I’m Medieval peasanting my way to Eucharistic Coherence

When I heard that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops planned to speak out on eucharistic coherence, my eyes bugged out. They were going to talk about something American Catholics cared about, that is pertinent to our life and world today, that is inherently important? Our U.S.C.C.B.? There are a handful of individual bishops I admire, but as a whole, the U.S.C.C.B. can be depended on to put out documents called things like “De dispositione sellarum navalium” (loosely: “On Rearranging Deck Chairs”). But a statement about eucharistic coherence sounded like they got hold of something real, something we could really use right now. I decided to pay attention.

But I have been busy, and every time I opened Twitter, I realized that more of the “Biden-Communion-U.S.C.C.B.-will they-won’t-they” discourse had gone on without me. There had been another podcast, another bit of analysis, another impassioned personal essay and countless other hot takes, and I wasn’t keeping up. I feel a sickening tug of guilt, like when you didn’t do the homework and you thought you could skate by, but the teacher just announced that the thing you didn’t read is definitely going to be on the test.

If this is you, I am here to tell you: This will not be on the test.

I am not saying that the issues of who can and cannot, should and should not receive the Eucharist aren’t important or relevant. They’re important because the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and if questions about it are not relevant to us, then what possibly could be?

And it’s relevant because so many people do take their moral cues from public figures, for better or worse. Some Catholics took their cues from Donald J. Trump, and now some are taking their cues from President Joe Biden. It’s relevant because non-Catholics are learning about what the church considers important. It’s relevant because many of us are still raw after having peeled ourselves painfully away from what has become of conservatism. Many of us care fervently about protecting the lives of the unborn but also about protecting the lives of immigrants and people of color and prisoners and gay people, and we are tired of being told we have to choose one side or the other if we want to be on the side of Christ. Many of us care about the Real Presence, and because we love the Lord, we do not want to see his precious body and blood treated like a weapon or a bribe or a talking point.

Coherence is what we need, eucharistic and otherwise. This is not a coherent age. Retweets and ratios and podcasts and hot takes, yes. Banging gongs and clashing cymbals, yes. Coherence, no.

But coherence generally comes from simplicity. And simplicity comes when you cut away everything that doesn’t absolutely need to be there, even if it is interesting or titillating or gets you lots of clicks. So simplicity is what I’m going for. It is what I call “Medieval Peasanting.” Read the rest of my latest at America Magazine

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Image: Detail of a bas-de-page showing Dunstan healing injured peasants. Image taken from f. 197 of Decretals of Gregory IX 

Stepping out in doubt

Has anyone ever told you there are jokes in the Bible? The one I found the other day made me laugh until I cried.

A little background, first. My old therapist had one of those wretched inspirational posters on his wall. It was a stock photo of a misty lake, and the caption said something about needing the courage to step off the shore so you can begin your journey.

It never made sense to me. What kind of journey is that? We don’t have to wonder what will happen when someone steps off the shore: They sink. Step off the shore, under you go. Bloop! End of journey.

Well, that poster may have been an illogical cliché, but it also turned out to be decent advice—as long as you don’t take it literally. But it was terrifying. Feeling nothing under my feet is the worst thing I have ever felt. There is always the temptation to scramble around and flail your way back to familiar ground because even if you recognize that your old life is a disaster, at least it is familiar.

But I did it: I stepped off into the void many times over the course of several years while I was in therapy. I was learning what in my psyche was craziness, what was garbage and what were traps I laid for myself, but also what was good, sane, powerful and admirable. What truly belonged and could be developed further and how to do it. It was an untangling process, and what was salvageable about myself was much more solid and worthwhile than I had feared. It is such a cliché to say “I found myself,” but that is more or less what happened when I took a big step away from security. I discovered, to my relief, that there was a real me there, in the heart of all the dysfunction.

Then, armed with a new sense of self, I started working on untangling some relationships. This was, if anything, even more terrifying. I knew that if I cut away everything that was unhealthy, there might be no relationship left.

People are who they want to be, and if you are going to become healthier and more whole yourself, you have to let other people be who they choose to be. Sometimes this means the relationship will end. You will lose someone you did not want to lose. This is a thing that happens sometimes, when you step out, away from secure footing. Many of my relationships changed. Some became stronger. Some were lost.

Then, at a certain point, my therapist asked me to look hard at my relationship with God and with the Catholic Church.

Read the rest of my latest for America magazine

Image: Ivan Aivazovsky 1888 Jesus walks on water (detail)  Public Domain

How I sort of left the Church, and why I came back

Here is a little story about how I left the church, sort of, and then came slouching back home, more or less.

