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.

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

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.

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

Discerning out: What happens when a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life?

Joe Heschmeyer was once so sure of his vocation to the priesthood that he forgot he was supposed to be discerning it.

Everyone around him thought he should be a priest. His mother, he discovered later, had offered him to the Lord as an infant the way Hannah did in the Old Testament. Mr. Heschmeyer wrote about his vocation frequently on his blog Shameless Popery, speaking of his ordination as if it were inevitable. Things were going so well, he lost track of the idea that he was in seminary to test and explore his vocation.

“Pretty soon after I entered [in 2011], I stopped asking God if this was what he wanted. I felt like the question had already been answered. My grades were good; I was well esteemed; everything internal to the seminary felt successful. That felt like enough validation. I forgot to ask, ‘Are we still on the same page?’” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

It was not until friends and family had already bought airplane tickets and reserved hotel rooms for his ordination to the diaconate that he began to feel some doubt. He tried to assign his misgivings to “last-minute jitters,” but a black cloud of unease hung over his head.

He described riding on a bus on the way back from a retreat.

“The archbishop has an open seat next to him. A sort of rotating spot, where you can share whatever’s on your heart. It’s usually pretty short, out of respect—a 10-minute thing. I was there for half an hour, pouring out all these difficulties,” he said. The archbishop immediately reassured him that if he had any doubts, he should take more time before making a final commitment.

“It was a tremendous load that had been lifted off my shoulders. It was an illuminating and painful experience. I realized I was happy I wasn’t getting ordained. It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, or expected to feel,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

He decided to take time off and then consider rejoining—a plan which, according to the Rev. Matt Mason, the vocations director for the diocese of Manchester, N.H., is not uncommon. But nine days into a 10-day retreat, Heschmeyer knew for sure he was not meant to be a priest after all.

Leaving the seminary or religious life can feel like freedom followed by disorientation, or like rejection followed by clarity. For many, the experience eventually bears fruits of self-knowledge and a more profound relationship with God. But first comes suffering.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. This article is also in the July print edition. 

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’: A searing but flawed film about abortion

I suppose America asked me to review “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” because I am pro-life but critical of the mainstream pro-life movement. I especially reject pro-lifers who demonize women and make excuses for men, and who refuse to understand why abortion feels like the only choice for some women. Things are slowly changing, but much of pro-life culture is still propaganda. I abhor propaganda, even when I agree with the message it delivers. If I’m watching a movie, I want a work of art, not a wheelbarrow for dumping a message at my feet.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” written and directed by Eliza Hittman, is no wheelbarrow. It is a deft, delicate and sometimes searingly painful and realistic portrayal of two teenage cousins, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and Skylar (Talia Ryder), who travel from their rural Pennsylvania town to New York City, where Autumn can get an abortion without parental consent. For a longish film, it is short on plot and dialogue, relying heavily and successfully on glances, murmurs and laconic comments. The script and acting are superb, flawless. This film never tells, only shows, and it does it so well.

Maybe too well. Read the rest of my review for America Magazine.

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 

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 . . .

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Image: Holy Hill Station VI: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus, photo by Sharon Mollerus 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

Suicide and abortion stem from the same lie

Those looking from the outside can readily see that severely depressed people do not actually need or deserve death, no matter what they say. Instead, they need and deserve to be rescued from the dark lies that call death their only choice.

There is no easy answer to intense human suffering, but one thing is sure: We do not show love by enabling despair, by affirming the lies that make death attractive, by keeping other humans in a dark hole. Love is truth, even painful truth. Love never affirms lies.

But if we see this so clearly in the case of senseless, tragic suicides, why do we hedge when it comes to abortion?

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Image by Thom Chandler via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Venting is healthy, but the cross purifies

Social media, for all its benefits, has made it all too easy to find a group of people who will take your lowest impulses and hoist them on high, praising and burnishing them until they look like something fine and heroic. As you form relationships in the group and come to know and trust your new friends, and as the group members reward each other for holding fast to its ideals, the thing that used to make you feel a little uneasy about yourself slowly becomes your identity, the thing that fills you with pride.

This is how alt-right groups function. This is how terrorist groups function. This is how abusively rigid traditionalist groups function. And this is how dissenting groups function. Dissent comes to feel normal, even heroic. The subject matter in each group is different, but the psychological dynamics are the same.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine here.

Image by faungg’s photos via Flickr . (Creative Commons)