Friday, February 23, 2024

The NIMBY Priesthood

 Steve Skojec, for all his faults and character flaws, is if nothing else an honest man. I did appreciate his recent Substack, "When Religion Comes First," on the topic of those who put their God before their family. Steve explained that the essay was an extrapolation of a spicy Facebook post in which he wrote,


"If you love your religion more than you love your own kids, don’t be surprised when they grow up to reject the thing you always cared about more than them."


I've always felt sympathy for Steve and his "deconstruction" (to use Protestant nomenclature) since losing faith and leaving the Church. I reached out a couple times over the years, and was either met with non-response or a kind of exacerbated callousness (which is okay). The thing is, I think Steve makes some good points from this vantage point of now being outside the Church that are lost on a lot of the pious crowd still in (and attempting to raise their kids in it as well). He notes:


"I have become increasingly convinced that much of Catholicism is, essentially, a kind idolatry of religion. Since God is perceptually absent/distant/nonexistent, the Church and all her countless rules and rubrics and rituals swell to fill the space left by his absence.

We begin to worship the means of worship because the object of worship is inscrutable and inaccessible.

Worship becomes indistinguishable from the rituals that comprise it. Which is why (according to my theory) those rituals take on more and more significance in the minds of those who feel that they must always go deeper and seek more reverence so that they can try to commune with God."


Now, obviously I do not agree with Steve on Catholicism being a kind of idolatry, but I do think I know where he is coming from, and this seems more common with people to whom God was always elusive, far-off, "Other." It is a little hard for me to relate in some ways because this was the opposite experience for me: I encountered God personally first as a loving and saving Father, and then religion became the chalice to house the pearl. So, God was always worshipped first and foremost, and the external structure of religious practice giving that heart a body and a skeleton. I could shrug at the rituals and just assume they were the particular expressions of religious practice but were not little G gods in some way. But then again, I was kind of a blank slate coming into the whole thing, without much baggage, preconceptions, or religious trauma

I mean, I've alluded to this in posts like The Church Will Hurt You and Preventing the Scars of Religious Trauma in Your Children, that although my wife and I have always had the order of God first, Spouse second, Children third, there is a part of me that is reticent to be too strict or "religious" with force-feeding my children the faith, because there is also a part of me that recognizes the Church is rife with abuse and corruption, and what father in good conscience would put that before his own family? 

But I have not been burned beyond peripheral singes, because I have largely kept my distance from episcopal and diocesan machinations. I have been constantly spared from being employed by the Church, despite my best early and naïve efforts to work for Her. Years ago I wrote the vocation office about wanting to serve the Church as a deacon, and never even received a response, so dodged a bullet there. I have wanted nothing to do with parish councils, and though I have close relationships with a couple priests friends, I have kept a healthy distance and distrust of "just because he's a priest" thinking. In other words, "I can trust him because he's a priest," which is just another manifestation of clericalism. As a father of boys in a Church rife with mollittes clergy and homocentric seminaries, I don't think this is being imprudent. 

Now, I have often said priests are like farmers: No farm, no food. No priests, no Church. We're not Protestants. We are grateful for men who sacrifice and take on the cloth for the flock. There are bad priests out there, and many lukewarm company men. But there are also good men, imperfect but striving men, servants who want to carry out their calling for the glory of God and the tending of the sheep. And there are many bad and lukewarm status quo administrator bishops out there. But there are one or two good ones as well, who love as a father loves and not as a COO of DIOCESE Corp.

And yet, knowing all I know about our particular wasteland of a diocese and many others like it, I want priests for the Church but would never sacrifice my son to the diocesan grinder to become one. 


That sounds harsh, and I hate admitting it myself. When a man is called by God, he will only find peace when he embraces that calling. And so I would hope that if one of my sons was truly called by God to take up either religious or priestly life, that God would preserve him in that calling and make a way. But as a father, I would never push it or even encourage it. Kind of the way we know we need chemical plants and prisons in society, but we certainly don't want them in our neighborhood enclaves (NIMBY--not in my backyard). 

To lose faith is a terrible feeling. Which is why I feel for Steve. In many ways, I have kept my distance from "the Church" in order to maintain my faith. Awful, isn't it? And yet I benefit from Her sacraments, Her teaching, Her witness, Her priests and religious. But I am not willing to offer my son to the roll-call. I feel like I know too much insider info, and am too familiar with the dysfunction. Wed yourself to Christ, yes...but not the Church. 

We know some folks who have "assigned" their young children as religious and priests already--"oh, well so-and-so (age 4 or whatever) is going to be a priest, so..." I think this is terrible parenting and religiously manipulative, not to mention just unrealistic. Although we know this was how the Church was fed for years with nobles and large families "offering" one of their sons to the priesthood, whether or not they felt called to it. I think vocation offices have gone to the other extreme these days, though--not encouraging men to think about it enough (maybe because they know all too well the problems and burnout inherent in the role of priest), or the seminaries being effeminate and inconducive to healthy masculinity. And bishops not being true spiritual fathers, but many who are cold administrators who will throw you under the bus to preserve the Force at all costs. 

I want my sons (and daughter, of course) to remain Catholic. I don't care if they are "religious" or not, but I want them to have life, and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). I want them to attend Mass of their own volition when they grow up, have a family if it be God's will for them. It's a fine line to walk between forcing your children to be "holy" and letting them simply be who they are and loving them for it. I can only be the example. I want him to be able to come to me with anything, know he can rely on me to never spurn him, to take him in when he needs a place to come home to. 

Will the Church do that for my son also? Can I trust the Church to preserve his innocence? Not feed him to the wolves? Or is it a corporation (albeit a religious one) just like any other, where the bottom line is the preservation of the company at all costs? 

No faith, no salvation. No priests, no Church. Lord, raise up good men able to endure the suffering that comes their way when they live out their vocation with nobility and integrity. We need true shepherds, not simply effective administrators and ecclesial ladder climbers and company men. We need a Church we can trust, and that trust must be earned. Until then, I'm not sure I'm willing to sacrifice my sons for Her.  May God judge me.


Thursday, February 22, 2024

Majoring In The Minors

 I'm preparing to give a talk this evening at our monthly men's prayer fraternity on the virtue of chastity, and in doing so was making various back-of-napkin notes. Every virtue has an opposing vice, and related to the virtue of chastity I wanted to discuss the vice opposed to the virtue of perseverance, which is mollities, or "softness." St. Paul uses this verb in 1 Corinthians 6:9 as it relates to the sin of sodomy. I think it really needs to be discussed in the context of the virtue of chastity because while sexual immorality is the one temptation we are instructed to "flee" from, there is still a good bit of fighting against the flesh that goes on. We run, yes, but we also must fight the temptation to indulge the flesh. For the man used to a pattern of self-abuse, putting a stop to it involves ardor, and to the degree that he shirks from that mortification and suffering betrays a kind of mollities spirit, whether he is heterosexual or homosexual. 

But there is something else I want to cover in this discussion on chastity, and I use it as a segway into what I want to discuss here, and that is that the external trappings of chastity (modesty of dress, fasting of the eyes, temperance, continence) are all servants of love/charity, the good and end of this virtue. 

I think St. Paul sums this up for me famously in 1 Cor 13:1-3: 

"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." 

We've heard this passage so many times it tends to become white noise. But isn't it really the essence of Christianity, of our faith? Isn't it primary, served by all the secondary ends? Doesn't it deserve primacy of place in our spiritual lives, our praxis, and yes, our Lenten observance?

We can call into the same problem with fasting during this season--doing the exact thing our Lord warns us not to do: adopting a gloomy continence, or becoming preoccupied with the nuances of our fast or either self-congratulatory or self-condemning while neglecting the weightier things of the law--that is, the law of love. Our Lord admonishes the Pharisees for this "majoring in the minors" in Matthew's gospel, "For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others" (Mt 23:23).

