Saturday, December 30, 2017

All The Money In The World

Deb and I go to the movies once or twice a year, and we decided to go tonight for her birthday to see Ridley Scott's All The Money In The World. The film is based on true events involving the kidnapping of the sixteen year old grandson of shrewd billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (played by Christopher Plummer), who refused to pay the ransom for his release.

You can see that Getty's shrewdness comes from a deep wound from childhood, and he finds his comfort in possessions and things, which "don't change" and won't betray him. As the saying goes, "hurt people hurt people." He also literally has so much money that the amount becomes meaningless ("like the air you breathe"), but he ultimately dies of a stroke in his parlor one night. His masterpieces, mansion, and legacy ultimately amount to very little in the end.

The story line, family dynamics, character development, and action scenes in the film were great. Viewed through the eyes of a Christian, though, it read like an obvious modern-day parable:

"Then He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”" (Lk 12: 13-21)

There is a certain tired predictability about riches and worldly fame. In the eyes of the world, it is everything. But in God's economy, and in the lives of the saints, it is the antithesis of a pinnacle of achievement. In fact, it's weight and influence work against a person who holds fast to it, as Paul warns in 1 Timothy 6:10: "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," and in Philippians 3:8-10:

"More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death."

It's almost like two inverses--those rich in the world, and those rich in the eyes of God. J.P. Getty was in the top .001% of society in terms of wealth. But it meant nothing on the spiritual stock exchange. I can only liken it to buying a lie--a compelling, alluring lie. What wealth and riches promises is a lure that tends to hook in the lip of the one who takes the bait. In the film's beginning monologue, the grandson narrates:

"To be a Getty is an extraordinary thing. My grandfather wasn’t just the richest man in the world, he was the richest man in the history of the world.
We look like you, but we’re not like you. It’s like we’re from another planet where the force of gravity is so strong it bends the light. It bends people too."

The holy saints, however, are those who refuse and avoid the bait. They see it as a trap and impediment to the true mission, the true reality of human existence: to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven. It is the reason we were made. It is the reason why we exist, and in forgetting it amidst the trifles of the world, we forget our raison d'etre.

We were made to be saints. We were made to be extraordinary in ordinariness, rich in poverty, faithful in a faithless world. On the trading floor, we exchange our life in this world for life in the next.

Faith is not pure speculation, though, nor is it reckless. When you know God, the God of the crucified Christ, and forsake all others to trust Him, you abandon yourself to all that is antithetical to success in the world. To be a "one-percenter" in the spiritual economy, you trade status and possessions for the very Personhood of God, to share in His very divinity. 

The mark of a disciple is abandonment, not achievement; generosity, not shrewdness; joy in poverty, not sadness in worldly possessions. What you are given free of cost (Is 55:1) ends up costing you everything (Lk 14:33). The pearl of great price overlooked by so many in the world becomes the only thing worth possessing. All the money in the world amounts to very little in the end for those who are not rich towards God.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Now Is The Season To Mend Your Fence

When I was a smoker and trying to quit, the most vulnerable times were those when I was doing well, getting a couple days clean under my belt, and feeling like I deserved a break, the chance to rest on my laurels. This relaxation of vigilance usually resulted in having a drag or two from a friend's cigarette--a 'reward' for the clean days--which turned in to bumming a couple here and there, which turned in to breaking down and buying a pack, and the next thing I know I'm back to smoking a half a pack a day.

We see this in scripture in 2 Samuel 11. It was the season of battle, but instead of being out with his men King David had stayed behind and remained in Jerusalem (11:1). "After his mid-day rest" he decides to head up to the roof and falls into sin after seeing Bathsheba bathing. It was during the rest, not the battle, that he falls.

Life feels like a series of seasons. My work is cyclical--it comes in intense waves followed by lulls in action; home life too--we are in a restful period, but after the baby comes it will be different. Liturgically, we are in the anticipatory season of Advent, followed by Christmastide, followed by the return to Ordinary time.

My prayer life, too, is going through a season, and most of it is due to neglect and willful laziness on my part. It starts small--things sneak in and take the place of time set aside for God. For me, it is working on the side outside of my normal 9-5 and other home projects that begin to edge out deliberate, intentional prayer time that is set-apart. By the end of the day I am so tired I often don't have the energy to get on my knees and complete 5 decades of a rosary. So I don't. One day turns into two, and the next thing I know a week or so has gone by without setting aside quiet time and making the efforts that come with prayer.

Of course this throws everything else out of whack. It's like someone who opens up another credit card account once they've maxed out the one they have--rather than address the fundamentals of their budgets and make hard, self-sacrificing monetary choices, the debt builds, the interest payments rack up, and the hole gets bigger. The financial stress ripples out into the marriage, family, job, and mental state. The little $5 here and $10 there purchases suddenly become $100, $1,000, or $10,000 of debt if you let it get away from you.

Which is exactly what it feels like when you drift away from prayer in negligence.

We often have a misguided notion that prayer should always be inspiring or consoling. The fact is, sometimes it is just putting the time in. When that time-box remains empty on the table--"wasted space"--the temptation to fill it up with other things becomes strong. We become like Judas who complained about the costly nard that Mary pours on Jesus' feet in John 12:3, objecting that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Of course, as Scripture says, it was not because Judas cared about the poor but "because he was a thief." When we steal time set aside for God to use for other things--trifles and money-making and squandering it online--we become thieves in a sense, robbing a shop owner at gunpoint for a handful of dollar bills.

I don't sit still well, but before the baby comes I need to get my focus back, because this laxity in prayer has made me spiritually vulnerable. And when I am vulnerable, my family is vulnerable. And when my family is vulnerable, I am like David on the rooftop, neglecting to go to battle in Springtime, which is my raison d'etre as a man, father, and husband. Setting down my rosary, renting out my time in the home chapel, losing focus--all these things are dangerous chinks in the armor to which Satan will not ignore.

The Catechism speaks of Christian prayer in this way--the two-prongs of grace and effort-- and it would be good for us not to forget it:

"Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The "spiritual battle" of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer." (2725)

It goes on to describe my current situation of forgetting to be vigilant and gritty, and how easy it can be for things to sneak in to usurp the rightful place of prayer in the life of the Christian:

"We must also face the fact that certain attitudes deriving from the mentality of "this present world" can penetrate our lives if we are not vigilant. For example, some would have it that only that is true which can be verified by reason and science; yet prayer is a mystery that overflows both our conscious and unconscious lives. Others overly prize production and profit; thus prayer, being unproductive, is useless. Still others exalt sensuality and comfort as the criteria of the true, the good, and the beautiful; whereas prayer, the "love of beauty" (philokalia), is caught up in the glory of the living and true God. Finally, some see prayer as a flight from the world in reaction against activism; but in fact, Christian prayer is neither an escape from reality nor a divorce from life." (2727)

Finally, if we ever are struggling to find things to confess in the Sacrament of Penance, we should not forget that our violation of the first and most important Commandment--to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind--is a convicting one when we are neglectful and lazy in setting aside time and effort to pray:

"Finally, our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness that, because we have "great possessions," we have not given all to the Lord; disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; wounded pride, stiffened by the indignity that is ours as sinners; our resistance to the idea that prayer is a free and unmerited gift; and so forth. The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray? To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance." (2728)

To stay vigilant in prayer, we need to make efforts, and effort is arduous. Due to our fallen nature, that which is arduous is not attractive, not "pleasing to the eye" (Gen 3:6). And yet prayer and true devotion requires we do our part to fight against that which seeks to take God off the throne in our hearts, souls, and mind--whether that's money, sports, shopping, or simply laziness. There are many "holes in the fence" presently in my prayer life that need mending, and fast, for as scripture says, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man." (Prov 6:10-11). Once an intruder gets it, they can be hard to drive out. And the damage they can do is real.

When you don't feel like praying, when you don't feel like putting the effort in, when you don't feel like getting up in the cold of night to mend the fences--that is when prayer becomes the most vital thing in the world. A little reminder for all, but mostly for myself.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

When You Find Yourself On Third Base Thinking You Hit A Triple

At my men's group on Tuesday one of the guys made us aware of something he heard in a sermon , something that has stayed with me all week. He was visiting a church in a suburb of Annapolis with his family where the pastor addressed the congregation of comfortable, white, upper middle class Presbyterians: "You guys are on third base here thinking you hit a triple."

I'm not a big sports guy, but I know the gist of what he was getting at, because I have thought it myself: we can't always take full credit for where we are in life when we neglect to see what and who have gotten us there.

I can only look at my own situation for reference. One example of something I take for granted on a daily basis is the fact that my parents have been married, happily, for almost forty years. I grew up in an intact home that was loving and supportive. My father was active, involved, and emotionally available. I forget that today this is the exception and not the norm. My baggage from childhood was minimal, and as a result I have not had to overcome the kind of emotional and physical trauma that children of divorce have just to get back to zero. To my parent's credit, they gutted out difficult times in their marriage because, as they said, "divorce was never an option." I have benefitted from that childhood stability in a way I don't think I can even quantify. Seeing what a good and healthy marriage was growing up, I didn't bring a ton of crap into my own marriage.

Another point is that financially, we were never in need. My parents were both teachers and my dad was a saver. We always worked growing up, sure, but my dad would get up with us on Sunday mornings when the newspapers were heaviest and drive us around to deliver them. We borrowed their car, and we always had a safety net if we needed it. He had saved for our college education and so I had no debt when I graduated. As a result I was able to volunteer and travel for a year and discern the possibility of religious life without having to worry about paying back loans. My dad taught me about earning, saving, and investing, among many other life skills that people growing up without a father miss out on.

The list could go on--good health, social standing, career opportunities. Etc.

Now, this can go a couple ways. The one is that I could feel a sense of guilt because of this degree of privilege and try to assuage it in various ways that are largely based in identity politics based on race, class, or gender. The other is to deny any privilege at all and instead focus on accomplishments and work/personal merit irrespective of where I came from.

I don't think guilt is super helpful--it tends to immobilize rather than move forward. Nor do I think a kind of naive dismissal of such privilege is either, since it turns a blind eye to the advantages that moved us along. I think what is good is simply to acknowledge that people have paved the way for many of us--we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. That includes our parents, our grandparents, our ancestors, our forefathers, our communities, those who have fought to preserve our freedom, those who have left homelands to come to new shores, those who have been jailed and beaten for opposing unjust laws, those who have refused to sacrifice to idols and paid with their lives and set an example for us to follow in faith.  We all have to play with the hands we are dealt, and not all are dealt the same hand.

There are two examples I like to turn to in scripture to reconcile the approach to wealth and opportunity.

The first is the story of the rich young ruler, in Mark 10:17-27--a sincere but self-assured young man of privilege who excels in adherence to the law but finds himself tied to his possessions and unable to carry out what Jesus asks of him; that is, to "sell all you have and give to the poor and follow me" (Mk 10:21).

The second is Joseph of Arimathea, also a "rich man" and a disciple of Jesus (Mt 27:57). He assumed the cost and responsibility of Jesus' burial. He asked Pilate to be given the body of Jesus, and he wraps him in a clean linen cloth and lays the body in his own new tomb, which had hewn in the rock (v 59-60). He did not hold tight to his resources but used what he had for the sake of the Lord. As a result he did a great service to him, and did not go away sad the way the rich young ruler did.

It's low hanging fruit to rail against the rich and automatically canonize the poor, but both have a place in God's economy, for as St. John Chrysostom said, “The rich exist for the sake of the poor, and the poor exist for the salvation of the rich.” Like Joseph of Arimathea, let's not get paralyzed by guilt or disdainful of such privileges, but use what has been passed down to us, those material and life benefits, for the sake of the Lord and our brothers and sisters rather than hoard it to ourselves in a sad and lonely manner. We can't take it with us to the afterlife...but it can sure by put to good use here.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Practicing Christian Hospitality Takes Practice

My mom has the gift of hospitality. Naturally friendly and extroverted, she has a warm disposition and a knack for making people feel welcome--family, friends, and strangers.

I haven't inherited the gift they way one might inherit certain genes. I'm more like the kid that needs to struggle to get B's in school, relying on work, grit, and repetition when it comes to hospitality. Nevertheless, welcoming people has become a very important part of our family's spiritual DNA, and so we make conscious choices to practice this hospitality every opportunity we get.

I've written about our friends Dan and Missy and how they exemplify this kind of virtue. We have learned just by being around them and being on the receiving end of what "open hands, open hearts, and open doors" looks like.

In the spiritual economy, the corporal works of mercy are like the one, five, and ten dollar bills that seem insignificant but over time accumulate and build wealth. It takes time, effort, and resources to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked,  shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit those in prison, and bury the dead. It is the meat and potatoes, the nuts and bolts, of authentic Christian life. For Christ says, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Mt 25:35) and this is how we will be judged.

We practice the works of mercy because we often do it imperfectly; seeking recognition, losing our tempers, cursing the poor under our breath, complaining or making excuses. As our old pastor used to say, practice doesn't make perfect; practice makes permanent. And living a permanent, embedded life of Christian virtue doesn't just happen--it takes a lot of starts and stops sometimes before it becomes habit, and, hopefully, second nature.

But why hospitality specifically, and what does it look like in practice? We try to take a Benedictine approach, not explicitly, but just loosely based on the 53rd chapter of the Rule that says:

"All guests who present themselves are to be received as Christ."

God blessed us with a house, and in thanksgiving we desire to use it for His glory. Our home is our kind of "domestic monastery" where we serve as porters and cooks, guest masters and sacristans. It's where we can welcome strangers and feed hungry people, fill their spirits with water, wine, and iced tea; offer a bed for the weary and those in transition and traveling.

It's also where we can practice the spiritual work of mercy of Comforting the Afflicted and Counseling the Doubtful at our kitchen table, when a friend who was struggling in life and her faith rang us up late at night for help and came over. Deb also had an idea of how to Instruct the Ignorant and Pray for the Living and the Dead by having all our nieces and nephews over for a night of food and games, giving each of them a rosary and Miraculous Medal on the way home. We hosted young out of town couples unable to afford lodging while getting medical treatments for their babies at area hospitals and were blessed by their presence in our home.

Hospitality is a powerful witness, because it shows in deeds genuine love and concern for a brother or sister, mimicking the servant Christ who washed his disciples feet (Jn 13:1-7). It doesn't seek repayment but offers rest; it is slow to speak, yet eager and willing to listen; it subverts temptations we have towards self-seeking, and puts Christ in the stranger/friend/guest at the seat of honor. It is apologetic, since it is not without rhyme or reason why we love and serve, but gives witness instead only because He first loved us and showed us what love is and looks like (1 Jn 4:19). We are only passing on what we have received.

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it." (Heb 13:2). If you want to show the love of Christ to someone, don't underestimate the practice of Christian hospitality. Open your home to the stranger and those who can't repay you; offer your tea and table to those who need an ear to listen; cook for more than you have, and always keep a place setting reserved for unexpected guests. Remember, practice makes permanent. By this practice, you are able to offer room at the inn for the Christ child, who comes by night in disguise.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Gift Of Work

My wife and I have a joke that she "bought low, and sold high" when we met. "You had a history of mental illness, no car, no job, no definite prospects, and you were living in a school bus," she said, "but I prayed for someone who was resourceful. Plus, I knew you were the one."

It was an experimental point in my life in Fall of 2008--trying new things, doing things I've always wanted to do, and stepping out. Part of that was trying on 'semi-retirement' at age 28, which practically consisted of quitting my job as a caseworker (without another lined up), living off my savings, and working on writing a book. I had the opportunity to do so, which I know not everyone has. I moved (from the school bus, as it wasn't, ahem, working out so well) into a spare bedroom in an apartment with a friend from grad school. I payed $150/month, had minimal expenses, and at first I enjoyed the unstructured and expansive days of leisure--walking to the donut shot for a coffee and a Boston creme, writing when I felt like it, going for walks, volunteer tutoring, and taking naps.

The fact is, though, I wasn't especially happy with this kind of idyllic setup. It wore off quick. The more time I seemed to have, the less I wrote. I wasn't spending much, but I wasn't pulling in anything either. The unstructured nature of most of my days was a little unnerving. Granted, I was unemployed for a few months by choice, but it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. By the time Debbie and I met in February of 2009, I wanted to work again, and got a job shortly thereafter.

I have always worked. I delivered newspapers, getting up at 4 in the morning before school, from age 12-18. In high school and college I waited tables and washed dishes. Summers I worked in greenhouses, propane factories, canoe rentals, architectural blueprint editing, filing, swimming pool maintenance, bar-backing--anything to stay busy and make some money.

Work is edifying. For men, it is tied up in our identity--work is what we do, what we are called to do,  and it ties in with where we draw our dignity and sense of self from. Men are nearly twice as likely to have mental health problems due to being unemployed than womenYoung, single, idle men in developing countries are prime candidates for radical extremist groups to recruit. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens,

“From the beginning therefore he [man] is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by work occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature.” 

Physical work is especially good for me as well, both for my body and my mind. Yesterday I spent a full eight hour day sawing, hammering, and building a chicken coop and run for some chickens we got. At the end of the day I was wiped, and my back was aching from all the bending and lifting. But I felt good, and accomplished. I had created something, done something, and I had the soreness and calluses to prove it.  I felt like I earned my sleep. I tend to calculate my 'opportunity cost' with things--is such-and-such worth my time? Is it too much hassle? I was feeling this way with the chickens--it was tempting to just pay a couple hundred bucks for a pre-made coop. But I knew I had the necessary skills and tools, as well as scrap lumber I'd been wanting to get rid of. It was slightly daunting at first, as it was all new territory for me, but it got done and I'll be honest: I was pretty satisfied. If I would have balked at the hard work involved and shelled out the money for one that was already made, I wouldn't have had that satisfaction.

All work has dignity--whether you clean office suites or run a Fortune 500 company. Whatever you do, do it well. Work is good for us, good for our spirits, and unemployment for many people (but especially men) can be demoralizing and jeopardize mental well-being. I have a new appreciation for work after not working in my late twenties for a couple months. I see the opportunity to work more as a gift than an burden (though it can be that as well), and am grateful for it. Gratefulness breeds happiness, and happy people are grateful people. Whatever the work, whatever responsibility you are entrusted with, use it to glorify God, and to earn your keep.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Somewhere Between Sedevacantism and "Old" Catholicism Lies...the Truth

One of the most interesting topics for me in grad school was learning about the various heresies that ran their course throughout the history of Christendom. We didn't delve deep, but being introduced to the false teachings of Arianism, Gnosticism, Donatism, Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism--movements that gained considerable traction among their followers and who often sought a purer or more authentic expression of theology and belief--I was almost sympathetic to their plight. Almost.

It reminds me of 9th grade Geometry and learning about vectors--a quantity that has both magnitude and direction. A vector starts out diverging from a point and is maybe a few millimeters away from its starting point. But the father it goes and with the greater the magnitude, by the time you end, you are a long way from home.

Whereas much of the early heresies sprung from false teachings about the nature of Christ, or the efficacy of the Sacraments, or sin, grace, and salvation, the steam that seems to propel the dominant schismatic branches today revolve around that of authority and legitimacy; specifically, the authority and legitimacy of the pope.

(*Note: I'm JV when it comes to Theology. I'm not especially smart, and struggled my way through grad school. I have no desire or time to get into the weeds on the particularities of these issues. I'm just laying them out in a rudimentary fashion to lay basic groundwork.)

On the traditionalist side, you have Sedevacantists--those who hold that the popes of the modern era since Pope Pius XII died in 1958 were not validly elected, and that the chair of Peter has been effectively vacant since then.

On the uber-liberal side, you have (as one example) the so-called "Old Catholicism" that denies the infallibility of the pope and split from the Catholic Church as a schismatic sect in the late 19th century. They highlight that they hold valid apostolic succession, but they are not in communion with Rome.

Both consider themselves true Catholics, not schismatics. Both consider their ordinations true and valid. Both think the Catholic Church left them, not the other way around.

I'm not as familiar or versed in sedevacantism, but we do have an Old Catholic church near us. It tries to pass itself off as Catholic in form and if you didn't know any better on the surface walking in you might think it was (aside from their ordinations of women and blessing of homosexuality). For some people who want the kind of comfort of a religious faith without all the trappings of authority and obedience, I suppose it holds an allure. But I find it deceptive and offensive. They have all the trappings of Catholicism without the only thing that matters--the Truth.

Though I have never been seriously tempted to leave the Catholic faith for other pastures (Orthodoxy, Protestantism, "independent" churches), it is a very fine line to walk sometimes when it comes to submission, humility, obedience, authority, and assent. I have some assurance in the fact that I can't just walk down to my local Donatist church (or Arian, Gnostic, etc), since they died out long ago. But where old heresies die out, new ones move in to take their place.

I also trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church and keeping her from error, til the end of time. That's a big wager. Truth is a funny thing. It endures when the dross burns away. It also stands by itself. There are truths and there is Truth. The spirit of the age asks, like Pilate, "What is Truth?" But as Catholics we know.

Faith is a gift of grace, and it takes trust too, to not set yourself up as your own magisterium. As the Catechism states on the true Magisterium, the teaching body of the Church, “It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error…. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.” (CCC, 890)

I think it's unfortunate and tragic when we are not unified. I pray constantly for the Holy Spirit not to lead me astray, and try to set guardrails to ensure that: studying the Catechism; having orthodox mentors and spiritual directors; regular prayer, Adoration, and Confession, and maintaining balance between extremes. And throwing myself on the mercy of God and learning to listen to the quiet whispers of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Sins of Neglect

I'm not a monk or an oblate by vocation, and I don't live by a formal Rule. But the writings of St. Benedict are in my blood, so oriented to common sense and moderation is he that I can't help but remember sections here and there in my daily life.

I was reminded of the 43rd Chapter of the Rule ("On Those Who Come Late To The Work of God or to Table"), this morning:

"At the hour for the Divine Office, as soon as the signal is heard, let them abandon whatever they may have in hand and hasten with the greatest speed, yet with seriousness, so that there is no excuse for levity. Let nothing, therefore, be put before the Work of God." (Rule, Chap 43)

I had gotten up at 5am, like I do most mornings. My intention was to go to daily Mass, and I had plenty of time to do so. But I got an idea for something to write, and so I sat down to bang it out before I left out of the house. I knew in the back of my mind that wasn't totally realistic, and I was proved right: 5:30 rolled around, then 5:45, then 6 o'clock, and by the time I looked up it was too late---I wouldn't make it to Mass on time.

What I should have done was obvious--shut down the computer mid-sentence at 6 o'clock and gotten ready--but I didn't. It was a strange and subtle temptation, one that said in as many words "What you're doing is too important to leave. You can always go tomorrow or something." At the root was pride, and a neglect of priorities. Something was put before the Work of God, and it had no merit when it stood in the shadow of the altar.

It's hard--but absolutely necessary--to obey the word of God as soon as you hear it. Just as sexual temptation needs to be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly, uprooted as soon as it sprouts in the heart before it has a chance to send down roots, so to with whatever particular circumstance we find ourselves in yoked in obedience.

What did the Devil ultimately accomplish this morning? He kept me from the Eucharist and from worship, from discipline and nourishment, from forgiveness of sin and replacing it with sin itself.

Now, you might be saying, "it's not a sin to not go to daily Mass" and you would be right. But in this particular circumstance, I knew that I was not obeying the Holy Spirit, I knew I was being prideful, and I knew that God was making it possible by circumstance to go and I was ignoring the invitation in favor of something frivolous. That's saying no to God, and that is sin! I am not scrupulous, but it was clear, at this subtle level, that I had committed sin, and felt shame. Not in a neurotic kind of way...just in a way that recognized that I was not doing what was right, what God was calling me to, in that moment.

