On meteors and managed expectations

Not long ago, our hemisphere passed through the Perseid meteor shower. When I was young, my family was heavily into astronomy. We owned more than one telescope, and we would sometimes all pile into the van after dark and drive out to the countryside, where there were no streetlights or house lights, but only the velvety darkness and the sound and smell of sleeping cows.

On this road, you could look up and see the Milky Way spread out across the top of the sky like a shining river. The planets gleamed like jewels, red and yellow and blue. More than once I actually heard a meteor sizzle past like a drop of water on hot soapstone.

Having had these almost mystical experiences throughout my childhood, I feel very strongly — perhaps too strongly — that astronomy ought to be part of every childhood. But in this, I have largely failed with my own kids. We’re just too busy. We’ve prioritized other things, and the thought of dragging ourselves outside in the dark for one last outing at the end of an exhausting day is unbearable.

So my kids know a few constellations. We’ve dabbled in homemade sundials, and they understand the seasons and eclipses and why astrology is nonsense. But a love of astronomy is not part of our family identity, the way it was for my family of origin.

I know this, and I know that knowing it sometimes cause me disproportionate distress. And this is why, when I prepared to take my kids out for the annual Perseid meter shower, I gave myself more than one stern lecture . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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)

Why do you need a crucifix on your wall?

An exorcist cleansed a local house of oppressive spirits, some time ago. A friend of the priest who exorcised it told me that he had remarked that there were no crucifixes hung anywhere on the walls, even though the family was Catholic.

No crosses, no icons, no devotional pictures, no holy cards, no tin Sacred Hearts, no dried-up palm branches stuffed behind a family photo. No Bible, decorative or otherwise. But especially, no crucifix.

I only heard his comment second-hand, so I’m not sure if there was any follow-up, or how much importance he attached to it. Still, he thought it was worth remarking on, and so it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Why should we hang crucifixes in our house, if not to ward off demons?

Well, warding off demons isn’t actually a bad motivation. The cross, and specifically the crucifix, does have a certain amount of power just because of what it is, and (just purely speculating as a layman). I can imagine an unclean spirit at very least feeling uncomfortable around it, and less willing to settle in.

But of course, the crucifix isn’t a magic charm or a lucky horseshoe. What I can more easily imagine is an unclean spirit feeling uncomfortable in a house where a crucifix is not only hung, but noticed and revered.

But let’s say you hung up a crucifix, and that was the end of it. You did it because you always had one growing up, or because you wanted to make your grandmother happy, or because it just looks pretty. You don’t especially revere it or even notice it after a while. Is it still worthwhile?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Have you heard the Maasai Creed?

The truth is, no matter how much we believe what we recite at Mass, it’s rare that the old, familiar words stand out as fresh and powerful.

It’s all too easy to let habit and familiarity take over, and to stop hearing what they have to say. We don’t even realize we’ve stopped listening; our brains just say, “Oh, this old thing again” and check out.

Sometimes the best way to deal with this is to deliberately, firmly take your attention in hand and direct it toward the old, familiar thing.

Whatever else you can say about Catholics, you can’t accuse us of despising something just because it’s old! The words of the Mass are very rich, and if we’re open to it, we can often perceive something brand new, or newly exciting, springing up from that ancient soil.

But it’s also legitimate to strive to hear that same old, ancient thing in a slightly new way, to remind you how confounding it really is. This is what happened to me the other day, when I stumbled across the Maasai Creed.

As the name suggests, it was written by and for the African Maasai people, with a group known as the Congregation of the Holy Spirit in 1960. It is essentially the same as the one that we recite every week . . . and yet just different enough that it knocked me flat.

I believe I’m going to print it out and hang it in my house, so the kids can see it, too, because even in their tender youth, they’re probably already allowing repetition to dull their ears when we say the creed.

Our relationship with God shouldn’t require constant thrills and novelties. He values fidelity through the dull valleys of our faith.

But when He does put something fresh and interesting in our paths, it behooves us to stop and enjoy it!

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Nicola Stockton from Pixabay

Catholicism without Christ

Is there any return from being cancelled? We’re not really sure. But there is wailing and gnashing of teeth until the 24-hour news cycle moves along and you are forgotten.
This is what comes of religious practice without faith, of Catholicism without Christ: At best, you enjoy some faint mimicry of the riches the faith has to offer; at worst, you suffer immensely, without any hope of redemption.

It is sad to live this way. It is ridiculous. But at least there is some excuse.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

***
Image via https://fshoq.com/ (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

***

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)

Savor some beauty for yourself; don’t put it all on display

They remind me constantly that there is still loveliness in the world, still resilience, still freshness, still time to grow. Silly little impatiens with their simple petal faces, and they bloom all season long. They don’t mind the shade. Some of them look directly into the window, nodding and smiling at me in the breeze.

The other day, I checked to see how well they show up from the road, and the answer is: Not at all. What do you know about that!

This does not detract from my enjoyment of them. If anything, it increases it, since it’s a tiny little reminder that “just because I like them” is a perfectly good reason to have them. I am not less important than strangers passing by. Beauty is important, and so am I.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image via Maxpixel (public domain)

Are we spiritually deprived when women are barred from preaching?

The rule against women preaching doesn’t stem from misogyny, but from the obligation to make the sermon something specific: an extension of the proclamation of the liturgy of the word. It’s not supposed to be a lecture or a chat; it’s supposed to be part of the liturgy celebrated by an ordained priest or deacon in persona Christi. And that’s why laypeople aren’t supposed to do it.

But the flap over who gives sermons exposed another, possibly deeper misunderstanding about how, exactly, we’re supposed to learn about and live our faith.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

The emerald ash borer and the priest

It’s a strange thing, but when I hear sensationalized documentaries about environmental devastation, I come away drained and horrified, exhausted with despair over what is becoming of the natural world.

Not so with listening to this man, who has spent his life literally face to face with the enemy. He was, as I said, placid, and I went away feeling hopeful about the future of the forest. Not complacent, but hopeful.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo by USDA via Flickr (Creative Commons)