The late, occasionally great Mad Magazine once published a bit that showed people’s secret thoughts. A scene looks one way from the outside but is very different and allegedly very funny on the inside. The one I remember showed the inside of a church. The congregation piously bows their heads, apparently engaged in placid worship. But on the inside, the well-to-do man is freaking out over gambling debt, the adolescent boy is slavering over a sexy fantasy and the teenage girl is desperately praying for a negative pregnancy test. It is just as well I don’t remember what the priest was thinking.

This was supposed to demonstrate that religious people are a bunch of hypocrites who pretend to be righteous and clean but are actually a mess on the inside. Har har, religious people! Look how they live.

The cartoonist was, of course, not making this up. When my parents had found Jesus but not yet the Catholic Church, my poor mother was perpetually humiliated when people visited our shabby, disorderly home. She was overworked, outnumbered and struggling with undiagnosed thyroid issues. And their allegedly Christian landlord thought laundry lines made the outside of the house look tacky, so whatever my mother did, she did it fighting her way past a line of damp diapers drying slowly over the hot air vent. A poor substitute for the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit that they sought.

But conversion happens stepwise. She knew her fellow Christians believed that outward disorder and chaos were caused by secret sin, so if anyone came to her door, she fell into the habit of making excuses. “Sorry about the mess,” she would say, and then explain that someone had been sick or they just got back from a trip. Here was always some temporary, mitigating factor that explained the general chaos.

Then one day, she didn’t. Someone came over and saw their typical chaos, and what came out of her mouth was: “Sorry it’s such a mess. This is just how we live.”

I don’t know how long after that moment she began to feel a pull toward the Catholic Church, but this moment in our family mythology feels like a very Catholic moment. This is literally what the church is for: So you can have a house to be a mess in. It is your house; you are a mess. Why try to deny it?

This is just how we live, and it’s not new. Chaucer, anyone? Dante’s “Inferno”? The Gospels? This is just how we live. If there were no mess, there would be no reason for the church to be built to house it. If there were no sin, there would be no need for baptism and confession and the Eucharist. If there were no human misery and wretchedness, there would have been no need for God to become man. I know this, or I thought I did. At home in the Catholic Church, we are a mess, and we cannot seem to help opening the door to show all comers our own weaknesses and sins and hypocrisies.

But as I write this paragraph, it feels a bit like I am distilling the faith down to an Etsy-worthy wall hanging for suburban moms: Bless this mess, Lord!

But the mess of the church is no adorable, kid-style mess, with couch cushion forts and colorful alphabet blocks strewn around the rug. It is the sex abuse scandal, which continues to break and break and break on the shore like a punishing, never-ending tide. It is the scandal of pastors and bishops pitting faith against science. It is the scandal of open disobedience and contempt for basic doctrine. It is the general crappiness and malaise and infighting of Catholic culture and Catholic social media. It is the disorder where culture, tradition, doctrine and lived experience all try to inhabit the same living space. This is how we live, and it is a mess, and the mess goes down deeper than I thought.

A number of personal experiences have widened some cracks in my life that used to be manageable. I used to think my personal faith-house was rock solid. It is not. It was shored up with 10,000 little pebbles, and some of them carried a bigger load than they should have. Many of them have been swept away, and when I look at what’s left, I don’t even know what to call it. “Mess” seems inadequate. It’s nothing comfortable or homelike, anyway.

Read the rest of my latest for America magazine

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Image by Michael Garlick  (Creative Commons)

The Britney Spears documentary is ambiguous but not (very) exploitative

The New York Times documentary on Britney Spears isn’t about her music. It’s not even entirely about Britney Spears. “Framing Britney Spears” is largely about the media, and the people who consume it. I watched to see if the Times could thread that needle, honestly critiquing media exploitation without being exploitative itself. I’m not sure if they pulled it off. 

The Times chose to tell her story now because she is in the midst of a long legal battle with her father over her conservatorship, by which Jamie Spears together with an attorney with the Dickensian name of “Wallet” has controlled almost every aspect of his daughter’s life since 2008. Such legal arrangements are usually made for elderly or infirm people who can’t be trusted to care for themselves or their money. Spears is 39. 

It is beyond dispute that her legal situation is odd. Her father, who was largely absent through her young adulthood, petitioned for legal control of her affairs after her series of public breakdowns; but the conservatorship continues even after Spears’ celebrated comeback and lucrative residency in Las Vegas. The lawyer Wallet petitioned the court to increase his share of her earnings, arguing that the conservatorship should be considered “more of a hybrid business model.” 

