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. 

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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]

A lay exhortation on love and mastak’s

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POST-CATECHISM CLASS LAY EXHORTATION
CARITAS MAJORIS MOMENTI EST
OF THE GOOD GIRL 

BENEDICTA
TO ALL THE LAY FAITHFUL

ON LOVE AND MASTAK’S

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Love is more inportent then eneything else.
We all make mistak’s, but we lurn from them.
It’s nevr to late to triy agen christ will forgiv you, Evryone has a chois to go to heven or hell.
Go to church a lote.
God want’s us to be good. 
He want us to go to heven with him.
Triy to pray a lote. 
Alwas ramember christ will forgive you and your sin.
Ramember that you love God, and he loves you. 
You shuld love evryone and evrything.
If you have a pet take good kare
Ramember you lurn from your Mastak’s.
And evryone Mak’s Mastaks.

Your boyfriend is not your husband

I’m not saying we should hold out for the perfect spouse; and I’m not saying you should flee from a relationship the first time conflict crops up. It’s very good to test how well the two of you can work through problems together. And every human being brings a certain amount of imperfection into a relationship: Bad habits, personality flaws, unsavory pasts, immaturity, selfishness, and so on. Everyone’s got something — probably several things — wrong with them; and every good relationship will have conflict at some point.

But there are some flaws that should make us pause, think hard, and possibly back away before we make any vows. 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Skedonk [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

 

Who wants a discount code for the FemCatholic speeches?

You do! Because they are awesome.

Today’s the feast of the Annunciation, and it happens that my speech “When Women Say Yes: Consent and Control In Sex and Love” focuses on that moment when the angel came to Mary and . . . asked? Or told? It is called “the annunciation,” not “the invitation” or “the proposal.”And if God didn’t give the queen of heaven and earth a real choice about what would happen to her body and her life, then what chance do the rest of us have?

My speech is about how I worked through my distress over women’s apparent low standing in the eyes of God, and how I came out the other side understanding what consent really means, why it’s so important, how Mary basically invented it, and what the rest of us can hope for, including and beyond consent.

My speech is just one of ten, and if you use the code SIMCHA, you’ll get a 20% discount. Go to this Vimeo page  to order these ten excellent speeches:

1. How the Church Beats Feminism at its own Game – Erika Bachiochi, J.D.
2. Woman and Man: Genius and Mission – Dr. Deborah Savage
3. Was Jesus a Feminist? – Claire Swinarski
4. Suffering and Holiness in a Modern World – Leticia Ochoa Adams
5. Am I Good? Life, Love & Same Sex Desires – Shannon Ochoa
6. When Women Say Yes: Consent in Sex and Love – Simcha Fisher
7. Love in the Ruins: The Prophetic Examples of Dorothy Day and Caryll Houslander – Mary FioRito, J.D.
8. Informed Choice: Reclaiming Women’s Health – Gabrielle Jastrebski
9. Learning to Love the F-word: Embracing Prolife Feminism – Aimee Murphy
10. The Wild Diversity of Catholic Femininity – Meg Hunter-Kilmer

When anxiety comes disguised as love

Anxiety is like a strangling vine. Rooting it out feels perilous, because you’re afraid that all the wholesome, fruitful shoots will be uprooted along with it. If I stop fretting, will I stop caring? If I stop freaking out, will I stop making an effort? If I’m not suffering, is it really love?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

photo credit: L____ photo_0014 via photopin (license)

But what if I don’t love God?

They really, really loved God, enough to willingly die for Him, enough to renounce their families for Him, enough to cheerfully surrender their riches and beauty and power for Him, enough to praise Him with their last dying breaths.

And I? I didn’t love God. I didn’t even like Him.

That worried me.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

If You Haven’t Read Humanae Vitae, What Are You Waiting For?

You may imagine it’s a stern and solemn doctrinal harangue, fusty with misogyny, larded with theological jargon, cluttered with impractical, abstract ideals. In short, something you’d write if you’ve never had sex and have no idea what marriage is really like.

But Humanae Vitae is not like that.

Humanae Vitae, which is Latin for “On Human Life,” doesn’t bring the authoritarian fist of the Church crashing down on individual, authentic human lives. Instead, it invites us to recall two things . . .

Read the rest of my latest for Parable Magazine.

 

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Whataboutism isn’t just a fallacy, it’s evil

Back around 2003, I had a conversation about abortion with a liberal friend. She couldn’t get her head around the idea that I, a pro-lifer, sincerely cared about some inconsequential cluster of cells that happened to be human, happened to be technically alive. She wasn’t a cold or cruel person; she just didn’t understand the point of even mustering up a thought for a person you can’t even see.

What kept her up at night, she told me, was the thought of an Iraqi mother scrambling around in the bombed-out ruins of her house, calling out the names of her children, fearfully searching for their bloody remains. That’s the scene that brought a lump to her throat and made her feel panicked, made her feel the urge to rescue, to change things. Not abortion.

She knew I supported the Iraq war at this time, so that’s why she brought it up. Mercifully, I can’t remember how I responded. I hope to God it wasn’t some kind of hawkish, utilitarian garbage about how collateral damage is a shame, but it’s inevitable in wartime. If that’s what I answered, I’ll have to answer for it on judgment day.

If someone gave me a chance to respond to my liberal friend today, I hope that I would say something like what Fr. Martin tweeted out the other day, after the news served up two kinds of tragedy at once: The repeal of Ireland’s abortion ban, and the news that parents who approach border guards seeking asylum will have their children removed from them, to be “put into foster care or whatever.”

Here’s what Fr. Martin tweeted, in quick succession:

As several friends pointed out, the message calling out pro-lifers got tens of thousands of retweets, but the one calling out social justice activists got mere hundreds. But don’t fool yourself that this is evidence of liberals once again refusing to be self-reflective. If Fr. Pavone (for instance) had tweeted out similar paired messages to his audience, you would have seen the retweet numbers reversed, with pro-life conservatives cheering on the jab at liberals, but nervously ignoring the jab aimed at them. Left and right are equally guilty of this silly game. We love it when our enemies’ oxen get gored, but we want our own pet oxen to be left alone.

I believe Fr. Martin knows this, and that was part of the point of the tweets. Not only did he demand that each group inspect its own consistency, he demanded that we see that these two questions must go together. These two groups of people, left and right, must go together. Don’t we see that we both want the same thing, overall? Don’t we see that we’re not, in fact, enemies?

All humans deserve justice, whether they exist inside or outside the womb. It’s all right to put your emphasis more on one form of work than the other. It’s all right to be called mainly to advocate for the unborn, or to mainly advocate for immigrants, or some other vulnerable group.

But it’s not all right to believe that, because your work emphasizes one kind of work for justice, then work that emphasizes some other kind is foolish, trivial, misguided, or even evil. We can say “X is important to me” without proceeding to “. . . and therefore, Y is stupid, and if you care about Y, then you’re stupid, too.”

Love is generous; love overflows. This is the hallmark of love: It wants to expand. Love always helps us see more and more good in more and more of humanity, not less. We may not be called specifically to devote ourselves to fighting abortion or to fighting social injustices of various kinds, but if we have scorn for those who do, then our work is not motivated by love. We should stop and ask ourselves what it is motivated by.

The Lord never gives us a Sophie’s choice. If we find ourselves making a choice like that — saying “my cause is so vital that your cause can go to Hell” — we can be sure that we are not doing the Lord’s work.

We hear a lot about “whataboutism” as an increasingly popular fallacy these days. “You say you care about that microscopic little embryo,” my liberal friend might have said, “But what about the grieving mother searching for her actual born child that she knew and loved? What about him?”

Or, “You say you care about a bunch of dirty illegals busting into our country uninvited,” my conservative friends will say, “But what about the tiny child torn limb from limb before he even has a chance to see his mother’s face? What about him?”

But whataboutism isn’t just a logical fallacy, it’s a message from Hell. Hell always wants to diminish. Hell always wants to reduce. Hell always wants to narrow your point of view, divide your affections, sequester your heart. Hell wants you to believe that there’s only so much love to go around, and so you better parcel it out carefully, divvy it up without allowing in distractions like compassion, gentleness, mercy, or humility. Hell wants you to feed your sheep by stealing food from the shepherd next door. Hell isn’t satisfied with seeing you do wrong; it wants you to insist that you’re doing it out of love. Hell doesn’t just crave suffering; it wants to drain joy dry.

I am pushing myself to reject this kind of thinking. It is not from the Lord. I can’t work and strive for every good cause at once; but if zeal for thy house makes me bulldoze my neighbor’s house, then that’s not zeal at all; that’s just another name for damnation.

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Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

How do we help each other bear the cross?

We have no right to mutely point to the cross and let other people hang there alone. All humans must suffer, but all humans must also help each other bear that suffering.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly?

Image: Detail of Fifth Station of the Cross by Sieger Koder, “Folly of God” series