Friday, September 23, 2016

Sexual Common Sense

As parents of young children, my wife and I are constantly picking our battles--what needs to be addressed now, and what can wait; what is worth holding a hard line on, and what is not worth it. It is hard and tiring to be vigilant all the time, and sometimes things slide. Do we make the kids sit and eat kale salads, or do we let them eat what they want in the family room (usually cereal, usually in front of the TV)? Do we cut off all screen time entirely, do we let them watch one of two Peppa Pigs, or do we abandon them to the digital crack?

I will confess: many times we take the easiest road--path of least resistance.

This isn't because we don't love our kids or don't want what is best for them. But we are tired, emotionally spent, and some nights don't have the fight in us; we are simply trying to survive. We buy happy meals if it staves off a tantrum or because it's more convenient than making dinner, we are not above bribing with treats in desperation, and we don't always follow up on discipline as we should.

I will also confess: I feel guilty about it, and fear the accumulation of unforeseen consequences.

It feels good in the moment, like we get some respite from the discomfort and exercise of hard parenting. But it also becomes difficult to draw lines later. If we let them skip dinner at the table tonight, why not tomorrow night? If one episode of Toy Hello Kitty Cash Register on YouTube, why not ten? It makes me worry that we are making things harder for ourselves down the line by not being the kind of strict parents that hold the line whom I secretly admire.

People often forgive us or give us a pass because parenting can be hard. "It's ok, you're only human," "You're doing the best you can," "It gets the best of us sometimes." All true, and well meaning and even helpful sometimes. If we 'slip up' and let our guard down by allowing too much screen time, it's not the end of the world.

Of course, all of this would be moot for Deb and I if it weren't for two sperm and two egg that found their way to one another on two separate occasions, resulting in two new humans, two eternal souls, two gifts to their parents. We have often marveled with each other that our kids are the result of sex--one instance of sex (well, two)--that changed the course of our life forever. powerful.

Gas stoves, water heaters, etc have pilot lights--a small flame that is kept burning that lights the larger flame when you want to cook, heat, etc. Sex drive is kind of like a pilot light...always on (to a greater or lesser degree), and when it is time to cook/heat, etc, it catalyzes the flames that lead to attraction, arousal, climax, and, sometimes, life itself. Fire can light a dark room when held by a candle's wick...or it can burn down an entire city. It can both aid life (keeping us from freezing to death, able to cook food, light paths and shorelines, etc) and can rob us of it (rape and assault, molestation, etc). 

People accuse the Church of being obsessed with sex, controlling other people's bodies, heavy in laying on the guilt, having no authority to speak on the matter, living in the dark ages, completely unrealistic and unreasonable. I used to be one of those people. But I have recently come to a point, now in my late thirties, where I am beginning to appreciate the wisdom of the Church's teaching on the gift of sex and sexuality (it only took about twenty years).

When I became Catholic in 1998, I had no problem with assenting to essential dogma like papal infallibility, teachings on Mary, Apostolic succession and authority, confessing sins to a priest, etc. But I simply could not accept this seemingly completely unreasonable moral prohibition against the use of artificial contraception. I kind of understood where they were coming from (though the Natural Law arguments were kind of lost on me as an 18 year old college freshman), but I just could not get past the impracticality of such a teaching. It was an affront, an unwelcome challenge to my presuppositions about sex and sexuality, which, not being formed in such matters growing up or in any kind of religious context, I gleaned from the culture I lived in. Not to mention I was in the height of my sexual peak and keeping a lid on things at Penn State--even as a new Catholic with a less-than-virginal background--was no easy task.

A catalyst in this growing appreciation of the deep truths about human life and sexuality was stumbling across Dr. Janet E. Smith's talk "Contraception: Why not?" a few years ago. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and listening to the audio and thinking, "Wow, this kind of makes sense." She seemed funny, well-reasoned, intelligent, articulate, and a proponent of what she refers to as "sexual common sense." A world of hurt has been born of the sexual revolution of the 60's, and it's becoming apparent in the fruits of its tree, what Pope Paul VI prophetically anticipated and set forth in Humanae Vitae in 1968 (a little long, but definitely worth a read):

"Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.
Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.

Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions, in the light of the principles We stated earlier, and in accordance with a correct understanding of the "principle of totality" enunciated by Our predecessor Pope Pius XII. (21)

St. Pope John Paul II's129 addresses in Theology of the Body (described by George Weigel as a "theological time bomb set to go off in the third millenium of the Church") gives witness to the Church's vision of authentic sexual expression. I had heard the term before in my twenties but was never really exposed to its teaching. Here I am, twenty years after my conversion, 7 years into my marriage, 2 kids later...and discovering it for the first time.

I've often wondered what would happen if abortion was made illegal or (hypothetically) impossible to obtain. Would would happen? Would we be overrun by 'unwanted' babies? Would Main St. USA suddenly look like the streets of Calcutta? Would people resort to their own forms of infanticide?

When I drill down in the scenario a little further, there are a lot of layers. Babies don't just appear out of thin air...they are the result of sex! When people don't want babies to come from sex, they often use contraceptive measures. When you don't want a baby with someone (because you might not know them that well, are not legally married to them, whatever) and contraception fails or isn't used, abortion is considered as an 'option' to 'deal with the issue.' It makes complete sense, from a secular perspective. It's part of being 'smart.'

So, it all comes back to sex. It used to be common knowledge that sex can and does result in babies, but with the advent of contraception, that link sometimes gets forgotten about until a 'surprise' pregnancy brings us back to reality. As a society we are so far removed that to even suggest that perhaps the best place for sex to find expression is within monogamous marriage, or that the best approach to sex is to wait until you are married to have it, or that if you are single abstinence is a viable option for protecting and guarding oneself from STDs, pregnancy, and emotional damage, and that to pretend otherwise is to invite widespread dis-order--both personally and socially--is anathema to secular sensibilities.

I was really encouraged when a group of faithful Catholic theologians, doctors, nurses, academics, and mothers and fathers, led by Dr. Smith, responded en force to the 'Wijngaards Statement' issued a few weeks ago by a group of Catholic academic dissidents to the United Nations. Dr. Smith and Catholic University of America were like a light in a culture that has gone dark, putting forth and disseminating sound and reasonable teaching with 2,000 years of application to back it up.

I can't turn back the clock and erase past mistakes, but thankfully it has not been an issue of 'too little too late' in my life. The fruits of bringing our sexual expression in marriage in line with the Church's vision for human sexuality has born subtle, but good fruit, in our marriage. It is sometimes hard to have self-control and practice periodic abstinence, especially when you want to be together in that way. But it also teaches something valuable--patience, understanding, self-discipline, focus. Shifting from the adopted mindset of babies as burdens to babies as gifts has likewise been taking place, and that in turn leads to a healthy shift in perspective in other areas. Sex itself, when not sterilized, becomes more than what it appears to be on the surface, and a kind of exhilarating self-abandonment keeps things exciting and open. It is not easy to fight against concupiscence--after all, it comes naturally as a result of the Fall. But now, twenty years later for me, it makes sense...common sense.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Looking For A Good Time?

Sunday evening I had to travel to Western PA, and was thankful to be able to stay at a local monastery's guest house overnight to break up the trip a little. I went to mass on campus and joined the monks in morning prayer before I headed out after breakfast. When I am traveling for work, as I was earlier this week, I do my best to stay with friends I've made in the area just to have some company.

Whereas women may feel physically vulnerable when lodging in unfamiliar places, as a man I don't really think about that. But I do feel spiritually vulnerable when I have to stay in hotel rooms by myself. I am pretty comfortable being alone most of the time in most places, but there is something about hotel rooms that holds an air of loneliness, corporate blahness...and temptation.

Like any predator, the devil operates by drawing us away from the pack, to get us alone. For men (married or single) who seek to maintain chastity and be responsible for their sexual integrity, it really is a kind of test, and I always wrestle spiritually when I am in the somewhat precarious situation of being alone in a hotel room away from my family and anyone who can hold me accountable. Temptations seem to increase in intensity in these situations, whereas on a day-to-day basis I might not think much about them, esp if you have been away for a while from your spouse.

Finding oneself in any kind of compromised situation, as innocent as intentions might be, is dangerous. I tend not to drink when I am on the road and out at a restaurant or at a conference for work and other colleagues are staying in the same hotel, especially female colleagues. Friendliness, loneliness, and lack of accountability can be a volatile mixture, and while I have never been in that kind of situation personally while at conferences, the drunk hookups of work associates at other colleges is not all that uncommon. Strict boundaries and common sense are essential.

The most obvious threat, in my mind (and I think most Christian men would agree), is access to entertainment that would compromise one's sexual integrity right at your fingertips--whether on the hotel TV or on one's ipad, computer, or phone. A man must stay absolutely vigilant in these situations because the devil will exploit the situation and try to get a wedge in any crack in resolve. Obviously, prayer is the weapon of choice--scripture (esp the Psalms), the rosary, etc. Cold showers or a run if needed.

When I was wrestling with this the other night, I did something uber-Catholicnerdy...I whipped out my ipad, connected to wifi, and started watching "The Journey Home" interviews with Marcus Grodi on the EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) Youtube channel. If you haven't seen it, the guests are converts to the Faith who have been invited on the show for an hour to share their faith journey, their life story, and how they found their home in the Catholic Church. It is my new favorite program. As a convert myself, I love love love hearing stories of how people came to Christ. It never gets tiring to hear. This was one of the ones I watched Sunday evening:

So, in the theme of the book I read on "The Power of Habit"--the cue, the behavior, and the reward--the cue is a sudden desire to sexual self-gratification; the behavior--which usually comes in the form of viewing pornography and/or masturbation, is changed by prayer and viewing some nerdy Catholic thing on youtube instead of that, so you are still watching a video, but it's not porn; and finally, the reward is self-respect/mastery, satisfaction and entertainment (albeit, hearing about someone's journey to faith), and an absence of guilt (which tends to perpetuate cycles of unhealthy/sinful patterns).

Whatever temptations we are faced with, it's important to remember the devil as the "Father of Lies" has no power over us in Christ, but works through trickery and deception to lead us into sin. Free will is one of our greatest gifts bestowed on us by God. The best tactic is sometimes to use that free will to flee rather than go head to head.

Fighting temptation requires strategy, since we are literally in a battle and no one goes into a battle without a strategy to win. We can't be forever surrounded by people and distractions--there will come those times when we are alone and the devil takes notice. When you are working on submitting yourself to the lordship of Christ, you better expect the devil's temptations to be expected rather than the exception.

Christ has won the war; Satan has no power over us. Whatever you need to do to avoid sin, do it. Even if it's watching nerdy Catholic videos on YouTube.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

"Mow Us Down. Grind Us to Dust"

In 2002 I set off on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I flew in to McAllen, Texas and walked over the border into Reynosa with my backpack and rosary, planning to hitchhike to Mexico City. Sitting on the steps of a church in town and trying to figure out where I was going to sleep that first night, a man came up to me and we started in on a conversation. He was a priest, but wore no clerical collar or dress. I took him up on his offer of hospitality (a mattress in a deportation shelter, and breakfast in the morning with 40 other recently deported Hondurans and Mexicans), but I always wondered later why he was not dressed like a priest.

As I learned more about Mexican history, the reason became apparent. The Mexican Revolution ushered in a new Constitution in 1917, and the Constitutionalist delegates viewed the Church as a political enemy to the establishment of a liberal, secular nation-state...a kind of foreign body that worked against the development of a progressive and independent nation. As a result, many of the articles in the Mexican Constitution are anti-clericalical in nature.

Though such laws were on the books, it really wasn't until 1926 under President Plutarch Elias Calles that they were enforced...and brutally so. On July 31st, public worship was suspended for the first time in 400 years...not a single Mass was celebrated. Bishops and priests went into hiding. Those who refused to register were often fined, imprisoned, tortured, or executed. It was out of this anti-religious climate that the Cristeros revolutionaries fought back in the name of religious liberty, were able to put pressure on the government, but were eventually betrayed and mass tortured and executed.

Jose Sanchez del Rio was one of them. A boy at the time he joined the Cristeros in their armed revolution in the name of religious freedom, he embodied the righteous fire spoken of in Psalm 69:9: "Zeal for your house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me." Like David against Goliath, Jose was young and small but loved God with a ferocious love and those who hated the Lord and His Church he regarded "enemies he counted as his own" (Ps 139:21-22).

When he was captured, he was forced to watch a fellow Cristero executed as a deterrent, but he instead encouraged the man. He was told he would be spared if he denied Christ, but instead he fearlessly shouted "Viva Cristo Rey! (Long Live Christ the King!)" and had the skin on the soles of his feet cut off. He was then pushed into a grave shouting the same while being stabbed with bayonets--"Viva Cristo Rey!". He was shot in the face and in defiance to his enemies as blood poured from his head, he kissed the crucifix: Enraged, the officers shot him six more times.  He was 15. Jose Sanchez del Rio will be canonized by Pope Francis on October 16 of this year.

What does this history lesson have to do with anything? It has everything to do with everything.

I was reading the second letter of St. Paul to Timothy this evening. Paul has been deserted by everyone in Asia (1:15) with no one coming to his defense in court, writing in "chains, like a criminal"and seeing false teaching spreading like gangrene (2:17). He also speaks of the days ahead:

"But understand this: there will be terrifying times in the last days. People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power. Reject them." (3:1-9)

What is one to do in the face of apostasy, false teaching, and persecution?

"Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry." (4:2-5)

The fate of those who stay faithful to the Truth?

"Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (3:12)

Glenn Penner of Voice of the Martyrs Canada, said before his death,

"When people ask me, 'Do you think we will ever have persecution here in Canada?' recently I've been inclined to answer, 'Why should we be persecuted? In what way is the average Canadian Christian making such a difference for the kingdom of God that he/she warrants being persecuted? In what way does the average Canadian Christian stand out from his/her society in such a way that the offense of the cross that Paul speaks of in Galatians 5:11 is exhibited?'
"Will persecution make us better Christians? Perhaps. It seems to me, however, that the witness of scripture and the testimony of today's persecuted Church is better reflected in the phrase, 'Better Christians tend to produce persecution.'"

Paul lived his life convinced we were in the end days. He was convinced the Parousia--Christ's return--was going to take place in his lifetime. It didn't. But living as if it was--with a zealous urgency that bordered on a kind of insanity--was the fuel that set the early Church on fire.

I am not optimistic about a revolution, however. The world--our country--is asleep, and it slumbers in comfort. "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood." (Hebrews 12:4) Those who are going forward are, like Paul, going alone or in small bands. Our Goliath in this fight is the government, the culture, and Satan himself. Unlike the Cristeros, I don't think armed resistance is in our case an answer to the war being waged. The Church is not a political enterprise, and when it fights political, it typically loses. It is, instead, an Institution for the care of souls. The war being waged goes beyond politics and nations. We need to respond as St. Padre Pio asking for his rosary--"Bring me my weapon," for as St. Teresa of Avila said in her vision "I saw souls falling into Hell like snowflakes."

If we deny Christ before men, Christ will deny us before the Father. Now more than ever Christians need to rouse from sleep, stand up, and unabashedly proclaim the Gospel in the face of false teaching, government coercion, and apostasy. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes." (Rom 1:16)

In 197 A.D., Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, wrote: "Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God allows that we thus suffer. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed."

Persecution for the sake of righteousness (Mt 5:10) is not the exception to the rule--it is the rule. It should come as no surprise that it is part and parcel with being a Christian, one who dies with Christ in order to be raised with him (Rom 6:8). Stand your ground; gird your loins with truth, and put on the breastplate of righteousness (Eph 6:14). Sell your cloak and buy a sword (Lk 22:36). Be ferocious and zealous, even if like Paul you have to go alone. Fight to the bitter end, as if your soul depended on it. Because it does. For "only the one who stands firm to the end will be saved." (Mt 24:13)

Regimes throughout history have sought to exterminate the Church. And yet she survives, thriving sometimes in the midst of the very persecutions that seek to squash Her like a cockroach. I fear apostasy and false teaching more than persecution, because it's a subtler tool used by Satan himself to deceive so that we might lose our souls in the process. I fear liberalism and secularism and materialism because they offer false promises that seek to usurp Christ from His throne and drag souls into Hell. And yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children (Lk 7:35). The Church and her faithful are free in Christ. The government, the culture, even Satan himself have no hold on them. For if the Son makes you are free indeed! (Jn 8:36)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Now You Will Be My Mother

I'd like to share a little story. I don't know if it means anything, but I also know how God tends to work. So if I may...

