God vs. me

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

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

Opening prayer:

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

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

And the closing prayer is even more striking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, he says:

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

A strange battle indeed.

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

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

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

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

The news is important. Try turning it off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Sing, muse, of the anger of our children

One of the great things about having a big family is that somebody is always mad at you. When I say “great,” I mean that somebody is always mad at you anyway, no matter what you do, so you might as well enjoy it.

It’s hard to explain. I never would have anticipated it, but there is a special kind of exquisite glee that comes with knowing that you’ve revolted your children down to their very souls.  I suppose it’s a small act of defiance, like a conquered people crouching in their cell blocks, grinning at their oppressors as they sing forbidden songs and eat forbidden . . . mouse sandwiches . . . I forget what we were talking about.

Anyway, the point is, I was nearly forty years old before I finally said certain things to my mother about the mistakes she had made in raising me, and it felt very psychologically important to me at the time, and I guess I’m glad I said it; but when I think of her being nearly seventy years old and having to still hear about things she did wrong thirty years ago, I’m kind of amazed she didn’t just smack me. My mother was a good woman, and didn’t do a lot of the smacking she was entitled to.

But this isn’t a heavy essay. I don’t want to talk about all the horrible mistakes one can make with one’s children, the wrong responses, the coldness when there should have been warmth, the weariness when there should have been attention, the sarcasm when there should have been sympathy, the times we forgot to pick them up, the times we got them the wrong present, the times we called them the wrong name, the times we did the wrong thing, and weren’t even sorry, and instead wrote stupid essays about it for clout on the internet.

Instead, I want to tell you about the worst thing my husband and I ever did to our children. They were all unanimously, instantly disgusted with us at the time, and as the years have passed, their revulsion has only deepened.

It has to do with a couch.

Someday, it may come to pass that the Fishers will buy a brand new couch. We’re not there yet, but in the last few years, we have started buying our couches at respectable used furniture stores, and this is quite a step up. We started out our family life acquiring couches by skulking into better neighborhoods at night and seeing what they had dragged out to the curb, that might fit in our minivan, and that seemed fine.

But on this particular day a few years ago, we were still halfway through our evolution from garbage pickers to respectable used furniture buyers, and we had made arrangements to buy a couch from someone online, someone who turned out to be . . . less than respectable.

I seem to have blotted the details out of my memory, but this couch we were going to buy must have been pretty horrible, because we came home without it. But we knew the kids were all waiting in an empty living room, champing at the bit to see the splendid new couch we had found for them. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s disappointing kids. So, I did what any normal mother would do in these circumstances: I said to my husband, “Let’s pretend we got an invisible couch.”

Now, one of my husband’s main jobs in life is to listen to my ideas and say, “No, that’s dumb.” But for some reason, he didn’t do his job on this day. Instead, the two of us parked the rented truck in the driveway, opened the back, and went into an elaborate pantomime of carefully, laboriously unloading first the cushions and then the body of a heavy, unwieldy, slightly wobbly, completely invisible couch.

We shooed the kids out of the way, had some imaginary trouble figuring out how to wedge it through the door and had to back out a few times, scuffed our way through the dining room, slid some furniture out of the way, and set the nothing down, panting, and then asked the kids what they thought.

Well, they thought we were a couple of idiots. And they still do.

I, on the other hand, fall off my actual real couch laughing every time I think about this story. It may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done for no reason at all. Those kids were so profoundly disgusted with us, and for once, we totally deserved it. Somehow, that feels like a some kind of score was evened up.

Let me sing you the song of my people! We’re morons, my husband and I, and there’s nothing our kids can do about it.

***
A version of this essay was originally published on February 22, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

Photo by artistmac via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Small ways to make your Triduum more holy (even if you’re busy)

Nobody told me it was Holy Week this week! And so I didn’t know.

I totally did it to myself. I usually feel so terrible about spending Holy Week frantically doing last-minute shopping for frilly dresses and tights and chocolate and candy for the kids, when I ought to be pondering my own mortality. This year, vowing to keep my priorities straight, I did all the shopping and fussing far ahead of time, and filled up my bedroom with bags and parcels of Easter goodies all packed away, ready to be brought out when the season was right.

The upshot was that, when Holy Week actually arrived, I had no clue. I had deprived myself of the usual cues of furtive guilt and desperation, and there was nothing to replace it. Now it’s almost Good Friday, everything’s ready, and I’m completely disoriented.

Jokes aside, I have been thinking about how to keep Holy Week holy — beyond, of course, the traditional fasting, praying, and giving alms, which I assume you already know about! Very few of us can simply drop out of our everyday routine and focus entirely on spiritual things to prepare for Easter. We have to live our everyday lives while still somehow preparing ourselves for the most holy and solemn and meaningful three days of the entire year. How do we pull that off?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Loïc LLH, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A good way to use the adoration chapel

When I was in college, my roommate and I used to hang out in the chapel on campus sometimes. She liked to do her homework there, because it was so quiet and peaceful. Sometimes, if she had the place to herself, she would sing, because the acoustics were so good. I thought both practices were a little weird, and not really the right way to use the chapel, which ought to be used for prayer.

My best friend and I would sometimes hurtle into the chapel and land on our knees to rattle off a few desperate decades of the rosary, begging Mary to help us pass some test we hadn’t studied for, because we had spent the night drinking beer in the woods, instead. I knew some of the upperclassmen (including our big sisters) thought this was a pretty shoddy practice, because the chapel was a spot for quiet, contemplative prayer, not vending machine-style intercessions.

Then there were some tormented evenings throughout my early adulthood when I would turn up in any unlocked church I could find just because it was open and I didn’t know where else to go, and all I could do was sit there and feel terrible because I didn’t know how else to feel. It seemed like at very least it couldn’t possibly hurt to feel that way inside the walls of a chapel.

Then for a long time, after I started my family, I was too busy to go to the chapel. There were years and years where I was barely even physically at Mass on Sundays, because I was always wrestling with a toddler in the foyer, or dragging a screaming baby out of the building, or trotting back and forth to the bathroom with a kindergartener. I looked back on those previous years when the chapel just stood there waiting for me, and I could pop in any time I wanted, and I couldn’t believe how poorly I used that precious time.

There was a good long spell a few years ago when I made wonderful use of the chapel. I had a whole program of prayer worked out, and I made sure I followed through on all of it every time. I prayed every kind of prayer I knew how to do, and I brought a list of people to pray for. I was so busy and so thorough, and did so well. I kept this up for as long as I could, until I got too busy again.

And I’m still busy, sometimes miserably busy, but I decided to sign up anyway. Or I guess because of how busy I am, I decided to sign up. I have started to figure out that the busy-ness doesn’t go away; it just shifts and takes on a different character.

Now when I go to the chapel, I don’t use my time well. I don’t use my time at all. I just sit there. These are strange days, and it seems like there is less and less I am sure of, fewer and fewer things I feel comfortable putting into words, even silently, even in prayer. So mostly I just sit. The time passes slowly.

Sometimes I feel like a rock at the bottom of the ocean, much too heavy to be stirred much by waves moving overhead. Sometimes I fall asleep, and that doesn’t seem so bad.

That’s the good thing about not having an agenda: Even if you can’t manage to stay conscious, you’re not missing anything. All you’re trying to do is be there, and you can do that when you’re asleep. Just be there.

Somebody said that the way to encounter God is to empty oneself, because God cannot bear emptiness, and will fill you with Himself. I can’t say that I have noticed that happening. I have noticed that I have some pity on my past self, though. I no longer look back and think, “Oh, what a fool I was to use the chapel so poorly. I should have known better; I should have done differently.”

Instead, I think, “At least I was there. I was sitting there with the only one in the world who is always glad to see me.” And that’s a good way to use the chapel. Whatever I had at the time, whatever I was, I brought with me, and that’s what I’m doing now, even though it looks a lot like nothing at all. All I do is sit. At least I’m there. I believe it’s a good way to use the chapel.

A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on February 16, 2022.

 

Things I learned while DIYing

Lately, I have discovered I have a knack for minor home renovations, and by “minor” I mean “the entire household gets turned upside down for 72 hours,” and by “knack” I mean “nobody stops me.”

