What I learned on Corpus Christi this year

The first Sunday we went back to Mass was the feast of Corpus Christi. I was delighted to realize we could mark this feast, one of my absolute favorites, by receiving the actual corpus Christi inside the church building at last, back where we belong.

I have never been angry or bitter at our bishop for keeping Mass closed to the public. If we’re Catholics, we can’t just go get what we want and ignore the risk to the vulnerable. Even if it’s the body of Christ we want. Especially if it’s the body of Christ we want.

But oh, it was good to be back, even with masks, in alternate pews, with the sweet smells of early June roses and candle wax blending strangely with the increasingly familiar scent of hand sanitizer. I was so glad our separation was over, so glad we could be moving forward and starting to figure out how to safely make life more normal again.

Then came the first reading, and it hit me right between the eyes.  It’s a short reading, and very pointed. Moses exhorts the people to remember how God brought them out of Egypt, and how God dealt with them in the desert.

It’s a reading chosen for Corpus Christi because it reminds us: Look, from the very beginning, God has been leading you and feeding you. God doesn’t mind his business up in heaven, but he comes to us in the desert and gives us manna, and then he brings us home. Perfect for the feast day.

But it hit me so hard because of how it’s framed. It doesn’t just tell the story of how God cared for the people. It’s also the story of why God treated them as He did, and it’s a command to think about it and remember it, learn from it…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

What’s it like to be a third order Franciscan sister? A conversation with Sr. Agnes Therese Davis

I recently had a chat with Sr Agnes Thérèse Davis. Sr. Agnes is a 32-year-old sister who is a member of the Franciscan Sisters, TOR, a contemplative-active religious community that was founded in 1988. Her order values mendicancy and itinerancy, and I knew next to nothing about them or how one comes to join the order. It was a joyful, fascinating conversation, and I thought you’d like to hear it. My questions are in bold.

When did you first hear the call to become a sister?

For me, thinking about religious life only began when I started praying more intentionally as an adult. Growing up, we were Missouri Synod Lutherans. When I became Catholic, I started living a sacramental life, and in a lot of ways lost my personal prayer life. In high school, all my religious energy was diverted toward proving to my protestant friends that it was okay I was Catholic.

Did your whole family convert?

We trickled in. My mom entered some years before; my brother entered the same year as I did, but a few months before. Then several years later, my dad. We’re still waiting on my sister. For me, it was mostly an intellectual conversion. I already loved God. After my mom became Catholic, she knew that I was a voracious reader and if she left things around, I would read them. She left things around that spoke about the history of Christianity.

Looking at the teaching on the Eucharist, I don’t see how you can get anything but the true presence from John 6. I was convinced in my mind, but I was really nervous. I was very close to my grandmother, who was very desolate when my mom entered the Church.

I was confirmed in the Lutheran church when I was 13. I knew it was provisional.

I knew I had to pray, not just sit in the chapel and read holy books. I had to be silent, and I would only get myself go in with scriptures and a journal. I can’t just read the Bible; even that can be a distraction. Just forcing myself to be in silence. I remembered God is a person who loved me. Not a checklist I need to complete or a rulebook in the sky I needed to appease. Remembering God was a person who loved me and had a vested interest in my life. I realised I should be asking him what to do with my life. I was in college by this point, and I thought, “I can’t just do whatever falls in my lap. I need to ask God what He wants.”

Read the rest of this interview in The Catholic Weekly

Image: Detail of photo courtesy of Sr. Agnes Therese

Returning to Mass after a long separation can be an emotional experience. Or not.

It’s been a long, dry spell. Many Catholics have never gone this long without receiving the Eucharist since before their first communion.

Now that more and more parishes are finding ways to safely offer public Mass or some form of communion service, many Catholics are taking to social media to describe what an overwhelming emotional experience it has been for them. Some are even sharing photos of themselves with tear-stained cheeks, overcome with emotion after receiving communion again.

Much of this emotional response is surely sincere, a spontaneous outpouring of joy and gratitude after a time of trial and deprivation. It’s understandable to want to share our delight in the Lord with people who will understand.

So let’s set aside the question of how spiritually healthy it is to take and share selfies of pious displays, and look instead to Catholics who aren’t coming to pieces over the opening of churches.

There are a lot of them. There are a lot of Catholics who most certainly want to return to the sacraments, but they aren’t feeling wracking pangs of longing as their separation continues.

They aren’t spending their days in misery and distress, ceaselessly imploring the Holy Spirit to open the church doors again. And when they do receive the Eucharist again after a long time away, they aren’t going boneless with spiritual bliss. They believe in the saving power of God with all their hearts, but they’re not getting very emotional about it.

I’m here to tell you that if that’s how it is for you, it’s okay. It doesn’t prove there’s something inferior about your faith. It doesn’t mean you’re lukewarm or spiritually mediocre. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the sacraments, and it doesn’t mean you don’t understand how precious they are. It might mean any number of things, but it’s certainly not automatically a sign that you’re the wrong kind of Catholic.