I see this all the time in the online Catholic world. Whether it's a particular outrage du jour, or a pet project of picking apart some TV show as if our eternal salvation depended on such critiques, or even the insider baseball in-fighting over liturgical nuances, these things wouldn't be as much of a hollow gong if they did, in fact, communicate the love with which they supposed to be concerned with. Often what I see as an observer is the antithesis of charity--I see the Saul, the righteous Pharisee defender of religious orthodoxy, and not the Paul who becomes weak, "all things to all men," and boasts only in his weakness. Again, we hear it like white noise, but how much meditation have we lent to the continuation of Paul's letter to the Corinthians.

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." (1 Cor 13:4-8)

Lent often degenerates for many people like myself because we neglect an elusive charity in our hearts in exchange for the tangible ticks and notches our forty days affords us--signs that we are progressing in the spirit, mortifying our flesh more, becoming more disciplined and hard-packed. But to what end? If we are not growing in charity, we are gongs. We forget our purpose, our Lenten raison d'etre. Like the chaste man who is cold in his heart, who has choked out love and openness and self-deference because he sees it as a threat to his tenuous virtue. Who is so consumed with tamping down the weeds of lust and avoiding occasions of sin that he forgets how to love. Because his heart has not been born again, but only patched on the outside. Chastity is really a matter of the heart, not the groin.



I had a therapy appointment yesterday, because I have really not been feeling myself since undertaking some of these disciplines--having gone cold-turkey off of nicotine a month ago, and coffee (switching to tea) a week ago, in addition to fasting every day and more severely on Wednesdays and Fridays...all potentially "good" things. But I'm sleeping 12 hours a day now, and feel a little...hollow. Not myself. It may just take some time to adjust, but my faithful Catholic therapist suggested it was too much taken on all at once, and encouraged me to "just have a freaking cup of coffee" if I need it. I was actually relieved to hear that, and I didn't take it as a free-pass but simply perhaps a bleed valve in case my charity grows too cold. If you're fasting and a jerk to your wife and family, you're not doing it right. I haven't taken that liberty of the cup of joe yet, but it's good to know that it's a minor thing in the shadow of the majors, which is namely, charity.

Increasing in charity is really a slow grow--you can't force it anymore you can get that orchid to bloom in time for your birthday. But you can practice in order to make it more....common for you. The way a bad habit needs to be replaced by a good habit, and aided by grace. Pray for an increase in charity, and then endure the hard work of self-deference of blessing someone when you'd rather curse them, praying for your enemies, giving alms when it hurts to do so and even when people are undeserving, making time for someone in need of a pep talk or tea at the kitchen table. Charity is the master, and these things its servant.

If you are deep in prayer and your neighbor in need knocks on your door in need, you are majoring in the minors if you piously refuse to rise and answer--not only the external door, but the door of your heart. For even the Lord healed on the Sabbath. He knew how to tell the meat from the bone, the major things from the minor ones, the purpose of the Law in addition to it's letter. He was so critical of the Pharisees because they were experts at "majoring in the minors." They converted no one, but set themselves up as judges and executioners of righteousness. Don't be like them, our Lord says. 

The Tertullians of our day are out there, observing and noting how we as Christians conduct ourselves. To the degree we give them pause and they note, "see how they love one another!" we are doing things right. To the degree we are focused on the minor barnacles of our faith when they do not serve the larger purpose of that love, we are missing the mark, gongs resounding from a shallow and hollow core.  

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Acedia and Ennui: The Cousins of Mid-Life Manhood

 A few years ago I ran across a light-hearted little meme with a solidly truthful and existential nougat core. It’s a smiling little cartoon guy in a series of pictographic scenarios: Shop for a new tie. Make macaroni. Do Cardio.


[Don’t Let The Existential Dread Set In]


DON’T LET IT SET IN.


Vacuum the rug.


I still chuckle at it (uncomfortably) today. We live out our lives as Christians trying to synthesize the meaning of our life in Christ with the reality of suffering, the seeming futility of making meaningful change in the world, and the fact that we are going to die at some point. I’m not a fatalist nor a pessimist, but those moments of questioning what it is all for and what one’s life has amounted to will hit from time to time. I’d like to think I’m not the only one.


Perhaps this is coincidental with the post-Christmas season and turning forty-four in a few months. In reflecting on the life of our Savior, I think it gets overlooked for a lot of people that Christ began his public ministry at the age of thirty, and died at the age of thirty-three. He was, for all intents and purposes, in the prime of his life—peak manhood. And since there are no accidents in the spiritual economy, perhaps this is why the Father chose that period for his son, who was to be a choice offering, an unblemished lamb—a worthy sacrifice. It meant something because it cost everything.


The solution in the modern economy is to sidestep malaise, or hop over it. If one is anxious and looking for a way to address the root causes of their anxiety, they are often advised instead to pop a Xanax twice a day as if that was a solution. If we are uneasy with periods of boredom, there’s no shortage of food, phones, or content to distract us and get us out of that moment temporarily. 


Mid-life for men is a kind of predictable malaise that can’t be sidestepped or hopped over, however; you have to go through it on your way to old age, disease and death. It could have something to do with lowering testosterone levels. It could start in your late thirties or not hit until your early fifties. It’s not quite depression, though there can be some symptomatic overlap. It’s not quite doubt at the things we’ve committed ourselves to: marriage, family, faith, work. Mid-life seems to be its own unique thing, even when we’re not conscious we are experiencing it. 


That recalibration “halfway through the tunnel” can often play out in stereotypical ways: the Corvette, the affair, the career switch or the moving to a homestead in the country. But like the Xanax, these are the pills we pop to try to make the problem “go away.” Many men do not seem to even have the capacity for introspection, but instead (again, stereotypically) relegate this nebulous malaise to externals; to mansplain it, it is a matter of externals, a “problem to be solved.”


The Devil, to his credit, will not let any good crisis go to waste. And so he flanks our defenses from all exposed angles. He may plant the tares of doubt about our marriage vows, for one: Is your marriage really valid? Were you really in the right state of mind to make such a commitment? Does God really expect you to live the next forty years with the same woman? What if you just…left? Or he could capitalize on our boredom and general comfortability. You get the idea. 


In secular nomenclature, ennui is a kind of feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. It seems to go hand in hand with mid-life for men and can be hard to put a finger on. In the spiritual life, acedia is a close spiritual relative—a kind of mental sloth or apathy which, ironically, strikes the solider of God often at the mid-life of the day (which is why it is sometimes referred to as the “Noonday Demon”). St. John Cassian, in his treatise from the Philokalia (“On The Eight Vices”) lays out both the diagnosis and the remedy for this form of spiritual attack,


"Our sixth struggle is against the demon of listlessness, who works hand in hand with the demon of dejection. This is a harsh, terrible demon, always attacking the monk, falling upon him at the sixth hour (mid-day), making him slack and fall of fear, inspiring him with hatred for his monastery, his fellow monks, for work of any kind, and even for the reading of Holy Scripture. He suggests to the monk that he should go elsewhere and that, if he does not, all his effort and time will be wasted. In addition to all this, tie produces in him at around the sixth hour a hunger such as he would not normally have after fasting for three days, or after a long journey or the heaviest labor. Then he makes him think that he will not be able to rid himself of this grievous sickness, except by sallying forth frequently to visit his brethren, ostensibly to help them and to tend them if they are unwell. When he cannot lead him astray in this manner, he puts him into the deepest sleep. In short, his attacks become stronger and more violent, and he cannot be beaten off except through prayer, through avoiding useless speech, through the study.”


For a monastic under a superior and a rule, the solution is simple: stay in your cell and fight your wayward nature by staying put and not abandoning your post. Not easy, but simple at least. Stay and fight.


