Friday, February 3, 2023

"Pre-Gaming Lent": How Should You Prepare for Septuagesima?


 

Mardi Gras used to be my favorite holiday of the year. It has religious significance, of course, but it was also a good chance to eat, drink, and party (and I love to party). I would always throw a few really big gatherings at my my apartment in Philly in my twenties, but Mardi Gras always took the (king) cake. I would cook all day, hit the beer distributer and liquor store, and invite co-workers, friends (Catholic and heathen alike), and people off the street to make merry. 

Ash Wednesday, then, was usually a somewhat difficult affair. A little groggy, and little headache, a little bloated...jumping from full-tilt revelry and decadence to fasting in sackcloth and ashes was Catholic, right? 

Well...kind of. We do honor the natural and liturgical cycle of feasting and fasting in the Church, but it wasn't until the past few years that I was even aware there was a "break-in" period in the traditional calendar as a three week lead up to Lent: that is, Septuagesima (Seventieth Sunday), Sexagesima (Sixtieth Sunday), and Quinquagesima (Fiftieth Sunday). 

Now, as most of you know, I am not an especially die-hard liturgical-calendar guy. But this season seems to just make sense, and the fact that it was taken out of the New Rite...well, doesn't quite make sense. But I digress.

Practically speaking, in the pre-refrigeration days, this would the be period in which you would eat down your perishables such as meat and cheese. Fat Tuesday would then be the last chance to clear the house of those things you don't want to be indulging in during the Lenten season. I'm sure others have written on the historical context in which the season was lived out.

But since I'm neither a historian nor a liturgist, I'm just going to lay out some practical offerings for potential ways to "ease in" to the Lenten season. 

Though the Church today technically only requires fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the modest prescription of "2 half meals and one full meal," many traditional Catholics will take on extra penances and fasts during this season. I used to scoff at this as being a "holier than thou" type practice. But let's face it--the post-conciliar proscription is really pretty lax. At least when you've been trying to undertake various penances already, it may seem that way.

Septuagesima, then, may be your period to 'try out' some things you may want to institute in your own life as penance during the thirty day lead up before the official start of Lent. It can always be a good way to ease into things. For instance, if you decide to fast every day during Lent, perhaps a good lead in would be to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays during the pre-lenten 30 day season. If your idea is to give up sugar or meat entirely, or something like that, maybe restrict what sugary things or meat you eat during this period by half, or every other day, without going too nuts about it. 

What's nice is during this period, such mortifications are voluntary and not bound under pain of sin. 

But more importantly is to really enter into the season of somber reflection and preparing the manger of the heart by clearing away the dung and dust. Of course, Confession is an excellent way to kick this off with an infusion of grace. I was thankful to have gone yesterday, and feel ready now to start peeling away those vices and imperfections more intentionally by kicking off on the right foot. 

I'm not going to share what I am 'giving up', but I will say that I do plan to add some more spiritual reading, some extra time at adoration, and focusing on my speech and being more charitable and generous. It helps to have a plan beforehand, rather than just deciding your voluntary penances the night before. Septuagesima gets you 'in the zone' to have a fruitful penitential season. Remember the three pillars of Lent: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. And that this is not a time of self-improvement (at least not directly), but of repentance, searching our hearts, making amends, and growing closer to the Lord in the desert. 

My Lents have traditionally been hit or miss, but a big part of that was not really preparing as well ahead of time. The three weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday are your chance to do just that, so that when you do "get them ashes" the ground is already plowed, turned over, and watered to accept the seed of the Gospel. Make good use of this time, for you know not the hour of your death!

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Your Catholic Bubble


A few years ago I used to do street evangelization, which is just what it sounds like. I would set up with one of two other people on a busy street corner in town, put out a "Need Prayer? Catholic TRUTH!" sign, and hand out rosaries and Miraculous Medals trying to "fish for men." If people weren't Catholic, we'd ask them if they ever thought about the Faith. If they were Catholic, we'd ask where they attended Mass. If they didn't, we'd invite them to come home. Conveniently, we were set up only a block or two from the local parish we were attending at the time as a family.

It was hard work, honestly. Like my morning cold shower, it's uncomfortable to do this work and I never really looked forward to it. At the same time, it always gave you a kind of adrenaline rush and when the hour or two was over, you always felt somewhat elated. This was despite the constant rejection and being ignored, and despite the fact that the work of evangelization seemed so futile.

One of the highlights, though, was seeing the parishioners I recruited to help in this endeavor face their fears and hesitations and who subsequently experienced the 'rush' of the Holy Spirit in getting out of their comfort zone. They had never felt that telling people about the Kingdom of God was part of their calling as Catholics. "I've never done anything like this before!" they would marvel. It was really neat to see.

Catholics can get pretty comfortable in their safe spaces, which may be at Mass amidst like-minded people of the same faith, in our friend circles among other Catholics where we all speak the same language, in our mom's groups and men's groups where we take solace in our similarities. But we were not made for comfort, as Pope Benedict XVI famously said.

One tough thing about the street evangelization for me personally was when it came to situations in which someone was open to returning to Mass--where should they go? It was about this time I was becoming more uncomfortable with the antics in the Novus Ordo, and was being drawn to the Latin Mass. Almost every neighborhood parish was a mixed bag--if you sent an inquiry to one parish, he might be subjected to this or that awful RCIA program, a feminized liturgy, or just general lukewarmness--and then they may never go back. I suppose that is really in God's hands ultimately.

I had to leave the local street evangelization apostolate I started at that parish when we moved over to the Latin Mass at a different church. But there's a part of me that wants to get back to it, if anything for the discomfort and sense of exposure it entails. And if anything, now I have a solid parish to bring people into should they want to take the next steps to 'come and see' what the Mass is all about in its full glory. 

But there is also a part of me that feels that there's the potential to just trade problems. The vast majority of people at our parish are wonderful, and I think the online tradosphere skews the picture of TLMers as "rad trads" or "mad trads" or whatever the term is these days. But I also think there is a tendency to see the bubble that we are in (less than 2% of Catholic parishes in the U.S. are TLM parishes I believe?) as the be all end all. We get worked up about Pope Francis and this or that scandal or abuse in the Church or this or that nonsense coming out of Rome and have tunnel vision about it. When the fact of the matter is, almost 3/4 of the Catholic populace are not even aware of the restrictions on the Latin Mass

One of the things I do find somewhat tiresome about traditional Catholicism (and which I fall into myself) is critiquing everything outside this tunnel-vision. We get riled up about the minutia of liturgical rubrics, minoring in the majors, and this can fly when you are in your bubble. When you are speaking about evangelization and making disciples, though, I think Dale Carnegie has a good point here:

"Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment. …. Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.

When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.

The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it."  

(How to Win Friends and Influence People)


I have always taken to heart what St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, 


"Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall." (1 Cor 8:9-13)


His concern for the weakness of the brethren is moving, because it shows true charity and self-deference. I think in our zeal and love for the traditional Mass we can fall victim to this critical spirit which is looking for the wrong in everything outside of it (and even within it). Bad news sells, of course, and good news is often ignored or brushed off. 

How much of traditional Catholicism is love of the traditional Mass (which I have), and how much is the association with those of (traditional) like mind--e.g., our Catholic bubble? It's this second part that has me rethinking; am I simply getting too comfortable not being challenged? Am I really doing the work God is calling me and my family to? This doesn't mean leaving the TLM or the parish, but not getting so comfortable that we cling to it and sequester ourselves in it. I think it's natural to do that--just like it's natural to want to take a warm shower every morning. 

Don't take this as a criticism but as a challenge--to do the hard work, the uncomfortable work, the work that exposes you to the world and all it's messiness, the work that needs to be done and not simply what we prefer to do. That will look different for everyone, as St. Paul says, "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers" (Eph 4:11).

There is still a lot of "normie" work to be done--care for poor and sick, outreach, teaching and catechesis, evangelization, witness. I hate to say it, but the Traditional Latin Mass is not all there is. To the extent that we neglect the other yokes of discipleship to stay comfortable in the walls of a church with our various devotionals and accoutrements (good as they are) is to be like the brother who says to the Father, "I will go" into the vineyard to work...and never goes.

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Last Pillar


If there is any testament to the work of grace, it is that people remain in the Catholic Church. 

Now, if one comes at this from a strictly sociological perspective, one could argue that it is not grace that keeps one in the Church, but a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. This phenomenon occurs when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers and develop psychological connections over the course of the days, weeks, months, or even years of captivity or abuse and may come to sympathize with their captors. Then, even if one had the opportunity to escape, they may choose to stay instead.

Or, if one were to think of the faith as a "job" of sorts, why would one pledge loyalty to such a dysfunctional institution which is both spiritually and financially in the red, with a CEO that is cold and vindictive, where one lives under threat of being "canceled" at any moment? Is it cognitive dissonance to continue to devote one's life and talent to a post-conciliar Church which, as my friend Boniface aptly points out, flees from its call not because it fears failure, but because it fears success

This simple statement is perhaps the only one which makes sense to me at this point. Why else would we as the laity have our hands slapped for daring to proselytize, being gaslit with confusion for having the audacity to believe what the Church professes, or threatened with eradication by possessing the gall of desiring our spiritual and liturgical patrimony? If a secular company was abusing its employees and constantly shooting itself in the foot, hemorrhaging accounts and failing to grow capital, having company meetings modeled of this laughable "synodality" model, it would find itself six feet under at the end of the fiscal year. The Church is dysfunctional, inept, and rife with corruption. And yet She survives. Why?

When I reflect on Mother Teresa's words, "God has called us not to be successful, but to be faithful," I am in the habit of attributing that message to our individual lives as Christians. But perhaps it applies to the Church as a whole as well. Granted, the Church is not a business or an IPO, and the more She entangles herself with these worldly endeavors, the more She loses sight of her mission which is (or at least, should be) the salvation of souls. 

It's embarrassing to be a on a losing team. Look how the Pentecostals are swallowing up Latin America. Look how the Orthodox are manly and have liturgical integrity. Look how the Muslims are outbreeding the infidels. Why haven't we cut our losses and switched up sides when it's so obvious how limp wristed and socially retarded the Church of today is?

Unlike Protestants, we cannot think of our faith outside of the institutional Church. For better or worse we are wedded to the Bride of Christ as members of His body, that bride to whom He has consummated his very self in a divine covenant. Without the Bread of Life, we risk dying of hunger. Without the waters of baptism, we have no share in His inheritance. Without Confession, we are liars (1 Jn 1:8). 

The other day I was reading from the ninth chapter of Ezekiel. It's like something out of a horror movie:

Then I heard him call out in a loud voice, “Bring near those who are appointed to execute judgment on the city, each with a weapon in his hand.” And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. With them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar.

Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”

As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the old men who were in front of the temple.

Then he said to them, “Defile the temple and fill the courts with the slain. Go!” So they went out and began killing throughout the city. While they were killing and I was left alone, I fell facedown, crying out, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel in this outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?”

He answered me, “The sin of the people of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of injustice. They say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land; the Lord does not see.’ So I will not look on them with pity or spare them, but I will bring down on their own heads what they have done.”

Then the man in linen with the writing kit at his side brought back word, saying, “I have done as you commanded.”


In this passage, only those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things done in the temple will be marked and spared. As Abraham negotiated with Yahweh in Genesis 18 over the fate of Sodom ("Will you wipe away the righteous with the wicked?"), he realizes he may lose the bargain if the terms are set at fifty righteous men. He talks the Lord down to ten--if ten righteous men can be found, the Lord will relent. And he still loses the wager, and Sodom is burned up in the Lord's wrath. Lot is a man who laments the wickedness of the perverts who visit his house; he is marked, and escapes the destruction.

The angels of the Lord are brandishing their knives. The words of the Baptist as well serve as warning, "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." This winnowing is a separation of the empty husks from the grain of the wheat--the wheat is tossed in the air and the chaff is blown away, while the grain falls and is collected. The grace of God is present in this refinement and striping down of all things until only the pure ore of faith remains. Anything we are holding on tightly to will be ripped from our hands in exchange for the passover mark. 

Our attachment to the Church as we know it will be stripped from us. This may be the shuttering of our local parish where we had our children baptized and family marriages. Or it may simply be the illusions we have that the Church as a whole is committed to its mission of saving souls, or our affinity for this or that Holy Father. 

Our attachment to the identity of being Catholic as we know it will be stripped from us. Those of us who enjoyed the good name of a respected cultural affiliation will now find ourselves religious minorities as true believers, like Jews wandering in Egypt. 

Our attachment to the Sacraments and the Holy Mass, which we have for so long taken for granted, will be stripped from us. We may find ourselves parched and spiritually adrift for periods of time, and lament how many times we could have gone to Mass and didn't, or confessed our sins to a priest, and didn't. 

Our attachment to the comfort of our country as we know it and the "religious liberty" we hold dear will be stripped from us. We may find ourselves as lambs among wolves, believers among pagans. Even so-called "conservative" idols we have set up and mingled with our faith will be smashed and burned.

Our attachment to our particular faith communities will be stripped from us. As our little Catholic bubbles pop, we may find ourselves in a dark night of loneliness, in which those we broke bread with leave the faith, or fail to be there for us in our times of need, or simply let us down. "Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me" (Ps 41:9)

Our attachment to our celebrity idols, those online talking heads and commentators feeding us with opinion after opinion on this or that, will be stripped from us. The plug will be pulled, and we will find ourselves in the proverbial dark--with no one to turn to for advice or guidance, we will have to learn to trust in the dark and take responsibility for our own decisions. "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb 10:31). 

Eventually, the whole temple of our Church, our community, our country, our identity, our pious clothes, our idols--it will all be torn in two, until not one stone will be left standing upon another (Mt 24:2) until one only thing is left for our faith to cling to, and that is Christ alone. Let it be a rebuke you take to heart for the salvation of your soul. This is the great and terrible grace of God working--that same grace that keeps us in the baroque of Peter despite all temptations to jump ship, despite all the abuse, the embarrassment of the hierarchy. Because it is not the Pope who steers the ship, nor the cardinals, nor your local priest, but CHRIST ALONE who commands our faith. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31).

I am not Catholic because it's rewarding, or edifying, or encouraging, or conservative, or fun, or inclusive. I am Catholic because I have become a slave--not of the Church, not of the Pope, not of my community--but of Christ. And were it not for the grace of Christ, I would not remain. When everything is crumbling around you, the last pillar standing is Christ, in whom I have my faith. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

"50 Years of Marching": A Sober Reflection From The Trenches By A Veteran 'Lifer'

The following are the reflections of a good friend of mine who has tirelessly devoted her life to ending abortion--on the sidewalk, outside the mills, in the statehouses, with advocacy and witness. As I have never been to the March for Life (for a myriad of reasons, none of which are relevant here), and as someone whose own contributions to pro-life work pale in comparison to her own, I asked her what she thought about it. This is her reply (published with permission):


"I went on the first March for Life in 1974 with my parents while in high school. I continued to go during  high school, then while in college, also while a teacher back in Delaware and then as a board member of Delaware Right to Life, where  I organized the annual trip for almost 20 years.  I’ve missed very few Marches for Life.  


I’ve seen the event morph from a grass-roots protest against abortion with exclusively home-made signs and wall to wall people from all over the U.S., to a media event complete with live music, celebrity-status speakers (instead of a row of uncomfortable-looking bishops) Jumbo-trons, and a celebratory atmosphere that promotes “consensus.”  


Because there were zero activist options for pro-lifers until the rescue movement started in the late 80’s, I, like everyone else, made my annual pilgrimage and figured I had fulfilled my duty to help end abortion. 15 years of marching yielded only more speakers and longer delays to starting the March, slick, pre-printed signs whose messages grew every more syrupy, and a strong propensity towards hero-worship of politicians who did nothing to end abortion but talk about it.  15 years of “Hey, hey, ho, ho; Roe v. Wade has got to go!”  shouted by teenagers who largely disappeared from sight, sound, mind and body at March’s end.


I grew disenchanted with the slavish reliance on politicians (and Supreme Court judges) as potential saviors.  I also resented the Catholic clergy who swooped in on their capes for the photo ops and swooped back out, never to march, only to spread those capes over the Church’s gaping sin of omission before making a speedy exit.  I breathed open contempt at the politicians who left town the day of the March so they wouldn’t have to meet with us.  “Lobbying” legislators after the March was replaced by  pints at the Dubliner’s Pub, just down the street.  We lost our purpose, our rag-tag zeal, and our desire to change the status quo. We didn’t see that abortion was hardening us, too.   


The Rescue Movement that lasted from 1988-92 gave the first real glimmer of hope that something besides a political savior or Supreme Court decision could bring an end to abortion.  Housewives, teens, older folks, and everyone in between stopped abortion simply by sitting down in front of abortion clinics, sometimes 10 people deep.  Courage and conviction swelled and then was crushed by vicious politicians who enacted FACE and RICO laws to target the protesters with steep fines and jail time.  Clinton’s executive orders, signed on his first day in office in 1992, are still in effect.


The Happy Pro-Life movement emerged, looking to find “common ground.”  The new millennium saw ever-increasing numbers at the March for Life, as celebrity speakers and Christian rock bands took the stage.  There was (and is) an increasing tendency to compromise principles.  Nellie Gray’s “Life Principles” which demanded no exception, no compromise were already on shaky ground before her death in 2012, with a slew of regulatory laws on the books (such as the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, 2002, and the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, 2003).  That these laws were routinely ignored by the pro-abortion community and unenforced by any regulatory agencies was never discussed by pro-lifers.  And still they marched and the March became a huge social event, a place to catch up with people, spot “famous” pro-lifers, and yes, still go home and tick off your duty to the unborn for the year.


The apotheosis came with President Donald Trump’s appearance of at the March in 2020.  The crowd was jubilant and enormous.  The speeches drew the expected adulation and a million cell phones captured the moment.  And that is what the March for Life has become – a social media virtual reality event.  It requires no discomfort beyond standing in the cold for one day.  It demands nothing of the participants once they get back on the busses and leave DC. but that they post their pictures.  


We have marched for 50 years and not only has nothing changed; it has gotten worse.  We entirely neglected to consider the cumulative effects of child-killing on the general populace and as I stated earlier, we, like so many proponents of abortion, have become hard.  Roe has been reversed but the state laws taking its place are far worse.  They reflect the implanted evil that Roe has spread in its time, an evil that has taken over the culture.  


No protest march at the state capitols is going to reverse this trend.  


No state law banning abortion or heartbeat law will make a whit of difference when abortion pills are available through the mail and at your local pharmacy and Abortion Funds are willing to transport women to another state for a surgical abortion.  


No marches anywhere are going to change a society that doesn’t want to be changed; it wants its child murder as much as it wants its pornography and drugs.  It is addicted to decadence.  And we who are fighting it are addicted to comfort.


The only thing that will change the lust for death in this country is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith, the triumphant return of Christ the King into the hearts of men.  But that Church is as fragmented and demented right now as the society it serves.  It, too, has lost its way.  A small Church militant is rising, but the future is uncertain.  


It comes down to being willing to suffer and die for our beliefs.  


It’s a lot to ask."  

-------------

*See also my post 10 Nov 2021 post People Want Abortion and 17 Dec 2021 post The New Art of War


Thursday, January 19, 2023

If You Don't Flee, You're Going To Fall


 Sexual temptation should scare the hell out of a married man. There is a reason why St. Paul says there should not be even a hint of sexual immortality among the brethren (Eph 5:3), and that even a little leaven (of false teaching) works its way through the whole dough (Gal 5:9). Once you open that door, it's hard to shut. 

We have a conscience for a reason, and it should be well-formed. When it is, you know when certain actions are appropriate or inappropriate. We cannot always avoid temptation from besieging us, but we can use prudence to discern the situations we put ourselves in. Even then, the mind does not always rest. Thoughts and temptations that enter the mind that are not accented to are not sins, but temptations. And temptations are to be resisted. "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." (Ja 4:7)

Or are they? In his second letter to Timothy, St. Paul notes that we should be the ones fleeing such temptations and desires: "Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." (2 Tim 2:22). 

So, when does one stand and resist the Devil, and when does one recognize that their best defense is to flee? 

When it comes to sexual temptation, we only have the upper hand insofar as we refuse to engage the temptation, whether in thought or action. Once the seed has taken root--and that may be lingering a few seconds too long on an image or memory, or purposefully knowing where to look or who to call, etc--it is slippery, wily, seductive...and much more difficult to leave alone. In this case, the best course of action is to flee the scene, as Joseph did from his master's wife (Gen 39:7-9). 

When we pause to entertain the possibility, even for a split second, we have the potential to lose our resolve. In fact, because of concupiscence, it is not that we hate what offends God, but that we are in fact attracted to it, pulled by it! The fruit of sensuality is sweet and intoxicating, and keeps temperance smothered in a nearby closet as it speaks. A man is undone by his member. 

It's not only our members, though, that will cause us to fall. It starts with the eye, the window to the soul. And even before that, thoughts arise from the mind. If I am entertaining memories of wistful times with an ex-girlfriend during the doldrums of my marriage, eventually that split second of thought turns to two. The next thing I know, my heart rate is up, I'm excited, discontent with the present and maybe even looking them up online, "just out of curiosity." Then you have situations like this, which are more common than you might think:

"Karen* was just going about her day when she logged into her Facebook account and saw a private message from Richard*. They casually dated back in high school and he wanted to catch up.

"At the first email contact," says the married mother of three, "he was a completely insignificant person from my high school past."

After weeks of exchanging emails and catching up with each other on life experiences, Karen asked Richard to call her. When she hung up the phone after an hour-and-a-half chat, Karen’s world came crashing down.

"By the time we ended that first call," Karen says, "I was sobbing because I knew I was in deep trouble with an attraction to him and realized [my] marriage was in deeper trouble than I had admitted to myself."

Her husband accused her of unfaithfulness by having these conversations and developing these feelings. She insisted she was driven to these conversations out of feeling emotionally stunted in the marriage. Although Karen and Richard never met face-to-face, her 16-year marriage eventually came to an end."


I actually had an incident come up in the past year which was maybe innocuous, but had the potential to defray. A female friend from college had reached out to me via LinkedIn because she had seem one of my articles. I hadn't spoken with her for years, so it was kind of exciting to reconnect, since she was a faithful Catholic as well. I gave her my number and told her to give me a call sometime. 

It was nice to catch up about the faith and our current lives, and she asked if it could be a weekly phone conversation. I was okay with a one-off conversation, and even a follow up one, but this felt a little...dangerous to me. Although there was a part of me that liked the idea, and I could kind of rationalize that it was innocent enough because we were talking about religious things, and she was in a different part of the country, the part of me that wasn't comfortable with it was enough to cast doubt on the wisdom of such engagement. If I continued on, I would be hiding it from my wife. So I brought it up to her (my wife), and deduced I would have to just be frank with my friend and tell her I couldn't continue with these kinds of conversations, innocent as they were. My wife concurred. I had to run away.

After I told my friend I couldn't have regular conversations with her, I didn't hear from her again, and that is probably for the best. I'm both a weak man and a naive one, and that's not a great combination. Were I to "resist" these attractions while still subjecting myself to them, the potential to be undone by them would be ever present. Best to just flee the scene, even if it is embarrassing or gruff. Apart from my faith, my marriage is the most important thing in my life. Even a hint of threat to it is too much. 

If your conscience is well formed, you know when there is a threat. I do have female friends who I speak with, but my wife knows them, and we have an "open phone/computer" policy. When my conscience tells me I have nothing to hide, I am at peace. But when I get that sneaky feeling, like "I don't want my wife to see this," that's a red flag. That's when you throw fire on that flame, stomp it out asap or run away like a little girl. Embarrassment or losing your coat is a small price to pay for a clean conscience. 

We do need to resist the Devil, so that he will flee from us, as St. James says. We don't need to be afraid of him when we are cloaked in the mantle of the Lord and our Lady. 

But we need to be smart--sometimes digging our heels in and fighting is not the best tactic. Fight when you need to fight, run when you need to run, and learn in prayer when to know the difference. Keep everything in the light, keep nothing secret from your spouse. The moment you start to feel excitement, tingling, anticipation, etc at the prospect of something that has the potential to turn into sin, you are playing with fire. And fire can spread quickly, and get out of control before you realize what's going on. 

Our first parents were not overtaken by brute strength in the garden, but a smooth tongue. And we are still paying the price of that fall. Don't make the same mistake! "Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths" (Prov 3:5-6).

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Have All The Babies

 Note: This is a repost from June 2021. It's my youngest's birthday today. We celebrated with Chinese food, a DIY obstacle course, and a homemade Spiderman cake. My wife was 43 when he was born five years ago--a miracle of sorts...our second-chance miracle of grace. We've made peace with the likely reality that we will not have any more children. I'm trying to take in the noise, the mess, and the crawling in between us in our bed. Because the fact is, each passing day erases a little bit of the childhoods under our roof the way a sand dune gets eroded a little bit each year. In five years, my oldest will be driving. In time, our house will be clean and quiet. But that makes me sad, truth be told. 

The self-serving trend towards millennials choosing a child-free life (and 77% reportedly being happy with the "freedom" gained by doing so) doesn't bode well for our future. A quote from the film Children of Men that stayed with me was when Kee's midwife reflects on the beginning of the infertility crisis in 2009, when people stopped getting pregnant and giving birth. "As the sound of the playgrounds faded," she said, "the despair set in. Very odd what happens in a world without children's voices."

Anyway, here's the repost:


 I don't give advice very often, but if anyone in their twenties or thirties was anxious about having kids and wanted my opinion, I would tell them at this point, "just have all the babies."

The concerns are always understandable--for me early in my career, when I wasn't making much money and we were juggling a lot and at our wits end with our two, it can be tempting to not be so open minded (and open-ended). This is the faulty promise of contraception, that you can "be done" and just get on with your life without the constant worry and anxiety that comes with being open to life.

But where does this anxiety come from in the first place? The contraceptive mentality is so prevalent in our culture it's like the air you breath or the water you drink. New life is a barrier to autonomy; it throws things off, wrecks best laid plans, causes financial hardship, and generally makes life harder. 

Is that such a bad thing? Satan wanted to be autonomous, loosed from the bonds of the Divine. Yes, new kids "throws things off," and sometimes upends our best laid plans--but when I think of the 'best laid plans' I have laid for myself and what God has put in their place, I'm constantly reminded that I don't always know what's best for me. Do kids cause financial hardship? Sometimes they do. Life is hard to begin with, but sometimes the hardest things bring out something good in us that wouldn't otherwise if we weren't pushed to trust that it's worth it. 

Babies are not a threat--they are pure gift, and the reason we all exist in the first place. We seem to have forgotten this. We don't "live to procreate," but take having babies out of the picture and it wouldn't be long before we all die out (see Children of Men). Underpopulation, not overpopulation, seems to be more a threat today in many countries thanks to the scar of contraception and may lead many countries to a demographic winter where there is no easy turning course on.

But no one has babies purely because they want to "save the planet." Some people do, however, choose not to have them because they "don't want to bring children into this world" or are fear-mongered into thinking they are being "irresponsible" by doing so or consuming "too many resources." 

I was talking to a mom at our fellowship get together on Wednesday at our house, and she mentioned that St. Alphonsus' Uniformity With God's Will (which we were studying and reflecting on during the course of the evening) felt kind of over her head. I told her that's ok, in scripture St. Paul says that women are saved through childbirth. "I've never read that," she said, with a bit incredulously. "Yep. First Timothy 2:15," I told her, and we looked it up. "Well, I'll be," she replied. "So take heart," I said, "You're doing great!"

