Catholic Competitors

My wife and I were talking last weekend about some of the strange and campy competitions that can develop in a Catholic culture. Who are the real Catholics? The serious Catholics? The radical Catholics? The über Catholics? Sometimes it’s subtle, like that quiet internal judgy or defensive flinch that flares up when you’re with someone who seems of a superior or inferior caste. Other times, it’s more explicit, finding its way into social media hate speech or segregating “us and them” social habits. In truth, it’s really a human problem, Catholicized.

We spoke of a range of comparative games that are played out between individuals or groups, that include:

Who excels more in piety and devotion? Who prays more? Who engages in the most radical 40 day, 90 day, choose-your-marathon-length spiritual boot camp? Who fasts more? Who has more religious articles on their body or in their home? Who has more children? Who trusts God more: fertility charters who space children or non-charters who just let it be? Who has suffered more? Been through worse hardships? Is worse off? Better off? Poorer? Has done more good deeds? Gives more? Works more? Sleeps less? Knows more? Reads more? Is more pro-life? Is more dedicated to the poor? Who are the best parents with children that provide best bragging rights? Or maybe, who is the greater sinner with the best ‘amazing grace’ story? Who is more orthodox? More liturgically pure? More faithful to (or than?) the Pope?

The list could extend into volumes and out into many ideological directions. It’s really unhealthy, really strange, really real and totally exhausting.

While some may get a momentary dopamine flush from this game, others are brought low into self-loathing, anger or envy. But all end as losers in these unholy competitive games that take noble, true and good things and debase them. All the while promoting disdain, discouragement, mistrust and division, amplifying an already sufficiently joyless, loveless world.

What to do? Let me share a selection from a post from last year as a start. But first, the answer in short?

Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. – 1 Cor. 13:4-8


…this came to mind as I was reading the other day from a book by an Eastern Orthodox spiritual author, Hieromonk Gregorios. He discusses a great mistake often made by a spouse who is “more fervent in the spiritual life” than the other. In seeking to change their spouse and make them “better,” they can easily become motivated by angry zeal, frustration, impatience, arrogance or a condescending self-righteousness. They become stumbling blocks instead of stepping stones to God’s kindly grace.

Drawing from the tradition of the Desert Fathers, Gregorios says that a person with faith in Christ always views others as “greater than himself” (Phil. 2:3). The virtuous person, he adds, “places little importance on his own deeds” and intensifies the commitment “to bear the other’s weakness as his own.” He continues,

In the same spirit, St. Isaiah writes, “If you are going along your way and there is a sick person with you, allow him to go ahead of you so that if he should want to take rest he is able to do so.” This attitude of journeying together must be applied to those who wish to run with great speed in the spiritual life but who have a spouse who is unable to keep up with them.

To approach such situations spiritually, we should view ourselves as responsible for the spiritual weakness of the other person, perhaps because we have not shown ourselves to be the image of a true Christian and a real struggler. Not only should the weaker one determine the speed of the couple’s common journey, but additionally the one who thinks they are stronger must believe that they are the cause of the spiritual slowness of the other.

When we move to the beat of love, we may appear to be lagging behind spiritually while in fact we are leading the way. When we live in this way within the bonds of marriage, all problems will be faced quietly, peacefully and with discernment — because we face them with love.

The Boxer, c/o Mashley

Here’s the latest Ashley-Maria (Maria is my daughter) music video, shot by Maria’s sister, Catherine as they hung out in the girls’ bedroom on a rainy Sunday.

This song, more than any other they’ve done, made my heart overflow. Nah, explode. My wife and I adore Simon and Garfunkel. I wrote this as soon as I heard it:

beautifully blending
celestial sending
angels lending
limits rending
hearts ascending
heaven extending
harmonies friending

A friend of mine, who is a musician, texted me after watching it last night. She was the one I mentioned back in June who flew all the way from Chicago just to hear the girls perform at the Chicken Jam. Sui generis. Her words express so well my own enthusiasm for this performance:

I love that song! Now i m going to have to go back to new orleans to sing it with them. Such a great song for them becuz immediately reminds u of simon and garfunkel and their amazing harmonies, and then u realize that is the amazing kind of thing the girls are doing w/their harmonies–sophisticated musicianship made to look easy. i saw simon and garfunkel for their one reunion concert in central park–sort of a whim trip –and to this day so glad i went. It really wasnt til i heard this tho that i harkened back maria and ashley’s harmony style to theirs–such cool parallels. When the girls play central park i will definitely be there.

In a lost embrace

This is a text I sent last week from the Houston airport to my wife, children and some other friends.

Supreme moment of digital age disconnection: woman runs to greet a teen boy (seemed like she was an Aunt), and as she embraces him tightly and verbalizes her love for him and marvels @ how much he has grown, behind her back he is scrolling on his screen looking at his Instagram. Breathtaking.

The woman had been excitedly talking to someone near me for some time about a relative she had not seen in years. She kept saying, “It’s been so long, I wonder if he’ll even recognize me.” I assumed she would be meeting him when she landed wherever she was going, but suddenly she jumped to her feet and ran toward this 15 or 16 year old boy who had walked up to our terminal. “Seamus!” The energy from her voice electrified the air, catching the attention of lots of people and generating lots of smiles and “awws.”

But, as I happened to be leaning against a post right next to them, I noticed the details of what I described above. She squeezed him for a good thirty seconds, rocking side to side as she repeated, “I love you! I love you! You are so big! I am so happy to see you again! Thank God! It’s been too long. How have you been?…”  I could see him scroll the Instagram posts up, “liking” pictures in rapid succession.

Yes, I knew I should turn my head away from this private moment, but that stunning sight seized control of me.

After they strolled off together, I sat down to take that all in. Someone next to me must have noticed my reaction, and said, “Yeah, I know, I saw it too. Sad.” I said, “Yeah. More like, unreal.”

Unreal. That’s it. We need an asceticism, a virtuous discipline that places technology at the service of ordo cartitatis, “the order of love,” attending first to the neighbor nearby, to the priority of real relationships grounded in the immediacy of real presence. Virtual reality should flow from and lead back to the reality that soaks your clothes in rain, makes you shiver in the cold or warms your heart in an embrace of love.

My wonderful and gifted colleague, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, said once in an interview,

Out gadgets connect us but our screens can make us forget that on the other side there is another person there, a full, embodied complex human being. Communication toward communion keeps this in mind and forges true encounter.

That’s what was missing. And in the presence of the bodies of others, screens should pass away in favor of face to face, embrace to embrace, I and Thou.

My daughter Maria, about six years ago, was desperately trying to get my attention as I was working on my laptop in the dining room. I was writing a blog post (maybe on effective parenting? lol). As I typed away, looking intently at the screen, she repeated with antiphonal force, “Dad! Dad! Dad!” I quipped back several times in a sharp tone, “What?! Say it, child!” But she would each time resume her antiphon. Finally after half a dozen times, eyes still fixed on the screen’s dim glow, my exasperation got the better of me and I shouted, “What! Say it! I’m listening!” She said back, in a low voice, “But your face isn’t.”

That slayed me.

Since then, any time I am tempted to stray my attention away from the person I am with, and toward a gadget, I can hear Maria’s haunting words sound in my head.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. — 1 Corinthians 13:12

“Wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” — Plato

I received this postcard in the mail from a seminarian yesterday, and on the back of the card he indicated this quote made him think of me. If this is all people say I did for them as a teacher or writer or friend, it would have been enough.

Also, how can I sufficiently extol the virtues of a young man who takes time to send a handwritten postcard to a professor? In such times, such borders on the heroic.

Back in 1989, when I was studying at the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, I took a course on the Jewish Talmud. I remember one particular class when the Rabbi who taught the course was excitedly describing the fiery passion students of Talmud have as they debate the right interpretation of Talmudic texts. “Their passion” he said, “is rooted in their love for God and Torah.”

To sharpen this point, he quoted the well-known 20th century Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel,

Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.

