Trinity Sunday: I have much more to tell you

So, how was Heresy Sunday at your parish? Maybe you know it better as “Trinity Sunday,” but, well, you know. One minute, you’re standing there sweating behind the pulpit, trying to give your flock something solid to chew on, and then next minute, you’re a modalist. Or an arian, or a partialist. (If you’ve somehow never watched St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies, take a few minutes! It’s funny and good.)
 
On the other hand, you also have people complaining on Twitter that they’re pretty tired of hearing from their pastors that they’re just too dumb to understand the trinity, so he won’t even try. 
 
On the other hand . . . wait, that’s three hands now, and we’re about to veer into heresy again. What I’m trying to say is that the theology of the Trinity is pretty intense, and I have a lot of sympathy for homilists who are trying to steer a way in between teaching something false, and just performing some vague hand-waving about the mysterious mystery of it all.
 
However, the theology of the trinity is a lot more knowable than I was led to believe as a child. I had the impression that it was simply so far beyond our human experience, it would break my brain if I even tried to figure it out. This is false. If you want to know more about the Trinity — and you should! It’s VERY COOL — I most ardently recommend Frank Sheed’s Theology for Beginners. I intend to read it again this summer with my teenagers. It’s very lucid and exciting, and, surprise surprise, it leads to a better understanding of, well, everything. Because it’s about who and what God is.
 
However however, it would be hard to get into it in a single sermon. Some of the best sermons I’ve heard are less about defining doctrine and more about helping us understand why it’s important, and what it has to do with us. As Chris Damian says in another context
 
We tend to think of arriving at belief as a straightforward process. We think of belief as something that exists on the level of syllogism, where my rational assent is always the result of a clear logic unfolding from the circuitry of my mind. But coming into deep belief does not involve a mere continuation of syllogistic progression. Rather, it involves the mysterious integration of a complex constellation of experience, context, affection, habit, longing, rationale, and choice. Often the assertion of belief is a last step, the articulation of something which already exists within the person but which has taken time to develop into words.
So a few years ago, on Trinity Sunday, we heard a sermon with less doctrine but plenty of the rest of that complex constellation, and I appreciated it. The pastor at this church tended to deliver shaggy dog sermons, and sometimes you never do arrive at the punchline. But when you do, it’s always about the immensity of God’s love, and how personal it all is. Which is why we kept going back to this church, even though it’s forty minutes away! Here’s how I remember it:

He described how his grandmother and grandfather met at a town dance in 1922. They spotted each other across the room, and she thought he looked like a troublemaker and he thought she looked stuck up. But somehow they got together anyway, fell in love, got married, and came to know each other as they learned how to love each other. They had children, and those children had children, including the pastor himself; and by the time they had been married for several decades, they could complete each other’s thoughts. Gradually, over the years, they revealed themselves to each other more and more.
 
We sometimes think God has changed since the Old Testament. It seems like God used to be so harsh and angry, always smiting and getting vengeance; but then Jesus came, and taught us about love, even loving your enemy — and this seemed like something so new and different. But that year, we heard in the first reading how God has always been:
 
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth. . . 
There are some intimations of the Trinity here, of a God who isn’t lonely and solitary, but is in a fruitful relationship. And it was a relationship not only of love between the persons of the Trinity, but between God and us:
 
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.
 
The pastor reminded us that God was perfectly content in himself, perfectly complete. He didn’t need anything, certainly not human beings. But because of his overflowing love, he did want something . . . and so he made us. The responsorial psalm that year said:
 
What is man that you should be mindful of him,
or the son of man that you should care for him?
R. O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!
 
God made us to love us — and, as you do when you are in love, to reveal himself to us.  That that is what you do when you love someone: You open yourself, you reveal yourself to them, just as the priest’s grandparents did with each other over the course of many, many years of fruitful marriage. And that is what God has done for us (although of course we are the ones, not He, who had to learn and change and grow).  He is fruitful, and he reveals himself because He loves us. 
 
The Gospel reading from John that year was very short, and quite Greek:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”
 

To me, this speaks of the hope we can have of coming to know God more and more, as we become more and more confident in his love for us. And we can also hear a certain longing and eagerness by Jesus to reveal himself to his beloved, to us.  It’s a real relationship — or at least, he wants it to be. 

Knowing God better is . . . well, it’s not always a delight. Sometimes it’s terrible, for a while, just like marriage can be, as you come to know each other better and better. But unlike in a human marriage, we can know  with complete certainty that there is always delight on the other side, if we keep pushing through. Or at least we can hope, until we know.

So we should not be afraid of trying to understand mysteries. God wants to reveal himself to us. But we have to start by consenting to be in a relationship with him — and sometimes, just as in any relationship, that means taking a leap, and giving the assent of your will to something that you don’t yet fully comprehend. True for the mystery of the Trinity, true for the mystery of love. 
 