The fact is, we are all saved through childbirth. Abortion and contraception introduce nothing but disorder, throwing a monkey-wrench into God's divine plan for happiness and salvation for mankind. This is not to speak of those who want children and can not have them (by way of infertility, for instance), but the decision to delay or prevent children for the sake of the things of this world and our short-sighted plans is, in my opinion, regrettable. I can say without doubt that as a father, "the children have made the man." The notion of sacrifice and protection is wired into us as men, but becoming a father organically taps into those primal characteristics and brings them to fruition. 

The Catholic plan for life is to be generous in regards to life. Some people do in fact have grave reasons to abstain through the use of NFP, but one should dig deep to look starkly at those reasons and discern their gravity. God is not trying to shortchange us--He wants to fill our cups to overflowing with the choicest wine. I think that children are that wine. Can they be overwhelming, taxing, hard to deal with? Sure. Are they worth it? You bet. 

I wish we would have been more open to life earlier in our marriage. Who knows how much more we would have been blessed. We changed course a little late, but God is good all the time, and we still pray that He might use us as His instruments to bring saints into the world. They can't do the work if they are not born. Who knows--you might be the soul they save in the end.

So have all the babies. It's my one regret in life, that we haven't had more. But we trust Him still. Listen to our Lord, "Fear not, for I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33). Some of the richest people in the world are the most alone and unhappy. But for those rich in children, who may not have much but you trust that God wants them here--"You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us" (1 Cor 4:8).



Saturday, January 14, 2023

Big Tech Is The Next Big Tobacco


When I was in high school in the mid-90's, we would hit the local Perkins on a Friday night and order bottomless thermoses of coffee and smoke at our booths inside. Same for college--my dorm had a designated lounge (replete with commercial air filter) where we would hang out, pack tubes with Top tobacco on a little machine, and chain smoke. After college, some of the (dive) bars in Philly you could still smoke in, though others were starting to make you step outside.

Nowadays, I know very few people who smoke analog cigarettes. I don't think it's just my age. I work on a college campus, and I see very few students smoking either. It's just not cool. Vaping isn't really that widespread either, though. Most of the people I do see smoking tobacco are lower socio-economic class, and they're not doing it to be cool, but because they are addicted, and maybe it is one of the few precious things they can look forward to on break from their shift or whatever. 

I predict social media in all its forms is going to follow a similar trajectory. Myspace and Facebook were fun and interactive 15 years ago. People are starting to feel the dis-ease now, though, if they haven't already. They don't derive the same pleasure from it, find themselves wasting inordinate amounts of time on various platforms, realize their mental health and productivity is being negatively impacted; also, it's not really novel or cool anymore. The people who remain on it are eventually going to be like those shift workers smoking in the dirty alleys outside the restaurant or at the bus stop.

And I'm not even talking about this platform or that app in particular. I'm talking about an existence of perpetual connectivity in general. Those in big tech obviously engineered smartphones and social media apps to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities. They don't let their own kids use it. The addiction is not an incidental; it is inherent. Cal Newport thinks that handing your kids a smartphone today is the same as handing them a pack of cigarettes. We were all guinea pigs in this massive social experiment. But all it takes is a few kids in the class to simply say, "Nah," to swing the pendulum. Suddenly being a neo-Luddite is nouveau riche

In the movie Idiocracy where a man of average IQ is suddenly the smartest guy in the world because everyone else has been so dumbed down, he only seems to be by comparison. Likewise, those who unplug from the Big Tech matrix and do adopt more neo-Luddite sensibilities regarding technology will eventually find themselves having better concentration, increased memory, sharper focus, less anxiety, being comfortable with boredom and solitude, and not being ruled by compulsion to the point that it will appear to be a superpower

I'm of the generation where I remember a time before internet, cell phones. I remember those times fondly. For the younger generation, though, it is complete existential paradigm shift, and just as existentially scary. We can't necessarily "go back" completely or put the big tech genie back in the bottle as a society--but why not at least try for a pro-scripted amount of time on an individual level and let the data speak for itself. Say, maybe, forty days? 

Lent is just around the corner, after all. 

Friendship Is Always Conditional


 

One of the hardest pills for me to swallow in my adult life has been that none of my friends will be there with me through thick and thin, when things get ugly and I get ugly. No one will be with me to the bitter end. One of the hardest pills to swallow is that friendship is always conditional. 

I have always struggled with this, from high school on. Maybe I was spoiled by a family and parents that loved me unconditionally, even at my very worst. In an ideal world, we would have friends stand by us even when we change, when we do unconscionable things. In reality, I have not found this to be the case. 

And maybe for right reason. Employers don't like pension funds because they put them on the financial liability hook to their employees for life. Is it reasonable for them to incur that risk when people are living longer, and markets are volatile? Maybe not. 

Likewise, maybe my idea of people that will not distance themselves when you become a public embarrassment or a ghoul or a Democrat or an apostate is not reasonable. Maybe the conditional logic and clauses are the appropriate response: we are friends as long as you are Catholic. As long as you don't commit a crime. As long as I still like hanging out with you. As long as you don't get weird.

I've made and lost a lot of friends over the years. Very, very few people will stand by you when you are being crucified. If that's the case, these are the "friendships of utility" in which a quid pro quo unspoken understanding is that we have permission to peel off when we are not being fed by the other, or finding a lack of common bond as things change over the years. 

Again, I think this is just a matter of misplaced expectation. I don't have a friend in my life who has pledged to be there for me unconditionally, nor have I been that friend to others. It's a catch 22, isn't it? When we are younger, we do not have the virtue to be concerned about the ultimate good of another, but are concerned mostly with the emotive and utility (benefits) of the friendship. 

Yet, as we age and acquire virtue, the opportunities to develop true friendships--whether utilitarian or those based on the good--wane. Aristotle considered friendship a virtue, and "necessary for life." Whereas in the modern world, however, we get set in our ways, have families and work obligations, and most men simply deduce that friends are a luxury one can do without. 

Given that a true friendship founded on the good of the other requires trust, intimacy, virtue, self-deference, and vulnerability, it becomes like a needle in a haystack trying to find a male friend to which we can confide and bear burdens for. I'm obviously precluded from seeking such friendships with those of the opposite sex. And among those of my own, it can be very difficult to come by a man willing to enter into something like this. 

Realizing that I will probably never have a true friendship based in filial love and virtue to the level in which I would like is, as I said, a tough pill for me to swallow. Like realizing you'll never be a pro basketball player, or that you'll never do great things in your career. I feel foolish for waking up to it so late. So now it's a matter of adjusting expectations and coming to terms, in a kind of dark night, that maybe unconditional friendship really just is a luxury we are simply not afforded on this side of eternity. 

Friday, January 13, 2023

Right Speech: Charitable, Necessary, True

 We usually think of self-discipline in terms of the body--exercising, fasting, not indulging every whim of fancy. But I find the hardest discipline I've undertaken so far this year has been the discipline of the tongue.

In trying to be more conscious of my speech (which includes texting communication) and making 'every word count,' I find that I really need to be more deliberate and mindful when it comes to this practice. It is more instinctual to just spout off a barrage of words to fill the sometimes-awkward silence. I'm still working on it, and it definitely is not an overnight process. 

What helps is taking a brief pause before speaking, and hitting three check points that I've established for myself (probably borrowed from somewhere) to evaluate. We don't tend to emphasize "right speech" or "mindful speech" as much in Christianity as some of the Eastern traditions, which is fine but I find there is untapped potential in regulating our speech and paying attention to it more than we do. 

It's not unprecedented to do so, either. Paul lays out lays out a similar framework of good conduct in speech in his letter to the Ephesians:

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph 4:25-32)


And so, my three 'checkpoints' before a word passes through customs and goes out into the world are as follows:


Is it Charitable?

"Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." 

Charity wills the good of another. But our speech is often self-indulgent. We seek to build up ourselves, make ourselves look good, paying no mind to the needs of our neighbors or even giving them an opportunity to speak themselves. Part of charity in right speech is listening, as well as affirming. 

But charity can also encompass admonishment, when another can benefit from having his bubble of ignorance popped, for instance, or when one needs to be called to the mat for something. It is not always flattery or dripping words of praise. It must be motivated by love of neighbor, and we typically know when we are or are not being led by love. 


Is it Necessary?

"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

Not everything that comes into one's head needs to be spoken. We use words carelessly as filler, like breadcrumbs in a meatloaf. We choke the air with many needless words, scaring off the dove from the branch of silence in which the Holy Spirit builds a nest. Silence is unnerving for many people. 

It's a simple test, and it has been effective at least for me to keep from unnecessarily texting to fill a void: you simply ask yourself "does this need to be said right now, and if so, what purpose does it serve?" As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm not taking a vow of silence, but trying to cull my words and texts by 75% so that only what is needed is communicated. It takes a LOT of practice, and intentionality. I find myself stopping as I'm whipping out my phone to consciously ask myself that very question. Nine times out of ten, what I want to say does not really need to be said. 

I do make exceptions with my own immediate family (my wife and children), though I'm hoping that the practice outside of that sphere rub off there as well.  


Is it True?

"Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body." 

We really need to be mindful of "speaking the truth in love," as scripture says. When we cull the unnecessary filler of words, there is more potency to truth when it is spoken and not clouded by dross and packaging. This means not lying, of course, but also "assuming the best" in others (which I am terrible with) and not exhibiting rash judgment. We may be tempted to tell someone off (which may or may not be true or warranted), but if it is not motivated by charity, it is probably left unsaid. 


So, all three conditions should be met before speaking or communicating with a brother or sister, whether pagan or in Christ, for our speech to be holy and worthy. The world doesn't need any more filler. What it needs is true, necessary charity.



Tuesday, January 10, 2023

No, You Don't "Need" A Spiritual Director


About six months ago I was invited to consider joining an online apostolate focused on advancing in the interior life. This organization was doing good work in the realm of offering community (albeit, 'virtually'), orthodox resources, retreats, and opportunities for spiritual direction. It seemed right up my alley. Until recently, I was active in the online community and had gone on a couple retreats, and had attended a few bi-weekly meetings via Zoom. I even had a brief pro-bono phone session with a priest who served as a bonafide spiritual director; after waiting three months to speak with him, I was given some refreshingly basic advice to do at least twenty minutes of mental prayer a day, and stay in a state of grace. 

Ultimately, though, I found this community wasn't for me, more for personal reasons than anything having to do with the apostolate itself, and I ended up deleting my profile.

For one thing, it was predominated by women. As a forty-something year old married father of three who deleted all my social media a couple years ago, I just didn't feel like "discussing" "spiritual" topics ad nauseum on the message boards was necessarily deepening my prayer life or the best use of my time. Fr. Ripperger made mention in a talk recently that women reportedly derive ten times the amount of pleasure from talking/conversing/discussing than men do. I found that interesting.

I also found myself uncomfortable with the perhaps unconscious message that I would be hindered from making significant progress in the interior life apart from such a community, who seem to have "cornered the spiritual market" and set themselves up as experts in the interior life. Again, this is an admirable organization for helping people in this regard, if it in fact deepens their sacramental and prayer life. I just didn't find that was the case for me, personally. I also maintain that while they may serve a purpose, online communities are not real communities due to the lack of accountability and encounter.

I continue to do twenty minutes of mental prayer daily, attend daily Mass when I can, read scripture and spiritual classics, daily rosary, weekly holy hour, monthly Confession, periodic fasting, engage in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and avoid mortal sin at all costs. For me, this is the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Silly) approach. I figure if I exercise the will as best I can, God will supply the grace and give me what I need to grow closer to him in divine intimacy.  It's not like I'm dwelling in the advanced interior castles of divine union here. 

It's not that I think spiritual direction is unnecessary; I'm simply piloting my own boat by necessity.  Since I am no expert in navigating the interior life myself, and since my only guide at this point is the writings of the saints, the Scripture and Magisterium, and the Holy Spirit, I'm sure I could benefit from periodic spiritual direction.

The problem, as most ardent Catholics know, is that trained Spiritual Directors are not easy to come by. The ones who solicit directees are suspect by the very fact that they desire the role, and the solid priests and religious who reluctantly take on custody of souls are usually few and far between, with demand for their counsel far outstripping supply. 

It's not that for lack of trying, either. I've had a variety of spiritual directors in the past--from a heterodox Jesuit, to a pay-per-visit Augustinian, to a cloistered Trappist, to a monk a two hour drive from my house, it's been a mixed bag of experience. I've come to the conclusion at this point that the relationship between spiritual director and directee is such a weighty one soteriologically speaking, that I would rather have no spiritual director than have one who gives bad spiritual direction. 

In The Dignities and Duties of the Priest, St. Alphonsus quotes saint after saint on the terrible burden of ordination. I would apply these quotes to any would-be Spiritual Directors who take on the custody and direction of souls as well:

"St. Cyprian said, that all those that had the true spirit of God were, when compelled to take the order of priesthood, seized with fear and trembling, as if they saw an enormous weight placed on their shoulders, by which they were in danger of being crushed to death.

"I see," said St. Cyril of Alexandria, "all the Saints frightened at the sacred ministry, as at an immense charge."

St. Epiphanius writes, that he found no one willing to be ordained a priest. A Council held in Carthage ordained that they that were thought worthy, and refused to be ordained, might be compelled to become priests. 

St. Gregory Nazianzen says: "No one rejoices when he is ordained priest."”

 

To address this short supply of, and overwhelming demand for spiritual direction, lay people (again, largely women) have sought to undergo some form of training or certification to become "spiritual directors." I would have to agree with Patrick Madrid here, however, that except in certain rare exceptions, lay people are simply not qualified or competent to serve as spiritual directors, and that even lay people who have some formal training in theology do not, by virtue of that fact, have the requisite qualities necessary to be spiritual directors.

Not only are women the ones who predominate these certification programs in spiritual direction, but it is women also who are the ones primarily seeking out spiritual direction themselves. Whether this is because women by and large process things through verbal communication (ie, talking) and benefit from a listening ear, or if women themselves are more spiritually minded, I do not know. But what ends up happening more often than not is not formal, trained direction, but simply listening and perhaps counseling. Not that the intentions aren't good, but it can be a case of the blind leading the blind. 

Another potential pitfall in securing a spiritual director (should you be so fortunate) is the temptation of deference of responsibility for one's spiritual choices and their subsequent consequences. "My spiritual director said I should x," or "My spiritual director recommended I read y" can have the potential to lead someone into thinking they need to consult their SD regarding a myriad of decisions which, realistically, they could make without such consultation. 

This symbiotic relationship can develop into a kind of spiritual dependency if one is not careful, where we feel we must seek consult for every last thing. Now, certainly, one-off spiritual direction can come in handy during major life changes to help navigate situations in which there are a lot of factors at play. All of us can benefit periodically from having someone to bounce ideas off of. 

But God gives us the faculties of reason because he also expects us to make use of them; we don't need to overly-spiritualize everything. Most of us laity are basic Catholics with basic (common) Catholic problems that are often rectified with general and common-sense advice like the advice I got from my phone consult with the priest-spiritual director: Don't commit mortal sin; do at least twenty minutes of mental prayer a day. Read your Bible. Pray your rosary. Take part in acts of charity. Etc. 

Where this leaves me as a forty-something year old man seeking to advance in the interior life? I don't know, honestly. In an ideal world, we would all have a priest or religious to be our personal spiritual director, we meet monthly, and we advance to the upper echelons of sublime contemplation and divine union in our lifetime. 

In reality, most of us are just trying to piece together a spiritual life like beggars getting second-hand goods donated from a variety of shops. We listen to good Catholic sermons and exhortation on Youtube. We read the catechism, and the spiritual classics like The Spiritual Combat, Introduction to the Devout Life, The Imitation of Christ, and do the best we can. We don't always know "how to pray as we ought," but fall back on the Lord's Prayer, the holy rosary, and simply Adoration. And, of course, regular confession.

On that note, a regular Confessor may be able to serve a more appropriate role, and be easier to come by than a spiritual director for lay men. There is the grace of the sacrament in the forgiveness of sins for one thing. There is also the regularity (once a month, at minimum) and familiarity of going to the same priest, provided they have a baseline of basic spiritual advisement in the context of one's sins, and can provide encouragement and gentle admonishment as needed. 

I have to believe that God gives us every tool, every grace we need to become saints--not through some pre-scripted program or membership club, or only for those who have the privilege of having a spiritual director, but for all people--men and women, young and old, from the simplest illiterate beggar to the most learned theologian. The secret of grace is that it completes in us what we cannot complete ourselves--that is, our sanctification. 

If you have access to solid spiritual direction or the consult of a regular SD, good on you. But Catholics who do not have this privilege should not feel anxious, or that they have no hope of advancing in the spiritual life in that absence. God gives us everything we need, because His ultimate desire is as basic as the first line of the Baltimore Catechism: that we know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world, and be happy with Him forever in the next. To that end, as baptized Catholic sons and daughters of God, we are lacking in no good thing.