Last weekend we were at the beach and Deb and I went to Mass at St. Jude's in Lewes Sunday morning. We were early, so we sat in one of the front rows. When we sat down, I noticed a small silver medal on a chain left on the pew. I recognized that it was a Miraculous Medal, because I have one that I keep on my keychain. 

Deb picked it up by the chain and looked at it. Not really thinking, I told her "You take that. It was left for you."

"But what if someone comes back for it?" she asked.

"It was left for you."

We came back from the beach Monday evening and settled in to the week. Tuesday we got a call from Deb's dad that her mom was complaining of severe head pain, and was taken to the hospital. On Thursday, she slipped into a coma. We were able to gather the family around her, pray over her, read the scriptures, and have her receive Last Rites before she passed that evening.

During her final hours Deb remembered the medal in her purse and kept it close to her. The story of St. Catherine, who experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary and commissioned the medal, is one I knew about but wanted to revisit. It struck me when I read the following from her life story:

"Early one morning shortly after her mother's death, a family servant came silently upon the little one standing on her tiptoes, stretching upwards, impelled by love, until she reached the statue of the Blessed Virgin. As she held the statue in her arms and leaned her head against the Madonna, the servant heard the child say, "Now, dear Blessed Mother, now you will be my Mother!"

It's been a hard week for all of our family. But throughout my days I am struck by God's gracious mercy, his mysterious ways, and find myself spontaneously offering him thanks and praise for what I don't understand. God is so good. He loves us so much. He has given us everything we need, all the graces necessary as a free gift through the sacrifice of his only begotten Son, to be with him forever in Heaven when we die. We get comfortable sometimes and forget that this is not our final home.

Maybe it was a coincidence, the finding of this medal in the pew. Maybe it means very little on the surface, a minor thing. The night her mom passed, Deb put on the medal and now wears it around her neck.  I also took mine off my keychain and wear it around my neck. A small comfort, perhaps. But a reminder, from one child who lost her mother to another, that there are no orphans in God's adopted family, and that we have a Mother for all who have lost theirs. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Saint For Our Times

Like many people around the world, we are celebrating the canonization of Mother Teresa. She is a saint close to my heart, and sometimes I wonder why (our daughter's middle name is Teresa, after the saint). What was it about her that made her a spiritual model for my life? Why do I ask for her prayers so often? I'd like to speculate:

Mother Teresa was a saint of our times: 
The fact that she lived in our lifetime gave me hope, like a light in the darkness, that becoming a saint and living completely for God was still possible in this age. She didn't live in the 12th century or 45AD, but in our lifetime. God gives us all the graces we need to follow. It is still possible! She gave me hope.

She was fearless, and a fearless defender of the unborn:
Mother Teresa recognized the genocide taking place in our country and the world, and called it what it was, in a sometimes embarrassingly blunt manner. I think a lot of people, and Catholics too, will put abortion as just one issue among many, on par with poverty, or the death penalty, or social justice. I used to be one of them, but something changed for me in the past couple years. Sometimes its the 'seamless garment' that we hide beneath. Mother Teresa never hid or treated abortion as an 'issue' on par with other issues. It was a matter of life and death.

She was a 'dark night ' saint:
She smiled when she felt empty inside. She continued to serve and love when feelings of love had left her. When 'Come Be My Light', her collection of letters, were released in 2007, no one knew the extent to which her interior life was cloaked in darkness and the feeling of the absence of God. She considered it a divine trial, but an excruciating one for someone who loved Jesus as much as she did. She loved when she did not feel loved. She smiled in spite of the darkness. She did not depend on 'feelings' of service, but served. This was not a mental depression, but a spiritual desolation. I think very few will ever understand the extent to which she suffered.

She raised an army:
Her initial order started with about a dozen nuns, and by the late nineties had grown to over 4,000. What attracted women to join her order working with the poorest of the poor? They knew they were doing God's work in a world that discards people. They recognized the sanctity of life, and had the privilege of seeing Jesus every day in the 'distressing disguise of the poor'. They drew their strength from prayer and the sacraments. Their schedule was demanding, and called for sacrifice. It gave them something higher to live for.

She was shrewd as a snake, and innocent as a dove:
These were Jesus' own words in Mt 10:16. She was smart and shrewd on behalf of the poor. She moved in circles that would be off limits to many.

She said Yes to God:
Her "call within a call" experienced on the train to Darjeeling (when she was still a Loretto Sister) was a transformative moment. God was calling her to something. He need her. She consented. She trusted He would make it happen. She said Yes unreservedly. God would use her faith to do great things, or as she would say, "small things with great love." This is what makes a saint: to say Yes to God.

She was tireless. She did the work:
Her Sisters were poor themselves. They kept a militant schedule. There was much work to be done. Mother Teresa was a pragmatist. She had little time for philosophizing. She didn't do it for a few years and abandoned the work, burnt out. She did it til her dying breath. Her hands were calloused from tending the wounds of the sick and dying. Her knees bruised and aching from hours kneeling in prayer. She had fortitude and perseverance--gifts of the Holy Spirit.

She trusted in authority and her superiors:
Mother Teresa submitted herself to authority, and to her Spiritual Directors. She recognized their authority as legitimate, as passed down from the Apostles themselves.

She recognized that suffering had its purpose in the divine plan:
She comforted the dying, but often was criticized for her not providing morphine and things like that, but encouraged them to accept their suffering. She suffered herself, and embraced what suffering came her way for the sake of being united to a suffering Christ. She believed in transformative suffering, that suffering has something to teach us.

She was rooted in prayer:
It was said that the Sisters spent three hours in prayer for every hour they worked. They were devoted to Jesus in the Eucharist, in Adoration, in private prayer. They drew their strength from God in prayer. They would not be able to do the work they did without it. It was indispensable.

Thank you Lord, for the gift of St. Teresa's witness to the world, to our age, to our nation! St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

When Marriage Disappears, We All Wash Out To Sea

At the urging of friends, I conceded to posting for seven days for the "Love Your Spouse Challenge" that was popular on Facebook recently. I enjoyed reflecting on and having the opportunity to share personal stories of the good times and challenges. I think Deb and I have a pretty good marriage, pretty solid. We knew what we were signing on for, were in our early and late thirties, respectively, and had the support of our families. It is also not lost on me that we have a lot working for us in terms of economic advantages. I have plenty of stories to share of how we have been blessed and challenged by marriage. None of them were disingenuous, but something about the nature of the 'challenge' was bothering me that I couldn't put my finger on. 

It wasn't until I read an excellent study on the state of marriage in the U.S. titled "When Marriage Disappears" that touched on a lot of troubling aspects about the state of marriage as a whole that made my stories seem like they were missing the forest for the trees. It's as if I was busy painting a picture while a war raged outside our bedroom window.

The state of marriage in the U.S. is kind of like a "Social Global Warming"--the acceleration of the damage done has far-reaching implications threatening to erode the economic and social well-being of our culture, and what has been contributing to it has been happening for decades: the acceptance of and ease with which divorce occurs; children born out of wedlock; the commonplace nature of cohabitation; severing sex from it's intended purpose--the pleasure reserved for married couples and the ontological extension of that love in the creation of new life. 

There's been a good deal of press in the press (I'm thinking of the NYT, specifically) about the growing "marriage gap" that divides among the fault line of class. That is, the affluent are "doubling up" on the economic and social advantages that comes from marriage, while the poor and middle America are being left behind. But marriage is beneficial to everyone--both individually and collectively--not just the well off. Marriage may be even more important for poor and middle class Americans, but the rate of marriage for those in this socio-economic strata are not keeping pace with the well-off. From the study:

"The United States is increasingly a separate and unequal nation when it comes to the institution of marriage. Marriage is in danger of becoming a luxury good attainable only to those with the material and cultural means to grab hold of it. 

It goes on:

"The marginalization of marriage in Middle America is especially worrisome, because this institution has long served the American experiment in democracy as an engine of the American Dream, a seedbed of virtue for children, and one of the few sources of social solidarity in a nation that otherwise prizes individual liberty."

I think it was this paragraph that hit the nail on the head though, which drove home my unease with the "You and Me, Babe" focus of the Love Your Spouse Challenge. Because marriage is about more than just you and me:

"Over the last four decades, many Americans have moved away from identifying with an 'institutional' model of marriage, which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union.  
This model has been overwritten by the 'soul mate' model, which sees marriage as primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses. 
Thus where marriage used to serve as the gateway to responsible adulthood, it has come to be increasingly seen as a capstone of sorts that signals couples have arrived, both financially and emotionally--or are on the cusp of arriving."

The poor and middle strata are finding that

"their life experience is at odds with their aspirations. They have not been well served by the 'soul mate' model of marriage, which is less accessible to them--for both cultural and material reasons--than is the older 'institutional' model of marriage."

Read the study. It offers some really insightful data into how we all suffer when marriage seems 'unattainable', when we attempt to twart the traditional model of marriage and replace it with a foundation made of sand rather than rock. There's nothing wrong with stories--when you paint a picture of a good marriage through your witness, it shows that it's not unattainable, that it's just one example of many of what it can look like. But it needs support--from government, faith communities, and individuals--and it also goes beyond the attaining of individual happiness. Happiness and financial advantage are the by-product, not the end goal. 

We're down at the beach for the weekend. It's a stormy weekend with Hurricane Hermine hitting the coast. Beaches are at risk of severe erosion when there is not strong dunes with rooted grasses to keep it at bay. That's why there are restrictions on walking on the dunes or damaging them; it is recognized how valuable they are. Once they are gone, there is nothing to keep from being washed to sea.

Maybe we should start seeing the institution of marriage in the same light.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To Read Again

I look back fondly at my years in high school and college, before my intellect and attention span collapsed under the NWO of the digital revolution. As my dad described the younger me when he and my mom were over for dinner last week, "you were always doing something. You could never sit still." That's true, for the most part. The one thing I did sit still for, however, was reading. 

I have fond memories of books; I loved to read. Like my first bicycle, it really was a passport to other worlds. I would always have a paperback in my back pocket of backpack, usually accompanied by a small notebook where I would take notes and jot down ideas from what I was reading. Fiction and nonfiction, poetry...I didn't discriminate. I appreciated the texture of yellowed pages and bumpy typeset, the musty smell that came from used copies with a history of passing hands down through the years, random dog-eared pages and faint pencil underlines. 

I read Stephen King's 1,153 page apocalyptic novel The Stand when I was in 6th grade. I remember taking my dad's copy of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf on a Greyound bus to Maine and finding an Amtrak ticket stub from 1971 as a bookmark. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray I would read on solemn winter days from a clapboard room I rented on Union Street in Doylestown. I ripped a copy of Thoreau's Walden in half, taking half with me to read on the Appalachian Trail and mailing the second half to a PO Box somewhere up the way in Duncannon. I treated my turquoise copy of Volume 4 of the ancient eastern book of ascetic wisdom, The Philokalia, with a reverence, as if it contained mighty powers of transformation. And it did. My library copy of Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums came with me everywhere I went in high school. I read it six or seven times before buying my own copy at City Lights in San Francisco years later in my twenties, breaking the binding over a coffee and brandy at Vesuvio in North Beach.  It was Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov that marked my travels wondering the South Island of New Zealand, light filtering through the curtains of the shed I lived in on a horse farm.  Camus' The Stranger. To name a few.

I haven't read a legit novel in years. The thought of sitting down to revisit Tolstoy's War and Peace is a foreign concept, unimaginable today. These days I consume information. I scarf up bites and while it rarely gives me indigestion, it is not broken down. I do not savor. I do not sit back and chew 30 times before each swallow. I move from one course to the next in sequence, from multiple plates before me. I visit blog whorehouses for thirty second satiation session, burp, and move on to the next window. Nuance is lost on me. Anything too complex is glossed over. Don't ask too much of me. I don't invest in characters and plot. I simply distractedly swallow things whole before it disappears in the ether of a virtual feed.

It's a sacramental past I will never get back, and that the young adults of the digital age of today will never know. Cranky, I know. I really do mourn the loss of it though; my attention span, the appreciation for development, the willingness to invest in characters and follow a plot to it's end, choosing pants with back pockets big enough to hold whatever paperback I was reading. Every book (like every cassette tape song back then), had a memory tied to it. They were like cairns left to mark the path to adulthood should I ever wish to revisit. Their physicality was important. I have thrown or given away a lot of books over the years, but some I have kept. They've earned their place on the shelf.