The difficult balance between honesty and complacency

Look, it’s a model wearing size 24 jeans! And look, a shaving ad that doesn’t airbrush cellulite away, and a weight-loss ad that shows a woman smoothing her sweater over her stomach — a stomach that is clearly far smaller than it used to be, but is still striated with permanent stretch marks.

I absolutely love it. Welcome to the 21st century, when lumpy, imperfect people are starting to populate the media almost as much as they populate the actual country. As a fat person, I’m intensely grateful for ads that make it clear I can be both large and human, even both large and beautiful.

Representation is about so much more than just a happy jolt of recognition. It’s about feeling real, feeling fully a member of the human race. 

There’s a similar movement going on in what I’ll call, for want of a less cringey phrase, the spiritual media. Less than 10 years ago, I pitched some book proposals to Catholic publishers. I strove to paint a picture showing how it really feels to be a Catholic wife and mother, with all the actual joys and sorrows, and without any of the literary airbrushing that was de rigeur in books aimed at Catholic women.

To a one, the publishers responded that my work was unsuitable for Catholic readers. It was too dark, too negative, too harsh, not uplifting and joyful enough. In short, too honest.

Things have changed. In 2019, it’s commonplace to be both Catholic and honest in public. It’s no longer shocking or unacceptable, in most communities, for Catholics to speak openly about the messy, unresolved, unedifying aspects of their lives — depressionalcoholismporn addictionburnout, weirdness in general, or even sincerity itself — and for readers to respond with gratitude and recognition, rather than shock and condemnation.

But this new “warts and all” honesty is a double-edged sword. It’s undeniably healthy to be sincere, to courageously acknowledge the flaws we perceive as unusual and shameful. It can be immensely liberating and encouraging for others to see they’re not alone in their imperfections. We must correct the notion that, to deserve respect, we must be (or appear to be) flawless. We need to know that we’re not somehow less human just because we struggle.

But there’s such a short jump between “I am imperfect, but I still deserve respect” and “I am imperfect, and there’s no reason to change.”

I must reluctantly admit that, when I see fat models looking lovely, sometimes it’s good for me, and makes me feel more human; but sometimes it just gives me an excuse to skip exercising for two weeks and slap extra sour cream on my taco. It’s vital to know I deserve to be treated with dignity no matter what size I am. But it’s also vital that I keep my arteries from exploding. When my Facebook feed is populated by lush, queenly, opulent models even bigger than me, I could go either way. Sometimes honest representation is good for me; sometimes, not so much.

The same is true in our moral lives. When we surround ourselves with “warts and all” examples, we may feel encouraged and comforted, seeing clearly that it’s human to struggle, and not a cause for despair. If we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, we may truly need a reminder that haven’t lost our right to dignity simply because we sin.

But there’s also a true risk of normalizing sin.  It’s one thing to know that it’s normal to struggle with chastity; it’s quite another when no one you know takes chastity seriously, or has any intention of changing their lives to pursue this virtue. It’s one thing to know that many decent people enjoy a cocktail on the regular; it’s quite another to accept that getting trashed every night is just how mommies cope.

It’s one thing to understand that everyone struggles; it’s quite another to conclude that struggle is therefore unnecessary . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Martin Taylor via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Do what in memory of me? On slavery or sacrifice

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

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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

 

Letter from a soul in mortal sin

I didn’t see the curability of it all. It seemed like what you could offer us, with your sacraments and your elaborate covenants, was an answer to a question that no one asked. Salvation from what? I couldn’t see it.

But we have been together for a long time, off and on. We’ve been together long enough that I know that losing you is not only a loss, it is THE loss, the loss I can’t survive.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image of praying skeleton by Bixentro via Flickr (Creative Commons)

17 ways to make confession easier for your kids

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

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

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.  

photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser Ryan via photopin (license)

Shout your damnation

Marriage as an institution may be public, but the love between husband and wife is, by definition, private. You inside me. It does not get any more private than that. And yet this reality show is part of a push to turn marriage inside out—to publicly share and spotlight that most intimate of betrayals, infidelity.

And that is what makes my blood run cold: how public Mr. Gasby and his mistress have made their deeds. Why have they done this? Because they know the power of the word “destigmatize.”

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

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Image: modified detail of U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero

Francis has a lot of buffers.

