic sin or our own homegrown variety, we don’t mean self confidence, or believing in oneself, or even vanity. We mean an inordinate love of self. Literally inordinate, as in out of order, as in putting oneself in a place where only God belongs. Pride means that, for all the things for which we should look to God, we look to ourselves, instead.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you do it often enough, it literally ruins your life. When pride is really serious, we look only to ourselves, and never to God. This is why it takes an angel with a sword to fight back against the sin of pride. It’s a big deal.

Humility is the opposite of this horrible error. Humility is when we have things in the right order: We know when to look to God and when to look to ourselves. We understand what our place is in relation to God. We understand who we are. We do not confuse ourselves with God, or try to take on roles that belong to him.

I’m struck how, in the prayer, it describes a sort of battle that takes place not in heaven, but in every human soul: the battle between pride and humility. Unlike angels, we live in time, and don’t make cosmic choices for all eternity. Instead, we make choice after choice after choice, building habits, growing in virtue, failing, backsliding, starting again.

And I’m realizing, as I get older, how often these battles aren’t always a matter of good vs. evil, of the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil vs. the human soul. Sometimes they are! But some of the struggles we find ourselves fighting are, perhaps, a different battle in disguise.

In his spiritual memoir He Leadeth Me, Fr Walter Ciszek speaks of the dreadful shame and horror he felt after he cracked under the pressure of psychological torture in the Russian gulag. But eventually he came to see that his very failure was a kind of release for him — a chance to stop looking to himself for strength and courage, and instead to depend totally and radically on God.

The battle he had been fighting wasn’t exterior at all. It was actually within himself. It had been hard to see, because what he was struggling to do was God’s work; but he was struggling to do it using his own strength and perseverance, rather than relying on God’s. That’s why he identifies his struggle as a lack of humility.

“Learning the full truth of our dependence upon God and our relation to His will is what the virtue of humility is all about,” he says.

“For humility is truth, the full truth, the truth that encompasses our relation to God the Creator and through Him to the world He has created and to our fellowmen. And what we call humiliations are the trials by which our more complete grasp of this truth is tested. It is self that is humiliated; there would be no ‘humiliation’ if we had learned to put self in its place, to see ourselves in proper perspective before God and other men. And the stronger the ingredient of self develops in our lives, the more severe must our humiliations be in order to purify us. That was the terrible insight that dawned upon me in the cell at Lubianka as I prayed, shaken and dejected, after my experience with the interrogator.”

Later, he says:

“It was not the Church that was on trial in Lubianka. It was not the Soviet Government or the KGB versus Walter Ciszek. It was God versus Walter Ciszek.”

A strange battle indeed.

Sometimes, spiritual battles really are a matter of taking up our swords and fighting courageously against a clear evil in front of us. But sometimes they are more subtle, and more insidious than that. Sometimes the terrible pressure we feel is coming from the inside, as we try to maintain an agonized control, or illusion of control, over our own lives. It can’t be done. I do keep trying, but I know it can’t be done.

It’s God vs. me, and I at least know who I ought to want to win, even if I don’t always feel that way. St. Michael, come to our aid, and help us stop fighting God.

***
This essay was originally published under a different title in The Catholic Weekly on March 14, 2022.

St. Michael Icon image by George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We were made for hope

The morning news is rarely uplifting. Even less so, the morning news that includes an interview with the man who recently headed the government agency on biomedical and public health research.  But not too long ago I heard just such an interview, and quite unexpectedly, it gladdened my heart.

The man is Francis Collins, and until recently, he headed the National Institute of Health, one of the agencies tasked with combating COVID in the US. He is also, as the public radio host pointed out in her introduction, a Christian.

I guess I’ve been hiding under a rock for several years, because I haven’t been aware that an evangelical Christian who used to be an atheist has been head of this agency for the last 12 years. Now, this isn’t a tidy story. He has apparently been a thorn in the side of the “haven’t we outlawed this religion nonsense yet” crowd, but at the same time, under his leadership, the NIH has gone full steam ahead on some grossly unethical research

His personal faith is not really what this essay is about, though; although it was pleasant to hear a man so humbly describing his conversion story, and a public radio host listening so respectfully. If you haven’t heard it, here is how he told it to the host, Rachel Martin:

It was medical school. It was that third year of medical school, where you’re not in the classroom anymore. You’re on the hospital wards. You’re sitting at the bedside of good North Carolina people whose lives are coming to an end, sometimes with a great deal of pain and suffering. And you’re realizing your medical tools are inadequate to actually help them very much.

And I had a moment where a patient of mine, who I’d gotten kind of attached to – an elderly woman kind of like my grandmother – who shared her faith with me and then turned to me one afternoon and said, you know, Doctor, I’ve told you about my beliefs, and you haven’t said anything. What do you believe? What do you believe? Nobody ever quite asked me that question. And, Rachel, at that moment, I realized, I have no idea. I have settled on atheism because it was the answer I was most comfortable with, and it meant I didn’t really have to look into this. But I’m a scientist. I’m not supposed to make big decisions without looking at evidence. I’ve got to look into it.”


What he did next was to ask a pastor friend some challenging questions, and the man directed him toward the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which led him to understand that science is meant to answer one kind of question, and religion is meant to answer another. You don’t have to choose one or the other, despite what so many on both sides of our deeply divided society believe, or want to believe.

The host asked him about that divide, and about how he finds hope. He responded that he finds it in his faith. Then he said:

“I also have hope that human nature, despite all of its foibles, is basically put together in a way that over time we find a way to do the right thing, even after making a lot of mistakes along the way.”

This struck me as a message from Heaven. And this is the part I really want to focus on.

Here is a man who believes that God made us. And how did God make us? To be good. Maybe not all the time, and maybe not perfectly, and maybe not right away, but eventually, stumblingly, partially, or even just as a race: That’s what we do. That’s what the human race is: It is good. I guess I had forgotten that!

It’s become commonplace, in these dreadful, exhausting times, to look backward through history and to see plainly the fruitless cycles we seem doomed to walk through, over and over again. We struggle, we gain ground, we flourish, and then we come to ruin, over and over and over again. This is the story of mankind, on every continent, in every age, sooner or later, in big ways and in small. It seems like a story of constant, inescapable ruin. Fruitless, pointless.

But here is a man who saw this cycle as a story not of repeated failure, but of repeated hope. He is 71 years old, and he still thinks that people are basically put together in such a way that they are oriented toward the good, at least to try. This is a thing he’s saying in the beginning of the year 2022, after leading the fight he leaded, and after seeing what he’s seen.

I do believe, as we should all believe as Catholics, that there will eventually come an end to the world. There will not just be endless cycles to human life. Human history as we know it will someday cease, and a new age will begin, and we don’t know what that will look like. But I think that, right up until that time (which, Jesus insists, we do not know), it’s our job to keep turning and turning over the soil to find the next harvest.

It’s been a deeply discouraging few years, for countless, cascading reasons. We may have allowed ourselves to half believe that we’re just plain run out of goodness, as a human race.

But that’s not how we’re made.

What do you believe? What do you believe? I believe we were made by God to be good. We were made by God for constant conversion. There’s always the possibility of conversion, always the chance to try again to do good. If an atheist doctor can decide to ask hard questions about existence, then I, who already know about God, can decide to look for Him in my fellow fooling fumbling humans. We can ask God for help, and we can find that goodness, one more time. 

 

Photo by Kumaraguru via Pixahive 
A version of this essay was originally published on March 8, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

What’s for supper? Vol. 294: Ya burnt!

Another Friday! We have arrived. We really launched our warm weather cooking this week. We also had our first “oh yes, that skunk is definitely rabid” situation, so I guess spring is officially fully here. I made some berry pies and only partially roont them. 

Here’s what we cooked and ate this week: 

SATURDAY
Indian food!

