Eyes on Jesus

Many years ago, I used to pick up some extra cash by doing short interviews with priests, asking for their stories about how they heard the call to enter the seminary.

This was maybe 10 years after the first news of the sex abuse scandal broke, which meant that these men were in elementary school when they first started hearing headlines about predatory priests and widespread coverups.

I am not sure how it hit all over the country, but we lived just a short jaunt down the highway from the absolute epicenter of this earthquake, and from the endless aftershocks as more and more news was revealed of how the bishops hid and lied and dissembled and suppressed the truth.

The horror and misery and shame and shock and rage of those first years is something I will never forget. I thought I knew that the Church was a human institution as well as divine, but I was not prepared for just how human it was. Just how ready some humans are to say the words of heaven, while building up hell.

So, that was the atmosphere. Those were the clouds that lay low and heavy on the ground around the words “Catholic Church.” This was what would come to mind first, and maybe only, when you thought about Catholic priests.

The job I had, interviewing priests, wasn’t the kind of job where I was supposed to ask about sex abuse, but it came up anyway, because how could it not? Many of these men told me that their mothers, in particular, were terrified about how they would be treated.

Not so long ago, being a priest in the community meant getting a certain amount of respect and deference. Suddenly, understandably, it was just the opposite. People automatically viewed priests with suspicion or even disgust. They treated them as if they were all molesters, or at very least as if they condoned and were comfortable with molestation.

And you can understand why. Listen, you can look up statistics and show that pediatricians and public school teachers and gymnastics coaches are equally or more likely to be molesters than Catholic priests. But show me the gymnastics coach who claims to act in persona Christi. The proportion of abusive priests shouldn’t be comparable to the proportion of abusers in the general population; it should be zero, throughout all of history, forever. And it’s not.

It’s not fair to individual innocent priests to be treated with contempt. But the Church as a whole has more than earned it.

So imagine being a young man at this time, and knowing that this is how people think. Imagine growing up while this is the norm, and still hearing that call to the priesthood, and still answering it. I think about this all the time, because it’s surely something that comes up for priests all the time. Any time a priest says anything in public online, you know that at least one person is going to make a pedophile comment. It doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. And still, they answer the call.

Most people don’t meet priests in person very often, and it’s only online that they make any contact. There is an exception that I think about a lot: On the feast of Corpus Christi, we make a procession out through the streets of our small city. We live in one of the two least religious states in the country, and it’s pretty rare to see any kind of religious expression in public, except for maybe the vaguest kind of nods toward crystals and nature fairies.

You certainly don’t see embroidered vestments outdoors every day, and you don’t hear a Salve Regina in the open air. But there went the monstrance, under its satin canopy, squeezing its way down the sidewalk in the midday sun. Shining.

While I tried to focus on the rosary we were praying as we walked, it was hard not to take a peek and see what effect our procession was having on people, as they tucked their feet under their cafe tables to let us pass. You could see they were wondering: Do I keep eating this taco? Do I pause? Most people averted their eyes, and most pretended they didn’t notice us. Many looked uncomfortable. A few looked glad. A few laughed.

My kids felt uncomfortable, and I told them it was okay to feel that way. It’s weird for the people on the streets to meet this way, and it’s weird for us. But I told them not to worry too much about feeling weird, because Jesus was at our head, and that is who we were following. That’s the only part that matters.

Sometimes it feels like we are following him up out of hell. Sometimes it’s a hell other people have made; sometimes it’s a hell we have built ourselves.

I know it’s easy to look back and pine for the days we see in old photographs, when even the old man sweeping the streets knew enough to stop and fall to his knees when the blessed sacrament went passing by. And now we’re in such disarray that half the Catholics I know can barely bring themselves to go inside a church building, because the hidden sickness is finally out in the open, and it’s too much to bear.

But one thing has not changed. Jesus is still calling men, and men are still answering. They are still following him, knowing how normalized it has become for people to treat them with contempt. Many of them are answering the call because of this, because they see the carnage and they want to accept the honor of helping us find a way out of it.

A priest was once giving me some spiritual direction. We met several times, and although we talked for hours, the only thing he said that I clearly remember is, “Eyes on Jesus. Eyes on Jesus.” What else is there to say? Where else is there to look? Who is else there to follow? Where else is there to go? You find out where Jesus is, and you go that way. 

Jesus is still calling, not only priests, but everyone. Right now. Not only on his special feast day, but every day that starts with the sun rising. Calling and shining. Come up out of hell.

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Photo of Corpus Christi procession by John Ragai via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in November of 2022.

Drawing closer to Jesus in the new year

At midnight Mass, our pastor described a family gathering, where someone had brought a new baby. He said the one thing about a baby is that everyone wants to go see it. A young baby will not physically go and get you; but they have this unmistakable appeal and draw that brings people in and makes them want to come close.

That is how the second person of the Trinity chose to come into the world: Not with muscle, not with cosmic compelling force, but with a simple, perennial appeal: Come see me. And then he sits and waits, and you can either accept the invitation, or not. Very much like a new baby.

Not exactly a new idea, but the older I get, the stranger it seems. But it really is that simple. He does not compel. He merely arrives and is beautiful, and then it’s your turn to draw closer and see what happens next.

Even though the liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of the secular calendar’s invitation of making a fresh start in January, and deciding to make this the year when we draw closer to the Holy Child every day. How? It is not a mystery how we can draw closer to God. He has given us the means….Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image via pixabay license

Four ways to keep the Advent season in proportion

Off we go, into Advent and Christmas! If you’re a mother, you’re probably in charge of setting the tone for the entire family for the next month or so, and it probably feels like a gargantuan job. Here are a few things I’ve learned, that help me keep things in proportion.

Nobody is doing everything. If you read a lot of lifestyle magazines and websites or if you go on social media, especially if you are a member of a lot of women’s groups, your feed at this time of year will become an overwhelming parade of gorgeous, meaningful, liturgically appropriate practices and traditions. Foods you can make, prayers you can pray, special events you can plan or attend, presents you can craft, decorations you can arrange, songs you can sing, stories you can read, and all manner of fragrant and illuminated and sparkly and reverent and crafty and fulfilling ideas.

You must firmly tell yourself: This is the work of a CROWD. Nobody is doing all of this. Most people are doing a few things, and when you put it all together, it’s a lot. That’s what you’re seeing. If you look at your individual efforts and match it against what you’re seeing, of course it’s going to look paltry, because you’re just one person.

There are a few people who are doing a lot of things, and hooray for them, but they truly do not win any prizes for this. If you are doing anything at all to mark Advent and Christmas as a season that is different from the rest of the year — even if you’re just making sure you get the family to confession sometime before Christmas! — then you are doing it right. Light a candle and call it good. Nobody is doing everything.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly. 

 

My mother didn’t know what to say, but she knew what to do

Some people have mothers they could always go to for advice. My mother was not like that.

If she was speaking about the news, or about some cultural phenomena, or about people we didn’t know well, she was ruthlessly practical, and confident in her ideas to the point of brazenness. She was terribly articulate, somewhat caustic, and gave zero quarter to nonsense or sentimentality.

If you were in trouble, though, and you asked her directly what you should do, she would likely say, “Oh, honey, I don’t know. I never know what to say,” and she would wince and smile painfully and very clearly indeed not know what to say. You would end up wanting to comfort her, and the whole thing was just awkward. I did not go to her for advice very often.

Now that she is gone, though, I find myself imagining not what my mother would say, but what she would do, and I find the pattern very clear and consistent.

My mother would always pray first.

I don’t know if prayer came naturally to her, or if it was a deliberate effort, but prayer marked the beginning and end of every day and the beginning and end of everything important she did. Her house and her person (and later, her nursing home room and eventually her coffin) were crowded with holy cards, medals, icons, and spiritual quotes, not to impress anyone else, but to remind and redirect herself.

She kept and updated a blackboard of who needed prayer, and she frequently asked people to pray for her and for others. When dementia took her ability to speak and communicate, she could sometimes still pray out loud long after her other words were gone, and I can only imagine that interior prayer lingered with her, as well. Prayer seems to have been the thread that held her life together.

My mother would take care of people’s most pressing physical needs in the most direct way possible.

If she heard, or even suspected, that somebody needed something, she would instantly set about figuring out how she, herself, could supply that need.

Sometimes this was fruitless and frustrating to her — as when she eventually discovered that the “Nigerian priest” who was writing her heartrending letters was actually a scammer, or when the disabled neighbor who had “nothing to eat” in her house actually had plenty of food, she just wasn’t in the mood for any of the things she happened to have on her shelves; but it never even occurred to her that it was someone else’s job. If someone needed help, she assumed she should at least try, immediately.

My mother would start with the needs of most vulnerable person present.

She had a very clear notion of hierarchy of needs, and was thoroughly undazzled by things like money, popularity, fame, fashion, or sophistication. She would always instinctively give priority to people who society valued the least, and who could least defend themselves.

She wasn’t especially gracious about it, and she didn’t have any particular social skills — just the opposite, really — but this just made it easier for weirdos and outcasts to identify her as an ally; and people who didn’t belong anywhere else were drawn to her like a magnet.

My mother would try to preserve the dignity of the people she was helping.

She was acutely aware of how painful it could be to need and receive aid, and she consciously worked to avoid acting like she was the boss of people she was helping.

I remember in particular one time that a special needs friend who could barely take care of herself turned up from a meeting with a social worker with a birth control device implanted in her arm.

My mother went ballistic, because she knew this young woman had a health condition that made this form of birth control dangerous. Her first impulse was to “march Debbie down to the doctor and get that thing taken out.” But she reeled herself in, and realized that she didn’t want to be just one more person pushing this hapless young woman around.

I don’t remember how the issue was resolved, but it made an impression that she took Debbie’s personal dignity seriously.

My mother would try to learn from her mistakes.

She had a habit of poring over her past experiences and striving to analyze whether she could have done things differently. This was partially due to social anxiety, anxiety in general, and scrupulosity, but she also had an admirable dedication to humbly examining her actions and radically changing course when necessary; and she was very willing to say to her children, “I did this thing, but it turned out to be the wrong thing, so now I do that, instead,” because she wanted to spare us from making the same mistakes.

My mother said more than once that God would put people in your life, and then he would take them out again when they were too much. And I think she was wrong about that.

My mother wanted to be radically open to other people, but she let them use her in a way that wasn’t respectful to herself as a person.

It’s a fine line when you are seeking holiness and self-sacrifice, but I think her own lack of self-confidence played too great a role in the decisions she made about how much of her time and energy to let other people have. There is a difference between self-sacrifice and self-erasure, and I don’t know if she knew that. I wish more people had given her the radical respect and openness she gave to them.

I’m a little confused about the theology of praying to the dead. I pray for my mother’s soul, of course, and sometimes I pray to her, as well. I imagine that she knows all kinds of things that were hidden to her when she was alive. But really, the things she understood while she was on this earth are giving me plenty to think about. 

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A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on October 11, 2022.

 

That time God sounded like Groucho Marx

There is a store downtown that we’ve asked our kids not to shop at. The window is full of a hodgepodge of goods: Sun catchers and hour glasses, crystals and oils, whimsical socks, tarot cards, and all kinds of items the modern shopper has classified as “metaphysical,” which includes anything having to do with Wiccans, native Americans, buddhists, or I guess mermaids.

When I saw a ouija board for sale, I told the kids it was probably just a stupid place, but it would be smarter just stay out, because we don’t need to even get close to that kind of nonsense.

It’s a fine line, because you don’t want to pique kids’ natural interest in the forbidden by making occult things sound tantalizingly fascinating, but you also don’t want them to make contact with anything dangerous. We draw a pretty bright line with ouija boards. Some things are designed to make something spiritual happen, whether the participants believes in them or not, and the purpose of a ouija board is to open a spiritual door.

We have found that the most effective strategy is to teach the kids to roll their eyes at the overwhelming lameness of the kind of store that blathers on about “magick” and darkness and light, and sells cheap sparkly jewelry from China and tries to pass that off as mystical. Snark is a powerful tool. 

But recently one of my younger daughters came to me pretty steamed, because in among the singing bowls and skeleton goblets and fairy wind chimes, they were selling a statue of Mary.

“I don’t want to buy it and give those people money, but I want to get Mary out of there!” she said.

I reassured her that it wasn’t hurting Mary at all to have her statue in such a foolish clutter. It’s just a statue, which isn’t her; and anyway, you really can’t hurt Mary. She’s too strong. But I understood the indignation she was feeling. You don’t put our mother in with all that trivia, like she’s just another pretty good luck charm that might send positive vibes your way.

I told her that you never know; someone might choose the Mary statue and bring it home because it was pretty, and it might lead them down a path of finding out more about who this lady is, and it might bring them into the arms of the Church where Jesus is. That is what Mary tends to do: She leads people to Jesus. You never know.

My daughter was fairly skeptical. She is ten, and like many kids her age, quite a traditionalist. She likes things to stay in their lane. So I told her that the Holy Spirit definitely uses the normal channels to reach people, but also speaks to people through whatever is around them. A statue, a song, a movie, anything.

She was intrigued, so I told her about a thought process that went through my head one time, and just about knocked me off my feet.

I had just finished an essay about the faith, and I liked it pretty well, but as often happens, I immediately started fretting that people wouldn’t understand what I was trying to say. Then I started fretting that maybe I wasn’t really clear, myself, on what I was trying to say. Then I thought maybe, in that uncertainty, I was missing out on something that God was trying to say to me.

And then, clear as a bell, I heard in my mind the voice of Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup saying, Can’t you see that I’m trying to tell you I love you?

And that . . . was God. Speaking in the voice of Groucho Marx, talking to Margaret Dumont as Mrs. Teasdale, whom he assuredly did not really love, but whom he was trying to woo, in between insults, because he wanted her money. But the point was, the line made me laugh, and it came to me out of nowhere because that is what God is trying to tell me, all the time. He loves me.

He does know me, and he knows what’s in my head, and what will make me laugh. I don’t know if I’m conveying just how sweet and perfect and strangely intimate this moment was, but there is no earthly reason this line should have popped into my head at all, but it perfectly put to rest all the fretting and questioning that I was chasing myself around with. And you would have to know me really well to know what a good line this is to use on me. 

It was a blessed reassurance that I had done my best with my work and that God would do with it what he wanted to, and I could relax, because he loves me.  All was well.

It wasn’t just a random thing, just a personal quirky story. It tells me that doors are always opening.  We can forget this, sometimes, as we fret over the many threats and tantalizing temptations our kids are subject to. Sometimes, as parents, we can focus overly on the many ways that evil can creep in and reach our children.

The enticements are cramming all the storefronts, reaching out and trying to get our kids to partake. The dangers are real. But so is Christ. So is Mary; so is the Holy Spirit. So much realer than evil! So much more authentic. So much more gratifying. So much more intimate.

Jesus is always looking for ways to reach us and to reach our children. He is so humble, he doesn’t wait for a formal, dignified, church-sanctioned invitation to swoop in and make a proposition. Just a little crack in the door will do. A joke, a song, a statue in a window. A line from a movie from short little Jew with wiggling eyebrows.

Can’t you see he’s trying to say he loves you? Don’t be afraid to see it, because it’s everywhere. Be watchful, be listening, but don’t be afraid.

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on July 7, 2022.

Image is still from Duck Soup:

 

The secret life of Barbie and other cartel wives

Remember the sweet pretend games we used to play when we were kids? Remember baby dolls, and house, and school, and When Will My Husband Return From The War, and Tie Those Ropes Up Tighter, She’s Trying To Get Away?

No? Well, maybe you don’t want to let your kids play with mine, then.

Let me back up.

Maybe you remember when Barbie dolls were the toy that bad parents let their kids play with. I definitely do. Lipsticked, high-heeled Barbie, with her extreme bodily proportions and her cheap, trampy attire, was the wicked, modernist plaything that trained little girls in the ways of eating disorders and prostitution, according to the paranoid lore of the time.

I’m not really sure if my mother believed this, or if she only thought it might possibly be true; or possibly she just didn’t have the budget to buy us Barbies; but we definitely didn’t have any Barbies when I was growing up. And then when I grew up and had my own first several kids, who were all girls, I kept Barbies out of the house, because I was nervous about what would influence their ideas of the world and themselves.

The “Barbie is the devil” argument is extreme, but there’s some truth in it. Kids do internalize what they see, and if they’re constantly told that beauty looks like an impossibly tall, spindly waif who’s 90 percent hair and eyelashes, it certainly could contribute to feelings of inadequacy, and the desire to be thinner.

But it’s harder to make that argument against Barbie today, when today’s Barbies look downright wholesome compared to the vicious faces on so many of the other doll lines out there, which I can only describe as baby sex demons.

Barbie’s expression is a bit vacuous and her legs are still too damn long, but other than that, it’s hard to object. Even the clothes are made better than they used to be; and my kids would just as soon make their own doll gowns out of tissues and duct tape anyway. Anyway, one way or the other, we got worn down, and found less and less energy for worrying about certain things, and now we have eight daughters and something like 700 Barbies.

And this particular doll company really has been doing good things in the field of inclusiveness. Rather than denying the charge that kids are learning from their dolls, they’re embracing it, and a few years ago began producing a line of stylish dolls that sport prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, hearing aids, and braces, and have bald heads or uneven skin tone, or otherwise appear in ways that would have scared me off when I was a kid, whether I saw these things on a doll or on a person — largely because I just didn’t have much exposure to it.

Kids learn to emotionally manage ideas through play, and playing with dolls who look different from them helps them become comfortable with people who look different from them. At least that’s the idea.

But the Mattel company has larger claims than that. They funded a study that says that doll play in general (not just dolls with disabilities or body differences) builds empathy (or at least, more empathy than playing games on a tablet). And this, too, seems like common sense to me.

In the study, they found that, when children spend time playing with dolls, together and singly, it activates regions of the brain associated with social activity, with behavioral control, and processing rewarding events.

The researchers concluded that pretend play —  at least, more so than tablet play — supports social processing and empathic reasoning. Even when kids played with dolls solo, rather than with other children, it “allows the rehearsal of social interactions and social perspective taking [and] provides a unique outlet for practicing social and empathic skills.” In other words, playing with dolls teaches kids how to act with each other.

And I believe it. Really, I do. I just wonder where my particular kids fit in.

My kids never once, to my knowledge, acted out a happy domestic scene. If there was a mother with some children, she was always dashing around looking for someone to take the little brats off her hands so she could go out partying with her boyfriend, the crazed leader of a Mexican drug cartel.

Sometimes the father was involved, but he was usually a mute and grief-stricken warrior dealing with the affects of having been betrayed by his own men in the war. Or sometimes the children themselves would be wicked, and would invite each other over for picnics, only to lure their innocent playmates onto what turned out to be sacrificial altars, where they were quickly tied up and disemboweled, their squeaky cries rising up into the night air, their blood running in rivers as a libation for the hungry gods.

Who wants to come study my children? Who wants to figure out what, exactly they are learning with this rehearsal of social interactions? I’m having a hard time classifying it as “practicing empathetic skills” when the end result is that the Midge doll has been snatched bald after a particularly vicious cat fight with Anna of Arendelle, who is meaner than she looks, especially when someone gets between her and her man. And never mind that her man is Luke Skywalker, who is once again naked. Oh Luke.

I don’t know, maybe they really are learning empathy through this kind of play. Maybe if it weren’t for doll play, they’d be even less empathetic than they are now. Maybe the bitter feud that’s been raging between Ariel the mermaid and Princess Organa is all that’s been standing between my daughters and world domination. One never knows.

The moral of this story is, you can worry all you want about what’s going to happen to your kids; and you can do all the studies you like about what’s going to happen to your kids. But in the end, all children are a little bit insane, and many children are almost completely insane.

The things kids do when they’re in a lab and someone is listening in with a microphone and a clipboard is one thing; the things they do when they’re alone in their bedroom with a teeming host of plastic dolls, a head full of nonsense, and no rules whatsoever . . . well, that’s another story entirely. There’s probably nothing you can do about it, so you might as well enjoy the ride.

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on June 6, 2022.

Photo by form PxHere

 

The cross is meant to be co-opted

When Rod Dreher announced he and his wife were divorcing, the first thing I should have done was pray for them. Instead, I braced myself for the nasty comments that I knew would follow his announcement. And they did follow, as Dreher himself predicted they would.

Dreher has plenty of ill-wishers, and not undeservedly. Despite his large audience and capable mind, he’s not a careful man, and tends to bounce from panic to panic, often resting only in exasperating self-indulgence that’s frustrating even to people who agree with some of his views. And some of the things he believes are appalling.

Still, I guess my corner of the internet is somewhat sheltered, because I wasn’t prepared for the avalanche of delight that followed the news. This wasn’t a case of just desserts, like a bad boss getting fired himself, or a thief having his own possessions stolen. It was a man whose ideas people disagreed with announcing that he had been struggling for nine years to save his marriage, and had finally failed, and it was partially his fault. To respond to such news with glee is to pull hell down on your head. 

One comment in particular stood out, because it presented itself as correcting his christianity. A woman jeered at him for using an image from The Passion as the header image for the essay where he briefly describes his suffering. Dreher was, in fact, in Jerusalem as he wrote that column, and had been praying at Golgotha during Holy Week, so it would be almost unnatural if an image of the crucifixion hadn’t suggested itself to him as a natural illustration for intense personal pain. But this commenter excoriated him for comparing himself to Jesus. She said it was typical self-aggrandizement for him to co-opt the imagery of the cross for his own suffering.

But that is the point of the cross. 

That is why the execution of our savior was public. That is why it was done in the middle of the day, in front of crowd, on top of the hill: So everyone could see, and so everyone would know that Jesus wept and bled and lost the strength of his limbs just like us.  Just like anyone who had ever suffered until that day, and just like anyone who ever would suffer. That’s the point. The cross is meant to be co-opted. That’s what it’s for. 

I think that the woman who scoffed at Rod Dreher probably didn’t have a lot of theological thoughts in her head, and mainly just didn’t like Rod Dreher, and wouldn’t have sympathy for anything he did or said. It is, perhaps, fairly common to think of christianity mainly as a sort of overarching philosophy that describes social services that should be available to other people, and it doesn’t even occur to many that it’s ever meant to be personal to each of us.

In any case, it’s quite common for people who are more fair-minded, and who don’t reflexively kick people who are already down, to do a sort of defensive gate-keeping when it comes to suffering: To say that this or that isn’t real suffering, or that it isn’t authentic or worthy or profound enough to call itself actual suffering. That it’s something lesser, something we should be embarrassed to admit we struggle with.

Well, there is suffering, and there is suffering. I remember hearing how a friend of the family was sitting by the bedside of her dying husband. She had spent the last few months increasingly at his bedside in between her own jobs, wondering how she would care for their many children if he didn’t pull through. His roommate had the TV on, tuned to a televangelist channel, and the notorious Tammy Faye was on screen, weeping into the camera as usual, her gummy mascara bleeding into the neck of her expensive silk blouse as she begged for money for Jesus. A nurse came into the room and brushed past the widow-to-be, looked dolefully up at the TV, and asked the family plaintively, “Aww, why’s Tammy crying?” 

So there is suffering, and there is suffering. This is true. There is such a thing as taking an impartial look at another human’s life and saying, “No, it’s not that bad.” Not as bad as what happened to Jesus. 

And I remember some thoughtful, painful conversations around the painting “Mama,” which shows a Pieta where the dead Jesus closely resembles George Floyd. The artist, Kelly Latimore, told the NYT that he “always responds ‘yes’ when asked whether the painting depicts Jesus or Floyd.”

The artist goes on to say:

“It’s not an either-or scenario. Is it George Floyd? Yes. Is it Jesus? Yes. There’s sacredness in every person.”

I don’t know exactly what he meant by that. There is suffering, and there is suffering, and it’s worth having respectful conversations about just how firmly to draw the line between our suffering and Jesus’. It is one thing to say that he is like us, and another to say that we are like him. 

What I do know is that Jesus is like is in all things but sin, but for many of us, this never feels real until we suffer. That’s where we meet Jesus, and know him, and recognize him, and feel his aid: In suffering. Sometimes that’s the only place we meet him.

And so it’s a very serious thing when fellow Christians want to take that commonality away, on the grounds that we’re not worthy to count ourselves that close to Christ, or to feel that we have so much in common with him. 

Because that, too, is the point: We’re not worthy. That’s why he came for us. Our unworthiness to have anything in common with God is the very reason why we need a savior. 

There is suffering, and there is suffering, but there is only one man who suffered for the purpose of public consumption, as it were. No, not as it were: Literally. Catholics, at very least, should be used to this idea. 

Jesus’ suffering is universal; it is for everyone. And at the same time, it is personal. It is for each of us as individuals, and it means what it must in our specific lives. The cross is for us to use, to co-opt, to identify with, to look to, to cling to, to use however we can so we do not fall into the netherworld. That is what it’s for. As long as it is sincere, it is fair game. 

The suffering of other people, though — yes, even the suffering of pundits we don’t like — is not for us to judge, and certainly not for us to use, certainly not for our own amusement or for clout on Twitter. Be careful, friends. As much as the cross is there for us to use, other people’s suffering is very much not for us to use. Very much not. 

 

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A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on May 10, 2022.

We were made for hope

The morning news is rarely uplifting. Even less so, the morning news that includes an interview with the man who recently headed the government agency on biomedical and public health research.  But not too long ago I heard just such an interview, and quite unexpectedly, it gladdened my heart.

The man is Francis Collins, and until recently, he headed the National Institute of Health, one of the agencies tasked with combating COVID in the US. He is also, as the public radio host pointed out in her introduction, a Christian.

I guess I’ve been hiding under a rock for several years, because I haven’t been aware that an evangelical Christian who used to be an atheist has been head of this agency for the last 12 years. Now, this isn’t a tidy story. He has apparently been a thorn in the side of the “haven’t we outlawed this religion nonsense yet” crowd, but at the same time, under his leadership, the NIH has gone full steam ahead on some grossly unethical research

His personal faith is not really what this essay is about, though; although it was pleasant to hear a man so humbly describing his conversion story, and a public radio host listening so respectfully. If you haven’t heard it, here is how he told it to the host, Rachel Martin:

It was medical school. It was that third year of medical school, where you’re not in the classroom anymore. You’re on the hospital wards. You’re sitting at the bedside of good North Carolina people whose lives are coming to an end, sometimes with a great deal of pain and suffering. And you’re realizing your medical tools are inadequate to actually help them very much.

And I had a moment where a patient of mine, who I’d gotten kind of attached to – an elderly woman kind of like my grandmother – who shared her faith with me and then turned to me one afternoon and said, you know, Doctor, I’ve told you about my beliefs, and you haven’t said anything. What do you believe? What do you believe? Nobody ever quite asked me that question. And, Rachel, at that moment, I realized, I have no idea. I have settled on atheism because it was the answer I was most comfortable with, and it meant I didn’t really have to look into this. But I’m a scientist. I’m not supposed to make big decisions without looking at evidence. I’ve got to look into it.”


What he did next was to ask a pastor friend some challenging questions, and the man directed him toward the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which led him to understand that science is meant to answer one kind of question, and religion is meant to answer another. You don’t have to choose one or the other, despite what so many on both sides of our deeply divided society believe, or want to believe.

The host asked him about that divide, and about how he finds hope. He responded that he finds it in his faith. Then he said:

“I also have hope that human nature, despite all of its foibles, is basically put together in a way that over time we find a way to do the right thing, even after making a lot of mistakes along the way.”

This struck me as a message from Heaven. And this is the part I really want to focus on.

Here is a man who believes that God made us. And how did God make us? To be good. Maybe not all the time, and maybe not perfectly, and maybe not right away, but eventually, stumblingly, partially, or even just as a race: That’s what we do. That’s what the human race is: It is good. I guess I had forgotten that!

It’s become commonplace, in these dreadful, exhausting times, to look backward through history and to see plainly the fruitless cycles we seem doomed to walk through, over and over again. We struggle, we gain ground, we flourish, and then we come to ruin, over and over and over again. This is the story of mankind, on every continent, in every age, sooner or later, in big ways and in small. It seems like a story of constant, inescapable ruin. Fruitless, pointless.

But here is a man who saw this cycle as a story not of repeated failure, but of repeated hope. He is 71 years old, and he still thinks that people are basically put together in such a way that they are oriented toward the good, at least to try. This is a thing he’s saying in the beginning of the year 2022, after leading the fight he leaded, and after seeing what he’s seen.

I do believe, as we should all believe as Catholics, that there will eventually come an end to the world. There will not just be endless cycles to human life. Human history as we know it will someday cease, and a new age will begin, and we don’t know what that will look like. But I think that, right up until that time (which, Jesus insists, we do not know), it’s our job to keep turning and turning over the soil to find the next harvest.

It’s been a deeply discouraging few years, for countless, cascading reasons. We may have allowed ourselves to half believe that we’re just plain run out of goodness, as a human race.

But that’s not how we’re made.

What do you believe? What do you believe? I believe we were made by God to be good. We were made by God for constant conversion. There’s always the possibility of conversion, always the chance to try again to do good. If an atheist doctor can decide to ask hard questions about existence, then I, who already know about God, can decide to look for Him in my fellow fooling fumbling humans. We can ask God for help, and we can find that goodness, one more time. 

 

Photo by Kumaraguru via Pixahive 
A version of this essay was originally published on March 8, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

The news is important. Try turning it off.

I wrote the following essay shortly before the Roe v Wade leak happened, and now this is all truer than ever. 

When I was young, I liked listening to the news just because I liked hearing different accents from around the world. And this is one of the reasons I will often play the news on the radio when my kids are around.

But it’s a risky choice. We may end up hearing a neat, entertaining story like this one about long-lost wax cylinders, which we all enjoyed on the way to school.; or at very least, they may be passively gleaning some awareness of the world around them, which is a good thing.

But of course current events are mostly not kid-friendly, and pretty often I have to quickly change the channel because there’s a story about something kids don’t need to know about — or it’s presented in a way that is antithetical to our worldview, but it’s too hard to give a cogent counterargument while we’re driving along making five different stops.

And then sometimes the news is just . . . too real. It’s too real to be entertainment, and I have to admit that that’s how I’m using it. I’m using a flow of information about the lives (and often the deaths) of real people as a kind of auditory wallpaper to make a pleasing background for our own life, and we chatter over it as we will, no matter what kind of thing is being reported. This is something to think twice about — not only when I’m choosing what to expose my kids to, but when I’m choosing what I listen to, myself.

News isn’t entertainment. When we treat it like it is — keeping it on constantly, having it on when we’re not really attending to it, hearing the same stories repeated endlessly throughout the day — we run the risk of trivializing the things that are being reported. It’s almost inevitable. We’re training ourselves to hear words like “mass shootings” and “atrocities” and “famine” and “sexual assault” and not blink an eye, but just continue buttering our toast or flipping through Twitter or updating our spreadsheets.

It has a second effect, too, because we can’t tune it out entirely: Even if we don’t listen to some hyperpartisan purveyor of shock headlines, but instead choose some mainstream, middle-of-the-road objective reporting source, some of the emotional content of the news will filter into our consciousness. And it will make us feel bad.

It will feed our anxiety, our dread, our sense of helplessness and rage and doom. It will give us the sensation that the enemy is outside the walls, and we will always hear its muffled roar as we go about our day. How could that fail to affect our mental and emotional state? 

So we’re crafting ourselves the worst of both worlds: We’re simultaneously deadening our sense of empathy, and heightening our sense of personal grievance. No wonder people are at each other’s throats when they actually meet in person. We feel like we’re in constant danger, and we feel like no one else is completely human. A guaranteed recipe for conflict, if not outright violence.

There is a lot amiss in the world, but one thing we can easily change right away is to change how we consume the news. If we want to know what’s going on in the world — and we should! It’s important — we can find that out deliberately, in a limited, controlled fashion: say, once or twice or three times a day.

It won’t be easy. We’re very used to the idea that the news is just on, all the time. It’s everywhere, in waiting rooms and lobbies and on all of our phones and computers and social media feeds, always. It’s hard to get away from. But we may be more in control of it than we realize. We may be able to limit it, and be more deliberate about when we consume it, than we want to admit.

We may have internalized the idea that we have a duty to keep up, to stay current, to the minute, with the news. That there’s some virtue in retweeting a headline first. Who do you suppose gives us that idea? Clearly, it’s the people who make money by keeping us tuned in. They have a vested interest in making us feel like we’re actually doing something wrong and irresponsible by turning the news off. And in turn, they feel the pressure to amp up the novelty and shock value in what we hear, whether there’s actually something new and important and shocking happening or not. It’s an almost entirely artificial cycle, fueled by money.

But once we recognize it for what it is, we can opt out of it. Decide how much news we really need, and then otherwise, simply opt out. Don’t retweet it. Don’t chase down every headline. Don’t have the radio or TV on in the background all day. Just opt out. 

We don’t have to become hermits or live in stony silence. We can choose to listen to music. Listen to someone explain music. Listen to podcasts. Listen to stories. Listen to audiobooks. Listen to interviews with interesting, knowledgeable people. Listen to wild birdsong.

If something important happened, it will still be important in a few hours, I promise (and if something life-shattering happened, it will make its way through to you, I promise). But we can make the choice to nourish our humanity, rather than eroding it with a constant stream of news-as-entertainment. Because we really have to acknowledge that that stream is not making us more informed. It is one of the things making us less human.

 

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Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash
A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on April 8, 2022.

Sing, muse, of the anger of our children

One of the great things about having a big family is that somebody is always mad at you. When I say “great,” I mean that somebody is always mad at you anyway, no matter what you do, so you might as well enjoy it.

It’s hard to explain. I never would have anticipated it, but there is a special kind of exquisite glee that comes with knowing that you’ve revolted your children down to their very souls.  I suppose it’s a small act of defiance, like a conquered people crouching in their cell blocks, grinning at their oppressors as they sing forbidden songs and eat forbidden . . . mouse sandwiches . . . I forget what we were talking about.

Anyway, the point is, I was nearly forty years old before I finally said certain things to my mother about the mistakes she had made in raising me, and it felt very psychologically important to me at the time, and I guess I’m glad I said it; but when I think of her being nearly seventy years old and having to still hear about things she did wrong thirty years ago, I’m kind of amazed she didn’t just smack me. My mother was a good woman, and didn’t do a lot of the smacking she was entitled to.

But this isn’t a heavy essay. I don’t want to talk about all the horrible mistakes one can make with one’s children, the wrong responses, the coldness when there should have been warmth, the weariness when there should have been attention, the sarcasm when there should have been sympathy, the times we forgot to pick them up, the times we got them the wrong present, the times we called them the wrong name, the times we did the wrong thing, and weren’t even sorry, and instead wrote stupid essays about it for clout on the internet.

Instead, I want to tell you about the worst thing my husband and I ever did to our children. They were all unanimously, instantly disgusted with us at the time, and as the years have passed, their revulsion has only deepened.

It has to do with a couch.

Someday, it may come to pass that the Fishers will buy a brand new couch. We’re not there yet, but in the last few years, we have started buying our couches at respectable used furniture stores, and this is quite a step up. We started out our family life acquiring couches by skulking into better neighborhoods at night and seeing what they had dragged out to the curb, that might fit in our minivan, and that seemed fine.

But on this particular day a few years ago, we were still halfway through our evolution from garbage pickers to respectable used furniture buyers, and we had made arrangements to buy a couch from someone online, someone who turned out to be . . . less than respectable.

I seem to have blotted the details out of my memory, but this couch we were going to buy must have been pretty horrible, because we came home without it. But we knew the kids were all waiting in an empty living room, champing at the bit to see the splendid new couch we had found for them. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s disappointing kids. So, I did what any normal mother would do in these circumstances: I said to my husband, “Let’s pretend we got an invisible couch.”

Now, one of my husband’s main jobs in life is to listen to my ideas and say, “No, that’s dumb.” But for some reason, he didn’t do his job on this day. Instead, the two of us parked the rented truck in the driveway, opened the back, and went into an elaborate pantomime of carefully, laboriously unloading first the cushions and then the body of a heavy, unwieldy, slightly wobbly, completely invisible couch.

We shooed the kids out of the way, had some imaginary trouble figuring out how to wedge it through the door and had to back out a few times, scuffed our way through the dining room, slid some furniture out of the way, and set the nothing down, panting, and then asked the kids what they thought.

Well, they thought we were a couple of idiots. And they still do.

I, on the other hand, fall off my actual real couch laughing every time I think about this story. It may be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done for no reason at all. Those kids were so profoundly disgusted with us, and for once, we totally deserved it. Somehow, that feels like a some kind of score was evened up.

Let me sing you the song of my people! We’re morons, my husband and I, and there’s nothing our kids can do about it.

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A version of this essay was originally published on February 22, 2022 in The Catholic Weekly.

Photo by artistmac via Flickr (Creative Commons)