Perhaps my mid-life malaise at the age of forty-four does have a spiritual taproot: Ennui driving the ‘Vette, with its spiritual cousin Acedia in the passenger seat coming along for the ride. St. John Cassian gives sound counsel for dealing with the latter, but the former in my opinion can be a tougher nut to crack; a kind of tension that needs to be uncomfortably sat with and stared down, or wrestled with the way Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord. To pay attention to that heart and meaning-shaped hole rather than going out to shop for a new tie or pumping some reps, while not staring so deep into the abyss that we are overtaken by it and fall in. Navel-gazing is a weak currency, but prayer for the Christian exacts change—even when it feels futile and even when it feels like those prayers eviscerate into the ether. 


Because we were hit with a storm recently, I had a small downed tree to deal with. I had no desire in this state of ennui-inspired apathy to do so, but forced myself to grab and axe and saw and get to work; it wasn’t going to move itself, and laying there in the yard seemed like a taunt. It seemed pointless and tiring to even think about, like everything else in my mind. Chopping a tree seemed as futile a distraction as cooking macaroni, or vacuuming the rug. 


After an hour or so of sweating and straining, though, I came in the house to find that Abba Moses, quoted in Cassian’s treatise, had it right: patience, prayer, and manual labor worked to dispel the noonday demon, at least for today. That doesn’t mean he won’t return, either tomorrow or next year when I’m forty-five. But at least for today, this patristic trifecta of armory was enough to help me find meaning enough to get up, get serious, and get to work.




Saturday, February 17, 2024

By The Work Worked

 I had been in bed for two days. I was simultaneously gripped with a pernicious anxiousness of undisclosed character while having no will to will anything. Acedia had swaddled me in its thick winter duvet and assured me he would never let me go. COVID had stuck a stick in the wheel of my five years of First Fridays and First Saturdays a couple weeks ago and reset my merit book back to zero. I hadn't confessed in two months. I felt the weight of everything stacked on my back, all the phantom fears, and the flight of joy from its perch. 

The snowfall from last night was melting a little as it hovered just above freezing and the sun was getting ready for bed. I shook myself awake and wheeled my bike out of the garage to bike the seven miles to St. H; I needed an exorcism to shake the ravens that had made a nest in me; I needed Confession.  

I arrived at the church--which looked abandoned from the busy boulevard--parked my bike and walked inside with fifteen minutes to spare. Everything was empty--the parking lot, the church, my soul. I slipped into a pew and said a quick prayer to remember my many sins and lay them bare. A single light illuminated from the confessional in the back. I entered into the confessional and closed the door behind me.

The priest had been waiting for me and for everyone. He must have been close to one hundred years old. I collapsed on the kneeler, blessed myself and sighed. He began with his script--how many times, how many years and decades, has he repeated the same words to penitents like a sacramental arcade game? I thought I was weary, how much more so this ancient priest?  It was the driest, most scripted exchange from his part, and a steady bleeding out of sinfulness from mine. 

But the funny thing? The very rote-ness of his interaction in the sacrament stirred me to tears. When I had confessed, he didn't give me counsel or talk to me. This was not animated Fr. Mike Schmitz or reaming Fr. Isaac Reyes here. This was a tired old human priest. He gave me my penance, absolved me, and asked me to pray for him as he had asked thousand of other penitents to do. Nothing different, nothing unique. He could have just as easily been praying to be let go from this life. I burst into tears. 

The power of the grace depended not on this good priest's character--whether wearied by age or buoyed by enthusiasm to save souls--and THAT was what moved me. The grace leveled me. Ex opere operato: "by the work worked."  I had encountered Christ then and there, had laid down my burdens at his feet and taken his light yoke up; I blubbered through my act of contrition because there was no illusion that this minister, this man acted in persona Christi by virtue of his apostolic office. That is the great grace of the sacrament, of all the sacraments of the Church, that do not depend on the merits of the minister. The Donatist heretics in the fourth to sixth centuries thought otherwise--that the efficacy of the sacraments depended on the moral state of the minister.  

I simultaneously trusted that I was truly forgiven of my wickedness, wiped clean even though I did not feel different; just as the priest of a hundred years did not tailor his words to my psychology or change anything to suite me. He had no personality to speak of, no originality in his words, no piercing psychological insight. He didn't speak to my heart but dispensed simply the raw, undiluted forgiveness of Jesus Christ that has been entrusted to him in his apostolic priesthood. He just did what he had been doing year after scripted year, decade after scripted decade--forgiving sins in persona Christi by the book. By the work worked. 




Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Sin Before Death

 Why do we sin? Why do we do that which we do not want to do, as Paul laments in Romans 7? Why are we even attracted to it, if it is not good for us, offends our Master, and earns the wages of death?

Pious Catholics can sometimes imagine themselves as martyrs, resisting sin at the barrel of a gun. But the fact of the matter is, most of us disrobe willingly rather than by force and walk into sin's chamber of our own accord and desire. This is the eternal mystery of concupiscence, and can leave us flabbergasted when we wake up feeling the piercing rays of morning-after shame on our cheeks wondering "how did I even get here?"   



There are many reasons why we fall into sin, and I think there are a few:


We desire the perceived pleasure of the act.

We shrink from the pain of resistance of the act.

We fall into the act through ignorance like blind men into a pit.

We minimize the consequences of the act and rationalize it.

We weigh the pros and cons and determine that the cons of the act do not outweigh the pros.

We feel powerless to resist the act because we do not trust God to be able to deliver us.

We buckle under the tension, tricked into thinking that if we give in we will have peace.


Most of us sprint out of the gate at the beginning of Lent, forgetting that it is a marathon and not a sprint, relying on our own inner reserves and resolutions to carry us. But a good reminder of the peril of this way of thinking can be seen in the story of Fr. Walter Ciszek's humbling while in a Siberian prison camp:


"Initially, Fr. Ciszek wasn’t too worried. He was innocent, after all. And he had "a great deal of confidence" in his ability to stand firm against any interrogator.


His strength, discipline, and habits of prayer certainly helped. But Lubianka wore him down with its constant hunger and isolation and the all-night interrogations, with their mind games and agonizing afterthoughts. After a year—brutalized, drugged, threatened with death—Ciszek did what he had been sure he would never do: He signed papers that gave the impression he had been spying for the Vatican.


Afterward, burning with shame and guilt for being "nowhere near the man I thought I was," he finally faced the truth.


'I had asked for God’s help but had really believed in my ability to avoid evil and to meet every challenge. . . . I had been thanking God all the while that I was not like the rest of men. . . . I had relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test—and I had failed.'


The interrogations continued, and Ciszek fell into black despair. Terrified, he threw himself on God, pleading his utter helplessness. Then, in a moment of blinding light, he was able to see "the grace God had been offering me all my life."


'I knew that I must abandon myself completely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God. And I did it. I can only describe the experience as a sense of "letting go," giving over totally my last effort or even any will to guide the reins of my own life. It is all too simply said, yet that one decision has affected every subsequent moment of my life. I have to call it a conversion. . . . It was at once a death and a resurrection.'


Many pious Catholics imagine themselves echoing St. Dominic Savio's words, "Death before sin!", which reflects a rightly-ordered spirit, that of St. Peter willing to go to Christ's death with him. But the mystery of how he "ended up here" in the courtyard denying he even knew the man he vowed to join in death is a sober reminder of the comradeship that we share with concupiscence. We are not saints, my dear. We can be. We want to be. But the day is already long spent, and we are still far from home.   

No, the fact is it is not death before sin for many of us, but sin before death. A little compromise. A small withholding. A failing in love. Death is final after all, foreign and scary, whereas we have known sin all our lives. What's one more concession with an old friend to keep that finality at bay? God is a God of understanding. He gets us. 

The hard balance during Lent is the struggle with the wily law (of the Church). "We are called to fast today" suddenly becomes "Man, I'm hungry all of a sudden."  Or the pet serpent sliding in to suggest to us "did you really make this resolution and expect to keep it? Did God really say..."

"You have not resisted sin to the point of blood" (Heb 12:4) and perhaps God will spare you from doing so, if you trust Him and it be His will. But then too know that the trials of our faith, tested by fire, are more precious than gold (1 Pt 1:7). And "there hath no temptation taken hold of you but such as is common to man. But God is faithful; He will not suffer you to be tempted beyond that which ye are able to bear, but with the temptation will also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it" (1 Cor 10:13). 

Lent is your proving ground to be faithful in small things so that eventually you will be entrusted with larger things (Lk 16:10). It is your opportunity to die daily to self, without actually dying in the flesh. You will get weary. You will get worn down. Do the little things well, and the big things will come in their due time. In the garden we were promised to live forever, and yet that our parents would die if they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17). There the serpent said "you will not die."

But when he slithers out to our fort in the desert of Lent, he tells us the opposite: "Without sin, you will surely die."  "No man can resist sin; it is the lot of all men." This is when you must keep your eyes on Christ and double down in prayer, begging for the blanket of the Holy Spirit to cover you, for our Lord promises us that he gives all the grace necessary to resist sin, and that it is in fact sin which brings death. When we are hungry, pent-up, under siege, bored, tired, complacent, our minds become cloudy and quick to fold under the weight of our discomfort. 

That's why we spend time with these "little things," little hungers and penances, so that when we are faced with the big things--like Death itself--we will know we can live without sin and all its empty promises and pleasures. We can see through the voluptuous figure of the flesh to the rotting skeleton of the corpse beneath it, to see life and death in its true form.

So, pace yourself. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Do not trust in your own strength. If you fall, get up and confess and get back on the horse. God is patient and merciful, and we are often harder on ourselves than he is on us. Death before sin, but it is not yet our time to die. Skip the snack --not as a "no" but as a "yes" to love of God. When hunger pangs hit, praise His holy Name. Give up the thing. Forgive yourself quickly when you fall, and do not judge your brother either. Get used to little deaths so that you might live. 

Saturday, February 10, 2024

I Got Mine


 

"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." 

(Mt 3:7-10)


Ash Wednesday--the most attended non-holy day of obligation, and the most well attended Mass by non-practicing Catholics and non-Catholics alike--is just around the corner. Isn't that a curious socio-spiritual phenomenon? I suppose it's a little surprising that Catholics who would not attend Mass on a Sunday or think to go to on HDO are eager--excited even--to get their foreheads smudged and willingly give up their favorite treats and even maybe meat once a week as well. Perhaps its akin to the Jordan Peterson phenomenon: why would a guy telling us to "make your damn bed" and give us rules to live by be treated like the father we never had and elevated to international guru status? Haven't our moms been telling us to do the same thing since we were teenagers? 

I think all of us--even the most effeminate hedonists--feel the hangover of self-indulgence from time to time. A sated man loathes honey, as it says in Proverbs. We're kind of like King Herod in that way, lounging around after being tickled with feathers all day and popping grapes and figs when we hear about Jesus. Self-denial is the new kid on the block--let's go meet him! "When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer" (Lk 23:8-9). 

Seasoned Catholics who have worn butt-marks in their self-assigned pews can get a little uppity when the C&E crowd swell the church, and we have to remember that Christ came to save sinners, "of whom I am the first" (1 Tim 1:15). Well, here are the sinners, come to repent and be saved. Why are we so upset? What more do we want of people? They're here, aren't they?


If I can speculate, it's because Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the penitential season hold so much potential for change and metanoia, which is the true essence of the Gospel, and also has the potential to get so botched in the process, that veteran Catholics really need to put their blinders on and focus first and foremost on their own sins and need for repentance before they start looking around the pews casting judgment. That's really hard, because let's be honest--by logging so many hours in Church, even on non HDO's--we can feel like we have earned the right to such judgment, to play gatekeeper and arbiter of all that is truly Catholic. We may have mastered our stomach and our loins and our wandering eyes, but the heart in its pride is truly wily and will lead us to Hell faster than the other two combined.

But this still hasn't answered the question of why Ash Wednesday is so. dang. popular. John the Baptist drew the crowds with his message of repentance--and while many came with tears of contrition wishing to be washed clean, that wasn't the case with everyone. Some were there because it was the place to be.  The prophet Joel exhorts, "rend your hearts and not your garments" (Joel 2:13) and John the Baptist too said that axe was coming to cut people at the knees. He didn't give them a trinket and a pat on the back to go home with. Only that they must be born again. If you really wanted to change, you could, marked by the waters of baptism at the hands of John. If you were simply along for the ride to see a local celebrity, you had some choice words awaiting you from the grizzly prophet. 

While the major news outlets love pictures of Catholics with ashes on their foreheads to mark the beginning of the penitential season, including "devout Catholics" like President Biden and Nancy Pelosi, I hold photographs like this one, of my friend Moira outside the President's parish, as more in keeping with the season and true to the message of the Baptist.


I am reminded of the story of St. Mary of Egypt who was born to Christian parents in Alexandria but lived a life of sin for almost 17 years from the age of 12. One day, she decided to board a ship to Jerusalem. When she arrived, she wished to go into the church of the Resurrection but a divine power prevented her from entering. She quickly realized that it was because of her sinful life that she couldn’t enter. She wept bitterly and asked the Virgin Mary to intercede on her behalf in front of God. Then, she was able to enter the church freely and she prayed to God for Him to guide her. She looked towards an icon of the Virgin Mary, praying for guidance and salvation when suddenly a voice came out saying, “If you cross the Jordan river you will find rest and salvation.” She quickly crossed the river to the wilderness where she lived for 47 years doing penance.

Smearing ashes on the forehead of an unrepentant sinner is kind of like recladding a termite-infested cottage with cheap vinyl. The priest of the parish has a great opportunity here to be the Baptist for the day and chemical-bomb the termites rather than be preoccupied with the vinyl siding covering. Come out with fire from the pulpit--what other opportunity will you have to have these cultural Catholics or even non-Catholics in your pews, ripe for conversion and open to change--apart from this most popular day of ashes? Pray for the Holy Spirit to cut all to the heart, as it says in Acts--the grace of shame which converted those Jews (Acts 2:36-37). If you're going to be a little "mean" once a year, this is the day to do it. 

The time is short for repentance, and we don't want to feed the Instagram hopper with more #ashwednesday selfies as a cover for "evangelization." In giving up the meat of sin for a month and a half, deliver a juicy T-bone of fire in your sermon. This is your moment to bring people home. Cut us all to the knees. Wet our cheeks. Focus everything you have on indicting us to turn from our wicked ways. This is your 8mile moment--do not miss your chance to blow. Channel your inner Jeremiah:


“If you, Israel, will return,

    then return to me,”

declares the Lord.

“If you put your detestable idols out of my sight

    and no longer go astray,

 and if in a truthful, just and righteous way

    you swear, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’

then the nations will invoke blessings by him

    and in him they will boast.”


 This is what the Lord says to the people of Judah and to Jerusalem:


“Break up your unplowed ground

    and do not sow among thorns.

 Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,

    circumcise your hearts,

    you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,

or my wrath will flare up and burn like fire

    because of the evil you have done—

    burn with no one to quench it.

(Jer 4:1-4)


I have to believe that many CINOs and C&E Catholics are showing up on Ash Wednesday to their local parish because there is a small still voice in them that is whispering that they need to change, that they need to turn back and circumcise their hearts. Yes, they may be babies in faith and in need of milk. But there are also those who may be there wanting the fire, and wondering who will blast them with it--not in condemnation to drive them out, but with meat and substance to pull them in. What is the point of repentance when there is nothing to be saved from? This is the scandal of the modern Church--that we have nullified Christ's sacrifice by our apathy, lukewarmness, desire for cheap grace while taking for granted the cost of that holy death. 

"I want to change but I don't know how." Tell them how.  Tell them when Confession is. Give them a catechism and walk them through it. Tell them it's  a mortal sin to skip Mass if they have been doing so--if not you, who else is going to tell them? Say it with a smile and in love, of course, because you love them and you love their soul. It's ok to cry, the salty streams of shame across the contours of the cheeks. You love them more than ashes. You love them more than sweets. You love them more than all the tokens. You love them in their sin because you love the truth. 

So yes, give and get your ashes. But don't be afraid to be a Baptist if you are the pastor, even if just for a day. Let the purging cleanse of fire fly from the pulpit. Take the blowback beating if you need to. Today is the day of salvation. Do not let it pass you by. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

More Thoughts On A 'Third Way' of Christian Discipleship

 I will be joining Eric Sammons tomorrow on his Crisis Point podcast to speak a little about my book but also to discuss my post "The Third Way" and the idea behind it. Since I haven't really articulated in note form what I want to talk about in the interview, I figured I would do so here.

2/9/24 EDIT: The podcast is live and can be streamed here. It took a little bit of a different direction than what I had prepared for here, but turned out to be a good discussion in a different way.


1) So, what is this "third way" of discipleship and how did you start thinking about this?


I wrote an essay five years ago titled "Tradition and Charity: The Face of Renewal" when we first started attending the Traditional Latin Mass as a family, and I've been thinking about the topic ever since. In that essay I wrote:


I think there is a tendency, in the age of identity politics, to delineate into false dichotomies. Those less traditionally minded--as seen in liberal churches, Catholic or Protestant--may compensate by being more active in parish activities, service, and social justice initiatives, while traditionalists are all about the Mass and not as concerned with those other things. I consider myself and my family more as guests in someone's house at this point when it comes to the Latin Mass community, so I don't feel like I have any right to make such judgments about a community that is not yet our own. But I will say one of the most important things, one of the primary motivators besides an integrity in worship and learning to subject my ego to Almighty God, is that we pass on the faith to our children, and I feel that the TLM community is the best place to try to do this in. 


On the point of charity, and why I think traditionalism combined with charity has the potential to be an unstoppable force for renewal...it wasn't until listening to a conference of Fr. Ripperger's that I realized that the 'love' in 1 Cor 13 is really more accurately translated as charity. I considered that kind invitation to attend a Latin Mass by that friend of a friend as an act of charity. I had until then considered the Latin Mass community to be more or less insular and an island of sorts by choice, not open to outsiders. All it took was an invitation to get us there, a kind of gentle and innocuous evangelization in its ordinariness. Coffee and donuts as a way of connecting with other families and homeschoolers once a month was an added bonus.


Coming from a more left-leaning Catholicism in my early years as a Catholic, serving the poor was an important part of my spiritual practice and faith, one that I have no intention of abandoning. I also do not want to fall into the trap of denigrating or comparing Masses or the people that attend them; though we have made the decision to attend the Latin Mass when we are able (which is most Sundays) because we feel this is where God is leading us as a family, I still attend the NO for daily Mass and have no qualms with it (unless there are serious liturgical abuses). I'm a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" guy at heart, I think, and this applies as much liturgically as it does to charity and service to the poor, evangelization, practicing the Works of Mercy, and loving people.


When it comes to loving, we love because He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19). The greatest commandment, the "Big Stone First", is to love the Lord God with everything we have. And yet we also see in 1 John that

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 Jn 4:20-21)


So really a "third way" of Catholic Traditionalism is really Catholic Essentialism: taking the best of the best in worship and charity--since on this the two Commandments rest--in a "both/and" spirit (versus a kind of "either/or" false dichotomy). What I am calling "Third Way" Traditionalism is one kind of "complete protein": of prayer and action, worship and praxis, to make sure we are not just Christian believers or those who worship, but true disciples of Jesus Christ. 

 

2) What does this "third way" have to do with the Traditional Latin Mass and traditional Catholicism?


As I mentioned, I'm really a guest here, and I consider myself more or less trad-adjacent, rather than a true died-in-the-wool traditionalist. Our family attends the TLM exclusively, my son serves, my wife and daughter veil, yadayada but this is relatively recent for us in the past five years and I'm not about to tell trads what they should and shouldn't be doing. Maybe it is because I am an evangelist at heart, that I see this great potential for renewal in the Church with the rise of the TLM as a locus of authentic and reverent worship, a worthy vessel to bring people into the Church and experience the awe and majesty of God and what Catholicism really is. The TLM already does this effectively in a way in-bound marketing does: it draws you in and piques your curiosity, but doesn't pound you with ads or outbound marketing the way, as Shia LaBeouf mentioned in his interview with Bishop Barron, "it's not trying to sell you anything" [the way the Novus Ordo does]. If Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi is true (and it is), then we have a great foundation in the traditional Mass for building a faith on a solid rock of worship. But it can't end there. There's also that pesky second commandment our Lord slips in there. 


3) What do you see as the issues in traditional and more status-quo/mainstream Catholic communities today, respectively? Where are the blind spots or opportunities for growth for each?


The issues in your standard, down-the-street suburban Novus Ordo parish are pretty ubiquitous: you have these pockets of sometimes great devotion, prayer and piety among individual parishoners, but it's often in spite of, not because of, the parish environment. I don't want to speak for all people in this situation, but for me that was the case: it always felt like swimming up stream, fighting the parish current, to carve out a solid prayer life and something that went beyond the status-quo cultural norms of the N.O. and the particular parishes we belonged to; we felt like outliers, "extreme" religious, like we couldn't relate to people at the parish. So, I think there's this low-bar in many of these parishes that doesn't push people to grow spiritually outside the prescribed parish programs or proscriptions; these parishes can at the same time be very "active" replete with ministries, service to the needy, activities for seniors and retirees to get involved with and stay busy, and doing good things. 

So, when traditionalists see this stuff, there's kind of this pendulum reaction that anything associated with the Novus Ordo is suspect, and so the good things get thrown out with the bad. Like service to the poor and other acts of corporal charity, which of course is not "only" for your standard Novus Ordo parish and is not necessarily the stuff of SJWs.  The thing is, at least at our parish, we don't have a ton of these lay-led "programs" and I think that's a good thing. We have solid liturgy, good music, and an organic sense of community. But we shouldn't think either we are exempt from the work of discipleship, the works of charity and mercy, both corporal and spiritual. We are quick to signal to others that we are "trads" by what we wear, what we hold, how we pray, etc. But we should be more apt to show that we are Christians by how we love. For that's where converts come from.


4) You mention in some of your writings that you prefer to answer "I am a disciple of Jesus Christ" rather than "I am a Catholic" when asked about your religious faith, even though you are a Catholic. Why is that?


It's strange, isn't it, that we have to qualify everything today. Even though I'm more aligned in every aspect with traditional Catholicism, I'm still hesitant to refer to myself as a "trad" or "traditional Catholic." Because although I have been so thoroughly edified by the patrimony of the Church, which I have only been recently been introduced to and which I feel was withheld from me for 20 years as a Catholic since I came into the Church, I still feel there is this identity-thing, this tribe thing that is such a temptation to hold on to. But referring to oneself as "a Catholic" is a very broad term as well: well, what kind of Catholic are you? Are you a 'born-and-raised K-12 Catholic school but don't really believe any of that stuff' Catholic? Are you a Catholic on account of your cultural heritage (Mexican, Filipino, Irish, etc)? 

All that stuff is kind of ancillary as far as I'm concerned. God calls us not just to belief but to work, because Christ is our Master. And there's a lot of work to be done to rebuild and renew the Church, help save the lost, exercise charity, instruct the ignorant. A disciple is under a Master, and I feel that that is where I want my focus more than being a card-carrying member of a country club, or a member of a certain sect or tribe.   


5) What are some of the benefits for evangelization of the Traditional Latin Mass, and what makes it harder in other ways?


This was actually a struggle for me when I was doing street evangelization back in 2018, and it can really be a mixed-bag if you get someone interested in becoming Catholic, but it's like "where do you send them?" There's so many wacky RCIA programs, so many beige and uninspiring churches--not just the architecture, but the parishoners themselves--that makes you feel reticent to send a baby believer there.  Now, I know grace works anywhere God gives it, but for me that was part of the impetus of wanting to raise my family in a more liturgically stable environment, where you didn't have this anxiety about "what is the priest going to do today?" or "what are we walking into here?" When you love something, you want everyone to know about it, and that's how I feel about the TLM. The Mass is perfect, but we are not, and we need to accept that. But I still think it highlights Catholicism in it's truest expression, but needs to go beyond the liturgy and outside the walls of the church--to make saints. 



6) Do you consider yourself a Traditionalist? If so, why; and if no, why not?


I consider these labels a kind of necessary evil, and don't particular like them but it is what it is. Personally, I consider a true traditionalist someone who has a line in the sand, and I know many people like this who will not attend the Novus Ordo under any circumstances. In that sense, I do not consider myself a traditionalist because I will occasionally go to a daily N.O. Mass on campus on my lunch break, although I have not attended a Sunday N.O. in five years. I will drive 2 hours to find a Latin Mass if we are traveling rather than go to the local N.O. parish ten minutes away, but it's not because I think it's invalid or harmful to my faith. I was saved in the N.O., raised up in the N.O., and experienced grace in the N.O. So God can do what He wants, save whom He wants, use what He wants to accomplish that task. I will take grace wherever I can get it, even if I do personally feel more edified and that the Traditional Latin Mass is objectively "better" in every way than the Novus Ordo Missae. 


7) What do you mean when you speak of the traditional faith needing charity in order to be a "complete protein"? 


Matthew 22 and Matthew 25 are really the benchmarks for me in my spiritual life. It is there where Jesus distills the Decalogue into the Two Great Commandments--love God, love neighbor; and where he gives us a warning of how we will be judged by Him: on our charity. And that should fill us with fear. We will not be judged on which Mass we attend, or if we veiled, or that we are devoted to our missals. We will be judged on our love. Those who love God must love their brothers (1 Jn 4:20-21). 

What's so great about Catholicism is that it respects the both/and dimension of things: faith and reason, faith and works, scripture and tradition, fasting and feasting, God's divinity and God's humanity in the hypostatic union. Tradition is the best kept secret in the Church today. But it shouldn't be a secret! But it's not an end in itself. To the extent that it forms us in greater love of God and neighbor, it is doing its job. Otherwise, it's just a resounding gong, as St. Paul says. But when we love God and give him the best first fruits of worship, this sets us on a solid rock to build the house of charity. 

Look at saints like St. Leo the Great and St. Charles Borromeo, just to name a couple. They were high ranking dignitaries and prelates, yet were fully devoted to service to the poor. St. Leo said, "Let us now extend to the poor and those afflicted in different ways a more open-handed generosity, so that God may be thanked through many voices and the relief of the needy supported by our fasting. No act of devotion on the part of the faithful gives God more pleasure than that which is lavished on his poor. Where he finds charity with its loving concern, there he recognizes the reflection of his own fatherly care." And St. Charles during the plague fed tends of thousands of the hungry daily and saw the poor as his teacher.

But charity goes beyond just corporal charity--it is charity of heart, love. Love of God is tatamount, but sometimes trads can be a little....insular. Because it is comfortable to love God and uncomfortable to love people. 

I love the story of St. Aloysius when he came under the spiritual care of St. Robert Bellarmine. When he entered the Jesuits at the age of 17, Aloysius was appointed a spiritual director, St. Robert Bellarmine. Level headed and patient, Bellarmine listened to Aloysius describe his extreme schedule of individual religious practice, then ordered him to cease it. He was assigned instead to work at a local hospital tending to the sick and infirmed. Squeamish, he was repulsed by the work, and he disliked people, which is probably why he was initially inclined to his private devotions and mortifications. When the plague hit Rome in January 1591, the sick and dying were everywhere, overwhelming the hospitals, and Aloysius had to dig deep and draw on that Italian stubbornness and bulldog like willpower to stomach the work.

But in time, a transformation happened by God's grace. Though this was never work he would have chosen for himself, Aloysius began to see Christ in them, similar to St. Francis' encounter with the leper. He experienced compassion for the sick and dying, and often carried them from the streets to the hospital on his back. He contracted the plague as a result, and died June 21st, at the age of 23.


8) Do you get pushback from either more normie-mainstream Catholics or Traditionalists, or both?


I get it from all sides, haha. But I don't care too much. I'm too normie for the trads and too trad for the normies. But that's ok. I just want to love all people, and "be who I am, and be that well" as St. Francis de Sales says. I think it's good we push ourselves, and be honest about our blindspots, so God can make us into saints and we can get to work more effectively.


9) Why even make a "thing" of this? Isn't Traditionalism in its current cultural form enough? 


Well, that's a valid point. I see this "Third Way" between insular Traditionalism and status-quo Catholicism not as a program or an apostolate or even a philosophical school, but just as a consideration on how to worship better, love better, and work better in the Lord's vineyard. I want to live the fullness of the faith, and work out my salvation in fear and trembling, and I can't do that without a solid foundation for worship and without loving my neighbor, which is uncomfortable. To the degree that we take risks for the Lord in love and faith and devotion, I think He will honor that and give us the grace to make up for what we lack. But to the degree that we are content in our little camps, and not doing the work we are called to as disciples, I see that as an issue worth addressing. 


10) What do you see is the role of joy and hope today for both traditionalists and non-traditionalists alike?


People need hope to live, and joy is the icing on the cake. Joy attracts, just like the TLM has this strange in-bound pull effect on people, even non-believers. It's not trying to be what it's not; it's being true to what it is, unapologetically. That's attractive, just as joy is attractive and reflects beauty and God's nature. Hope gives us a reason to work, a reason to live, and faith that things will get better even if that happens after our death. Faith, hope, charity--these three. But the greatest of these is charity. 



11) In your blog post "The Third Way" you linked to two vocational videos: 1 for the Discalced Carmelites and 1 for the CFRs, saying "Both are powerful and moving; both inspire devotion and service to Christ. One order is traditional and contemplative; the other, more charismatic and active. Both are authentically Catholic.". What was the point you were trying to get across with doing that?


Listen, the Catholic Church is a big tent. Not everyone is going to love or be drawn to the TLM. That's just a fact. Our strength is in our diversity of charisms, and that has always been the case in the Church. St. Paul said as much, that an eye is not a hand, etc. The CFRs are solid guys, solid friars. Are they more charismatic? Sure. Does that mean they should be held in suspect by trads? Come on. These guys have a heart for Christ and the poor--would that we be more like them. The Discalced Carmelites in the video, as well, have this ethereal existence so devoted to the liturgy and the hidden lives of being contemplatives. We need both. That's the whole point of what I'm talking about in The Third Way--take the best and leave the filler. Love God. Love your Brothers. Love the poor. Build beautiful churches. Spread the Good News. These things are not at odds. Both/And. Both/And. We can't afford to leave grace on the table, or discount this group or that group because of ideological differences. Come on. Let's get to work. 



Saturday, February 3, 2024

FALLING DOWN and the Divorced American Male "Going Home"


 

"You think I want to hurt your family? I have a family of my own. That's where I'm going. I'm going home to see my family. It's my little girl's birthday today. We were going to have a barbecue like you guys. She was going to play outside and my wife would hold my hand and we would talk about grownup things. And then when it got dark, we'd all go to sleep together. We'd all sleep together in the dark. And everything would be just like it was before."


These were the words of recently divorced and recently laid off defense contractor William Foster (played by Michael Douglas) in Joel Schumacher's 1993 cult classic Falling Down about half way through the film. By this point what started as a "bad morning" with a traffic jam has led to a standoff with the LAPD and a wake of assaults and property damage at the hands of an otherwise straight-edged man who has been pushed too far and simply "had enough."  


"I'm the bad guy? How'd that happen? I did everything they told me to. Do you know I build missiles? I help to protect America. You should be rewarded for that. Instead they give it to plastic surgeon. They lied to me.
 

None of Foster's violence or seeming entitlement is justified of course. As Michael Douglass' father Kirk described his son's character in the film, Foster is both the victim and the villain. His pathology is in simplicity--he wants to see his daughter on her birthday--and his derangement in just how far he is willing to go to clear the obstacles standing in his way from doing so on this particular "hot day" in L.A. What's strange is that there is a part of the viewer--that would be straight white middle aged male me, in this case--that sympathizes with his plight that didn't really register when I first saw the film in high school back when it was released.


There's an interesting scene when Foster's (ex) wife realizes he may be trying to show up at her house for their daughter's birthday party, and calls the police who are asking her some questions at her home.


"So, you have a restraining order against your husband?

"Ex-husband, yes. He'd show up on the wrong day or in the middle of the night, pounding on the door, stuff like that. Thing is, he has this horrendous temper and I didn't know if the restraining order was a good idea, and could do more harm than good. But the judge said we should make an example of him."

"Does he [your husband] drink?"

"No."

"Do drugs?"

"Oh, no."

"But he has a propensity for violence?"

"Yeah, I think you could say that."

"Did he strike the little girl?"

"No."

"Did he strike you?"

"Not exactly."

"Not exactly?"

"There were times I thought he was going to but I didn't want to wait until he got around to it."

"Uh-huh."

"It's hard to explain. He could, I think."

"You 'think'?"


I'll admit the single-minded, obsessive quality of Foster's character is a bit unnerving, and you can see how it contributes in some of the home movies to the tension in the marriage and child-rearing. But he's not abusive. He's not a drinker, doesn't do illegal drugs. That doesn't mean he can't be a "bad man." But when pressed by the cops for the reason the wife had for the restraining order, it was all a bit--wispy.   

Again, Foster is no hero here, and none of the violence is justifiable in the film. But it does go to show that when a man is stripped of the two biggest cores of his identity--his employment and his family--in a one-two punch...well, it can do a thing or two to a man's psyche. Might just be enough to break him, make him snap, or simply give up on everything. By the time lawyers and judges are involved, it's already over. It's heartbreaking to know how many children have been stripped of imperfect but otherwise loving and devoted fathers by the suicide of the courts. And how many men who want and desire to be in their children's lives and remain married to their spouse who they pledged themselves to get neutered by the sharp brass knife of law. 

I know abuse is real, and sometimes separation and legal protection is necessary, for both men and women alike. I also know that sometimes men who are not abusive, are not cheats, who essentially did nothing 'wrong' still get cut at the knees by divorce. 

"Home"--what once was but no longer is--becomes an almost mythical and painful memory everyone is telling them to forget about. Home is the one place we all want to have. Men are willing to work and grind to afford the mortgage because when you have a family you love and are devoted to, you have a reason to work. When you lose the family, you lose the will to work. And sadly too, when you are stripped of the ability to work (either via layoffs, downsizing, ageism, or not being an "economic viability" to the company anymore as referenced in the film), that can impact your marriage and family stability. When both marriage/family and work are in place, things can be really good. When you're out of work but you have the support of your family and community, you'll pull through. But when you've lost both work and your marriage and family--it's enough to crush a man's reason to get up each morning. Even the best and strongest men get cut at the knees by this one-two TKO.

I didn't get the impression William Foster was a religious man in Falling Down. Faith in God is perhaps that "third leg" needed to keep a man's stool from collapsing on itself when the other Big Two (work and family) snap in half. If nothing else, the Divine Law precludes us from exacting vengeance on the innocent for perceived crimes against our person. We aren't owed anything in this life--all is grace. Good marriages are a grace. Bad marriages are a grace (but can also be a cross). Work is a gift, not a right. Children, too. This world doesn't "owe" us anything. There is only one spotless victim--the Christ--and he didn't exact retribution. He made his way "home" not by vengeance, but submission.

There is a part of me that admires the tenacity and creepy single-minded obsession of William Foster "just wanting to go home", even on foot across L.A. during a heat wave and to a home which doesn't seem to welcome him anymore. At least he recognizes that it is worth fighting for. That many men and women are willing to so easily walk away from perfectly good (albeit imperfect) marriages for lesser things to the detriment of their children and society in general without fighting makes those who would instead fight the courts and sacrifice everything to be able to "go home again" look like the crazy ones, the obsessed, those that "should just forget about it and move on." 


Remember, that Fatima foretold that Satan's final assault would be on marriage and the family. Keep that target off your back by fortifying yourself in prayer. If you have work, work hard and be grateful--don't live beyond your means. If you are married, invest in your marriage so that the fissures of gradual drift don't create larger problems down the road. Don't take anything for granted. Including having a place to go home to.

Friday, February 2, 2024

On Suffering

I was appreciative of Kevin Wells writing a glowing review of my book recently. But it put me in a weird head space. I felt dirty. I immediately prayed the litany of humility that evening. The next day I went cold turkey from 100mg of nicotine per day to zero. And then we all got COVID. 

If I'm honest, I pray very little when I am suffering; in the moment, it's just pure survival. As Catholics, we have a theology of suffering. It doesn't have to be wasted or meaningless, but can be redemptive. But I take solace in the words of St Teresa of Avila, “It shouldn’t be thought that he who suffers isn’t praying, for he is offering this to God. And often he is praying much more than the one who is breaking his head in solitude, thinking that if he has squeezed out some tears he is thereby praying.”

It's weird; God sent us physical illness as a grace, I think. I haven't been sick in over a year and then get hit with this double whammy of the physical and psychological hell of withdrawal/detoxing in addition to COVID. Strange timing. Plus trying to keep on the level with my mental health in addition to everything else.

In some ways, I've been trying to get through it by adopting the life of a temporary anchorite. Our bed is tucked in a small, closet type alcove off the main bedroom. For the past week, I have been going to bed before 7pm and sleeping 13 hours a day most days. The past few days, I have been soaking the sheets with sweat and waking up with chills, feeling clammy and gross. I haven't taken a hot shower in two years, but I afforded myself a hot shower the past few days in the morning. I can't read, can't write. I'm just trying to notch the days like a prisoner in his cell, at least until the drug is out of my system and I'm done drying out. Depression is lurking just around the corner, but so far has been kept at bay.




Suffering is ugly, and most of us suffer badly. But I took a cue from St. Gemma not to waste the opportunity to suffer for a soul--or in this case, a stranger whose marriage is on the rocks. I felt impotent to help in any kind of tangible way, so I told him I would offer up the suffering of withdrawal for the sake of his marriage. I also know it is not just willpower alone; I begged Our Lady to help me be free of this addiction, and that I would suffer for it if she would free me.

There is a moving scene in Entertaining Angels (1996), the story of Dorothy Day when Dorothy is thrown in jail for civil disobedience and is in the cell with another woman who appears to be going through withdrawal from drugs. She throws up on Dorothy, and Dorothy just smiles and cradles the woman's head in her lap and sings her to sleep. Jail is hard. Detox is hard. Jail and detox together is super hard, because of how cold and savage and environment it is. You're already at your lowest point, and you are suffering greatly on top of it all. To be a source of comfort and a light to someone in darkness in that moment is a great grace. This is how we should see ourselves as Christians. The Little Flower said, "I always want to see you behaving like a brave soldier who does not complain about his own suffering but takes his comrades’ wounds seriously and treats his own as nothing but scratches."