Emotions are just emotions. They are not nothing, but they are not the same as faith. Sometimes emotions come to us unbidden from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes they are given to us as a gift. But sometimes…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

Interview your parents

When I was in ninth grade, a teacher assigned the class to interview someone older than us about their childhood, and write up the results. Being shy and lazy, I decided to interview my father, because I knew where to find him (upstairs).

I remember showing up with the absolute minimal effort: a scrap of paper and a pen, and no preparation whatsoever. He was very annoyed when I asked him to just sorta talk about his life, and he sent me off to do more preparation. Equally annoyed, I slunk off to write up a proper list of questions.

As so often happens with good assignments, I started off just trying to fulfill my minimum obligation, but discovered in the process that there was a lot I actually was curious about. I knew what his favorite holiday treats were, but what did he eat on normal days? What games did he play with his friends after school? Who were his friends, and why? Was there anyone he was scared of? What did his parents expect from him? Did he get along with them? Did that change?

I ended up with a decent article, and I’m fairly sure my father enjoyed the evening. We didn’t get along well at the time, so that’s a stand-out memory in itself: Him relaxing and telling stories, and me listening attentively.

As I listened, I slowly realized something that hadn’t hit home to my self-centered teenage self: This is a real person, not just a rule-maker and the bringer of unfair consequences. This is someone who had a favorite candy and a favorite tree and a favorite uncle as a little boy, someone who got in trouble with his teachers and his parents. This is someone who once wasn’t in charge of anyone.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by jbauer-fotographie 

Sincerely, Horace J. Schmiddlapp

The other day, my therapist said, “How are you? The last time we talked, your father had just died.”

And I answered, “Well . . . he’s still dead.”

This is totally a dad joke, and he would have laughed. Every time a celebrity died, he would rail against the 24-hour coverage on the news, as if there could be some update. Still dead! And I’m finding myself doing more and more things in tribute to him. If you care to play along, here are some things you could do in tribute to my father:

1.Sign something ‘Horace J. Schmiddlapp’. I forget how this first got started. I think he got tired of having to sign endless, useless permission slips for his eight children, so he started signing them ‘Horace J. Schmiddlapp’, and no one ever questioned it. Now that we’re going over legal documents and working through thorny issues of his estate, we’re glad he only took it that far.

2. Bring fancy cookies to the people who work at the post office and bank. This was a recent development, but apparently he used to do this every Christmas. I was amazed to hear it. When I was growing up, he cultivated a reputation as a curmudgeon. I guess it goes to show: Just because you used to be one way, doesn’t mean you can’t start bringing people cookies.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Only listen

Everyone who knows me knows I have a big mouth. I love to talk, I love to give advice, I love to leap in with my take on something that I only just barely found out about. It doesn’t help that I often get rewarded for it: I get paid to write, paid to talk, paid to share my opinion and analysis.

The exception to this is when I do interviews. I was comparing notes with my husband, who is a reporter, on how readily people will tell us intensely private things. It is truly amazing what people will reveal.

I used to think I had some particular talent for getting folks to open up, but now I know I don’t. It’s just that most people want to talk, and if you ask them to, they will. They want to tell their stories. Most of all, they want someone to listen.

When I go to conferences as a speaker, I’m there primarily to (as the name implies) speak. But I’m also there to listen. For every 40 minutes I spend speaking, I spend about five hours listening. It happens before the speech and after the speech, in an out of the conference space, on the sidewalk, in the hotel, in the bathrooms, on the plane.

Last time I was at a conference, I ended up sitting in the bar of the hotel for three hours, listening to some woman pour her heart out to me, an utter stranger. She told me the most terrible, dreadful, astonishing, heartrending things, and it was very clear to me that my job was to get comfortable and receive it without comment. People want to tell their stories. People want someone to listen. They need it. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: The Old King (detail) by Georges Rouault; photo By Tabbycatlove – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74815857

Words about death

We buried my father a few weeks ago. He and my mother had bought plain Trappist coffins for themselves years ago, to spare us children the trouble. But my father’s house, even though it had many rooms, was short on space, because it was so full of books — books to sell, books to read, books to just . . . have. And the coffins were also full of books. Books everywhere. Think of all those words, words, words.

Some years ago, when my sister lived there for a while, her little son took a marker and scribbled on the side of the casket, as kids do. I think he must have been pre-literate, because it almost looks like a letter, but maybe not. Who knows what he was trying to write. Whatever intentions the child had went down into the grave with my father’s body.

If this sounds grim, I’m telling it wrong. We all thought it was hilarious. That’s something my father would say: “You’ll go to your grave not knowing,” with a satisfied wiggle of his eyebrows. He loved having a secret, and he loved having a joke. And he loved talking about death.