It started when I painted the kitchen and put in a new floor and trim and backsplash and ceiling, and then we put in a new bathroom floor (although that was because we had to, due to Sudden Catastrophic Bathroom Collapse; not recommended), and also several new walls and new tiles; and then suddenly the living room ceiling felt intolerable as it was, and so did the dining room ceiling, and then I was like, YOU KNOW WHAT THIS DINING ROOM NEEDS? And because it was afraid of me, it quavered out, “Please give me yellow and white paint and a new black and white floor with stars on it, and install a breakfast nook!” and so I did.

As a chronic over-sharer, I generally document my progress on social media, and people kindly say things like. “You have so much energy!” and this is true. It’s not a virtue. I was just born that way, and I choose to channel it into home renovation instead of world domination, because I don’t know what I did with my passport. They also say ,”You are learning how to do so many things!” And this is also true. In a certain sense.

Here is what I have learned about home renovation projects:

If you’re attempting a project you’ve never done before, always start with the most visible part of the room. This way, by the time you’ve actually acquired some technical skill, you’ll have worked your way around to the part that’s behind the box of mismatched roller skates, and no one will ever see the fruits of your great proficiency; but the section that looks like it was done by a baboon with a meth problem will be front and center for you and your guests to behold every day of your life.

Relatedly: If it’s something you already know how to do, always start the project, when you have plenty of energy and enthusiasm, with the big, easy parts, and leave the fiddly, exhausting, trying bits for the end when you are seeing double, the back of your neck is on fire, and your confidence and self-esteem are at rock bottom.

The reasons for these two rules are unclear, but I follow them every single time, no matter what the project, so they must be vital.

Also important to remember: Many of today’s problems have solutions the seeds for which were planted in your brain many years ago. In today’s project, for instance, I accidentally glued the front door shut. I’m not especially eager to have guests anyway, but my husband was on his way home with hamburgers, so it was looking pretty tragic for a minute.

But then I remembered a little something I had learned many years ago in physics class, a little something about inclined planes, and thinking about it made me remember how stupid I used to feel in physics class, because I never knew what was going on, because I never did the homework; and feeling stupid makes me feel mad, and I got so mad that I kicked the door really hard, and it popped open! And then my husband came home with the hamburgers. So you see, physics really works.

It’s not just you: They really have started printing directions smaller and lighter. What helps me is to fetch my reading glasses, turn on my phone’s flashlight, sometimes take a photo with my phone, enlarge it, and THEN ignore it completely and do it however I feel like, and then become baffled and enraged when it turns out horrible, the glue doesn’t stick, the pieces don’t join, the screws strip, the bits fall out, the center does not hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, and also some stray macaroni gets painted right into the windowsill. It’s not just you. It’s a conspiracy.

It’s very easy to lose track of time when you’re immersed in a long project, but you do want to pace yourself. If you’re not sure what time it is and you can’t see a clock, just look at the bit of work in front of you and imagine hitting it with a hammer. If the very notion makes your brain go red with hot, hot desire, the hour is probably Late, and you should probably take a little break. Stand up for a while, stretch your legs, and go lurk by the kitchen sink and eat fistfuls of stale cake and questionable deli meat. This will clear your head until you can admit to yourself that you already hit the thing with the hammer, probably more than once, and you know perfectly well that’s not what “wabi sabi” means.

You can probably cover the smash marks with caulk, though. But you still may want to stop for the day, because the doctor has asked you to try to avoid the redbrain thing if possible.

Finally, don’t forget your yoga. Many of the stretches and poses will come in handy to help you sustain your peace of mind throughout the project. For instance, suddenly climb down from your ladder and assume corpse pose. This not only relieves tension in your whole body, it terrifies the children, and they stop asking stupid questions and run away.

I hope these tips help you in any projects you may undertake. Remember, if you have any questions at all, do not hesitate to reach out and ask, and I’ll be happy to help if I can. My door is always open. Unless I’ve glued it shut again.

 

A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly on February 20, 2022.

You’re supposed to fail at Lent

The dew is off the rose, now, Lent-wise.

Whatever sacrifices we embraced or extra devotions we decided to take on, the novelty has worn off, and we have probably found ourselves failing. Maybe we even made a point of saying that this year was going to be different, and yet here it is: Not.

I have some good news for you. You’re supposed to fail at Lent.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: photo by Chris Waits via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The Church you’re building

When St. Francis had a vision of Jesus, he made an honest mistake. The Lord told him to rebuild his church, so St. Francis, with a willing heart, set to work rebuilding the literal, physical church right in front of him. Block by block, he put the chapel of San Damiano back together. 

But of course Christ had bigger plans. He meant for St. Francis to do the much vaster work of renewing and restoring the Church in general, which was in a much sorrier state. 

I have been thinking of this lately when I hear people — myself, included, say something a lot of people have been saying lately: “I’m so tired of the Church.” 

There are a lot of reasons to be tired. There are a lot of reasons to be weary, discouraged, disgusted, fed up, furious, maybe even done with the Church.

First, let me be clear. There are people who feel this way, who have truly done their best to seek out the good, true, and beautiful in the institution founded by Christ, but it seems that every Catholic they encounter is on a mission to show them the bad, false, and ugly. I know people who are trying tremendously hard to refocus their hearts and minds on what is essential and eternal about the faith, but they are met, again and again, with Catholics who wound them profoundly. And I will not tell them that they should just work harder to get past it.

I know people who have tried to get away from what is hurting them in the church, and they have found that they can’t, because they’ve already been wounded so deeply. They carry their wounds with them, and when they walk, they bleed. I’m not going to tell people in this state what they ought to do, or where they ought to go. 

But that’s only some people. There are others, who, when they say, “I’m so tired of the Church,” are in a different place entirely. I know, because sometimes this is me.

Sometimes, when I’m in this mode and I say “the Church,” what I really mean is a specific, self-selected group of celebrity Catholics I chose to perseverate on. When I say “the Church,”  I really mean a narrow collection of reliable sources of gross news that I can return to again and again whenever I want to reassure themselves that wicked people are still wicked, and they’re definitely not like me. I mean that I’ve fallen into a perverse habit of seeking out the things that make me feel bad about the faith and about my fellow Catholics, and it works: I do feel bad, all the time. 

Very often, when I say I’m tired of the Church, what I really mean is that I’m tired of the weird, ugly little quasi-church I’ve half-consciously built around myself out of sheer cynicism and snark and self righteousness. It’s a very flimsy, ugly, broke-down church indeed. No wonder I don’t like it there.

But I go there because it scratches some kind of unhealthy psychological itch. It makes me feel like I’m canny and hardened enough to see through façades, and world-weary enough to reject them with disgust — and there’s more relish in this disgust than I like to admit. There’s even an element of belonging to an in-group of people who feel this way. Some part of my psyche gets rewarded for hanging around in the crummy old ruins that I profess to despise, and going back there again and again. 

This is a real phenomenon, too,  just as real, and just as threatening to souls, as the phenomenon of people who’ve been gravely wounded and cannot seem to find a safe home in the church no matter how hard they look.

If you, like me, find yourself complaining often about how tired you are of the Church, it’s worthwhile to look at your habits, and see what state of mind they support. What do they build

But here’s the thing. In either case, we’re talking about people who have been wounded, whether those wounds are shallow or deep, or whether they’ve been self-inflicted or not.

In either case, let us think about St. Francis.

He wasn’t actually wrong to start with working on rebuilding the physical chapel of San Damiano. Jesus did mean that he wanted Francis to restore the Church as a whole through the institution of the order of Franciscans. That is what he eventually did, and that is what the Franciscans continue, through their works and prayers, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to carry out in their continual work of perpetual restoration of the Body of Christ to this day. It wasn’t just about that one little chapel; it was about the whole Church, and still is.

But God was also asking Francis to look around and see where he was, physically, spiritually, personally. He was asking him to start with what he, himself could actually control.

And this is what Jesus asks of everybody, always. 

Sometimes the problem with the Church is something that is very much out of my control — something like how some archbishop is handling the sex abuse crisis, or something like a specific doctrine that I can’t get my head around.

But there are still rebuilding projects I can handle, that have more to do with how I dwell inside the church than I may realize. Habits of prayer; habits of how I allow myself to think about other people. What I prioritize each day. How tightly I hold onto sins. How ardently I seek goodness. How much I really mean to change when I say I’m sorry. How much I’m willing to acknowledge change in others, when it happens. What I do first thing every day; what I do last. 

I always do well when I remember that Francis got his commission at the foot of the cross. 

The chapel of San Damiano wasn’t empty. There was a crucifix on the wall, and it was Jesus crucified who spoke to him, who told him to rebuild. I always do well when I remember this, when I picture this. 

There is a huge difference between “I don’t like or understand or accept this doctrine of the church, so I will spend all my time hanging around with ex-Catholics who tweet snarky hot takes making fun of it” and “I don’t like or understand or accept this doctrine of the church, so I will commit to bringing it to prayer at the foot of the cross over and over again, trying not to have any expectations for what will happen next.” There is a huge difference. You can tell me your experience has been different, and I will believe you, but this has been my experience. 

If youre one of the many, many Catholics who looks around at the Church today and sees what a poor state it’s in, youre not wrong. But when youre done looking around, look up. Are you at the foot of the cross? I will not tell you where you need to end up. But I know this is where you need to start. 

 

***

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on January 7, 2021

Image: Detail of photo by Renaud Camus via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The hard lesson of being unproductive

Because I’m friends with a lot of creative people — painters, poets, authors, poets, clothing and jewelry designers — there is a lot of talk about impostor syndrome, the deeply internalized fear that one’s accomplishments are all a sham. Even though they have successful careers, they routinely have to hush the little voice telling them have no business calling themselves a professional, and that either everyone is already laughing at them, or it’s only a matter of time before the great denouement begins. (I am also friends with a few people who ought to feel this way, but don’t. Somehow it’s always the genuinely talented and accomplished people who feel the most like phonies, whereas there’s no shortage of confidence among the fakers, hacks, and bums.)

So a little service my friends and I perform for each other is to point out the obvious: But you’re doing it. You’re making a living. People are paying you for what you do. Your skills are in demand. If you’re not the real thing, then no one is. The objective evidence proves you are productive and successful. 

The task has been a bit different lately. Lots of creative people are in a bit of a rut. Can’t seem to come up with any ideas. Can’t seem to come up with any enthusiasm for expressing what they do come up with. Can’t seem to drum up a persuasive argument for why it’s worth while to try to express anything to anyone anyway, when everyone is so . . . well, you know. It was one thing when we were doing drawing challenges to get through a two-week lockdown to flatten the curve. Headed past the bend of two years, and the flattening effect has become pervasive, and very flat indeed. 

So the task becomes a bit different. Rather than persuade ourselves that what we produce really is extraordinary, really is above average, really is something special, my friends and I are busily reminding each other that we are valuable and worthy even when we’re not producing anything. And this is a steeper hill to climb. 

But it is a time that will come to all of us, sooner or later. Night, when no man works. The hour when the clock has run out, one way or the other, and we will no longer be able to point to our busywork as evidence for our worth.

For some people, this hour is their entire lives: They never make anything, they never accomplish anything. They simply exist, and the Christian ethos has always insisted that these souls are as worthy of love and respect as the most productive among us. There are saints who never did anything but sweep the floor, and saints who never did anything but pray. There are saints who only became saints after they lost their ability to accomplish the things they thought God put them on earth to do. 

I wish I were writing this essay as a guide to tell you how to get from A to B — how to remind yourself that you have intrinsic worth in the eyes of God, and that your value was never a matter of what you could accomplish or produce. I do know that God sometimes gets our attention by letting our accomplishments be taken away from us.

I’m in no place to teach any lessons, but I can at least point to them. I’m reading He Leadeth Me, and woof, that’s the story right there.

The author, Servant of God Walter Ciszek, tells about how he thought he was going to be a bold and amazing priest who evangelizes Russia, but when he gets there, it turns out he’s not allowed to preach; then he gets arrested and it turns out everyone he talks to has been taught to despise priests; and then he doesn’t even get to talk to anybody at all, except interrogators . . . for five years. 

And he breaks. He agrees to sign his name to a false confession of spying for the Vatican, and is horrified and grief-stricken at his own weakness. And this is the place where he finds himself totally reliant on the mercy and will of God. 

About halfway through the book, after he describes a strange and profound conversion where he fully surrenders to God’s will for the first time, he says:

“Somehow, that day, I imagined I must know how Saint Peter felt when he had survived his denials and been restored to Christ’s friendship. Even though our Lord had promised that he, being once converted, would confirm his brethren, I doubt very much that Peter ever again boasted that he would never desert the Lord even if all others deserted him. I find it perfectly understandable that Peter, in his letters to the early churches, should have reminded his Christians to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. For just as man begins to trust in his own abilities, so sure has he taken the first step on the road to ultimate failure. And the greatest grace God can give such a man is to send him a trial he cannot bear with his own powers–and then sustain him with his grace to he may endure to the end and be saved. “

I am not going to pretend I know what this really means. I’m just going to keep reading the book, which is fascinating and brutally honest about his interior struggles. I’m sure it’s no accident that this book came into my life when the theme of the last many months has been distress over how little I seem to be able to get done. Fr. Ciszek puts a lot of stock — his entire heart, in fact — in the value of being where God puts you, to do God’s will. I wish he had been more explicit about how to tell what God’s will is; but I have gathered, at least, that it’s more about being than about doing. And the good news is, he found tremendous joy, freedom, and relief when he surrendered to being entirely at God’s disposal, rather than trying to be productive. 

This is some good company, my friends, with Fr. Ciszek and St. Peter. If you are, like so many other people, struggling and feeling discouraged, or if you are not only struggling but have actually failed, then this is a time to pray that the place you’re in is a path toward God. It’s not a time to stop praying. That’s always a mistake; that much I know. It couldn’t hurt to pray to Fr. Ciszek. You know he’ll understand. 

Anyway, one thing “impostor syndrome” has taught me is that it’s one thing to recognize my own talents and skills objectively, but quite another to act as if I deserve special treatment because of them. I don’t. But the deeper lesson is that we’re all imposters, as long as we insist that our worth lies in what we can produce. 

***

 

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

In which I contract driving madness (subscriber content)

Can I tell you about my week? Can I just tell you?

To understand what really happened — to truly savor the full robust flavor of the drink I am about to proffer you — you have to understand that, the whole time everything I am about to tell you is going on, I am driving. I am driving all the time. All I do is driveDriving is what I am. That’s all there is to me, anymore: Drivingness. 

The reason for this is that my husband and I decided, against our better judgment, that he should fly away on a business trip to the rather far-fetched-sounding state of Texas for four days. The reasons for this will become more clear as the story proceeds. He used to travel a lot, just about every week, back when our family was young and I wasn’t as good as screaming, “YOU’RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE” as I am nowadays. We didn’t like that kind of life at all, and we decided not to do that anymore.

But we did decide he should go, just this once, and I would take care of things back home, mostly by driving. This is because we have six kids who go to four different schools in two different towns, none of which are in the town we live in; and three of our kids go to college in another town, but live at home, and they all work part time in town. We do have one extra car, and one of our kids can currently drive it, so that helps somewhat. That kid would do his driving, I would do my driving and my husband’s driving, and it would be a lot of driving, but we could do it. That was the plan.

Then I took a look at my calendar for the week he would be gone, and o! What a clever woman I am. I saw that, on the week I was solo parenting, in addition to all the usual trips and errands and chores and obligations and side quests, I had scheduled physical therapy for my hip, and a neurological evaluation for one of the kids, and I had, as a long-overdue birthday present, bought tickets to see an off-Broadway show in the next state, and I had also, this is true, signed up to cook an Italian meal in honor of St. Clare for 35 youth group kids. And we also had a driving test for one of the kids. Which in theory would come in handy eventually, but which at the moment felt like seeing someone drowning and quickly tossing them the blueprint for a boat.Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly. (Subscriber content)