What counts as a work of mercy?

Several years ago, I was in a group of parents, mostly mothers, talking about our lives. We circled around to a favorite topic: How to make sure we had an active spiritual life, when every bit of energy and every moment of the day was taken up with the most mundane obligations: wiping bottoms, fetching juice, cleaning up spills of said juice, wiping away tears related to said spilled juice, and wiping bottoms again.

One of the more experienced mothers suggested that, when we give one of our own children a drink, we are engaging actively in our spiritual lives, specifically, by giving drink to the thirsty, which is a corporal work of mercy.

One of the few fathers in the group scoffed at the idea. It doesn’t “count” to give your own child a drink, he argued. You have to do that; it’s your job. It’s the bare minimum, and you definitely don’t deserve any accolades for doing the bare minimum, especially when it’s something so easy and basic as handing a sippy cup to a kid.

I remember the conversation so well because I was a young mother with several small children at the time, and his response crushed me. I felt there was something wrong with his argument, but I wasn’t sure what, so I assumed he was right, and I just needed to try harder.

But I’ve had years to think about it, and I think I’ve teased out his errors. There are several, and they are common.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by adhadimohd via Pixabay

Can’t visit family? Interview them instead.

After my father died, my sister called up our oldest surviving relative, my great aunt Bebe who lives in Florida, and they ended up having several conversations. The things she told us about our family have been delightful (and occasionally insane).

We knew, for instance, that my mother was pregnant when my parents got married, but here’s a part of the story we never heard:

When my father was 19, he needed an emergency appendectomy, but his mother was away on vacation. They wouldn’t operate on him without a relative signing for permission, or possibly to pay for it.
 
So my great aunt Bebe goes to the hospital and there is my mother, age 18, in the waiting room all upset, because, since she’s not a relative, they won’t let her up to see him. Bebe had never met her before.
 
Bebe signs the papers and goes up to see my father, and he says, “I want to see my girlfriend.” And Bebe explains that she can’t come up because she’s not a relative. So my father says, “She’s not my girlfriend. She’s my wife!” and passes out.
 

Later he explains that she is pregnant and they had gotten married by a justice of the peace. But when my mother’s parents found out, they put together a fancy wedding with a caterer and a rabbi; so they kept the justice of the peace a secret.

We are not actually sure if this story is true! We talked it over and the details don’t quite make sense. But my Aunt Bebe loves a good story, and this is a pretty good story. 

This Thanksgiving, we’re regretfully foregoing a family gathering because, as much as we love our relatives, we don’t want to host a superspreader event — and spending time indoors, with masks off, with people you don’t already live with, seems to be ideal conditions for spreading the virus, sometimes with deadly consequences for people who weren’t even there

If you’re in the same boat and you can’t spend time with family in person, why not take the opportunity to interview them by phone or video? Yes, even the people you think you already know well. They probably have some stories you’ve never heard before.

I’ve written about this before — how I did some interviews with my father, but not as much as I would have liked, and how I missed my chance to interview my mother. We spent countless hours together, but there are some things I never thought to ask until it was too late.

With a planned interview, you may have a deeper conversation than if everyone were sitting in the same room, but just eating pie and chatting; and the time and attention could be a real boon to older relatives who’ve been especially isolated. Taking time to listen intently to someone’s memories is a wonderful way to show love, and it may very well end up being fascinating for you.

Consider recording the conversation so you can save it for posterity (with the person’s permission, of course!). Here’s how to record a Zoom conversation; an iPhone conversation; an Android conversation;  a Facebook video chat

Here are some questions you can ask, to get things started. And it’s okay if they wander and answer questions you didn’t ask! 

What’s the earliest memory you have? 

When you were little, what was your favorite place to go or thing to do? What was your favorite food? What was your least favorite food?

Who were your friend when you were growing up? What did you do together?

What do you remember about your parents from your childhood? What did they do for work? Did you get along with them? What did they do in their spare time? 

What was your first job? What did you do with the money you earned? 

Who was your favorite teacher? Who was your least favorite? 

Who did you admire when you were growing up? Did that change? 

What (or who) were you afraid of when you were growing up? Did that change?

What’s the first movie you remember seeing? 

How did you meet your first girlfriend/boyfriend? How did you meet the person you eventually married? 

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did things work out as you expected? 

Do you think kids today have things better or worse than you did?

If you have kids, ask them for question ideas, too. They will probably be curious about things that didn’t occur to you. 

The virus is taking so much away from us, but this could be a chance to gain something really precious. If you do it, tell me how it goes! 

10 Ridiculous family games that need no equipment

  1. JEBRAHAMADIAH AND BALTHAZAR (also called “Master and Servant”)

Another role-playing/narrative game, but you can sit down for this one. I am not sure why my kids call this one “Jebrahamadiah and Balthazar,” except that (a) it has something to do with the Jeb! flyers we kept getting in the mail when Jeb Bush was running for president, and (b) they are weirdos.

One person gives orders, the other person explains why he can’t carry them out. The answer has to be part of a consistent narrative — you can’t just make up a new excuse for each command.

Here is an abbreviated example. The longer you can draw it out, the funnier it gets:

Jebrahamadiah! Go get me a glass of water.
I would, but I just broke the last glass.
Then go get me a cup of water.
I would, but when I broke the glass, I cut my finger, and I can’t use my hand.
Well, use your other hand.
I would, but when I was searching for a Band-aid for my one hand, I slammed the medicine chest door on my finger, and now both hands are useless.
Then call an ambulance.
I can’t, because, if you’ll recall, my hands don’t work.
Then use the speaker phone.
I would, but when I slammed the medicine chest door, some nail polish remover fell on my phone and now the speaker doesn’t work.
Then just shout out the window for help.
I would, but the neighbors saw me wrecking my phone, and he’s a big jerk, and laughed so hard that he drove off the road and now he’s in a coma.
Well, shout out the other window on the other side of the house.
I would, but when the other neighbor drove off the road, he knocked a utility pole down, and a live wire landed on the house on the other side and now it’s on fire, so I don’t want to bother them.
Well . . . okay, fine, I’ll get my own water.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: From Wikihow Play Charades (Creative Commons)

Keep It Light, Stand Your Ground, Salt the Earth, or Waldorf

So here is a Thanksgiving essay I wrote for an Australian audience, knowing it would be published after American Thanksgiving. Australians do not, of course, celebrate Thanksgiving, and even if they did, this piece is so intrinsically stupid, it would be stupid anywhere on the globe, at any time of the year. I thought I’d share it today, on Giving Tuesday, as a gift to you. You can read it and think happily to yourself, “At least I never wrote anything this stupid.”

You’re welcome

***
Image via Flickr from page 221 of “Pompeii, its history, buildings, and antiquities : an account of the destruction of the city with a full description of the remains, and of the recent excavations, and also an itinerary for visitors” (1867)

 

When it comes to holidays, the Catholic Church has all the chill

Let’s listen in to one happy household, where young wifey is hosting the big event at her home for the first time and her mother-in-law remarks, her voice rapidly rising to an incredulous shriek: “You put nutmeg…in your sweet potatoes?” Everyone knows it was infallibly established during the Ecumenical Council of Our Family and Your Family that if more than three micrograms of nutmeg are found to be present in the entire meal, including appetizers you snuck into the garage but we saw you, the whole holiday shall be declared invalid and we will have to have it at Arby’s next time. That is what this family has come to! Nutmeg, indeed. Anathema!

Gesundheit. And score another one for the church.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image: studio tdes via flickr (Creative Commons)

I just figured out why it was called “The Synod on the Family.”

Keep away the fire at the family hearth

 

I just figured out the entire Synod. Or at least, I figured out something about it! Maybe everyone else already knows this, and I’m just slow, but it kind of blew my mind.

My husband and I were talking about people in really rotten marital situations — say, a Catholic man in a valid marriage to a woman who reacted badly to the trials of life, and turned into a horrible person. When she began to abuse the kids, they got a civil divorce, and he found someone else, and they’re really in love, and she loves his kids, and they had more kids together . . . but they recently met with their priest, and it’s painfully obvious that there is no way he can get an annulment. The old marriage was a valid marriage, awful as it was. This new couple has only two choices: (a) to remain in what is truly an adulterous marriage, and to refrain from receiving Communion indefinitely, because they’re in a state of mortal sin, or (b) to live together as brother and sister and hope the old wife dies.

Either way: awful, awful, awful.

The upshot of the first documents leaking out of the Synod seem to be saying, among other things, that the Church is trying to encourage people who can’t get annulments to be part of the Church in some way — to get them back into the community somehow, without them being officially in communion with the Church.

I wondered why. I mean, why would someone want to be in the Church if they can’t receive the Eucharist?  There are many wonderful things about the Church, but without the Eucharist . . . what’s the point? Who wants to hang around a restaurant if you never get to sit and eat?

And then I realized. The children. People will bring their children to be fed. If they feel welcome, and if they feel like they’re not utterly rejected, even though they can’t receive Communion, they will bring their children to Mass, and will bring their children to catechism class, and will bring their children to the sacraments.  They will make sure their children stay involved in the life of the Church. Or at least they might! And there is hope for the next generation . . . and also for the cousins, who always keep up on the family news, and for the friends of the family, and for the lady in the grocery line who stop and chat about  marriage and want to know all about your personal life . . .

They can tell that lady, “Well, it’s complicated, but I’m still a Catholic.There is still a place for  me. It’s not what I’d wish, but it’s better than nothing. They still want me, and I still need Him.”

Whereas, if all they hear from the Church is, “Sorry. You’re out. Shame on you. Next!” then of course they will not bring their children, and their children won’t go to Mass, or catechism, or to the sacraments. Why would they? Why would anyone be a part of an organization that not only cannot give them the Bread of Life, but won’t even acknowledge that they are trying hard to be loving? And we’ll continue in this horrible cycle where people who are really trying to be decent are barred from the sacraments, but people who waltzed into marriage without thinking it through can get their marriage declared null, and it just seems so unfair, and who wants to be part of that kind of Church that punishes love and gives a do-over for foolishness? And every conversation about the Church will be about how unfair it is, and that’s why We Don’t Go There Anymore.

That’s what I mean when I say I figured out the Synod. It really wasn’t hidden! It’s all about the family. It’s always been about the family — and the family is about more than the one marriage and the one couple in question. That’s why they didn’t call it “The Synod About Gay People and Divorce” or “The Synod About Just How Popey the Pope Plans to Be, Anyway” or “The I-Don’t-Recall-Jesus-Talking-Much-About-Marriage,-Do-Youuu? Synod” Nope. Every single human being is, for better or worse, part of a family, and because of this, what we do affects lots of other people — and how we’re treated affects lots of other people, too.

It’s about future generations, and also it’s about how the faith of children can affect parents. That’s what the Church means by “mercy.” Not “anything goes, as long as we all feel good,” but “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” We cannot give medicine to the dead, but neither will we sign any death certificates prematurely.

It sounds like the Church intend to make it much harder for people to accidentally or frivolously go through with invalid marriages, and it sounds like they intend to offer support for valid marriages after the wedding, so that people get married for real, and stay married for good.  But what about the generations of people who are already caught in an impossible situation?  There have been, let’s face it, several decades of failure. People have grown up never hearing a word of doctrine from the pulpit, never learning a scrap of catechism in Catholic school, never knowing the first thing about what the Church believes about sex or marriage (or the Real Presence, or anything). They’re caught, and it’s not fair, and it stinks.

But it’s not going to help anyone to pretend that real marriages weren’t real, or that invalid marriages aren’t real. You can’t just change the rules when you feel sorry for people. That will just create more people for whom to feel sorry.

How to serve the people caught in the middle? Make a place for them, and make a place for their children. Make a place for their whole family.

***

My Aleteia piece on the suffering faithful…

gesu crucifix

 

 

is spotlighted today:

The Church is full of the obedient wounded. The flock who never strayed have troubles of their own, and some of these troubles come directly from original sin, the effects of which no doctrinal development, pastoral compassion, or rigorously trained professional can completely undo.

Poor family, they need to hear that their sorrows are known to God and to the Church. That the cross still hangs there above the altar because it must be faced, sooner or later, even when we’re inside the walls of the Church. Sacramental marriage is not a safe, cozy nest where no predators can find us. Every marriage includes some element of the cross.

Read the rest at Aleteia.

By the way, have you seen Aleteia lately? It’s gorgeous. They’ve revamped their whole site, and Elizabeth Scalia is bringing on lots of great writers.

Also, I’ve received tons of mail in response to the open letter to the Synod Fathers from Monica More that I posted last week (Married to an Angry Man). I am grateful that so many people took the time to offer responses and help. Please be patient while I work on responding.

***

Your family is not your brand

kid in mask

Even a family that is nuts doesn’t fit into a nutshell. Families are too complicated for that.

Read the rest at the Register. 

What is the Church to us?

Anybody remember this picture from a few babies ago?

baptism shhh

 

Our Sunday Visitor is publishing a series of companion piece for the World Meeting of Families Catechesis, Love Is Our Mission. In the latest print edition of OSV, I’m very honored to share a page with Scott Hahn and Archbishop Sartain!

My contribution is also online, here: Family Snapshots Capture the Mystery of the Church As Both Human and Devine. It’s an introduction to the chapter 9 of the catechesis, which is called “Mother, Teacher, Family: The Nature and Role of the Church,” and my essay is all about what you can see in this little snapshot of our domestic church.

We are brimming with anticipation, dying to receive the saving grace that will be poured out with the sacrament; and we are also horribly aware of our own inadequacy — and bristling in advance, in case anyone should dare to notice our flaws. We’re the mother, firmly correcting the wayward toddler; we’re the patient father, protecting us from our own wildness. We’re the rambunctious child, heedless and irreverent, only there because we have to be, and ready to spoil it all; we’re the blessed baby, so helpless we don’t even realize how badly we need to be cared for. And over us all rests that golden light — that grace.

Read the rest at OSV.