Duty and salvation

When my oldest kid was about four, she happened to wake up around midnight to go to the bathroom. She stumbled through the living room, where my husband and I were sitting.

On this particular night – which was not a typical night! – we happened to be watching Daffy Duck cartoons and eating candy. She didn’t say a word, but just nodded to herself and kept walking. She was clearly thinking, “I KNEW it!”

It was, as I say, not a typical night. A typical night would be more likely to find us filling out insurance paperwork, trying to get stains out of someone’s favourite overalls, or simply trying to muster up the strength to get up, brush our teeth, struggle our way under the covers, and get a few hours of sleep before the baby woke up for her first feeding, so we could catch another few hours of sleep before it was time to get up and do it all over again, take care of everybody and everything all over again.

But what she saw was burned into her brain, and she thought she had found the real secret of adulthood: As soon as the kids’ bedroom door closes, you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT.

She wasn’t really wrong. Adults CAN do whatever they want. The catch is, if they DECIDE to do whatever they want, they’ll almost certainly ruin their lives and the lives of everyone around them, and go to hell when they die. It’s kind of a big catch.

What I tell my kids is that, when you’re a child, people make you do things you don’t want to do. But when you’re an adult, you have to make yourself do the things you don’t want to do. You have to be the unwilling worker and the strict taskmaster, both!

It occurs to me that we, even as adults, often fall into thinking of God as the strict taskmaster: the one who descends from on high, telling us what we can and cannot do. Every time we feel the urge to do WHATEVER WE WANT — uh oh, here comes God, saying “no, no, no.” Get up, take care of the thing, don’t do the thing you want to do, do the thing you don’t want to do instead. Then, tomorrow, do it all over again, even though you’re tired.

Following the ten commandments can feel very much like this, some days, or some years. And then we go to confession and admit, “I didn’t do the thing you told me to do. I failed.” And God forgives us, which is nice.

I’ve been teaching my faith formation class, over and over again, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. We are the silly ones who need to be saved, and He is the saviour. We are the wandering ones, and He is the one who finds us. We are the ones who fall into the hole, and He is the one who pulls us out again.

So I was making up my lesson plans and I realised that, with all this talk about sheep, I had not yet introduced the kids to the idea that Jesus is the paschal lamb. And boy, the strangeness of it hit me right between the eyes. God is not only the shepherd, but also the lamb.

I know you know this. You’re a Catholic, so you’ve heard it all before. But have you ever thought about how strange it is?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts of contrition for Catholic toads

In the story ‘Alone’ from the beloved children’s book Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, Toad goes to visit his friend Frog, only to discover a note on his door saying that Frog wants to be alone.

Toad, as is his wont, immediately falls into a panic, assuming Frog no longer cares about him. He puts together an elaborate lunch and hitches a ride on a turtle’s back, launching himself out across the water toward the island where Frog is, intending to win his affection back. As he comes in earshot of the island, he shouts,

“Frog! I am sorry for the dumb things I do. I am sorry for all the silly things I say. Please be my friend again!” Then he slips and falls, sploosh, into the water.

Every time I read this story, I laugh, because Toad’s words are so familiar. They are, in effect, an act of contrition, and I am Toad.

We are all Toad. What we may not all realise, though, is that an act of contrition can be expressed in many different words, including something like what Toad shrieks out in his misery. Many of us were made to memorise a particular prayer when we were growing up (or when we joined the Church), but we don’t have to say that specific prayer.

When the Rite of Penance describes a sacramental confession, it says, “The priest … asks the penitent to express his sorrow, which the penitent may do in these or similar words . . .” and it suggests 10 possible prayers, and leaves room for anything that expresses contrition.

Many people in my generation can rattle off something like this one:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell [or: because of thy just punishments]; but, most of all, because they offend You, my God, Who is all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, to avoid all occasions of sin, and to amend my life.

or this shorter one:

Oh my Jesus I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee, who are infinitely good, and I firmly resolve, with the help of the grace, never to offend thee again.

About 93 per cent of Catholic children hear “hardly” instead of “heartily.”  A few enterprising children thread this needle by saying, “I am hardly sorry for having been a friend of thee.” And that works. It’s the sincerity that matters, not the getting it perfectly right.