At the cemetery the rain dripped off my hood and onto my virus mask, down my rain jacket, off the lame bunch of flowers I had bought at the supermarket, because I didn’t know what else to do. So lame.

When my father died, I had to ask my friends how I was supposed to respond to people who had sent Mass cards. I wanted to know if it was all right to thank them via email, or if I needed to send out paper cards of thanks. The part of my mind that wasn’t crying for my father was fascinated by the flourishing of social problems that sprung up overnight surrounding his death.

If someone I don’t know expressed sympathy on Twitter, was it weird to “like” their sympathy? Would it be offensive to tell a mutual friend of my brother that he probably wasn’t ready to receive any casseroles? I was afraid I’d have to come up with something to say at the burial, and I didn’t know what to say.

Was it okay to tell a little joke as the coffin was lowered into the grave? I could hardly help myself, so I whispered it to my husband, who laughed; and then I worried that the laugh might have been caught on the livestream that my brother’s girlfriend was sending to my siblings who couldn’t be there because of the virus.

It occurred to me, nobody knows how to do this. Nobody knows what to say or how to act. This is true any time anyone dies, because there is nothing more unknowable than death. How we love to talk about death. But the ones who can still talk are the only ones who don’t know what they’re talking about.

The only people who understand what it means are, by definition, not telling! So sue me, this makes me laugh, and I know my father would find it funny, too. He spent his whole life talking about death. I wonder what he thinks now.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Victim vs. victim? Don’t play that game

Every once in a while, a pro-choicer will try to entrap a pro-lifer with a thought experiment. “Oh, you claim microscopic embryos are human? Well, imagine you’re in an IVF lab that’s on fire, and you only have time to make one rescue before the whole thing burns down. Do you save a crying toddler, or do you rescue a cooler that holds thirty frozen fertilized eggs?”

This is supposed to be an unbeatable trap. If you save the toddler, that proves you think a born child is more real than even 30 fertilized eggs, and since you claimed life begins at conception, that makes you a liar; but if you save the fertilized eggs, which is saving 30 people, that means you’re choosing to let a crying child perish in flames, and that makes you a monster.

Well. I believe that life begins at conception, and I would save the crying child, because people in horrible situations do the best they can, and all it proves is that horrible situations are horrible. We respond to human impulses, and our humanity compels us to rescue the person most present to us.

If a pro-choicer in a similar burning building chose to save his own child instead of a child he’s never met, or a crying child instead of a sleeping child, that wouldn’t prove he thinks the child he doesn’t save is less human; it just shows that some situations are horrible, and we do the best we can. I can simultaneously believe that the fertilized eggs are fully human, and know that I would save the human who was calling to me for help. It’s an impossible situation (as well as a vanishingly unlikely one).

One of many repulsive things about thought experiments like this is that they create enmity where none truly exists. They try to force us to see born children as competing with unborn children for our mercy. It invites us to think of one or the other as less worthy, as more deserving of death. It is intrinsically manipulative and depersonalizing, for both of the subjects of the story and of the person to whom the dilemma is posed.

Dishonest people love to set up this kind of manipulative dilemma, not only in arguments about abortion, but in all kinds of arguments that have become about so much more than the actual people involved. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Detail of photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

All these kids, and nowhere to go

How are you holding up? Are you okay?

As for us, we’re doing surprisingly well as we head into another of who-knows-how-many-weeks of being stuck at home together. I feel like our family has spent the past 20 years training for an extended period of social distancing such as this.

Working from home, buying in bulk, going long periods without seeing friends, and living our lives with a constant sense of impending doom? These are already our routine, so the past several weeks have just been an intensification of our normal lives, plus the luxury of not having to drive kids into town and back eleven times a day. I told my therapist (via hygienic telemedicine video chat, of course) that we’re actually kind of living my ideal life, minus the obligatory medical panic.

As you Australians head into your enforced staycations, allow me to share some of the things our family is enjoying or planning to enjoy as we find ourselves alone together:

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 

15 ways to help others (and yourself) during the pandemic

As Catholics, we have a duty to seek out ways to help, if we can; and as mere humans, we will benefit emotionally if we find ways to act. Here are some concrete things you can do to help others, and yourself, while the crisis lasts:

Set up a schedule among your family, friends, or neighbors to call vulnerable people every single day, to make sure they’re still healthy and not languishing from loneliness. Don’t just try to remember to check in, and don’t assume someone else is doing it. Make it a true part of your routine (and maybe assign one person the role of ‘daily call reminder’) so no one falls through the cracks.

If you have a lot of time on your hands, consider offering one-on-one virtual story time to parents who could use a break from entertaining their kids. It will take some organization, but it could be fun for kids, helpful to parents, and gratifying for people who miss the days of reading aloud to little ones.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay