I’m on Mashley’s Team

Maria and Ashley bring it home again with another cover, this time with Lorde’s Team.  Their acapella performances are among my favorites. It’s not rushed and the harmonies, which Maria improvised, make the song even richer.

Joie de vivre

“There is a close link between the hope of a people and harmony between the generations. The joy of children makes their parents’ hearts leap and opens up the future. Children are the joy of the family and of society. They are not matter of reproductive biology, or one of the many ways of producing them, much less their parents’ possession. Children are a gift. They are a gift. Each one is unique and unrepeatable, and at the same time unmistakably linked to his or her roots. Indeed, to be a son or a daughter according to God’s plan, means carrying in oneself the memory and hope of a love that has become tangible by kindling the life of another human being, original and new. And for parents, each child is him or herself, different, unique.” — Pope Francis

One of the greatest gifts each of our children have offered us is bringing the light of joy into our life. Yes, challenges. But the overriding reality is unquestionably joy. While we adults try to teach children all about life, children teach us what life is all about.

All this to introduce two videos.

First, by a miracle of biblical proportions, my daughter Catherine agreed to allow me to post a music video — produced, shot and edited by Maria — that she starred in. It replicates the spectacular opening sequence of La La Land in our front yard. Catherine is life’s vitality incarnate.

Second, a news clip that my wife showed me that’s just absolutely brilliant. It’s gone viral so you may have seen it. While adults wax grave about the terrors of geo-politics, children break in and remind us that we are the fools and they, the wise (Psalm 8:2).

Chewing tobacco, gags and Jesus

What do Jesus, chewing tobacco and the Crusades have to do with each other? Read this re-post from 2014, re-posted just because it was such a delightful experience for me! I mistakenly posted this twice recently…so here it is a final time. Enjoy Kari at the end!

I thought today it might be useful to share a recent experience I had attempting to be faithful to St. Peter’s command, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you.” — 1 Peter 3:15

I traveled to Pittsburgh for a conference back in December. On my flight back to New Orleans, I was seated next to a man from rural Alabama who was on his way home for Christmas to visit his daughter. He was a single dad, as his daughter’s mother had abandoned both him and her early on and moved away to another state. His mom and dad helped him raise her. He had a thick Alabama accent, donned a University of Alabama ball cap and chewed tobacco the entire flight, spitting the brown juice every few minutes into an empty Coke bottle with remarkable precision. The indescribable sounds accompanying this 90 minute dip-spit ritual served as a fine appetite suppressant and flipped an occasional gag-reflex on.

He was very chatty, and spent 30 minutes telling me about his six-weeks-on, two-weeks-off contract work in Pittsburgh. I didn’t really understand everything he said, as we were next to one of the jet engines, but it had something to do with dredging contaminated materials. After he shared his last story about his co-workers’ nighttime drinking binges, the stewardess broke his train of thought to ask us if we wanted any of those air-filled packets with 5 mini-pretzels in them. When he picked up the conversation again, he said, “Damn man, I’ve been chewin’ your ear off! Tell me, what do you do for a living?”

I thought, here it comes.

I told him that I taught theology and served as academic dean at a Roman Catholic seminary in New Orleans.

He said, “Whoa. That’s different.”

I replied, “Yep.”

After about two minutes of silence, he continued, “Hey, I’m a history buff, and I’ve always wanted to ask a Catholic this question. Why did the Catholic popes kill all those people in the crusades?”

I spent about 4 or 5 minutes trying to set the crusades in historical context, tried to explain a Catholic take on “just war” and proposed some ways one might consider a medieval crusade as just, as unjust, or as both just and unjust. In other words, I tried to explain that moral judgments on complex historical events should never be oversimplified for the sake of a slam-dunk point. When I had finished my meandering argument, he said,

Cool. Makes sense. Thanks for explaining that. When I went to college I was always told that the Catholic crusades were proof that popes just wanted to control the world and that the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment brought an end to that. You know, there’s no Catholic church anywhere around where I live, so I don’t ever get to talk to Catholics. And when I’m in Pittsburgh I just hang around with my work buddies, and trust me, none of them go to church even if they were Catholic.

Then, without missing a beat, he began to tell me about why he didn’t go to church. He said,

My mom and dad went to the Baptist and Methodist churches once in while when I was a kid, but mostly dad and us went fishing on Sundays. I’ve always thought that people who go to church were just as bad as those who don’t, so I figure, what’s the point? I just don’t get why there’s so many churches and they all disagree. How can Christians say they’ve got the true religion when they don’t even agree on their own? I just try to be a good person and keep to myself. I don’t drink. But I don’t think about God much, either. Just never comes up much. But my daughter [who is 14] goes to a Presbyterian church with her friend these days and when I come back in town she tries to drag me with her. She’s good for me.

I asked him if he planned to go to church with his daughter this Christmas. He said,

Maybe, but we’ll see. I mean, you’re Catholic and you teach the bible to priests. So why do you go to church?

As he continued his ritual spitting, I asked him what he knew about why God asked the Jews to keep the Sabbath holy. We talked about that a bit. Then I explained how Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday morning made Sunday the new Sabbath for Christians, and how it was the eighth day of creation. He thought that was neat. Then I told him the story about what motivated Christian martyrs of 3rd century north Africa to go to Mass on Sundays, even though it was illegal. I told him how this one group of Christians on trial before a Roman prefect explained their choice to risk execution to worship their God this way:

Without Sunday we cannot live!

I also mentioned the need to worship and give thanks to God not just as individuals but as a family of faith. I said only God gets to decide how and when he is to be worshiped, and pointed out the many blessings that God pours out in the celebration of the Eucharist that makes the rest of our week a whole lot better. As he actually seemed to be listening, I asked him why he bothers to celebrate his daughter’s birthdays, why it’s so important for families to gather at Thanksgiving and Christmastime, or why human beings dedicate any special days and times to gather and celebrate important things in life. That then led to a great side-conversation about the devastating effects his grandmother’s death had on his extended family.

She was the anchor of our family. She always brought everyone together for special times and it kept our family close. My happiest childhood memories are being at her house for family get togethers. But now that she’s gone, there’s nothing left to hold us together any more. It’s sad. Now that she’s gone the center unraveled, all the old grudges people had before now keep them from ever talking. My grandma always forced us to get together, and she’d say to anyone who’d complain, with fire in her eyes: “There ain’t nothin’ more important than family!”

What a perfect segue! I said,

That’s exactly what Jesus meant when he commanded his disciples to celebrate the Eucharist together every Sunday as a faith family together. If you look at Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel, they were always arguing. He forced people to be together who would never have otherwise hung out together. Jesus brought enemies and rivals together to show us how God wanted people to live, and that God is the only one who can reconcile everybody together. Take Him out, it all unravels. That’s really what going to church is supposed to be about, God bringing us together, making us forget the grudges and feeding us with His best food just like your grandmother fed you all.

After a brief pause, he said,

Damn, that’s deep. I’ll have to think about that one.

That was the end of our exchange. We were silent for the rest of the flight. After we landed, he told me that his daughter had a serious and chronic illness. I told him that even if he was not ready to go back to church yet, he could pray. And I said I would pray for her. I said, “If you love her, the best thing you can do is pray for her.” He said,

Right. Well, I’ve never been a praying man but that’s a good reason to pray. Thanks, man.

And that was the end of our conversation. I wondered if I should ask him if I could pray for her at that moment, but I didn’t. As I sat in the Atlanta airport, I wished I had. I thought of the charismatic Catholic woman in Florida I know who would pray with anyone anywhere, and thought of her gentle boldness that deeply impacted so many people. But what I was grateful for was the rare clarity of mind I had that so often escapes me when I am taken off guard by deep questions, posed by a stranger seated inches away from me. He challenged me not just to teach theology and history (which for me is safer), but to witness (which is riskier).

I find that my conversations with curious people wondering about faith give me a healthy opportunity to self-critically reflect on what it means for me to share my Catholic faith in Christ in a manner that is respectful and bold, personal and thoughtful. What it mostly looks like is finding natural openings that allow faith to speak to real life concerns — where they’re “at” — and giving God’s Spirit freedom to work through the uniqueness of that moment.

I will end with Mother Teresa’s favorite prayer (penned by Bl. John Henry Newman). It is really the prayer of the evangelizer. Please join me in asking Christ to make us fitting instruments of his Light.

Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance
everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.
Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as you shine,
so to shine as to be light to others.
The light, O Jesus, will be all from you.
None of it will be ours.
It will be you shining on others through us.
Let us thus praise you in the way you love best
by shining on those around us.
Let us preach you without preaching,
not by words, but by our example;
by the catching force –
the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.

Amen.

“Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12)

Screen Face. baristanet.com

[these are loosely joined reflections on some ‘temptations of new media’ that I wrote about last Lent. I decided to post them now after I happened on an article that seemed to offer a perfect coda]

Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. — Pope Francis

I think I can speak for most parents with younger children when I say that one of the greatest struggles these days is how to manage — and teach them to manage — their use of digital technologies and new (especially social) media. Just a very few thoughts on this today.

It’s ubiquitous, what my wife and I call the “screen face.” That blank zombie-like stare, bathed in a dim glow, that eloquently captures the existential state of a child (or adult) caught in the act of tuning out their immediate surroundings in order to enter into a virtual world mediated through silicon chips and LED screens. More and more studies are uncovering the deleterious effects the over-use of screen time can have, including the rewiring of brains in a manner that inverts virtual and real worlds or that produces effects in the brain similar to heroine addiction. Yes, of course, immense good can be accomplished through the medium of screens. This blog I am typing right now betrays too harsh of a protest. And, as Pope Benedict said, “Do not be afraid of new technologies!” I’m presupposing that. But then there’s an insidiously addictive, dissociating effect that over-exposure to phones, laptops and tablets can produce that causes Patti and me — and so many others we know — terrible parenting anxiety.

What to do? When I am asked that, I say that we’re figuring it out with every other parent who has had this challenge thrust upon them from every direction, including school. I will share a very few, mostly general, musings. And all personal examples I use first received permission for anonymous sharing from the main characters.

First, parents must themselves model healthy, balanced, disciplined habits of technology use. What I call techno-asceticism (asceticism refers to habits of discipline that help one achieve self-mastery in pursuit of excellence). Your words mean nothing at all if you are abusing your own rules, or worse, if you have no rules at all and leave technology use to whim. And I don’t mean abusing only when children are around you, watching you, but always, because in the spiritual world every action, even the most secret and interior one, affects all; and especially affects those entrusted to your care. In the realm of the spirit there is no such thing as a purely private sin or vice, as the “butterfly effect” obtains in that unseen realm 24/7. As Fr. Tom Hopko often said, “One secret lustful or hateful thought poisons the whole universe. That’s why we confess those dark secrets aloud in the light of Confession. But just the same, every virtuous act perfumes the world.”

Limits, limits, limits. Strong and smart limits, which include time-use, space limits (e.g. never a phone used at a meal) or content limits with age-appropriate parental supervision & the use of good filters. Our household motto: never never ever allow your child to use devices after bedtime. Sleep should be a screen-free time zone. I know a parent who fairly recently told me that she did not feel she could ever take the phone away from her teenage daughter, even at night, because she feared her daughter would resent her and shut down. But as a result, she said, her daughter is continuously sleep deprived and lost her faith by becoming deeply involved (at night) in a goth-atheist reddit community. I asked her, “What first prevented you from taking the phone away at night?” She described to me her daughter’s reaction when she first took the phone away from her one night. She said, “She screamed and threatened to kill herself. It really terrified me because she seemed to act like a drug addict being deprived of a hit. I felt paralyzed and just gave in because I was afraid of facing those threats, or what was beneath them. I regret it now. I feel guilty about it. But I feel it’s too late.” I said, “It’s never too late.”

As a family we have, for the last 9 or 10 years, practiced “Screen-Free Sundays.” That means extremely restricted use of all screens, limited to communication necessity, family movies, sports on TV. But because negation itself is not sufficient to cultivate character and joy, we work hard to make Sunday a creative, fun, meaningful day with interactive activities like family Mass, cooking, eating out (rarely), board games, feeding the homeless at a local shelter, outdoor activities, zoo, fishing, walking, biking, drawing, painting, visiting with friends. And all homework that requires computers must be completed by Saturday evening, which teaches time management and advance planning.

Once every 4 months or so we have Sunday Mass in our home, inviting our children’s friends and various other people to join us for an afternoon of food, fellowship, secular and sacred music ending with the celebration of Mass on our dining room table. We invite different priests each time to come and share their vocation story and offer some catechesis. We are so grateful for these priests’ generous gift of time and faith to do this!

I have to say with great gusto that the whole screen-free thing is a liberating practice, and my wife is the genius behind it.

Face to face relating with people and things, we insist to our children unto irritation, always remains the Queen, while virtual relating with people and things through screens remains the Queen’s Handmaiden. The temptation is immense to drift off into an online fantasy world to escape immediate life commitments and relationships. Even if it’s called FaceTime or Facebook, it’s not the same as the faces of flesh and blood.

Sacraments are all about “real” presence, about encountering God through the material world and flesh-and-blood neighbors. It’s why Sacraments can never be done through the Ethernet or the Internet. Or why Mass on TV, which does offer enormous benefits for the home-bound, can never equal Mass in person. Spiritual Communion, though marvelously efficacious, always begs for consummation in bodily ingestion of the Flesh and Blood of God. Icons, which allow us to see into the Age to Come through a “mirror dimly,” always lead us toward a face to face and embodied encounter with the Realities they mediate. Otherwise they become idols and illusions, keeping us at a safe distance from Christ and His Mystical Body.

Living at the speed of life. Digital technology too easily gives us the false impression that life, dislikes or boredom can be clicked or swiped away, and that only interesting, entertaining and pleasurable things that I like are worth engaging and hold my attention. This can quickly become a whole worldview. This digital-culture A.D.D. makes it difficult to live life at its real pace, which is an uneven pace. A culture of swipe also makes it really tough to love the people we’re stuck with, people who take time and patience and sustained attention to love. Digital A.D.D. can make it agonizing to listen, in un-skippable silence, to a slowly revolving world that only gradually yields its deep secrets to those who wait long and listen closely.

A college student once asked me to give him spiritual counsel. We met several times and I quickly discerned he was a digital media junkie. So I asked him to spend 10 minutes every morning in total silence, repeating the Jesus prayer. When I met with him the next month and asked him how it went, he said: “Torture. I hated every moment of it. I’d rather have my eyes plucked out.”

Suffering life’s coming at each moment is essential to being human, and our culture of escape, of entertainment-on-demand, of binge-watching, of deletion and x-ing out or scrolling down is no friend to the real work of living, loving, working and growing in wisdom, charity, heroism and faithfulness amid the often droning dull daily duties that are the substance of lasting joy and penetrating sanctity.

One dad I know at our parish told me that one of his ‘tweenage’ sons once said to him, while he was in the middle of trying to explain to his son a consequence he was imposing, “Man I wish I could x you out.” Well, let’s just say that the next month for that child was 100% screen free, and the child had to work out a plan with his teachers of how to do his homework without a computer. #dadpower

Okay, I’ll just stop here and end with (1) an excerpt from an article last week in the Times-Picayune by Laura A. Jayne and (2) a cool video on this topic:

Parents use the devices to keep children entertained during errands and long car rides. OK, whatever. But now they hand the phone over to a child at home so they can make dinner without listening to the kid whine. Listening to your child whine is a time-honored part of parenting. It makes you glad they (you hope) eventually move out on their own. And now children are playing electronic games at parades. We have to decide something is wrong with just turning over a smart phone to a child any time he or she wants it.

I teach at Loyola University, and it can be a challenge getting students to listen in class and ignore their phones. And we are fascinating here! (As fun as Nyx!) So it’s no surprise that researchers also have found that high use of mobile devices is linked to anxiety in college students. Anxiety to stay on top of things. Anxiety that they are missing out. Anxiety when the phone is lost or broken. I see it. We know our kids are using phones too often for too much – but while we complain about the usage of our teenagers, we are handing the phones over to our toddlers. By the time they come to college, the phone is a security device.

Do we want to be a nation of anxiety-ridden adults incapable of enjoying the world around us? No, we do not. So, take the smart phone away from your kid. Relish the boredom.

AN EMØTIØNAL RØADSHØW

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The sky on the drive into the city for the concert

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It finally happened. 3/2/17 my daughters, their friends and I went to the Twenty One Pilots (TØP) concert in New Orleans, the fourth to last gig in their Emotional Roadshow tour.

Someone the next day asked me to choose a single word to describe my experience. I immediately said: Transcendent.

The lead singer in one of the two opening acts, Jon Bellion, captured perfectly the marvelous distinctiveness of TØP:

You know, when you’ve got a band that makes it big as fast as they have; that can pack arenas all over the globe, like tonight; and you’ve got a band with only two men in it that can put on a show of the quality you’re about to experience tonight — and they still remain just as kind, humble and compassionate as they’ve always have been — well, you know you’ve got something amazing going on. Right? [cheers] And you fans tonight — right? — who you are, well, it’s a worthy reflection of who these guys are. So let’s get hyped, okay! Are you there?

I don’t know how to really convey my thoughts on this whole experience, so I’ll just let it flow without a plan. Yesterday, the morning after the concert, I was slammed, beginning at 5:00 a.m., with a series of intense work-related stresses, so I had to tuck away the fire that I had burning within me until my work day ended late last night. It’s still burning in me as I write.

Being at this concert with my daughters and their friends was a piece of heaven for me. That’s really the highlight of the night. These are all very special young women. One of my sons once said of all these girls, “Where do they come from? No one their age is like that.” They’re deep, beautiful throughout, hip, smart, fun, faith-filled, loving, not petty and real people. The fact that they were thrilled I was there with them, were totally jazzed that I knew the words to every TØP song, as I danced, jumped and arm-waved (all of which is, I believe, worth doing badly)? Well, it was nothing short of a suspension of the laws of teen nature. Here they are:

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It was transcendent. The concert, that is. Transcend, from the Latin trans (above or beyond) and scandere (to climb up), captures perfectly the effect of Josh and Tyler’s musical performance  — propelling, lifting, drawing, dazzling my spirit up into wild joy, forgetfulness of my cares, amazement and (a number of times) profound prayer. Their music in general, and this performance in particular, bears a profound sense of empathy, human solidarity and — there is no better single word for it — hope. Hope, because you feel in your guts you are not alone in the mess of things. Hope, because the unspecified “you” that marks so many of their songs is so naturally, though not assaultingly, open to God.

Someone asked me yesterday, “Are they a Christian band?” I immediately said, “No, they’re a schitzo-pop band who, as they write, sing and perform, inhale and exhale Christ, who is God so near that He’s nearly invisible.” They are artists who draw living water from the well of Christ who, in the words of Vatican II, “reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” Yep, their music brings to light the high calling of men and women who find themselves presently very, very low to the ground. Often with the high skies blanked out of view. Especially as they sang Addict with a Pen, Trees, as well as a haunting — almost mystical — cover of My Chemical Romance’s song, Cancer. 

As I wrote last summer, while there are significant differences, concerts like theirs deeply resonate with the meaning and experience of liturgical worship. I think of the almost sacramental character of the lights, sights and sounds; the communal singing of common texts (lyrics) that unite all; the ritual body movements; the focus around a “sanctuary” populated by celebrants clothed in symbolic vestments; or the feeling of being removed from everyday experience to enter into a world of higher-deeper-wider meaning that transfigures the way you think-see-hear-feel everything. These events give baptismal priests like myself the opportunity to give voice to the liturgy of creation that shouts and whispers, sings and groans with all the vitality and agony of life in a world laboring to give birth to a new creation. In fact, a friend of mine texted me just before the concert began: “Prayers for your night of lay high priestly worship!!”

Jamie Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, argues that humanity is naturally homo liturgicus, “liturgical man.” We are drawn to ritual and liturgy, are naturally oriented toward worship and desire for the taste of transcendence in liturgy. Psychologically, socially, spiritually. He makes the point that good education, which is meant not simply to train workers with skill-sets for lucrative careers or give head-knowledge, but to form the whole person, must be thoroughly liturgical. Hence, it must engage the whole person in every aspect of existence, while being at the same time a full immersion into the dynamic mystery of God. He says,

Education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people. What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire – what they envision as ‘the good life’ of the ideal picture of human flourishing. An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart — the gut — by means of material, embodied practices.

The Sacred Liturgy is not a concert, but concerts have the capacity to profoundly bear the imprint of Sacred liturgy. When done well, musical events lead us into the Sacred Liturgy and intensify the force of the dismissal Rite — Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life — empowering us to set the world on fire. Artists like TØP make present a FarNear Kingdom burgeoning with divine Fire, a Kingdom guilty of breaking-and-entering a world grown old and cold in sin. In the words of Ode to Sleep:

I’ll stay awake,
‘Cause the dark’s not taking prisoners tonight.

Why am I not scared in the morning?
I don’t hear those voices calling,
I must have kicked them out, I must have kicked them out,
I swear I heard demons yelling,
Those crazy words they were spelling,
They told me I was gone, they told me I was gone.

But I’ll tell them,
Why won’t you let me go?
Do I threaten all your plans?
I’m insignificant.
Please tell them you have no plans for me.
I will set my soul on fire, what have I become?
I’ll tell them.

Thank you, Lord of Fire, for TØP, who share with us words of hope and fire that consume the flaming arrows of dark demons who whisper despair into the night.

Here are a few videos I shot, portions of songs captured with my 432-times-dropped phone. So realize the quality is low and a dim reflection of the reality.

Very end of Car Radio:

Mashup of Screen and The Judge:

Ode to Sleep:

Migraine:

Cancer:

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Catherine and Maria, lights in my life

Lent, the Liturgy of Agápē

Lent! It’s here, the party’s over. The liturgy bids us cease the festive parades of Carnival and enter the quiet desert of heart-rending penitence. In place of the laughter and cheer of Mardi Gras, we now hear the weeping of Adam, the dirge of Eve that echoes still from the primal Fall (Gen 3:19), along with the press of mortal ash that crosses our foreheads:

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es,
et in pulverem reverteris.
“Remember, man, you are dust
and to dust you will return.”

Liturgy is God’s manner of (re)structuring and redeeming time and space.

We who have been Baptized into Christ and anointed by the Spirit become ourselves liturgical beings, seized by the redeeming work of God (Phil. 3:12). In us the Holy Spirit recapitulates the life, death and resurrection of Christ so that we might be daily remade in His likeness. We pray, “Christ, live your life in me.”

Like a signet ring pressed into soft wax, the Spirit-filled liturgical seasons of the church year mark history’s unfolding with the diverse facets of the mystery of Christ. The church, born of and birthing the liturgy, makes the Kingdom’s re-ordering of time and space present here-and-now, in innumerably creative ways. Just think of how — no matter the distortions — these liturgical seasons and feasts have shaped the American culture of time: Advent-Christmas, Mardi Gras, Groundhog Day (Presentation of the Lord), Valentine’s Day, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter.

Liturgy, when it is made alive in us, is meant to become a primary locus and force of the Spirit’s shaping of human culture according to the pattern revealed by Christ in His words and deeds (Ex. 25:9). In the Sacraments we become a living, breathing, walking, speaking, singing, working, suffering sacramental liturgy in the world, allowing the Risen Christ, now exalted beyond history, to daily “crash the party” of life, transforming revelry into the celebration of redemption. As liturgical beings, we permit Christ in each moment of history, through-with-in us, to “do His thing” in all human cultures until the end of time.

Lent is the liturgical space-time warp when the church accompanies Jesus into the great silence of the Judean desert and face the ancient Tempter of humanity with all the weapons of the Father, i.e. prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let me offer a brief reflection on each of these.

Prayer: Prayer is intimate communion with the living God that allows us to bring our existence under the sway of His energetic power. Prayer affirms our dignity as stewards of God’s creation, allowing us to participate in His providential governance of all things, including evil. We have all been marked in Baptism with a priestly nature, and priests above all mediate, which makes each of us a center of commerce, so to speak, between heaven and earth. In this sense, prayer exists to increase in the world Heaven’s premier commodity, agápē. Agápē, in the New Testament, is the catch word for the singular manifestation of the “no greater love” shown by God in Christ on the Cross. This form of love is the signet ring’s image, the signature style by which God governs all things. It’s why the demons, purveyors of loveless death, despise prayer because they know it is Heaven’s chosen means by which creation is soaked in God’s life-giving and redeeming love. Fr. Hopko makes this point with his customary sharpness:

If you wish to prove the existence of Satan, start praying daily with depth and consistency and watch all Hell break loose to try to stop you with a thousand good reasons why you don’t need to pray now. “Not today, later, plenty of time” is their refrain. But God says to us, “Now is the time of salvation.”

Fasting: Fasting is usually associated with cultivating self-discipline, losing weight, taming the unruly passions, breaking addictions or helping turn our focus from purely material to more spiritual realities. In a word, fasting facilitates inner freedom for Christian excellence which requires self-mastery, with the appetites and emotions being under the rule of right-reason informed by faith. Fasting gives wings to prayer, helping snap our tethering cords and allowing us to feel in our bodies the ache of our yearning for God.

Fasting is also about exercising the muscle of solidarity — “I am my brother’s keeper” — under the form of hunger, inscribing the law of sacrifice into our body. Like a nursing mother, Christians eat always with the feeding of others in mind. Fasting involves renouncing good things, especially needful things, in order to free certain “goods” up to benefit others who lack them. This is why the demons hate fasting, because it frees the heart for agápē, for life-giving sacrifice. And whenever we present to God a sacrifice born of love for His glory and the good of our neighbor (tautology), no matter how tiny it is, God infallibly responds in a 100:1 ratio (Mark 10:30). St. Therese said this beautifully:

Even to pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.

Indeed, sacrificial love is the grain of God written into creation, marred in the Fall, and found deeply embedded in the core of the wood of the Cross. When we sync our lives with the endless rings of this grain, we re-create creation with the Creator.

Almsgiving: Almsgiving flows from prayer and fasting. We pray to become capable of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, strength and our neighbor as ourself. Prayer inspires us to offer to God our bodies as a living sacrifice, fasting prepares the material for the sacrificial feast and almsgiving is the feast offered to “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13). This sacrificial feast can be a feast of food, of hope, of friendship, of justice advocacy, of time spent in patient listening or any number of other acts of agápē that bring life to the world around us.

As an elderly priest said once in a homily, “If we give up sweets for Lent, it’s so we can become sweeter to the bitter.” Love that.

In the desert and on the eucharistic Cross, Jesus prayed, fasted and gave sacrificial Alms to satisfy our hunger with finest Wheat and quench our thirst with the rivers of tender mercy that flowed from His open side. God’s liturgy of love makes of every desert an oasis and of every Cross a Tree of Life.

There is a woman I know — have known for decades — who has a son with Down Syndrome, who is himself beset by several severe disabilities. We will call him Tony. Among his many challenges, he has a sleeping disorder that keeps him up for 3-day stretches 2 to 3 times a month. And this has gone on for nearly 30 years. Because he is terrified of being alone during the night during these stretches, she stays awake with him, and then works during the day while he is at school. That astounds me. Once when I was speaking with her, I complimented her amazing stamina and selfless love for him. She said, “No, it’s Tony who’s the champ. He’s the one who suffers with this. Me? I have the privilege to accompany him. You know I say that if I’m ever saved when I die, it’ll only be because of Tony. He pulled me out of my self-centered life and taught me how to love.”

And is that not the meaning of salvation? To think less of yourself in order to think more of others.

Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. — 1 Pet. 4:8

This Lent, may our chosen way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving thus save us, and the world, with the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love.

Judean desert. swordsoftruth.com

Sex, semiotics and society

The conception of the Virgin Mary, aka Joachim and Anne making love. vatopaidi.files.wordpress.com

[A plenary indulgence if you make it through this opening quote into my post. It’s a long post, but really fun to write for me! Or text…]

Jesus was a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind. And Christian culture echoes his sign-making. This communal sign-making is, for Christians, the most authentically basic bit of culture. Is it just another bit of human culture? Yes and no: for here, we believe, the true myth is performed, the fullest meaning is made.

On what grounds do Christians affirm the ideal of lifelong monogamy (and also the ideal of chastity)? Is it that God dispenses a few non-negotiable rules, one of which is the wrongness of casual sex? No, the legal paradigm is inadequate; it doesn’t help us through the inevitable grey areas.

The Christian should approach the question of sexual morality by means of communication, sign-making. The sexual impulse invites us to semiotic anarchism: casual sex hints at huge meanings that we don’t mean; it is not safely “meaningless”, but is meaning-shaking. Miraculously, the tables can be turned on the semiotic anarchism of sex: a disciplined approach to it (which does not deny but affirms its goodness) is perhaps the loudest communicative tool available to us. Sex is redeemed. — Theo Hobson

[semiotics is the study of how cultural “signs” work]

A friend a few weeks ago asked me a really seraching question that I will do injustice to its sophistication here. He asked me, what is so wrong with pre-marital sex if the couple intends genuine love and feels the need to make certain, as they do in every other area of their relationship before marriage, they are sexually compatible. I mean, there are horror stories out there about couples who marry and find out in sex they just don’t jive. What makes a sexual act before marriage so — or always so — sinful?

I have been trying to respond for weeks, but part of my response ended up being a voice-to-text while sitting in an airport terminal waiting on a flight. It certainly drew interesting looks from other travellers who clearly found what I was saying into my phone a bit off-beat, shall we say. It’s certainly only the seed of an argument, and as a single brief post does not attempt to say everything necessary, but I thought it decent enough to post so I edited it into a respectable form for you here.

My main point in the text was to correct the American cultural over-emphasis on the experience of personal fulfillment in marriage at the expense of its broader social meaning; or the over-emphasis on erotic love at the expense of the demands of justice, etc. It teases out an intuition I have had for years but never took any time to think about in a focused way.

But I left it’s “text feeling” as much as I could, because that’s how it started. My hope is that it will help you, as it did me, to think ‘outside of the box’ on the likes of marriage, sex, contraception, abortion. In no way does this post intend to malign the beauty and heroism that can be part of single parenthood, nor mar the dignity of victims of divorce who struggle in its wake. Grace is everywhere. Rather, it is intended to reflect on the full meaning, beauty and implications of sex & marriage as the church says God intended it…in the light of which we all fall short, and require His everlasting mercies. That said, the church’s teaching always remains the fullness of beauty which mercy longs to reveal in all.

+ + +

I am writing this as a voice-to-text, stream of consciousness, so pardon any mistakes as we go!

I’ve been thinking about our conversation about various rationales for sex before marriage. I am waiting on my ride here in Des Moines, so here’s to entertaining the audience before me! Here it goes:

First, at the core of Catholic teaching on sex is the 2-fold meaning of the sexual act: unitive and procreative. Unitive=sex is good because it bonds the couple, knits them together and allows for the building and expression of intimacy and love and passion for each other.

Procreative=sex is good because every sexual act is oriented toward reproduction, conception, cooperatively (with God) bringing about a new human life made in the image of God. And here’s a key: each of those meanings strengthen the other, which is what makes every sexual act intrinsically *marital*.

The unitive meaning spiritually, psychologically, biochemically solidifies, seals and cements the marital union in mutual self-gift (which is in itself an end of marriage) SO it might serve well as a fortress, a garden, a home, a safe space and stable playground within which pro-created children can come into existence, grow, flourish, be sent on mission and return to that same safe space when needed.

I always imagine that the (theological) reason the sex drive is *so* powerful is because God placed in it His awesome command: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). No wonder it’s so hard to contain and restrain, with that kind of apodictic divine command surging in my body! But that command was issued to a married couple, created “male and female”, by a God who also said, “that they may be one as we are one, Father” (John 17:21). Monotheism, monogamy and monogamous sex go together.

Even after the age of fertility, or with couples who are infertile, the sexual act remains oriented toward this same 2-fold end as children grow, grandchildren are born, new family members are added, adopted, welcomed into the Playground. On that last point, I’ve known couples who, though they could not have children themselves and did not adopt, were very engaged in social justice/charity outreach work, or offered tender maternal and paternal support to other families that flowed out of the fruitfulness of their own married love. i.e. their marital bond was fruitful for neighbors. The marital union needs to remain a solid and binding force in the extended family, church and society needs unitive cement to keep it fiery, dynamic, tender, passionate and unshakably stable as a center of family unity.

The love of each spouse for the other, so intensely beautiful in itself, also always exists for the sake of “communion” — in fact, the Sacrament of Matrimony is called a “sacrament of service to communion” because it exists in service to the extended family, the church and all of society.

And so sex has profound import in society. Sex binds strong a stable and permanant bond on which the social order depends, is built. Social order, social flourishing, social justice require such a binding stability, unwavering commitment to others’ welfare – which grounds of justice – as well as requiring the nuclear ethic of love and intimacy that originates in marital union. Sex can never simply be about orgasm, personal satisfaction. Every sexual act is massively sign-ificant. Every sexual act is also a social act, a familial act and, in an extended sense, a political, economic, cultural, etc. act. Because all of these things are interconnected, interwoven into the primal fabric of marital love, which serves as the foundation and stable center of human solidarity.

We share the powerful sex drive of all animals because we are rational animals, called to integrate all of the beauty of animal life into the beauty of the image of God that was stamped into homo sapiens at a certain moment in history. Biology is clear that the sex drive is so powerfully implanted in every living being to ensure propagation of species (procreative meaning). Biology also testifies to the unitive meaning, as sex creates powerful affective, biochemical bonds between man and woman. ESPECIALLY for the woman who bears the burden of child bearing and rearing, and requires the man to rightly raise the children.

It’s quite telling that those who engage in sex outside of marriage often intentionally sever the unitive meaning from its procreative meaning (contracept, abort) precisely because they recognize – even if only seeing it as a raw biological datum – that the sexual act is ordered toward a permanent bond made visible, incarnate in each family-making child born to them. Children conceived outside of marriage suffer an injustice because they lack the safety of the permanany, stable social bond (marriage) that should welcome them into a world of justice and love where they can grow up sorrounded by the full image of God, male and female, living in the image of His love, faithfulness, justice, kindness, patience, longsuffering, et certera.

Statistics testify powerfully to the link between children conceived out of wedlock and the breakdown of social order and the proliferation of social injustices. Sex indulged in apart from its deep-structural meanings, sex reduced to conceptions of fulfillment defined by radical autonomy and pleasure-defined utilitarianism, now dominate Western culture, stripping sex of its power to express the beauty of personhood, of communion made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God.

A SECOND POINT: as far as the question of having to experiment with potential partners first, or the challenges of having sexual relations for the first time after the wedding day and not before. Really? Come on! If you accept that cohabiting is also wrong by an extension of this logic — since cohabitation mimics the total sharing of life that is marriage (including sex) — you will also realize that after the wedding day a HOST of surprises await the couple as they learn about each other up close, day in day out, and have to slowly figure it out. The art of human love is complex, messy, progressive, requiring growth and learning and communication, and seeking counsel from experienced couples who’ve been through it. This reminds me of a gentleman from India who, speaking about arranged marriages in India, said to a priest I know:

I see you’re surprised about this as an American, and wonder how someone could ever have a loving and happy marriage if they did not fall in love with their spouse to be and choose to marry. Okay, let me share an analogy that might help you see my perspective. Think of marriage as a pot of water and culture as a pile of sticks. In your culture, marriage is a boiling pot of water steaming with passion, while your culture is a pile of cold, wet sticks. In our culture, marriage is a pot full of cold water, while the wood of our Sikh culture is ablaze with fire. So, while your boiling water sits atop the cold and wet sticks, it warms the sticks for a brief time but eventually the water cools and turns cold. When our cold pot of water is placed on our tight-knit culture burning with passion for lifelong marriage, the water slowly warms eventually to boiling. While both systems have their problems, from what I’ve seen of the state of American marriage, I’d choose our fire over your boiling water.

Also an acceptance of the fact that “great sex” in marriage means many things to many people, and is never going to match a culture that hyper-idealizes sex and links it with self-pleasuring hedonism (e.g. Cosmopolitan magazine) and not to selfless love, self-gift and sacrificial love.

“Marriage is not for me.” Because marriage is NOT essentially about the couple’s personal fulfillment, but about providing a stable foundation for just social order rooted in unifying love and self-gift. Sex always is understood to be the handmaiden and servant of this primary good. As I said, every sexual act is a marital act. Extra-marital sex has disastrous social consequences, many or most of which are not seen and felt by the couple fornicating. Short term gain, long term pain, you might say.

Extra-marital sex is sinful because it assaults justice and charity, exalts personal satisfaction above the common good, commits an injustice against children conceived outside of marriage (or banned from existence by contraception or abortion) and strikes at the foundations of a just and stable social order — a culture of life and a civilization of love. Extra-marital sex is more akin to masturbation than is the two-in-one-flesh marital act that images the divine-human covenant that binds humanity as one indissoluble family.

Something like that. That’s a stab. Gotta go! God bless!!

I sent this text to a priest I know, who has worked for years as a prison chaplain. Here was his text back to me:

Your linking sex with justice-charity-stability is brilliant and truthful. Faithfulness and trust creates the bond that allows sex it’s generative, intimate force. Covenant is the biblical expression of social bounds that allows life to flourish. I love your remark on how faithful, marital love creates the life ethos for children to play and encounter the goods of communion.

I might add that in most cases I’ve experienced, those with multiple partners have experienced a diminished capacity of trust. A cynical jadedness emerges regarding intimacy. This isn’t a fact so much as it is observed through wisdom.

As you know, I visit multiple incarcerated men every week who came from frivolous sexual relationships. Our nation’s great evil of slavery obliterated familial and marital customs for so many generations which continues to reap so much devastation. I have little tolerance for those who espouse sexuality as experimental. It is indeed an issue related to social justice

I will end with a song that I believe ties together beautifully my emphasis here on both the social-familial and personal-intimate dimensions of sexuality in marriage — Duet, by Penny and Sparrow.

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you