Together you hold them up

ericpearcephotography.com

The lack of historical memory is a serious shortcoming in our society. A mentality that can only say, “Then was then, now is now”, is ultimately immature. Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future. Memory is necessary for growth: “Recall the former days” (Heb 10:32). Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country.

A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future. “A society that has no room for the elderly or discards them because they create problems, has a deadly virus”; “it is torn from its roots”. Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history. — Pope Francis

This last week, I taught my last Sacrament of Marriage class of the semester at the Seminary. It was my first time teaching this course, and I must say that teaching it was significantly life-changing for me. We explored things like the rich theology of marriage in the Catholic tradition; marriage in art (using the movie Shadowlands); same-sex marriage; pre-marital cohabitation; marriage-friendly sub-culture; single parent families; broken marriages; the spirituality of marriage in the Catholic and Orthodox tradition; marriage decline among Millennials.

We spent two weeks on Pope Francis’ Amoris laetitia, “The Joy of Love,” and all agreed Chapter Four should be made into a booklet for marriage prep and marriage enrichment everywhere. In fact, it is a superb examination of conscience for couples. Patti and I will continue to reflect on snippets of it in our daily evening “bubble” for years to come.

Okay, so let me tell the Faithful of the Deep South, the region of the U.S. our Seminary serves: you are in for a treat when these men are (God willing) ordained to diaconate and priesthood. Whoa! These men “get” that marriage and family is the epicenter of the New Evangelization, and they bring a realism, a passion and a vision for marriage and family that will super-abundantly bless the parishes they come to.

My favorite class of the whole semester was the last one. After a brief discussion on Millennials, I offered a final wrap-up lecture and then my wife came to respond to questions students had on marriage and family life. I sat in the back of the room and kept silent as she shared her wisdom with all the energy and authenticity and beauty of her feminine genius. Though she and I have in the past spoken to groups about marriage and family, it was really remarkable to hear her reflect on what 22 years of marriage and 29 years of friendship meant to her for these future priests. It was a transcendent experience for me.

Over the years I have said to couples I know — have your spouse speak to other people about your relationship in front of you, and vice versa, and it will open up whole new perspectives on your life together. My paternal grandparents did it all the time when I would visit them as a child and as an adult and it was beautiful to see and hear! After Patti and I got engaged, we would call them fairly frequently and they would have us rolling with laughter, or choked up with emotion, as they spoke about each other and their life together. My grandfather (Pop), at the time married to Nana for 69 years, wrote Patti and me a 34-page handwritten letter a few weeks before our wedding day. It was jam-packed with advice and stories. Here’s a section from this letter that deeply influenced us both:

Let your children hear from each of you about your love for each other. Your marriage is their story, not only your own. They must learn from your example and from words that explain your example. Remember that it is together you hold them up. Don’t leave the storytelling of marriage and family to radio, TV or school. Tell them yourself what is love, what is faith, what is hardship, what is joy, what is sorrow, what is fidelity, what is infidelity, what is the glue that binds you together, what are the wedges that drive you apart and what are the sutures that stitch you back together again. Telling stories is the most important way for you both to help them see the world through your eyes. Giving children vision is a mother and father’s weightiest noblesse oblige … Tell them our story, the glories and the sorrows …

As I have quoted here often, he ended his letter with what I consider immortal words. I will end this reflection with those words and with one of Nana and Pop’s favorite songs:

God bless you both and your love and marriage. But take it from an old man, but a wise one: From now on, it is up to you, Tom, and you, Patti, to love together, to laugh together, to cry together, to respond together, to be joined together. When one is cut, the other bleeds; when one wants, the other gives. There are no rules; there are no formulas; there are no singular pronouns. There is no “I”, “me”, “my”, “mine”. Only “us”, “ours”. I don’t know where Nana begins and I end, or where I begin and she ends. There is and always has been the union of all singular pronouns into a composite image of joy, happiness and fidelity which floods our togetherness which has never lost the first moment of magnetic reverence and worship which blanked out all the world and its occupants. And for over 69 years of oneness, each year has been an exponential factor, a geometric multiplier, that carries our fidelity way beyond the puny magnitude of E=mc2. Long ago we have outscored the dimension of such a feeble concept as infinity. So, Tom and Patti, to you we bequeath our heritage, our fidelity and reverence for each other and our gratefulness to God for bringing us together.

Screen-free Sundays

Along with being closed on Sundays, *this* is consecrating the world to God through business. abcnews.com

[after a post from last week, several people asked if I would re-post my piece on our screen free Sundays. So here it is, from early last year!]

