Go and find a bell to ring

Some people are hoarding hand sanitizer in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some people are making wills, and some people are slowly retreating into nail-gnawing panic. My husband went and found a handbell.

This is because the new coronavirus, along with all its deprivations and terrors, has given my family something rare and wonderful: Everyone is home together at noon every day. That means we can say the Angelus. And if you are going to say the Angelus, you need a nice, loud bell to ring—especially when you have college kids home who think of noon as early morning.

I am not trying to make light of the pandemic. I spent part of my morning tumbling into a spiral of fear, telling myself a bleak story about my family’s wonky immune systems and the shortage of hospital beds. I have two elderly parents with underlying health conditions and friends whose livelihoods and mental health are in serious peril. Maybe worst of all, I see people saying you are only afraid if you lack faith in God. As if Jesus himself never felt fear when there was reason to fear.

God bless my husband, he went and found a bell to ring. Sometimes we have to halt what we are doing and forcibly remind ourselves that isolation does not have to mean we are forsaken. When we say the Angelus, we remember that God did not abandon mankind. He sent an angel to Mary, and Mary gave a savior to us. So we are making an intentional effort to keep sight of that, when it is so easy to slide into terror and distress. We are not abandoned.

Let me share a few things that brought me up short in the last few days and reminded me how much good there is in the world. Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: Philip de Koninck, after Rembrandt “Woman with a Rosebud” / Public domain

Movie review: Jojo Rabbit made me laugh, but not cry

“Comedy is a red rubber ball,” said Mel Brooks, “and if you throw it against a soft, funny wall, it will not come back. But if you throw it against the hard wall of ultimate reality, it will bounce back and be very lively.”

With this quote in mind, I went to see Jojo Rabbit, which has been nominated for six Oscars. It is the latest applicant to an exclusive club: Movies that laugh at Hitler.

The film’s premise is, if anything, more audacious than anything by Brooks. It follows Jojo, a sweet and manic 10-year-old German boy who is absolutely wild for the Führer. In fact, he has made an imaginary companion out of him and spends his days palling around with a goofy, benevolent Adolph, who eggs him on and encourages him through every woe. One day, Jojo and his buddy Hitler are both horrified to discover that his mother has hidden a Jewish girl in the walls of their house.

What to do? Who to trust? Who to fear? From the very first scene, the movie puts in balance two monstrously weighty forces: Life and death, good and evil, loyalty and rebellion, hope and futility. It whipsaws back and forth between slapstick and horror, comedy and tragedy. I watched, enthralled, to see where it would land.

As a Jew, I am ready and able to laugh at the darkest of jokes. That’s how you make it through the dark. Mel Brooks managed this feat handily in his lesser-known “To Be Or Not To Be,” which contains one scene that shatters me every time.

Until this scene, “To Be Or Not To Be” is pure comedy; but then the weight shifts, and for a terrible moment, everything hangs in balance. The bumbling crew of actors must smuggle Jews out of a darkened theater bristling with Nazis. In desperation, they disguise the refugees as clowns, and it’s actually working—until one poor old babushka, her wrinkled face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. So many swastikas, so many guns. It’s too much. She’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.

So the leader of the actors looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “Juden!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s chest, whips out a clown gun and shoots her in the head. POW.

And that’s what saves them all. The Nazis roar with laughter in the dark, and the innocent make it through.

This scene carries the whole movie, because it has the nerve to set aside comedy and make the audience sit for a moment in naked peril: These men are killers. They do laugh at shooting an old woman in the head. The terror is real. “To Be Or Not To Be” earns the right to make Hitler jokes, because it doesn’t flinch away from knowing and showing what is at stake. The ball of comedy bounces because that hard surface is there to hit, however briefly.

There is no such hard surface in “Jojo Rabbit.”

Instead . . .

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Image: Still from movie trailer 

Asking couples to use NFP is asking a lot. Can’t the Church help more?

It is no secret: Natural family planning has its discontents. A number of studies have shown that few Catholics use it, and it is not hard to see why. N.F.P. can be difficult, it can be frustrating, and occasionally it is impossible. I am a discontent myself, albeit a stubbornly faithful one, which is why I wrote a whole book about how ordinary, non-saintly couples can learn to navigate the spiritual, emotional and marital problems that N.F.P. sometimes brings into sharp focus.

N.F.P. is worth learning well and sticking with, despite all the trials it can bring. When we were first married, my husband and I did not know how to communicate well. We did not understand what sex was really about. We had no clue about how God’s will actually works in our lives. Sacrificial patience, generosity and transformative suffering were mysteries to us. They are not mysteries now but are daily practices, thanks in part to the rigors of N.F.P. I wrote my book to let other struggling couples know they are not alone, and that their suffering does not have to be in vain.

But one thing my book did not cover was the logistical obstacles to using fertility awareness based methods of family planning successfully. (Most now shy away from the more colloquial label N.F.P.) These obstacles are not negligible. It was not long ago that we desperately wanted to switch to another fertility awareness based method that would work better with my body, but we simply did not have the money; so we were stuck with an unsuitable method that caused frustration and confusion. Some struggling is inevitable and can bring about growth; but some is avoidable and causes only pain. A small cash grant would have made a world of difference for our family.

I wondered how common our experience was; so I designed some surveys and shared them on social media and on my personal website, targeting women who use or have used a wide range of different forms of fertility awareness methods. Nearly 700 women responded. Here is what I learned.

Some women love N.F.P. Some of them find it cheap and simple and empowering. Some of them find it pricey and labor intensive, but well worth the cost. Some of them say it healed their bodies, enriched their marriages and drew them closer to God.

But for others, N.F.P. brought one trial after another. The church teaches us to forgo birth control, and so they did, whether out of obedience, love of spouse or a desire to understand their own health better. But even if they were willing to take on the spiritual and psychological challenges of N.F.P., they found themselves stymied by logistical problems beyond their control—things that could easily be solved with something as mundane as money, or better marketing, or better organization or even something as simple as a babysitter.

Oddly enough, even as the church struggles to interest its flock in fertility awareness based methods for spiritual reasons, fertility awareness is having a moment in the secular world. Cosmopolitan gave N.F.P. some positive press, and so did The New York Times. The interest is fuelled partly by a slow but growing disenchantment with artificial contraception among women of a variety of backgrounds and faiths. There are now countless fertility awareness based methods (usually paired with targeted condom use in secular circles) on the market; and women, religious or not, are snapping them up. You can buy bluetooth-enabled super-thermometers for $300 and compact fertility monitors straight out of Star Trek that smile at you when you are fertile. It is a far cry from the days of a scrap of graph paper, a thermometer and crossed fingers.

There are dozens of slick fertility apps, many free, some with millions of downloads. Women who have no idea that the church pioneered fertility awareness are turning to fertility awareness methods because they cannot seem to get pregnant or because they are thoroughly sick of birth control side-effects like migraines, blood clots or mood swings and wandering I.U.D.s; and they are ready for something else, something natural.

Here is the frustrating part. The church has something natural and effective to offer, and it is not some antiquated calendar system. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has approved a number of fertility awareness based methods: MarquetteCreightonBillingsSympto-Thermal, Boston Cross Check and N.F.P.I. The church is, in theory, delighted when a couple want to manage their fertility naturally. And many of these methods offer some level of personal instruction, which greatly increases their effectiveness. But because they can also come with some psychological, cultural and logistical baggage, women who have powered through the judgment of the secular world find themselves facing obstacles from within the church itself.

What Women Want

Given the church’s desire for couples to practice fertility awareness based methods, you might think every parish and diocese would offer numerous, easily accessible and affordable ways to learn these methods in order to use them consistently and reliably. You would be wrong.

It is a long history, and it would be funny if it were not so maddening. Back in 1932, Leo Latz, M.D., of Loyola University Chicago wrote his slim volume The Rhythm of Fertility and Sterility, outlining the basic principles of calendar-based family planning, so couples could learn to chart their fertility cycles quickly, easily and cheaply. It sold 600,000 copies to a readership ravenous for information.

Dr. Latz, for his trouble, was booted out of the university, a decision some historians attribute to his attempt to put dangerous information in the hot hands of so many married Catholics who might make decisions without the blessing of a priest.

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 Photo via Good Free Photos (Public Domain)

Veronica among the pro-lifers

My mother, at her best moments, was Veronica.

When she could still write and speak, she was wonderfully articulate, even brilliant. She cannot speak now. But here I am, learning from her how to be a Catholic—not so much from what she said but from what she did and what it showed me.

My parents were pro-life activists. As adult converts, they had already spent several years among evangelicals, some more earnest than others. They had encountered true holiness and Christian simplicity; and they had also encountered people like their landlord, who preached the Gospel and then told my mother she must hang her hand-washed cloth diapers up to dry in her tiny kitchen all winter because wet clothes on the porch just looked too poor. Blessed are the classy, for their property value will not depreciate.

Eventually, they made their way into the church, and once their Howard Johnson swimming pool baptism was conditionally repeated, they waded ashore as Catholics around 1978—right in the thick of liturgical silly season. I remember a Snoopy-themed catechism, altar balloons and some of the most Caucasian dancing known to mankind. My mother, praying in her makeshift chapel in the darkened back stairs, would wrestle with the homoousion late into Saturday night and then wake up early for Sunday Mass, which turned out to have clowns. And sometimes actual heresy.

I was young and only dimly aware of what my parents faced as they tried to anchor their spiritual boat in such choppy waters. They did try. My mother wrote about some of her efforts in this short, hilarious essay, “How I Wrecked Two Parish Ministries,” that you will skip at your peril. As I remember it, she struggled to keep her own massive hunger for truth in proportion with the equally urgent mandate to treat other human beings with love. Yes, even those who sneered and raged at her for giving up everything to follow Christ. Yes, even those who said they loved him and then told lies in his name. In all her many spiritual incarnations, my mother was always a personalist, long before I knew there was a name for it.

She was, as I say, a pro-life activist, which took many different forms. She prayed peacefully outside abortion facilities. She wrote letters to the editor. Shy as she was, she manned the booth at community health fairs and showed teenagers accurate models of fetal development. I think she tried sidewalk counseling but decided it was not right for her, so instead worked with agencies that helped new mothers with clothing, housing and food. She fielded her share of profanity and abuse from abortion activists. And she irritated her conservative friends by insisting we acknowledge the chastity of Jesus, not just the purity of Mary. She knew what so many of her fellow Catholics seemed to have forgotten: That Jesus was a real man, a virgin, and that how he behaved in his actual human life meant something.

She believed that you could touch his face.

Our minivan had a bumper sticker that said, “One abortion: One dead, one wounded.” My mother especially liked this message because it was not about society or politics, but it reminded us that every single abortion represents a massive failure toward some particular woman.

One day on the highway, we passed another car, and my mother thought she saw a short vignette play out: A woman saw the bumper sticker and began to cry, and the man at the wheel tried to comfort her as he drove.

Who knows what really happened. But as soon as she got home, my mother peeled the bumper sticker off the car. The last thing she wanted was to wound someone. That was the whole point: It does not matter how right you are. What you do has to be about the human person. You cannot just go around wounding people who are already wounded and call it “Christian.” It is our job to heal, not to wound.

My mother was so socially baffled at all times. She could talk about ideas, but petty chit-chat left her stymied. As if they realized this, the needy and disabled who were too weird and smelly for everyone else were drawn to her in droves. I always imagined her in paradise, followed, like Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce, by an adoring, jabbering crowd of all the hapless, gormless outcasts she awkwardly welcomed and comforted, fed, clothed. Social pretensions she understood not at all, but a person in need or a person in pain claimed her entirely. It was always about the human person, the real human person. When no one else would touch their faces, she would.

My mother had a drawer where she kept her pro-life materials—her posters, her pamphlets, her reams of purple mimeographed facts and resources. In the back of the drawer was a box, and in the box was an envelope. This was where she kept some photos of aborted babies . . .

Continue reading the rest of my latest for America.

Image: Holy Hill Station VI: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus, photo by Sharon Mollerus via Flickr (Creative Commons)

What kind of woman veils at Mass?

Imagine you are a millennial Catholic woman. You are at Mass, kneeling at the altar rail, waiting to receive Christ in the Eucharist. As you peer at the high altar through your lace mantilla, your heart burns with love.

And into your back burns the searing hot gaze of that weird dude in the pew behind you—the one who once cornered you after confession to let you know your modesty is smoking hot.

I am not making this up. That really did happen to a friend of mine. And, based on a recent meme posted to the Facebook group Traditional Catholic Millennials, her experience may not be unique. The group, which has over 20,000 members, posted a photo of three young women kneeling at an altar rail, veiled and apparently in prayer. The emoji-littered meme exclaimed:

Looking for a good husband? [shrugging emoji] Want to be irresistible to Catholic men?? Simple!

[heart eye heart eye] VEIL! It’s a SMOKING HOT

Trad magnet! [fire fire] #Truth

#GetAHusband #NotPC

And the photo description read:

#BringOnTheTrollArmies TRIGGER WARNING:

It’s so true!!!! Holy men LOVE virtue and reverence for the Eucharist! Inner beauty is SMOKING HOT! [heart eye, panting emoji panting emoji heart laughing/crying fire] Externals show it. Buy one Here: https://www.veilsbylily.com/

Because God forbid there be one hour per week when a woman is not forced to deal with the consequences of whether or not men find her hot.

The cognitive dissonance was jarring if you are not familiar with the bizarre netherworld of outré ultra traditionalists, where pants are verboten because their pockets form a visual arrow pointing to the crotch; where working outside the home is stealing time from your family, but incessantly tweeting about collarbones and hemlines is doing God’s work; and where feminine modesty is a great way to advertise your…modesty.

If this makes any sense to you, I am telling it wrong.

The good news is, it does not make sense to a good many traditionalists, either, millennial or otherwise, and they found the “smoking hot veil” meme revolting and ridiculous. Lily Wilson herself, the founder of Veils by Lily, the website that was promoted in the post, told the group to take the meme down, which they eventually did.

Ms. Wilson thinks the contingent of traditionalist Catholics who objectify women and fetishize veils are in the minority.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Photo by kilarov zaneit on Unsplash

In which I give thanks for the Chicken of Life

Last Sunday, I had the kids in my faith formation class draw a picture of a Thanksgiving feast at their house. Most drew a table, some food and family and friends gathered around. Then I had them draw a picture of the Mass and nudged them toward drawing a similar scene. We talked about how the altar is a table, as well as a place of sacrifice, and how the food is Jesus, and all of mankind is one family.

I was working my way up to the central idea—that “Eucharist” literally means “Thanksgiving.” But the lesson did not really land because most of the kids did not know the word “Eucharist” yet. Also, some of them did not know what “Mass” meant, and some of them did not know what to draw since they were going over to their mom’s new boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving, and they weren’t sure if he had a table. One child steadfastly insisted that last time he went to Mass they had wine and chicken. The chicken of life.

And, of course, three of the boys were still convulsing on the rug because, during the story portion of class, I had made the tactical error of showing them an illustration of St. Juan Diego in his tilma, and you could sort of see part of his butt. His butt.

Some weeks, my husband says I come home from teaching with my eyes shining and my face alight. This was not one of those weeks.

On a good week, the kids are spellbound while I tell them that God made the world because he is so overflowing with love, that he just wanted to be even happier by making more things to be good and beautiful and true, which is why he made the stars and the animals and you and me, and all he wants now is to get back together with us again.

On a good week, someone wants to talk about the war in heaven, and another kid pipes up, “But Ms. Simcha, the devil didn’t have to go to hell because he had free will!”

On a good week, we read about how Jesus called the shambling, shocked Lazarus from his dark grave, and one of the boys screws up his face with skepticism and blurts out, “Is this a story true?” and I can look him in the eye and say: “Yes, sweetheart. This is a true story. It’s all true!”

Those are the times when I feel keenly what a privilege it is to be there, to be allowed to feed these eager young Christians who are so hungry for the truths they were made to receive. Sometimes it feels like the cluttered little classroom is blazing with light and I am so glad, so glad to be there with them.

But we do have bad weeks . . . 

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Image: Dion Hinchcliffe via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

Non-scale victories for your spiritual life

Like half the country, I would like to shed a bit of weight. Before you send me a V.I.P. discount code for your amazing protein shake, let me assure you: I do know how to lose weight. I have done it many times before. There was the time I ate only coffee, ice, lettuce and horrible pre-mixed whiskey cocktails from the gas station. The pounds melted off, and I was an emotional wreck. Then there was the plan where I spent countless hours on the StairMaster while reading Wordsworth and crying. I know they say you cannot lose weight by exercise alone, but what if you are too dizzy to eat? You just have to know how to work it.

With this glory-free history of hitting my goal number on the scale, I am fairly content to be what I am now, which is fat but more or less happy. If I am neither wasting away nor in danger of knocking out close friends when my arteries violently explode, then I feel like I am doing all right (and so does my doctor).

Here is what I have discovered: I have a much better shot of keeping my weight in reasonable check without losing my mind if I think less about the scale and more about “non-scale victories.” Instead of focusing solely on numbers, I accept credit for achieving things that are harder to quantify but are worth so much more—things like reaching the top of the stairs without wheezing, shopping for clothes without sobbing, or finding out the garlic bread is all gone without flying into a rage.

A non-scale victory is when I painfully resist a second helping and realizing once I have cleared my plate that I really am already full. Or when I give into temptation and scarf down far, far more cheese than any sensible being should ingest—but the next day I simply start over with my target plan, rather than spiraling into a black vortex of self-loathing.

What makes these victories both poignant and powerful is they do not reduce me to a clinical number, but instead they acknowledge and rejoice in the specifics of everyday life. Yes, the number on the scale matters, but I am more than a number. And when I see myself as a whole, worthy person with some flaws, rather than as a giant, walking flaw, it is easier to build on what is good.

So let us imagine, for a moment, that my problem is not that I am overweight but that my spiritual life has gone rather flabby. Imagine I look into the mirror of my soul, and I really do not like what I see. What to do?

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Image via needpix

Skip the semantics.The Jeffrey Epstein case is about victimizing girls, not “young women”

Cui bono? Who benefits from squeezing language until it bleeds jargon? The guilty, of course.

But another important question is: Cui plagalis? Who stands to lose? Whose suffering is likely to be minimized if normally careless people suddenly become very careful about their word choice?

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Image: by Linnaea Mallette  CC0 Public Domain

Death for nonsense, death for love

How can I persuade your mind to accept something even your body has known since before it was born? The body knows that life is better than death. People who attempt to drown themselves will tie their own ankles together because they know that even in the very act of self-extinction, their bodies will fight hard to live. I wonder if we are on our way to reprogramming our brains to evolve past our body’s involuntary thrashing toward life. It does seem like we are trying.

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Shout your damnation

Marriage as an institution may be public, but the love between husband and wife is, by definition, private. You inside me. It does not get any more private than that. And yet this reality show is part of a push to turn marriage inside out—to publicly share and spotlight that most intimate of betrayals, infidelity.

And that is what makes my blood run cold: how public Mr. Gasby and his mistress have made their deeds. Why have they done this? Because they know the power of the word “destigmatize.”

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Image: modified detail of U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero