America the Beautiful at Mass

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I woke up early on Sunday morning to the sound of a much-needed long, soaking rain. I laid in bed a long time, alternating prayers of gratitude with wrestling something that is probably going to get me in trouble.

Sunday, of course, was 9/11. At my parish on any national commemoration, it’s become tradition to sing America the Beautiful as a recessional. I’ve been in a leadership role in music for twenty-two years now, and in that time my feelings on this have gone back and forth multiple times. I’ve led the song PLENTY of times.

America the Beautiful is a beautiful song. It’s an aspirational song—in other words, it describes what America is meant to be.

But I’m not sure it belongs at Mass.

For a long time, the single phrase, “God mend thine every flaw” has saved it for me in a liturgical context. But Sunday morning, lying in bed, I thought:

We have a strong contingent of Americans who are systematically trying to erase America’s flaws from history books. They don’t think we need to know them. They think it’s unpatriotic to name America’s national sins… even though this same philosophy calls America to “get back to its Christian values,” which would include the reality that acknowledging our failures is intrinsic to the practice of Christianity.

In contemplative circles lately, I have been encountering the idea of holding conflicting ideas in tension. America has been a place of great freedom, innovation, and human achievement. It has also been, in the same places and the same times, a place of great oppression, injustice, and hedonism and the pursuit of money without concern for the good of others. (A modern example: Regulation is looked at as bad because people perceive it as stymying economic growth. By our national actions, then, we demonstrate that we believe money is more important than safety, health, and the dignity of human beings made in God’s image. Theology of the Body in action: it is through our bodies that we do–or don’t–make God’s image visible in the world.)

I love America the Beautiful. But I think when we tear up singing it, it’s not because of what America COULD be or SHOULD be, but because of a false sense that this is what America IS.

Christian life—for Catholics especially—is supposed to embrace the tension between what we aspire to be and the ways we fall short. We have penitential seasons. We are supposed to go to confession often.

But most of us don’t, and even those of us who do (full disclosure: I am not one of them, by default of busy-ness, and I recognize that’s just an excuse) don’t recognize the flaws in the way we view patriotism.

In recent years, a large segment of Christianity has wrapped up the cross in the flag. A lot of people have pursued, and more have justified, or at least winked at, some pretty heinous things in pursuit of that false worship. False, because God and patriotism are not the same thing. God comes first. Way, WAY before country.

There is no question that it is appropriate to sing America the Beautiful at patriotic events.

But at church?

Doesn’t singing America the Beautiful put things in the wrong order? Like, we put the nation in first place, highlighting its ideals and ignoring its failures, and then, as an afterthought, ask God to bless it?

I’m asking this as a legit question. I’m willing to listen to another perspective on this, for sure. Because of COURSE, it is totally appropriate to ask God to bless America. But what purpose does it serve to ignore the divided, toxic reality in which America exists right now and substitute an idealized version of America that never has really existed except in our hopes and prayers? Not a Godly one.

A lot of people died on 9/11. They deserve to be remembered. They deserve to be prayed for. They deserve to be remembered and prayed for at Mass. But America the Beautiful doesn’t do any of that. It shifts the focus away from the victims and substitutes rah-rah patriotism. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to sing, for instance, “On Eagle’s Wings” or “Be Not Afraid”?

If we want to show a proper priority of God and country, wouldn’t it be better to observe national holiday weekends with “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” or “This Is My Song, O God of All The Nations”?

Basically, we use America the Beautiful because it’s beloved on a secular level. We do it because of the “pastoral” judgment. But I’m not convinced it actually IS pastoral in impact.

As I said, I am willing to be convinced, but I ask that if you respond, please do so courteously and respectfully, and with prayer, as I prayed through the discernment of this post. I am putting this out there for respectful discussion in the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Reflecting on Dorothy Day (part 1)

This weekend, I finally finished reading Dorothy Day’s letters. My overarching takeaway is: This woman is not who you think she was. She defies categorization.

I highlighted so many passages in my e-book. So many things to reflect upon. There’s one particular facet I want to reflect upon in depth, but I think I need to address the big picture first, and give that one particular aspect its own post.

My whole life, I have assumed that Dorothy Day would take a certain approach to everything. I believed this in the years when I was a staunch political conservative and thought she represented everything that was wrong with the world. And I still believed this when I began reading this book as a person who has embraced as Godly many things I once thought misguided.

But she is way, way more complex than the general narrative about her allows her to be.

In many ways, she was shockingly conservative. In her younger years it wasn’t so obvious, because the world was still conservative surrounding matters of sexuality. In those years, her conservatism manifested as repeated acknowledgment of the Church’s (and specifically Church leadership’s) authority over her, and a repeated commitment to cease her work if she was ever told to do so. Of course, that never happened. There were many, many priests and bishops supporting her work… because it was CATHOLIC.

But as soon as the sexual revolution started, she started railing against it all. She was not a happy camper in the last couple decades of her life. She was kind of a grumpy old lady, in fact, often unhappy about the depravity of the young and the sorry state of the future. (And she didn’t like the post-V2 Mass. Although in her defense, she was complaining about it in the time just after the change, when everyone was still figuring it out and a lot of things were done badly.) She talks about how the government is not the ideal provider of services to the poor—that it’s necessary at times, but that ideally this work would be done by the Church. (Not individual Christians. The CHURCH.)

On the other hand, she had a moral code that demanded social justice, and she was absolutely, 100% rigid in following it. She participated in protests for peace, spent time in jail, stood with workers against corporations, and lived in abject poverty her whole life—never kept any of her earnings.

A big part of her code was pacifism. She opposed Vietnam, of course (rightly so). But she also opposed World War 2. I found that shocking—downright disturbing, actually. If ever there were a just war, that was it.

Her commitment to pacifism was so unshakable, she wouldn’t take honorary degrees from Catholic universities because they had ROTC programs and took government grants that largely benefited the military industrial complex.

She also raised holy hell when she found out her publisher was going to take funds from Rockefeller and Ford foundations to help archive her stuff. She flatly refused permission as long as they were involved. In part that was b/c she believed in personal responsibility (a tick in the conservative chart), but in part it was also that the Rockefellers, in her words, had a lot to answer for (a jab at corporate abuse of workers, a tick in the progressive chart).

What I hope I’m laying out here clearly is that she was CATHOLIC. Not progressive Catholic, not conservative Catholic, just CATHOLIC. Because sometimes Catholic IS progressive. And sometimes it’s conservative. And virtually all of us try to separate those two, and in so doing, do violence to the Gospel.

I begin to suspect that I have more than one more post to write about Dorothy Day… but I’ll stop there for right now.

Systems of sin are a real thing

There are several reflections rumbling around in my brain right now—about Scripture and women, about abortion.

But I promised I’d try to get more specific about the thing I only addressed vaguely last week—about getting down in the weeds and wrestling with how to apply the faith to the current context of the world.

So I think the best thing I could share this week is a reflection by Christopher Dodson, of the diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. I found it because one of my email subscriptions last week referred to “systemic sin.”

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My faith journey in the past few years has really convicted me on the topic of systemic racism. There is so much pushback against the idea. The hullabaloo about critical race theory makes me absolutely CRAZY. The idea that we shouldn’t talk about the deep sins committed by U.S. institutions against Black and indigenous people, because it might make white people feel bad, must make God weep. One of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith, after all, is acknowledging our failures and confessing them.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months trying to figure out how I would ask fellow whites who resist racial reckoning to think about this. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Things like redlining, lending discrimination, and the GI bill only applying to whites—to say nothing of the lack of reparations made to Blacks after abolition—have had long, long ripple effects. We, the whites, got the good side of this equation. Blacks got the bad side. The problems faced by Black communities now are direct, generational ripple effects of injustices perpetrated by systemic racism that endured for hundreds of years.

Now, none of that is my fault, or your fault, and it might not be your parents’ fault, or even your grandparents’ fault. It’s not our FAULT.

BUT.

Whose fault it is is not the issue. The point is, the consequences are here, and we, as Christians, have to deal with them.

This is not about trying to make whites feel bad. It’s just a clear-eyed, Jesus-centered, Gospel-driven, “love your neighbor as yourself” acknowledgment that I have benefited generationally from something that harmed another group of people generationally. And that still has impacts today.

And because of that, I have a responsibility to work toward fixing it.

That’s all. The hysteria surrounding critical race theory steals all the attention that needs to be on solutions, and directs it toward division and protectionism of SYSTEMS that have aided whites at the expense of Blacks. And it’s got to stop.

When I hear the words “systemic sin,” this is what I think about.

But when that term popped up in my email last week, and I knee-jerk reacted as above, I thought I’d better walk the walk and go look up the term to make sure I wasn’t imposing my own world view upon it. I wanted to see what people with more expertise had to say about it.

That’s how I found this article. Christopher Dodson is the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, and in other articles, he addresses abortion and other subjects of importance to Catholics. He’s no radical.

This piece takes a hard look at the topic of systemic sin, specifically referencing the Catechism and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

And now I will shut up and let Dodson speak.

Many Christians, including Catholics, have difficulty understanding that “structures of sin” may exist separately from our own individual sins. I suspect that certain religious and political strains of thought in the United States that emphasize the individual as paramount contribute to this problem. The false idea that we are autonomous individuals acting in isolation prevents us from accepting and addressing the social consequences of our sins and the sins of others. (continue reading)

Christopher Dodson

Faith formed by politics, or politics informed by faith?

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I’ve developed a new morning ritual the last few months. I get up, warm my hot pack, and listen to two podcasts while doing the stretches and exercises required by a couple of chronic conditions. The two podcasts are the Bible in a Year and Evolving Faith. They’re quite different… one quite self-aware in its orthodoxy and the other quite aware of its not-orthodoxy. I think this is probably a good balance.

Sometime in my tween/teen years, I read the Bible straight through. But having it read to me as an adult is enlightening. I’m making connections I never did before. I’m understanding the relationship between different books in a new way. I appreciate Scripture on a whole new level. When you are steeped in the Lectionary, as most of us Catholics are, and liturgy people more than most, it’s really good to get a sense of the way the very familiar excerpts fit into the larger context.

The Evolving Faith podcast hits in a whole different way. More visceral, more immediate. These are people—almost entirely non-Catholics—who are wrestling with faith and the world in the same way that I am. Unlike me, many have abandoned institutional churches (though not Jesus). The podcast consists of talks from the Evolving Faith conference, which was founded by a group including Rachel Held Evans—whose work, in my mind, all Catholics should read, even though her perspective on the world came from a very different faith tradition. She has so much to offer us.

And so do the other speakers I’m hearing.

It’s a truism that faith formation is generally pretty bad… everywhere. Some blame it on Vatican 2, but I would submit that the older crowd might have known plenty ABOUT the faith, but they weren’t any better equipped to apply it to the real world. Plus, far too many quit faith formation at a certain point—graduation from Catholic school? Confirmation? etc.—so faith doesn’t always mature the way understanding does.

So then, as we interact with the world, we have head-on collisions with realities that don’t fit what our faith taught us about How Things Are Supposed To Work. At that point, a few different things can happen.

One is to deny the validity of the thing that is challenging our faith, so as to protect the faith as it stands. (I believe the focus on “Marxism” at the expense of honest examination of the ripple effects of racism is one example of this.)

Another is to admit that the faith in its current, comfortable form is woefully insufficient for said realities, and to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Which is why so many people leave organized religion, or even God.)

The third is to get down in the weeds and ask the really hard, uncomfortable questions, and deal with the doubt and turmoil and lack of clarity that come with them. To accept as your faith gets bruised and bumped. To accept the muddiness of faith in the real world, and the reality that sometimes there AREN’T pat answers. To quest, to seek, to wrestle with the hard stuff.

It’s not an easy thing to do, because basically it means you’re uncomfortable all the time. (All those fingers pointing at myself.)

But isn’t that exactly what it means to be “in the world, yet not of it?” There’s a now and not yet, a tension that human nature doesn’t like. According to one narrative I’ve been bludgeoned with a lot in recent memory, the Kingdom is Jesus, it’s not something we build. It was never meant to be on earth–only in Heaven.

But then why did Jesus tell us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN”?

This weekend, two of my kids were confirmed, and the bishop said, in essence, your words about faith are not enough. People need to SEE the kingdom of God embodied in YOU.

Which means we HAVE to get our hands dirty, working the earth around those messy subjects like abortion and immigration and racism and health care and the balance of personal and social responsibility and the common good. We have to accept that neither of our political extremes has it entirely right and be willing to take a deep breath and enter into dialogue. The world is always going to try to box us into an either/or, and we’re all susceptible to picking a side and planting our flag and failing to recognize when we’ve made that flag—or money (so much of our political discourse is about our own financial self-interest!)—the center of our world view, rather than God.

All of this to introduce a quote from speaker Nish Weiseth, because when she said these words, they rang a deafening bell in my soul:

“What we see from those previously mentioned leaders is a faith that is formed by politics, and not a politics that is informed by faith.”

If I have the energy, I’ll do more specific writing on this in a day or two. We shall see.

High Conflict and Spiritual Attack

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A while back, I heard a discussion on the radio about a book called “High Conflict.” As I listened, I thought, “That’s me. That’s what I’m feeling.” I put it on hold at the library, but I was way down the list. And when my turn came a few weeks ago, my heart quailed. I thought, “This is not going to be an enjoyable read.”

Then I pulled up my big girl panties and read it, praying throughout for openness. Because this, clearly, was God’s next signpost in my spiritual journey this year, toward balancing Godly anger at injustice with detachment. Because—also clearly—high conflict is NOT what God is calling me to.

Or any of us.

It was an incredible book… eye opening for myself, and extremely balanced in calling people across spectrums on the carpet. (You can tell a well balanced book by the fact that reviewers from both sides of the High Conflict that is American politics gripe about how their side was treated more harshly than the other.)

Reading that book did change me. Among the many valuable things she urged was to “muddy the waters.” The fact is that we like to put people in “us” and “them” categories, and we need to remember that we are all products of multiple influences, and just because two people share an identity in one of those influences doesn’t mean they will in others.

For myself, Catholic is my identity above all others. It is the filter through which I view everything. It is the measuring stick by which I gauge my secular work and my advocacy (“Disability Mom” and “writer” are tied for a close second in my identity)– and advocacy is, in fact, one of the red flags she warns of as an indicator of high conflict.

Anyway, the point wasn’t to detail the book, because everyone just needs to read it.

The point is that it helped me. It cooled down the temperature of my passion. Let me tell you, in the past two to three weeks, that cooling trend was critical… and not for any of the reasons I thought it would be. It’s just been a rough few weeks, personally.

And yet, yesterday I found myself triggered again. Multiple times. By multiple triggers, in multiple places. I found myself starting arguments with no one again.

The most bizarre thing was that I had a flashback to an incredibly contentious… and thankfully, defunct… relationship that caused me tremendous mental anguish over the course of COVID. I have zero contact with these people anymore. I have almost, if not completely, removed myself from these people’s orbit.

And yet, suddenly I was there in the middle of the emotions again, reliving the offenses, reliving the, well, anguish of trying to behave in a Christlike manner, cringing at the one mistake I made, raging at the certainty that they didn’t learn a thing from that conflict, that because of my mistake, they never admitted their own.

It was as if it happened yesterday instead of more than a year ago.

And sometime during Mass, as I sat behind the piano, wrenching my mind back to the liturgy again and again, it occurred to me: “I wonder if this is a spiritual attack.”

Because I WAS making progress toward what I know God is calling me to do.

I don’t have a neat and tidy bow to wrap around this post. I am just sharing the journey. Maybe high conflict, itself, is indication of a spiritual attack almost all of us are suffering…

Anyway… here’s that book you should all read, regardless of where you stand on any of the multitudes of points of contention we have all elevated to High Conflicts.

“Outside Agitators” and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

One of the first things that struck me was that he was writing because he had been chastised by a fellow clergyman for being an “outside agitator.” Why did this strike me so forcefully? Because I live not terribly far from Ferguson, Mo., and I heard people invoke the “outside agitator” argument myself. And at that time, I didn’t know what to make of it.

That argument goes something like this: “Those protests weren’t organized by people from ___. They were organized by national organizations who shipped people in to stir up trouble.”

I don’t think I had fully realized, until reading MLK’s letter, that “outside agitators” is how the civil rights movement works.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a lengthy paragraph in the letter from the Birmingham jail, explaining this. But then he gave the quote above. Here it is, in context.

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.
-Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I have to admit, it was really disheartening to realize that after all this time, despite how much honor is accorded MLK across political divides, we are still using the same arguments that were used to try to shame and discredit him and his work.

The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a breathtakingly beautiful piece which remains every bit as relevant today as it was in 1963. Well worth reading.

Anger, Detachment, and Love

This past Sunday, my pastor’s homily focused on the second reading, I Cor. 13, the famous explanation of love: patient, kind; bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring in all circumstances.

Along with that is the explanation of what love is NOT: quick tempered, brooding over injury. Those are the two that spoke to me personally.

Sitting there in the front row of church, it occurred to me that this was my next signpost from God about detachment vs. Godly anger. Anger tempered by love—the kind of love described in this passage–is a very different thing from plain old garden variety anger. You express it differently. In a healthier way.

So that is my food for reflection as I go through these days where the news cycle continues to provide daily reason for anger. How do I express that anger through a lens of patience and kindness, believing that there is hope?

Extra note: my youngest sister sent me a book a while back called “A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space.” Not a religious book AT ALL, and the language sometimes reflects it. But one of the many things she wrote that struck me was the distinction between “nice” and “kind.” We often confuse the two, but nice, she argues, is what we’re conditioned to be—don’t make waves, never make anyone uncomfortable, stuff our own resentments, etc. Whereas “kind” is more authentic. You don’t have to be a jerk to tell the truth, is what it amounts to. I believe reading this book and having this reading come up in short order afterward is a God moment.

How To Detach

I set myself the task of cultivating detachment this year, but the problem is I don’t know how to start.

Last year, I had some path markers to follow through contemplation—people who had a tried & true method I could tap into. Incidentally, centering prayer will be with me the rest of my life. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a foundational skill for detachment.

But I don’t have that well-trodden path to follow in cultivating detachment. So the other day I just said a prayer, asking God to put sign posts in my pathway.

God does not disappoint.

Here are several things that have spontaneously crossed my online feeds in recent days. Things I have done nothing to seek out. Maybe they will give you food for thought as they have given me:

#1. a blog post

If you can’t take in anymore, there’s a reason: it’s all too much. What I took from this blog post: Social media, news, everything that’s wrong in the world is important, but we were only built to withstand so much of it. (Language alert.)

#2. … same message.

#3: not a religious article, just a summary of some research that supports the effort.

How To Be Ambivalent. The attitude they are calling ambivalence sounds a lot like what I am seeking: a degree of emotional distance from difficult realities. If it doesn’t matter so much to you, you’re more likely to be able to approach it objectively. That isn’t what they claim to be advocating for, but that’s how it reads to me.

#4: Pope Francis never disappoints, either. I get these “Journey with the Pope” emails every day, I suspect because I donated to Missio.


Detachment and other wrestlings

Dead Man Walking (1995) - IMDb

I just finished reading “Dead Man Walking,” by Sister Helen Prejean, tracing how she became involved in the quest to abolish the death penalty. I began it intending to read as quickly as possible, but shortly realized I needed to slow down, to take time to process and sit with it. One of the most powerful things about the book is how well she weaves together her incredibly poignant personal story with the evidence that beat her over the head along the way, forming her in motion.

No doubt many realities she lays out–with exceptional precision and lots and lots of footnotes to primary source material, i.e. court cases (as well as analysis/opinion pieces)–have changed since the book was published in 1993. One that I know has changed is the public perception toward the death penalty. Less than half of Americans now support the death penalty.

And yet many of the realities she points to are still going strong. Public defenders are overworked and for that reason, the poor are those who go to death row. It costs far, far more to litigate, appeal, and re-appeal than it would simply to put a convicted killer in prison for life. And on and on.

I read this book in a time when I continue to struggle with the apparent unchangeability of all that is wrong in the world, and with those who refuse even to acknowledge the problem, let alone sacrifice to do something about it.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

At the same time, I am encountering the word “detachment” again and again, wrestling with what that means, and how it reconciles with the call to discipleship, which presupposes trying to make the world that better reflection of God’s will that we rattle off in prayer six times in every rosary and once during every Mass and countless other times in ritual and personal piety.

And at the same time, I encountered a podcast interview of Bro. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., who called out the prolife movement for talking about protecting “innocent life” when in fact, as Christians we are called to protect ALL life. It seemed to apply to multiple threads of my spiritual life right now.

I wish I had more answers and fewer questions. Maybe then this Intentional Catholic ministry would have a bit more impact. But then again, intentional has to be authentic above all, and if nothing else, these posts are authentic.

A house divided…

I have not been posting much the last few months. I keep chewing over the same baffling questions again and again, and feeling that I am shouting into a void. So I’ve focused my energy instead on my fiction. There’s precious little time in my life for splitting my focus these days, anyway.

But the US bishops’ daily reflection Friday morning was on the topic of division and unity. A house divided cannot stand, Jesus cautioned. If good work is being done, it can’t be of the devil. And if there’s division, it is not of Christ.

The Church is a hot mess of division right now, just as our nation is. Every time I come up against an entrenched position that baffles me, because it is so clearly contrary to my faith, and it’s being held by people who are using their faith as justification for their beliefs, I think of this question of division. I think, “How can this be, when we all claim to believe the same things?”

Spoiler alert: if you’re reading this post in hope of there being an answer at the end, prepare to be disappointed.

Every time I come up against one of these, I think, “There’s no way God could be calling both of these sides to these beliefs. Is there?” Then I pause to search my own conscience and try to see how I could be the one who is wrong. I frequently find that I am wrong in my anger toward, judgment of, and assumptions about people who think differently than me. But I have rarely found the Spirit nudging me that I am, in fact, wrong in my beliefs. Not given the information I have.

So then I go and do research to see if my information could be wrong. I look at the sources, I think, “Nope, not going to read that, it’s too far left and I can’t trust it to be objective. Nope, not going to read that either, because that’s clearly a group with a dog in this fight. There, that’s a moderately-right-leaning source, that should give me a good counterbalance to my own biases.” Occasionally I moderate a position; I think, “this thing people are freaking out about on the left is probably not as big a deal as they’re making it out to be.”

But not often.

It is deeply disturbing to me that so much of our discourse these days is arguing over things that are so easy to disprove. It really isn’t hard to discern between credible sources and conspiracy-theories.

A good friend of mine recently left Facebook, because it was an exercise in scrolling through things that made her angry. “I feel like we’re conditioned to look for the next thing to get angry about,” she said. “I just needed to get away from that.”

How do we seek unity—Christ—instead of division—the devil—when it seems that so many of our conflicts are based, not on reason, but on appeals to all that is sinful within us—our selfishness, our lack of empathy for others?