As Fr Kerper says:

“[T]he Act of Contrition is not primarily a magical formula rattled off thoughtlessly to guarantee instant forgiveness. Rather, it expresses in words a deeply personal act that engages a person’s affections and will.”

So it’s less important to have something memorized, and more important to think deeply about what we intend. A good act of contrition should include an expression of sorrow, a renunciation of sin, and a resolution to change; and there are many different ways you can say it.Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Kids’ first confession? Here’s how to make it easier

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate their anxiety and even help them learn to look forward to confession:

Make sure your kids fully understand that confession is a place you go for help, not a place you have to go when you’re in disgrace. Mercy mercy mercy. Tell them until they’re sick of hearing about it. 

Practice ahead of time. Nothing eases anxiety like familiarity; and humor helps, too. Let the kid take turns acting out confession playing the part of different penitents with appropriate sins: Their two-year-old sister, for instance, or Indiana Jones. Let them know the routine inside and out before they make it personal.

Let them have as many crutches as they like, including a cheat sheet with the act of contrition or even the entire form of confession written out. They can bring in a paper with their sins on it, and throw it away or burn it afterward. 

Let them check out the confessional during “off hours,” so it’s not a mysterious or terrifying place. Or arrange for confession in a setting that is familiar. Confessions don’t have to be in a confessional to be valid.

Remind them repeatedly that father has heard it all before, and remind them that he’s used to people being nervous, too. It’s okay to say, “I forget what I’m supposed to say next,” and it’s okay to tell the priest you’re scared or embarrassed, too.

Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. If a child finds it truly excruciating to wait in line, consider making an appointment where he can just pop in and get it done.

It’s okay to avoid difficult or unpleasant priests and to seek out helpful, reassuring ones. Yes, it’s always really Jesus in there; but it’s also a particular man. If your kid likes and trusts some particular priest, he may be willing to schedule a confession if that’s what make the difference between going and not going.

But for some kids, knowing the priest makes it worse.  Some kids would rather have an anonymous experience with less social awkwardness. If your kid would prefer to confess to a stranger, make an occasional pilgrimage to another parish for this purpose.

In any case, remind the kid about the seal of confession and what dire consequences face a priest who breaks the seal. Remind them that the priest can’t tell the penitent’s parents what was confessed!

If you’re going as a family, let an adult go first and alert the priest there’s a nervous kid coming up next, so he can do everything in his power to make it a good experience.

Make it sweet, not bitter. Associations are powerful things, for good or ill.  The Jews have a tradition of giving children honey as they learn the Torah, so they will know that the law of God is sweet. It’s not bribery; it’s helping children internalize something true. So celebrate at least the first confession with a small treat, and consider making subsequent confession trips as pleasant as possible. It may not be practical to include ice cream every time, but at last don’t make it wretched.

If necessary, wait. Some kids simply aren’t ready when most of their peers are ready. A young child isn’t going to be committing mortal sins, so it’s far better to wait an extra year or so than to force a traumatic first confession. If you have to literally drag your kid into the confessional, or if you have to threaten or coerce them into going, you may be harming your child’s relationship with God, and making it less likely that they’ll go at all, once they’re old enough to choose.

Make it a normal normal normal. Let them see you and their siblings going regularly, and then going about their day. Talk about it like it’s the normal thing it is. Let your kids hear you say things like, “On Saturday, we’ll pick up some cat food, then get to confession, then do a car wash,” or “I remember going to confession at St Blorphistan, and boy, those kneelers were squeaky.” No good can come of making it rare and unfamiliar, or speaking as if it’s some kind of mysterious, arcane experience that doesn’t fit into everyday life. Many people (not all) find that frequent confession is easy confession.

Be open about your own struggles and joys surrounding confession. If confession makes you nervous, acknowledge this to your kids. If you feel intense relief when it’s over, talk about that. If you ever feel grateful to God for the gift of forgiveness, talk about that. The last several times I went to confession and the priest said the words, “I absolve you from your sins,” I had to fight down the urge to shout, “JUST LIKE THAT?” It seemed like such an incredibly good deal, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Every time I feel this way, I talk about it to whichever kid is with me.