***
 
Image: Creation of Man, by Ceschiatti, 1945; photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (Creative Commons)

It’s not too late to cancel your wedding

Jennifer’s wedding dress hangs in the closet of her guest bedroom. It’s never been worn. Jennifer (not her real name) called off her wedding two months before the date, and she says it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Her friends were shocked; her parents were distraught. Her maid of honor stopped speaking to her. Jennifer had made non-refundable deposits, was was surrounded by gifts from her bridal shower when she announced the wedding was off. 

It was very late in the game to change her mind. But it wasn’t too late.  

“I think the hardest part was being honest with myself,” Jennifer said. 

She and her fiancé had been together for six years, engaged for nine months; but it wasn’t until the last minute that she finally acknowledged their relationship just wasn’t healthy. 

She’s not alone. By some estimate, 15 percent or more of engagements don’t end in marriage. But a couples who’s been together for a long time — or a couple who’s blundered quickly toward marriage, without taking time to discern the wisdom of their plans — can feel like they’re locked in one they’ve announced their plans to wed. 

“It’s a difficult situation when there’s the romantic delusion that somehow this marriage is going to beat the odds,” said Father Joe Tonos, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Miss. 

“It’s like the Percy Sledge principle: ‘When a man loves a woman, she can do no wrong,’ or vice versa,”  he said. And so they forge ahead, despite all the warning signs. 

Or sometimes, as in the case of Melissa (not her real name), they know very well that something is wrong, but they don’t know how to extricate themselves from what feels like a trap. 

Melissa broke of her engagement to her abusive fiancé well after their wedding plans were underway. 

“If you’ve announced the engagement, the pressure is on to live up to the expectations by following through with the marriage. But the people who might be surprised by the news of the broken engagement do not have to live with a broken relationship, or suffer through a future divorce,” Melissa said. 

With the help of a counselor, she found the courage to call the wedding off, and she was amazed to discover how supportive and gracious her friends and family were. 

Nevertheless, Melissa said her experience was humiliating. “I felt like a failure,” she said. 

“It was also empowering, though, in an odd way. I knew the decision was the right one, and despite the pain of it all, I felt a great deal more peace once I’d called the engagement off than I did while we were still planning to marry,” she said. 

For a Catholic marriage to be valid, the spouses must be free to marry; they must freely consent to the marriage; they must intend to marry for life, to be faithful, and to be open to children; and they must (with some exceptions) marry in front of two witnesses and a priest. 

But this is the bare minimum. A couple looking forward to their wedding day should also be joyfully looking forward to spending a life together. They should experience some peace together. They shouldn’t be working hard to ignore red flag about each other or about their relationship. 

Most of all, they should never feel obligated or trapped by the wedding plans themselves, no matter how much money and time have been poured into crafting the perfect celebration. A wedding is just one day, and it’s possible to recover from cancelling it. It’s much harder to recover from a wedding that goes off perfectly, but which is the first day of years of misery and disaster. 

Father Tonos recalls counseling a friend to break up with his girlfriend who constantly made him unhappy. The friend protested: “What? And throw away the past two years?”

“Don’t count the past investment,” Father Tonos said. Instead, think of the future, and of how it will be to spend the rest of your life with this person. 

Melissa wishes she could tell her former self, “I know that right now, it feels like you’re trapped, like you can’t live without your partner in your life, but you also can’t imagine living with them. Marriage will not make those feelings of doubt and pain go away. By continuing a relationship that is mutually exclusive with your happiness, you might also miss other connections and opportunities that are where you’re meant to be, and who you’re meant to be with.” 

Melissa has since become engaged to another man, and she has “zero doubts.”

“Taking control of my life after this broken engagement was very hard, but it empowered me to really get to know what I needed to be happy in a relationship that would last,” she said.

Jennifer, too, is grateful for her experience, agonizing though it was. 

“I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that wedding bells do not define my worth. My vocation is no less because I didn’t go through with this,” she said. 

Jennifer and her ex-fiancé are still friends. He even thanked her, shortly after the cancelled wedding, for being strong enough to do what needed to be done. 

“Running to escape my problems would never have worked,” she said. “Facing them head on has done wonders for my life. I believed in ‘us,’ but now I get to believe in myself. I also know now that the Lord will never abandon me.” 

 

 

***

This article was originally published in Parable magazine in spring of 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

Photo by Marko Milivojevic on Pixnio

 

You can get a dolphin picture anywhere

Back in the days where cameras used film and you only had so many shots to take, my father took us kids to the aquarium.

We had a wonderful time, but when we got our photos developed, I was disappointed to see nothing but . . . us. “Why didn’t you take any pictures of the dolphin show?” I asked my father.

“I can get a dolphin picture anywhere,” he said. And he was right. The gift shop was full of sharp, professional photos of the animals. But there were no postcards with our faces on them — no tourist brochures featuring me, specifically, gasping with amazement, or my little brother, in particular, laughing in delight as he caught the dolphin’s spray.

And that was what my father wanted: Our happiness, our wonder and delight as we watched the dolphins leaping around and splashing us. That was why he had brought us there: So we would be delighted. And there was something in it for him, too. He enjoyed watching us enjoy ourselves. The one thing better than being happy yourself is seeing the joy of someone you love.

