The last thing on your to-do list before Christmas

I have a confession to make: I have not been to confession yet this Advent. Every year, I bug people to go sometime during the season, and I think most of my family has been. But I have not yet gone myself.

So the following pep talk is as much for myself as it is for anyone else who needs to hear it. I do believe to my core that there is really only one indispensable preparation you need to make before Christmas, and that is getting to confession.

Let me make my case.

Maybe, like me, you’ve been putting off hanging up lights. You need to make your house beautiful and bright to get ready for Christmas morning. Understandable, but it would be awful to overlook making Christmas personal, intimate. Inviting Jesus into the dark places is what the sacrament is all about. There have been times when I have gone to confession utterly hopeless. I just went because I could not think of anything else to do, but I had no hope that things would get better. And guess what? Day broke. Jesus, the sun, came up. The dark confessional is where you meet the light of Christ. It could happen to you.

Or maybe it is baking that is weighing on you…. Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. 

Image by régine debatty via flickr (Creative Commons

About that lamb with seven horns

[Several months ago, I was pleased to begin contributing once a month to America Magazine’s daily scripture reflections. You can find my previous reflections here. Today’s reflection is on a reading from Revelations.]

Today’s first reading is one of those “sit up and smell the apocalypse” passages.

I, John, saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who sat on the throne.
It had writing on both sides and was sealed with seven seals.
Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice,
“Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”

Well, not me! I have sat through a couple of classes where scholars explain what these passages from Revelation mean, with the lions and the scrolls and the seven seals, and even with a dry, scholarly explanation, it’s really hard not to hear these verses in a dire, Johnny Cash voice . . .

Read the rest at America
 
Four Horseman painting By Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov Public Domain

A little theology of the body from Lizzo

My kids were astonished to hear that I love Lizzo. But how could you not? The woman radiates joy. Generosity of spirit flows from all her limbs, and her face shines with happiness. Happiness! When’s the last time you saw someone on stage who looks happy?

But I was kidding when I said, “How could you not love Lizzo?” The internet is flooded with people who find it very easy not to love her. The other day, I mentioned offhand that I wish my mother had lived to see her perform, and I was informed that Lizzo is disgusting, that she’s perverted, she has no self-respect, that she’s degrading the culture, and of course that she celebrates obesity, which, in case you haven’t heard, is unhealthy. Such courage, coming out and taking a public stand against fat people!

Part of me understands the discomfort. Lizzo is a lot. Her lyrics are smart and funny and clever but also sometimes fairly raunchy. Her outfits are sometimes gorgeous and elegant, sometimes deliberately outrageously revealing. I watched her strut onto a jet wearing jeans that had a window instead of a rear end. And of course, horror of horrors, she twerks.

But the thing about Lizzo is she does not seem to be doing any of this to turn you on. She is incontrovertibly provocative, but I am not sure it is lust she is trying to provoke. Instead, she is provoking people to simply…deal with her. And she is provoking people to deal with themselves, as they are. In a post-Christian world, for an audience of people who are radically alienated from any idea of the inherent goodness of creation, it is the closest thing to theology of the body I have seen.

Let’s be clear: This is not some coy argument that she is secretly Catholic. She absolutely is not. She’s a pro-choice, sex positive and plenty of things a Catholic really should not be. Pope John Paul II’s groundbreaking series of 129 scholarly lectures regarding the spiritual meaning of the human body and sexuality makes very specific claims, and they are about much more than just liking yourself and being upbeat.

But so is Lizzo. I encourage everyone to read her recent interview in Vanity Fair magazine, for some truly refreshing, occasionally moving insights into the mind of a thoughtful, intentional, hilarious young woman who is so much more than the raunchy provocateur some folks make her out to be.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Photo by Raph_PH via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

On Jeremiah and Jaws

Having come home safely from Cape Cod, and having not been attacked by anything more bloodthirsty than my 7-year-old who wanted to share my ice cream cone, we decided it was safe to sit down and watch the movie Jaws.

It is just about a perfect movie, a rare film that is monstrously famous but still somehow even better than all the hype. Even as I mouth each line along with the characters and follow every facial movement beat by beat, I find something different to admire every time I watch it.

This time, it was the girl. Not Chrissie, the girl who launches the film by getting gobbled up, but the girl in the kerchief, the one who is standing on the rocks by the estuary and calls out a warning to the crowd in a quavering voice: “Sh— shark! The shark! It’s going into the pond!”

She’s scared of two things, as far as I can tell. She’s scared of the shark, of course, which by this point has already devoured four people and a dog. But at least for a second, she’s also scared of being wrong.

Just a few seconds prior, the entire beach was swallowed up in a panic when someone spotted a fin in the waves. Someone screamed “Shark” then, too, and there was instant hysteria. Children were trampled; a mother lost her mind with fear and screamed uselessly, clutching her baby and freezing in place. An old man was left to drown in the foam as the entire populace scrambled to escape the water. And as the bathers panted and trembled on the beach, dry sobs rising up from the crowd, the word came back: It was “just a hoax. There are two kids with a cardboard fin.” (See, I told you I could quote the movie line for line.)