Let it be a standing offer. Remind them they can always ask to go to confession, and resolve to bring them any time they ask, no questions asked, no fuss, no complaints, no exceptions. Acknowledging and overcoming sin is hard enough; the last thing a kid needs is for her parents to add obstacles by embarrassing her, or making her feel like she’s causing trouble.

Mind your own business. Yes, you have to educate them in a general way about what kind of things they ought to be bringing to confession, but it’s not a great idea to shout, “Ryan, you apologize to your sister’s hamster right now, and you better be confessing that next week!” It’s the penitent, the priest, and God in there. Parents aren’t invited.

But do check in. Without asking for any personal details, occasionally make sure the experience they’re having at confession is okay. If they seem distraught when they come out of the confessional, ask if anything happened that makes them feel weird. Kids should know that confession can be difficult and intense, but it’s not supposed to be excruciating or humiliating. And they should know that safe adults never ask children to keep secrets.

Take anxiety seriously. If a child is showing severe reluctance or anxiety around confession, don’t assume it’s because he’s a reprobate who’s resisting spiritual improvement, and don’t be sarcastic or dismissive of his anxiety. Maybe something bad happened to him in confession, in which case you need to find out what happened and address it swiftly.

Or maybe he’s suffering from anxiety in general. If confession is just one of many things your child can’t bring himself to do because of anxiety, then you should be talking to a pediatrician to figure out what the next steps are. Put confession on the back burner until you have a better idea of what’s really happening, rather than cementing the association of confession with fear and misery.

When a penitent meets Christ in the confessional, it’s about a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes time to develop naturally over the years, and there will be highs and lows. Sometimes helping our kids through the lows helps us become more comfortable with this great sacrament, too.

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Image by Michael_Swan via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in The Catholic Weekly in 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

Lent Film Movie Review #1: I CONFESS

We are watching an edifying, religious-themed movie with the family on Fridays in Lent. Complete list here. Review #1: I CONFESS (1953). Every time I number something, it peters out pathetically, but this time will be different. I can feel it. 

Honestly, I didn’t expect a lot from this movie. I expected some rather stilted drama and rushing around and dramatic lighting, but not a lot of plot. Silly me, it’s Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn’t absolute Grade A Hitchcock, but it was tightly constructed, compelling, a little weird, and unpredictable throughout the whole movie, with lots of yummy dramatic camera work. I wanted the kids to see a movie where the priest is the hero, and it did a good job of portraying a priest (Montgomery Clift) who is pretty noble and brave, but is also a regular guy. Not only does it show him struggling with the choices he has to make, but it shows him before he was ordained, as a soldier and as a normal guy with a girlfriend.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but once the painfully suspenseful part is apparently over and Fr. Logan has come out victorious, and you think, “Ah, he’s passed the test and done what a good priest ought to do!” . . .  that’s when the really awful part begins for him. It doesn’t last long, but it’s pretty rough! Good stuff. A solid and engaging movie, and the final scene packs a good punch. 

The whole family watched this (youngest is five and oldest is 21) and they all seemed to follow it easily. Some of these kids do get squirrelly when we try to show them a black and white movie, but they seemed interested and engaged throughout.

It turned out a few of the kids were a little wobbly on the details of the seal of confession, so we did stop the movie a few times and reinforce that what they were seeing on screen was accurate (if somewhat more dramatic than what most priests face). They were impressed.

The only weensy theological complaint I had was that, when Fr. Logan is staggering around Quebec going through his agony, he doesn’t run to the tabernacle for solace, which is what I would expect a priest in dire straits to do; but he just kind of suffered around town.  He speaks and behaves as if God is very real to him, but it doesn’t actually get shown much in the movie itself. He does pass under a statue of Christ carrying the cross at one point. I just would have liked to see more of the spiritual side of his suffering. What we see is mostly the emotional side. But it’s not really that kind of movie, I guess. 

Oh, and I feel the gal (Anne Baxter) ought to have had a lot more comeuppance than she got, but in a Hitchcock movie, you should just be glad he didn’t have her skinned and made into slippers or something, I guess.  

It was odd and sad to see everyone on screen behaving as if a Catholic priest is the last one you’d ever suspect of doing something wrong (and there are so many priests! Just priests everywhere!). But the central plot was a good reminder that the priesthood itself hasn’t changed, and I know priests nowadays who would absolutely do just what Fr. Logan did. They just don’t happen to look like Montgomery Clift.

All around, entertaining and yes, edifying. Recommended. 

We watched this through Amazon Prime. It was $2.99 to stream it as a rental. 

Next up: Either Song of Bernadette or Babette’s Feast.

How I’m teaching about confession with the Sheep Game

My faith formation class — mostly eight-year-olds — has watched this amazing video several times.

It’s short, and shows a man rummaging around in a hole in the deep grass. He grasps something and starts to pull, and we eventually see legs, and then realize that it’s an entire, full-grown sheep who’s somehow got himself buried. The man pulls steadily and the sheep emerges, very much like in a birth. The sheep shakes himself, looking confused and relieved, and gallops away while the men chuckle.

Our class is getting closer to the big day: Their first confession. They won’t receive their First Communion until next year, so I had the task of teaching them to understand sin and repentance and forgiveness, without overwhelming them with guilt and self-accusation. They’re learning what their sacramental relationship is with God, and I would hate to frame it as some kind of adversarial trial. That’s something I’m still unlearning, myself.

So I’ve been trying to lay a lot of the emotional framework for confession, before we really dig into the logistical part of it. We talk a lot about how the whole story of salvation is how much God wants to be with us, and how he keeps coming up with plans to save us from all the problems we get ourselves into. I want very much to teach confession as a place we want to go when we need help, rather than a place we have to go when we’re in disgrace.

One class, I showed them the sheep video without any introduction. We watched it twice, and I asked them to talk about what the sheep was like. They decided he was pretty silly, and confused, and that he needed help, and he was probably scared, and it was dark and awful in the hole, and he wouldn’t be able to get out by himself. And maybe it wasn’t the first time he had fallen down in there, either, and he might even do it again.

Then we talked about the man who saved him. They thought he was Spanish, first of all. Ha! Okay, what else? He was strong, and he cared about the sheep, and he knew what to do, and he wasn’t going to give up until he got the sheep out. And he felt sorry for the sheep (“Pobrecito!” he says at one point), and he liked the sheep, and didn’t want it to get hurt. And he liked seeing it come out of the hole (“El milagro de la vida!” one of the men exclaims.) It was his job to take care of that sheep. That was why he was there.

Then I told them we are like the sheep, and Jesus is like the man who pulls the sheep out. This was a little confusing for them at first, but kids this age are quite capable of understanding analogies with some help.

We talked about different kinds of things we can do that make us fall into a hole. Calling someone a mean name. Not doing what our moms tell us to do. STABBING SOMEONE. (They liked that one.) Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

10 things Catholics (and others) should know about therapy

For World Mental Health Day, I’ve updated a thing I wrote a few years ago. It’s all still true! And since then, other members of my family have started seeing therapists, too. We’re so dang mentally healthy around here, I don’t even recognize us.  

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I’ve been seeing a therapist for several years now. I make a point of mentioning it because a lot of Catholics (and others!) are resistant to the idea of therapy. I understand much of that resistance, so I thought I’d share my experience. Here are some basic observations:

1. Therapy is not a replacement for confession or spiritual direction. You may end up addressing the same behaviors in both therapy and confession or spiritual direction, but you’ll learn different things about where they come from and how to deal with them. If you go to therapy, it doesn’t mean you think you’re not responsible for your actions. It means you’re serious about trying to change them.

2. At the same time, therapy is not incompatible with Catholicism – or it shouldn’t be. Ideally, they should dovetail. In my case, I’d made no progress trying to conquer certain behaviors through prayer and confession, so I turned to therapy to help me learn practical ways to do it.

3. It’s far better to see a good therapist who doesn’t know much about your Faith than it is to see a faithful Catholic who’s a second-rate therapist. I went in with the idea that I’d listen with an open mind to whatever my therapist could offer, and I’d do the job of filtering out whatever was incompatible with my faith, and I’d integrate whatever was compatible. Once I got to know and trust the fellow, I let him know that I felt defensive about my Faith, and that I was afraid that he’d see my religion as something to be cured – that he’d see my big family and my spiritual obligations as the things that were dragging me down.