The Catholic sex abuse scandal has two parts. The first part is the abuse itself. The second part is the institutional efforts to cover it up.

And now we are in the process of slowly, painfully uncovering these decades and centuries of crime.

This process is not part of the scandal.

The uncovering is dreadful. It is agonizing. It is, to use one of Francis’ favored words, messy. It’s always horrifying to witness the uncovering of hidden sin. But the uncovering is not part of the scandal. It is the remedy for the scandal, if there can be a remedy.

And yet Pope Francis, in his homily addressed to bishops today, said:

“In these times, it seems like the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. The ‘Great Accuser’, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse’. A bishop’s strength against the ‘Great Accuser’ is prayer, that of Jesus and his own, and the humility of being chosen and remaining close to the people of God, without seeking an aristocratic life that removes this unction. Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world.”

This was not plucked out of context by some uncharitable, click-farming rag. It was chosen for publication by the Vatican news service itself. It is the Pope’s message.

In the past week, it seemed that Francis was making an effort to preach in ways that could possibly be construed as general pious reflections on scripture. But in today’s homily, he’s clearly referring directly to the scandal — or, more accurately, to the investigation of the scandal. He does not speak of the need to be more transparent. He does not speak of the need to repent, nor for the need to reform the Church. He does not speak of the horror of sin. He does not speak of the victims. Instead, he casts the bishops themselves as the victims — and some of the nine who advise him are themselves accused of covering up abuse.

Has Pope Francis spoken out about the abuse? Sure. He was more than willing to agree that terrible things had been done, and that some people ought to be very sorry indeed — until those accusations were turned on him. Then we heard that silence was holy, and that those who uncover sin are Satan.

I’ll say it again: Francis sounds like an abuser.

I am praying for bishops, and I am praying for the Pope, as he asked us to do. I am praying especially for those bishops who have been struggling mightily to show their flock they, at least, understand the profound horror we’re uncovering day by day, and that they want it to be uncovered. There are some good bishops. Some have been doing public penance. Some have called for independent reviews of their dioceses’ past, opening up records to the public and to the law. Some have demanded that the magisterium stop acting like this is business as usual and treat this scandal like the emergency it is.

And some have accused him of being part of the cover-up.

Are Viganò’s claims credible? I have no idea. I hope to God he’s wrong. And if Viganò himself is guilty, then he, too, should be investigated and prosecuted. But I keep thinking back to the courtroom scene in The Godfather II, where Willie Chichi tells the investigative committee, “Yeah, the family had a lotta buffers.”  If Viganò was part of the crime family that fed so many children and seminarians into the furnace, then that means he’s the one who knows what went on and how it was hidden. That’s how you get these guys: You get them to turn each other in.

So don’t trust accusers blindly, but listen to them. Look at what they claim, and find out for yourself whether it’s true or not. Open yourself to investigation. Turn over files. Uncover sin. Let the light in. Maybe stop calling investigators “Satan,” I don’t know.

Instead, the family closes ranks, and we hear absurdly tone-deaf assurances that Francis’ nine Cardinal advisors are in “full solidarity” with the Pope. I bloody well bet they are. The man has a lot of buffers.

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Image by Long Thiên via Flicker (Public Domain)

The Bishops’ silence is a scandal in itself

I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true: I let myself believe we were past the worst of the sex abuse and cover-up scandal. But it turns out that whole thing in 2002 where we rent our garments and said “never again, never again”? There was a whole layer of garments underneath. There was a whole layer we were holding back, just in case we needed to do some more rending.

So I can’t bring myself to say “never again” this time, because I know there will be more. I know it. I say this not with despair, but just out of painful honesty. We’re not just dealing with the past, and we’re not even just dealing with ongoing problems. We’re looking to the future, and right now, the future does not look like it’s fixing to be any different.

I’ve talked to some laymen who have written to their pastors or to their bishops in the last few days, and these men are surprised to hear that the laity is so upset. Surprised! They are still so insulated, so separated from a normal human response to suffering, so utterly surrounded by like-minded peers dedicated to the cause of not rocking the boat, that they apparently think, “Well, the USCCB has put out a statement. Phew, now we can move on.”

This open letter from prominent young laymen calls for “an independent investigation of who knew what and when, a new intolerance of clerical abuse and sexual sin, and public acts of penance by Catholic bishops.”