But before these summer people have a chance to contemplate how poorly they have behaved, there is another alarm. The girl by the estuary calls out in a trembling voice, rising to a scream: “Sh— shark! The shark! It’s going into the pond! … Somebody do something!”

“Now what?” grumbles Chief Brody, whose life has been nothing but alarms since he moved to the quiet island of Amity. But his wife reminds him their son Michael is in the pond, so he strides over to investigate. And yes, there is the fin. And this time, it is real.

I think about this girl a lot, the girl who cried shark. I know why her voice quavered…. Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

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Image: Still from “the attack in the pond” scene

What Catholics actually want and need from marriage preparation

Keep the lines of communication open, and buy gold.

Those are the two things and the only things my husband and I learned in our marriage preparation classes 25 years ago.

It’s hard to say which bit of advice was less helpful. We already knew communication was important, but what we really needed was practice. And the financial advice was sound, but we had exactly enough cash for one month’s rent and a new mattress, so that’s what we spent it on.

In other words, what we learned during marriage preparation was one thing that was true but uselessly abstract, and one thing that was true but comically irrelevant.

And this, unfortunately, seems to be par for the course for most Catholics. When I asked Catholics about their experience with marriage preparation, some said they enjoyed and appreciated it and learned valuable things. But many more told me that the experience was just an extra burden during an already stressful time, or even that it soured a skeptical partner against the faith. The recent announcement by the Vatican of a year-long (albeit voluntary, at least for now) “catechumenal itinerary for married life” has been met with mild to scathing cynicism from Catholics—including priests and lay people—on social media.

“Catholics think if you just get the right program, everything will be fine,” said Robert Krishna, a Dominican priest in the archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia. “And if they don’t understand what they need to do, repeat yourself louder and slower. That’s not the answer.”

Still, the answer cannot be simply to require no preparation. More than one canon lawyer who has worked on marriage tribunals has told me that many couples present themselves at the altar with little to no understanding of what marriage is. Their relationships fall apart because they were unprepared for marriage. So someone has to do something.

What type of marriage preparation is actually useful, helpful and stays with a couple as they grow into the sacrament they have conferred on each other? I talked with Father Krishna, several married people, and a married couple who have been running Engaged Encounter weekend retreats since 2005, and here is what I learned…

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image source 

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.

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

Don’t be shy about saying grace in public

My kids once asked me if I knew what my own first word was, when I was a baby. And I had to tell them that it was “Amen.”

They were a little abashed. What a holy, prayerful child I must have been! But it wasn’t like that. My family always prayed before we ate, and since “amen” came right before the food, I thought it meant “Let’s eat.”

“AMEN! AMEN!” I would apparently holler like a pudgy little zealot, banging my spoon on the high chair tray like one hungering for the word of God, but actually just hungry.

The prayer we said before we got to “Amen” was a sort of all-purpose Hebrew prayer of blessing before a meal: Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam, shehakol nih’ye bidvaro. “Blessed art thou, o Lord our God, king of the universe, by whose word all things exist.”

I have taught this prayer to my children, and this is the one we usually say before we eat at our house. It is very likely that, according to Jewish tradition, this is the wrong prayer to pray for most meals we eat (there are various prayers for different kinds of food), but as my kids tell their friends, we are only Jew-ish anyway, so we’re doing the best we can. I like it because it covers the bases: It acknowledges the majesty of God over everything that exists, including myself, and my family, and this plate of rigatoni or whatever. Amen, let’s eat.

And yes, we pray this prayer even when there are guests over. We give them a little warning that we’re going to pray in Hebrew, and they’re welcome to bow their heads if they’d like. Occasionally it has led to some interesting conversations about our heritage or about our faith.

And yes, we pray this prayer even when we’re eating out in public. I have always encouraged my kids to pray before they eat no matter where they are. I think it’s important.

They don’t have to make a big show of it. There is a fine line between being a witness and being a weirdo. To illustrate… Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image: Saying Grace, a 1951 painting by Norman Rockwell. Painted for the cover of the November 24, 1951 (Thanksgiving) issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Wikipedia

 

Does God really expect us to be perfect? (subscriber content)

If you like a good insult, you’ll love today’s readings.

First, Moses tells the people to keep God’s commandments perfectly, and God will reward them. It is the kind of reading that might drift along unheard right over our heads because we’ve heard this message so very often in Scripture. But the fact that we’re hearing it in Lent makes it a bit more uncomfortable. The entire context of Lent is: This is what happened because people didn’t keep the commandments.

The Old Testament is the story of people who got very clear directions about how to behave. Like us, they heard it over and over again, and they just couldn’t hack it. So God had to turn up in person.

And when he was there, he made things crystal clear, telling the disciples directly:

You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies,
and pray for those who persecute you.

And then he gives one of those rare and uncomfortable flashes of insight into his actual personality…Read the rest of my Lenten reflection for today’s reading at America

Image via pxfuel.com 

 

Go ahead, give up chocolate for Lent

An old woman asked a young girl—her name was Cassidy, if I remember right—what she planned to give up for Lent. Cassidy said she was going to give up popcorn.