He said that it’s true that some therapists see religion as an unhealthy thing, and they may or may not be aware that they have this prejudice; but he said that most of the good therapists he knows will want to treat the whole person, and that includes their spiritual life; so he encouraged me to be more open about matters touching on religion. I have done this, and it’s worked out well.

This makes sense, because I have made a deliberate effort to integrate my faith into every aspect of my life, so it’s not as if I can compartmentalize it anyway.

At the same time, occasionally bringing up matters of faith with someone who doesn’t share my religion has made me examine pretty closely what I really believe and why. It’s all been to the good, even if it was an uncomfortable and somewhat frightening experience. 

4. Therapy is not for losers. Knowing there’s a problem and not going for help is stupid. Knowing there’s a problem and going for help is what adults do, for their own sakes, and for the sakes of the people they live with. 

5. Of course it’s hard to get started. Important things usually are. It is hard to make the first phone call, especially if you have to make lots and lots of phone calls, and explain over and over again that you need help, until you find someone who is taking new patients and accepts your insurance. Just keep calling. Set a goal per day – say, six phone calls – and just keep plowing through. If possible, if you need it, ask someone to make the phone calls for you. Just get the ball rolling.

6. Don’t assume you can’t possibly afford it. Therapy might be covered by your insurance, or they might offer a sliding scale fee structure, so at least make some calls and find out. If you call an office that does not take your insurance, ask them if they can recommend someone who does. Also ask at your parish. There may possibly be some grant money available. 

7. You might not find the right therapist at first. Give it several sessions, and if things seem really off, it’s completely normal and useful to say so and try someone else. The whole point of this is to help you, and if it’s not helping, then what are you doing?

I was set to see a therapist for an introductory visit, and she didn’t return my phone calls, and then left a message saying she would call back, and then didn’t. So I fired her before I even met with her. If I want to get treated like crap, I can just hang out with my four-year-old at home for free.

8. Therapy isn’t magic. You have to actually do the things throughout the rest of the week. Just showing up for your appointments isn’t going to help anything.

9. Even when it’s working, it takes a while. Things often get harder before they get easier. It’s normal to have ups and downs, and it’s normal to regress at a certain point. You should be seeing some progress at some point, but don’t expect to be on a dazzling upward trajectory from day one.

10. Therapy is smarter than you think, smarty.  So give it a chance, even if your therapist uses words or ideas that sound goofy at first. If you have a decent therapist who seems intelligent, responsive, and respectful, then keep an open mind.

I had a hard time, for instance, getting over the word “mindfulness.” I was like, “But I do not balance crystals on my forehead when I get overwhelmed by yoga pants shopping, so get away from me with your mindfulness nonsense!” Well, it happens that I went in for help changing some behavior that I do out of habit, that I do without thinking, and that I do when I feel like I’m not in control of my responses. So guess what I’m working on? Mindfulness. La di dah.

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If you’ve had a good (or a bad) experience with therapy, what would you add? What would you like your fellow Catholics to know?

Image via MaxPixel (Creative Commons)

Catholicism without Christ

Is there any return from being cancelled? We’re not really sure. But there is wailing and gnashing of teeth until the 24-hour news cycle moves along and you are forgotten.
This is what comes of religious practice without faith, of Catholicism without Christ: At best, you enjoy some faint mimicry of the riches the faith has to offer; at worst, you suffer immensely, without any hope of redemption.

It is sad to live this way. It is ridiculous. But at least there is some excuse.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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Image via https://fshoq.com/ (Creative Commons)

Do what in memory of me? On slavery or sacrifice

To participate in the sacrifice of the Mass, we must be free of mortal sin. So let us say we have put ourselves into the cell of sin, over and over again. What then? We must put ourselves into the confessional box, over and over again. Then we can receive Christ; and then we can, in turn, freely put ourselves into the cup of sacrifice, to be poured out for each other. That is how it works. Jesus told us so. This is what he told us to do.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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Image source: Saint John the Baptist Church Melnik Jesus Christ Icon, 19th Century via Wikipedia