The kids had an assortment of frozen foods, and Damien and I went back to Royal Spice, where we had the same vegetarian appetizers as last time, because they were so appetizing, and then I had goat biryani and Damien had goat vindaloo. Superb. So delicious, I forgot to take pictures.  I need to get back to some Indian cooking. Gotta break in the new mortar and pestle Lucy got me for mother’s day! 

SUNDAY
Hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, grilled corn, blueberry-strawberry pie 

We had our elderly neighbor over. I’ve been meaning to have her over, ever since we moved in, uhh, sixteen years ago. Listen, we don’t like to be pushy in these parts. We did have a nice time, although she is fairly deaf and the conversation kept circling back to a reliable topic, i.e. her roasting me for buying vegetable plants for the garden instead of starting seeds.  The dog thought she was absolutely incredible, and she thought the kids were absolutely amazing for swimming in the pool even though it was a little chilly. She dug up some of her bleeding hearts for me, and I gave her some pie. A good visit.

Damien cooked burgers and hot dogs and corn on the grill, always tasty. He cooks the corn right inside the husks, which makes it super sweet and juicy. You just peel and eat. I will admit, at least 50% of the reason I like this method is because it looks so dramatic. 

I made a couple of pies for dessert, and let me tell you, I was worried the whole time that the filling would turn out too runny, and guess what? It did. Not that I took any steps to prevent that from happening; I just worried about it. I sprinkled a good amount of corn starch in with the fruit and sugar, and let it sit for a while before baking; and I let it sit for a while after baking and before cutting. But it was still runny. I guess I should add even more corn starch? Anyone? It tasted great, just sweet enough, and they were very pretty. Just runny. 

I just mixed together strawberries and blueberries, sugar, a little salt, what seemed like a good amount of corn starch, and some fresh lemon juice. 

Here’s the unbaked pies:

and baked, with an egg wash and a little sugar on top, sadly somewhat burnt:

but still pretty

Here’s my recipe for pie crust, which is reliable and easy to work with.

Jump to Recipe

The main secret is to freeze the butter and grate it into the dry ingredients, and then just barely handle it after that.

We made some fresh whipped cream to top it with. Then the kids cleared the table and put the whipped cream away in the fridge. In a ziplock bag. I know that this is technically better than the other way they were likely to put it away (in an open bowl, with some old meatloaf on top), but somehow it didn’t feel better. 

MONDAY
Chicken caesar salad, grapes

A decent meal (if one that I’ve been eating a little too often for my liking in one form or another these days, in an effort to shed my Covid Ennui weight). Chicken breast with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and olive oil, grilled and sliced, served on romaine lettuce with dressing from a bottle and freshly-grated parmesan cheese, and buttery homemade croutons. (FYI, the dressing and buttery croutons are not included in the Covid Ennui weight shedding plan, sadly.)

We did bat around the idea of getting ducks this year. Maybe next year. I do love duck eggs, and I would abase myself for homemade caesar salad dressing made with fresh duck egg yolks.

Jump to Recipe

Maybe next year! Quack.

TUESDAY
Honey mustard drumsticks, homemade tortilla chips, corn and bean salad

Sweet, colorful, mostly finger food. I thought this was going to be a super kid-pleaser meal. This despite that fact that I have met my kids.

Of course you can tell with an introduction like that that they mostly ate cereal. One proudly showed me the dusty can of chicken noodle soup she had discovered in the back of the cabinet. Oh well. I still thought it was a pleasant warm-weather meal.

I roasted about 24 drumsticks with olive oil, salt and pepper, and then rolled them around in a honey mustard sauce, made with probably a cup of honey, half a cup of mustard, and the juice of a large lemon. Then let them chill in the fridge for the rest of the day.

The corn salad was made with 3 ear’s worth of corn leftover from the cookout, a can of drained black beans, a can of diced tomatoes with chiles drained, the juice of one lime, half a red onion minced, a small bunch of chopped cilantro, and salt and pepper. I kept it bland so the kids would eat it, ho ho ho. 

The tortilla chips, I made by cutting flour tortillas into triangles, tossing them with oil, and sprinkling them heavily with Taijin powder a few times, then spreading them on a pan and baking them in a 350 oven for about half an hour, stirring them a few times so they wouldn’t stick. They don’t turn out completely crisp, but some of them are a little bit chewy.

Here is my helper, performing a crispness test:

You could probably avoid this by baking them longer at a lower temp, and giving them more space, but genuinely I like them a little chewy. I honestly have the palate of a sickly Victorian child. I want at least some of my foods to be milky and the consistency of tapioca. I also like more exciting foods, but my first love will always be the diet of an invalid. And now you know my secret.  

WEDNESDAY
Tacos, pineapple and papaya

I optimistically planned the menu this way, with tacos on Wednesday rather than Tuesday, thinking we’d have leftover corn salad and tortilla chips to go along with the tacos. Which we did, but (see previous day) nobody was happy about it. They were happy about the tacos, though, so there.

I sweetened the deal with some fresh pineapple and papaya. Boy, papaya sure is, it sure looks, boy. I feel like I ought to have someone else in the room when I cut it up, just so there’s no misunderstandings. 

THURSDAY
Pizza

Something weird happened with this pizza. Maybe a weird batch of dough, I don’t know. Maybe I used too much sauce. It just clung to the pan and didn’t act right. It was okay, just kind of heavy. I also forgot to buy olives.

I made one plain, one pepperoni, one garlic and onion, and one ham and pineapple.

Plenty of fresh parmesan on all of them, which was nice. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

A couples Fridays ago was supposed to be mac and cheese, but I ran out of steam and just bought some Aldi pizzas. We have SO much stray cheese in the house, though, so I really want to use it up this time.

Oh, last Friday I did make the seafood lo mein

Jump to Recipe

with the mixed frozen seafood pouch from Aldi, and it turned out just great. It had all kinds of great stuff, mussels, scallops, a little octopus, wonderful. I threw a little fish sauce in there, plus some asparagus and some scallions, and it was a very tasty little meal. 

My wish now is to make empanadas. It just came into my head and I can’t think of a reason not to do it. I am thinking of buying the dough disks, if I can find them, so I can get the hang of it; and then if people like them, I can always try making my own dough next time. Any empanada advice? I think I have a press I bought to make dumplings, so I can probably use that. 

caesar salad dressing

Ingredients

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 12 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about two large lemons' worth)
  • 1 Tbsp mustard
  • 4 raw egg yolks, beaten
  • 3/4 cup finely grated parmesan

Instructions

  1. Just mix it all together, you coward.

Basic pie crust

Ingredients

  • 2-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1-1/2 sticks butter, FROZEN
  • 1/4 cup water, with an ice cube

Instructions

  1. Freeze the butter for at least 20 minutes, then shred it on a box grater. Set aside.

  2. Put the water in a cup and throw an ice cube in it. Set aside.

  3. In a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Then add the shredded butter and combine with a butter knife or your fingers until there are no piles of loose, dry flour. Try not to work it too hard. It's fine if there are still visible nuggets of butter.

  4. Sprinkle the dough ball with a little iced water at a time until the dough starts to become pliable but not sticky. Use the water to incorporate any remaining dry flour.

  5. If you're ready to roll out the dough, flour a surface, place the dough in the middle, flour a rolling pin, and roll it out from the center.

  6. If you're going to use it later, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. You can keep it in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for several months, if you wrap it with enough layers. Let it return to room temperature before attempting to roll it out!

  7. If the crust is too crumbly, you can add extra water, but make sure it's at room temp. Sometimes perfect dough is crumbly just because it's too cold, so give it time to warm up.