I think of this day when fretting over God’s sometimes baffling inefficiency. God is no businessman. If He wanted to maximize the number of souls saved, there are thousands of ways He could have made it happen: By taking away free will, for instance. By making virtuous behavior irresistible. By writing letters on the wall with a giant hand, rather than hinting with parables, whispering with grace, scattering clues of goodness, truth, and beauty all throughout the natural world.

He could have been more direct. He could have skipped all the strangeness, sorrow, and pain we feel as we blunder our way through life, toward Him. He could have been more efficient.

Instead, he chose the promise of delight. Instead, He gives us free will. He gives us the time and ability and desire to decide what to do with it. He wants us to come to Him not because we’re forced to, but because we have discovered Him, because we have found our own way toward Him, because we have realized organically, from the inside out, that we need and want what only He has to offer. He wants us to delight in Him. Not to find ourselves deposited briskly at the porch of Heaven, but to let ourselves be found.

It’s not a business transaction. It’s love. And there’s something in it for Him, too. He delights in our delight when we find Him.

Do we realize this? We may find ourselves miserably struggling to appease God, or anxiously, resentfully trying to avoid offending Him. But do we understand how He delights in us? He enjoys us. He likes us, and that is the only reason He made us in the first place. God is not deficient in anything. He didn’t need to make us at all. 

But He did. He did, because it’s not about the perfect dolphin picture. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about Him and us, us in particular. It’s about love and delight.

So there are two lessons here. One is more practical and immediate, and is mainly for parents:

Just as God loves us intensely now, for who we are, then we, as parents, must keep on reminding ourselves to enjoy, appreciate, and respond to our children now, as they are.

It is terribly easy to get distracted from this purpose — to pursue the “perfect dolphin picture,” and to forget why we came in the first place.  When we’re planning birthday parties, are we trying to please our actual kid, or to impress a thousand anonymous moms on Pinterest? When our older kids are choosing a college, do we nudge them toward the one that will help them be what they were meant to be, or toward the one with the name that strokes our own egos? When our children declare themselves for who they are — through their interests, their dress, their strengths, their humor, their voices, their hearts — do we remember to stop and delight in them, as specific, irreplaceable children? 

Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op?  God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them — not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them. 

The second lesson is more universal, and it is this:

This intensely personal, specific love and delight that parents should cultivate toward their kids is the same personal, specific love and delight that God feels toward us. Toward you. Remember this.

The Father made you, specifically, on purpose. Christ came to save you, individually, intentionally. He delights in you for who you are. He wants to forgive your sins “more quickly than a mother would snatch her child out of the fire” (St. John Vianney). He wants to save you because He knows you, and delights in you. 

God is no businessman. He is bogglingly inefficient. Christ said to St. Teresa of Avila, “I would create the world again just to hear you say you love me.”  Oh, it’s personal. He could get a perfect dolphin picture anywhere. But he’d rather have you.

 

***
This essay was originally published in Parable magazine in 2018. Republished with permission. 

Image by HAMID ELBAZ via Pexels (Creative Commons)

Undeserving, unremarkable, unreliable, beloved

My social media feed is well-stocked with babies. I have my favorites: That one little girl with the amazing dark eyes and bounteous curly hair; that extra squashy toddler whose face is so ridiculously expressive; and of course my own children, who are sweeter, cuter, and more delicious to look upon then all the rest of humankind put together and then tripled.

What I really enjoy, though, is boring pictures of boring kids. I like seeing that one kid (or forty-six kids, for all I know. I can’t tell them apart, because there’s nothing remarkable about them) with the light brown hair and the kind of dull expression, doing things like sitting at a table with a plastic plate of eggs, propped up in a swing his eyes half-closed, or maybe holding a toy truck in one hand and another toy truck in the other hand.

“Little man really loves his eggs!” the proud mom will gush, adding a couple of smiling emoticons with hearts instead of eyeballs. “Connor is crazy about playing trucks! Love him so much [heart heart heart heart heart].”

These really are some of my favorite posts, because it makes me happy to remember that there are so many ordinary, unremarkable children in the world who are cherished, doted on, lavished with affection just because they exist. They are not adored because they learned to speak at an early age or because they smell better than most children. They haven’t earned their parents’ love because they are especially clever or easy to care for, or because they show early promise for a lucrative career in show business. They are beloved simply because they are children; and, when all is well, parents love their own children better than they love anyone else. They are beloved simply because they exist.

In an increasingly utilitarian society, where we are told to value people who are useful and kill people who are not, it is refreshing down to my very soul to see so much love lavished on such ordinary children.

I thought of this during the Mass of the Epiphany, as our pastor reminded us that the magi prostrated themselves before the infant Jesus. The typical nativity scene shows the wise men visiting the Holy Family in the stable where Jesus was born. More likely, Joseph had found more comfortable housing by the time the magi turned up; but either way, whether it was the foul, smelly hay of the stable or the undoubtedly rough and rustic floor of the house of a poor carpenter, those stately, high-born international guests, who had been welcomed by Herod himself, prostrated themselves on it – abased themselves – lay themselves down in utter, abandoned adoration before the child who was anything but ordinary.

“And then,” our pastor reminded us, “Jesus did the same for us.” First by making Himself an infinitesimal one-celled human in one of Mary’s fallopian tubes; by being born into that dark, smelly stable (and the dark, smelly, finite, fallen world of humans in general); by allowing Himself to be publicly executed like a criminal; by allowing Himself to be present in that flat, white, unremarkable consecrated host.

Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.

Why? Why would He do this?

Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.

He dotes on us just because we exist.  We are not beloved of God because we learn quickly or because we perform better than, for instance, the angels. We haven’t earned our Father’s love because we are especially clever or easy to care for, or because we can ever possibly do anything for God.

We are beloved simply because we are His children; and God loves each of His children as if they were His only child. He would have gone to these mind-bogglingly extraordinary lengths for any single one of us, even if we were the only person in the universe.

If you don’t believe me, then ask yourself this: Does the alternative make any more sense? Does it seem more true to say, “God would have been willing to undergo the immense weirdness of the Incarnation, and the profound suffering and agony of the crucifixion, but only if it was for a whole lot of people. He would only do it for billions of people. Not millions. Or maybe he would do it for millions, but not thousands, or hundreds. Well, maybe he would do it for a hundred people, but never for just one.

“Never just for me.”

Oh, really? Let me tell you, it doesn’t make any sense for Him to do it in the first place, not even for quadrillions or quintillions of unremarkable human souls. There would be no reason for God to go that trouble, no matter how many souls there were. So long as we’re willing to believe He’s going to behave so strangely, and subsume His infinite glory into some “itty bitty living space” for a world full of souls, then why not go whole hog and make no sense at all? Why not go ahead and do that for one, single, stinking person, like me?

It doesn’t make sense. It’s not efficient. It’s not rational. The only reason you’d do it is for love; and love only means anything if it’s between two people.

And who are those two people? Him and me. And Him and you, and you, and you, and every single last stinking, undeserving, inadequate, unreliable, unremarkable one of us, one by one, with His whole heart. I am ordinary, and so are you. I am unremarkable, and so are you. We like scrambled eggs, and we enjoy playing with our trucks. There is nothing special about us – nothing, except that we are beloved of God, individually, distinctly, intentionally, profoundly.

***
This essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in 2017

Hush, there’s a baby nearby!

Advent at the Fisher house includes singing, lighting of candles, opening a door on the Advent calendar, reading the passage from the calendar’s matching booklet, picking the appropriate homemade ornament and hanging it on the Jesse tree, looking up and reading the corresponding passage from scripture, and plucking the chocolate out of your own personal Advent calendar, if you haven’t already eaten them all, if you haven’t already brushed your teeth. Well, brush them again, then.

Fisher family Advent has, in short, transcended tradition and achieved rigmarole status. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m happy to be doing special things that we don’t do at any other time of year. It’s a nice combination of scripture and aesthetics and memorable lessons, perfect for children and adults alike. It wouldn’t really feel like Advent without it.

But it would feel even more like Advent if I didn’t yell at everyone the whole time we were doing it. It would feel more like Advent if I focused less on reading the right Bible verse in the correct tone of voice, and focused more on being open to the word of God. If I lit a flame in the darkness and let that symbol speak to the kids’ hearts’ directly, rather than correcting them for pronouncing “Is-ra-el” wrong, or brooding in my heart that I’ve raised them all wrong, and we need to start doing scripture drills every night, and I need to start being a better mother so I will have better kids who do things better. 

If, in short, I prepared a way for the Lord for the sake of the Lord, rather than preparing for the sake of getting preparations done.

Shh, there’s a little baby nearby! 

That’s what I’m trying now to keep in mind. This thought, this image of a newborn nearby, helps make my Advent a little more like Advent. It makes everything a little gentler, a little quieter, a little more slow and thoughtful, just as if there were a tiny baby in the next room, someone I don’t want to disturb, someone I don’t want to grieve. Someone whose world I want to make warm and quiet, soft, welcoming, and kind.

I can’t always control what I have to do during the day, but I can control how I do it. For the sake of the baby nearby, I can take a breath and give a mild answer if someone insults me. For the sake of the baby, I can offer help to someone who’s struggling, rather than waiting for them to ask. I can warmly compliment someone for achieving something small. I can hush my tone of voice; I can apologize sincerely when I screw it up. I can try again without flagellating myself for my inevitable sins. I can skip the sarcastic remark; I can forego the conversation that will only lead to irritation. I can think of the baby nearby, think of the kind of world I want him to grow up in, and I can do what I can to make it a little softer. 

I can recognize that I have been noisy and quarrelsome, critical and demanding, and I can think of the baby nearby, and I can hush.

This is what works for me, since so much of my life has been dedicated to caring for babies. But what about you? What if you don’t have a baby in your life?

Oh, but you do.  You have someone helpless, someone in need, someone who needs patience, someone who is easily frightened or overwhelmed. Someone overlooked. Someone who is just starting out, someone who isn’t getting much done but could still use some praise. Someone whose world would be better if you decided to act out of love. 

The “baby” may look like a snotty teenager, an obnoxious co-worker, or a difficult parent. It may look like a pushy stranger on the sidewalk, or a rude cashier. It may look like a priest who’s disappointed you, or an internet troll who really is out to get you. It may look like someone who never thinks of what you need. 

Or it may even be yourself. We can be so extremely hard on themselves at this time of year, keeping up a constant interior litany of blame and reproach for not doing it right, telling ourselves terrible things that we’d never dream of saying about anyone else. 

This is what people are like: Needy and demanding, fussy and inconveniently fragile. Would we respond any differently if the people we encountered were new babies? Could we be a little more gentle?

What if you remembered that you, yourself, were a little baby once, and even though you can feed and care for yourself now, you still deserve to be treated with gentleness, even if only by yourself? 

At all times of the year, but especially at Advent: It’s always about the person closes to us – or, if you like, it’s all about the baby nearby. And this is how we serve the Person who, liturgically speaking, is nearby, about to be born. We tell our kids that Christmas is Baby Jesus’ birthday, and the kind of presents he wants is for us to be good to each other — and yes, to ourselves. Sometimes the best kind of goodness we can offer is just a little gentleness, a soft touch, a decision not to make noise. A little hush, for the sake of the baby. This is a good way to make way for the Lord: With gentleness.

It’s Advent. There’s a baby nearby. Hush, hush. 

[This essay has been modified excerpted from an essay first published in The Catholic Weekly in 2016.]

Image by Paul Goyette from Chicago, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What we’re watching, reading, and listening to this week: In which Woody Allen and Insane Clown Posse have redeeming qualities

How’s everybody doing? Okay? Remember the thing about …something something real talk, ladies, you are enough, etc. Don’t be cry. Me encourage you. Okay, here’s what we’ve been watching, reading, and listening to lately. I guess this should be Christmas or Advent stuff, but, it’s not. I put up a bunch of lights, we do candle things, and we’re going to confession, and I’m enough, dammit. 

If there’s a theme to these books, movies, and music, it’s “hey, there’s something to you, after all.” 

WATCHING

Hannah and Her Sisters (Where to watch. We rented it on Amazon Prime for $3.99)

We boycotted Woody Allen movies for a while – not because we thought it would be immoral to watch them, but because, ew. If you’re still in that place, I get it. But after a while I got a hankering to see if the good movies were as good as I remembered (and those are the ones he made before he became an open degenerate, anyway). 

Broadway Danny Rose was hilarious and sweet, and I liked it a lot, but Hannah and Her Sisters is terrific. It kept reminding me of a Tolstoy novel, where he just plunges you right in the midst of the lives of these fully-developed personalities in such a way that you understanding their pasts and their likely futures, and how they relate to each other.

I saw this many years ago and thought it was well crafted, but now, having gotten over two decades of marriage under my belt, I think it is a truly great movie about love. You want there to be good guys and bad guys, and there are, but there’s also regret, and recovery from passing madnesses, and redemption. Fantastic dialogue and acting, absolutely captivating setting and soundtrack, and a happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, it has people behaving very badly, indeed, but it shifts very deftly from wretched nihilism to a sort of tender, hopeful agnosticism that makes human life beautiful. Really kind of a masterpiece. 

Wait, I take it back. That architect is a bad guy.

We’ve also been watching Malcolm In the Middle (where to watch) with the kids ages 11 and up, and it’s still a very funny show, but I guess I didn’t notice the first time around how hard they leaned into the whole “everyone’s laughing, but if this were real, it would actually be abuse” thing, especially as the series went on (we are currently on season 5, which is a very funny season. We just watched the one where Reese joins the army and Hal is under house arrest). I think the target audience is people my age, among whom it is actually very common to have discussions about our childhoods that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect were actually. . . . yeesh.

READING

Read aloud: The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. The second in The Chronicles of Prydain.

I’m reading this aloud to kids ages 9 and 5, and they are enthralled. This one is more exciting and cohesive than the first. Lots of tests of character. I pause often to ask the kids, “Wow, what would you do in this situation?” and I am never gratified by their answers, but at least I can tell they’re paying attention. 

I won’t mind taking a break from Lloyd Alexander for our next read-aloud, though.He is a good, vivid storyteller, but he can be a bit clunky to read aloud. We started on Prydain when we lost our copy of Wind in the Willows just after Toad’s friend’s stage an intervention about the motorcar. It will be a nice change of pace to get back to Kenneth Grahame’s prose, which is so lushly, lovingly written. 

Benny also got a copy of Time Cat, also by Lloyd Alexander, for her birthday, but she hasn’t started it yet.  A talking, time-traveling cat who goes on adventures with a kid. Seems promising. 

I’m also reading Dragonwings by Lawrence Yep to myself (it’s a children’s book suitable for kids about grade 5 and up). Yep has a good, plain style and doesn’t flinch away from the awful realities of life for Chinese immigrants in California at the turn of the century, so it may not be great for especially sensitive readers. The protagonist is an eight-year-old boy who leaves his mother in China to live with his father, a former master kite-maker who now works in a laundry. It does a nice job of showing how myth makes its way into a family’s understanding of the world, a theme that fascinates me. 

I’ve also been picking up Notes From Underground by Doestoevsky and reading passages at random before bed, which may not be great for my mental health, but I don’t think it’s doing any harm to the book. 

And I ordered a paper copy of Cat Hodge’s Unstable Felicity, which is currently on sale for $8.99, because I will scroll through Facebook and Twitter for three hours straight, but I simply cannot read a book on a screen. Can’t do it. And I do want to read this book. (An audio version is also now available.)

LISTENING TO

Uh, Miracles by Insane Clown Posse

Damien made a reference to “fucking magnets, how do they work?” and I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he showed me this:

Okay, so this is objectively terrible work by some powerfully rotten entertainers, but I kind of love it. My mother would have loved it. Three cheers for the divine spark in every human, that makes even no-talent creeps in stupid face paint want to make a video encouraging people to think about how cool it is that there are mountains and rivers, and that children look like their parents, and there are stars and pelicans and shit. This is not good art, but it is real art, and even Juggalos need real art. Me gusta.

If you’re looking for something you can actually enjoy, you could do worse than the Hannah and Her Sisters soundtrack

How about you? Watching, reading, or listening to anything that’s good – maybe better than you expected? 

 

 

 

On Valentine’s day, communication, and not getting kicked in the nuts

Several years ago, I revealed to my husband that I actually kind of like Valentine’s Day.  This is despite all the times I told him that I hated it, it’s lame and stupid, and a made-up, over-commercialized saccharine-fest invented by Hallmark and Big Floral.  For so many years, the poor man had been wondering why, every February 14, I would say I wasn’t mad at him, while I was clearly mad at him.

I was mad, you see, because everyone else was getting flowers and riding in heart-shaped hot air balloons and– I don’t know, eating hot fudge sundaes that turned out to have a tiny violin player at the bottom.  And here I was getting nothing, which is what I repeatedly told him I wanted. Pray for me:  I’m married to a monster.

Anyway, I finally realized that it doesn’t make me defective to enjoy flowers — and that if it’s artificial to suddenly act romantic on a nationally-specified day — well, we need all the help we can get.  Alarm clocks are artificial, too, but if they didn’t automatically remind us of what we ought to do, we’d be in big trouble.  So, yeah, I asked him to get me flowers, and take the plastic wrap and price tag off before giving them to me, and he will, and I’m going to like them.  Whew, that wasn’t so hard!

Having taken this huge leap forward in our communication skills, I decided to hunt around to see what normal human beings do on Valentine’s Day.

If you want to feel like you’ve got your act together, just ask the internet a question.  Okay, maybe not in all circumstances.  If you’re rewiring your living room, for instance, or trying to remove the Spaghetti-o decoupage from an angry cat, you may very well have lots to learn.

But if you need help with your relationships?  A quick trip down Google lane will have you feeling like an expert, a champion, a genius, a hero of common sense and decency.  For instance, if you Google “What do guys want for Valentine’s Day?” you will come across this depressing paen to modern love, written by a man:

One of my favorite presents was a trip to the grocery store.

I remember the clear, cloudless day, sun shining down on me proudly pushing my cart into Central Market. Rachel was with me, and some friends who came along.

I picked up a steak and set it in the cart. Rachel said, “That’s great, Doug!”

I grabbed some chips. Rachel said, “That’s really great, Doug!”

I picked up some really expensive jam. Rachel said, “Yum, that will be really great, Doug!”

In fact everything I picked up got the same response from her (or very close to it), and that was my present: I could choose anything I wanted, and she could only say how great everything was. What an awesome gift that was, a trip to the grocery store.

So what did I get, besides some red AND yellow peppers?

I got what most men want. I was accepted.

I weep for America.  I weep for mankind.  I weep for myself, because this is the saddest, stupidest thing I’ve ever read, and I read it three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  What is Doug going to get for Christmas from the gracious lady Rachel?  A coupon for Not Getting Kicked In the Nuts?

You know, I probably treat my husband this way sometimes.  But the difference is, neither one of us is okay with it.  We don’t assume that relentless criticism and belittling is part of a normal relationship. If it starts to become a pattern, we go to confession, make amends, and start fresh, because we like each other, and want each other to be happy. 

This reminds me of the story of the man who had invented a brilliant method for saving money on the farm.  “On the first week,” he says, “I fed my  horse a bale of hay.  On the second week, I fed him half a bale of hay.  On the third week, I fed him a quarter of a bale.  I was damn near to teaching the horse to live on nothing at all, but on the fourth week, the ungrateful sonofabitch died on me!”

This whole communication thing isn’t as lame as it sounds. I hope that, sometime after that article was printed, Doug found a way to tell his wife, “What I really want is for you to stop treating me like I’m some kind of moron. Save the correction for really important stuff, and talk to me like you see me as a full human. Let me know what makes you feel important, and I’ll do the same for you.” I hope they figure out that this kind of thing shouldn’t be for special days, but should be the baseline of their relationship, and once the basic respect is a given, then special holidays won’t feel so fraught. 

Happy stupid Valentine’s Day, folks.  I hope you get something nice.  Or if you get nothing, I hope at least it doesn’t feel like a gift!

****

(This post first ran in 2011.)

Horse skeleton photo by James St. John [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Juggling, jargon, and the golden ball

Last week, I read Tomie dePaola’s wonderful story, The Clown of God, to my faith formation class. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Before I read the book, I prepped the class a bit. It happened to be my daughter’s birthday, as well as the last class before Christmas, so we talked about birthdays and presents. To my relief, they all knew that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.

And what present does Jesus want for his birthday? We established that he probably doesn’t want a Hot Wheels Ultimate Gator Car Wash play set, and he probably doesn’t want a Barbie Sparkle Lights Mermaid.  So what does he want?

Most of them were baffled. Then a few hands shot up.

“Love!”  said one kid. I smiled and nodded, and wrote that down on the white board.

“Community,” said another. “Respect, service, compassion.”

He laid the words out flatly, like a card dealer mechanically snapping cards out on a table. He had clearly heard them a thousand times before, and knew how to say the thing the teacher wants you to say: Jesus wants us to love one another. Jesus likes community. Jesus likes service. Some of these kids are barely in contact with anything religious, but others have been in Catholic school since they were tiny, and at the tender age of eight, they are full to the brim with jargon.

So I read them the book. The story goes like this . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

 

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Image: Detail from illustration from Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God

Love is never wasted

Some time ago, I came across an anguished post by a devoted mom. She had spent an entire week teaching her kids an in-depth, hands-on, cross-curricular lesson on the major watercolorists of western art. Her kids were enthralled, and seemed to really internalize not only the beauty of the work, but also some of the history, the technical side, and even the biographies of the artists they studied.

Next week? They said, “Watercolor? What’s watercolor?”

Poor mom. Kids are crumbs, and that’s just a fact. But the thing that struck me is that the woman berated herself over having wasted so much time with the lesson.

How wrong she was! There is no such thing as wasted time with your children. There is such a thing as time spent badly — time you spend belittling them, for instance. But there is no such thing as loving, attentive time that is wasted. This is true even if the kids have no conscious memory of the event, even if it’s only five minutes later (see: Kids are crumbs).

As I’ve said before, kids are “not empty mason jars waiting to be filled up with the perfect combination of ingredients. We’re making people, here, not soup.”

There are two related mistakes we can make when we’re raising children. One is that we can imagine that it’s all within our control, and that if we simply add in all the right elements, we’re guaranteed to end up with a happy, confident, faithful, moral, self-sufficient, grounded, hard-working, honest human being. (It doesn’t help that a lot of self-styled experts make a tidy living by all but promising success if you just follow their guidelines.)  The truth is, we can do ev-ry-thing-right and guess what? Kid still has free will. Kid still has specific brain chemistry. Kid still runs into a unique set of experiences, and kid processes them in a unique way according to ten thousand unpredictable variables.

So the first thing to remember is that, when we make parenting choices, we’re not putting in a customized order. It’s a much more delicate and artful and hazardous and beautiful process than that, because it is an act of love, and love can’t be reduced to supply and demand.

The second mistake is to imagine that, if we don’t see the immediate, expected results, it was a wasted effort. This is the folly the mom above fell prey to. She thought, when she was teaching her kids about Winslow Homer, that she was just teaching them about Winslow Homer. I love me some Winslow Homer, but I know that it’s much more important for the kids to learn about other things — things like, “Beauty is important and worth spending time on.” “Your mother loves you and thinks you are worth spending time on.”

Please note that these are things that you can teach by following an intensive Montessori-based course on the history of watercolor, or you can teach it by hanging around on a trampoline telling stupid jokes, or you can teach it by driving the kid to all his hideously tedious T-ball games all weekend long, or you can teach it by . . . well, you get the idea. Time and attention. These are the two things that kids need, and there are a million different ways you can provide them. This is also because time and attention are acts of love, and you cannot count all the ways that love can be expressed.

The child may be the kind of person who accepts and recognizes your love and attention immediately, saying things like, “I had a nice day with you, Mama.” Or he may be the other kind of kid, who doesn’t seem to care at all.  He may not think twice about these things until he has children of his own. He may be the kind of kid who thinks you’re a terrible parent, until one day, at age 50, he had a sudden recollection of a thing you did, and realizes, “She loved me so much!”

There is so much mystery in the human psyche and how it develops. We can work ourselves into a panic fretting that we haven’t given properly, and that our children aren’t receiving properly; and half the time, we’ll be right. Truly, the only way we can be at peace is if, along with doing our best, we remember to turn our children’s lives over to God, over and over again. God’s generosity works both ways: He is generous in what He gives us, and He is generous in how He receives, as well. When we turn our children over to God, He will not let our efforts go to waste. This is because God is love, and when we show love to the people in our care, God will not let that love go to waste. 

***

This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2016.

The doctrine of the trinity describes love

So, how was Heresy Sunday at your parish? Maybe you know it better as “Trinity Sunday,” but, well, you know. One minute, you’re standing there sweating behind the pulpit, trying to give your flock something solid to chew on, and then next minute, you’re a modalist. Or an arian, or a partialist. (If you’ve somehow never watched St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies, take a few minutes! It’s funny and good.)
 
On the other hand, you also have people complaining on Twitter that they’re pretty tired of hearing from their pastors that they’re just too dumb to understand the trinity, so he won’t even try. 
 
On the other hand . . . wait, that’s three hands now, and we’re about to veer into heresy again. What I’m trying to say is that the theology of the Trinity is pretty intense, and I have a lot of sympathy for priests who are trying to steer a way in between teaching something false, and just performing some vague hand-waving about the mysterious mystery of it all.
 
However, the theology of the trinity is a lot more knowable than I was led to believe as a child. I had the impression that it was simply so far beyond our human experience, it would break my brain if I even tried to figure it out. This is false. If you want to know more about the Trinity — and you should! It’s VERY COOL — I most ardently recommend Frank Sheed’s Theology for Beginners. I intend to read it again this summer with my teenagers. It’s very lucid and exciting, and, surprise surprise, it leads to a better understanding of, well, everything. Because it’s about who and what God is.
 
However however, it would be hard to get into it in a single sermon. Some of the best sermons I’ve heard are less about defining doctrine and more about helping us understand why it’s important and what it has to do with us. As Chris Damian says in another context
 
We tend to think of arriving at belief as a straightforward process. We think of belief as something that exists on the level of syllogism, where my rational assent is always the result of a clear logic unfolding from the circuitry of my mind. But coming into deep belief does not involve a mere continuation of syllogistic progression. Rather, it involves the mysterious integration of a complex constellation of experience, context, affection, habit, longing, rationale, and choice. Often the assertion of belief is a last step, the articulation of something which already exists within the person but which has taken time to develop into words.
So yesterday, Trinity Sunday, we heard a sermon with less doctrine but plenty of the rest of that complex constellation, and I appreciated it. The pastor at this church tends to deliver shaggy dog sermons, and sometimes you never do arrive at the punchline. But when you do, it’s always about the immensity of God’s love, and how personal it all is. Which is why we keep going back to this church, even though it’s forty minutes away! Here’s how I remember it:

He described how his grandmother and grandfather met at a town dance in 1922. They spotted each other across the room, and she thought he looked like a troublemaker and he thought she looked stuck up. But somehow they got together anyway, fell in love, got married, and came to know each other as they learned how to love each other. They had children, and those children had children, including the pastor himself; and by the time they had been married for several decades, they could complete each other’s thoughts. Gradually, over the years, they revealed themselves to each other more and more.
 
We sometimes think God has changed since the Old Testament. It seems like God used to be so harsh and angry, always smiting and getting vengeance; but then Jesus came, and taught us about love, even loving your enemy — and this seemed like something so new and different. But then we heard in the first reading how God has always been:
 
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth. . . 
There are some intimations of the Trinity here, of a God who isn’t lonely and solitary, but is in a fruitful relationship. And it was a relationship not only of love between the persons of the Trinity, but between God and us:
 
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.
 
The pastor reminded us that God was perfectly content in himself, perfectly complete. He didn’t need anything, certainly not human beings. But because of his overflowing love, he did want something . . . and so he made us. The responsorial psalm says:
 
What is man that you should be mindful of him,
or the son of man that you should care for him?
R. O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!
 
God made us to love us — and, as you do when you are in love, to reveal himself to us.  That that is what you do when you love someone: You open yourself, you reveal yourself to them, just as the priest’s grandparents did with each other over the course of many, many years of fruitful marriage. And that is what God has done for us.  He is fruitful, and he reveals himself because He loves us. 
 
The Gospel reading from John was very short, and quite Greek:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”
 

To me, this speaks of the hope we can have of coming to know God more and more, as we become more and more confident in his love for us.

Knowing God better is . . . well, it’s not always a delight. Sometimes it’s terrible, for a while, just like marriage can be, as you come to know each other better and better. But unlike in a human marriage, we can know  with complete certainty that there is always delight on the other side, if we keep pushing through. Or at least we can hope, until we know.

 
So we should not be afraid of trying to understand mysteries. God wants to reveal himself to us. But we have to start by consenting to be in a relationship with him. Doctrine is simply the description of how it is that God loves us.
 
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Image: Detail of 17th century Holy Trinity Russian icon, painter unknown, from Icon Museum Recklinghausen [Public domain]