“Popcorn!” the old woman scoffed. Pathetic! In her day, girls used to do real penances, make real sacrifices, she said. Cassidy should give up all desserts, at least. Or chocolate. When she was a child, she gave up chocolate, she said.

Cassidy mumbled that her dad would make her popcorn every night and she ate it while they watched basketball on the couch together. It actually sounded like a large and meaningful sacrifice, but the old woman’s message had hit home. Her Lenten practice was not good enough. It was childish, not meaningful.

The moral of this story? If someone asks you what you’re giving up for Lent, run away!

Or, an even better moral: When you’re deciding what to do for Lent, be childlike, not childish.

Here’s what I mean. When someone argues “Don’t just give up chocolate for Lent” they are using shorthand for the idea that giving up some little food treat is a cheap and childish way to sneak through the season. They’re saying that it means we’re just checking off the “sacrifice” box and skating by, and if we expect some kind of true spiritual growth, we should be seeking something more meaningful and profound. Rather than giving up chocolate or something else, we should be adding something, some spiritual practice, some good works, some new and challenging way of approaching the day or each other or God.

And this may be true. Sometimes when people “just give up chocolate for Lent,” it’s because they’re doing the easy, thoughtless thing. Sometimes it makes sense for us to urge each other to dig a little deeper, look a little harder at our spiritual lives, and think a little longer about what the Lord is asking from us.

But this year, in particular, feels different. And I think it calls for a different approach.

We’ve all been through the wringer, in one way or another. Lots of people have had their faith shaken, and we may find ourselves facing Lent 2022 with especially low enthusiasm and especially ramped up cynicism. Many of us are grieving. Many of us are physically healing, or still suffering. It has been a soul-crushing, exhausting time of constant risk assessment, constant weighing of expectations against reality and the constant wretched need to question other people’s trustworthiness—all while still trying to keep alive some spark of hope and good will toward our fellow man. When is the last time it hasn’t been Lent? And now you’re telling me I need to impose some new wound, this time self-inflicted?

That’s how I feel. But in my heart of hearts, I know that is not what Lent is meant to be. So I find it helpful to ask myself, when I’m discerning some spiritual practice: Is this childish? Or is it childlike?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image by Marco Verch via Flickr (Creative Commons

How dare you speak that way?

A few months ago, a bunch of Catholics resurrected a funny tweet by writer and comedian Daniel Kibblesmith:

 

The joke was very well received. But a few people, to my gratification, were offended by it. Not offended because someone dared to make a joke about God, but offended in an older sense, as in wounded and dismayed, aware of a trespass, maybe even alert to some kind of danger because a line has been crossed.

That was how I felt, to my surprise.

The joke is funny because, when you try to sum up what God says in the book of Job, it doesn’t add up. Surviving unbearable agony versus inventing the hippo comes across as nonsensical and absurd, out of context. But in the context of Scripture, God is revealing to Job his ineffable immensity, his unanswerableness, in such a way that, well, if you read the whole thing, the fact that he made the hippopotamus does answer Job’s suffering. But you have to be willing to put yourself right there in front of the bellowing hippopotamus and feel his hot breath and smell his smell and think of who made him.

You have to be open to the idea that the Book of Job tears off a veil and reveals a relationship between God and Job. That is, at least, how Job himself perceives it. And so do many people who have read it deeply. They can put themselves where Job is. And maybe that’s why, at least to some people, the joke came across not as a light-hearted spoof but as something ugly. Because, for people who have felt that hot breath of suffering, the flippancy trespassed on something real—a specific, painful, precious, hard-won relationship that exists between actual people and God. At least, I think so. Humor is tricky. So is God.

So why did so many Catholics, who presumably know something about submission to the will of God in the face of profound suffering, share the tweet? Or, more broadly, why do we often have the almost rebellious impulse to make jokes about sacred things?

When I worked for conservative outlets, readers regularly took me to task for my irreverence. I was told I had no business making jokes about holy things like prayer, church, priests, saints or, of course, sex. There are some people who really do live like this: They believe that jokes are all very well and good, but they must be sequestered strictly away from anything remotely spiritual.

This approach makes no sense to me. I wouldn’t even know how to have a spiritual life without laughing about it sometimes. Scripture is very plainly full of jokes, and even if you set aside the possibility that I’m projecting, I would swear God teases me.

And I tease back, when I’m feeling up to it. My husband and I were alone (well, not alone, but you know what I mean) in the adoration chapel a few weeks ago, and he was deep in the Gospel. I nudged him and whispered, “Anything good in there?” He flipped a few pages back and forth, lifted an eyebrow, and said, “Meh.” I laughed so hard I almost broke the kneeler. That was a good day because I was buoyed up with the certain knowledge that of course there was good stuff in there. The joke, in other words, was on us. It was irreverent, but ultimately, it was directed at us and our habit of behaving as if the Gospel is, indeed, meh.

Another day at the chapel, not so good ….Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr Creative Commons