In other words, she is well enough to perform and make money hand over fist, but not well enough to decide what to do with that money. (Six days after the documentary first aired, Spears won a small concession concerning investment powers; but the bulk of financial control remains in her father’s hands. Another hearing is scheduled for next month, and Spears is expected to continue petitioning the court to remove her father as conservator.)

Most Americans are familiar with Britney Spears’s story: A small-town girl with a big voice is hurtled into fame, and she soon emerges from the safe and shiny world of “The Mickey Mouse Club”and uses every means but skywriting to announce that she is now a sexy and powerful woman in control of her own destiny. The world eagerly responds by alternately slut-shaming her and demanding more details about her breasts, her virginity, her sexual conquests. 

Lit by a constant strobe of camera flashes, she has an excruciatingly public romance and rift with Justin Timberlake, marries dancer Kevin Federline, has a baby and then another baby, checks in and out of rehab, divorces, shaves her head, attacks a paparazzo with an umbrella and is involuntarily committed to psychiatric care. It is a Russian novel of a life, lurid, pathetic, savage and ridiculous, and as it plays out it is played for laughs, with the whole world apparently in on the joke of this lunatic star who can’t seem to get it together just because everyone is watching her fail. 

I remembered all the details of her coming apart, but I gasped when I saw the clip of the game show “Family Feud” in the documentary. Contestants are asked to list things that Spears had lost that year, and the crowd laughs and cheers when they offer answers like “her hair,” “her dignity,” “her marriage,” “her mind.” It is breathtakingly cruel. And I remember how those who defended her were mocked, as well. 

There is no doubt that the media—invasive and predatory tabloids, as well as allegedly respectable journalists—did their best to destroy Britney Spears for ratings. It does not appear that she ever had anyone willing and truly able to defend her, or even to be fair to her. This documentary strives mightily to do both. 

Read the rest of my review for America magazine

Image: Screenshot from “Framing Britney Spears” on Hulu

Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ is a feminist disaster. But it (almost) redeems itself.

If this review is a mess, I blame “Bridgerton,” the raunchy, Regency(ish)-era soap opera produced by Shonda Rhimes for Netflix. I believe I have sustained a “Bridgerton”-related brain injury while trying to mentally accommodate a world where soft porn meets Lisa Frank meets… not Jane Austen, but someone who has definitely heard of Jane Austen. Someone who doesn’t realize that Austen was already skewering the shallowness of society and has decided to skewer Austen by pointing out that society is mean to women. But with very wacky hair and clothes!

It is not just that “Bridgerton” is full of deliberate anachronisms. Anachronisms can work if the show understands the rules and knows how and why to break them, or else if the show is just so much fun you will forgive anything. But “Bridgerton” knows nothing, understands nothing and provides zero fun. It somehow turns graphic sex scenes into a slog. Its putative, clever outrageousness is just a multicolored explosion of clichés. Whether or not it’s faithful to the series of romance novels on which it’s based, I do not know; but the show we got is a mess and nothing else. At least at first. 

In the first few minutes of the show, Prudence Featherington (the daughter of one of two prominent families vying to make brilliant marriages while a mysterious, omniscient voyeur distributes brochures gossiping about high society) is mercilessly laced into a tight corset while her mother looks on approvingly.

This is the beginning of a nearly nonstop jeremiad on the callous mistreatment of women during this era. Every episode has at least one woman delivering lamentations on the subject of How Society Is Unfair To Women. I thought often of the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where several vicious cowboys beat up an old woman. In between punches to the gut, she looks straight into the camera and cries, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” The feminism of “Bridgerton” is that subtle. 

And they are not wrong. It’s a hard world out there in “Bridgerton.” Lots of sexism, plenty of objectification. The problem is, much of that sexism and objectification comes from the writing itself. Two of the sisters complain that, in this society, artists see women purely as decorative objects, mere “human vases” to gawk at. Within minutes, we transition to their older brother, who is also trying to liberate himself from this same artificially constrictive society. He achieves his liberation by visiting an artist’s studio, where he is delighted to find not only a casual orgy, but naked models standing around in candlelight, for you to gawk at. Why the first scene is sexist and the second one is awesome, don’t ask me. 

There are too many examples of this double standard to list. The show self-righteously excoriates society for its shallow focus on outward appearances, but in the same breath indicates to the audience that certain characters are evil or foolish by making them fat, or slightly buck-toothed, or by giving them puffy hair. Ugly dudes are evil when they attack girls, but sexy dudes are just impetuous, and true love means trying to save them. 