St. John Vianney said,

"On the Way of the Cross, you see, my children, only the first step is painful. Our greatest cross is the fear of crosses. . . . We have not the courage to carry our cross, and we are very much mistaken; for, whatever we do, the cross holds us tight – we cannot escape from it. What, then, have we to lose? Why not love our crosses and make use of them to take us to Heaven? But, on the contrary, most men turn their backs upon crosses, and fly before them. The more they run, the more the cross pursues them, the more it strikes and crushes them with burdens. . . . If you were wise, you would go to meet it like St. Andrew, who said, when he saw the cross prepared for him and raised up into the air, “Hail O good cross! O admirable cross! O desirable cross! Receive me into thine arms, withdraw me from among men, and restore me to my Master, who redeemed me through thee.”

Listen attentively to this, my children: He who goes to meet the cross, goes in the opposite direction to crosses; he meets them, perhaps, but he is pleased to meet them; he loves them; he carries them courageously. They unite him to Our Lord; they purify him; they detach him from this world; they remove all obstacles from his heart; they help him to pass through life, as a bridge helps us to pass over water. . . . Look at the saints; when they were not persecuted, they persecuted themselves."

Sorry this post leaves a lot to be desired. I feel like I am in a fog. Praise God for the gift and grace of suffering. Thank you Jesus.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Let Not The Son Go Down On Your Anger

 Like all families, we have our share of happy moments as well as struggles and discord. And like many families, I more often than not selectively highlight the good things while tucking the less-than-noble ones in the back corner out of sight. We all display our best side more often than not.

Last night was one of those perfect storms of frustration and anger which opened up the sky as soon as I arrived home. Feuding siblings throughout the day as well as other derailments had my wife emotionally exhausted and frustrated, nursing the sting of perceived failure as a homeschooling mom.  She started verbally unpacking everything on my lap as soon as I walked in the door at 8pm (which, to her credit, she doesn't do all that often). 

I was wrestling with my own frustrations, having just gotten out of my first class of the semester--a graduate writing class which I was initially looking forward to but now made me question the value of the entire system of higher education. I had decided to drop the class (which I was taking as a non-degree student for personal enrichment at the public university), but wanted to talk it over with my wife but who also had no bandwidth to deal with "something else" at the moment. I unloaded the groceries and we sat down at the kitchen table so she could vent about her day.

I try to be cognizant of respecting my children's right to privacy and so I don't write about them much here on this blog. Suffice it to say that as we were discussing the matter my wife's frustrations at the kitchen table were made well known, and on the tail end of my own frustrations in the classroom that evening, I contributed something to the effect of "well, at the rate he (my son) is going with school, college many not be in the cards anyway." I knew as soon as I said it, I shouldn't have (whether or not it was true or not), even if I meant it in the context that he might be better off anyway given how left-leaning the universities are. Unbeknownst to us, my son was eavesdropping in the next room and heard every word. 

We moved into damage control mode and sat him down at the dining room table, while the two of us continued to wrestle with our own feelings of failure and dejection--both with our children and with one another. We know that only a father who disciplines, loves (Heb 12:6) and so while owning what we said and standing behind it apart from the poorly-spoken comment about college (knowing he had heard every word and heard it as he was not capable of getting into college), we took away certain privileges and told him he needed to start doing his work. We exacted this punishment without a heavy hand, but were firm and for his benefit. He kept his head on the table, and said nothing but if I can surmise, all he heard in translation was "I'm bad. I'm stupid. I'm unloved." 

After he went to his room, my wife collapsed into the living room armchair and attended to various text messages that needed responding to. Not having the chance to discuss the matter, or my own day, I waited five or ten minutes for her to look up. When she didn't, and figuring she was done for the day and checked out (and as many husbands may feel, that I was going to get nothing but leftovers anyway from what little mental or emotional energy she still had left), I put on my boots and headed out for my scheduled 11pm holy hour, inadvertently slamming the door a little too hard on the way out. As I was getting in the car the front door swung open and words were...said. I pulled out and a series of texts coming from a place of frustration and hurt started hitting my phone as I was driving to the church. I ignored them, on purpose, but they seared the heart.

As I entered the chapel a half hour early, I dropped to both knees, turned off all the lights, and took a seat in the back, not feeling worthy to do so up front or even hold my head raised before the Lord.  The large stained glass of the young Virgin was illuminated by candlelight and rose up behind her Son exposed on the altar. I couldn't offer my heart on there because of not only the irreconciliation with my son, but now my wife. "So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23-24). I prayed the rosary asking for help but feeling soiled, and after a half hour or so then lay on the row of chairs and closed my eyes.

As I drifted off to sleep, an image of the Virgin materialized. She was clothed in white and lay submerged face up in water reminiscent of Hamlet's Ophelia in Sir John Everett Millais' painting of the same name. As she sat up from the sea as if from sleep, the light rose with her and her arms extended into the air as if at the Presentation. She was releasing the radiant infant Jesus from her chest into the air at a sixty degree angle. 

As the babe was assumed higher and with each cubit away from her, he aged year by year: from a baby to a boy, to a young man and then a man. All the while, he was extending his arms as if preparing to hug his mother. In the vision, the slow gravitational pull which separated him slowly from her slowed to a halt on the ascent. 

The Virgin, now separated from her child having handed him over to the Heavens, watches as two sets of arms materialize and grab the wrists of her son's extended arms. To her utter and knowing heartbreak, she sees they are not to draw him higher home, but to stake them to this earth. They stretch the right limb taunt and secure his quivering and noble hand to the plank and strike a nail, then move to do the same with to the left. The Virgin is sitting up at the waist on the surface of the sea, unmoving yet keeping her arms extended to embrace her son miles away as he suffers and cries upon the cross. But he is miles away; all she can do is watch. She presented her son as a babe at his birth to the Father in the Temple, and now witnesses him as a man embracing his destiny, writhing in full display above the distant shore. 


I rise from sleep around midnight, my arm asleep and my shoulders sore from the wood of the chairs. My 12am replacement has come to relieve me, and I make my way outside from the chapel into the cool night air. I am hungover from the gall of unforgiveness still in my heart and in the smoldering hearth of those asleep at home. We let the sun go down on our anger, and now it has set in stone for the night. I climb into an empty twin bed in one of the kid's rooms and go to sleep.

When I wake up in the morning, I make coffee and a feeble morning offering. I go to the living room, sit in the armchair; my wife comes down a half hour later, the air tense and in stalemate. Eventually things thaw slowly and we start the cold engine of communication. One by one, we rebuild the broken pillars of miscommunication, of anger, of things said and unsaid. We melt closer, forgive by exercise of the will, and get ready for the day.

When my son came down, I thought all would be well. He would be sorrowful, contrite. I waited for him at the bottom of the stairs to embrace him, make things good. But instead, it was if I was a ghost of Christmas past; invisible, not really there. There was no overt anger on his part as he rounds the corner into the kitchen...just memory. 

As the family makes lunches for the day and go over the scenes from Plutarch on the day's agenda, I feel a sense of great inversion. How many times have I ignored and turned my back in spite, brushed by the Lord on the way here and there, who waited for me there in the armchair to make all things new. And now, as the father who both sinned and was sinned against wanting to make things right but having to relinquish my son to his own timing, his own destiny, I remembered the puncturing of the Virgin of the Sea's heart watching the film of salvation history play out, alone in the theater with no one to turn to in her sorrow. I prepared my heart to accept this restitution as my family gathered their bags to leave; the home felt colder inside than out.

I set up my laptop at the kitchen table, a statue of the Virgin with outstretched arms on the bay window mantle in front of me, resigned to spend the day working under the heavy blanket of matters unhealed for the next eight hours. When I turned to get some more coffee, my son was there at my left side. "I'm sorry, dad" he said. 

"I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have said what I said." 

"It's okay. I know."

And that was that. Forgiveness exchanged, the balm of healing applied. I told him to have a good day and that I would see him when he got home. The front door, still shuttering from being slammed so forcefully last night, clicked closed quietly. The sun that had set in indignity was the same sun that rose this morning and the pall that was cast by the sower of tares had been thrown off. Even though the sun hid under the thin grey blanket of clouds and a warm January fog had set in, everything seemed white as the snow.