  8. You can easily patch cracked dough by rolling out a patch and attaching it to the cracked part with a little water. Pinch it together.

basic lo mein

Ingredients

for the sauce

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 5 tsp sesame oil
  • 5 tsp sugar

for the rest

  • 32 oz uncooked noodles
  • sesame oil for cooking
  • add-ins (vegetables sliced thin or chopped small, shrimp, chicken, etc.)
  • 2/3 cup rice vinegar (or mirin, which will make it sweeter)

Instructions

  1. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

  2. Boil the noodles until slightly underdone. Drain and set aside.

  3. Heat up a pan, add some sesame oil for cooking, and quickly cook your vegetables or whatever add-ins you have chosen.

  4. Add the mirin to the pan and deglaze it.

  5. Add the cooked noodles in, and stir to combine. Add the sauce and stir to combine.

What’s for supper? Vol. 293: I’ll tell YOU what’s yakitori

Happy Friday! I am headed to adoration in a bit, and shall yell at Jesus about your intentions. 

Quick covid report: Everybody in the house eventually got it, except for one kid, who is either supernatural, or somehow got false negatives on a LOT of tests. The other kids only got a little bit sick, happily, and some didn’t get sick at all. They are all completely better. I’m definitely on the mend. I don’t think I even took a nap yesterday! And my splendid covid rash actually retreated a bit yesterday, rather than spreading, for the first time since it made its debut. Damien has started running again, and I have slowly, carefully started up yoga. I’m wheezy, but not horribly wheezy. Today I’m exactly three weeks out from the day I tested positive, so I guess that’s pretty normal. In conclusion, covid is stupid but not nearly as stupid as it could have been, so, Deo gratias. 

Spring has sprung for real. 

The ticks are ticking, the dog is romping, Damien is battling the pool water, and away we go. Outdoor cooking season is fully underway, happily, as you will see.

Here’s what we ate this week: 

SATURDAY
Smoked pork ribs, cole slaw, chips

Damien made three luscious racks of ribs in the smoker with a sugar rub and mustard. 

Jump to Recipe

It doesn’t really taste mustardy; it just has a savory tang with a little muted fireworks aftertaste, and they are incredibly juicy and flavorful. I can never tell if these “cutting up meat” pictures look amazing to other people, or just kind of grisly, but they look amazing to me.

I took a picture of a demure plate with two ribs, but I was just getting warmed up. 

Great meal. 

I also had the great fun of briefly meeting an old friend who was selling her wonderful prints at a local craft fair. Do check out Rabbit Dog Fine Arts on Etsy for some really striking, lively work, very very reasonably priced. I, uh, bought four prints because I couldn’t help myself.

SUNDAY
Italian sandwiches, french fries; lemon cake

Sunday was Mother’s Day, and I’m happy to report that, in a few short decades, I’ve successfully made the transition from having a painful, bitter day when I feel unappreciated and neglected, to getting showered with gifts and attention and feeling a little guilty about it. But not too guilty! 

I requested Italian sandwiches and a lemon-based dessert, both very delicious.

I do love lemon desserts. We recently saw the Great British Baking Show with the Sussex Pond Pudding, which is a pastry with a lard crust that contains butter, sugar, and an entire cooked lemon. I think I would eat that? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I would eat that. I would eat that.

I also went to Home Depot to finally get started on some gardening, finally. I am at a point in my life where, yes yes, I live in New Hampshire, but I just don’t want to dig up any more rocks, at all, ever. So that means container gardening. But I don’t just want buckets of dirt all over the place, either. But I don’t want to pay for lumber. So I wandered around in the yard with a measuring tape making vague diagrams, got to Home Depot, made a wild guess about how many cinder blocks we might need (um, 60?), loaded up as many as we could pull on a single cart, and, full of anxious foreboding about the expensive, cell-like, somehow-still-inadequate structure I was going to build, and how bad it was going to be on the car to bring it home, I went off to find a second cart, and on the way, discovered that for about the same price I could buy . . . look at this . . . four galvanized steel window wells, that are food safe because they are galvanized steel, and are already designed to be jammed into the ground.

But they turned out to be $20 each, not $10 as I originally thought, so I put the back, and felt sad about it, and looked at the cinder blocks again, but then I thought about how rotten I would feel if I came home with nothing, and I decided that not feeling that way was worth at least $30, and I would just eat the extra $10, because it was Mother’s Day. So I abandoned the cinder blocks and bought four metal thingies instead. This is how I do math. This is how I live. It’s better than digging up rocks, I guess.

The plan is make two long ovals, with a few cinder blocks stacked up between the pieces to form the long ends. I think maybe we have a few cinder blocks in our yard somewhere, left over from my last boneheaded project. Those are free, because it was last year.

Anyway, I finally got started, and that’s the main thing. And we stopped at the local nursery and bought several varieties of lettuce, some Brussels sprouts, and some celery, which are all plants I can leave outside even if it gets cold again, which it will. We’re not doing seeds this year. We’re just not.

MONDAY
Cuban sandwiches, chips, carrots and dip; birthday cake

Monday we celebrated Moe’s birthday. He requested Cuban sandwiches on ciabatta rolls. I started the pork a bit late, and ended up just roasting it in the oven covered with tinfoil and with lots of salt and pepper, garlic powder, oregano, and cumin, and doused with cider vinegar, and it was fine, if a tiny bit bland.

So, bread, mustard, pickles, Swiss cheese, pork, ham, more cheese,

and fried in an alarming amount of butter.

I pressed the heck out of the sandwiches with in iron frying pan as they fried,

and then put them in a warm oven to seal the deal, by which I mean the cheese.

This picture makes me laugh. This sandwich looks like it has its mouth full. Happy murfmay, Mofef! That is what the sandwich says.

He requested a whale shark cake,

and maybe if I had had more time time to prepare, it would have come out better, but maybe not. 

TUESDAY
Meatloaf, baked potatoes, salad

The secret of my meatloaf is I don’t make it very often, so the kids think it’s a treat. And it’s really pretty good; it’s just that there’s only a certain amount of good that meatloaf can be. My meatloaf has red wine, Worcestershire sauce, and fried onions in it. I always think I should make a gravy to go along with it, but it’s really fine as is. It’s meatloaf.  

Jump to Recipe

Certainly looked portentous coming out of the oven. I’m pretty happy the sun is up for dinner again. 

We had baked potatoes and salad. Did I already say that? I think I already said that. Well, here’s proof. 

WEDNESDAY
Yakitori chicken, rice, sesame string beans

Now this was a tasty meal. I made the sauce and Damien cooked the chicken on the grill. He used half the sauce to baste the chicken as he cooked it,

and then we served the other half for dipping. The meat comes out sweet, tangy, and gingery, and wonderfully glossy. 

You don’t have to marinate this meat; it gets plenty of flavor from basting. I made a triple recipe of this sauce, but I massively increased the amount of fresh garlic and ginger, and I cooked it considerably longer than she said. I cooked it through the entire third movement of Mendellsohn’s “Reformation” symphony before it thickened up. 

We used skinless, boneless chicken thighs but did not bother cutting them and putting them on skewers, but just sort of unfurled them and grilled them whole. They were wonderful that way, but technically they are not yakitori, which really is supposed to be on skewers. Although [snort, snort] technically “yaki” means “roast” and “tori” means “bird,” so I guess it depends if you want to be pedantic, or just, you know, eat the yummy chicken. 

Everyone was very enthusiastic about this meal. Served with sesame seeds and chopped scallions and more sauce, as you can see, which had a sharper, brighter flavor as a dipping sauce than it did when basted onto the chicken. Gosh, it was so good. I wish I had some right now, but it’s Friday, so I’m having some fwiggin yogurt and hummus and carrots. 

THURSDAY
Chicken burgers, cheezy weezies

Everyone was also very enthusiastic about this meal, served with mayonnaise. And buns from Aldi. 

FRIDAY
Seafood lo mein

We haven’t had lo mein for a while. I just bought some linguine or fettuccine, I forget which, for the noodles. Basically you just need something flat and slurpy that will pick up the tasty sauce and make a happy home for whatever you want to add in. 