Remember the first scene, with the tight corset? Once the girl is crushed into a tiny hourglass shape, she steps into an empire-waisted dress, which is gathered under the bust and then flows freely past the waist. And there it is. “Bridgerton” puts a merciless squeeze on the audience in all the wrong places, for no reason at all. Have you ever seen such cruelty?

The viewer shall also endure the laziest, most moronic attempt at fancy, old-timey speech you shall ever hear, shalln’t you? I barely made it through the first four episodes. I only continued because I wanted to be fair and thorough.

And darn it, that’s when the show turned a corner.

Read the rest of my review for America Magazine.

Image is a still from the trailer below:

 

The O Antiphons reimagined: My interview with Sr. Ansgar Holmberg

Ansgar Holmberg, C.S.J., 86, didn’t paint her O Antiphon series to edify or instruct anyone. They were meant only for herself.

Ansgar (she likes to be called by her first name) has been with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 67 years, and although she has spent time teaching children and offering spiritual direction, she created these seven paintings over the course of three years as a personal way to contemplate Scripture.

“I had read what other people had said, but I decided to paint them for myself, for me to understand them better. That’s one of the ways I learn,” Ansgar said.

Now the seven paintings, done in brilliant gouache (a kind of opaque watercolor), are gathered in a small book, Praying the Advent Names of God, paired with poems composed by another sister in the community, Joan Mitchell, C.S.J.

The O Antiphons are a series of seven verses dating from the sixth century and prayed during vespers during the last week of Advent. Each antiphon is a name of Jesus taken from Scripture, and they are the basis for the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Ansgar’s images are saturated with color and inhabit a strange space between iconography and myth. Ansgar said she did not set out to express a theological idea with her works; she simply followed her intuition.

“I didn’t have any rules or laws or requests put upon me, but it was my own expression of where I was at that time as I worked with these,” she said. “I put my own spin on it, and it went a bit more cosmic.”

Wisdom, for instance, is frequently portrayed in Western art with symbols like a lamp, a book or a female form enthroned; but in Ansgar’s conception, Wisdom is a figure descending fluidly from the heavens, grasping the sun in one hand, breathing out waters and engraving the bed of a riverbank with the other hand. Wisdom, Ansgar said, is proceeding from the womb of God.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: “O Wisdom” from Praying the Advent Names of God by Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, and Joan Mitchell, CSJ, used with permission 

 

Blessed are the rats, for we are all rats

Last night I stepped into a madhouse. I had driven to a local town to snap a quick photo of the election results to send to a numbers aggregator. A quick job—no need to talk to anyone or do anything but stay out of the way until the official results were in. I told the kids I would be back in time to put them to bed.

But 20 minutes before the polls closed, there was still a line stretched out the door of the polling place. A giant moon rose in the frigid air, and a mixed crowd of young and old chattered excitedly in the dark as they waited to cast their ballots. Feeling like something of an impostor, I told the police officer on guard, “I’m with the press; could I squeeze in here?” and he quickly cleared a path so I could get inside. One man shouted out, “Watch out, Jerry, she wants to talk to you!” and everyone laughed.

If I had had my wits about me, I would have stopped and talked to Jerry. But as it turned out, lots of others had plenty to say.

It was, as I say, a madhouse inside. People were clamoring to get in and cast their ballots, and I quickly realized that many had never voted before. They were not familiar with the process, and they weren’t sure how to do it. And there were so many of them that the line from the little curtained booths to the counting machines was all backed up. The machines themselves were full, and every third ballot or so got spit back out, and a cranky man named Paul had to open the machine and feed them in manually.

When I was growing up, election night felt like a party as we stayed up late snacking and joking, watching the electoral map fill up with numbers. I was baffled to discover the other kids in third grade weren’t wearing their Reagan/Bush pins every day and did not have strong opinions about taxes or Palestine. So at the polls last night, I was delighted to find a bustling crowd turn out for one of the most important elections in memory. Paul told me he had never seen so many voters before, and that hundreds of people had registered that day, most of them in the last hour.

“Good for us!” I said

He pulled a sour face. “I smell a rat,” he said.

And he kept on saying it. I questioned him and any other official who had time to talk. They all agreed: This was unprecedented. No one expected this many voters. They thought the bulk of citizens had gotten their duty out of the way with absentee ballots, and they were completely unprepared for this crush.

And no, they did not think this flurry of enthusiasm was a good thing. The same man who, in a lull, complained about how few people turned up for the town meeting every year was disgusted and suspicious to see so many people coming out into the cold to sign up to vote. I saw democracy; he smelled rats.

He was so sure it was a bad thing, I began to doubt myself. Maybe all these people shouldn’t be here. Maybe they didn’t really belong. What if they were scamming the system, somehow, even after showing their IDs and proof of residency? What if they were legit but voting for all the wrong reasons?

