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

The painful, grace-filled and (potentially) healing process of seeking an annulment

Four weddings, but only one sacramental marriage. That was the tally by the time Rob and Shannon made their vows to each other 18 years ago.

Rob and Shannon are not their real names. The couple is not ashamed of their story, but they do not like to dwell on it, either; and it is complex enough that they have not told their own children all the details. It is a story about mistakes, pride, fear and hope, growth and grace, and love and canon law. It is a story, in short, about what makes a valid marriage in the eyes of the church, and how church leaders and structures respond when a marriage is not valid.

For such a theologically dense topic, annulments are a perennially popular topic of discussion and debate among Catholics. They are also perennially misunderstood. Many Americans speak of “getting an annulment” as if it were just the Catholic version of divorce, and many Catholics leave the church when they discover that there is more to it than that. There are persistent stories of rich or famous Catholics who supposedly bought their way out of undesirable marriages; and armchair theologians are quick to offer their pronouncement on whether or not a stranger’s marriage is valid based on a few online comments.

But the problems surrounding petitioning for decrees of nullity go deeper than rumors and misunderstandings. In 2015, Pope Francis made some reforms, aimed at lowering the costs and expediting the process. He opined in January 2021 that these efforts were being stymied by the desire for money.

But some canon lawyers believe a different kind of reform is necessary, anyway—the kind that takes place on a more personal level, where couples begin their lives together with a better understanding of what the church means by marriage, and are supported during inevitable times of struggle.

What does the church really teach about this widely misunderstood process, and how does it play out in the lives of ordinary Catholics? What does it do to their emotional and spiritual lives to encounter a doctrine that works in the space where law meets love?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

 

The contradiction of God’s comfort

The reading for today always makes me laugh.

“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” it begins. And what form will this tender comfort take?

Oh, you know. Valleys leveled. Mountains getting blasted flat. The glory of the Lord flashing out over the world like a scythe, mowing down everything in its path. And all human flesh like grass, withering and wilting when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.

Don’t you feel better now?

Read the rest of my Advent reflection for America magazine.

This is part of a series of daily Advent reflections, including the authors’ favorite Christmas hymn, recipe, tradition, and more. 
ETA: My apologies, I had forgotten that the Advent reflection series is only available to America digital subscribers!

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Image: Dry grass in field on lake shore, close-up. – depositphotos.com

The day Tony Soprano will not open his eyes

It’s one big memento mori, “The Sopranos.” You don’t realize it while you’re watching the series at first, because the show is so drenched in sex and food, gore and comedy, violence and pathos and banality. But death is there from the very beginning, and it’s telling you something: Just wait. It will happen to you.

The series has recently gained a whole new audience, almost 15 years after its finale on HBO. This is obviously in large part because of the recent release of “The Many Saints of Newark,” a feature film purporting to fill in some of the backstory of the lives of Tony Soprano and his kin. But the comeback is also due to something else: As the New York Times’s Willy Staley posited, younger audiences see themselves in Tony Soprano’s “combination of privilege and self-loathing,” or they see today’s America in the show’s portrayal of the ’90s era of decline and fall.

Staley says the show was prescient in a way that sheds light on our specific timeline. But I think it deals with a theme that never stopped being relevant, namely, salvation. And did I mention death?

In the very first episode, Carmela Soprano, Tony’s wife, steps into the room where Tony is getting an MRI, hoping to find the source of his inexplicable collapses. In eight lines of dialogue that provide a primer to their marriage, Tony mawkishly offers a nostalgic olive branch, and Carmela quickly escalates: “What’s different between you and me is you’re going to hell when you die!” Then Tony’s body, covered only by a hospital gown, is fed into the machine.

Carmela later retracts her furious words. But where Tony is going from Episode One on—and Carmela, too—really is the central question of the show.

It is not explicitly a religious question. The church appears mainly as a cultural and aesthetic force in the lives of the show’s characters. Sin and virtue are treated as a curiosity, and even the priests are willing to help that world view limp along unchallenged, as long as they get their manigot.

In a sense, the most Catholic parts of the show are not the explicitly Catholic parts. Whether it’s the Holy Spirit (in the guise of that numinous wind that moves throughout the series) or something more amorphous, a moral force does press on the lives of the various characters, demanding their attention.

They are all constantly presented with choices: What matters more, business and efficiency or loyalty and family? When we identify what was wrong with the past, do we reject everything about it? If we see what was good about the past, may we hope to retain any of it? Once we understand why we do things, how culpable are we, and how capable are we of change? Once we realize we are wrong, how much must we give up to make things right? Anything?

Carmela is given perhaps the starkest moral choice of any of the characters (except for maybe Paulie Walnuts, with his cataclysmic vision of the Virgin Mary at the stripper’s pole): The almost prophetic psychiatrist Dr. Krakower tells Carmela, plainly and without pity, that she must leave Tony, must take no more blood money, must be an accomplice no longer.

“One thing you can never say: that you haven’t been told,” he intones.

You could see this scene as the show leaving a small marker, bobbing on the surface of the water, reminding the viewer: Don’t forget, wrong is still wrong. We may be humanizing murderers in every episode, showing them eating their sloppy pepper sandwiches and struggling with their teenagers just like anyone else, but murder is still murder. Death is still death.

Carmela leaves Dr. Krakower’s office stricken. She huddles on the couch at home, pondering these things in her heart. And then she finds a priest, a good priest, who gives her a softer message. He tells her that she should find a way to live off only the legitimate parts of her husband’s income, and that is how she will find her way. But soon enough, despite some dramatic side journeys, she makes her way back into the same old patterns.

