The last year or so, the word “detachment’ has been popping up everywhere. In theory, I totally understand the concept. Detachment means not to be tied to the things of the world.
But what does that look like where the rubber meets the road? I can say with high confidence that I am not addicted to power. That I have zero use for fancy cars and the newest gadgets and the biggest house. (It is never far from my mind that the bigger the house, the bigger the cleaning job. Practicality is a great help in this kind of detachment!)
So I could rest on my laurels and say I’ve got it nailed. Except if that were the case, I have a feeling this word, “Detachment,” would not have been scrolling across my feed so routinely in the last few months.
I have come to realize that where I struggle with detachment is in the passion for justice and seeing God’s will done in tangible, concrete ways on the earth. I get angry a lot. Anger seems to me like a pretty good indicator that one is not “detached.” And the desire for earthly justice is, by definition, a thing of the world.
So here is the question I am pondering these days: how does one balance righteous anger—such as Jesus showed in the Temple, obviously, but also in the blistering critiques he leveled at the religious authorities of his day—with detachment? Righteous anger is what fuels the desire to work for justice. How does one maintain the drive to work for justice while at the same time remaining detached?
A few weeks ago, my good friend Lorraine Hess gave a mission at our parish, and one thing she said really stuck with me. Forgiveness, she said, is choosing not to be controlled by our wounds.
Those words sounded a gong that reverberated in my whole body, and I thought, “THAT’S what detachment is!”
Recognizing it doesn’t mean I have achieved it, though. And now I know that I have stepped onto a new path in my spiritual journey, one that I will be following for some time to come.
A few years ago, when Ferguson, Missouri was all in the news, I remember various people saying to me, “Those people are bringing in outside agitators from other places.” It was a criticism, suggesting that if “outsiders” weren’t riling up the populace, we wouldn’t be having these racial protests at all.
I wasn’t prepared to answer that argument at that time, and I haven’t heard it again since the Black Lives Matter protests swept the country. But as time goes on, I realize that the entire Civil Rights movement was structured the same way: national organizers identifying places where their presence could make a difference, and going there to support the local population.
(What we learn about history really does get distorted—whether it’s a concerted effort, or whether it’s because there’s so much of it and it gets oversimplified in an attempt to boil it down to its most important message, is another question. I’d hazard a guess the answer is “both.”)
In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean quoted from another book, “Wild Justice,” by Susan Jacoby, which appears now to be out of print. This passage really struck me.
Nonviolence, as employed by Gandhi in India and by King in the American South, might reasonably viewed as a highly disciplined form of aggression. If one defines aggression in the primary dictionary sense of “attack,” nonviolent resistance proved to be the most powerful attack imaginable on the powers King and Gandhi were trying to overturn. … King was even more explicit on this point: the purpose of civil disobedience, he explained many times, was to force the defenders of segregation to commit brutal acts in public and thus arouse the conscience of the world on behalf of those wronged by racism. King and Gandhi did not succeed because they changed the hearts and minds of southern sheriffs and British colonial administrators (although they did, in fact, change some minds) but because they made the price of maintaining control too high for their opponents.”
This passage from Wild Justice also turns on its head the idea of nonviolence as passive. It made me rethink the whole movement. This describes a whole new level of courage: to go in, intending to provoke violence against oneself, which you will consciously not react to, in order to show the violence inherent in the system? Wow. Just… wow.
It was what Jesus did, too. Of course, Jesus’ crucifixion was about salvation beyond the things of the world. But God could have accomplished that any way he liked. The fact that the chosen way to get there was through nonviolent resistance to earthly injustice has to mean something for us.
“That’s the great American heresy: that we’re all rugged individualists. And the truth is there is nothing we can do that doesn’t affect the people around us.”
HERESY. That’s a strong word.
But it’s so true! We have this (idealized, not terribly accurate) vision of what it means to be American. But who among us has ever stood ruggedly on our own? Not one person I’ve ever met, that’s for sure. We are all standing on the shoulders of parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles, teachers, mentors, etc. People who sheltered us and provided for our needs while we developed the skills we needed to fly the nest.
Even in adulthood, we don’t stand on our own. When we get knocked off our feet (death, hospitalizations, loss of income), our resilience depends in large part on the community around us, who fill our refrigerators, watch our kids, mow our lawns, and pitch in financially. I’ve been on the receiving end more times than I can count—some very recently. And I’m also giving that same support to other members of my extended community—at this very moment.
Being a Christian is the opposite of being a rugged individualist.
But the second part of that quote is the part that brings it all home. Rugged individualism is actually impossible, because everything we do impacts others. Both this quote and the one about conscience & authority were shared in the context of resistance to vaccines and masking. Whatever decisions we make in those areas are not about us alone; they have implications for the life and health of others.
Of course, that’s just the most obvious application. Brother Guy’s words resonate across all the questions that plague us. But if we want to interact with the world as Christians, that truth is important to keep in sight.
Being a Christian is the opposite of being a rugged individualist.
A week or two ago I mentioned a podcast I’d listened to. The guest was Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory, and he was speaking about the intersection of faith and science.
The quote in this graphic blew my mind. Conscience gets thrown around a lot, by people across the spectrum. The question of primacy of conscience is one of the many things I’m pondering at this time in my life. And this quote peeled back half a dozen layers.
“A well formed conscience is one that has listened to authority.”
Boy, if that doesn’t twinge your conscience, I don’t know what will.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Long ago, I learned that Albert Broccoli, the producer of the original James Bond movies, was a gardener who invented the vegetable broccoli by crossing cauliflower and something else I’ve forgotten.
My reaction was: “Hey, that’s really cool!” I never even questioned it.
Sometime in the last five years, as political misinformation has become so blatant and unscrupulous, I’ve become unshakably committed to fact checking. But for whatever reason, it did not occur to me that my little interesting trivia about broccoli ought to be fact checked. Until one day a couple years ago when I stopped with my mouth open, prepared to share this interesting tidbit, and thought, “Wait a minute… could broccoli possibly really be that new? Hasn’t broccoli been around for hundreds of years? Come to think of it, this sounds an awful lot like a myth/urban legend. Maybe I should check this before I share it again.”
Shocker: broccoli has been around since the SIXTH CENTURY BCE.
I felt pretty stupid.
Then, a few months ago, my third-born came home from a scout campout. “Mom, did you know that daddy longlegs are THE MOST POISONOUS SPIDER OUT THERE? Except they can’t hurt you—“
“—because their mouths are too small to bite humans,” I said. “Yes, I know that.” Then I stopped. “You know what? I’ve heard that my whole life, but now that I think about it, it sounds like bunch of nonsense. Why don’t we look that up?”
I’m sharing this kind of embarrassing story because it took me years—YEARS—before I recognized the sound of a falsehood masquerading as legit information.
It made me understand—a bit, anyway—how it is that so many good people, intending to follow Jesus, have fallen into the trap of embracing conspiracy theories. Of sharing memes and arguments so distorted, they’re actually lies. Of writing off fact checkers because if they challenge pre-existing certainties, they must, by definition, be biased and thus can be safely dismissed.
I understand… a bit… which is good, because it also still makes me very, very angry. And I need to cultivate compassion, not anger.
So I am sharing this again today, as a reminder to myself as well as anyone who reads this, that truth telling and integrity are fundamental to our faith. Implicit in the use of misinformation is the idea that the end justifies the means. But that’s not Christianity. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. Context matters.
At the beginning of this year, I set myself a spiritual goal to focus on contentment. I have not been incredibly successful.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to be. Some goals are set knowing they are beyond reach—knowing that the striving toward them brings one closer to God.
Still, it’s been a hard year to reach for contentment. The summer disappeared beneath a deluge of appointments, meetings, and a million other very worthy time constrains that are not writing time. Early July, a friend offered me an open invitation to sit in her screened-in gazebo by a creek—with wifi!—to work any day I wanted. “I can’t come tomorrow,” I said, “but I’ll be there the day after.”
It’s been eight weeks and I still haven’t had time.
Almost right off the bat, she asked a question that stopped me cold:
Why are we demanding that we be content? What if our discontent is a message from God? What would happen if we followed, rather than denied, that discontent? What if that discontent is a holy prompting, calling us to something more?
This question shocked me into self-reflection. I think her primary focus is mothers who feel pressure from the culture—especially the religious culture—to be content with motherhood as their total identity, all the fulfillment they need. That was me, once, but not for a long time. Publishing music, publishing a novel—I am officially on the rolls of working mothers. I used to get squirmy and guilty identifying myself as such. I still hesitate to claim the label; my work is so flexible, it often gets shunted aside altogether. (Hence my recent discontent.) I am not caught between two immovable forces the way mothers who work outside the home are.
But work it remains. And I realized long ago that the gifts God gave me were not given to be stuck under a basket for twenty-odd years until my nest empties, at which point I’d be so rusty it would take another series of years to hone them, if indeed I could at all at that point. So my first thought was that I’m not sure the question entirely applies to me.
And yet… and yet! What if my difficulty finding contentment is not a sign of my own lack of spiritual fortitude, but of the whisper of the Spirit saying, “Something is out of balance”?
Simply giving myself permission to ask the question shook loose some recognitions in the way our family life is set up. There are things we tend to laugh about. Like, Dad is sitting at the kitchen table on Saturday morning and Mom is outside pulling weeds, and yet the kid comes outside to ask Mom for whatever the thing is? Really?
Twice on Sunday afternoon, I closed the bedroom door to do something for myself—write this blog post, the first time, and the second, simply take a nap—and literally within fifteen seconds someone shouted my name. It’s like there’s a radar that says: “Warning! Mom is taking time for herself! Red alert! Stop her at all costs!”
Voice such a frustration in public and a mother will inevitably get variations on one of two themes: 1) “You’ll miss this someday! Enjoy it while it lasts!” or 2) “That’s the nature of the job!” It never occurs to us to say, “Sure, I’ll laugh at this someday, and of course I’ll miss my kids when they leave—but that doesn’t change the fact that right now, people are interrupting my self-care for ridiculous minutiae they are perfectly capable of dealing with without me.”
What if I actually asserted my Godly identity as a human being independent of motherhood? What if I chose to say, “I am a person too, and my needs are more important right now than your Xbox time”?
What if I stopped making a martyr of myself and simply, firmly insisted that others must also be flexible—that I am not always the one who must give way?
The religious part of me rears up at such things. Self-gift! Self-sacrifice! Self-emptying! But these things go more than one direction. Mothers are not the only ones who need to practice them.
This summer, a good friend and I started a small faith group with our middle- and upper-elementary school kids. We’re using an old morality textbook to get them thinking about their faith in relation to the real world.
Any discussion of morality begins with freedom, and the words of the Catechism on that topic have been rumbling around in my brain ever since we encountered them:
1731: Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. … Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God.
I bold faced that latter part because we tend to focus on the first part and forget that the second is what gives meaning to it. Freedom isn’t meant to be “You’re not the boss of me!” It’s meant to be “I am capable of and free to choose GOOD.”
In other words, if I am addicted to alcohol, or opioids, or video games, or social media, or conspiracy theories, or political disinformation—if I am consumed by fear of socialists, or fear of death—then I am not actually free at all, because those things, rather than my free will, will direct my choices and words and beliefs. The same is true if I am a prisoner of my desires (food, sex, whatever).
Being free is not supposed to be about “you can’t make me.” We’re not toddlers. Freedom is SUPPOSED to be about the ability to choose good (i.e., God).
So much bandwidth is being thrown around these days on the subject of freedom. Of course I’m thinking about vaccines and masking. Some people have genuine obstacles to vaccinating and masking, some more profound, some less so.
But mostly, people are objecting on the basis of “freedom.” I even heard someone on the radio shouting “It’s my body, it’s my choice!” at school board members. An odd, odd juxtaposition, since the demographic of people objecting to vaccines & masks are almost entirely on the pro-life side of the political spectrum, and no prolife person has ever accepted that argument!
I don’t understand pro-life people protesting masks. The entire objection seems, to me, to rest upon the first part of the definition of freedom while ignoring the reason freedom is important at all—the ability to choose the good of all. “You can’t make me! It’s my body! This is a violation of my liberty!” These are worldy arguments, based on one’s self-interest. Where is God in those protests? Nowhere I can see. All I see is, “I don’t want to, so I shouldn’t have to.” If this is what liberty and freedom have come to mean in America, God help us all.
Moreover, I read a BBC report in 2019—pre-pandemic, just to emphasize that this is a long-standing question—that talked about a whole host of scientific and medical advances we take for granted that were developed using morally bankrupt techniques. Why are all those okay, and this one is so offensive that we’re willing to let hundreds of thousands of people die over it?
More to the point, the Church has spoken and it’s been consistent from the words and example of our Pope and bishops. Only fringe elements are in conflict.
So I don’t understand the vehement objection among a sizable chunk of people who call themselves prolife. Clearly, people are dying of COVID. Our health care workers are overwhelmed and exhausted. These things cannot be argued away.
Vaccines are GOOD. Masks are GOOD. How can one use faith as a reason to use their “freedom” not to mask and vaccinate?
I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.
We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.
The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.
I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.
I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.
The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.
So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.
But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.
Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.
Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.
The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!
Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?
I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.
What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.