It is hard to talk about these things without sounding naïve. I know full well how ideas like “inclusiveness” and “welcome” can be exploited. We have all been in situations where people who really do have bad intentions take advantage of the open-hearted and take cover in a crowd of honest people. And once they are let in, they do the harm they came to do.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image: (cropped) April Sikorski from Brooklyn, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In defense of ignoring Amy Coney Barrett

This past week, I joined the vast, cranky ranks of the quarantined. I had some Covid-like boggy lung symptoms and spent four days holed up in my bedroom, waiting for my test results. Happily, they came back negative, and I was allowed to crawl out of my cave.

I felt like I passed another test, too: I resisted listening to the Amy Coney Barrett hearings. If you don’t know me, you don’t know how weird that is. I am an intensely political person (that was me at age 14, standing in the slush on a busy street corner, waving a homemade Jack Kemp sign). Even when I do not have a huge, open swath of quarantine time to devote to politics and the news, I love to gorge on current events.

If you knew me, you’d expect me to be all in with the hearings, in particular. How Amy Coney Barrett is received is especially relevant to me as a working, feminist, Catholic mother with a large family. Like Ms. Barrett, I have had “vagina clown car” insults thrown at me by people who profess to believe in reproductive choice. Strangers who know nothing about me have declared I must be either neglecting my kids or shorting my job because no one could possibly be both a good mother and a good worker. I have been informed that, because of my Catholic faith, I want all women to be the legal property of their husbands and the state. Like Ms. Barrett, I have been mercilessly dragged for my clothing choice, even when no sane person could find fault with it. The woman even gets dinged for her crazy eyes, and I, too, have crazy eyes.

But I am not unreservedly on team Amy Coney Barrett. I was dismayed when she and her maskless family starred in what turned out to be a superspreader event. I am someone whose life has been transformed by the Affordable Care Act and who desperately needs it not to be deemed unconstitutional. And I have become increasingly alarmed at the spectacle of white adoptive families using their Black children as a shield against accusations of racism. Ms. Barrett herself has not done this, as far as I know, but she does seem to speak freely in public about her Black children’s trauma. And there is that photo where her white family is front and center, and her Black children are arranged as bookends.

And there it is. There is one of the reasons I have not been following the hearings… Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image via Pxfuel

Baptized, confirmed, and ordained in two weeks: My interview with Fr. Matt Hood

For a man who had just been baptized, confirmed, ordained and catapulted into the headlines in the space of two weeks, the Rev. Matt Hood of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, Mich., sounded remarkably relaxed. I caught the 30-year-old priest on the phone while he and his father drove to Minnesota, where they were going to pick up a puppy named Sherman.

Father Hood’s story is no shaggy dog tale, though. It was only a few weeks ago that he discovered by chance that his baptism in 1990 was not valid, and therefore neither was his ordination in 2017 nor were many of the sacraments he presided over in the past three years, when he thought he was a priest but was not.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit issued a letter on Aug. 22 informing his flock that in light of a recent statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Hood’s baptism and ordination had been invalid because the presiding deacon at his baptism in infancy had said, “We baptize you” rather than “I baptize you.” Once that was discovered, the archbishop explained, Father Hood had been properly baptized, confirmed and then ordained as a deacon and a priest.

Father Hood’s situation has been remedied, but the revelation of his invalid baptism and speculation about what that means for all the people he interacted with as a priest, are still rippling outward. This record of our conversation, which continued over Facebook, has been shortened and lightly edited.

Read the rest of my interview with Fr. Matt Hood in America Magazine.

Returning to school? Don’t worry: It’s impossible

When I first started home schooling, my mother told me, “You know, the thing about home schooling is that it’s impossible.”

She was not only experienced but a pioneer, one of the first in the region to even attempt such a thing as home schooling. So she knew what she was talking about. But a ray of sunshine she was not.

It was the last thing I wanted to hear, that my new plan was impossible. Who could wake up each morning and willingly set out to do a thing that cannot be done? I knew I was born to home school my children. We would be courageous explorers on the sea of ideas, ravenous guests at a banquet of wisdom and culture. My children’s 12 years of school would be only the beginning of their education, and they would graduate with a lifelong thirst for learning.

Well, we did make a sundial one time. And a bean mosaic. All my kids can read and add and tell jokes, and no one has once suggested they would be better off learning how to make brooms. After six years of home schooling, we realized it was time for a change, and since then, we have tried private school, charter school, public school and this coming year, parochial school. We have at least dipped our toes into just about every form of educating children, and guess what we learned?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.