He added, “Their love was itself driven by wonder before the majesty of the Lord. If you have wonder, you already possess everything to be known. Like the acorn already possesses the full grown oak. But if you have no wonder, you possess nothing. Only the dead acorn.”

I felt like my brain exploded in that moment, and said to God within, “I want that.”

Like begging for the gift of prayer, I begged for wonder. “O you who are Wisdom without measure, grant me your eternal appetite for knowledge! O Source of all that is to be known, permit me to know all with you!”

And to wonder, like this:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree. — Joseph Mary Plunkett

Or like this:

Christina, Little Girl

[a brief interruption of my week-long posting break…]

Those who perceive in themselves… the artistic vocation as poet, writer, sculptor, painter, musician, and actor feel at the same time an obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it to service of their neighbor and humanity as a whole. — St. John Paul II

The YouTube sensation, Christina Grimmie, was one of our daughters’ favorite up-and-coming singers. She was exceedingly talented, sweet and humble, a devout Christian who modeled femininity magnificently. And she was tragically gunned down in 2016 after a concert in Orlando. Our daughter Maria was especially devastated.

In May of this year, two days before Mother’s Day, one of Christina’s never before released original compositions was made public, a song called Little Girl. It’s gripping. She began writing it when she was 12. The song is a tribute to her mother, a sort of musical rendering of Proverbs 1:28, “Her children rise up and call her blessed.”

I post this song today because I happened on it by chance last night and was deeply moved. I also post it to honor Christina’s memory and artistic mission, allowing you to hear her beauty if you have not yet had the privilege of experiencing it. And then below that song, I included the eulogy by her mom and dad at her memorial service. There you will see where Christina came from.

May she rest in God’s eternity.

I rely on the Word

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

Back in May I wrote a reflection on a woman, whom I called Mary, who works at a local pharmacy. Her faith shines through her work.

I saw her a few days ago when I was picking up some things for my Mom, and she came over to me as I stood in the checkout line. We struck up a conversation about what each of us has been up to this summer, and I was yet again amazed at how attentive she is to details I have shared with her in the past. “How’s your Mom? Is your wife still loving her job? Did your daughter get to do that performance at Lakefront? What are you teaching about now?” I said to her, “How do you remember all of that?” She said, “It was important enough for you to tell me, so it’s important enough for me to remember.”

The week before, I had seen her briefly, but she was in a great hurry and was unusually curt with me. As we continued to buzz about our summer, she said, “Hey, I wanted to apologize for being so short with you last week. It was the end of my shift and I had a women’s Bible study to get to and I was late.” I said, “Of course you did!” We laughed.

She continued, “You know I always tell you how much I rely on the Word to get me through the day. I just don’t know how people do it without taking in His Word. It’s my soul food. It’s like a mirror, you know? I look at myself in those pages and know who I am. I’m His daughter, beloved, no matter what. I set my anchor in that rock when it’s hard or I’d lose my way. And I also see in that mirror where I don’t match up. The Bible’s a truthful mirror, it don’t lie! But I see His mercy, too. Forever! If I don’t take time every day to pray into His Word, I forget who I am and can’t live the Word.”

Then she said, “You know, faith makes you a better worker, too. I give my all to every detail. I love what I do because it’s His work. And people notice it, you know? They say, ‘Why do you seem to enjoy your work so much? Are you crazy in the head?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I am crazy in the head! Crazy in love with Jesus.’ Then they really think I’ve got a screw loose. But that’s okay! Just last week a customer came up to me and said, I’ve been watching you for years and you are the best thing [this company] has going for it. I’m going to write corporate to let them know what a gem they have in you.'”

She got slightly choked up and said, “Can you believe that?”

As we finished talking, she said, “Thank you for letting me talk like this. You know, the Lord says don’t throw your pearls before swine. So I only share these things with people I think will appreciate what I am saying, and know that I’m not tooting my own horn but only boasting in the Lord. It’s all about Him, His glory. You know.”

As I stepped back into line to checkout, the cashier, who was also a manager, said, “You know, what she said is true. She’s a little crazy in the head, but she’s the best employee we have. And I say, if religion makes you better doing what you do here, more power to ya!”