Tuesday, March 17, 2020

We've Taken "White Space" For Granted

I start work in twenty minutes, so this is going to be a short post.

There is a kind of secular parable I have thought about from time to time, as it has stayed with me:

"An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?” The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.” The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?” To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.” “But what then?” Asked the Mexican. The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!” “Millions – then what?” The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”"

I read a lot of personal finance blogs, most of the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) authors came of age during the Great Recession and so are all about monetizing every last moment for financial gain. We know many families (or at least used to) who have their schedules at 98% capacity with sports, activities, work, and other things. If time is currency, they are living lean. Not faulting, just mentioning.

And our jobs, for most Americans, are structured to have no fat, maximum efficiency. I suppose this is part of Capitalism and the Protestant work ethic. Not faulting, just mentioning.

I have also read studies that most Americans do not have $1,000 cash on hand to cover an emergency should emerge. Many are one job loss from missing a mortgage payment. Many are simply living to paycheck to paycheck. Not faulting, just mentioning.

The reality of this Coronavirus pandemic is starting to set in. Everything is shut down. We are moving into recession territory. And we realize just how little margin we have given ourselves in the quest for maximum efficiency.

I am a big proponent of the idea of 'white space' that is often seen as "useless." God gave us the Sabbath to rest, because He rested on the 7th day of creation. He was strict about it--Sabbath is for rest and worship. What many families are realizing--on both a positive and negative note--is being quarantined is forcing us into that "useless" space of time. Time is a commodity many people don't have because leisure is oftentimes equated with laziness in a hyper-efficient culture that doesn't naturally build such buffers in. I'm a proponent of hard work, the value of work, Capitalism as an economic system, and making good use of time for what is important. As devastating as the fallout from this illness is going to be on all fronts, if anything maybe we can be grateful for the gift of time--for family, for self-reflection, for spiritual renewal--and not take it for granted for those of us in quarantine. Make good use of it, and always try to look at the good in even the worst situations.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

"The Spirit of God Left Him:" When Mental Illness and Demonic Obsession Meet

Last night as I was helping my son prepare for his first Confession, and we were going through an examination of conscience in his St. Joseph First Communion book, I realized I have been a little sloppy in my own EOCs. I have a bad memory, and yet I don't write my sins down typically. I go through a general Examination of Conscience in my head, but not in fine detail. When I do go to Confession, I don't withhold anything intentionally, but cover myself with "for all these sins and those sins I can't remember, I humbly beg pardon, penance, and absolution" on account of my forgetfulness.

But last night I decided to join my son in writing down my sins, and using a more thorough Examination of Conscience. I said we would burn the papers in the outdoor fireplace together after we finished making our Confessions and received absolution (which we did). There is something about writing down sins, and confessing them with the lips, that makes it real in a way, something I think many Protestants miss out on without the benefit of the Sacrament. The taste of holy shame on our lips as the words are spoken, like a burning crimson ember, turns to sweetness when the Lord extinguishes it with a breath in absolution. Then we are filled with the Holy Spirit to begin our lives anew, white robes and all, ready to die and ready to live.

In digging deeper last night than I normally might, I unearthed some sins that I may have confessed and been forgiven of, but which still haunted me because I did not perhaps lay them out in as much detail as was warranted, given how shameful they were (I should mention that I do not struggle with scrupulosity, OCD, or feeling unforgiven).

Of course, those sins are for the Lord's eyes only, and I do not plan to go into detail about them. But it was from a chapter in my life in which, I believe, I actually went through a mild form of demonic obsession that coincided with a period of acute diagnosed mental illness. In fact, I speculate that it was not being in a state of grace that opened up a spiritual wound which got infected, and my mind was leveraged against me during this period by demonic forces.

I am very careful in sharing my own testimonies of God's grace and redemption, my particular struggles, and trying to do so for the glory of God. Not because I am afraid to share some personal things, but because I don't want to generalize what I have experienced as a proscription for others. My situation is unique in some ways and ordinary in others; I would hope relatable on some fronts, and maybe particular to my circumstances on others.

This can be a very difficult area in which to tread because of symptomatic overlap. It needs to be stated that mental illness is usually in its own diagnostic category (psychiatric) and that spiritual issues should be dealt with spiritually (via the sacraments, confession, consultation with clergy and spiritual directors, etc).

It is when spiritual malaise and mental malaise intersect in a kind of Venn diagram of illness that it can be very difficult to discern root causes and treatments. Some fundamentalists will put forth that mental illness is a sin problem, not a mind problem; Psychiatric professionals would purport that there is no spiritual element to strictly neurological or psychiatric conditions. I think both are not entirely accurate. There are spiritual elements at play, as well as biological/neurological/psychiatric. The intersection is where it gets muddy.

A passage from scripture that has always stayed with me because of it's frightful imagery appears in 1 Samuel 16:14

"Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him." 

And later in 1 Sam 19:9-10:

"But an evil spirit from the Lord came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. While David was playing the lyre, Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall."

We know, that when we commit moral sin, the spirit of God departs from us, as it did to Saul. We are spiritually naked and out in the wind, so to speak, vulnerable and in danger of damnation. I was very much in a state of mortal sin prior to the onset of my first severe psychiatric episode. When the episode itself hit like a tidal wave (acute mania followed by psychosis), the spiritual vulnerability was leveraged in obsessive religiosity.

But it was not the holy kind. In fact, there were unmentionable instances of blatant blasphemy that I was driven to, not unlike Saul being driven by an evil spirit to pin David to the wall with a spear. I cannot use the illness itself to release me from the hook, though it may have mitigated culpability to an extent. But because I was not in a state of grace (my choice, my will, my volition), I had made a home for demons to dwell and force my hand against the Lord God, my Savior himself. Part of me would say today, "I did not know what I was doing." But that was the scary part. Who was moving my will? Who was forcing my hand? Who was throwing the spear? There was no grace in me--I was spiritually dead. And so in that vacuum, a nest was made.

In recounting my past sins of such blasphemy--which I had confessed before but which now seemed so grievous that I'm not sure I confessed them in the amount of detail that should have been warranted--I was able to verbalize in shame, feeling the burn, and rooting out the vestiges of straw and bark from the nest itself. I may not have been in my right mind, but I was not in a right spirit either, and that I had brought on myself through disobedience. The danger was acute. I was driven to the brink of suicide in the ensuing crash following these psychic highs, in which I had visions of "a black man, a shadow figure, a faceless one, wearing a hat and calling me to another side" from which only God's merciful grace (of which I had not merit to) kept me from crossing over to.

Part of "tripping into" this state of moral desolation in which the spirit of God is not living within a person (mortal sin) is so commonplace today, I fear for the vulnerability of the mind of those going through it, including my own. Which is why I am so careful, and so grateful, to have been shown (by grace) what needs to be avoided, and what needs to be embraced, to be in a state of grace. Because I truly believe that a state of grace is what fortifies my mind against unwelcome guests, the same spirits that afflicted Saul and drove him mad. I have had no symptoms of psychiatric malaise, despite a severe and verified clinical diagnosis, in almost ten years, and I attribute this in part due to that indwelling grace that was not killed off by mortal sin.

But I am acutely aware, too, that I need to be vigilant about the scummy buildup of venial sins on my soul that can make me and others more susceptible to mortal sin. Again, this is not a matter of obsession or scrupulosity, but tempered periodic soul scrubbing by the Divine Physician himself every few weeks in the Church's gift of the Sacrament of Confession. As I have stated in past conversations and writings, I still attend to the psychiatric preconditions necessary to stay healthy (medication, exercise, diet, sleep, doctor's visits, etc) to keep that "control group" in check. If I'm psychologically healthy and spiritually in trouble, the one can affect the other. Both are within my power, to a degree, due to the grace of baptism (the will) and knowledge (knowing what I need to do to stay healthy) so we don't have a repeat episode of what happened fifteen years ago. I don't every want to go through that again, while never wanting to forget the abomination of desolation that was my soul when not in a state of grace, and a nest of demons living in my inner being compelling me to act contrary to the virtues by the forcing and misappropriation of my mind and will. It is so very dangerous to give them any footing in the soul, which is why I try to be vigilant in staying close under the mantle of Our Lady and with the Cross every before my eyes. I know what's at stake, and the mind is an existential battleground where war is waged, a war against my very self, which I am not strong enough to withstand on my own. Without grace, I am doomed. If the Spirit of God leaves me, I am indeed a mad man in the making, hunting down the pious servants of God with deranged eyes, seeking to pin them to the wall with jagged spears, to crucify the saints and betray Christ himself. I can't afford that. So, I hope you will forgive me for treating the stakes very high in this battlefield of the mind. May God be praised, may His Holy Name be praised, that He extinguishes the burning ember of shame and we might taste the sweet fragrance of divine forgiveness, and be welcomed back into His friendship, restored to a right spirit, and a sound mind.

On Tattoos

In visiting men in prison and reading the Gospel to them once a month for the past couple years, I have seen a lot of tattoos. It's interesting, actually--almost every man who I greet when they start to file in the chapel, all fifty of them or so...almost all of them have various tattoos on their body. Now, this is not a causation/correlation observation, but just an observation that stands on its own: a lot of these guys in prison have tattoos.

At one point I had briefly thought about a tattoo in my twenties. I was kind of a "go big or go home" guy, so I thought about something like an oak tree across the back. But I could never really decide or commit to something, anything, I wanted on my body for the rest of my life. My tastes and interests change too much and too frequently, and I have also been known to have a regret or two. In fact, I know grace is real because there is no way I could have sustained 20+ years of religious practice and devotion if it weren't for God's grace in it, the reason for my belief in the first place. It never would have sustained itself beyond a passing fad without it. I'm simply too fickle, or maybe just am interested in too many things.

Again, another observation: many of the pious people I know do not have tattoos. Not that a pious person can't have them, but in many cases the tattoos came before a major conversion and so are a fleshly reminder of a past life. I don't know too many people who have come to Christ in a major way and end up getting tatted after the fact. Not to say it can't happen, I just haven't seen it.

I don't know if there are arguments against tattooing from a Christian point of view. I see it is as kind of neutral. I know Leviticus states you shall not put tattoo marks on your body (19:28). Matt Fradd at Catholic Answers writes a little bit and seems to share my view here. I'm not here to write about the morality of tattoos.

What I did want to write about it why, despite that an outsider would call me "pretty religious," I would not consider getting any kind of religious tattoo as a reflection of that faith or piety. This is me speaking personally, not making blanket statements. And as I have been reflecting on it, I think it ties into Romans 7, where Paul speaks about the law and sin:

"What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good." (Rom 7:7-12)

On Ash Wednesday, we Christians are "marked" more of less with the conspicuous sign of the cross in black ash on our foreheads, but for a day. But then we wash it off and get down to business: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We do this in a way that does not let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.

Here's my fear in getting something like a tattoo of our Lord and Savior on the cross, or Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, or our Blessed Mother, tattooed on my arm or back or wherever--that when I would do that, like the law, sin would seize the opportunity afforded by this kind of bodily "oath" to produce in me every kind of impiety. When our Lord says, "Let your yes be yes and your no be no; everything else is from the evil one" (Mt 5:37), for myself I apply this reasoning to any kind of religious tattoo. A tattoo is a kind of oath--its something you commit to having on your body and displaying until you are lying in your coffin. It speaks about you to others, whether you want it to or not, particular to whatever the image is that is being reflected from your skin. People typically get things tattooed on their bodies that are meaningful or important to them--it may be their children's names or images; a loved one; a particular verse of poetry; or a meaningful flower. Whatever it is, unless you have it removed by laser, it is with you for life.

I think about women I have had relations with in my past via fornication--women I tattooed and more or less bound my spirit to--that I am not (obviously) with today. I was so sure I was in love. I was so sure it was ok because we were committed. Of course the Church's prohibitions did not apply to me given these feelings? And yet I live with the tattoos of regret for having sinned against the Lord and made an oath with my body that was obviously broken. The Lord has forgiven my sin and I have done penance--he has used the laser of his precious blood blot out my offense. But knowing what I know about myself, a tattoo is reminiscent of these kinds of poor decisions and rationalizations of a kind of permanence that I cannot commit to.

I have seen some beautiful artwork of our Savior and our Lady in ink. But, personally, I think these are best served on canvas, or paper, or icons, than on bodies. When we sin, when these living icons of holy images are fused onto our skin, and we become visible apostates to the Holy Face. Does a religious tattoos--no matter how committed we are to our faith--make us more holy, more pious? I would have my doubts. And if not, then would be willing to question why it is we would consider making our skin this kind of canvas, were it not to aid in piety or devotion? If you are robbing a liquor store or fornicating with an image of our Lord on your shoulder or arm, are you not bringing shame and scandal to the faith and the holy images of the One who died to forgive the very sins you are committing?

Again, this is not to make judgments. But I know for myself, were I to get such a holy image tattooed on my body, I would feel sin would be right there as the day in which the law was birthed (Rom 7). I would rather have a blank canvas of a body, let my yes mean yes and my no mean no, do charity unnoticed, mortify the senses in secret, and venerate images in churches and private chapels, then be a walking billboard of hypocrisy, given my great sins which bring tears to the Savior's cheeks.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Am I Really Pro Life?

When I became Catholic at the age of 18, it was in large part because I had encountered the Lord. He made Himself known to me in my poverty, and was real beyond a doubt. I keep going back to this time of encounter 25 years ago because it is my "Why," my "Who," my "What" of conversion.

I have not really had a similar experience in terms of personal impedance with regards to a genuine 'conversion' to the pro-life cause. I have known women who have had abortions and worked at abortion clinics, regretted it, and became pro-life advocates; those who have seen images as children of aborted babies that seared into their conscience and woke them up to the reality of the war being waged and lives being lost; men who lost their unborn children to the mills and who have a personal investment in what is at stake today; and those who just fight the good fight, day in and day out, because it is the right thing to do and one of the foremost battles of our time--the right to life.

I accepted the pro-life position because it is the Catholic position. Philosophically, theologically, intellectually, I know beyond a doubt that there can be no justification for the taking of innocent life in the womb. When it is said that the abortion genocide is not fundamentally different from the Holocaust, I can assent with my mind. But if that is the case, why am I doing the bare minimum?--voting, praying outside clinics from time to time, donating to pregnancy centers occasionally. It's like a person who reads Thomas Aquinas' Summa and says, "you know, I think there really is a God. This is absolutely true. I must become Catholic now." It is a kind of assent of the mind and the senses. But a conversion of the heart? I'm not sure.

When the Jews realized they had crucified Christ, they were "cut to the heart." They said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" To which Peter tells them, repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). I have not been 'cut to the heart' over abortion. It has not affected me personally or directly in the way it has many people I know, who have used that motivation and memory to charge their batteries for the work that needs to be done to make it unthinkable in our lifetime. They are, from an outsider's perspective, somewhat "obsessed" with the issue at hand. But I think they are actually seeing without the veil, the actual horror taking place, the actual killings, and can't in conscience sit idly by while I, on the other hand, find myself doing just that--sitting idly by.

The fight against Abortion, the Pro-Life impetus, demands action. It does not live in ivory towers or intellectual circles or roundtable discussions--it takes place in the streets, in the legislature, in the hearts of those they enter into relationship with on the sidewalk outside the clinics. But action can be hard to sustain without a "What" a "Why" or a "Who." When I face my judgment and Christ demands of me an account: "Did you do all you could for the least of these?" Will I be able to face such a judgment when I know the answer is, for all intents and purposes, "no?" I can write on the subject, do the things, cast a ballot--but I have not been 'born again' for the unborn. And I don't know how that happens.

I realize, pragmatically, that our time is limited.  I know we have to 'pick our battles,' so to speak. As a husband and father I am working full time, raising a family, and have other commitments as well. But when I see those volunteers, sidewalk counselors, prayer warriors out in front of the clinics, lobbying, marching, in cold and heat, snow and rain, for the lives at stake, I'm filled with a kind of guilt and shame that I don't in fact do more, and that I haven't been fully converted to the cause that should be at the heart of every Catholic. Maybe in my head, but not in my heart. I have not 'done all I can do" for the unborn, the least of these.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

This Weekend, Take Your Son To A Barbershop

Getting a haircut for a man is like painting a room in your home--it doesn't take much of an investment and it tends to pay good returns. You tend to feel fresh and confident, good traits to possess when going on a date or for a job interview. It's relaxing to just sit and let someone clean you up a bit. 

Now, full disclaimer, I usually cut my own hair because I'm cheap and do a decent job, and I cut my boys' hair too. But every now and then I feel like getting a cut and if I have a coupon I'll go to the local Hair-Cuttery type corporate place and get cleaned up. I stopped by this evening after work.

As I was waiting, a young boy about my son's age was with his mom. When it was his turn, he climbed up in the chair, at which point the mom proceeded to dictate how his hair was to be cut, and to critique the job along the way. This isn't out of the ordinary--usually when I see boys they are with their moms at these kinds of places. I studied the boy out of the corner of my eye. He seemed slightly embarrassed and powerless. It's not unreasonable, of course, for a mom to say how she wants her son's hair to look, even despite the controlling tone in her voice. It did, however, made me think how things would have been different if he would have been with his dad, and he would have been in a proper barber shop.

Male bonding seems like it has to be a camping or fishing trip, some major thing that happens infrequently. Really, though, there's always an opportunity for it even in the most mundane of things, like getting a haircut. For a boy of eight or nine years old, to be surrounded by other men--young, middle aged, and old--for a singular purpose (to get cleaned up and look good), in a place with distinct smells (talc, disinfectant, sandalwood) where he can FEEL like a man even at that young age, and to do it with his father, well--it doesn't take much in that instance to make some memories. These male only spaces are sacred space in a way, with unwritten codes of conduct and unspoken understandings. 

With my son, at the age he is at least, he wants to do everything I do. Because I fast twice a week, he has expressed a desire to fast. Because I take cold showers, he wants to too. That's a little extreme, but it goes to show how a father can model for his son in the most ordinary of things, and make some memories in the process. The currency is time. There are so few male-only spaces, but the old school barbershop is one of them. For a boy to get out from under the wing of his mother for an afternoon, and to be given a little reign to have his sideburns shorter or his nape trimmed straight across instead of a V...well, I think you'd be surprised how empowering it can be for a boy of eight to feel like a bonafide man for a half hour. When his dad is with him, how much more so. These rites of passage may be worth the twenty bucks plus tip, if anything to just be surrounded by other men for an an hour or so, even if it's just once every six months or so. 

So rather than send your son to the local salon with his mom, as a dad, try taking him to the barbershop this weekend with you. Get a cut, get your son a cut, and break him in to these kinds of things. You'll feel like a million bucks, your son will feel like a man, and your forty bucks or so will be well invested because you'll be supplying him with memories to keep on file when it was just "me and dad" at the barbershop, doing the ordinary things men do on a Saturday morning. Get some breakfast afterwards at a diner. Talk. Stop and pick up a gallon of milk. Do the ordinary things--just be sure to bring your son along for the ride. 

A Ransomed Love

The picture of the woman who lived a sinful life in Luke 7 has always moved me. There is something about the desperation of men and women who so badly need Jesus to work in their lives, and who drop pretension like a bathrobe as they push their way to him, that I love.

We see it a lot in Luke's gospel, the gospel of mercy:

In 8:43-48, a woman with an incurable flow of blood has the audacity to touch the garment of the Lord. In 18:38, a blind man in Jericho won't stop yelling out "Son of David, have mercy on me!" even when rebuked to be quiet. In 5:17-39, a paralytic is lowered in through a roof in Capernaum to be healed.

These were physical maladies to which the desperation to be healed thrust them forward. But it is the quiet picture of the sinful woman in chapter 7 that moves me. Her shame is palpable. She has no regard for the massive "waste" of perfume she lathers on Jesus' feet. Maybe it is hard to see through the flow of tears from her eyes as the memories of her sin play before her like a cinematic film. She knows her debt to sin is huge. The Lord, too, turns to Peter and says, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. 
But whoever has been forgiven little loves little (Lk 7:44-47)

Sometimes, we don't know love until we know loss. We don't know what it is to be innocent until we have lost innocence. We don't know what it means to lose an inheritance until we're eating cornhusks in a famine.

You have been bought with a price, St. Paul says (1 Cor 6:20). "Come now, let us settle the matter," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool." (Is 1:18)

Try as we might to appreciate each day, live in the present, say I love you, not take things for granted...it's all an effort of sorts. But when you are taken ransom, or someone you love is, you realize the pricetag on your life. Not your networth. Not your accomplishments. "You pay with your life," as the saying goes, and are a slave to what you give yourself to. Everything becomes visceral and real and desperate. Minutes are rented; memories are clung to. The freedom to come and go as you please is a textbook theory, a distant memory of another life.

When you sin, you are a slave to sin (Jn 8:34). Slaves do not have rights. You forfeit them. The woman washing Jesus' feet with her hair and tears was so burdened by her slavery, and knew so intuitively that the man before her had the power to free her from the cell of captivity, to redeem her dignity, to raise her up, that she had no composure. She smashes the jar of perfume as it is were water during a rainstorm; she puts all her poise aside to weep before the one she knows can--and does--pay the ransom for sin.

Love is proportional to the debt. And our debts--even those who others may regard as holy or with few sins to confess--are insurmountable, for the debt is our very life. Who can know what living water tastes like except those who have drank from the rancid well of sin for so long? Who can manufacture a gratefulness to the one who bought you back sans tears?

No, love recognizes the debt. It covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). It has no composure or tact or poise when one is gripped by it, but simply spills out like a smashed vessel on the floor. Charity is patient, charity is kind...but charity is desperate to consummate with the one who brought you back from the dead, paid for your life with theirs. You can never love such a benefactor enough, this one you owe your life to. This is true contrition, which waters the seedbed of ransomed love.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"Big Cooked Wieners": Why Tone Matters in Evangelization

I have a number of favorite poems that I have memorized, that have stayed with me over the years. One is William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow":

so much depends 

a red wheel 

glazed with rain 

beside the white 

Another is from the 18th century haiku master Buson:

Pressing Sushi 
After a while 
A lonely feeling

But my all time favorite poem is one which is probably the most obscure, devoid of syntax, and written by a woman with a developmental disability who was living in a group home at the time it was composed.

by Shirley Nielson 

I was wearing a blue 
coat. it was cabbage and wieners. 
They were big cooked wieners, 
the smell was cabbage 
ah delicious smell of cabbage out not summer noise 
was running water in the kitchen somewhere.

Here's why I love it, why it is my most treasured poem of all time.

First, you are grabbed by the lapel and taken into the WTFness of the poem straight away. The author, the tour de force, is unapologetically wearing a blue coat. It is blue. Just so there is no doubt about what color it is. But wait, it is not just blue but CABBAGE AND WIENERS. A coat! Made from cabbage and wieners! What kind of world is this. I want to know.

So the coat is cabbage and wieners. And mind you, not just any wieners, but Big Cooked Wieners. You know the kind.  We've entered into the insanity, but it's a kind of safe house with nice smells. "The smell was cabbage." Cabbage isn't like lemon torts or cinnamon cloves, but notwithstanding it is the best thing going in this homey asylum

ah. delicious. smell.

Do you have any reason to doubt it? Shirley was wearing a blue coat, and she let you know it from the start. She establishes her credence in the Once Upon A Time setting of her wardrobe, moving into not just wieners and cabbage, but go-big-or-go-home wieners, and "the smell" was cabbage, as if there was no other smell in the world. Ah delicious smell. What is it about the smell of cabbage that transports her back, with you in the back seat of the Model T, to cabbage in the summer, in the quiet kitchen, the curtains waving and folding in the breeze. And all that can be heard is out not summer noise was running water in the kitchen somewhere.  

Why do I love this obscurely published poem written by a developmentally disabled women who lived in a group home so much? It does what great writing does: it takes me somewhere. It doesn't matter that the boat we're sailing on to get there is cabbage and wieners--what matters is they are big cooked wieners and there is confidence in a blue coat. The righteous formality of syntax has been left like a tailpipe and bumper at the station. I hear the water running. It is somewhere, not here. I am in the kitchen, and I have no idea why. But I'm there. 

The little children will inherit the earth. Syntax is the language of the Church, and it has it's place. But it's 'church speak.' If you don't know what a narthex is, or an alb, or a consecration--but you DO know coats and cabbages and the sound of water, somewhere, THAT is what you use to describe the transcendental reality of "Everybody." Not everyone speaks the language of academics; but then again, not everyone sees with the eyes of a child. You may not know what a vestment is, but you know you are wearing a blue coat. You may smell incense and be taken away to a heavenly realm, but you might also smell cabbage cooking and hear water running in the kitchen somewhere and remember your mother who passed away when you were twelve. Ah delicious smell

When we share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others, we would do well to offer them a ride rather than a tract. As a writer, this is what I try to do. I'm a story teller at heart. I love truth--not my truth, but capital T truth. Whether someone gets there by the lofty angelic proposals of Aquinas or the symbolism of Tolkien or the wit of Chesterton or the characters of O'Connor, all roads lead to Rome, to Christ, eventually. 

But that doesn't mean there aren't absurdities along the way. That's why I am utterly convinced that we need to laugh the laugh of blue coats and big cooked wieners from time to time, because the realm of the angelic is ordered by reason, but we here on earth can enjoy a little of the absurd grace we have experienced in how God has worked in our lives. That is a story in itself, and we all have them--whether you are mentally disabled and remembering your mother and throwing syntax out the window to bring her back, or you are an engineer who rationally reasoned his way into the Church by way of proofs and counter-points. Like our motto in our family when we have people over for dinner--we share what we have, and what we have, we give. 

I don't criticize tone too often in the work of evangelization, since everyone has their styles, but I do cringe slightly from time to time. Then again, I try to remember that St. Augustine was initially put off by the crudeness of the language of the written Bible that he was turned off by it....yet it won him over in the end, in all its coarseness. "We are not meant to be successful, but faithful" as Mother Teresa said. Successfully or not, swallowing red horsepills whole can get stuck in the throat if we're not careful--a little castor oil makes it go down a bit smoother.  

I can't help being sensitive to tone because I am a writer, have always been a writer, and will probably die a lousy writer, unable to shake the compulsion to communicate with words until my death which will release me from my final assignment. It takes years to hone tone. Though I appreciate gruffness, I get turned off by the Westboro Baptist Churches of the world, the Franklin Grahams, the utilitarian crassness and unrelenting dourness of certain strains of Catholicism. Not that I'm any affodicio, and maybe its a matter of preference--that what turns one off may turn another on to something greater, or wake them up when nuance might be shrugged off or disregarded. People are watching you. People are listening to you, and watching your tongue and who you are cutting down and who you are talking about. They watch from the shadows, taking in your actions through a straw. Speak the truth, but don't forget the charity.

Personally, I like stories. I like images. I like being moved by simple things like red wheel barrows and blue coats, or glazed rainwater and running faucets somewhere, or the moonlight loneliness of preparing to eat alone, and of what's real in this world as a way of pointing to the next: wine and bread, weddings, lamps, tears, funerals, friends, the smell of nard, the heartache of betrayal, the hope of restoration, miracles, paradox, and everything getting turned on its head. Blue coats. Cooked Wieners. The smell of cabbage. And out not summer noise running water in the kitchen somewhere

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Truth Will Make You Suffer

"I am very fond of truth, but not at all of martyrdom."

Servant of God Fr. John Hardon writes about the "white martyrdom" of witness, a living martydom he experienced himself. He writes,

"Martyrdom is not an appendix to Christianity. It belongs to its essence. If we unite our sufferings for the faith with the Precious Blood of Christ, we shall be cooperating with Him in the redemption of the world.  
The secret is to love the cross. Why? Because our Love was crucified and we wish to be crucified with Him. Why? Because then we shall be glorified together with Him."
He goes on to explain this martyrdom of witness, violent in it's own regard:

"What do we mean by martyrdom of witness and how does it differ from the other two? It differs from them in that, even in the absence of active opposition--the imitation of Christ must always face passive opposition. From whom? From those who lack a clear vision of the Savior or who, having had it, lost their former commitment to Christ. All that we have seen about the martyrdom by violence applies here too, but the method of opposition is different. Here the firm believer in the Church's teaching authority; the devoted servant of the papacy; the convinced pastor who insists on sound doctrine to his flock; the dedicated religious who want to remain faithful to their vows of authentic poverty, honest chastity, and sincere obedience; the firm parents who are concerned about the religious and moral training of their children and are willing to sacrifice generously to build and care for a Christian family--natural or adopted--such persons will not be spared also active criticism and open opposition. But they must especially be ready to live in an atmosphere of coldness to their deepest beliefs.  
Sometimes they would almost wish the opposition were more overt and even persecution would be a welcome change. It is the studied indifference of people whom they know and love, of persons in their own natural or religious family, of men and women whose intelligence they respect and whose respect they cherish. 
This kind of apathy can be demoralizing and, unless it finds relief, can be devastating. To continue living a Christ-like life in this kind of environment is to practice the martyrdom of witness. Why witness? Because it means giving testimony to our deep religious convictions although all around us others are giving their own example to the contrary. It means giving witness twice over: once on our own behalf as the outward expression of what we internally believe and once again on behalf of others whose conduct is not only different from ours but contradicts it.  
Wherein lies the martyrdom? It lies in the deprivation of good example to us on the part of our contemporaries, and in the practice of Christian virtue in loneliness, because those who witness what we do are in the majority--numerically or psychologically--and we know they are being challenged and embarrassed by the testimony. We witness to them, indeed, but they are not pleased to witness who we are, what we stand for, what we say, or what we do."

When Christ was being brought before Annas the high priest and was struck he replied, “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (Jn 18:23) Later when brought before Pilate he testified that "the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (Jn 18:37) Pilate seems torn, when he responds, "What is truth?" the way a philosopher might. But Jesus is not a philosopher, but Truth itself (Jn 14:6), and can only testify to the truth and what is true.

How easy it is to lie by not telling the truth. But we should know that as Christians, we are bound to tell the truth, and this can put us in the some precarious situations in the secular arena when we face those who attempt to coerce us in affirming what is a lie. One quickly finds they can avoid the uncomfortable and sometimes searing indictments that come with affirming the true by sidestepping it. Like Peter, we may deny, with our heads down, that we ever knew the Truth. Just a pinch of incense, as the saying goes.

In the Western world, most of us will not die the death of a martyr, but we may live it. Good priests find themselves exiled or reprimanded for upholding God's law in the face of compromise; business owners are bullied into betraying their beliefs and by extension, their Christ. While the crowds affirm the emperor's nakedness, the child who shouts, "He has no clothes!" leaves everyone uncomfortably aghast. We pay the toll for driving in the wrong lane, for not playing by the world's rules.

We also face a kind of shedding, when we chafe up against the uncomfortable truths that we are not as good as we believe, not as charitable as we perceive ourselves to be, lacking integrity and courage by throwing our brothers and sisters under the bus by our silence and indifference. A man sees the truth about himself and tells the truth about the world, but a righteous man also suffers for it.

All things will be brought into the light on the Last Day. Until then, we must live by the truth and die by the truth, because we know what is true. If we don't yet know what is true, we must pray for wisdom, like Solomon, and for a clean heart, like David. For the truth cannot rest in an unclean heart, and wisdom cannot rest in fool's house. When we have come up against the truth, we will know, because the world will push back against it, or turn away in indifference. When we have to suffer for it, we should take it as our lot, not as something to be surprised by (1 Peter 4:12). And when we pray, we know God will give us the grace to persevere through such trials, as long as we do not turn away and abandon the race. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (Jn 8:32). But you may pay very dearly for it in the end.

"All truth passes through three stages.
First, it is ridiculed. 
Second, it is violently opposed. 
Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.."

--Arthur Schopenhauer

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

When You Hate To Be Alone...Be Alone

"All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone." 
- Blaise Pascal

Humorous memes float around the internet about the lack of alone time mother's experience and not being able to hear themselves think when their children are young. Whether it's a toddler's hand thrusting under the bedroom door, or a mother going to the bathroom with their kids on their laps, the sentiment is commonplace--"Can't I get a minute alone!" Even my wife and I had a funny marital exchange when I jokingly asked her, "Do you ever fantasize about me?" to which she replied, "I fantasize about being a hotel room by myself with no one needing anything from me." You get the idea.

For men, we often have the "luxury" of going to work each day and breaking out from the household. I'm sure at times our wives have envied the ease with which we can stroll out the door and leave our household responsibilities behind for 8 hours or so (while also realizing that none of it would be possible if we didn't work). Most men, I would imagine, work in jobs in which they interact with other people, or if they do work solo they still have labor they have to attend to. But intentional solitude is another thing altogether--and, especially, when it comes to time spend with our Creator in prayer.

Our Lord was very intentional when asked by his disciples how they ought to pray. He didn't give a lofty, enigmatic or parabolic answer: instead, he said, "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen" (Mt 6:6). And then he instructed them how they should pray--with the Lord's Prayer. It encompasses and distills the Christian life--justice, our needs, expectations, and desires--into a verbal prayer. When joined with a pure heart, it is a "complete protein" if you will. The Pater Noster is prayed during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a community with hearts joined to God. But it is interesting that Jesus joins this prayer with solitude: a room, a closed door, and all things unseen.

My son insisted on having his own "War Room" (to use the Protestant phrase) when he saw mine; he and I set apart for him by clearing out his closet. In it, he put pictures of saints, the Ten Commandments, a crucifix, holy water, a green scapular, and a tiny skull (memento mori) and a hand drawn piece of paper that says, simply, GOD LOVES ME. It's good for every house to have a devoted place to pray in solitude, if possible, as our Lord tells us.

Getting away for retreats seems like a luxury these days, though I went on retreat regularly in my twenties. As an imperfect concession to get some of this intentional, stripped away time in, I'm getting ready to do a kind of "house arrest" retreat this weekend. We have a larger-than-normal master bedroom with adjoining bathroom where I'm hoping to confine myself this weekend as I attempt to get off nicotine and leave it behind once and for all. I need three days for it to get out of my system, and I know I will be irritable; my wife agreed to take care of the kids and leave me to do what I need to do.

But when I think about it, it is so rare I am alone--even in my own house--that it's a slightly uncomfortable thought. What will come up when I'm alone with my thoughts? I've gotten more extroverted as I've gotten older, and like being around people. I like "doing" things. I hope to get out for a run each day and maybe work outside getting the garden ready for the Spring, but largely I will be spent in a kind of self-confinement or posh immurement for getting myself into the mess of attachment in the first place. The cure for attachment, is detachment.

Solitude is a healthy but often neglected aspect of the Christian life.  It's funny, though, when you do a quick google search of "being alone," the vast majority of things that come up are related to loneliness. While some people crave solitude, others are scared of it. I'm somewhere in between--its uncomfortable, but like eating vegetables and exercising, I know it's good for me periodically. I know I face things in solitude that get pushed down when I'm in the midst of friends, family, or co-workers. Things about myself. Things I don't like.

My father-in-law has recently, as he approaches the end of his life, been very fearful of being by himself. Family members will often have to spend the night because he gets panicky that he will die alone. The closer one gets to death, the more (or less) prepared one is to face Judgment becomes apparent and our insecurities become harder to hide. No one wants to die. But the stronger we are in our faith, the more prepared we are in ridding ourselves of vices, sins, and bad habits in this life, the more secure we will be in coming before the Throne and leaving this world behind and the less we have to fear. 

Christ was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed (Mk 14:32). He retreated frequently to lonely places to pray (Lk 5:16). He went out into the desert to be tested for forty days (Mt 4:1). He was essentially alone on the Cross when he died. And when he died, he was entombed for three days and rose again. When I think of how little I have suffered compared to what Christ went through, and how little I can bear, I can't help being embarrassed. But I also know no suffering, no matter how little or seemingly insignificant, is wasted when joined with the sufferings of Christ. So, please pray for my upcoming immurement this weekend--I'm sure there will be some battles to be fought, some demons to wrestle with, and some discomfort in being (somewhat) alone. "But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15:57). To Christ be the victory. Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Indispensable Mother

I often talk about the father's influence in the life of faith. Touchstone has a good study with some stats here.

"In short, if a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). If a father goes but irregularly to church, regardless of his wife’s devotion, between a half and two-thirds of their offspring will find themselves coming to church regularly or occasionally."

St. John Paul II mentioned an image of his father that stayed with him through the years of waking up in the middle of the night and finding his father kneeling in the dark, praying silently. Our son has started learning to serve at the Latin Mass, and I was even surprised that my wife mentioned he expressed wanting to fast and take cold showers, "like daddy." The model the father sets for the household--not only in word, but in deed--is essential, especially for sons.

If the father's influence in the life of faith is vital, what about the role of the mother in pretty much everything else? Again, especially during the early years, the mother's presence cannot be overstated.

In creating a "domestic monastery" in the home, I've found my wife to be the foundation. We have cut back on a lot of activities and things that just allow us more time at home as a family together, doing nothing but logging time together. And time has no substitution.

One thing that does take away from some of that time, albeit on a limited basis, is when my wife leaves the house for her weekend overnight shift. Thankfully, this is only a few times a month and occurs largely when the kids are sleeping and I am home. Ideally, she would not have to at all but it is the situation and arrangement we are in currently, though it may change in the future depending on finances. I notice, though, the nights when they know she is scheduled to go in, the kids are extra attached to her. It is pretty much the only time they are away from her, and they will crawl into my bed in the morning and ask, "when is mommy coming home?" prior to her returning. It's like they just can't get enough of being with her. Time is the currency they trade in.

But this is normal, especially when kids are young! Though it is disruptive in some sense, it is a manageable burden right now. I really feel for women who are forced to work by economic necessity and not wanting to. Daycare is in such cases a necessary and expensive necessity, but I think even mothers would admit it is not the ideal for them.

The argument in some Catholic circles is that women have always worked, and so working mothers should in the industrial age is a modern extension of this and should not be denigrated. Many women, as the claim goes, find fulfillment and purpose outside the home in their jobs. It can often be a vicious debate, because it is so personal. I have found, and speaking only from our experience (since we have been on both sides of it with my wife working full time and now largely at home), that children benefit from the presence of their mothers at home more than they do them being outside the home for extended periods of time.

Is this a 'privilege' that only those of economic means, who can live on the husband's income, are privy too? In some sense, but I think there are also budgetary choices that can be adjusted to make it more of a reality. The proverb comes to mind "Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred" (Prov 15:17). A friend of mine has a good blog on many of these topics here. Women who have grown up in the wake of the feminist movement may not even realize there is an alternative, or know how to make it happen. She does a good job with 'nuts and bolts' things for those being moved in their hearts to make a change. It was a big help when we were making the shift as to the why. And grace came too, in large response to the prayers of my wife that God would give her the desires of her heart to make a way for her to be home. We're not a perfect model (is there really any perfect model), but things have vastly improved in the peace and stability of our home life with the change. Time is a currency with no substitution.