I'm not advanced in the spiritual life, but the subtleties are starting to show a little more now that the brusqueness of mortal and serious sin has been confessed and forgiven, and I'm attuning to those other imperfections and offenses that are not as glaringly obvious. The things we regard as little and harmless are in fact the opposite in God's eyes. As St Teresa of Avila said,

“Always be fearful if you do not feel sorry for the faults you commit, for even venial sin ought to fill you with sorrow to the very depths of your soul…. For the love of God, take care not to commit any deliberate venial sin, even the smallest…. And can anything be small if it offends God?” (Conceptions of the Love of God 2 – Way of Perfection 41)

A prayer I love is David's heartfelt request: "Search me, God, and know my heart. Test me, and know my anxious ways" (Ps 139:23), as well as the words of James, "If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you" (James 1:5).

Little things are big things to God, and big things to us are little things to Him. Make a habit of not brushing off those subtle convictions, when you know what you did was not right and not in obedience. That's why we have a conscience! Don't be afraid to go to Confession to confess venial sins, not in a spirit of neurosis or scrupulosity, but trusting in the mercy of God to bind up your wounds and heal your imperfections. Don't hesitate, for "if today you hear His voice, harden not your heart!" (Ps 95:1-2)

"For who knows a person's thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God." 
(1 Cor 2:11)

The Neighborhood

In college I took a Sociology class as an elective titled "Race Relations." It was one of the most popular classes at Penn State with one of the most popular (and liberal) professors, Sam Richards. It was your quintessential revelatory experience for a college sophomore, and that Christmas I gave my dad one of the textbooks (Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria by Beverly Tatum) as a gift. It was a question I had asked myself when I would see groups of black students hanging out in the HUB during lunch.

When I got back from my semester abroad in New Zealand my senior year, racial relations on campus were tense, and there were regular protests. I joined the Black Caucus and went to meetings to try to understand what was going on from a perspective outside my own and what black students on campus were experiencing.

I had a friend in the DC area I would visit after college who lived in an apartment complex in Silver Spring. I don't know enough about the area to know if it was accurate but he described it as relatively homogenous "middle-class black neighborhood." Another friend I would visit in Capitol Hill described her neighborhood and parish in similar ways, though demographics were starting to shift in recent years (Msgr Pope writes about his experience here.)

I've been out of college for a while now but the simple question still comes to me as an adult when it comes to this complicated inter-sectionality of race, class, and culture: Just why are all the X kids sitting together at the lunch table?

Rod Dreher has an interesting and honest enough essay over at the American Conservative where he puts this question in a grown-up context, touching on the draw towards self-segregation.

"There’s nothing wrong with wanting neighborhood stability, and with wanting to live among people like yourself. As Harvard political scientist Bob Putnam found a decade ago — much to his own discomfort, as a liberal — the more ethnically diverse a neighborhood is, the less social trust there is among neighbors. This is simply a fact of human nature. Besides, people understandably find a sense of refuge and social solidarity living among those like themselves."

The racial component is one way we self-segregate, but there are others. It's been interesting how my Facebook feed and friends have evolved over the years, but most notably during the last year after the election when things got heated and toxic. I used to have a pretty eclectic grouping of people from all spectrums and backgrounds and political and religious thoughts and perspectives, but that has changed--my friends have thinned out. Some have unfriended me, and I've unfriended some people as well. I don't have as many contentious (and, ultimately, fruitless and frustrating) conversations anymore via social media.

Facebook is kind of like a virtual adult romper-room where grown-ups come to relax and play with each others, having conversations, sharing what they are reading, and posting pictures of their families and vacations. The kids aren't on it anymore (where they have gone too I have no idea), so the demographics have shifted, but on a macro level, and for me personally, on a micro level. And the truth of the matter behind that is--I got tired. I think my liberal friends were getting tired too, and respectively parted ways. My feed is not especially diverse; I hesitate to call it an echo chamber, but it can sound that way sometimes.

Another truth be told: I find myself a little bit more relaxed, a little bit less ill-at-ease, a little bit more...myself. Granted I'm not entertaining as many articles from the HuffPo or reading about my friends' fascination with alchemy or the Dakota pipeline projects as much. But I'm ok with that.

In the back of my mind I wonder--is this to my detriment? Am I becoming bigoted and close-minded? I feel like I've gotten closer to finding my tribe, and I recognize the limitations, but it's...nice. I don't have to pretend, I don't have to feel like I'm walking in a political or social landmine about to detonate something. My friends are supportive, we pray for each other, support each other, donate to each other's Catholic causes, and I can say that I am grateful for them. And after reading Dreher's essay, it feels like maybe it's just natural as well.

Facebook may not very well be the place for a "free exchange of ideas" with people we don't agree with or who have different views. I think we've lost a lot of the ability to respectively converse with people we disagree with, though I would say that is coming more from those on the left than on the right of the spectrum. The contentious "dialoguing" rarely seems to change anyone's mind about anything, it sucks time away from family and real life, and it just leaves you feeling...lousy.

I realize social media is a virtual community well of sorts: not real life, but not 'fake life' either. It can cause depression and loneliness. But it can also be edifying and mutually enriching to faith lives (like my own), and a shared sense of purpose and values among people spread out over a large geographic swath. I've met Facebook friends in "real time" and it's been awesome, and I never would have met them otherwise were it not for the platform.

People have been gathering into tribes and clans and nations for centuries. Is it possible--contrary to the progressive narrative--that this is, in fact, natural and human nature to want to be around "our own kind," however that looks? The racial narrative is a visible but narrow part of that, one of many groupings among lines. As Dreher writes about his experience at an elite boarding school in Louisiana,

"We were among our own. The sense of safety was like balm in Gilead — safety not in the sense that we would never have our ideas and beliefs challenged, but safety in the sense that you could let your guard down and be at ease with yourself, because you were among your own kind."

So, I've come to terms with losing friends, friends drifting away, and others organically coming onto the scene in this virtual social-media neighborhood.  I think my liberal friends who were antagonistic towards it are happier too that they are not constantly seeing my constant posts on religion and faith. I like to be challenged and entertain different perspectives, but it's also nice to just be yourself sometimes and not always feel like you have to self-censor. I recognize the limitations of a sort of homogenous tribalism, but everything is a tradeoff. I don't feel guilty about it anymore that I'm not "dialoguing" as much and truth be told, I'm happier. I worry about the echo-chamber effect sometimes, but I'm not out to change anyone's mind about anything, so maybe the focus and role of social media in my life has just shifted. And I'm ok with that.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What's Old Is New

I was an early adopter to minimalism. When my wife and I met in 2008 I was sleeping Japanese style on a futon mattress-topped tatami mat on the floor in the bedroom of my apartment. When I moved in after we got married at the age of 30, everything I owned fit in a Honda Civic.

I was only a couple years ahead of the minimalist movement, and of course some of it was due to budget, singledom, and mobile circumstance. It wasn't a bad thing either--I had divested myself of a lot of "stuff" when I moved into a schoolbus, and it was a cleansing kind of game to see how little I could live with in the way of possessions.

But now I'm going to make a prediction--restoration is going to trump renovation in the near future. The grandparents dying and the boomers downsizing and trying to foist off things onto their millennial children who "don't want their stuff" is creating a pennies-on-the-dollar flood of furnishings on Craigslist and thrift shops. The craftsmanship is unparalleled but the style passe. Young people prefer particleboard to hardwood, white to walnut, sleek to plush, so the demand is not there.

I'm not so young anymore. Yes, my parents were like many boomers who cut their square footage in half and had been holding things to grace us with that we didn't particularly want. Thankfully the timing worked well that were moving into a bigger space as my parents were moving into a smaller one. My wife's great aunt gave us a massive Japanese china set. We needed a China cabinet for it, and I found a beautiful one at a thrift store for next to nothing. I'd say 80% of our house is furnished with stuff that was free on Craigslist or given to us by my parents when they downsized, and it all seems to go as well, but the motif is more traditional. Our house was built in the 50's. It's cozy, a little messy, and feels nice and lived in. There are toys everywhere, toys people give us, presents at Christmas and birthdays, hardly anything we bought, it's a kind of organized chaos. As the proverb goes, "Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox come abundant harvests." (Prov 14:4)

Everything that goes around comes around--what's out today is en vogue next year. My prediction? Mid-century is going to make a comeback. IKEA will still have it's place among college students and transients. But somewhere, at some point, people are going to wake up in their white room white couch white bed clean dustless childless quiet modern home and experience a curious longing for the forgotten comfort of grandmother's delicate tea sets, grandfather's tan armchairs, the soft yellow glow of incandescent lightbulbs, and yes, maybe even the extravagant opportune of a mahogany China cabinet. But it won't be there anymore except in the most high end of antique shops.

In many ways I fear the Faith I am caring for, trying so carefully to preserve, maintaining its integrity and instilling the rituals and remembrances in our family life as my children are young, will be rejected when they come of age. "Sorry dad," they will say, "we don't want your stuff." An old missal, a rosary polished from years of fingering--they'll become like cherry armoires and cast iron cookware: of no perceived use to them.

Everybody has their preferred style, but there is something to be said for a quality handmade chair, an old stone church, a set of steel hand tools because it carries with it a memory, a legacy, and a history. Non-denominationalism is the IKEA of worship and architecture today. It is modern, sleek, relevant, and sterile. It's roots do not run deep, it's foundation is like that of a vinyl-clad townhouse.

In the secular arena, modern progressives destroy everything they touch. They tear down with no real cohesive or thought-out plan of how to rebuild. They tear down the family and religion, statues and monuments, traditional sexual mores. They are impatient, and content to slap up temporary shanties until they can figure out what next thing comes next. Social change can't happen fast enough. Out with the old, in with the new, until new becomes old and then off to the dump again.

But things get destroyed in the process. Timeless things, priceless things--immortal souls, traditional families, rituals and connections to our past and our ancestors and predecessors.

My prediction goes beyond furniture and housewares, beyond trends and tastes and kitchen renovations. When we hit the modern bottom, when the demons start to tip the scales and become too powerful, when the non-denominational particleboard gets wet and warped, when the trans-everything nonsense hits fever pitch...a few will start to pine for an ancient faith. They will go online to order and meetup; they will seek and they will not find (Jn 7:34) except in those pockets in which it has been preserved as the pearl of great price that it is, a soft glow of candles in stained glass windows in the darkness, shards of light reflecting off a gold monstrance in the sanctuary, the quiet ancient chant of plainsong beckoning behind thick solid wood doors. It will be exotic and intimidating, ethereal and forbidden, austere and arduous, foreign and yet completely familiar. The Faith of our fathers, the Faith handed down, the Faith communion that takes place in real will be both old, and new.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"I'm Living the Cliche"--Extramarital Affairs and the Illusion of Happiness

In Billy Wilder's 1955 film "The Seven Year Itch", Tom Ewell finds himself alone with Marilyn Monroe ("The Girl") in her apartment. When he gets his finger stuck in a champagne bottle, she notices his wedding band. "Are you sure that you want to waste your champagne, knowing now that I'm married?" he asks. Her response is the pinnacle of innocent naïveté:

"I think it's wonderful that your married. I think it's just delicate! I mean I wouldn't be lying on floor in the middle of the night in some man's apartment drinking champagne if he wasn't married!"

I've been happily married for seven years. For most of those seven years I have tried to take the "Pence approach" modeled on the Billy Graham rule:

"We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: “Flee . . . youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 1:22)

Pence got a lot of flack for his "demonizing" women with this approach, seeing them "only as an object of temptation" and taking extreme measures to avoid being alone with his staff members. But for the Christian concerned with sexual integrity, this was common sense stuff. Sometimes I forget that most women really don't know what it's like to be a man, but men intuitively know what we are capable of, especially when resolves are weakened by alcohol, distance from home, or marital struggles.  Sometimes circumstances would necessitate me traveling with a member of the opposite sex (carpooling), but for the most part the Pence Approach has been a good rule of thumb to minimize the potential to find oneself in a compromising situation.

You can't always have your cake and eat it too, either. A few years ago I had a good friend that I reconnected with, though I can't remember the circumstances. We had worked together in the city years before, and she was a Christian. I knew her husband. We would text and email every now and then, nothing that I wouldn't show my wife if I asked, mostly conversations about faith and Christian living. I so desperately wanted Christian friends to connect with during times when I felt under siege in a pagan culture that I was willing to be somewhat gender-blind.

Still...I had a feeling I was on a slope that was a little slick. What if things got hard with my wife and I turned to this other person who seemed to understand my spiritual struggles? We had plans to get together with our kids at a park or something when she was in town one time a few years ago, but I thought better of it and said that while innocent enough, it probably wasn't a good idea. She mentioned she was relieved I had called off the meeting for similar reasons. While there was never any explicit attraction, the potential was there, and I think both of us, sensing it, distanced ourselves and eventually fell out of touch.

I've never been a good lier, or even tempted by it. As a kid I would get so anxious and sick to my stomach at the prospect of having to keep stories straight under pressure that I just vowed to never get caught in a lie by never telling one. I did have a couple friends who dated compulsive liers, which wasn't apparent right away (they was that good). There's something psychologically off about someone who lies about even little things that don't matter in order to maintain a web of untruths. I just figured, in my adult life, it was just easier to always tell the truth.

So, my wife knows I can't really lie, and that I won't really try. If I do something wrong, I fess up to it pretty much right away, for my selfish sake as well as hers.

But adultery isn't just "something wrong" that one does, like saying you took out the garbage when you really didn't. No; adultery is a complete and utter betrayal. It breaks vows, it rends hearts, it destroys families. While forgiveness is possible, some marriages never recover from such a blow, with trust never getting restored. It is such a serious threat that I don't think being a little extra cautious, a little extra 'extreme', is unwarranted.

My litmus is if I catch myself looking over my shoulder, or feeling like there is something I need to hide from my wife, that's a red flag. I have plenty of platonic friendships with members of the opposite sex, but as a general rule I don't "hang out" or get together without including her. I also will hand over my phone or email if she asks to see it (she rarely does), and because I have yielded authority of my body to my wife (1 Cor 7:4), I use her feelings as a gauge. She is a reasonable person and a sensible woman: if she's uncomfortable with something, it's for good reason, and I need to pay attention to and respect that. I can also be gullible and naive, not unlike Marilyn Monroe in the apartment scene, so she is a good point of defense in the event I am missing something.

I was reading an article in the Atlantic ("Why Happy People Cheat") this afternoon about a woman who was having an affair. She had a great marriage to a wonderful, devoted husband, fulfilled with her kids, overall a great life. And yet she was cheating. Why? Seemed to undermine the "I'm not happy in my marriage so I'll look outside it for fulfillment" theory. She was happy in her marriage, and loved her husband dearly. So what would possess someone to be unfaithful when they seem to have everything going for them? The author made an interesting point about the nature of the allure:

"Affairs are by definition precarious, elusive, and ambiguous. The indeterminacy, the uncertainty, the not knowing when we’ll see each other again—feelings we would never tolerate in our primary relationship—become kindling for anticipation in a hidden romance. Because we cannot have our lover, we keep wanting. It is this just-out-of-reach quality that lends affairs their erotic mystique and keeps the flame of desire burning. Reinforcing this segregation of the affair from reality is the fact that many, like Priya, choose lovers who either could not or would not become a life partner. By falling for someone from a very different class, culture, or generation, we play with possibilities that we would not entertain as actualities."

She goes on to describe how our view of modern marriage as a modal of self-fulfillment opens the door so easily to infidelity:

"Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.  
Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer."

For Christian men and women, there are practical steps one can take to safeguard one's marriage. But beyond the nuts and bolts, there is a philosophical underpinning that needs to be addressed, and that is marriage is not ultimately about being happy. Happiness can emerge as a pleasant by-product, but when pursued for its own sake, it is elusive. Like a Chinese finger trap, the more we serve ourselves and our own needs, the more we struggle. Marriage is best served in a spirit of submission, which is why Paul encourages men to love their wives "as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over to her" (Eph 5:25). In the same way a man may grow to love virtue because it becomes sweet, so serving one's wife does not have the bitter aftertaste that self-fulfillment does.

Marriage is a lot of little things that build on big things. The big things are love, faithfulness, devotion, faith, etc. But the little things are important too, because they gain weight over time, like dust on a ledge. There is a little practice I have come to do as a reminder of this, just a stupid little thing, but helpful: every time I serve dinner, I always give my wife the plate I would want to eat myself--the one with the bigger porkchop or the nicer salad. It's a daily habit that gets reinforced over time and, I hope, is a way of practicing self-forgetting.

We can't completely shield ourselves from the danger of unfaithfulness. But there are common-sense things we can do to protect our marriages. Why is it important? Because, as Cardinal Raymond Burke relays, “There is no greater force against evil in the world than the love of a man and woman in marriage.”

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

This Thanksgiving, I'm Grateful For Those Who Prayed For Me

I was chatting with an old friend today who reminded me what a mess I was in 2009. "I was done with you," she said, "but now I beam with reminders to never give up--God hears our prayers!"

My friend reminded me of my trip out to San Francisco to visit her and her husband in February of that year, and how I wasn't the greatest influence for him--the partying, the dispensaries in Oakland, the Oxycontin. Her devoutness was always a source of annoyance for me, "Cathy Catholic" I'd call her. On that trip she took me to a pro-life party, and I didn't want to be there; I ended up catching a cab back to their place early. She suggested a book by Christopher West on a different occasion when I had gone to visit and I threw it across the room.

"I had you on the list," she told me, referencing the list of people she prayed for regularly during Adoration. "Not everybody comes around off it."

I also recalled a memory from high school. My dad and I were driving and went by our our town's Roman Catholic church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Mass was just getting out. "Look at all those people," I said with vitriol, "nothing but stupid sheep without a mind of their own." He put me in my place, and quick. But still--I have had a long streak of rebellion and waywardness, despite becoming Catholic only a few years after that event, and even into my years as a Catholic.

I can't explain it or come to terms with it by any kind of rational reasoning. The only thing I can say, over and over, is that God's grace saved me. There simply is no reasonable explanation than that, and that people were praying for me. My friend Cathy Catholic included.

I think of priests like Fr. Don Calloway, MIC whose mother never game up praying for him when he was a wayward drug addicted Deadhead teen. For my friend Joseph Sciambra, whose father never stopped praying the rosary for him as he abandoned himself to a life of gay hedonism. For Augustine's mother, Monica, who spent years imploring God to bring him home.

If I didn't have people praying for me, adopting me in prayer, like Cathy did, I may very well be dead right now, or at least still be straddling the life of tortured faith and a life of debauchery. It took a while, but she was faithful, even though she was done with me at the time on a relational level, she abandoned me to the Father. And the Father took care of the rest, leading me home.

Never give up in praying for people. Be like the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8, who won't leave the judge alone until he gives her what she asks. Be bold, and don't give up hope. God doesn't work on our time schedule, but he always hear our prayers. And if you've been saved, spiritually adopt someone else, and be intentional about praying for them, regularly, even when you think they are lost. Pray it forward. For our God is one that brings people back from the dead. Present company included.

Happy Thanksgiving, from our family to yours.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

In The Age of Social Media, Don't Lose Your Reward

One of my current struggles in the life of faith is to know when to speak, and when to keep silent (Ecc 3:7); when to put one's light on a lampstand (Mt 5:15), and when to close the door to my room and remain cloaked in the dark night (Mt 6:6). This is compounded by the almost addictive habit of using social media to make things, both public and private, known to the world.

For example, I often share about my day-to-day life with my wife--our foibles and arguments and quirky interactions--on Facebook. I do it all in good fun, with part of it as a kind of informal marriage ministry to serve as a witness and testament to what God has done in our lives as a couple. He is the reason we have a healthy marriage because He has set parameters for us in love, a manual, for what Christian marriage is all about. And because I have experienced such joy and stability in my life as a man as a result, I want to share that joy with others, to those who may not have had a good model of marriage in their own lives growing up.

While I try to be respectful and mindful of finding that balance (and 99% of the time clear with my wife before I post anything), sometimes I veer too far into exhibitionism--a tendency I am prone to, one born out of self-absorption and vanity. These are the kinds of 'hidden sins' we forget about in contrast to the harder-edged and more obvious offenses against chastity, modesty, and temperance. It is times like this that I find social media to be an almost-near occasion of sin. Why? Because some things are best left hidden, between you and your God.

In the sixth chapter of Matthew's gospel, Jesus is giving his exhortations against making show of one's piety in the 'three pillars' of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

After each exhortation, he admonishes his followers to do these things in secret, to not make a show of it, so that the Father "who sees what is done in secret" may reward us.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Mt 6:1-4)

For the Pharisees, the synagogues and street corners they march out to provide the public arena for them to make their good works known. And what does Jesus say? "They have received their reward in full." (Mt 6:5) It's an instant kind of gratification, a kind of humble-bragging that merits a few moments of recognition in their everyday life among their peers, but which soon fades into distant memory.

Sound familiar? It does to me.

It's easy to rationalize the exhibition of our good works in faith for the purpose of "displaying a meritorious example" or "showing others what true citizenship looks like," whether by a news interview, a Facebook video, or a selfie with a homeless man. For the Christian, however, there is an acute danger of forfeiting God's reward upon delivery of such public esteem; as soon as you make it public, it evaporates into thin air.

There is a kind of emptiness in human flattery and praise, and we are all tempted by it. When celebrities can't stay out of the spotlight, or philanthropists make sure the PR team is out to document their recent check-cutting, this worldliness becomes apparent. But the great saints, who know how God's economy works, recoil at the thought of their deeds being spotlighted, almost taking offense at it, unless it were for God's purposes and He desires to use it for His glory. Otherwise, many holy people are content to simply do good in obscurity, day in and day out, tirelessly and forfeiting claims to anything in this life, so hungry they are for the rewards of the Eternal.

I was acutely reminded of this recently in dealing with a pernicious temptation towards public exhibitionism with regard to something that should be kept in secret. Whereas I used to struggle mightily and frequently with resisting against sins of chastity in my twenties, struggles with pride and vanity have stepped in in my thirties to take their place. I tend to regard social media as a tool to learn and share, but it is not without temptation and near occasions of exhibitionist sin, and sins against charity. That's why a fast is good practice from time to time; hard, but necessary.

The 'Like Culture' we live in is self-reinforcing. It feels good to be acknowledged and affirmed, buyoyed and congratulated. My prayer these days echoes David's in Psalm 139: "Search me, God, and know my heart. Test me, and know my thoughts!" (Ps 139:23). The daily readings from the book of Wisdom on this topic have been timely in this regard.

So, the next time you do some good as a result of your faith and want to post about it (if you're anything like me), recall Jesus' command to keep it hidden, for His eyes only. "Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward." (2 Jn 1:8)

For no earthly recompense can compare to what God has prepared for those who love Him! (1 Cor 2:9)

Monday, November 13, 2017

How Are We To Deal With Our Enemies?

I used to do a lot of "dialoguing" with people opposed to a Christian worldview, friends on the left and people of different and varying viewpoints. Unless the person was very open and searching, I found it to be ultimately a fruitless endeavor. I will talk with anyone, anywhere, at any hour of the day or night about Christ if they are even the slightest bit open. But I have found, at least in my experience, that while "dialoguing" may lead some to a bit of understanding, it ultimately does not lead to conversion or repentance.

Maybe it is the times we are living in, but I feel much more of a sense of urgency today than I may have ten or twenty years ago. Dialoguing for the purpose of education is one approach, I suppose, as I have seen Bishop Robert Barron do in his talks and Word on Fire videos to engage with atheists and non-believers. But it's my contention that most people are not moved to conversion by arguments. If anything it can lead to a kind of com-box theological masturbation. And I need to keep a lid on it sometimes to keep from exclaiming, "WE DON'T HAVE TIME FOR THIS, JUST GET ON THE ARK FOR GOD'S SAKE!!"

Actually, these days I don't know what moves people to belief. Is it beauty? For some, I suppose, and liturgists would argue that it needs to start here. Is it crisis? I think this can be a catalyst as well, though I have also known people who have lost/abandoned belief after the death of a child or other tragedies. Is it the Church's intellectual tradition? For many the intellectual arguments carry a force that Protestant Christianity simply cannot match, and draws them to the Catholic faith. Is it the Holy Spirit? Faith is a gift of grace (Eph 2:8), so undoubtedly; but what then when you have such hardness or heart and darkening of the intellect?

I vacillate between a kind of idealistic sense of opportunity that the time is ripe for the gospel, and a kind of hardened dejection at the mass apostasy and stiff-neck nature of the world in which we are living. I'm not naive to think my street evangelization will bring about any kind of mass conversions or lead to much more than public humiliation or derision. But even if I am able to plant a seed in one person that takes root years later, I would still do it. A total failure, by worldly recruiting standards, a fools errand. But we continue to do the work, God is the only one that can change hearts.

In Luke 10:29, a lawyer asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" It's a loaded question, and Jesus refuses to play his loophole game. Instead, he relates the parable of the Good Samaritan and claims that the one who showed mercy was neighbor to the beaten man. This seems fairly obvious to be as a Christian. What is harder is answering the question of who my enemies are.

Lately I have been more cognizant of the "enemies of the cross of Christ" that are working for our destruction, which Paul speaks about in Philippians 3:18. I'm talking about the obvious: Islamic extremists and oppressive governments, but also the less obvious--those who oppose the Gospel while claiming the be open-minded and tolerant of opposing viewpoints, who attempt to subvert through sweet talk and perverted deception, even those who would go after our children through deviant corruption. As David laments,

"Help, LORD, for no one loyal remains;
the faithful have vanished from the human race.
Those who tell lies to one another
speak with deceiving lips and a double heart." 
(Ps 12:2-3)

They may be those obvious leftist blocs--Planned Parenthood, the LGBT lobby, militant atheists--that oppose Christ and seek to punish Christians. But it may also be those in our own families and among our own friends who are enemies of the cross. When Jesus shares with his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed, Peter opposes him, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you." He turned and said to the future first pope,

"Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. 
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." 
(Mt 16:21-23)

When we restrict ourselves to the things of this world, seeing only what is on the surface and attempting to thwart the designs of God, we make ourselves enemies of the cross. 

And yet, how we treat our enemies says a lot about us as Christians. For what does the Lord call us to do? 

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
(Mt 5:43-48)
We are entering dark days. How we stand in the face of persecution against those with deep pockets who seek to "punish" Christians for holding beliefs counter to the pagan sexual ideology of the day and who pay dearly for it, against those who burn our brothers and sisters over open flames and sever their heads in Muslim countries for being slaves to Christ, against those in our own family and friends who we find ourselves divided against (Mt 10:35), determines our witness. When we refuse to heed this almost offensive command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, whether because of hurt or righteous indignation, we deny the very command of Christ. Perfection in faith is forged in this radical approach to repayment. St. Paul tells us to "bless, and not curse" those who persecute us, and not to repay evil with evil, not to look for revenge but leave room for wrath. (Rom 12:14-19). 

When I regard those who oppose Christ, as a collective "I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies" (Ps 139:22). And yet I would invite a member of their army to dinner, give them a bed in my house in their poverty, and love and pray for them. Not for the purpose of fruitless "dialogue", but as a means of opposition, for as St. Paul writes, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head" (Rom 12:20). We can only forgive, pray, bless, and love in this way by the power of God. It is too radical, and too extreme, for us to do under our own power. 

When dealing with your enemies, don't forget this: Saul was an enemy of Christ, persecuting and killing followers of the Way with gusto. And yet when the Lord called Ananias to approach this enemy of Christ--who was to become a chosen instrument of the Lord's to carry His name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites--and lay hands on Saul, the "scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight...and was baptized" (Acts 9:18). We cannot discount our enemies as having no part in God's plan for salvation, for they may just be the person who comes to Christ and does one hundred fold more than we could ever do by our own power. We are called to love them, and pray for them--even when they sue us, when they seek to corrupt our children, when they seek to usurp God's authority and when they seek to do us harm. This is what it means to be a Christian. How we treat our enemies has everything to do with what it means to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Shop Talk

Pablo Picasso once noted, “When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.” 

I'm not an artist and don't hang around artists. I write, but I don't get together with other writers either. The only thing in my life these days that really seems to matter is following Christ and submitting to His will. Much of that walk is unaccompanied, but I am always scanning the horizon to meet other followers of the Way to be fortified by, and to fortify if need be.

Do you know what my favorite Mystery of the rosary to meditate on is? It is the Visitation. Why? I've often wondered that myself. I've never been pregnant. I don't have cousins I'm close with. But there is something about the scene and motivation of Mary, pregnant with the Savior, who set off "in great haste" (Lk 1:39) over 80 miles on foot (pregnant!) to pay her relative Elizabeth a visit right after the Annunciation. Who can she share with about this unbelievable event? Who is going to "get it?" It is a moving communion scene when Mary arrives--Elizabeth cannot contain her joy and "cries out in a loud voice" while Mary's soul exaults and her spirit rejoices in God. Mary stays three months, presumably until John is born.

In our lives, as we get older, our friends--the ones we trust, the ones to whom we share with deeply and intimately--tend to thin out. If we have one or two, we should count ourselves fortunate. Many do not have even that. In a religion such as Catholicism, that preaches unpopular truths, these genuine friendships in faith can be a much-needed balm for weary travelers following the Way.

When I meet another Christ-follower on the road who "gets it," who wants the same thing for themselves and their family--holiness, living for God alone, to love and serve Him exclusively--I feel a deep joy. It doesn't come right away, but only after a gentle dance together to test each other's steps, to see if the other can complete them, not unlike those early Christians who clandestinely celebrated a common brotherhood on the road by, as the story goes, "completing the fish":

"Greeks, Romans, and many other pagans used the fish symbol before Christians. Hence the fish, unlike, say, the cross, attracted little suspicion, making it a perfect secret symbol for persecuted believers. When threatened by Romans in the first centuries after Christ, Christians used the fish mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes. According to one ancient story, when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company."

Once a comradeship is established, it affords an opportunity to "talk shop." From the outside this can look like Catholic nerd speak, but among believers, it is a moment of reloading magazines, comparing maps, and exchanging messages while in asylum.

"I'm in need of a miracle for my sister in law, but I don't have nine days." Have you tried Mother Teresa's emergency novena? My visa wasn't going to arrive in time and she came through for me. 

"My scapular is wearing thin, and I'm almost out of Miraculous Medals. Do you know someone who can wholesale? We've given out a lot this month." Yes, I know a guy, he's got nine kids and runs a distribution center out of his garage in Cleveland, faithful guy...


Saints are both idealists and realists--they realize that they are incapable of anything apart from God, and yet trust in His ability to do great things, miraculous things, in the world and in their lives and the lives of others. They realize that sanctification comes as much through the daily faithful observance of mundane works of cleaning toilets and restocking shelves as it does through the loftier occasions of consolation and communion in prayer and contemplation. They realize their cross is a "reservation for one," and yet with the communion of saints and those who have gone before whom they can call upon anywhere at any time, they are never really alone.

When you start walking the difficult and lonely path and meet a sincere fellow believer on the way, don't pass him by without an embrace and an encouragement, after he proves himself trustworthy. It may be for you or for him or for the two of you, but in pagan land, we can't afford to travel alone, since "two are better than one...if one falls, the other can pick his companion up" (Ecc 4:9). Stop and talk shop, exchange notes, reload each others sacramentals, and pray for one another--you are soldiers heading to the same destination over the same treacherous terrain. Let the theologians and the doctors discuss Form and Structure and Meaning. You in the trenches? You figure out who sells the cheap turpentine, and go get it. There's work to do.

Friday, November 3, 2017

How Great Is That Darkness

The older I get, the less I like being alone. Which is why it is good for me to be alone from time to time. Because I don't like it. And it's good to do things we don't like from time to time.

Take being out in nature, for instance--you know, hiking, camping and the like. It's good for the soul. It's good, free, homeopathic medicine. But I kind of hate nature, kind of the way I hate fasting; it's a deprivation of what I am used to. What I like is what follows the deprivation, because it gives me a new appreciation for what I take for granted: hot showers, meals not eaten on a log, water from a tap, not sleeping the ground. Whenever I come home from some time in the woods, I feel like a King!

But being alone--it's hard, and necessary. It's hard because I love people, and I struggle with myself. It's necessary because I love people, and because I struggle with myself. It gives the time and space to work out the kinks and come face to face with the defects and weaknesses that become oh-so-apparent when there is no one around to distract you from or conceal them.

The first thing that became painfully apparent as I crossed the railroad tracks across from the banks of the Susquehanna and started up the mountain to spend a mini-retreat night in the woods was how very hard it is to dis-connect from technology, and just how much of my life is voluntarily and compulsively self-documented. I uninstalled the Facebook app on my phone when I arrived at the trailhead at the good advice of a friend, and instantly felt kind of...adrift. As an 'undocumented' sojourner left to just live the moments off-grid without capturing them, it was unnerving to think, "if something happened to me right now (fell, died, etc), who would know?" If a tree falls in the woods and you don't post about it, did it really happen?

Of course there was a kind of refreshing novelty to just existing (walking, taking a break, appreciating the sunset) in obscurity and without fanfare, if only for an afternoon and a night. This was what life was like before social media and Instagram, and how I remembered growing up and taking extended trips like this. As a teenager it was exhilirating to be hundreds of miles from home, miles from your parents and the nearest payphone (payphone!), with only your legs to carry you and pen and paper to get messages to friends once you reach a post office (hardly a form of 'instant' messaging). Each day was filled with those hidden moments you kind of just hold in your heart and your subconscious--the joy of a cheesesteak when you get into town, the morning fog hanging over Boiling Springs, the grandeur of being above tree line.

The second thing that became apparent, in a small way, was the dreadful feeling of complete responsibility for my well-being based on the choices I made and their consequences. It reminded me of a sign I saw once: Liberty = Freedom + Responsibility. If I got thirsty and drank all my water during the hike, I would have none leftover to cook with that night. If I took a steep section down with too much speed and sprained an ankle, there was no help-desk to call and no one to carry me out. If I wasn't paying attention and veered off-trail, I had to be able to find my way back (without a map). I don't watch much TV but there was a show called 'Alaska: The Last Frontier' that I really liked watching because it showed the reality of frontier life--the possibility of falling through ice while fishing, being mauled by a bear, having to chop wood constantly to keep from freezing, making sure you get the vegetables planted at the right time of year, etc.--that we often forget living, as I do, a domesticated, pampered existence.

Thirdly, I never realized how very distracted I am, how I surround myself with distractions to shield myself from the hum-drum ordinariness of everyday existence. When all that is stripped way or minimized, you're left with the basics--cooking, eating, washing, reading perhaps, prayer, sleeping, and rising. Rinse and repeat. It's refreshing...and eventually gets to be kind of, well, mundane. When you are alone, and no one else is around--well, it can be uncomfortable to sit with yourself. When I arrived at the shelter around 4pm I cooked, ate, washed the dishes, read a little, prayed a little, built a little fire...and climbed into my sleeping bag around 6:30 because there was nothing else to do. I ended up falling asleep before the sun set and slept about eleven hours. Which is where the next, slightly dicier, leg of my retreat commenced--two hours before dawn.

I had to be at a work event in Harrisburg by 7:30am Friday morning, which meant I had to make it to my car by 7am. There was just one problem I hadn't really considered at the time: the sun didn't rise until 7:30, which means I would be making the descent down the mountain in complete darkness.

Now, when I say mountain keep in mind this is Appalachian range-level peaks, not 10,000ft+ Snow capped monsters in Colorado. Still, the hike up was rocky and followed a ridge line and required squeezing between boulders, not super demanding, but no walk in the park. To boot, a recent rain and leaves everywhere made the path slow-going and slippery. And this was during the day. When I rose at 5:30 and packed up the rest of my food out of the bear box, it was pitch black, save for a dull yellow hue from the moon. I had bought a $7 headlamp at Walmart right before the trip, and I was glad I did--it was the only thing that separated me from complete darkness in the middle of the woods.

As far as wilderness hiking trails go, the Appalachian Trail is pretty domesticated and well maintained, and so the path is somewhat worn by the thousands of thru-hikers and weekend warriors that had trod this way before. White blazes marked on the trees every few hundred yards help keep you on the path. As I made my way slowly down the mountain in the pitch black, though, I could only see a few yards in front of me.

It was weird--I knew that if my headlamp went out, I would have no clue whatsoever where I was, and would be essentially blind. The darkness became for me an analogous existential blanket in which life was reduced to the only things that mattered at that moment: the light of my headlamp (faith in Christ), the white blazes on the trees explicitly marking the way (Holy Scripture and doctrine), and the subtle trodden path (Tradition, and the way of the saints who have gone before us).

Every now and then my light would catch a glowing set of eyes in the darkness and I would freeze. A black skunk or some other animal would scamper off after our standoff, the way demons flee for cover when the name of Christ is uttered.

When my mind would wander, I would occasionally look up and find myself off the path, which is no big deal in the light of day, but when you can only see a few feet in front you and you are relying on blazes to get you home, it becomes an issue. At those points I would backtrack until I reached a blaze I had already passed. It reminded me of the gracious gift of the sacrament of Confession and Reconciliation, that saves us from forty years of wandering in the wildness, lost in sin, and restores us to grace so we can get back on the path and continue making our way home.

And in the dark, it was easy to lose the path--its not paved, there's no guardrails, only a subtle tamping down of leaves and soil that is almost indistinguishable in the dark from the surrounding woods. It is easy to get off course. If it weren't for following those who had gone before (the saints), I would be lost.

At certain points on the descent, the trail was a sheer drop off, to the point that I got dizzy if I looked down to the specs of cars on the highway below. With wet leaves and skree, I needed to keep my eyes fixed on the path to keep from taking a spill and tumble that would probably break my back. To keep our eyes fixed on Christ when the world draws our eyes away from Him is a matter not only of focus, but of steadfast survival. The words of Fr. Lazarus El-Anthony, a modern anchorite in Egypt, came to mind: "Out here, no one speaks my language. I have no countrymen...I have no one, no one to help me. If I take my eyes off Christ for one moment, I am completely lost." In our domesticity, we tend to lose sight or forget the intensive spiritual battle for our souls going behind the scenes. Moments like these, which force me to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and nothing more, remind me of this.

When I came upon sign junctions--in this case, where the obscure blue-blazed side trail shortcut I took met up with the white blazed main trail, I was reassured I was on the right path and could gauge how much farther I had to go. These reminded me of the consolations of the Holy Spirit, the people and situations which confirm our decisions when we are in doubt. Like the memorial altars of the Israelites, they strengthen our resolve and bouey our doubt, another gift of grace.

Finally, completing the hike down in tact, and coming to my car as the sun was rising above the river, I was grateful--grateful for the undistracted time, grateful for the sweat soaked t shirt and sore ankles and aching back, grateful for a cup of coffee, grateful to be able to see my family, grateful for my faith, and grateful to be alive. Which is, I suppose, the fruit of retreat.