It’s intolerable that none of this has happened yet. Intolerable.

As Dawn Eden points out,

the bishops have said they are sorry, but they have not said, as a body, that they were wrong. Without such acknowledgement, our penitential tradition insists, true contrition is not possible.

And without such acknowledgement, we have zero reason to believe that they’re committed to any kind of real change. We’re faithful, not stupid.

It’s not just “our penitential tradition” that insists on acknowledging sin. A reporter once told me that, in states that run successful sex offender and domestic abuser rehabilitation programs, part of the mandatory process is that those convicted must say out loud what they did, every single day. Without this practice, there is no progress.

You can’t change if you don’t want to change, and you won’t want to change until you face the full horror of what you did. Not what someone else made you do, not what people misunderstood you to have done, not what you were unjustly accused of doing, but what you did. You, the guilty one. You, the one who must change.

Some sins are hard to admit. Some sins are horrible to own up to. Some sins will get you locked up or sued if you acknowledge them in public. I get it: This is hard.

But God have mercy, these are our bishops. These are men who hold shepherd’s staffs. What do they think those are for? What do they think their job is, if not to lead by example? Right now, they’re straggling behind the sheep, and that’s a scandal in itself.

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Image altered; from Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Our personal apocalypse is the only one worth tracking

The only sins that matter for our personal salvation is the sins we personally commit. The only penitence we are responsible for is our own personal penitence. The only apocalypse that we should have our eye on is our own, personal apocalypse.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Last Angel by Nicholas Roerich,  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

THE KING OF THE SHATTERED GLASS is a great exploration of confession for kids

Like a dummy, I misplaced our copy of The King of the Shattered Glass (Marian Press, 2017; affiliate link), but I want to tell you about it now anyway. It would be a great book to read during Lent, and would make a nice Easter present, too.

It’s a picture book appropriate for ages six and up, written by Susan Joy Bellavance and illustrated by Sarah Tang. Basic story: An orphan girl named Marguerite works in the scullery of a medieval king’s castle, when glass is an astonishing novelty. It’s so valuable that the king insists that anyone who breaks his glass must gather up the pieces and bring them to him personally.

Marguerite, an orphan, is a pretty good kid, but on three occasions, she breaks the precious glass — as the blurb says, “through temper, the pride of a dare, and selfishness.” Each time, she has to gather her courage and own up to what she did. It’s not easy, because she’s ashamed, and because she’s afraid of punishment; and eventually, once she comes to actually know the king, and just feels bad that she broke his stuff.

Catholics, you can see where this is headed! The book is a thoughtful allegory for confession; but it works well as a satisfying little story, too.

Marguerite has some penance and growth to do, and eventually the king reveals that he is using all the glass she has shattered to make a gorgeous stained glass window showing himself putting a crown on Marguerite’s head. He then adopts her as his own daughter, and there is rejoicing.

The king, to my great relief, is truly appealing, gentle but strong, and the illustrations successfully suggest divinity (especially Christ as the source of Divine Mercy) without being too heavy-handed. Some of the pictures are more skillful than others, but all are lively and bright, some in black and white, some with deep, saturated colors.

You can download a free pdf of a teacher’s guide, which takes you through the book’s themes:

1. Relationship with God as Father, King and Friend
2. Conscience, a gift to be developed
3. Penance, which brings healing to ourselves and others
4. Jesus, who carries our burdens
5. Adoption and family life; Baptism and Reconciliation.

The King of the Shattered Glass is not the most polished book you will ever encounter in your life, but it works very well, and it’s full of heart and theologically tight as a drum.  Kids will find it memorable and appealing. Recommended!

Bellavance and Tang are collaborating on a second book, to be titled Will You Come to Mass?

 

When we’re mad at God because we’ve sinned

The other night, I was having a mild panic attack in the middle of the night, and I dealt with it this way: I breathed in while thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” and then breathed out while thinking, “But I place my trust in Jesus.” I accepted my ignorance and my uncertainty, and I reclaimed my knowledge of the one true thing that will always be true, which is Jesus Himself.

It got me through that one bad night. But there has not been a single second in my life when that was not an appropriate prayer.

Read the rest of my latest from The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Max Pixel (Public Domain)