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By growing daily in our awareness of the vital importance of encountering others, we will employ technology wisely, rather than letting ourselves be dominated by it. Here too, parents are the primary educators, but they cannot be left to their own devices. The Christian community is called to help them in teaching children how to live in a media environment in a way consonant with the dignity of the human person and service of the common good. The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information. The latter is a tendency which our important and influential modern communications media can encourage. – Pope Francis

My wife came up with the idea of having a “screen free Sunday” back in 2007 when the use of the Internet was ramping up in our home, and we began to notice how it began to affect our family interactions, our dedication to spending time outdoors, or our ability to just “hang out” without having to be productive, entertained, working, busy or distracted from the slow, uncontrollable pace of real life and real relationships. And this was before the phone had become a portal into the infinite black hole of cyberspace.

This is part of a broader techno-asceticism in our home that includes other prescriptive rules like, Thou shalt spend planned & limited time on screens or Thou shalt light a candle and not curse the darkness online; and other proscriptive rules like, Thou shalt not use phones at a meal ever or Thou shalt not bring a screen to bed with you. But Screen-free Sunday always remains the central and sacred cow of the Nealfam’s Rule of Life, the perpetual memorial of technology’s servant-status to daily life.

The concept is simple. On Sunday, TV is off, WiFi goes dark, laptops and phones go away into the Sabbath Box unless there is a very specific and demonstrated need to communicate. The only exceptions to being screen-free are watching sports events or a movie as a family. Obviously, the complexity of life and schedules demand that exceptions have to be made now and again, but the key is to keep them exceptions and reiterate the rule afresh every weekend.

The concept is simple, but the practice is difficult, takes serious planning, requires consistency and enforcement. Let me tell you, this is not for the faint of heart. You must have a firm resolve, like the kind of resolve you make to breathe and eat to stay alive. It will be one of the hardest things to sustain for typical American families and (especially younger) individuals. It’s very easy to just give in and let the frog die in the boiling water. Very.

As our children have become adults we continue to strongly encourage them to continue this tradition. The jury is out. But if they choose to do otherwise, we require that any screens they light up MUST not ‘invade’ our common areas in the home.

This has been the single most important domestic discipline, after the family meal and family prayer, that we have instituted and sustained in our family. Why? Well, it’s obvious that we live in a culture of screen obsession and addiction, and we are determined to cultivate a subculture that protects our family life from the corrosive tendencies in digital culture and strengthens our children to engage digital culture from a posture of virtue and self-mastery. That’s the hope.

Let me list just a few of the benefits we have reaped:

  1. We are ‘forced’ to cultivate family time every Sunday; to do family activities; to go outdoors; to talk about life, family history, upcoming plans; to sing, draw, read, do hobbies, ad infinitum. Creativity explodes. Screen-free Sunday is actually a Family-full Sunday, as we try to use our freedom to be more human. Sundays have tons more laughter in them. To that points, if this practice is not combined with rich, creative activities it will become a negation and punishment only.
  2. Our children have to learn time management, how to budget weekend time to get computer-based homework, etc. done before Sunday. And my wife and I have to do the same, especially with work activities.
  3. On Sundays you can get a ‘feel’ of the level of addiction you might have developed over the week, appreciating acutely the importance of discerning your attachments regularly and addressing them decisively with fresh solutions. How hard is it for you to detach from screens or interact with the people in front of you? To enjoy the outdoors? You can talk about screen hygiene openly and naturally as a family on these Sundays. For those who are not convinced of the importance of our practice or the gravity of the problem, I challenge them to try it out just one Sunday and watch what happens.
  4. We get a rest from incessant communication with too many people all the time, and from the wearying press of demand for an instant response to everything.
  5. Becoming aware just how anti-social social media can make you in relation to those in your own home.
  6. Family prayer on Sunday night is always the richest of the week. Hands down.
  7. These Sundays become a tangible/radical witness to your protest against the totalizing momentum of screens to define our lives.

Technology in many ways has become the Egypt of our culture, thrusting us unwittingly into a new slavery. It need not be that way as there is so much good on the Digital Continent! But like anything, it requires redemption — and since for Jews and Christians the divine “excuse” to exit Egypt and head to the Land of Freedom is the Sabbath (Exodus 5:1), Patti and I thought Sunday was a good symbolic choice for our weekly redemptive exodus.

I certainly fail in this practice frequently enough to get discouraged at times. Mostly work-related failures. But we will never abandon the idea because of failures, any more than one abandons the pursuit of virtue simply because of a failure to always practice it.

Thanks to my wife’s creativity and steely will, prayer and our children’s patient endurance, we will persevere.

This revolutionary practice can be for families and for individuals. For all who wish to humanize technology and not technologize humanity, and to remind the world that the Sabbath is the most humanizing gift God has given us.

Deo gratias.

Jane Elizabeth, Orphan: Update

Dr. Jennifer Elizabeth Miller

[As I am traveling for Thanksgiving holiday, I will cease posting until next week. Happy Thanksgiving, a blessed Feast of Christ the King on Sunday and God be with you and your families!]

I wrote about Jane Elizabeth long ago — see here. Now, here’s the latest update from Dr. Jennifer Miller, Jane’s loving advocate. What thanks we have to offer to God and all those who have helped make this possible! We pray all of this comes to pass….

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Good news and prayers for Jane Elizabeth! About a month and a half ago, I spoke with Clare, the founder of Imprint Hope — imprinthope.com — which helps children in Uganda with disabilities by educating them and their families. I told her about Jane Elizabeth, and she went to visit Sr. Mary and Jane to see if she could help. As it is very difficult for the sisters to care for Jane as she needs, Clare offered to host Jane for a couple of months and then find a group of sisters who deal specifically with disabled children. As she was hiring a woman to take care of Jane Elizabeth full-time, she mentioned this to a friend who works at The Gem Foundation, another NGO in Uganda, this one with a community of disabled children who live together with nurses, staff members, teachers, and interns. thegemfoundation.com

This friend mentioned it to Emma, the founder of The Gem Foundation, who had heard of Jane Elizabeth some years ago and desired to have her come live with them; they had been trying to make this happen for years! Unfortunately, they had lost touch with the sisters. However, when Emma heard that we were looking for a new home for Jane Elizabeth, she said that she wanted her home to be with them! There, Jane Elizabeth would have nurses, teachers, and other children who are learning to work with their disabilities, all being raised as children made in the image of God! Unfortunately, it seems that there have been some difficulties with the paperwork, and in the meantime, the doctors in Uganda have gone on strike. Please pray that Jane, who has been getting much weaker without specialized care, can be moved very soon to her new home! God Bless you and your families!!

Lost from our family in their phones

I received an email from a mom last week, saying: “Our home has become entangled in technology and I wanted some advice. My teenage girls we seem to have lost from our family in their phones and I find myself at 47 years old to be nearly as much of an addict as they. Although I’d say that my reasons for being at a screen are more serious than theirs. But are we really any different? I find myself living outside my home in a virtual life and it’s harder and harder to get back. I hate that I feel like it’s just the way it is. I just give in and rationalize. I know it’s not right…”

Last weekend, I was reading an article on marriage and family life that referenced the below quote from Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si. Then on Monday I was joking with a young man about how out of touch I was with the seemingly infinite conversations sounding in the ethereal digital world of social media, and then he said with grave seriousness, “Yeah, and then there’s how out of touch I am with the real world around me. I think mine’s worse than yours.”  And THEN on Tuesday someone sent me a YouTube parody that seemed to form a complete set.

So, with no attempt at commentary, I will just share the quote and the video.

Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches.

True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.

Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise. — Pope Francis

To sex-trafficked girls: “YOU ARE L.O.V.E.D.”

Let us pray for all those who have suffered offences
against their human dignity and whose rights have been trampled;
let us pray for women, who are all too often humiliated and marginalized,
and let us acknowledge the forms of acquiescence in these sins
of which Christians too have been guilty. — St. John Paul II

Yvette Fouchi, this last summer, shared with me stories from the extraordinary work she does with the Free Indeed Home. I asked her to write up a brief synopsis of this work of justice for my blog, and to share a video she had shown me. The video, in particular, blew me away — a magnificent witness to the redeemed masculinity, fraternity and paternity Christ came to forge in the world. Amid a male culture saturated in the sexual narcissism of pornography and promiscuity, such men are inciters of the Gentlemen’s Revolution. Thank you, Fr. Brad, and all men out there who resolve a life of courageous chastity to revere and honor, and not ravage and dishonor, the dignity of all women.

The Immortal King, who cherishes each woman as His beloved daughter, would expect nothing else.

Here’s Yvette:

Based on JP II ‘s TOB, I get to bring a day-long retreat to the 12 to 17-year-old girls who live at the Free Indeed Home. They have all been sex trafficked for years. Sex trafficking is much more insidious than the typical scenario portrayed in movies in which a person is kidnapped and put in a cage. They are oftentimes sold by someone they considered to be a boyfriend or trusted friend; sometimes by their own parents. Psychological manipulation and fear hold them captive long after they are separated from their abusers.

We call the day “YOU ARE L.O.V.E.D.” and we use games, activities, and short talks as we take each letter of the word, “LOVED,” to introduce the truth about WHO they really are and WHOSE they are.

We focus on their identity as being – Loved as a One-of-a-Kind, Vibrant, Extraordinary, Daughter of the King of Kings.

Most of them have never had a birthday party, so we tell them that we are there to celebrate the day they were born. We bring out cupcakes with lit candles and we sing Happy birthday. They get homemade treats and a list of names of people who are praying for them. We tell them all these people love them without ever wanting anything from them.

Fr. Brad Doyle offers his time, energy, and prayer for them in a special “prayer ruck.” He prays for the girls while he carries 30 pounds on his back and runs and does calisthenics. He makes a short video of himself in which he tells the girls that they are loved and that there are men out there who are willing to sacrifice for them and not take from them. Without exception, the video strikes each girl in the center of her equilibrium, bringing a deep focus, smiles, and oftentimes, tears. They have told me they didn’t know men like that existed. Fr. Brad’s loving sacrifice for them gives us an easy segue into how much more God loves them and has sacrificed for them and offers a hope that is sure.

Their understanding of the word “love” begins to take on new meaning.

As the day goes on, you should see their smiles, the way their faces soften, and many times the tears that flow when they begin to touch the reality that their lives have purpose beyond anything they had imagined.
We end the day with a short ceremony where they each receive a certificate and a long-stemmed rose. Again, smiles and tears abound.

These girls have been isolated and repeatedly raped, beaten, deprived of standard medical care, nutrition, and education. What I do is Just ONE TINY DROP of water in the Sahara Desert of what these girls need, but I feel strongly that this is something God has called me to do.

If anyone feels that tug at their heart for these girls, there are many things that can be done to help them. Just connect with Debbie Schinskie, Director of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Respect Life Office at http://respectlife.arch-no.org/

Thank you!!!

Small things with great love

A love that fails to grow is at risk. Growth can only occur if we respond to God’s grace through constant acts of love, acts of kindness that become ever more frequent, intense, generous, tender and cheerful. Husbands and wives become conscious of their unity and experience it more deeply from day to day. The gift of God’s love poured out upon the spouses is also a summons to constant growth in grace. — Pope Francis

At the end of my work day a few weeks ago, I came outside to my car and discovered this note from my wife pinned under the wiper on my windshield. She knew it had been a hard week for me, and she drove all the way to the seminary to leave this there for me to find.

It splashed my gray day with color.

Bishop John M. Smith, who celebrated our wedding, said in his homily,

Thomas and Patricia, over the years your love will grow by occasional great and heroic acts of love, but mostly it will grow by means of those small daily acts of love. Don’t wait long between them, never tire of surprising each other with them. Be creative. Never take the other’s love for granted, because once you do you may find one day it is no longer granted.

Take Mother Teresa’s words as your motto, ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.’ Today is a grand act of love, but from today, on it is up to you, Thomas, and you, Patricia, to carry this love forward into the world so that when you come at last into the Kingdom you will both cast there a raging fire you’ve long worked to kindle. Every day, one of you must remind the other

And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?

I need your love
I need your love
God speed your love to me

Marriage exists, above all, to permit divine love, life and fidelity unfettered access into this world. Spouses say Yes to marriage to extend the beauty of the Cross into the smallest details of life, to build a new world on the foundation of a covenant that never ever ends. Marriage is God’s unchained melody of love that makes belief in Him possible, even easy. To forget that is to think of it only as the sum of your lives. It is that, but it is so, so much more.

On that gray afternoon day, my wife inscribed into my brokenness God’s surprising love on a piece of paper so thin, so perforated, I could see through it into the coming, crashing, outreaching Kingdom of God. A small gesture toward an immense love. 💘

 

Keep making beauty

A seminarian who loves Kurt Vonnegut shared this letter with me from the fantastic collection, edited by Shaun Usher, called More Letters of Note. I highly recommend it!

I absolutely love what Vonnegut has to say and the playful way he says it. As GK Chesterton says, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Yes. Never once have I engaged in any art form — as a creator or a receiver — and not come away enriched. But what struck me most was Vonnegut’s last paragraph.

Years ago, a friend of mine who is a literature professor and a (degreed) philosopher shared with me a fascinating insight into art. He said something like this (as I jotted in in my journal later),

Great artists are careful not to do all of their art for public consumption, so that their creativity is not unduly determined by external motives, e.g. trends, accolades, money. They do some of their art for charity, some anonymously, some for the unlettered, some for beauty’s sake, some for God alone. Think of how many saints burned their work! We see that as a great loss to us, and it is! But they saw it as a needful act of detachment, of humility, as an oblative acknowledgement that none of it was theirs to begin with. Beauty resists being possessed by utility, so her truest prophets must always be willing to surrender to her will and not bend her to their own. Often that can mean sharing art with others for their benefit, but there must be moments when the artist is equally happy to create Beauty in secret and offer her back to her Origin. Like those art forms of the spiritual life, prayer, alms and fasting [Matthew chapter 6!].

Last week I was going to bed early and I heard my daughter in the other room playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. She did not know I was listening and no one else was around. I had not slept well in weeks. As she played it, tears rolled down my face and I was transported into sleep. I woke the next morning with my alarm without waking up once during the night. It was a gift beyond telling. I wrote her a note that afternoon, “Thank you for giving beauty to your dad last night from the piano. I heard it, unbeknownst to you, and God heard it as a prayer for your dad. Keep making beauty. ❤ Love you.”