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]

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)]

 

But will my husband suffer enough this Lent?

Like most lifelong Catholics, my husband and I have no idea what the rules of fasting are, so we have to look it up every year. And every year, I tell my husband, “But that’s how you eat every day anyway.” This is why he is within a single stomach virus’ distance of fitting into the pants he got married in over two decades ago, while I . . . well, let’s just say that marriage is an opportunity for growth, and I have not squandered that opportunity. No, indeedbaconator, I have not.

So I have my work cut out for me, but there’s a real danger my husband will skate by these next forty days without suffering at all! In case you’re in a similar position, here are some ways to make your husband miserable help your husband draw closer to Christ this Lent, which is your job:

1. Keep it spirituelle. Complain incessantly about all the things that make it especially hard for housewives to fast, like having to be around food all day, and being hungrier than most people anyway because your attitudes toward food and hunger and body image are all out of whack because of all the sacrifices of pregnancy and childbirth you’ve made throughout your married life. I mean, I don’t even know when I’m hungry anymore, you know? I can’t tell if I’m actually hungry, or just frustrated with how frustrating my life is, or if my body is telling my I’m deficient in something, because I’m so depleted, or what!

Then when he sympathetically suggests that you might go easy on yourself because of your state in life, give him a pitying look and murmur in a Holy Spirit kind of voice, “I don’t know, that just seems kind of . . . contrary to the spirit of the season, you know?”

2. Practice catecheticriticism. This is when you send a message to an adult in the next room by way of instructing children who are in front of you. Like this: “And so, kids, there are a lot of ways you can show God that you are sorry for your sins. Giving up Minecraft or candy OR OLD CROW is good, but you could also do things, like keeping your room clean or BRINGING THAT RIDICULOUS BROKEN DISHWASHER TO THE DUMP ALREADY or sharing your toys. These are all good things to do for Lent, and here is a nice coloring page of the stations of the cross, because I GUESS I HAVE TO BE THE SPIRITUAL HEAD OF THE FAMILY SINCE NO ONE ELSE IS STEPPING UP. Here are some crayons.”

3. Cry, and refuse to say why, because it’s nothing, just nothing. This one isn’t specific to Lent. It’s just pretty much the worst thing you can do to a guy.

4. If he persists in his concern, admit that you’ve just been feeling low lately, that’s all, and it would just be nice to get away from these same four walls and this kitchen and these kids and just feel like a woman, you know? Just for one time. Then when he reminds you that he asked you five times if you wanted to go to Chili’s, say, “Oh, I know, I know, but it’s Lent . . .”

5. Complain about female bloggers who talk about fasting when they really mean dieting, and how sick it is that, in society today, all we care about is women’s bodies, and what about their souls? Talk about Cosmo, armpit airbrushing, and how much the actresses in Star Wars got paid. Go into your room to be alone and pray for a while. When he comes in to search for the socks you claim there are plenty of in his drawer if he would just look, let him find you standing there, just gazing at that clingy red sundress you wore to your friend’s wedding two decades ago, back when you considered ice cubes an indulgent snack. Just gazing at it. Then say, “You know, in the Middle Ages, they fasted all the time, all through Lent. Did you know that? Ugh, we’re such wimps nowadays. People really were holier then. Society today really makes me sick.”

You know what, the $5 ‘Rita at Chilis is not half bad. I’ll meet you there, right after confession.

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)

How the Church can help (or hurt) women in abusive marriages

When she went looking for help from the church, she was still susceptible to the idea that everything was her fault. One priest said it was a shame she was suffering, but all she could do was offer it up. Another told her she had a demon in her.

But a third priest listened to her story . . .

Read the my latest for America Magazine.

This is one of the most important pieces I’ve ever written, and I’m very grateful to the courageous and honest women who shared their stories with me.

Photo by George Hodan (Creative Commons)

Anniversary Podcast!

And here it is! Our 20th anniversary podcast, which we’re making free to all comers. OF COURSE we had some equipment trouble and ended up having to share a microphone. Made me a little uncomfortable sitting so close to this virtual stranger, but we muddled through.