Carmela is almost an inverse of the Lady of Sorrows, who endures so many awful indignities: Carmela takes away no good from her anguish; she only suffers. She feeds everyone and cares for everyone, and everyone comes to her for comfort. She listens to everyone, and with her deep, hollow eyes she sees through everyone, and she always tells people the truth about themselves. But when it comes down to it, she has her price, and can be had for presents and jewelry.

Carmela’s insight also goes dim when there is something she doesn’t want to know. It has been her life’s work not to see that Tony was capable of killing people—including his own loved ones and relatives. Carmela’s brittle manicure and spraddle-legged gait betray the terrible tension of keeping so much horror in check within her.

Her dalliance with real estate is more than just a way to build a nest egg. It is her answer to Tony’s impending, inevitable death: to pile up money for herself and her children. She knows that throughout her whole life, she has been building with rotten materials. But she also knows she can make the sale if she keeps pushing hard enough. It’s not just the house she’s building as her own project to sell, it’s everything.

And this is how the show draws us in. It gives us the same choice: How will you hold all this knowledge in check? We’re going to show you so many things about what people are like. What will you do with the knowledge? How will you accommodate it?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. 

Image: Tony on the Subway by Alan Turkus via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The debate over Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave is missing one thing: the birth mother

In early October, the news cycle gave birth to a giant red herring, and all the country’s most prominent talking heads have been dining out on it since.

I am talking about Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave. He and his husband announced in August that they had become parents of newborn twins in October, social media went bonkers with the news that Mr. Buttigieg, who is the secretary of transportation for the Biden administration, had been on paid paternity leave for two months and has only recently returned to work.

I say that the question of paternity leave is a red herring, but do not mistake me: I am not saying it is not a big deal. I know firsthand how desperately new moms need help (and how capable men are of bonding with newborns). Sometimes I hear friends complain that their husbands only had a week or two off after the birth of a child, or maybe they even had to use their vacation days. I nod sympathetically and zip my lips, remembering the time I persuaded my ob-gyn to induce labor on a Friday so my husband could be with me for the luxurious span of Saturday and Sunday. That was the time he had off: 48 hours a week. Period.

The nurses would always ask me what my postpartum support network looked like, and I would tell them, “Nothing.” They would look sad, and that was as far as it went. So you do not have to convince me: A world where moms and dads and babies can be together and rest? That would be very good indeed.

But it is peculiar to see the Buttigieg discourse swirl around the question of paternity leave when a close look will reveal that it is really about so many other things, and that is why people are getting so mad about it.

First, of course, it is because Mr. Buttigieg is gay, as Tucker Carlson so incisively noticed. More than that: He is gay and kind of boring, and some Americans have no idea how to process that combination. So they get mad.

Second, we are talking about paternity leave, but we are really talking about the rights of workers in general, about whether even people in thankless jobs should expect to have full lives or if it is reasonable for them to owe their soul to the company store. We are clearly in the early stages of some kind of cultural spasm regarding labor, and it is not clear if we are going to slide right back into the status quo ante, or if there is some real transformation afoot. That is scary, and scary things also make us mad.

Third, we are also talking about paternity itself, fatherhood, manhood. Lord, do we have some sorting to do on this. One writer opined on Twitter that there is not much for a dad to do when there is a newborn in the house, and babies do not care either way. It is an old but often true trope that the men who sneer at hands-on dads are often secretly grieving that their own dads never had the time for them, and that is why they care so much. In any case, it is harder than it ought to be to step away from what is familiar, and being asked to do so makes us mad. So now we are mad about fatherhood, too.

The White House arguably degraded the discourse further by calling Mr. Buttigieg a “role model” for taking two months off in the middle of an economic crisis. Press Secretary Jen Psaki probably meant something more like an “aspirational example,” but her words came off as critical of dads who cannot take time off, especially since Mr. Buttigieg is undeniably part of privileged sliver of society with the money and access to choose when and how to start a family.

So there is all this stuff: about sexuality, class, money, work, fatherhood, legislation and so on. But do you know what has not been talked about at all?

The mother. The woman who gave birth to her two little ones two months ago and then said goodbye. That is what I am here to do: talk about her.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

 

Motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out.

I put the baby down in her seat on the other side of the bathroom door, and she wailed and screamed, wailed and screamed. I remember thinking: What has happened to me. Too exhausted to even put a question mark at the end of that thought. I had just come home from the hospital after giving birth to my first child.

I stood in the shower, looked down and did not recognize my body. It was not just that it did not look like me; it didn’t look like any human person I had seen before. I could not make sense of the shape my body made. Milk ran down my belly and blood ran down my thighs, and through the door, the baby wailed and screamed because I had put her down. What had happened to me.

Now several of my 10 children are adults, and I still don’t know exactly what has happened to me.

Several years ago, fitness guru Jillian Michaels caused a minor spasm in mommy media by saying she would never get pregnant because she could not face ruining her body that way. It eventually emerged that she had not said that, exactly, and her thoughts about pregnancy and her body were more complex and personal than an inflammatory soundbite. But regardless of the details, she had expressed something more honestly than many women are willing to do: She knew that giving birth would disrupt something about herself irrevocably, and it was not a disruption she was willing to endure. Better to find this out about yourself before you get pregnant than after, I thought.

Here is what I have learned since then: Surrendering bodily vanity is only the beginning of what happens to you when you become a mother. First, motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image from Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons