More #seethegood in virtual learning

I have four kids, and each of them is in a different school this year. (Long story.) Two of them are in seat (one because parochial school, one because special ed), the other two are all online so far.

Today is the first day I have to have one of my in-seat kids at home for learning, and since I’m groaning internally about it, I want to stop to acknowledge the great blessing that my two highest-maintenance kids have, in fact, been able to have relatively normal schooling all the way to October 21st. I have been on fire in my writing–laser focused and accomplishing a lot.

At the same time, some really beautiful things have come out of having two kids at home for school. I’ve gone running with my 6th grader a few times. Taken afternoon walks with him at other times. Eaten lunch with my high schooler, who, in an ordinary year, we’d barely see because he’d transition between school and marching band and be gone for ten hours and do homework the rest.

Also, I have a lot better picture of what my kids are doing at school this year. I’m puttering around the kitchen during middle school zooms and for that reason I know all the teachers by voice and name and I know that one teacher has a chirping smoke detector in her house, and I can hear the banter in the class. I can ask intelligent questions about the things the kids are studying, because I have some clue what they are.

It’s a give and take. There are plenty of things that feel constraining about this mode of education, and keeping spirits high… or, well, in the neutral range or better… requires constant vigilance. I feel much more guilty for going to take my hike/bike/sit/pray times when there are kids at home. But there are things to love about it, too.

Interconnectivity and Materialism (Fratelli Tutti, #9-14)

Background image credit: Cass Kelly

I’ve been trying for several days to find the entry point to reflect on the first section of Fratelli Tutti’s Chapter One. Like many papal encyclicals, FT begins by laying out the problem. It seemed, Pope Francis says, that for a few decades the world was heading in a positive direction–greater peace and international cooperation; an understanding of where we’d been and why we didn’t want to go there again. But it’s been shifting in recent years. He calls out “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism” and individualist ideologies that shred the idea of “social sense.”

This whole section is rich with resonance to me: consumerism, corporations that succeed by feeding individualistic priorities, leading to a loss of the sense of human interconnectivity and even an understanding of history. (This is my best attempt to sum it up. Really, you just need to read it.) In such an environment, high ideals such as democracy, freedom, justice, unity, etc., become meaningless catchwords that can be abused by anyone. Hence, the quote above.

Pope Francis catches a lot of flak in some quarters for being “liberal;” as far as I’m concerned, passages like this disprove that. To me, this sounds like the same conservative rallying cry that permeated my childhood. For decades, popes have been warning that when big conglomerates control the narrative of the world, it’s bad for us. Certainly, in my conservative Catholic upbringing, Hollywood and the music industry were the focus of this criticism.

I think we’re getting ready to hear that those targets aren’t the only ones–just the easiest to call out.

Being Catholic in a Messy World

This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”

I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!

(Thanks to GIA Publications, my music publisher, for making this available.)

The Grass Is Always Greener

Today’s reflection is (slightly) adapted from a post originally written seven years ago on my personal blog.

Having wrestled anxiety for most of my young adult life, I don’t often plumb the depths of my psyche too much anymore. I may be emotionally and psychologically healthy these days, but I’m far from immune to doubt. Doubt is an inevitable part of the human experience. We doubt God, we doubt our leaders, those we love, and of course, ourselves. The decisions we’ve made, especially the big ones, sometimes lead us to places that don’t look like what we envisioned, and we start thinking if we’d chosen another path, things might be easier.

This happens to me most often when I’m ticked off at the world, i.e. husband and kids. They are my vocation, so when family life seems really hard, a niggling thought will sometimes come to mind: could I have heard the call wrong? I have always been drawn to silence and stillness. Why didn’t I ever seriously consider religious life? A life of prayer, of contemplation, without the familial demands that wear me down, the unceasing noise that shreds my inner peace, the constant busyness that makes it almost impossible to dip into the well of the Spirit. Wouldn’t I be a better disciple if my life were devoted to solitude and prayer?

The end of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain surprised me when I read it:

“You have got me walking up and down all day under those trees, saying to me over and over again: ‘Solitude, solitude.’ And you have turned around and thrown the whole world in my lap. You have told me, ‘Leave all things and follow me,’ and then You have tied half of New York to my foot like a ball and chain. You have got me kneeling behind that pillar with my mind making a noise like a bank. Is that contemplation?”

Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain
Photo by Krivec Ales on Pexels.com

Look at that: a contemplative monk, questioning his vocation because–gasp–it’s not contemplative enough. Because he’s got distractions. Because his mind is rattling like a piggy bank. (Oh, that is so me.)

That made me rethink another quote I’d read years earlier:

“Usually, in refusing such a gift from God, a person finds his or her path to heaven more difficult. … it seems that God calls us to the best possible vocation suited to our personalities and talents…”

Richard Hogan, The Theology of the Body in John Paul II

When I first read it, I interpreted it to mean that I will be a better disciple if I am in a situation that challenges my weaknesses least. But in light of Merton’s quote, I realized: what if the very soul stretching that comes from struggling with my vocation is what makes me a better disciple? After all, if we’re never challenged, how in the world can we grow?

If patience, pride and self-centeredness are my weaknesses (and believe me, they are), then family life, in which patience is tried every moment of every day and self-centeredness is forced by virtue of necessity to give way to self-emptying–family life seems ideally suited to make me a better disciple.

In other words, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence…until you get there and realize what you’ve left behind.

“Brotherhood”

Background image: Wiki Commons

I have begun reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” and thought it might be worth simply sharing as I read, since it’s new to all of us.

The topic seems like a timely reminder, given the state of the world right now. I can’t quote it all, but Pope Francis sets the tone in the introduction by pointing to St. Francis of Assisi’s trip to visit the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. He went during the Crusades–a time when the goal of Christianity was to conquer and convert the Muslims–and instead modeled peaceful conversation with no agenda at all.

Two things strike me here: one is that with this trip, St. Francis, quietly and without making a production of it, issued a sharp rebuke to the entire goal of the Crusades. A rebuke that, with the benefit of hindsight, was well deserved.

The other is that Pope Francis is setting the stage to remind us that our worldwide politics of division (because it’s not just an American thing) is directly counter to holy living.

And I suppose there’s a third thing, which is that there’s more than one way to interpret “far away” and “near.” In St. Francis’ case, it was both physical and philosophical difference. My guess is that Pope Francis is gearing up to admonish us to be “brothers” in both those spheres in modern life, as well.

We shall see if I am correct.

What Can I Do?

It’s always dangerous to read too deeply into the day’s Scriptures an overt connection to the modern world, but yesterday it was hard not to do so. I hoped for good judgment from my people, and look! What I got was violence. I hoped for just behavior, but listen to the outcry against people who are supposed to be a beacon of hope!

I’ve been quiet recently, because it’s busy, and because sometimes I feel like a wagging finger, and there’s only so much finger-wagging a person can do before people tune you out.

So I struggle with what to write. I’m overdue for a #seethegood, but that feels like a cop-out when what is on my heart is something quite different.

My bishop sent an election letter, which I shared on Facebook. (For those who might read only here, here it is.) It was a good letter, nuanced in a time when most discourse consists of bilateral apocalyptic predictions. But what really stood out to me was this:

“What I see happening in our nation, unfortunately, is a strident, rancorous discord that tears not only at the fabric of our society but also at the communion of the Church.  And this disharmony endangers the salvation of souls.”

Bishop Shawn McKnight

Within my own circle, there are a growing number of people who have left the Church or struggle to remain in it because of how we act, because of the singleminded focus to the exclusion of things Jesus told us explicitly were our call.

I lie awake at night praying about this. Pray as if it all depends on God; act as if it all depends on you, the truism says. I’m praying. But action? What can I do, besides write finger-wagging posts on social media? I feel helpless.

How will be judged?

My husband and I watched the movie “Harriet” this week, and–aside from the mind-blowing music, instrumental and vocal–what struck me most was how convinced the whites of slave times were that there was “nothing to see here, move on.” I find the same attitude in a lot of talk going on around me these days, and as I wrestle with whether the arguments about violence versus peace, the way white Christians seem to be seeking excuses to disregard the movement, I wonder how history–and more importantly, God–will judge us. Are any of the things being said against BLM valid, in the long run? Or are they just excuses?

I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of Shannon Evans. As a faithful Catholic in the broadest sense of the word and the adoptive mother of a Black child, she has a lot to say to us about race. Here’s the screen shot I grabbed last night off Instagram. Click it and it will go to her column.

https://www.jesuits.org/stories/everyday-ignatian-finding-god-in-others-when-racial-injustice-feels-too-painful-to-bear/

Fear, Faith, and Recognizing God’s Voice

Today I share my third and final post about fear and faith. Or rather, a fragment of a much larger post, because this is the part that’s relevant. In March 2014 I was sharing about my first spiritual direction appointment, and I wrote:


I talked at some length about the scrupulosity issue, the fear that I’m not supposed to be writing, that GOD’S WILL FOR MY LIFE (finger wagging as an illustration) is for me to be a mom and nothing else. My spiritual director said, “Do you think that’s what God’s calling you to?”

Not a question I wanted to answer. I fumbled a bit, and she rephrased: “Have you ever had a moment where you were sure you were hearing the voice of God?”

After a bit of thought I could say yes, I did. It’s never, ever about the big things, it’s always about small things that are immediate and in the here and now.

“And what does that feel like? Does it feel like the wagging finger?”

“No!” This one I could answer with certainty. “No, it feels quiet, and peaceful.”

Those words hung in the air for a couple of seconds before I realized their importance. I have identified what the voice of God sounds like to me, and more importantly, what it doesn’t sound like.


Stepping back in as 2020 Kate: I want to clarify the connection. In that post I referred to a wagging finger. But the point is what that wagging finger made me *feel*: fear. Anxiety.

How anxiety looms over life.

I have a history with anxiety–a long, tangled, ugly history. For me, fear and anxiety were twisted up in dysfunctional ways with my faith. (I still fight it sometimes.) A feeling that anything I wanted had to be contrary to God’s will, simply by definition, because “my ways are not your ways.” (I once told that fear to a good and holy friend of mine. He blinked in silence for a minute and then said, “Wow. What an unfortunate reading of that Scripture.”) A fear that if I got a discernment wrong, I was out of luck and basically doomed for all eternity (literally).

So the moment I described above, in my first spiritual direction appointment, was a game-changer. I cannot speak for others, but this I know: God does not speak to me in anxiety and fear. The Devil, however, does. The devil speaks anxiety and fear often, relentlessly, and loudly.

God speaks to me in a quiet sense of security and peace and joy.

There has always been an end-times movement. The world is always about to end in someone’s mind. There are always visions. Some of them well-respected in the Church and others, well, a lot more questionable.

I ignore them all, because I know now that is not where God speaks. Not to me, at least. And honestly, I don’t think following out of fear is what God wants for any of us. I think of Elijah. God didn’t speak in the scary, bombastic stuff, but in the tiny whispering breeze.

Is the world going to end? At some point. But that’s not where I need to keep my focus. I’ve been at this long enough to know that if I focus on fear, I’ll fall farther from him, not grow closer. I’ll only live a half life.

I wrestle many things these days, but this I am certain of: God wants more than that for us.

Fear and Faith, Part 2

Sharing today the second of three posts about my journey in pondering the relationship between faith and fear. This one dates from March 2, 2011.


Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

A pastor named Rob Bell wrote a book that raised people’s hackles because they felt it espouses “universalism,” the idea that nobody’s going to go to Hell. I ran across this topic here, and it got me thinking. Not about Rob Bell, his book, or the existence of Hell—frankly, because I think the whole discussion is a distraction from the primary issue.

I have no patience with the sentiment “I believe in God, but I’m not really religious.” Or “I’m more spiritual than religious.” Cop-out! If you believe in God, that God is creator of all and above all, then it makes no sense to act as if that belief doesn’t matter. When the stakes are so high—Heaven and Hell, eternal life and eternal death—how can you stick your fingers in your ears and ignore the call to act, saying “la la la I can’t hear you?”

On the other hand, being “religious” because you’re scared of going to Hell is a pretty poor version of Christianity. If that’s all your faith is based on then it’s bound to do one of two things: get twisted into some hideous distortion of true holiness (how often do we see that happen?), or fall to pieces entirely. Holy living should be a response born of gratitude to the One who gave us everything, love for the One who continues to pour out goodness on us, even amid the pain and difficulty of this fallen world. And by love, I mean a conscious decision to act, not some touchy-feely, ephemeral happy place.

When you love someone, you try to get to know them, to understand what they want, what makes them tick. When you love someone, you look for ways to make them happy, you look for ways to deepen your relationship with them. When faith becomes an act of love, the discussion of Hell, its existence or lack thereof, is….well, perhaps not completely irrelevant, but certainly beside the point.

Hell is the absence of God. Look around the world. Everything beautiful in this world, everything that makes it worth living, is from God: love, cuddles, creation, skies and outdoors and fresh air and friendship and music and all the things that make our hearts skip a beat. To be separated from all that? If that doesn’t give you the shudders, then I don’t know what will.

I don’t think much about Hell, end-times or the apocalypse, because it scares me, and when I’m scared I focus on fear instead of on my true job as a Christian. My true job is love. I’m trying to learn to live in such a way that I am acting out of love for the One who made me, acted out toward the people and the world He created. I have a long way to go; I’m well aware that I’m not guaranteed a place in Heaven just because I say I believe in God. Actions speak louder than words, and fear is not a good long-term motivator. Besides, it’s not like I have any control over the apocalypse (or lack thereof). God’s the editor of the final markup, not me. Thank…well, thank God.


The Kate of 2020 steps back in to note that I apparently had a lot more answers when I was in my thirties than I do now. 🙂

Fear and Faith, Part 1

An exchange earlier this week on Instagram got me thinking about the relationship between fear and faith. Over the years I’ve pondered this quite a bit, so rather than try to write it again, it makes more sense simply to re-share things I’ve written before on the topic.

The first reflection was originally written in August of 2011.


Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Pexels.com

My freshman year of high school, a non-denominational organization called Youth For Christ rocketed into prominence. I thought that meant it was for all Christians, and indeed, it seemed to cross boundaries. The most popular kids in school and plenty of the invisible majority walked the hallways wearing snappy black T shirts that proclaimed, “Jesus loves U2. Jesus: if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.”

One night they brought in a high-powered speaker. They filled up a large room with teenagers: in folding chairs, standing at the edges and the back. I don’t remember much about the talk itself, except that it scared me. It was about “almosters,” people who are almost good enough for Heaven, but not quite, and who thus will burn in fiery damnation for all eternity.

I started thinking of my faults, of the sacrament of Reconciliation, and what would happen if I forgot to confess something. I got more and more scared…but alongside the terror grew another, quieter sense of discomfort, one I couldn’t put words to.

Then came The Altar Call. You know: “If you want to profess Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, get up and go to the back, where we have people waiting to speak with you.” And suddenly, the shuffling chairs, the whispers and sniffles and scraping sneakers all around me, made me realize something that cut the legs from beneath the fear.

We were being manipulated. Manipulated, in the name of religion.

That moment of clarity changed everything. I sat in my hard folding chair with my eyes closed, my arms folded, and prayed. Prayed that I wasn’t imposing my will on God’s. That if this was truly from God, that I would be open to it, even if it felt wrong. I kept praying as the speaker backed off his altar call: if you feel like you want to make the profession, but you need help to do it…if you feel moved, but need more information…if you simply want to ask questions…

At this point, I felt a stab of disgust. I realized he wasn’t going to be satisfied until the room was empty, until every person had gone to get “saved.” And I knew, with absolute certainty, that this wasn’t how God worked.

I sneaked a peek. The holdouts were me and one other girl—also Catholic. At this last, shameless call, she gave in.

I did not.

When it was all over, the last holdout and I went to the leaders to express our displeasure with how non-inclusive this experience was, and asked if we could bring in somebody to offer another perspective on being not quite good enough for Heaven. Oh, no, they said, we’re not going to get into doctrines of individual denominations. That’s how you tear groups like this apart. I hadn’t really expected a Protestant to buy in to the idea of Purgatory, but still, it irked. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized why: their entire presentation represented a sliver of Christianity, and not the whole.

I never went back.

It’s tempting to impose the more mature faith of my thirties on my fourteen-year-old self. Of course I didn’t have it worked out then like I do now, just as I’ll have it worked out better when I’m sixty than I do today. But I do believe that experience sensitized me to emotional manipulation in the name of God. Maybe that’s why my TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) two years later fell so flat, and made me so suspicious of retreats in general: that entire weekend felt like a giant emotional manipulation.

I know that many people have found their faith bolstered by such experiences. No doubt true conversions have happened off of altar calls employing fear tactics. God can use any circumstance to achieve His purposes.

But mostly, I think it harms Christianity. Because when you get back out into the real world, that amazing little thing called intellect kicks in, and you start to see the flaws. You realize that you’ve been manipulated. And then what? What saves a fledgling faith when it realizes it is based on manipulation?