You’re having a hard time right now because life is hard right now

I didn’t even bother coming up with a little introduction for this essay to work my way up to that idea, because you’re ready to hear it, right? Everyone is having a hard time. Everyone on the globe is feeling the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic in one way or another, and it seems like everyone I know is also struggling with some unusual problem on top of that.

The only other thing we all seem to have in common is that an unusual number of people seem to be thinking poorly of themselves because they are struggling. So many of my friends seem to feel that there is something wrong with them because they are so sad and exhausted. They feel like there are so many other people with worse problems than theirs, or they ought to have adapted to a new normal, or they ought to be glad things are not as bad as they were in the past, or something.

Not only are they having a hard time, they’re angry at themselves, embarrassed and ashamed because they’re even struggling. Everyone I know seems to be fighting terrible battles, and their worst enemy is their own self, who constantly sneers, “Oh, stop your whining. It’s not so bad.”

If you are hearing this voice, you should know that it’s not really your self saying it to you. Or that’s not where the thought has its roots, anyway. It’s an idea that comes from the evil one: This idea that your suffering is imaginary, not worthy of tears or attention.

Isn’t that strange, to think that the devil would want to deny suffering? If you look at medieval paintings, it looks like suffering is, as they say, extremely his jam: You’ll see bony, many-clawed demons gleefully cramming bushels of suffering souls into bubbling cauldrons, stretching them on racks, slicing them into ribbons, searing their flesh.

But I’ve found that some of my most hellish mental states come when I’m unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to clearly and calmly identify my own suffering as real suffering. It’s counterintuitive, but there is something demonic about being unwilling to look suffering in the face. And there is something holy about calling suffering what it is. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Photo by Ron Porter via Pixabay (licensed)

 

On being less zen about suffering

I forget what it was I was offering up, but I told the Lord, “I’m offering this up to you, and I’ll try to be zen about it.”

Then I heard what I said. So what? So I hadn’t had any coffee yet, and I momentarily forgot what religion I am. I only wish it were the dumbest thing He’s ever heard me say.

It made me stop and think, though, and I realized I had to do a little recalibrating of what I meant by “offering it up.” It’s fairly easy to start thinking of it in pop psychology terms: Something is bothering me and weighing me down, so I’m going to just mentally release it. Imagine it like a bright red balloon that sails up, up, up into the sky until it’s just a little pinpoint, and now — poof! — it’s gone, and no longer my problem.

This is . . . okay. It may very well be the most emotionally healthy thing to do at some particular moment. But it’s not precisely offering it up to God, for a couple of reasons. For one reason, God is not the wide blue sky. He is not an amorphous, impersonal, placid largeness whose function is to swallow up small things until they don’t matter anymore. (That’s not even what the sky is, either, but never mind that now.)

What do we mean when we say “offer it up?” Sometimes people will distort the concept, and use the phrase as shorthand for “suck it up” or “shut up.” People will say “offer it up” when what they really mean is, “I’m going to remind you that the spiritual thing to do is to quit whining about your stupid problems.”

That, as they say, ain’t it. We have the option to offer suffering up to God precisely because even our small suffering IS real suffering, and God knows this, and even (in a way that makes more or less sense to me at various times) suffers along with us. It’s not that we’re not supposed to minimize our troubles. It’s that suffering doesn’t have to be a dead end. It doesn’t have to stay entirely with us.

People sometimes say that Catholics are obsessed with suffering, or that we have an unhealthy fascination with death and pain. And sure, anything can be overdone or twisted or made unhealthy. But Catholics (when they’re not being crazy) don’t seek out suffering; they just do a good job of acknowledging that it exists. And they offer at least the possibility of a plan for what to do with it.

At its core, the Catholic understanding of suffering has two components… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Mary Magdalen at the foot of the cross, 1420 – 1430, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Not like one of these

Hello, I am 45 years old. I hurt my ankle three months ago, and it’s still not completely well. The stupid part is, I hurt it doing nothing whatsoever. It just randomly swells up from time to time, and then I have to ice and rest and medicate before I can hobble around; and it will probably never be completely fine again.

Sometimes I forget how to sleep; and there are two pills I must take every day if I wish to live. Little bits of my teeth fall off every once in a while; my digestive system is ridiculous; and my eyebrows are slowly disappearing.

I am, in short, starting to get old. Not terribly old. I haven’t lost my marbles yet, and I go running several times a week. Not that you asked, but I could probably even still get pregnant if I really wanted to (which I do not).

I’m reasonably energetic and capable, more or less. But 45 years are certainly enough to cast a faint but undeniable shadow over my days. I am, as they say, over the hill. There’s lots left to do, and I intend to do it, but I can’t deny I’ll be doing it on a downward slide.

I was grumbling about this state of affairs not long ago, and a reader chided me for my fear and weakness. She said that she was not afraid of getting old. She knew that old age led to death and death was the door to Christ! And she loved Christ! So what was there to fear?

What indeed! She wasn’t wrong. But she was, as I suspected, 22 years old. That is why she had no fear of getting old: Because she was young. I wasn’t afraid of getting old, either, when I was in my 20’s, because I was in my 20’s. Nothing easier than bravely facing something you’re not actually facing.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

***

Image: Illustration from “A natural system of elocution and oratory : founded on an analysis of human constitution, considered in its three-fold nature–mental, physiological and expressional” (1886)From via Flickr 

Want to wake up the sheeple? Fill in the blanks.

These are [adjective] times. Everyone is suffering, but no one more so than [name of your specific cultural and socio-economic group]. 

Look around you, and you’ll see all the signs of an [adjective] chastisement. The economy is floundering. [Name of favorite sport] may never recover. It’s been [number] weeks since we’ve been able to purchase [name of snack you have argued should be excluded from food stamp purchases].

The last time people endured trials like this, christians were in the arena with [name of wild animal], and [name of democrat] looked on and laughed. 

Worst of all, people are watching Mass on [streaming platform you can’t figure out how to work]. As [name of internet priest who claims to be based on a houseboat in the Bosphorus and therefore doesn’t have to obey his bishop] has clearly stated, this practice is extremely spiritually dangerous, because so many pre-[name of favorite ecumenical council]-type Catholics are already so easily led astray by outrageous offenses like the wearing of [clothing in 99% of modern closets], [a practice that even Pius XIII specifically said is fine, gosh], and nail polish in the perfidious color of [name of perfidious color]. 

Those who aren’t already deeply mired in the [name of heresy]-rooted sin of [name of sin that occurs below the belt] will readily realize that this is no normal crisis. It’s an [adjective] crisis! According to the elocutions of [name of woman recently arrested for mail fraud], our Lady of [European town that could use an influx of tourism cash] clearly warned us that if we didn’t immediately stop [name of sin that holds no appeal to you], she would be in danger of losing the arm-wrestling match with [name of person of the Holy Trinity] and we would be chastised with terrible [name of disease].

And now look. NOW LOOK, you [name of invertebrate]. You brought this about with your [perversion you recently looked up on Urban Dictionary for purely academic research] and your [frightening ethnic food people are now selling on the street corner where you used to play stickball as a lad].

I hope you’re [emotion].

You should be ashamed. Yes, you, you [name of liquid]-spined [name of unimpressive animal]. We’re onto you. I can tell by your [description of basic courtesy] that you probably read [creative spelling of “Simcha Fisher”]. Maybe you don’t know that [name of Catholic celebrity who acts like complete jackass on social media] came back from the brink of death specifically to warn us about people like [you].

[onomatopoeia for spitting]. 

Enough. If you’re an American with blood that is [color], ask yourself, “Who could possibly be profiting from this?” And the answer is, as always, [euphemism for Jews]. Of course, [euphemism for black people] are also suffering, but they brought it on themselves by [verb describing action necessary for existence].

But because of them, we’ll all be subject to mandatory [name of routine medical treatment] which has been conclusively proven on YouTube by [name of person who is not a doctor] to cause permanent flaccidity of the [name of favorite body part].

Friends, there is only one solution. If you love [name of religious devotion] and the [document you once paid the EIB network six easy installments of $43 to purchase an authentic reproduction of], let’s cast off the shackles of [name of basic medical hygiene] and say no to this [name of crime against humanity that you read about in American Girls].

Let’s Make America [adjective] Again, one [name of pathogen-spreading behavior] at a time.

.

.

Image: from Agricultural Research activities book (via Flickr) (no known copyright restriction)

 

 

Do women need ascesis?

I recently interviewed the developer of Exodus90, a spiritual exercise aimed at Catholic men who want to find spiritual freedom through prayer, ascesis, and fraternity. One thing lots of people wanted to know: Why is this only for men? Why was there no companion program for women?

Although I have mixed feelings about the program in general, I was impressed by his answer to this question. He said that, while “there’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community,” the program had been written with men and fatherhood in mind, so he didn’t want to just — boop! — shift it over to women. But people kept pressing him to write up and market a version for women. He said:

“We’re a bunch of men. You don’t want us writing a program for women. So we got a religious order we respected. Their whole mission revolves around feminine identity. We asked them, ‘Would you study Exodus, and if you think this is a model of healing for women, would you write a program, if you feel called to?’

“Six months later, they said they didn’t believe this structure is a model of healing for women.”

I have my own theories for why this may be. Warning: I’ll be painting with a broad brush here, so please keep in mind that my words won’t apply to every last individual human. (I know you’re going to complain anyway, but at least you can’t say I didn’t warn you!)

In general, women are introduced at an early age to the inescapability of suffering, and to the ultimate helplessness of humans in the face of nature and before the will of God.

When women hit puberty . . . Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

***
Image: Portrait of a Young Woman As a Sibyl by Orazio Gentileschi (Wikimedia) / Public domain

Light that builds

Several times a year, I hear about promising new treatments to halt or even reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s. I’m grateful when people send me links to these stories, knowing I have a personal stake in them; but to be honest, I rarely read them. It was too late for my grandmother and it’s too late for my mother. If this hellish disease comes for me, it won’t make any difference if I’m personally informed about the latest research or not. Either it will help or it won’t. 

For several years, as my mother’s excellent mind became more and more smothered by confusion, I was angry. At her, which makes no sense. She hated and feared what was happening to her, and did everything she could to fight it off, which was nothing. There really isn’t anything you can do. I knew very well that none of it was her fault, and I knew very well that my anger was a shield put up around my heart. Anger often is. 

Lately, the wall of anger is being pulled down to reveal what sits behind it, which is of course a bottomless sorrow and terror. From that well of grief comes up memories, and lamentations. The good conversations I had with my mother were so few and far between; the misunderstandings and missed connections were so many. I’m 45 years old — almost half a century! — and I’ve sorted through enough nonsense that I think my mother and I could finally really understand each other. I’m passing through from the years of childbearing to whatever it is that comes next, and I want to talk to someone who made it to the other side. I want to talk to my mother, and see what she knows. I want to stop evading her and reveal my heart to her in a way that I never did as a young woman.

But it’s too late. I missed her, and now the best I can do is drive an hour, sign in to her dim nursing home, and watch her slump in a wheelchair. Her arms are shielded so she won’t scratch herself to pieces. She tilts, and a crust forms in the corner of her mouth. A few words make their way out, and some of them seem to mean something. She doesn’t open her eyes. 

“I like your shirt,” I can say. “You look nice in pink.” And in honesty, that is something I never would have gotten around to saying when she was present and able to hear it; and if she had said something so simple to me, I probably would have taken it as a veiled criticism of some kind. We didn’t connect well. We didn’t understand each other, at all. Now I have no idea how much she understands of anything. Something, surely. When my father unloads his medical woes to her on his daily visits, she sometimes mumbles, “Oh, you poor thing.” The same thing my grandmother said when someone unpeeled a helpless banana in her sight. 

Poor thing, poor thing. 

One of the articles I did read was about some promising therapy for dementia patients. Guess what it is? Light. 

We think of light as the thing that reveals things for what they truly are. The thing that strips away pretense, that pierces through shields. And this is true, sometimes. The light of honesty is what we need, even when it’s painful. I remember one time I was so seized up with depression, it was as if I lived outside my body, observing. I saw myself talking to my mother about my children, and I watched with detached interest as my face unexpectedly and randomly curdled up into the grimace of a tragedy mask and I started to cry, because things were just so hard, too hard.

“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” she flew to ask, because she is my mother.

“Nothing,” I said, and composed my face again, sealing off the tears. It felt too risky to show to her what a failure I was, and how much I was suffering when I shouldn’t, I thought, be suffering. Maybe if I had told her how wretched I was, and how guilty I felt to be sad when I was so very blessed, she might have helped.

Or she might not have known what to do. Sometimes there just isn’t anything you can do. I suppose I could go and tell her now. She is still my mother, even though she has passed through the years of childrearing and into . . . whatever it is that she’s in now. It feels like it would be cruel to go and cry to her now. Maybe she’d be just aware enough to sense my sorrow and her own helplessness one more time. That’s not what I want to share with her.

But, I suppose there are different kinds of light. Light that reveals, and strips away pretense, pierces protective shields, and leaves you naked and helpless, poor thing. And then there is the light that builds, stimulates. The light that gives, rather than taking away. 

The light therapy they are experimenting with boosts gamma oscillations in the brains of mice, and this apparently makes better connections between nerve cells. More connection is good, apparently. This light therapy “preserves against cell death in mouse models,” they say. 

I don’t know how to end this essay. I don’t know how this ends. I suppose I could make the drive to see my mother before the end of the year, and see if I can make a connection one more time. Either it will help or it won’t. 

Let it be done to me

Several years ago, I gave a presentation that I had no business giving. It was a speech about forgiveness, what it really means, and how to do it. Maybe it wasn’t as useless as I remember. I don’t think I said anything that wasn’t true. But I said it glibly, drawing on what I had learned in the shallow end of the pool of suffering. 

There was a Q and A session after the speech, and one man had a hard question. He said that he was willing to suffer, himself, and he was willing to forgive the perpetrator who had hurt him. But what about forgiving people who hurt someone he loves? What is the mechanism there? 

I don’t know what his story was. Maybe someone insulted his child. Maybe someone killed his child. Maybe someone killed his child in the name of God, and that was what he wanted to know how to forgive. Not knowing, and not knowing what else to say, I made the only answer I could think of — and again, it wasn’t the wrong answer; only glib. I said that our model here is Mary, who had to stand by, powerless, watching her innocent son tortured and murdered because he chose to take on our sins and our punishment. We can have faith that she forgave the ones who crucified Jesus, and so she is our model of forgiveness in these cases. The answer is, be like Mary.

It wasn’t the wrong answer. But I didn’t know what I was talking about when I gave it. Now I’m writing on the feast of the presentation of Mary, and I still don’t know what to say. But I have felt much more keenly the sensation of standing helplessly by when someone else suffers, and I can tell you that being powerless is not as simple as it sounds. Standing up under a burden you’re not allowed to carry is not as simple as it sounds.

One morning, I had been up all night, I forget why. I suppose I had a lot of work to do, and I ended up writing about and thinking about Mary. I am too old to be up all night, and I could barely stay upright in my chair. But I was still awake, and I saw something that was not entirely a dream.

You have heard of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet. What I saw was a woman in motion, and within the folds of her robe were galaxies. She had nothing to stand on, because nothing could be solid enough to hold firm beneath her transcosmic immensity. The sight of her hit me so hard, I fell on my face inwardly, and I still breathe shallowly when I remember what I saw. She was so immense. She was willing to shelter, to take into herself . . . everything. 

When we make promises, we grow into them. When you make a wedding vow, you do it sincerely, opening the door of your heart to whatever the marriage will bring; and then later, you find out what it is you have agreed to. A real promise holds, even if you didn’t know what it contained. Mary, aged perhaps fourteen, made her marriage vow to God at the annunciation, when she said “Let it be done to me,” not knowing, as humans don’t, what that might entail, but accepting, as humans may, whatever God will send.

At the presentation in the temple, which comes 40 days after Christmas, she begins to find out what was to come when Simeon told her her child would be a sign that would be spoken against. Maybe she thought that her child would be insulted, and maybe she found that notion hard to bear. I remember the rage surging up in my heart when I saw a mosquito alight on the face of my newborn. That blood was not for him! How dare he breech that skin and take what was not his. I brushed the mosquito away, but he had already bitten the baby’s face. 

Of course there was no real injury. It was just a bite. Worse things have since happened to my child, to all my children. There were times when I prayed in anguish to God to let what they are suffering be done to me, instead. “Let it be done to me!” A mother’s cry, as well as a lover’s consent. But that was not the plan. The child has to suffer, and I have to watch, and be helpless. That was what was done to me. That was what I agreed to, when I entered into a marriage that produced a child.

Once you become a mother, you become everyone’s mother. So many people are my children, besides the ones I have given birth to (much good may it do them). I see them suffering, and I don’t know what to do. If standing by and watching helplessly is nothing, then why does it hurt so much? It must be something. It is something. It is what Mary did, and you see how that worked out. When she found out what her promise contained, she held. She did not fall.

Mary is so immense. In her robe are galaxies, but in her womb is all mankind. Jesus’ suffering brought about reconciliation with the Father, but Mary’s suffering brought about — what? Motherhood. Suffering-with. The openness to helplessness. The foot with nowhere firm enough to stand, that stands nonetheless. 

I see you suffering, and I don’t know what to do, other than stand here and be helpless. It can’t be nothing. How could it hurt this much, if it were nothing?

I am here to make a presentation: Here I am, Lord. Here they are; here we are. Look at us. We don’t know what else to do. 

 

***

Image via free images 

When mankind has a tantrum

Good and loving and patient God, difficult me. 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Creative Commons (license)
 

Prolife spotlight: St. Joseph’s House and Isaiah’s Promise offer support, respite, and joy to families of the disabled

Cubby LaHood used the term “D-day” for the day parents first hear their unborn child has a severe or fatal birth defect.  

“The baby is the same baby they conceived and were joyful about, but … the baby can become a stranger,” she said in a 2013 40 Days for Life address.

LaHood, who died in 2015, suffered the same crushing shock herself, when her baby Francis got a likely fatal prenatal diagnosis. Everyone offered the couple abortion — doctors, clergy, family, and friends. But she and her husband Dan decided that they would love and carry their son Francis as long as he lived.

 
The LaHoods firmly believed unborn children with severe or fatal diagnoses deserve to live. But they also came to understand that carrying such children to term, rather than resorting to abortion, can bring healing, strength, and even joy to the parents and family, and even to the rest of the community, whether the child dies before he is born, or if he goes on to live for several years. 
 
“Hope led to grace, grace led to faith, and faith led to peace,” she said. 
 
Cubby and Dan LaHood went on to found two organizations based in Maryland, to offer encouragement, resources, and tangible support to people with disabilities and their families. Isaiah’s House, founded in 1995, offers personal support for families carrying to term after a severe or fatal prenatal diagnosis.
 
“In seemingly the most hopeless and difficult of circumstances surrounding the birth of a child, a simple ‘yes’ to life reveals the presence of God, and the presence of love,” she said in a video called “Destined to Live Forever.”  
 
They believe that even a very short life has meaning and power. “[These parents] conceived a miracle, and that miracle deserves all the support that you can give it. It’s about more than you,” LaHood said. 
 
Pro-lifers are frequently accused of being merely pro-birth, of counseling parents to reject abortion, but then abandoning them after the delivery. The LaHoods’ mission refutes this accusation. The other organization they founded, St. Joseph’s House, offers daycare, summer camp, and after-school programs, and respite programs for families of children with disabilities.
This effort, too, sprung out of a personal experience. When Cubby LaHood was pregnant with her first child, she wanted to stay at home, so she decided to open a daycare. The first client she found had a disability, and word quickly spread that LaHood was willing to care for disabled children. 
The family soon made it their mission to make a true home for these children, and to counter “the eugenic impulse” of the world that wants to reject anyone deemed imperfect or useless. St. Joseph’s House is now run by the LaHood’s daughter, Natalie. 
 
Cubby LaHood didn’t believe her family was special. “We all have the capacity to give love,” said LaHood. “It can be done without support — we did it without support — but there’s no reason for it to be done that way.”
 
 The LaHoods do not minimize or sentimentalize the difficulty of carrying and caring for a child with disabilities.
 

“Nobody wants to go through the Passion,” said Dan LaHood “No one wants to go through the Garden of Gethsemane. But once you go through it, you find there’s the spirit of God. There’s resurrection. Not only there’s life, but it’s eternal, and it’s more than you could ever imagine; and you can experience it now.”

None of the hundreds of couples they’ve walked with have regretted their choice, the LaHoods said. 

“Even in this worst, most darkened, most rejected place, God is. Love is.”

***

 

Image from this video:

Destined to Live Forever from Lumen Catechetical Consultants on Vimeo.

St. Joseph’s House

​Saintjosephshouse1983@gmail.com

On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/saintjosephshouse/

Isaiah’s Promise

info@isaiahspromise.net

On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/IsaiahsPromise4915/

St. Joseph’s Place also runs Cafe St. Joe in , “part job skills training, part community builder, and part fundraiser.” The Cafe offers a specialty blend of coffee made by a roaster that employs adults with disabilities, and half the proceeds to go the cafe

***

Previous volumes of Pro-life Spotlight:

We Dignify

Gadbois mission trip to Bulgarian orphanage

Mary’s Shelter in VA

China Little Flower

Immigrant Families Together

Rio Grande Valley Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center

If you know or have worked with an organization that works to build a culture that cherishes human life, please drop me a line at simchafisher at gmail dot com with “pro-life spotlight” in the title.

Today I’m on The Catholic Podcast . . .

talking with Joe Heschmeyer and Chloe Langr about Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, for their series on the way of the cross. This episode, #57, is called “The Women of the Way,” and includes passages by the great Josef Ratzinger.

You can hear and download the episode here.

I talk about how I came to understand why and how Mary truly understands our suffering; and about the sensation of helplessness that so often comes along with motherhood and with love in general, and how that sensation can either tear us away from God or help us meet him more intimately. (This conversation was the impetus for my essay, Mary who stays.)

Their other guest is Deacon Brad Sloan who works with women who’ve been caught up in sex trafficking in the midwest. He says so many of them have never experienced what it means to be loved, by anyone else and certainly not by their maker.

The podcast isn’t just discussion; it’s intended to help you meditate on various themes in the stations of the cross. The goal is to help us understand that we’re not alone in our suffering, and to give us the courage to confront evil in our lives. 

The Catholic Podcast homepage is here and feed is here; and you can follow them on Facebook @TheCatholicPodcast.

Image: Station of the cross, Saint Symphorian church of Pfettisheim, Bas-Rhin, France. XIXth century. Detail of the 4thstation : Jesus and his mother. Photo by Pethrus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]