We answered, sorta, the following questions generously provided by Facebook friends:

How did you meet?
What is one thing that you didn’t know/realize about each other when you got married, but now it’s your favorite thing?
What is the name of the podcast?
What’s the funniest thing that went wrong at your wedding?
Are you going to be doing anything special for your anniversary?
What had been your biggest “why did no one tell us this!?” revelation about marriage?
When did we realize you don’t know nearly as much about marriage as you thought you did?
What were some of our hardest times?
Why it is OK to have a big family and not a seven-figure income?
How do you keep that spark sparkling when children and work take all your time and energy?
And I read a poem by Adam Zagajewski.

Thanks for all the happy anniversary wishes! I’m so grateful for the support of my patrons and all my readers. Cheers!

Marriage advice from two who know

YES, it’s our twentieth anniversary! We’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Here are none of them:

People think marriage is expensive, but there are so many costs you can halve when you become one flesh. Hello, one toothbrush. Hello savings! And thriftiness can be sexy, too. Take turns with it and watch each other brush. Up and down, up and down, side-side-side-side-side! This is hot.

Communication is at the heart of unity, and many people are most comfortable communicating constant expressions of disappointment. Start there, then work your way up to berating each other in the Wendy’s drive thru because why the hell would a grown man truly need that much ketchup, until you’re known far and wide as They’re At It Again. Eventually, the police dispatcher will have a special code just for you two. Embroider it on a pillow.

If you would like to broadcast your love to the world, pose often with your hands touching each other in claw-like fashion, or I guess it’s a heart shape. Grr! Love! Grrrr! I’ll scratch your eyes out!

Compromise, compromise, compromise. Try only being an irrational son of a bitch half the time.

Frequently tell your beloved that you cherish every tiny bit of them, from head to toe. Then, on a milestone anniversary, prove it by presenting them with a romantic pillow stuffed with years of carefully gathered toenail clippings, belly button lint, and drain hair. Pinterest has some good ideas for how to make this project happen. Tip: Don’t spend too much time on Pinterest. It’s not healthy.

When you take a picture of the two of you, hold up an empty frame in front of you. People are doing this. There must be a reason. It can’t be meaningless, can it?

Try to find hobbies you can do together. Accrue debt in both your names. Develop contagious skin conditions you can share. Work your way through vast quantities of cheese and meet in the middle. Grow identical beards.

Cultivate pet names for each other. Consider “sweet cheeks,” “sugar lips,” “xylitol assy cheeks,” or “partially-hydrogenated-palm-oil-me-lad.”

Keep a sense of mystery alive in your marriage. One woman was mad at her husband for forty-three years and refused to say why! And he kept up his end, too. She had no idea what was going on in that basement bathroom the whole time, with the rolled-up towel stuffed under the door and the scuffling noises.

Mason jars aren’t just de rigeur for the wedding reception; they must be carefully featured and maintained throughout your entire marriage. Commute to work in a mason jar if you have to. Tout pour l’amour! Tout, I say!

Romantic: Getting matching tattoos.
Even more romantic: Surprising each other with the tattoos you give your spouse while he or she is unconscious.
Even more romantic: Discovering what kind of tattoos you thought it was a good idea to surprise each other with while you were unconscious. How is it even physically possible for the Tasmanian Devil to accomplish . . . that . . . with a dolphin? Only your id knows.

Never underestimate the power of “pillow talk.” Try, “Mphhh grphhh umph bhh.” Also very evocative: Pillow screaming.

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Happy anniversary, man. You know I don’t mean it. But I meant it when I said “I do.”

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Image by Stephan Nakatani via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Marriage warriors, look to your own homes

I recall arguing and arguing that marriage is special because the whole of society depends on its strength and integrity; and I recall my gay friends rolling their eyes and pointing to statistics about heterosexual marriage—statistics on fornication, on out-of-wedlock births, on domestic abuse, on adultery, and on divorce—and letting them speak for themselves. Straight people have not made a good case for marriage. We, as a nation, have not behaved as if it’s worth preserving.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Ian MacKenzie via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The Phantom Marriage Vow: A guest post on annulments by Abigail Tardiff

In today’s post, my sister, Abigail Tardiff, responds to Deacon Jim Russell’s recent article Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness” in Crisis Magazine.

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“I Meant My Vows Even If He Didn’t”

I have a friend who was divorced and remarried. She understood that she couldn’t receive communion in such a state, and it was tearing her apart. At the same time, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her present husband (or live celibately with him).

I suggested she apply for an annulment of her first marriage, because I had reason to think there were strong grounds for establishing a defect in his consent. She said, “Oh no, I could never get an annulment. It would be dishonest, because even if he didn’t mean his vows, I meant mine.”

The Phantom Extra Marriage Vow

I have run into this misunderstanding again and again. People seem to think that when you get married, you make two vows: the first is your marriage vow, which requires consent from both of you. But the second is a promise just to God and to yourself to remain faithful to this person. The annulment declares the first vow void, but the second is irrevocable.

This is nonsense. There is only one marriage vow. If the Church declares that you are not married, then you are not required to remain faithful, for the simple reason that there is nothing to remain faithful to. If your spouse did not actually intend marriage, then you may have thought you were making a vow—but you weren’t. If no marriage took place, then no vow took place.

There is no such thing as a unilateral marriage vow. You don’t marry him and then also promise to remain faithful to him; your faithfulness to him is the putting into practice of your marriage vow. If your marriage never existed, then neither did your promise to remain faithful.

Simony: Charging Extra

Why is this so important? First, because of all the bruised reeds out there who are longing to get back to the Church, like my friend. Imposing extra requirements on someone—duties that Christ and His Church never demanded of us—is a kind of simony. (Simony, the selling of something holy, is named after Simon Magus in the book of Acts, who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from the apostles Peter and John.)

Well, buying something holy is pretty bad, but selling it is even worse. If you tell someone that in order to be a virtuous Catholic, he should not marry even when the Church tells him he is free to marry—then you’re charging him (in heroic sacrifice, not in money) for something that the Church has made free.

Faithfulness without Marriage?

Second, the idea that marriage entails two individual vows of faithfulness, essentially unrelated to each other, eats away at the theology of marriage. Faithfulness to your spouse is not a rule stuck onto marriage from the outside; it flows from the very nature of marriage, which is the becoming one of two who were previously separate. The very reason unfaithfulness is such a terrible sin is that it attacks that oneness of the spouses. But if that oneness does not exist, it cannot be attacked. Without a spouse, there is no one to remain spousally faithful to.

Faithfulness to My Own Consent?

In a recent article for Crisis Magazine titled “Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness,” Deacon Jim Russell makes some beautiful points about annulment. He says no one should ever be pressured to seek an annulment, and he points out that marriage tribunals are required by canon law to encourage the spouses to be reconciled, and to seek convalidation if there is a defect in their consent.

But he also writes, “when two people enter into a covenant, but only one ‘means it,’ the one who ‘means it’ has ipso facto remained faithful not only to his or her own words and will, but also faithful to the covenant itself.” He says it’s heroically virtuous to remain faithful to your own “irrevocably expressed consent.”

There it is again, that phantom second marriage vow: faithfulness not only to your spouse, but also to your own consent. Consent to what? What else but marriage? But if the Church declares a union null, there’s no marriage to consent to.

A One-Sided Covenant?

Deacon Jim says it’s heroically virtuous, in a case where your spouse did not mean his vows, to remain faithful nevertheless to a “covenant” that he admits is not a “two-sided covenant.” Again, this is nonsense. Marriage does not consist of two covenants, one two-sided and one one-sided, so that when the two-sided covenant is declared null, the one-sided one remains. Marriage is a two-sided covenant or nothing at all. Let us defend the indissolubility and sacredness of marriage, and support those who are divorced, without tying up burdens that are heavier than the ones our Faith already asks us to carry.

Love and diversity

The best teachers I know have always been interested not only in what they have to say, but in what their students have to say. Why? Because they were open to loving their students, and they were also in love with the truth, hungry for more truth, delighting in uncovering new facets of truth that they had not seen before.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Photo of diatoms by Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University (corp2365, NOAA Corps Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons