Friday, December 14, 2012

The Limits of Natural Compatibility

I've been a little remiss in blog posting lately, primarily because I've been doing creative writing, and that always takes first priority. However, there have been a few topics kicking around my brain of late, and I thought I'd quickly share one of the more startling ones.

One of my favorite devotional works is one I just picked up in the past couple years: The Gift of Faith, by Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer. It's a wonderful work, at once mystical and practical, profound yet very readable. I just finished by fourth time through it, and every time I glean something new and useful. I can tell the work is going to be in my regular devotional cycle for years.

This time I caught something that had slipped by me before – I may have noticed it, but the import escaped me. Writing with wisdom and insight, Fr. Dajczer addresses many aspects of the spiritual life, and devotes an entire section to The Actualization of Faith. In it he has a subsection on The Role of Feelings, wherein he makes an amazing statement, which I'll quote:

It could happen, that in a marriage the couple is well matched, like two pieces of a split brick, which fit perfectly when put together. In the light of faith, this is not an ideal situation, because this is only a perfectly natural harmony positive feeling. This is not yet Christian love, the agape love, which has to be worked at.” (p. 210, emphasis added)

Imagine that! This wise and Godly counselor, with decades of experience, thinks a situation of what our culture would call “high compatibility” is, in fact, less than ideal. Not that he thinks it impossible, but he cautions that it is not as simple as it would appear. He goes on to explain why:

Every community of people, whether in marriage, friendship, or in any group, if solely based on natural bonds, does not have much chance of survival. Someday, sooner or later, it either has to break down or attain a higher level of existence...your gift of self increases to the extent of the lack of natural bonds. How good it is that crises occur among us, that there are sometimes misunderstandings in marriage, that children can sometimes fight among themselves because they do not get along with each other. These are the cracks, the fissures, which enable the birth or deepening of supernatural bonds and supernatural love. It is this very love, which is the work of Christ, which is everlasting if allowed to develop (pp 210-211, emphasis in original)

Thus he makes clear that it isn't that a high level of natural compatibility is automatically a problem, but that it makes it more difficult to move to that higher level of loving because the partners are used to relying on that natural compatibility to make things easy.

Clearly this flies in the face of the cultural wisdom, which holds that the higher the compatibility, the better the match. Some modern thinker, reading Fr. Dajczer's insights, might snidely respond, “Well, what then? Should we go out and marry someone we can't stand, just to increase our growth in holiness?” Clearly that's not what Fr. Dajczer is suggesting. What he is pointing out is that when there is a high degree of natural compatibility, then the couple tends to coast on that for a long time. But the time will come when that will run out, and the spouses realize that they're living with a fallen human being with whom they have to live – and for whom they have to die, because dying to self is what true love requires.

Here, I think, is when the crisis comes. For couples with high natural compatibility, the shock is more severe and the adjustment greater when the need arises. “What? You've never asked this of me before! Why is this relationship suddenly so costly?” The wise know that the answer is that relationships of true love are always costly, and always require death to self. The prevailing cultural mythology is that the more “compatible” the parties, the less stress the relationship will pose, and the more gratifying it will be for both parties.

Ellen and I know this firsthand. We got married because we were told to, but if anyone had given us one of those personality compatibility tests before we wed, they might have waved us off. There were too many points of friction, too much potential for confusion and mixed communications – as we discovered shortly after our wedding. I have personality quirks and coping mechanisms that push Ellen's emotional buttons; she has ways of dealing with things that tax me. We misunderstand, miscommunicate, and frustrate each other. Our entire marriage has been a learning experience in how to express things, what topics to avoid, and when to set our teeth and face a difficult matter. It's called for a lot of patience and forgiveness and prayer and understanding.

On the other hand, we knew another couple who got married at about the same time we did. If someone were handing out compatibility prizes, they surely would have gotten one. They were affectionate, always in agreement, always going out of their way for each other – a model, it would seem, of natural compatibility. And – you guessed it – they're the ones who got divorced. Of course it was a complex situation, but knowing a bit about it, it seems to me that Fr. Dajczer's description at least partially fit that couple. Ellen and I were grappling with difficulties from our first weeks of marriage; they seemed to coast along on a cloud of matrimonial bliss. But in the end, we were the ones whose marriage lasted, because as Fr. Dajczer points out, we had to let our relationship be moved to a higher level.

I say this all in the very shadow of my third daughter's recent engagement. Needless to say, we're thrilled for them both. A fine young man asked for her hand, and they've been consciously exploring moving toward marriage for some time. And yes, they seem to have a high degree of natural compatibility*. But I'm not concerned for them (any more than the usual) because I know they will heed Fr. Dajczer's advice. Whether their natural compatibility is high or low, they'll walk into the permanent bond of marriage with both eyes open, knowing that the day will come when they'll be pushed to a place that will outstrip the ability of natural compatibility to cope. Then they'll have to turn to their Heavenly Father for the strength to continue together.

And He, as always, will provide it.

*Allowing for the fact that he's from Texas.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

In the aftermath

Yes, I have done a lot of thinking and praying about the last election. I'm not going to attempt to rehash many of the observations that have been made elsewhere, some of which were masterful. I'm simply going to share my thoughts and perceptions, and reflect on what I think this means for us as a nation.

Of course, I was tremendously disappointed by the presidential election results. I put effort into every election, but in this case I had hope that we'd see some real change, so I worked (and prayed, and fasted) very hard. I hoped that after four years of this country being on the disastrous course we've followed would have awakened many of my fellow citizens to what was really happening. Ellen and I both had a sense (for what that's worth) that in this election, we as a nation were being given a choice. In past elections we've sensed that we were being spared, or that we'd been given over, but this time we both sensed that this election was truly in the hands of us as citizens.

If that perception was accurate, then I got my answer: a slim but critical majority of voters chose to be subjects rather than citizens. We chose the Leviathan State over the Free Republic, and as Fr. Schall and many others observe, we will never pass this way again. We're beyond the tipping point. It's not a question of whether Republicans will ever again gain ascendancy, because despite the thinking of the brainwashed chattering class, it isn't about political parties or power. It's about fundamental identity.

As I struggled with my grief, the Lord helped me see a couple of things that didn't necessarily make things easier, but helped bring needed perspective. One had to do with the election itself. Given that I'd put such effort into working for pro-life candidates – writing, speaking, organizing, praying, etc. – it was understandable that I'd see the election as a decision point, where we as Americans could choose one way or another, and the outcome of that decision could be influenced. But the Lord, from the perspective of His omnipotence, helped me see that it was in one sense more of an indication than a decision. In other words, the decision had long been made in the hearts and minds of Americans, and the election results simply reflected that decision. In that sense, the results were more like test results than they were like the outcome of a choice. This does not mean we are not responsible for the choices we made, but it helped me see that the choices had already been made long before in many other contexts, and the ballots merely reflected those. (It was also comforting to me, because in my own county all but one pro-life candidate won, including the presidential candidate. My efforts were not completely in vain, for I'm sure I had some influence on my immediate area.)

Another thing the Lord helped me see, and this was harder, was that part of my own motive for working so hard was in hopes of making my task easier. Of course, I have to qualify this by making clear that I don't think the whole affair was about me, and of course the Lord would prefer to have a government run by those who respect all human life, families, religious freedom, etc. But at least part of my motivation was hoping that a less hostile regime would enable me to take it a little easier, be a little less vigilant, perhaps kick back and relax a little. But the election makes it clear that there will be no reprieve; in fact, we can count on a more intense struggle in the days to come. So my hope of a little inline vacation goes by the boards – looks like I'll have to keep growing up after all.

But a perspective shift is helpful, since disappointment rises out of the gap between what we expect and what we get. It's been clear to me for some time, and is now clearer than ever, that my citizenship is not of this world. No, I'm not planning to move to a cabin in the woods and totally withdraw from social and political involvement. As a Catholic who takes my pro-life and pro-family responsibilities seriously, I can't do that. But I will recognize that my country has become, and will become increasingly, hostile to those things. The change has already happened, and will accelerate in the days to come. I need to adjust my expectations and actions accordingly.

I'm writing this on Veteran's Day, when there is a good amount of appreciative sentiment expressed toward us veterans for our sacrifices for the country. This is fine, as are such things as July 4th celebrations, but increasingly these will become expressions of nothing more than sentiment. The substance of what was sacrificed will continue to be gutted until there is nothing left but bread and circuses. Students of history know that this decline is as inevitable as the sunset – true freedom and self-governance is an ideal that rarely lasts more than a few generations under the best of circumstances. I know that I will not die in the same land I was born in, and that this is true even if I die tomorrow. I will fight a rearguard action, but much of my focus will be preparing my grandchildren for the world they will inherit. It will be different, and much harder for them, especially if they seek to live out the Gospel with integrity. But it will be better than living as subservient minions of the Leviathan state.

Increasingly the words spoken by a virtually unknown Fr. Joseph Ratzinger back in 1969 ring true:

The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members....
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution – when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

Sunday, November 04, 2012


I recently had occasion to read Tom Doran's second venture into publication, Terrapin. I reviewed his first work, Toward the Gleam, in May 2011, and found it overall a good read – though even Doran himself admits the premise a little fantastic. Gleam is an example of a sub-genre which I call “Inklings fan-fiction”, which may not appeal to all.

Fortunately, with Terrapin Doran moves into what is more clearly familiar territory for him – the mystery – and it is a wise move. First off, it's a great story, especially if you're a mystery fan. Mysteries aren't my first choice of genre, but I can appreciate a decent one. My wife is far more of a mystery aficionado, and she enjoyed it as a story, ranking at the upper end of well written mysteries – maybe not quite Christie or Sayers, but certainly well above average. Doran seems to be getting more comfortable behind his typewriter.

The book is really two stories: one a current-day murder mystery involving a group of men who are lifelong friends, and the other about the growing-up years of those same friends in Terrapin Township, Michigan during the late 1970s. Apparently this flashback motif is not uncommon in mysteries, with the earlier portion of the tale providing backstory for the modern portion. I must admit that at times I thought the growing up portion dragged a bit, but it was well written, with sympathetic characters, and it did move steadily toward its conclusion.

Rather than provide a plot synopsis, I encourage readers to try Terrapin for themselves. If my wife's reaction is any indicator, lovers of mysteries will at least appreciate, if not richly enjoy, the book. What I want to address is a question that will undoubtedly occur to readers who know the publisher, Ignatius Press, as a leading name in Catholic publishing. When they finish Terrapin, they may find themselves asking, “What was so 'Catholic' about that?” Those who expect “Catholic” fiction to involve priests, or Vatican intrigues, or even a strong religious theme, may be disappointed. Aside from some passing mentions of attending church, the only thing approaching a religious “event” occurs on the final page, and even then it isn't much. What is a publisher like Ignatius doing publishing ordinary mysteries?

Herein lies the strength of Terrapin, and I'm grateful that Ignatius took the risk of publishing it. C.S. Lewis and others pointed out that the key to rebuilding a Christian culture was not inserting explicitly Christian themes into non-religious arenas such as entertainment and politics, but that devout Christians should engage these arenas as part of their everyday work, bringing their Christian world view to bear on the problems and challenges found there. After all, a good portion of the problems arising from places like the entertainment industry is that those working there are operating out of a non-Christian mindset (as I point out.) If Christian artists are to reclaim the culture, they must do it as good artists expressing their Christian outlook through their art.

This is what Doran pulls off with subtlety and skill. His protagonist, Dennis, is what our culture would consider a “decent fellow”, but there's nothing explicitly religious about him. Turns out that he and his band of friends, who are more regular guys, have a mischievous history with an ominously dark edge. The growing-up part of the tale shows them moving from simple pranks to some deeds that are outright harmful. Dennis himself comes across as something like moral Play-Dough: his character isn't wicked or vindictive, but he can be pressured into things, and seems to lack a firm moral compass.

This is not for lack of guidance. His widowed father, identified only as TA, is the quiet presence who stands in the background of the entire story – not just the growing up portion, but the current-day setting, by which time he's deceased. TA is an understated character, seemingly to the point of insignificance, but as the complex tale unfolds, it becomes clear that he's the person around whom the whole tale revolves. In a sense, the story is about Dennis remembering that he's TA's son – a fact which he'd essentially forgotten.

From the outset it was clear to me that TA was important, and I was almost frustrated by how quietly he was played. He seemed almost passive in the face of Dennis' increasingly destructive shenanigans, providing quiet suggestions and a calm presence rather than firm direction and severe consequences. Perhaps that was just the father in me responding (“If that had been my son, I'd have...”), but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that TA's handling of his son was neither negligence nor incompetence.

For one thing, the flashback portion of the story opens when Dennis is in his early teens, moving into an age when a father's direct hand doesn't weigh as heavily as it does in younger years. The youngster's attention is focused outward, more to friends and other influences, and a wise father will be more subtle in his attempts to influence behavior.

Furthermore, there is a fault line in the father-son relationship: the tragic accident that killed TA's wife and other son some years before. This not only leaves the home wounded and both parties emotionally damaged, but causes friction between TA and Dennis over the question of resolution. The fatal accident was a hit-and-run, and Dennis becomes convinced that more could have done to seek out the perpetrator and bring him to justice. TA is convinced that there would be no purpose to such an effort; that forgiving and moving on is the best course. This difference between them is more important than it first seems (in more ways than one), and the rift becomes a root of estrangement between the young Dennis and his father.

As the story unfolds and Dennis learns more about his past, it becomes clear that in their working-class neighborhood in Terrapin Township, TA was more than just his father. He counseled his neighbors, consoled the grieving, welcomed the stranger, corrected the errant, and even gracefully dealt with the improper advances of a tormented woman. This blue-collar man, bereaved and struggling with his own son, was the yeast that leavened his neighborhood, the quiet light that shone in the gathering moral darkness in which he lived. He didn't preach (not even to his son), but simply was the presence of Christ.

I believe this is the genius of the story, because it is so true to life. Very few of us are called to share our faith by preaching to big audiences, or writing for wide readerships, or broadcasting from coast to coast. But all of us are called to be the salt and light of Christ right where we are, with the people we rub elbows with in our daily lives. We are called to “preach” to them by being Christ to them, not just with niceness and platitudes but with sacrifice, suffering right beside them when it would be much easier just to sign a Hallmark card and leave it at the door. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is the sort of ministering TA did to all who came across his path, if they would accept it.

Here is another point of subtle genius: at first blush, it seems that Dennis has rejected his heritage. He's successful in the worldly sense, being a tenured professor at a major university with a home in a nice neighborhood and all the trappings, but there's little in his life that reflects the ideals of his father. Yet that is part of the point: Dennis “shallowed out”. For all his learning and temporal success, he doesn't have the depth of his blue-collar father. Where TA was a quiet but positive influence in the lives of those around him, Dennis just has annual reunions with the friends of his youth. His marriage is sterile, his career mundane. Judging from Dennis, one could conclude that TA failed in his childraising, but it becomes clear that it was Dennis who walked away from what was offered him.

Terrapin is a complex and at times uncomfortable story. There are no quick fixes, no tidy resolutions, no magical redemptions. There is progress, but there are also struggles and misunderstandings and setbacks. But again, this is true to life. The resolution of the story is a sharp lesson to Dennis that TA was very right about some crucial things, but how much Dennis will be changed by that lesson is left unanswered. There are glimmers of hope, but that's all the reader is given. In that sense, there is much in Terrapin that many of us can relate to.

Monday, October 29, 2012

I wonder

I remember on September 11th, 2001, when the planes slammed into the Towers and the Pentagon.

I wondered.

Yes, it was the deliberate choice of sinful men to do an evil deed, and an act of war. But I wondered if there was something more to it. I wondered if it was, perhaps, a warning shot across the bow of our culture, reminding us that the military might in which we put so much trust wasn't as impenetrable as we thought it was. Warning us that it would be prudent to change our course while we still had time.

Of course, I had no way of knowing. But I wondered.

I remember in August of 2003, when a mishap somewhere in a neighboring state deprived a large portion of the country, including our state, of electricity for three days. Yes, it was human error, the failure of an over-stressed and under-maintained electrical grid. But at the time I wondered again if there might not be more to it. I wondered if it was another warning shot across our bow, warning us that the glitzy technology upon which we rely so much was much more fragile than we liked to think it was.

Again, no way of knowing. But I still wondered.

Now the east coast is being smashed by what is being universally called the most brutal storm ever to come ashore. As I write, the storm has yet to make landfall, yet estimates of damage are already in the tens of billions, with the potential for tremendous loss of life. Major population centers like Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, and Baltimore are going to be severely hit.

Again, I'm wondering. Sure, the storm is a result of impersonal forces like wind and gravity. But in Scripture, we see the Lord using storms (and other natural events like droughts) to work His ways. And here we are facing one of the most critical elections in my lifetime, with the incumbent clearly and consistently aligning himself up against God's law. Over the past four years he has proven that he will do anything – including shut down the Federal government – to keep pouring as much blood of innocent children as possible down Moloch's throat. He has publicly aligned himself with forces seeking to destroy God's definition of marriage and family. He is seeking to strip Christians of the rights to live out their religion in their public life by forcing them to fund sinful activity. He has lied so often, and so casually, that you'd swear it was his native language. In just four years he – and those who write his script – have done so much damage to this country that I wonder if we'll ever recover.

So again, I wonder. I have no way of knowing, but I wonder if this stupendous natural calamity occurring one week before the decisive election might not be another warning shot across our bow. One more huge, dramatic attempt to get our attention, to warn us to change our course, before we sail into catastrophe.

God alone knows that, and He hasn't told me anything yet.

But I still wonder.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

A Twenty Five Year (and counting) Journey

Though I didn't realize it at the time, the autumn of 1987 proved to be a pivotal point in my spiritual journey. It was then that I took a road or embarked on a voyage (however you want to put it) that I'm still traveling to this day. I hope it has meant that I've grown closer to Christ that I otherwise would have. It certainly changed a lot of things.
At that point in my life I was a few years into my career at a technical consulting firm. My third child was less than a year old. I'd been married for just over six years, and allowing for the expectable marital adjustments, we were doing well. We were involved in a little evangelical community where Ellen and I both appreciated the focus on community life and mutual commitment.
But I, personally, was feeling a bit stagnant in my spiritual growth. My early Christian growth had been in the military, with all the accompanying challenges. This had transitioned into the giddy excitement of my early involvement in the evangelical community, which kept me going well into early marriage on enthusiasm and optimism. But as I buckled down to the drudgery of being a husband and father, some of the fun was wearing thin, and I was finding that there wasn't much underneath.
During that period our group of evangelicals was somewhat swept up in the spiritual fad of the moment, which happened to be “signs and wonders”, usually manifested in dramatic healing. Since physical healings were rare, there was a lot of focus on emotional healing, healing of memories, and the like. This led to a lot of introspection and amateur diagnoses of the root causes of personal struggles. I began to wonder whether I needed to get some of that prayer to fix whatever was wrong with me.
It was during that time that I went to a men's conference and heard at least one speaker talk firmly about our need to have deeper faith and closer obedience to God's holy commands. I don't remember exactly who gave the talk, but the real Speaker was the Holy Spirit. I remember carpooling home with a bunch of guys, one of whom was leader of the local prayer team who was going on about the dramatic manifestations they had been seeing during ministry times. I remember mentally shaking my head as he spoke – somebody might need all that, but it wasn't me. Shortly thereafter I wrote in my prayer journal, “I don't need healing – I need faith!” I felt clearly the Lord calling me to deeper dependence upon Him, more listening and more obedience on my part. I started rising very early (something that comes more easily for me than for some), sometimes as early as 3:30am, in order to have plenty of prayer time before my early start for work.
The Lord met me during those quiet hours, when it was just me and my Bible and my prayer journal, alone in the living room with nothing but a candle for illumination. He showed me that I had been seeing myself as a slave, not as His son, and the critical difference that made. He helped me understand how liberating obedience was, and how important it was to trust Him completely, regardless of external circumstances.
It wasn't so much an immediate, dramatic makeover as it was the turning of a corner. Within a year of that time the Lord was speaking very distinctly about trusting Him no matter what I was called to do. Within two years, He had called me back to my Catholic heritage and launched me out on the spiritual challenge of self-employment. (You don't think being self-employed is a spiritual challenge? Try it.) Ellen and I faced the anguish of seeing the evangelical community in which we'd invested so much begin its slow and painful deterioration. We had a few dramatic times in our marriage, but many more years of just trudging along, discharging our responsibilities, being faithful to what we'd been called to. Hopefully we've both grown in faith and helped our children (and others) to do likewise. But through it all I could trace much of the change back to those quiet mornings in the autumn of 1987, when the Lord called me to a deeper walk with Him, and enabled me to follow.
Looking back across the past quarter century, I see that what the Lord was challenging me to was what spiritual directors call abandonment. I've recently finished Fr. DeCaussade's classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, and many of the themes he explains are quite familiar. They've been the foundation for the closer walk with the Lord that I date back to that time.
There have been many significant years in my life, for a wide variety of reasons. 1957 (obviously), 1967, 1975, 1979, 1981, and others all have their meaning. But as important as any of them for my adult walk in Christ has been 1987, which was the year He called me to a deeper and closer walk with Him. It's a path I'm still on, and hope to travel even more faithfully until I reach my journey's end.

Friday, September 07, 2012

A Most Terrible Idol

I'm going to go out on a limb here and submit an entry for consideration as the Greatest Idol of Our Culture. The difficulty about this is that there are so many from which to choose. The usual suspects come immediately to mind: power, sex, wealth, entertainment, and so forth. By comparison my candidate is a “sleeper” - one that may seem at first glance to be a tame, almost innocuous idol. But the longer I live and the more I learn, the more this idol seems to be not only the most subtle and seductive, but also the most pervasive and brutal idol that I can see.
Like most idols of our culture, this one isn't a statue or physical image, but a concept; indeed, almost an imaginative image that's never precisely articulated but lingers in the cultural air, always alluring, always tempting us with what it can never deliver. I'll call this idea The Fulfilled Life. It's the fantasy that if we follow the Right Path (whatever that may be), and make the Right Sacrifices (whatever they are), that our lives will not only be free of problems, but “fulfilled”.
Of course this seems more abstract than bringing the bull before Dagon (or the child before Moloch) to implore that the crops won't fail, or the raiders will stay away, or the wife will conceive, or whatever. It may also seem to be making a mountain of a molehill – after all, haven't people always wanted their lives to be fulfilled? To be happy and content? How can that be so serious?
First: yes, it is more abstract than a tangible offering brought before a visible idol – but that's part of what makes it so dangerous. And yes, people have always wanted happy lives and there's nothing wrong with that. But the vital – and deadly – distinction between the simple desire for contentment and the idol of The Fulfilled Life is that the idol whispers that it can actually provide fulfillment during this life. Not just contentment or happiness, mind you, but fulfillment – the complete satisfaction of our deepest desires.
This is the message that is implied in so many channels of our educational system, promoted in our entertainment media, draped over products to sell them, and even preached from pulpits. It not only lures us with tempting images and ideas, but drives us with fear. What if we miss out? What if we make the wrong decision, or don't plan sufficiently, or spend our money in the wrong place? In short, what if we don't render due worship and sacrifice to the god? We will not be rewarded, and our lives will go unfulfilled.
Consider how we are encouraged to think about our lives: if we do well in school, we'll get to a good college, where we will train for a rewarding career. We may enrich our life with rewarding activities (often sports), and must learn to guard our health (since ill health is such a major hindrance to a Fulfilled Life.) Somewhere along the way (this is vital), we'll meet a Special Someone who will help fulfill us. The very terms for this person, such as “soul mate”, indicate how high the expectations are for this fulfillment. We'll get out of college, perhaps marry the Someone (or perhaps not, these days), and get a Fulfilling Job. Of course, because our Fulfilling Job pays well, we won't have to worry about money, and will be able to do those things that fulfill us. In time we may be further fulfilled by a child or two (probably not more, because then they'd cease to be fulfilling and become a drain on our energy and finances.) We would raise our children to follow fulfilled lives themselves, and in time (this, too, is vital), as a combination of the success of our careers and our prudent financial decisions, we will retire to spend the rest of our days doing fulfilling things in pleasant places, never overshadowed by ill health or other difficulties.
Sound familiar? With slight variations this script is what is sold in our culture as the ideal life. If you attain it, you will be Fulfilled – your life will have meaning. This illusion, this set of whispered promises, is the idol. If you learn the right rituals and make the sacrifices, if you follow The Path and do not stray from it, if you are truly devoted to this ideal above all, you will be rewarded with a Fulfilled Life.
Of course, those of us who try to follow the One True God know (or should) that at the heart of this elaborate illusion is a lie. A fulfilled life on earth is impossible because we were not made to be fulfilled on earth – we were designed for union with God. Our passage through this world is but preparation for that, albeit made more difficult by sin and temptation. But even for those who know this it is hard to resist the clamor of the goods of this world, and the allure of things that present themselves to our senses. For those who know nothing of eternal reward, this world's goods are all they have. If those goods are lost, what is there?
This is part of the reason this idol is so powerful – even deadly. If The Fulfilled Life is not forthcoming, then what are the implications? Am I doomed to an unfulfilled life? What must be done to satisfy the idol? The answer is, almost anything. I personally know of families that have been destroyed, children that have been abandoned, promises that have been broken, and even babies killed at the demand of this idol. If the relationship ceases to be rewarding, or the commitment doesn't deliver the promised satisfaction, or the pregnancy threatens to “ruin your life”, then it must be done away with. Nothing – nothing – may be allowed to hinder the pursuit of the Fulfilled Life. The alternative is unthinkable, therefore no sacrifice is too terrible to consider. If the idol demands it, it must be delivered.
This idol has always been around, but I think it has gained particular power in our time because we have flattened all life to this world. Oh, some pay lip service to “a better world” awaiting us after death, but that has little influence on our daily living. A poet expressed the zeitgeist by encouraging us to “imagine” No hell below us/Above us, only sky, and we have done just that. That puts us under tremendous pressure to pack a lot of living into the short years we have, so it had better be fulfilling living. After all, the Fulfilled Life is out there – the advertisements and talk show hosts and self-help books and educators and politicians all tell us so – so if my life isn't fulfilling, then something's wrong.
Of course, like all idols this one promises what it can never deliver – which only makes those who follow it increasingly desperate as the years tick by, causing them to resort to increasingly desperate measures. Too late do many realize that they have wasted their lives chasing a mirage, and that the fulfillment that they could have had lay buried within the relationships they discarded because they weren't giving sufficient “return” quickly enough. But that is the nature of idols.
I'm not saying this is the only idol of our culture – the Significant Life is a close contender – but it is so powerful that it deserves careful consideration. But what to do about it? I think classic Christian devotion has a path, which the spiritually mature call “detachment”. This is the recognition that the goods of this world are goods – of this world – and need not dominate us. Such classic practices as fasting, withdrawal, chastity, prayer discipline, and worship (especially worship devoid of enthusiasm or consolation) all remind us that we are not intended to be fulfilled in this life. Practicing them robs the idol of its power by not only facing but embracing activities that provide no immediate fulfillment. Of course, to the devoteés of the idol such practices seem not only nonsensical but masochistic. But those who can see beyond the goods of this world know that sometimes choosing to lay them down is the way to open ourselves to receiving greater goods that are not of this world. If Christ is to be believed, that is the path to the truly Fulfilled Life.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Maybe Now You Know

Maybe now you know

How much we missed you all those years

How much we wanted your stories, your love, your lessons

To be part of our children's lives

What a void your absence left
Maybe now you know

Maybe now you know

How much we needed you, even when

We were all grown up, with families of our own

How a father's touch still mattered

And a father's reassurance was craved
Maybe now you know

Maybe now you know

How much a part of us you always were

How you formed us, taught us, and showed us how to live

How your proverbs and phrases were on our lips

As we raised our children
Maybe now you know

Maybe now you know

How much we wanted to care for you

How much we wanted to see you at peace

Surrounded by those who loved you

Cared for in turn, by those whom you had cared for
Maybe now you know

Maybe now you know

A Father who will never fail you

A home that will always be yours

Peace that will not depart

How much you had always been loved
Maybe now you know

Friday, July 06, 2012

Battleground Imagination (in which the author very nearly rants)

Recently there's been a fair amount of furor over the topic of entertainment for women. I'm thinking specifically of issues like the wildly popular pornographic literature 50 Shades of Grey, and the release this week of the film Magic Mike, about a male stripper. That these items and others are increasingly aimed at women is what is generating much of the conversation. And while thoughtful and articulate Christians are contributing many good things to the conversation, I'm looking at it along a different axis.

One thing I'm wondering is why we as Christians, the proclaimers and upholders of moral standards, always seem to be on the defensive in these discussions. While the world is proclaiming some new depravity as liberating or empowering or whatever-the-new-catchphrase-is, we seem to keep coming back with “Yes, but...” There are certainly many reasons for this, but I think I've identified an important one.

We're losing the war of imagination.

Christians, particularly thoughtful Catholics and Evangelicals, can be impressively armed with rhetorical skills. We can swiftly identify where our culture is going wrong, and we tend to respond with incisive analysis. Make no mistake: I appreciate this, and even indulge in it. For instance, this is a superb critique of 50 Shades of Grey, and this is a truly fantastic piece using Magic Mike as a point of departure. We answer threats with argument, exhortation, and education, often doing that very well. Yet still we seem to be losing.

Perhaps part of the reason is because we're not only responding to the assault using a different form, we're answering in a different arena. We're responding almost exclusively with appeals to reason, trying to get people to ponder what they're thinking and experiencing, and ask themselves questions about their lives. Not that I think this is a waste of time – I think people need to do a lot more pondering than they do – but I think it is simplistic of us to think that this is all we need to do to respond to the problems of our culture. We need to look at the avenues used by the world, and figure out how to respond effectively.

Maybe it's just the artist in me, but it seems to me that one of the avenues used most effectively by the world, and least effectively by the Kingdom, is that of the imagination. People don't read works like 50 Shades or go to movies like Magic Mike because they sat down and thought about it. They do it because the prospect forms an appealing image in their imagination. It makes them feel a little naughty, or self-indulgent, or adds a salty edge to an otherwise bland life. The images (visual or verbal) aren't formed in the rational mind but in the imagination, where they allure in a manner that bypasses reason.

It's useless to argue that people shouldn't do that. Of course they shouldn't. They should be integrated humans whose imaginations are informed by their reason and are guarded from incursions by good moral habits and well-formed consciences. But our culture is what it is, and the hard fact is that when people are led astray into dangerous and damaging beliefs and behaviors, it is rarely because they were argued out of them. They were allured by music that painted particular pictures in their mind and shows that presented attractive (and unattractive) images. Any arguing seems ex post facto, rationalization of a change that has already happened.

How to deal with this? Of course we shouldn't give up appealing to reason. Thoughtful argument will always be necessary. But another thing seems equally sure: we can't going on doing just that, or we'll keep ending up where we end up so often: on the defensive, responding to something the world is doing. We have to launch offensives of our own, and we need to do it in the same space that our foes are having so much success – the imagination.

This has been done, and with stunning effectiveness. Looming large in recent literary history are the masterpieces by Tolkien and Lewis, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia (and, to a lesser degree, Lewis' equally masterful Space Trilogy.) These are the obvious examples – works so stunning that they effectively invented an entire genre of literature. These are superb examples of what I'm talking about. They are many wonderful things – powerful Christian myths, superb insights into human nature, literary masterworks – but what they are first and foremost is great stories. They speak powerfully and directly to the imagination, without violating the reason. They do this so well that many non-Christians love the tales for their own sake, despite the overtly Christian themes. That's what I call success in the arena of imagination.Yet we seem to have forgotten their example. Too often when Christians turn their hand to imaginative work, we can't seem to leave behind our rhetorical framework. Our attempts at art often turn out to be little more than an appeal or exhortation with a story wrapped around it (I'm thinking Fireproof, but there are other examples.) These end up being modern-day morality tales of the type that so disgusted Tolkien and Lewis in their youth.

And yet, I don't think the problem lies entirely with Christians trying appeal to the imagination. (Here's where I'm going to have to be careful not to lapse into a rant.) I think there are artists out there who are trying to come up with appeals to the imagination, yet keep coming up against the mindset of fellow Christians, as well as what seem to be deeply ingrained institutional biases.

I'm an author myself, one that's even been critically acclaimed for the quality – not the message – of my work. Yet my sole work was published over 20 years ago, and despite several other works since then, I've had no further success. I keep writing – in fact, I have a set of short stories in to a publisher right now for consideration – but I'm not optimistic about my prospects for publication. The bind is simple: my works are not morality tales, but the Christian themes are clear enough for secular publishers to be skittish of them. The world knows how important a channel the imagination is, and they're not about to casually yield such an important advantage. Yet the Christian publishers I contact aren't interested in fiction – they're focusing on theological or apologetic or devotional works.

See the bind? From my perspective – literature – it seems the publishers are mostly interested in fortifying the very walls we've already strengthened, yet are barely attending to the breaches through which the enemy is carrying our children. I remember hearing some Christians hand-wringing and breast-beating over the success of Rowling's Harry Potter series (which I do not consider to be a dangerous work, but not all share my view.) So many wondered why Christians couldn't come up with anything like that. Well, at about that time I'd just finished a fantasy novel geared toward young people. Many who read it considered it better than anything they'd seen in print. But no publisher was interested in it. Maybe I wasn't persistent enough, or maybe it wasn't as good as all that. But it was grating to hear people complaining that nobody in the Kingdom was doing anything when I was doing my best – and getting rejected by Christian publishers.

But whether I ever have another work published isn't the primary point. The point is that we need to assess the axis of threat and respond in an appropriate manner. The soundest of arguments presented with winning eloquence will not succeed when the opposition is appealing through other channels. We have to find a way to use those same channels in ways that are appealing enough to capture people's imaginations. It should be easier for us – after all, we're on the side of the Author of truth, beauty, and wonder; the very source of creativity. It should be home turf for us. But to do it, we're going to have to expand our view of what it means to speak the Truth to the culture around us. Until we do, we'll keep losing to stories like 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Our Hellenistic Heroes

Having a weakness for comic book movies, I recently saw, and rather enjoyed, The Avengers. It was nothing more than it was billed to be: a smash-em-up summertime popcorn movie with decent characterization and a non-taxing plot. However, it did get me thinking about a topic I've been pondering rather often of late: how Hellenistic our culture has become.

Hellenism has been a particular study of mine, especially since it was in the Hellenistic seedbed of the Mediterranean world that the Gospel first took root. Hellenism followed the conquests of Alexander the Great, and was probably the first large-scale example of cultural imperialism in history. Unlike empires like the Babylonians and Persians, who had been content with booty and tribute, the Greeks made an effort to convert their subjects to the Greek ways of life and thinking (not that there wasn't booty and tribute involved.) This stands to reason, since the Greeks thought they had the superior culture, and they would be doing nothing but a favor to the barbaroi whom they'd conquered to pass it along to them. Throughout the conquered territories they established cities on the model of the Greek polis, promoted Greek culture and political thought, and offered instruction to the locals on Greek manners. For those natives willing to buy the whole Greek program, including worshiping the gods of the polis and embracing Greek values, the door to citizenship was open, an entrée into the ranks of the powerful.

At least, this was the Big Carrot. If any conquered people resisted, and chose to cling to their own ways and gods in the face of Greek blandishments, eventually The Stick of oppression came out. You can read about that in First and Second Maccabees. Despite the image of tolerance and openness, ultimately the Hellenistic gods would have no other gods before them.

But who were these gods? Hellenistic culture was rich with legends of gods and heroes – in fact, most of what we know as Greek mythology rises out of that period. From the Hellenic thinkers there was a tradition of One God, but he was distant and unreachable, an abstract god of philosophy who was unconcerned with man. But when you looked past the legends and superstitions, which were used primarily for amusement and light instruction, you find that the true god of the Hellenistic world was man himself: his might, his dominance, his advancements in culture and learning and political sophistication. Heroes like Hercules and Perseus were common, portrayed in sculpture with idealized physiques and in legend with superhuman powers (or devices that conveyed them.) They battled gods, monsters, and other heroes to achieve notoriety. Though some gained immortality by ascending to Olympus, most died (usually heroically or tragically), achieving immortality by their renown, living on in fame and legend.

This is what I thought of as the carefully crafted and presented images of The Avengers flashed before me. These characters were Hellenistic heroes, and the fact that they were so popular says things about our culture. But what, exactly, does it say? That's hard to pin down in a blog post, but let me suggest a few things that it might indicate.

One thing it reflects is a moral detachment. As good Hellenists, we like our heroes – and our villains – “super”. This means the struggle between good and evil has nothing to do with us directly, and will demand nothing of us. We certainly aren't evil, at least in the sense that we're not seeking to introduce an alien army from another dimension to conquer the earth, or use an interstellar mega-ray to destroy a planet, or whatever. But we can't be expected to be “good”, not having had the serum injections or been bathed in the proper gamma rays or having the billions necessary to produce the omnicapable personal armor or whatever. Rather than being participants in the struggle, we become spectators, cheering and booing as appropriate.

Another level of detachment comes from the idealization of the characters. Perfection of face and form has become such an obsession with us (as it was with the Hellenists) that even those who are favored with physiques in the “perfect 3%” cannot escape digital retouching and enhancing. No human flaws are allowed, nothing to indicate that the subject was anything short of perfect. After all, imperfection stands right next to mortality, and nobody wants to be reminded that they're mortal.

But the thing that strikes me as most Hellenistic about our culture is the anthropocentrism. It's all about Man – his world, his perceptions, his reality. “Good” is the goods of this world (health, wealth, long life, “freedom” - usually defined as absence of commitments), death is the ultimate evil, and there's nobody out there to help us (and nowhere else worth worrying about). Salvation is up to us – our strength, our ingenuity, our cleverness. Threats are big and dramatic, and saving deeds are bigger, even more dramatic, and invariably take the form of the triumph of the might of the hero(es) and the putting down of the villain(s).

To me, this is the most telling point. Our moral imaginations have been allured by a vision of salvation that is the polar opposite of that presented by the Gospel. Christ's example, and vision for His Church, involves strength through weakness, even to death; the foregoing of the goods of this world for the goods of the next; utter reliance on the grace of God as expressed through the Cross for our salvation; acknowledging our weakness and helplessness in our sinful state. We are called by Christ to personal moral struggle, and in His grace we help in the conquest of evil in the world – first and foremost in the venue over which we have most control: our own hearts. The evil we face does not take the form of roaring monsters or sneering supervillains  and we don't conquer it by smashing it with powerful fists. We face it in our own mirrors, and grapple with it in moral struggle every waking hour. Certainly nothing dramatic about that! But if the True Superhero is to be believed, that's the path of true salvation – all other paths are illusion.

As I mentioned, I'm as attracted as any to this flashy, enjoyable view of the human drama. But it's helpful to remember that by the time the Gospel appeared in the Hellenistic world, the narrative was ringing hollow. People were realizing that man's problems were heart-deep, and freedom from them could not be won with a magic sword or enchanted cloak. But how this freedom could be won eluded men.  Many were becoming jaded and cynical, hopeless before the bleakness of existence. Into this world burst the foolish, impossible tale of a God who had conquered death and offered immortality to His followers. Following Him meant walking away from the amusing tales and illusions and grappling with reality as it was, but for those willing to leave the fantasy behind, true hope was there for the taking. Perhaps we need to more carefully examine how the Gospel was originally presented in order to understand how to re-present it to our modern Hellenistic culture.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Irresponsible parenting

These days, when the discussion turns to families and children, a term commonly heard is “responsible parenting”. The precise meaning of this phrase depends upon context, but almost always it is interpreted in terms of prudent use of resources – most commonly economic resources, but sometimes resources of time and personal energy of the parents. Though this goal of responsible parenting is universally lauded as good, it is interesting to notice that the almost inevitable conclusion of any discussion is that the path of responsible parenting means fewer children – sometimes as few as possible.

This is a predictable consequence of viewing humans as merely economic entities, expending effort to address scarcity and juggling supply and demand. This is one reason you see so many studies published that “prove” how expensive it is to raise a child*. These studies, combined with the testimony of legions of “experts” on how psychologically damaging it is to deprive a child of adequate parental attention or material goods, send a clear message: to have more children than you can “afford” to raise is irresponsible – and who wants to be an irresponsible parent?

There are many levels where one could engage the weaknesses of this attitude, but I'd rather let the record speak for itself. By this economic understanding of childrearing, Ellen and I could be a case study in irresponsible parenting. We got married long before we had a steady source of adequate income – in fact, between my first and second years of college. Our first baby came between my second and third years of college, at which point Ellen withdrew permanently from the workforce to attend to the vital task of raising children (not that she'd been earning much as a part-time substitute teacher.) By the time I graduated from college we had two children. My entry-level salary enabled us to buy an older home in a “working-class” neighborhood which we reconverted from a rental unit. We had two more children in the following four years.

Five years after receiving my degree, I took a step of what some would consider economic insanity: I left my corporate job to become self-employed. There went a predictable income, benefits, and anything like a career path – I was now totally dependent upon the Lord to provide for my family. But this also meant that I was no longer gone for 13+ hours a day, and was able to be around to help raise the children. The irregularity of my income made us very shy of debt, so we stayed in our old house, maintaining and remodeling rather than following the property trade-up path that was supposedly the path to wealth. We drove older cars, vacations were drives to Pennsylvania to stay with relatives rather than trips to Disney World, none of our children knew what it was like to have a cell phone, and all of them understood that there was no college fund awaiting them when they graduated high school. They had to drive old Buicks and Dodges while their high school friends were given new Mustangs for 16th birthday presents, and had to share rooms in a small old house while friends had suites of their own in opulent waterfront houses. Their friends had the privilege of considering which college their parents would send them to while my children could only consider which schools offered them sufficient scholarships and financial aid. It certainly looked like their friends were the beneficiaries of responsible parenting while my kids were not.

Now our children are all grown and gone into adult life, and it's instructive to see how they live, and view their lives. They are the true authorities, these victims of our irresponsible parenting, for they were the ones who suffered the economic and psychological deprivations of such scarcity. And you know what? When they speak of their upbringing and family life, they don't discuss what they never got. What they talk of is the richness of growing up in a household full of love, and the tremendous gift they are to each other. The complaints about another vacation in Pennsylvania (and there were a few, especially when friends were headed to Florida) have been eclipsed by fond memories of green hills and rappelling lessons from their uncle. As adults, they're each others best friends, supports, and confidants. They routinely thank us for the gift of each other. They're all well-balanced, loving, and generous. All who wished to go to college got through, and those that yet have to are serving in the armed forces, partly for the education benefits.

There was another interesting dynamic, even when my children were suffering through their deprived childhoods. Those friends of theirs – the ones with the cars and the big bedrooms in the waterfront homes – often ended up at our house.  That's right: our old, cramped house in the working class neighborhood was a favorite destination.  We had “the best food”, and plenty of fun, and our doors were always open. Friends were always welcome, cooking projects were encouraged, and “hanging out” was the order of the day. I remember one time one of my daughter's friends was seated at the kitchen table while the cheery bustle of our home whirled around him. He looked up with an expression of wonder and said, “There's so much love here!”

That was our goal. Though by the standards of the world our parenting was hopelessly irresponsible, by the grace of God we were able to fill our home with love. Our children didn't have the economic benefits of many of their peers, but they learned how to love God, each other, and everyone they met.

If that's irresponsible parenting, I'll take it.

* Most of which are demonstrably false. I know this because I know how many children I've raised across the years and precisely how much I've earned over that period. The simple mathematics proves that children can be raised for far less than the experts contend.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A long, circular path

Just the other morning I was sitting on a hotel balcony watching the early morning sun play across the breakers washing the beach while the wind buffeted (yes, buffeted – it was quite windy) the beach grass. I was reflecting on how life can lead you along paths you don't expect, and that sometimes those paths are circles that bring you back to places you never expected to see again.

In January of 1976 I headed off to Coast Guard Basic Training in Cape May, New Jersey. Though my driver's license said I was of age, in truth I was just a kid, less mature than many of my age. Basic was a brutal plunge into the demanding world of responsible adulthood, as well as the start of a period of severe spiritual trial and maturing for me. January 12, 1976 was truly the beginning of my adult life.

I didn't see that much of Cape May because recruits in Basic usually don't. If they do well, they might earn a little off-base liberty late in training, but largely their world lies within the base gates. Once finished, they make tracks to their first duty station. They may appreciate, but few relish, their weeks of Basic. So it was for me: “Cape May” was synonymous with stress, trial, and hard-won maturity. It was a place for passing through on my way to the rest of my life.

That was also largely true of my brief Coast Guard career. Though I appreciated what I learned and how I grew during my enlistment, from the outset I intended it to be a temporary time, and so it proved. I did my obligatory four years, got out, and availed myself of the educational benefits to get my degree – which had always been my intent. Though I was proud of my service, it wasn't the most defining thing about me. I didn't trim my house with spar paint, or have a Semper Paratus ringtone, or even join a veteran's association. Some nautical terms in my vocabulary (like “deck” and “belay” - not those other ones), a veteran's license plate, and some Coast Guard coasters are about the most obvious things about my history.

My eldest son, however, decided even from his high school days that the Guard looked like a good option, and made it his goal to join. He called the recruiter the day after graduation and within six months was off to Basic himself. About eight weeks later we followed him to observe his graduation. My parents hadn't come to my graduation, but we thought it important to be at his, so I ended up returning to where I'd never expected to – Cape May. There were the expectable memories, but little nostalgia, for the old place. I was proud that my son was following my footsteps, in a small way, but I would have been equally proud if he'd chosen another service, or gone to college, or done whatever he'd chosen to do to take responsibility for his own life.

My second son chose to go to college after high school, and loved it, but after the first year did a financial analysis and decided that he'd prefer to do what I did – get the educational benefits in advance before going for the degree. Though any service would have done for that, the only one he really considered was the Coast Guard, and was willing to wait quite some time to join. But in early March of this year we sent him off to Basic, so that meant at the end of April we made another trip to Cape May – me, Ellen, and my eldest son, who flew down from his duty station in Alaska.
Which was how I ended up on the balcony overlooking the Atlantic shortly after sunrise on the morning of April 27th. Just over 36 years before, I'd left that same city to embark on a path of adulthood that would lead me places I'd never expected and give me experiences I'd never forget. Now I was back to see the second of my two sons start out on the same road. Later that morning I watched as my elder son handed his brother his graduation certificate. It was a proud and touching moment.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

True hunger, true food

I'm on a slightly more rigorous fasting regimen this Lent, which means I spend more time hungry (and trying not to think about it.) But I'm also noticing some interesting things which have got me thinking. I've been doing one-day fasts for so long that I hardly notice them. But when you go longer, your system starts to respond in interesting ways.

This manifests itself in many ways, but the most noticeable is general restlessness. Your conscious is aware that you're fasting, but your body just knows it isn't getting what it's used to. You might try all kinds of distractions: working on a project, tuning a presentation, taking the dog for a walk, resting a bit, drinking some juice, or whatever. But no matter what you try, it never works for long because it isn't addressing what you're really lacking: food. The work doesn't engage and the exercise doesn't satisfy like usual and you can't relax because none of that is what you really need. You need a meal, which you aren't going to get until your fast ends. But knowing that doesn't convince your body, so it won't let you settle for anything else, at least not for long.

That got me reflecting about spiritual hunger. Our spiritual “metabolism” is less obvious than our physical one, and its needs can be harder to discern, but it nonetheless needs feeding. It certainly needs to feed on the Truth, and worship of God, and proper orientation (i.e. toward something other than the Imperial Self). God Himself even went so far as to become food to feed this spiritual hunger.

But what if we didn't know about this hunger, or had bought into lies about it? What if we were convinced that there was no such thing as spiritual hunger, or that some lesser substitute would do? We'd probably find ourselves in the same state I am well into my fast: trying this and that and the other thing as distractions, attempting to fill the void. The difference would be that when I'm fasting, I know what I'm lacking and what it will ultimately take to resolve things. A man who was spiritually hungry but wasn't aware of what he was hungry for would be in worse shape. He would keep trying distractions and inadequate substitutes, never getting what he really needed because he didn't know what it would take.

In other words, he'd be much like our Western culture: awash in entertainment and utopian politics and business and just about anything else, trying to fill the spiritual void with whatever we can find.

Maybe that's why the New Evangelization is so important. Maybe we as Christians need to be more sensitive to spiritual hunger, and not try to mask it or divert ourselves with lesser things. Maybe we need to go to the True Source to be truly filled, which will enable us to feed those around us with the Bread of Life.

Interestingly, as I was preparing this, I noticed this post by Msgr. Charles Pope along very similar lines. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The cat is out of the bag

In the midst of all the (quite appropriate) turmoil about the Obama Administrations frontal assault on religious freedom, there's one thing that I've seen very little commentary on – yet.

What I'm referring to is the categorization of contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients (i.e. the “morning after” pill) as “preventative services”. This is the guise under which this mandate is being sold to the public, and nobody seems to be questioning it. After all, aren't “preventative services” always a good thing? Isn't it better to prevent a problem than to have to deal with it?

It depends on what's being prevented. Most preventative services are therapies (e.g. vaccines) or tests (e.g. mammograms & colonoscopies) designed to head off a dangerous disease or condition. Clearly, preventions such as these are good and desirable.

But what disease or condition are contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients preventing? Most moderns would answer “pregnancy”. But pregnancy is simply a stage in human development, a form that humans take. So what are these “services” really “preventing”?


That's the “plague”. That's the danger that our government fears so much that it is willing to go to such lengths to prevent. In these modern times there are a lot of reasons offered for this, from neo-Malthusian dread to the selfish creed of radical individualism. But it's an old fear – we see it in the first chapter of Exodus, where the Egyptians are alarmed at how fruitful the Hebrews are while they (as is common with sophisticated cultures) were not. This hatred of people, particularly of children, is the creed for which contraception is a sacrament and which does not shrink from murder to spread its “gospel”.

This is the voice of hell itself. This is Alcasan's head talking. Movie scenes portraying the demon-possessed uttering maledictions in alien voices are penny ante. When the leader of the richest, most powerful nation in history publicly mandates “preventative services”, by that meaning preventing children, that is echoing the oldest evil in history. And when we as a culture not only understand what he means, but think it typical and unremarkable, then we have passed into darkness far beyond any Hollywood theatrics.

The cat is truly out of the bag, for anyone who takes the 30 seconds necessary to think clearly about this issue and see past the smokescreen being thrown up to fool the foolish. This is not about freedom or healthcare or anything else. It's not even “about” religious freedom (though that is being trampled along the way.) It's about using the resources and power of the secular state to insure there are fewer children. Mandated access to chemical and surgical castration, and chemical (and ultimately, surgical) abortion. (Don't think for a minute that isn't part of the plan, or that they can't do it because it's illegal. The law isn't stopping them now, and it won't stop them when they decide to make that part of the package.)

The days are dark, and getting darker. Blood is already being shed in this fight, and even more will be shed before it is resolved. Resolution may lie on the far side of complete societal collapse (or the Lord's return – maranatha!) But none of us should be in the least confused regarding what this is really about.  

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Father's Birth Story

Usually it's the mothers who tell the birth stories.  This is one of mine.

Ninteen years ago today was a sunny, snowy, cold January day.  Ellen and I were awaiting the Next Big Event in our life: the birth of our next child.  It was, especially for our culture, a "late pregnancy" - Ellen was just a month shy of her 42nd birthday.  Ellen had been experiencing - something - from the evening before, but it never settled into a pattern that resembled her earlier labors, so we didn't call the midwife.  However, as the day progressed, it became clear that things were indeed happening, so we called our friends who were to assist at the birth, and I prepped the requisite materials, as I'd done for our three prior home births.

We called the midwife twice - once earlier in the day just to give her warning that something was probably imminent, and again in the early afternoon.  Ellen's contractions weren't settling down into a pattern, so she didn't want to sound a false alarm.  But after talking to Ellen the second time, the midwife told us she was on her way.  But by then it was midafternoon, and the midwife was driving from a neighboring county over country roads thick with schoolbuses, so her trip took longer than she expected.

As it turned out, it was too long - at least for Kelson's purposes.  Perhaps the knowledge that the midwife was coming gave Ellen "permission" to get on with labor - we'll never know - but shortly after hearing that she was on her way, Ellen's labor progressed rapidly.  She went through a very quick and mild transition, and before we knew it was struggling against the urge to push.  The midwife hadn't yet arrived, and our friends were rather alarmed, but Ellen and I had both been through three home births and knew that if the baby was coming quickly, the odds were that it was a problem-free delivery (most delivery problems are related to overly long, not overly swift, labors.)  So when, after panting through one serious contraction, Ellen gasped, "baby's coming!", I was much less alarmed than the assistants.  I gave them orders about what they should have ready while I got Ellen into position for delivery.  Suddenly a little head was not just crowning, but emerging.  I'd seen it before, but this one looked different.  I realized that I was seeing that very rare occurrence: a baby born under a caul.  Because this birth had been too swift for interventions of any kind, even rupturing the amniotic sac, Kelson came out wrapped in his.  There was no problem - it was the work of a moment to sweep it aside and welcome him out.  He opened his eyes and started breathing without any trouble.  As with all of our births, there was no howling or crying.  Our friends swept in to wipe him clean and wrap  him in a warm blanket, then Ellen took him in her arms.

About 15 minutes later the midwife arrived.  She gave mama and baby a look-over and affirmed what we knew: everyone was all right.  We had the siblings in to see their new brother, and Ellen at last got her wish: having a "party" after the birth.  Not a real party, of course, but welcoming visitors and celebrating the new arrival.  All our prior births had been in the night or early morning, and everyone had assumed Ellen wanted to go right to sleep after the rigors of labor, but she insisted that she was so "up" from the experience that her real desire was to have lots of friends around to celebrate. (She slept a lot in the weeks that followed.)

Now, nineteen years later, that hasty baby who couldn't wait to show up is getting ready to embark on the next major phase of his life.  He's done well and made us proud in so many ways, and he's making us even prouder - not just because he's going into the service, but because he's continuing to take responsibility for his own life, make his own decisions, and accept the burden of maturity with grace and dignity.  In this he's following the superb example of his elder siblings, but it's not just out of imitation of them.  Sure he's building on their example, but he's also doing things his way in a manner that honors God, respects his family, and is true to his own vocation as a man.  We're proud of all our children, but on this, his birthday, I wanted to specially honor him.

God bless you, Kelson Reuel Thomas.  May His grace follow you every step of your life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A life worth staying in

I don't often quote “experts”, particularly medical experts.  This isn't because of disdain for medicine per se, but rather out of suspicion of those who pretend that expertise (or advanced education) in one field makes them automatic experts beyond that field.  Thus when some MD weighs in attempting to provide a medical answer to a moral problem, or a psychological solution to a spiritual struggle, I take their statements with large helpings of salt.

But once in a while one of these experts comes up with a statement that's spot on, even if it's strictly outside his area of training.  Such was this column by Dr. Keith Ablow of the Fox News Medical A-Team (whatever that is.)  As a doctor, Dr. Ablow does a good job of explaining some recent statistics published by the CDC and unpacking their implications.  But as a man, he goes further and discusses the dire significance of these developments, painting a somber picture of our culture.  He's not scaremongering or doomsaying, but he is gravely concerned about what it means when “A significant portion of our population wants to not be present for significant portions of every single week.”  He sees what so many of us have been ringing the alarm bell about for some time: that a culture whose members want to regularly check out is a culture in trouble.  As he puts it, “The fact that we are doing this as a culture is the single most ominous psychological trend we have ever faced. I am not exaggerating.”  For the sake of those of us who (fortunately) have never had to deal with chronic drunkenness up close, he goes on to detail just how it saps the will and guts the character of those who do it, with dire consequences for individuals, families, and society.

The best prescription Dr. Ablow can offer is “decisiveness” - that people should just choose well and “be present” for the critical decisions in their lives.  Granted and fully agreed.  The problem is that most of those who are drugging themselves senseless on a regular basis have heard some variation on that argument, but can't for the life of them find a good reason to follow it.  It reminds me of a comment once made by a priest when he heard of a campaign urging youth not to take drugs because it was slow suicide. “First,” the priest explained, “you have to convince them that they shouldn't commit suicide.”  I think Dr. Ablow succinctly summarizes the dangers we face and even prescribes a correct solution, so far as it goes.  Where it falls short is providing an incentive to those who need it to follow the prescription.

This week in our parish Bible Study we're covering chapter 10 of the Gospel of John, which contains Jesus' explicit statement of one of the reasons He came to us: “I have come so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” (v. 10)  Think of that: abundant life.  That's what's really lacking here.  People who have an abundant life don't gut their way through the week so they can drink (or smoke, or snort) themselves insensible on the weekend.  How can it be surprising that when so many in a culture have “gotten beyond” God Himself, they find themselves with something-short-of-abundant lives?  And this in the most generally affluent culture in known history.  If security, freedom, and material wealth could provide abundant life, then surely the modern West would have more than enough.  Instead we find ourselves in a bind that even the secular world recognizes as dire.

All the likes of Dr. Ablow can tell us is that we need to take charge of our lives.  But we need an incentive to be decisive.  Jesus provides the incentive: love.  Absenting ourselves from our lives and the lives of those who care for us is not a loving thing to do.  We should be present because we love those around us and want to help them.  When we don't love enough to care for those around us, or when we don't think anyone does love us, then we suffer deep loneliness and alienation.  That's just the sort of pain that calls for an anesthetic of some sort, and so the cycle continues.

For any who acknowledge the accuracy of Dr. Ablow's prognosis but despair of implementing his prescription, permit me to direct you to the One who can not only help you accomplish it, but give you a good reason to do so: Jesus Christ, author of abundant life.  The life He gives is so rich that you won't feel the need to escape from it.