Jump to Recipe

I often put in sugar snap peas, asparagus, or shrimp.

This time, I bought a little bag of mixed seafood from Aldi, which seems to have shrimp, scallops, some kind of shellfish, and misc. I’m a little concerned about the various cooking times it will need, but only a little concerned. 

Okay, that’s it! Here’s some recipe cards for yez. Do try the yakitori (or whatever) sauce. 

Smoked pork ribs with mustard rub

Ingredients

  • 2 racks pork ribs

Pork rub

  • 1-1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp garlic powder
  • 2 Tbsp cumin
  • 2 Tbsp paprika
  • Yellow mustard
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. The night before or several hours before dinner, mix together the rub spices. 



  2. Spread yellow mustard all over the rack of ribs and apply the rub. Cover and refrigerate. Let it come back to room temp before cooking.

  3. Light the fire and let it die down. Put the meat on the grill off to the side, where it will get indirect heat. Put the cover down and let it cook at least four hours. 

  4. Add salt and pepper, then separate the ribs and enjoy. 

Meatloaf (actually two giant meatloaves)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground beef
  • 2 lbs ground turkey
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 cup milk OR red wine
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

plenty of salt, pepper, garlic powder or fresh garlic, onion powder, fresh parsley, etc.

  • ketchup for the top
  • 2 onions diced and fried (optional)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450

  2. Mix all meat, eggs, milk, breadcrumbs, and seasonings together with your hands until well blended.

  3. Form meat into two oblong loaves on pan with drainage

  4. Squirt ketchup all over the outside of the loaves and spread to cover with spatula. Don't pretend you're too good for this. It's delicious. 

  5. Bake for an hour or so, until meat is cooked all the way through. Slice and serve. 

basic lo mein

Ingredients

for the sauce

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 5 tsp sesame oil
  • 5 tsp sugar

for the rest

  • 32 oz uncooked noodles
  • sesame oil for cooking
  • add-ins (vegetables sliced thin or chopped small, shrimp, chicken, etc.)
  • 2/3 cup rice vinegar (or mirin, which will make it sweeter)

Instructions

  1. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

  2. Boil the noodles until slightly underdone. Drain and set aside.

  3. Heat up a pan, add some sesame oil for cooking, and quickly cook your vegetables or whatever add-ins you have chosen.

  4. Add the mirin to the pan and deglaze it.

  5. Add the cooked noodles in, and stir to combine. Add the sauce and stir to combine.

 

The news is important. Try turning it off.

I wrote the following essay shortly before the Roe v Wade leak happened, and now this is all truer than ever. 

When I was young, I liked listening to the news just because I liked hearing different accents from around the world. And this is one of the reasons I will often play the news on the radio when my kids are around.

But it’s a risky choice. We may end up hearing a neat, entertaining story like this one about long-lost wax cylinders, which we all enjoyed on the way to school.; or at very least, they may be passively gleaning some awareness of the world around them, which is a good thing.

But of course current events are mostly not kid-friendly, and pretty often I have to quickly change the channel because there’s a story about something kids don’t need to know about — or it’s presented in a way that is antithetical to our worldview, but it’s too hard to give a cogent counterargument while we’re driving along making five different stops.

And then sometimes the news is just . . . too real. It’s too real to be entertainment, and I have to admit that that’s how I’m using it. I’m using a flow of information about the lives (and often the deaths) of real people as a kind of auditory wallpaper to make a pleasing background for our own life, and we chatter over it as we will, no matter what kind of thing is being reported. This is something to think twice about — not only when I’m choosing what to expose my kids to, but when I’m choosing what I listen to, myself.

News isn’t entertainment. When we treat it like it is — keeping it on constantly, having it on when we’re not really attending to it, hearing the same stories repeated endlessly throughout the day — we run the risk of trivializing the things that are being reported. It’s almost inevitable. We’re training ourselves to hear words like “mass shootings” and “atrocities” and “famine” and “sexual assault” and not blink an eye, but just continue buttering our toast or flipping through Twitter or updating our spreadsheets.

It has a second effect, too, because we can’t tune it out entirely: Even if we don’t listen to some hyperpartisan purveyor of shock headlines, but instead choose some mainstream, middle-of-the-road objective reporting source, some of the emotional content of the news will filter into our consciousness. And it will make us feel bad.

It will feed our anxiety, our dread, our sense of helplessness and rage and doom. It will give us the sensation that the enemy is outside the walls, and we will always hear its muffled roar as we go about our day. How could that fail to affect our mental and emotional state? 

So we’re crafting ourselves the worst of both worlds: We’re simultaneously deadening our sense of empathy, and heightening our sense of personal grievance. No wonder people are at each other’s throats when they actually meet in person. We feel like we’re in constant danger, and we feel like no one else is completely human. A guaranteed recipe for conflict, if not outright violence.

There is a lot amiss in the world, but one thing we can easily change right away is to change how we consume the news. If we want to know what’s going on in the world — and we should! It’s important — we can find that out deliberately, in a limited, controlled fashion: say, once or twice or three times a day.

It won’t be easy. We’re very used to the idea that the news is just on, all the time. It’s everywhere, in waiting rooms and lobbies and on all of our phones and computers and social media feeds, always. It’s hard to get away from. But we may be more in control of it than we realize. We may be able to limit it, and be more deliberate about when we consume it, than we want to admit.

We may have internalized the idea that we have a duty to keep up, to stay current, to the minute, with the news. That there’s some virtue in retweeting a headline first. Who do you suppose gives us that idea? Clearly, it’s the people who make money by keeping us tuned in. They have a vested interest in making us feel like we’re actually doing something wrong and irresponsible by turning the news off. And in turn, they feel the pressure to amp up the novelty and shock value in what we hear, whether there’s actually something new and important and shocking happening or not. It’s an almost entirely artificial cycle, fueled by money.

But once we recognize it for what it is, we can opt out of it. Decide how much news we really need, and then otherwise, simply opt out. Don’t retweet it. Don’t chase down every headline. Don’t have the radio or TV on in the background all day. Just opt out. 

We don’t have to become hermits or live in stony silence. We can choose to listen to music. Listen to someone explain music. Listen to podcasts. Listen to stories. Listen to audiobooks. Listen to interviews with interesting, knowledgeable people. Listen to wild birdsong.

If something important happened, it will still be important in a few hours, I promise (and if something life-shattering happened, it will make its way through to you, I promise). But we can make the choice to nourish our humanity, rather than eroding it with a constant stream of news-as-entertainment. Because we really have to acknowledge that that stream is not making us more informed. It is one of the things making us less human.

 

***
Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash
A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on April 8, 2022.

Your legs will hold you, and other lessons from yoga

Yoga has been so rewarding psychologically, as well as physically. No doubt you are imagining a middle-aged mom putting on expensive Lycra gear to meditate on the wisdom of “live laugh love.”

It’s not quite that! It’s more that the things that yoga demands of my body are instructive, and I can’t help extrapolating them into larger ideas about life. (Laughing and loving are on their own, however.)

Here are some of the more useful ideas that yoga has been helping me internalize, even during the last few weeks when I’ve been too sick to do anything more physically challenging than open a cough drop wrapper: 

It’s okay to take up space. This addresses two struggles: Being okay with taking up space, and being okay with finding value in an idea so clichéd as “it’s okay to take up space.” Every single female friend I have needs to learn both these things. This is where shavasana comes in handy. My goal is to lie there until the dog feels uncomfortable, and at least temporarily not to care about the crud on the rug, the grime on the ceiling, or the floaters in my eyeballs. It’s hard. But it’s made it easier to sit in adoration and do nothing. 

Your life is more interrelated than you realize. Very often, we’ll be holding a pose and the instructor will suggest turning your toes up, twisting your quads outward, or just looking up. And darned if it doesn’t turn on some entirely other, apparently unconnected part of your body. You can almost see the anatomy chart with the affected area traced out in red, all connected. And this happens in life, in general, more often than you may expect, if you have enough mental stillness to recognize the connection. Change one little thing — how you respond to some habitual irritant, whether or not you challenge thoughts that come into your head, what you do first thing in the morning — and it may light up whole, apparently unrelated areas of your life. It’s our own life and our own bodies, and our own mind/body connections, and yet so much of what goes on is mysterious to us. It’s worth it to do some experiments and see what seemingly small adjustments you can make. You may have more control than you realize. 

Transitions don’t have to be graceful. A lot of yoga is about getting from one position into another, and the instructor makes it look easy, but I do not, because it is not easy for me. But why should it be? Transitions are the hardest state to be in. They are inherently unstable. It’s too much to ask of yourself that you should be changing from one thing to the other and also look good doing it. Just focus on getting there without getting hurt, and you’re doing well.

Shaking is normal and functional. The instructor I follow often says “you may feel shaking and quaking,” either when we’re in a difficult balance pose, or when we’ve held a pose for a long time and it’s starting to be a strain. Then she says, “This is good news. It means your muscles are doing their job.” It’s always a relief to hear this. The shaking and quaking is your muscles rapidly compensating for you almost falling over. It’s not actually a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of functionality. It’s your body catching you, over and over and over again. Sometimes that’s how staying up happens: By almost falling over, over and over and over again. 

Relatedly: Balance comes from strength. I used to associate things like compromise, composure, and moderation with weakness and a lack of passion. Sometimes that’s the case; but sometimes it’s much more about strength, and about having built up a whole set of little, interdependent muscles which work together to maintain balance. Sometimes part of that strength includes knowing that other people see you as unfeeling, but continuing on in what you think is best, because it’s how you can maintain balance in your life. That also comes from strength.

Sometimes you push, sometimes you pull, sometimes you just let gravity do the work. When we’re in a pose or in a stretch or release position, the instructor will give us various directions for how to get the results we want, based on what we’ve been doing, what kind of shape we’re in, and how it feels. She acknowledges that, for some people, simply sitting in a certain position is an achievement, and should be honored. But for some people, or on some days, you can add more pressure, and there are various ways of doing this. It’s not about getting into a certain position; it’s about what’s actually happening in your specific body. This in itself is a useful lesson, especially as I recover from covid, and things that were easy last month are very hard again. And I appreciate the reminder that, sometimes, if you want to feel a stretch, you don’t have to exert effort or pressure. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything but wait, and circumstances will stretch you. (Catholics sometimes talk about working on accepting difficult circumstances they can’t change, rather than taking on new penances for Lent, but it’s a principle that can be applied anytime.) 

Flexibility comes in stages. I’m not very naturally flexible, in any way: physically, mentally, or otherwise. But I’m often more flexible than I realize, as long as I take it slowly — and I don’t just mean “over the course of months, with practice.” For instance, if I bow over my legs and breathe with that for a few breaths, then maybe I can creep forward a few inches, then breathe, then gain a little more ground, and so on. I’m more flexible than I think, as long as I don’t try to get there instantly. If there’s somewhere you need to get (or somewhere you need someone else to get!), you likely need to let yourself do it in increments, gradually, patiently, a few breaths at a time, with rest in between.

You can try again next time. The first time I tried crow position (standing on your head, with your knees balanced on the back of your arms), I couldn’t do it at all, and I was so upset and discouraged. But it kept turning up, and I kept trying it, and . . . I’m still pretty terrible at crow, but I’m much better at being okay with not being great at crow, which is a much more useful skill than standing on my head. There are very few things that we truly only get one shot at. There are many, many things that we can get better at if we accept that it will take time and practice and patience and a sense of humor to learn. 

Strength comes from endurance, persistence, and resistance, not violence. I used to think cardio was everything, and if I wanted to be strong and fit, I had to throw myself around and end up sweaty and exhausted, or it wouldn’t count. That never worked, but I kept trying. Well, I think I have built stronger muscles in six months of yoga than at any other time of my life. And I do sweat, but it’s been mostly a matter of carrying my own body weight, maintaining poses for longer than I want to, and pushing back against the ground and the wall in my own living room. Make of it what you will. 

Your legs will hold you. Frequently, when we’re in a difficult pose and want to get out of it, the instructor will reassure us that our legs will hold us. Raise your hand if you’ve had a rough year, and a rough other year before that. Yeah. More than once, I’ve had this phrase come into my head: Your legs will hold you. It acknowledges two things: That what I’m doing right now is hard; and that I am already strong. I can look down and see that, indeed, I have not fallen down. Sometimes just seeing that is enough to keep me going a little bit longer. 

***
I have tried several different yoga instructors, including the fabled Adriene, and I vastly prefer Julia Marie Lopez. I talk more about her approach here. I did her 30 Day Yoga For Weight Loss course twice, which is on Amazon Prime, then her Couch to Confident 14 Day Yoga Challenge, also on Prime, which hones some yoga skills, and smattering of a few other courses, and then, after  sampling several other free yoga instructors, I started paying the monthly fee to subscribe to Wellness Plus by Psychetruth so I could do her 30 Day Power Up! For Strength and Confidence. These are mostly longer classes, some almost an hour, and I was doing great until I got covid, boo. I’m slowly, shakily starting up again and taking lots of breaks. She’s a very good teacher. 

What’s for supper? Vol. 292: All the ingreediants you need

Happy Friday! It’s been a weird week and I’ve picked up a number of new readers. Welcome! I look forward to grievously disappointing you all.  

But not today. Today, and most Fridays, we just talk about food, and nobody in the history of the world has ever been disappointed by food. Here’s what we had this week:

SATURDAY
Buffalo chicken salad

Quick and tasty. Carton of salad greens, bag of shredded pepper jack cheese, some cherry tomatoes, some blue cheese crumbles, some of those crunchy fried onions that come in a tub, and buffalo chicken from frozen. Blue cheese dressing on top. All the speed of a frozen dinner, all the salad of a salad. 

Please enjoy the dead dog in the background. (He got better.)

SUNDAY
Ragù on fettuccine

Damien made an outrageously delicious ragù using the Deadspin recipe. It comes out different every time. He starts with ground pork and and beef and sometimes adds veal, but this time he bought a hunk of pancetta and ground that up with a meat grinder — a whole pound of it! — and whoa, it was amazing. If you think pasta must always have a tomato or cream sauce on it, you must try this recipe. 

It was . . . well, I’m not proud of this, but I just googled “what does pancetta taste like,” because I stayed up late watching The Mummy and can’t think of a word for what pancetta tastes like, besides “salty.” One of the results that turned up was “unctuous.” Literally, unctuous means “oily” (think “extreme unction” when a priest anoints someone with oils), which has been extended to mean an oily, ingratiating, flattering manner. I’m trying to think whether pancetta is in some way gastronomically ingratiating or just literally oily, and I have decided that The Mummy is one of the best movies ever made, especially if you are drinking margaritas. (See below)

Also, I don’t know if you do this, but Damien has two pasta tricks: He salts the hell out of the water he cooks the pasta in, which makes it much more flavorful; and he saves a bunch of the water out before he drains it, and then he adds that back into the drained pasta, to keep it from sticking. I always used to use oil for this purpose, but pasta water works much better. 

MONDAY
Vermonter sandwiches, strawberries

A very fine sandwich. I broiled some boneless, skinless chicken breasts with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and cut them into thick slices. Then plenty of honey mustard, and layers of bacon, thick slices of sharp cheddar cheese, and thick slices of granny smith apple. I usually make these sandwiches with ciabatta rolls or sourdough, but this time I used baguettes.

A VERY FINE SANDWICH INDEED. My only sadness was I couldn’t find the lemon juice, so the apple slices got a little brown before supper. Still good. 

TUESDAY
Tacos, tortilla chips and salsa

Taco Tuesday, nothing special. We just had jarred salsa, shredded cheese, and sour cream for the tacos.

I’m always amazed at how excited the kids are to have tacos if it’s Taco Tuesday. I would appreciate it if people could make up other exciting food days, when cheap and easy meals would be transformed into special treats just because of alliteration. I guess there’s Fish Friday, but somehow that never inspires cheers. I guess people just like tacos. 

WEDNESDAY
Korean beef bowl and rice

Old faithful. I used fresh ginger and fresh garlic, but you can totally squeak by with garlic powder and powdered ginger. Soy sauce, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, a little sesame oil but you can use whatever oil, and boom. This is a great dish to make ahead of time, and then you just need to cook some rice and dinner’s set. 

Jump to Recipe

Sometimes I transfer the beef to the slow cooker and make some rice in the Instant Pot and then, get this, I wipe down the stove top before dinner.

Would have been good with some scallions and sesame seeds on top, like in this picture from another week, but I forgot. (I also forgot to take a picture this week.)

Also would have been nice with a vegetable side — I like sesame broccoli for this meal — but whoever was in charge of shopping (me) did not buy any vegetables. 

Here’s the sesame broccoli recipe, anyway:

Jump to Recipe

THURSDAY
Chili verde, rice, plantain chips, margaritas

As we know, Cinqo de Mayo is Mexican for Thanksgiving. Or something. I don’t know, I was absent that day. All I know is it seemed like a good excuse to make chili verde, which I love doing. I love every step of the process.

First you char the peppers and tomatillos

and cover and cool them a bit, and then you pull the skins off (I decided to leave all the seeds in to keep it pretty spicy)

then you purée the peppers and tomatillos with onions, garlic, and cilantro

then you sear the pork (and you know how much I care about this dish because I took the trouble to cook the pork in five batches, so I didn’t crowd the pot for once in my damn life)

then you add the pork and the puréed vegetables to the pot and let it cook for the rest of the day. My goodness, the smell. 

I added a few cups of chicken broth at one point, and while I was out of the house, someone helped the pork collapse into lovely tender pieces.

I had my chili over rice and topped with more cilantro, plenty of sour cream, and a little squeeze of fresh lime juice, with plantain chips on the side.

Heaven help me, I would murder someone for this meal, I love it so. 

Later in the evening, Damien made a pitcher of margaritas

Jump to Recipe

which I forgot to take a picture of, but I had two, out of respect for Mexican Thanksgiving. Also people had been mean to me on Twitter all day, so. 

Oh wait, I did take a picture. A strange picture of our strange house, including a list of INGREEDIANTS for a delicious sammicth. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

Shoot, that reminds me, I have to make supper. Wish we still had some of those margaritas left. 

 

Korean Beef Bowl

A very quick and satisfying meal with lots of flavor and only a few ingredients. Serve over rice, with sesame seeds and chopped scallions on the top if you like. You can improve the flavor by using fresh garlic and fresh ginger, but powdered works fine, too. The proportions are flexible, and you can easily add more of any sauce ingredient at the end of cooking. 

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (or less if you're not crazy about sweetness)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tsp sesame oil (you can skip this, really, or use olive oil, but it adds flavor)
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger (or 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, minced)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed (or 3/4 tsp garlic powder)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • scallions, chopped, for garnish
  • sesame seeds for garnish

Instructions

  1. Heat the sesame or other oil in a skillet. Lightly cook then garlic, then add the ground beef and cook, breaking into bits, until the meat is all browned. Drain most of the fat. 

  2. Mix together the brown sugar, ginger, soy sauce, and pepper flakes, and add to the ground beef. Or you can actually just chuck everything in the pan and stir it up right there. Cook a little longer until everything is combined and hot. 

  3. Serve over rice and garnish with scallions and sesame seeds. 

 

Sesame broccoli

Ingredients

  • broccoli spears
  • sesame seeds
  • sesame oil
  • soy sauce

Instructions

  1. Preheat broiler to high.

    Toss broccoli spears with sesame oil. 

    Spread in shallow pan. Drizzle with soy sauce and sprinkle with sesame seeds

    Broil for six minutes or longer, until broccoli is slightly charred. 

Spicy Chili Verde

You can decrease the heat by seeding the peppers, using fewer habañeros, or substituting some milder pepper. It does get less spicy as it cooks, so don't be alarmed if you make the salsa and it's overwhelming!

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs pork shoulder
  • salt and pepper
  • oil for cooking
  • 2 cups chicken broth or beer (optional)

For the salsa verde:

  • 4 Anaheim peppers
  • 2 habañero peppers
  • 4 jalapeño peppers
  • 4 medium onions
  • 12 tomatillos
  • 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
  • 1 bunch cilantro

For serving:

  • lime wedges
  • sour cream
  • additional cilantro for topping

Instructions

  1. Preheat the broiler.

  2. Pull the husks and stems off the tomatillos and rinse them. Cut the ends off all the peppers. Grease a large pan and put the tomatillos and peppers on it. Broil five minutes, turn, and broil five minutes more, until they are slightly charred.

  3. Take the pan out and cover the peppers and tomatillos with plastic wrap or tin foil for ten minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, pull the skins off the peppers and tomatillos. At this point, you can remove the seeds from the peppers to decrease the spiciness if you want.

  4. Put the skinned tomatillos and peppers in a food processor or blender with the onions, garlic, and cilantro. Purée.

  5. In a heavy pot, heat some oil. Salt and pepper the pork chunks and brown them in the oil. You will need to do it in shifts so the pork has enough room and browns rather than simmering.

  6. When all the meat is browned, put it all in the pot and add the puréed ingredients.

  7. Simmer at a low heat for at least three hours until the meat is tender. If you want thinner chili verde, you can add chicken broth or beer. At some point, if you don't want the pork in large chunks, press the meat with the back of a spoon to make it collapse into shreds.

  8. Spoon the chili verde into bowls, squeeze some lime juice over the top, and top with sour cream and fresh cilantro.

 

Damien's margaritas

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar for simple syrup
  • sugar for glasses
  • kosher salt or sea salt for glasses
  • white tequila (we like Lunazul Blanco)
  • triple sec
  • lime juice

Instructions

  1. First make the simple syrup, and allow time for it to cool.

    Combine the sugar with a cup of water in a small pot and simmer, stirring, until it is clear. Let cool. Damien puts it in a mason jar and refrigerates it.

  2. Prepare the glasses. Mix sea salt or kosher salt and sugar in a saucer and add a little lime juice to wet it. Rub a lime wedge along the edge of the glass and roll it in the salt and sugar mix.

  3. To make the margaritas, put some ice cubes in a cocktail shaker or mason jar. Add three parts tequila, two parts lime juice, one part Triple Sec, one part simple syrup. Shake until the lid gets cold. Pour the liquid into prepared glasses.

I’ve wanted Roe v. Wade overturned my whole life. So why do I feel so bad?

All my life, I’ve been waiting for Roe v Wade to be overturned. Now it looks like it’s going to happen, and it does not feel great.

It does not feel great to be a pro-lifer in general. That, at least, is nothing new. I remember an evening many years ago when the phone on the kitchen wall rang during dinner. My mother answered, and a girl’s voice said, loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Is this the abortion clinic?” Then there was an explosion of giggles on the other end and the phone slammed down. It was almost 40 years ago, but I can still feel the crawlingly painful sensations of receiving that stupid prank call, which some teenager made to our house because we were known as those fanatics, those weird pro-lifers. I was angry and disgusted and most of all embarrassed. Because we were weird.

My parents, as enthusiastic converts, took us kids to a lot of pro-life rallies and prayer vigils. I remember one in particular, led by a group of evangelical prayer warriors who, after an emotional ad-libbed imprecation outside an abortion facility, unexpectedly brought out a large clay pot, held it dramatically overhead and then smashed it on the sidewalk. I am sure they explained what this was supposed to signify—something about Israel and broken covenants, I would guess. But I was in middle school, and all I knew was that, to my sorrow, the ground was not going to swallow me up. All my friends spent their weekends skiing and going to Bath & Body Works at the mall, and I was standing out on a sidewalk watching some weirdo sweep up pieces of a terra cotta flower pot because of dead babies.

Fortunately, my parents also gave me plenty of examples of what it means to actually live in a pro-life way. My mother was a magnet for vulnerable people, and she always cared for them and fought for their dignity, no matter who threatened it. My family cared not only for babies and their moms but for homeless people, the disabled and yes, the weirdos. When I sheepishly turned up pregnant myself, there was no question of being turned out of the house. My parents took care of me and my baby until I could more or less take care of myself. They were straight up pro-life for every life, no questions asked.

So I was well aware that the pro-life movement had its share of oddballs, but it always felt like something for me to get over. It was always very clear that the core principles were sound, and some people simply executed them in a cringey way. I remember thinking that I wasn’t likely to get tossed into an arena with a lion like one of the early Christian martyrs I adored, so instead I would prod myself to be more brave about being made fun of by my classmates.

And I wasn’t wrong. Sometimes that is what is called for, and embarrassment is a worthy suffering to offer up to the Lord, if that is what you have to give.

But the cause of my embarrassment has changed. You know what I mean. It is one thing to know that people think pro-lifers are dorky and uncool and to decide that you can live with that. It is quite another to know that people think pro-lifers are anti-woman and anti-immigrant and anti-poor people—and the reason they think so is because the most public faces of the pro-life party cannot seem to stop saying so.

Like many of my friends, I have backed away from identifying myself as pro-life in the last few years. I just don’t want to be associated with any of that. I stopped writing about it, stopped talking about it.

But the recent leak of the Supreme Court draft has made certain conversations unavoidable….Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

***

Image: March for Life, 2016, Aleteia, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

TOR reassigned and defended priest after sexual assault

By Damien Fisher

 

Dakota Bateman was a new Catholic, in love with the Eucharist, when she decided to go to the Franciscan University at Steubenville.

“It was the Catholic university, and my faith had been extremely important to me,” Bateman said. 

Bateman, now 27, found her faith on her own after years of trauma, according to documents she shared. She had suffered through years of childhood abuse, including sexual abuse, making her especially vulnerable to predators.

It was at FUS where she met Fr. Benedict Jurchak, 45, a man who would become in short order her confessor, her spiritual advisor, and then her abuser. But even after Bateman came forward with her abuse in 2018, the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, also known as TOR, continued to put Jurchak into active ministry, reassigning him twice after she complained. Jurchak may or may not have been given what amounts to a written warning about his abuse.

Officials with the TOR declined requests for comment about Jurchak, his status, and his continued active ministry. We were unable to reach Jurchak about this story.

According to a police report, a letter from a canon lawyer who investigated the matters, and other documents provided by Bateman, Jurchak used his position and knowledge to groom her. Jurchak would eventually admit to a vague “boundary violation,” and the order continues to stand by him. Although Batemen reported his sexual assault to the police, to his superior, and to the diocese, the TOR issued a statement that there was a “single allegation” against him that “could not be substantiated.” 

Bateman struggled with suicidal ideation as a teen, as well as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, as a result of her childhood abuse. She also had difficulty forming trusting relationships. Jurchak knew all of this.

The two became close while she attended FUS. He was her spiritual director while she was a student there, and they remained close after she graduated in 2015. Throughout their relationship as friends before and after graduation, Bateman said Jurchak kept using his knowledge of her past to break down protective aspects of the relationship. Looking back, there were many red flags, she said. 

“He kept moving the boundaries,” she said.

In February of 2018, Jurchak visited Bateman at her home in upstate New York. During this visit, Jurchak got physical with Bateman. Based on the journals Batemen kept at the time, Jurchak engaged in unwanted sexual touching, behavior that is considered assault by law enforcement. These assaults continued over several days. Bateman froze during one of the initial assaults, a holdover from her past trauma, something Jurchak knew about. 

“He used my previous assault as a roadmap. He did exactly what the guy before previously did,” she said in a video

In June of 2018, four months later, Bateman contacted Jurchak’s provincial superior, who confronted Jurchak, according to the canon lawyer’s letter. Jurchak denied that anything took place. The matter was dropped until February of 2019, when Bateman contacted her local diocese. 

At this post, Jurchak’s superior again spoke to him, and the priest denied wrongdoing. Instead, Jurchak told his superior that Bateman “came on to him” during the Feb. 2018 incident. He claimed her behavior forced him to stop offering her spiritual direction. Jurchak’s superior decided at this point to let the matter drop again.

Bateman next went to police in June 2019 to report the sexual assaults, but that investigation ended up being flawed. Bateman was initially unable to get a copy of the report she made to a detective for more than a month, and when she finally got it, she saw that it was full of errors and missing key details about the assaults.

Bateman engaged the help of JoAnna Brezee, an advocate with Vera House, a sexual and domestic assault crisis center in Syracuse, New York, and together they went to police to straighten out the report. The detective they spoke with was aggressive and confrontational, according to Brezee.

“I believe a report was never written and when she called asking for it, he found his old notepad and made one based off the few things he wrote down,” Brezee would later write in an email to a supervisor.

Though police declined to prosecute, the TOR finally responded to Bateman’s allegation by hiring a civil lawyer to investigate the case in August of 2019, more than a year since the allegations were first made and after the order twice decided that Jurchak was not at fault.

But Bateman said the order’s civil lawyer made a hash of the investigation and got major details wrong.

“I don’t think there is a single thing from him that is correct,” she said.

The result of the civil lawyer’s investigation was a finding that Bateman’s allegations were “unsubstantiated.” However, under pressure from the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, a canon lawyer was brought in to investigate. This canon lawyer found her story credible, said Batemen, and would recommend punishment for Jurchak.

“For my part, I would note that “unsubstantiated” and “not credible” are two markedly different things,” the canon lawyer wrote.

Bateman provided us with a copy of the letter the canon lawyer wrote to Fr. Joseph Lehman, the head of the TOR. The canon lawyer’s name is redacted from the letter. According to the letter, Jurchak lied during the initial conversations with his superiors about Bateman’s allegations. He would later admit to “boundary violations,” but not the sexual assaults.

“Father Jurchak does not seem to dispute that he spent time alone with Ms. Bateman in her home over the course of several days, in fact, he acknowledged that a boundary violation of some sort occurred and texted Ms. Bateman to apologize for being ‘gross,’” the canon lawyer wrote. “This all happened despite the fact — and one could reasonably argue, perhaps because of the fact — that he was well aware of Ms. Bateman’s vulnerabilities around healthy boundaries and her fears of being rejected/abandoned.”

The canon lawyer stated that Jurchak was oblivious to the fact he had created the situation, and recommended he had a penal precept placed on file. The penal precept would be a written warning that if another such incident took place, he could be suspended, according to the letter. (A penal precept is intended as a canonical procedural step used to establish a situation in which superiors can punish a situation if it repeats. It’s intended to be used when a priest commits problematic behavior that can be corrected.) The canon lawyer also recommended that the TOR pay for Bateman’s therapy.

Whether or not Jurchak received the penal precept is unknown. Jurchak had been a vocations director while at FUS, recruiting men for the order. Soon after the investigation, he was assigned to a parish in the Altoona Johnstown Diocese in Pennsylvania. When Bateman found out he had been reassigned, she contacted the diocese, and Jurchak was again moved, this time to be the chaplain at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C. 

Bateman did not plan to speak publicly about the abuse, but after less than a year of treatment, the TOR stopped paying for her therapy in February of this year. Bateman said this was done by Lehman after she told him to stop contacting her directly.

“They cut me off after I asked Fr. Lehman to stop emailing me and talk to my therapist,” she said.

Lehman had been contacting her to keep tabs on her during the therapy that the TOR was paying for. 

The contact from Lehman was triggering for her, especially as she got closer to the anniversary of her assault in February. When Lehman decided to cut off the funds for her therapy, it triggered a relapse of her anorexia, requiring hospital stays in February of 2019 and June of 2021. 

Bateman said the TOR was using money as way of controlling her, a form of economic abuse. She said that she once had to wait to seek treatment for her anorexia while Lehman discussed the matter with someone else.

“He had to think about it and talk to somebody and then get back to me,” she said.

Bateman decided to stop requesting that the TOR pay for her treatment, in order to avoid being controlled by them. When she got out of treatment for anorexia this year, Bateman went public with her story of being abused by Jurchak. Lehman’s only response so far has been to issue a statement on April 29 about Jurchak’s current assignment.

According to the TOR statement, Jurchak is no longer at the Armed Forces Retirement Home because of Bateman. 

“In 2019, Father Benedict had been temporarily removed from ministry when a single allegation of sexual misconduct involving an adult woman was reported to the Franciscans,” Lehman’s statement reads. “In the following years, both the police and an independent lay investigator reviewed the claim and found that it could not be substantiated.”

Lehman went on to say that because of the public outcry over Jurchak, the priest had to be removed from his assignment. Bateman called that statement that statement a slap in the face.

“They’re pretty much calling me a liar. He said that it ‘can’t be substantiated.’ He keeps hanging on to ‘unsubstantiated.’ But there’s a huge difference between ‘unsubstantiated’ and ‘not credible,’” she said.

Frustrated by the lack of response to her plight, Batemen took to social media and made a string of posts making her story public. She also recorded a seven-and-a-half minute video describing her ordeal, and posted it to YouTube

“They don’t care about keeping people safe. The TOR only seem to care about their image, and whether their priests can continue the work,” Batemen said in her video. 

It was the archdiocese of Washington DC, and not the TOR, that made the decision to remove Jurchak from the nursing home. 

The TOR has a history of trying to cover for its own. Fr. Samuel Tiesi, a revered campus minister who died in 2001, was reportedly a serial sexual abuser who targeted female students. According to a report in the National Catholic reporter, everyone who could have stopped Tiesi knew about the abuse.

“The school administration and Tiesi’s religious superiors knew of the friar’s grooming and assault of female university students for years but took no action. Students who reported the abuse to university officials tell of being chastised, demeaned and made to feel they were betraying the friars and God,” according to the report.

Dave Morrier, a former priest, has been sentenced to probation for sexual battery for sexually assaulting an FUS student. 

“Morrier was a Franciscan friar assigned to the university back in 2010. He is accused of committing sex crimes against the young woman between 2010 and 2013,” according to a local news report.

Bateman said the TOR needs to fix its culture that sustains abusers and punishes victims who come forward.

“At this point, the TOR needs to completely reform how they handle these things. He was removed by Washington; he wasn’t removed by the TORs. There’s no guarantee anyone is going to be safe from him.”

Bateman is still practicing her faith. She is still in love with the Eucharist. And she is still struggling.

“My faith has been important to me since I converted,” she said. “My faith has been the thing keeping me alive all these years. I couldn’t walk away from that. But it’s hard.”

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The video Batemen posted to YouTube is below:

A beautiful morning here at St. Bambino

It’s a beautiful morning here at St. Bambino parish, folks.

Our celebrant, Fr. Shep, looks to be fresh and well-rested, the altar servers are limber and alert, we’re ready to begin another 9.30am Mass in a healthy and thriving parish that is absolute chock-a-block full of babies.

And they’re off! With an opening chord from the organ, Fr. Shep is proceeding down the aisle at a good pace and now he’s made it halfway, but the eighteen-month-old twins have already pulled ahead of him. It’s hard to see how anyone with such short legs could move this quickly, but they’re speeding toward the altar like they’ve been eating rocket fuel. Their mother must be so proud!

And yes, here’s she is now, and she’s looking a little red in the face, really pushing herself in her long skirt and mantilla, but not moving nearly as quickly as those little guys. She’s moved up from behind and has managed to edge around the procession and scoop up one of the boys and is lunging for the other but no! He’s made it to the Easter candle and is shaking it with both hands while screeching maniacally.

What an amazing spectacle. That thing is really wobbling, folks, it really looks like it’s going to fall over, but just in the nick of time, Fr. Shep has made it to the altar and he’s grabbed twin #2, pivoted halfway around, and returned him to his mother just as the entrance hymn came to an end. That was a really smooth maneuver; I don’t think the old ladies in the front row even noticed what was happening. Maybe no letters to the bishop this Sunday, eh, Father S.? Let’s hope not.

And now we’re moving through the Gloria. Always a popular time for babies of all vocal abilities to show their stuff, and today is no exception. Some of them are shouting, some of them are hooting, and that one kid with the one big eyebrow has jammed her head under the pew and discovered a really resonant spot for guttural growling. Man, that kid sounds like a wild animal! I wonder if Fr. Shep can hear — oh yes, he seems to be snickering into his missalette.

Now everyone is seated and the lector begins the first reading. Good thing it’s the lector with the booming voice, because Baby Unibrow has gotten her head unstuck and is now singing– yes, she appears to be singing ‘Poker Face’ and we’re getting a classic doppler effect as her dad hurriedly carries her down the aisle. It’s taking a while because these parents have made the classic rookie mistake of sitting way up front so the kids can watch what’s going on, which just means it takes longer to drag ’em out when they go out of their gourds, folks. When will they ever learn.

And I see the child has grabbed a sheaf of holy cards from the end of the pew before she was evicted, and she’s strewing them over her dad’s shoulder like confetti as she’s dragged away. Poker Face is right! That man should win an award.

Folks, the liturgy of the word has just about come to an end and we’re headed into the second half. The narthex and vestibule are absolutely bristling with extremely short Catholics and their slump-shouldered moms and dads, and I think I can make out –yes, that crunching sound definitely signifies that the twins have found the collection baskets, and have sat in them. What a spectacle. At least it’s not the holy water tank again.

Well, the sun is streaming through the stained glass windows here at St. Bambino, folks. It’s just streaming in, and it’s lighting up the tired faces of so many parents who are probably wondering why they even bother to show up, when they spend their whole Mass chasing their kids up and down the aisle, wrestling them out from under the pew, taking them to the bathroom and back, and pulling half-chewed collection envelopes out of the mouths. It’s a spectacle, it’s a sporting event, it’s a three-ring circus. It feels more like an ordeal than a time of worship and prayer, that’s what they say.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been doing this for forty seven years, and I’ll tell you one thing. Every single time a priest says Mass, I hear him say “This is my body, which will be given up for you,” and I know it’s Jesus talking, folks. But it’s all those parents, too. All those moms and dads — yes, especially the moms, but also the good dads — who gave up sleep and gave up sitting down and gave up peace and quiet, gave up doing what they liked and gave up looking how they liked, all for a stubby, wild little child who runs them ragged, and won’t even let them kneel and pray because they have to go potty, again, even though they just went potty.

It’s a beautiful sight, folks. It’s a beautiful sight and a beautiful noise, and every single time a baby comes to Mass, it’s a beautiful thing, a good thing, the best thing a parent can do for the Church. The Church needs them and they need the Church. Keep coming, folks. Keep coming.

Just . . . look out for the little guy, there, I think he found the matches.

 

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Related:
They said my kids don’t belong at Mass. Now what?

So how DO you make kids behave at Mass? 

Is the Mass a private time with God?

What does it mean to be present at Mass?

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Image: Christ Blessing the Children – by Lucas Cranach the Younger and Workshop Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

This essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on March 31, 2022.