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.

Ho Hum, Another School Shooting

Image by Ray Shrewsberry • *** from Pixabay

I know this post will make no difference. Some people will react with cheers and the rest will rear up in defense of guns. They’ll use every worldly argument and not one Godly one, because there is no Godly argument for placing guns above human life.

In the larger world someone, probably multiple someones, will say we shouldn’t politicize this tragedy, therefore neatly sidestepping the glaring call to examine our collective conscience… yet again.

Many Christians will insist, again, that the gun isn’t the problem, it’s mental health—but won’t support public funds to address that problem, either. They’ll change the subject using whatever excuse they can find to bury the fact that the only places in the world with more gun violence than us are places riddled with gangs. To bury the fact that no one else in the developed world has as many guns in people’s hands as we do, or as many people dying from guns.

And nothing will change.

And yet, I will say it anyway, because it needs to be said:

Guns are an idol.

I’m not even angry. Just disgusted that Catholics who fight so hard for the innocent unborn, who believe themselves to be pro-life, can act as if guns are more important than the lives of innocent school children. Can go to bat looking for reasons to oppose the legislation that the U.S. bishops have been urging for years.

That’s all I have to say.

Complexity and Confidence

Photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.com

Our brains prefer a simple lie to a complex truth.
Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.

These are two of the biases explored in the “Learning How To See” podcast. Everything I heard on the first season was like an earthquake in my heart, but these two line up so thoroughly with my own experience, it reaches a whole other plane.

There are so many times when my kids ask a faith question, and I can think of a glib answer that will take three seconds and wholly misrepresent the complexity and the gravity of the issue at hand. But to do so would be to ignore the reality of the situation. More to the point, it would ignore the dignity of the soul that’s seeking authentic truth. Truth that stands up to their lived reality, which is, let’s face it, complex. Because it’s a complex world.

So I reply with complexity and hesitancy. I pause–to choose my words, to pray and think.

Believe it or not, this is me on Intentional Catholic, too. I know I come across loud and opinionated, and I am. But a lot of thought and inner wrestling goes into these posts. A lot of care for how the things I say will feel when read by different people.

Complexity bias, confidence bias. These two have played out so many times in the years I’ve been involved in discussions (and arguments) online. Through blogging, too. One memorable time, I waded into current events with unshakable certainty and ended up with egg on my face. It taught me to value caution and deliberation. Research before reacting. Well. Reacting in words, at least. Reacting in my heart is a whole different matter. I spend a lot of time talking myself down from initial reactions. But the point is, I do it.

The absolute confidence with which some people of faith respond to complex situations, erasing all complexities and nuance, waters down the Gospel. If people feel that the Gospel can’t address complexity, of course they’re going to dismiss it. It doesn’t help them process their own experiences. That’s not a weakness in the Gospel. It’s a weakness in those of us trying to spread it.

It is in our nature to prefer the simple lie, told confidently (stolen elections, anyone?), but I pray that we can all learn to recognize how much damage it does to be satisfied to wallow in the blindness of those biases.

(And if it’s at all unclear, that prayer is for myself, too.)

The problem with Christmas is not “happy holidays”

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve scrubbed my social media feeds or if the ruckus really has died down, but this year I’m not seeing as much about the so-called “war on Christmas.”

I did see one thing, though, as part of a different conversation with someone I love. It was a forward of an email from the Catholic League, which began by condemning that disgusting gun Christmas card Twitter photo from someone who has power in America. I’ll give no more details than that, because that person deserves no amplification.

So the email started in the right place. But it went on to decry the “dumbing down” of Christmas. The corruption of Christmas is, indeed, a huge problem. But the author got the source all wrong. His highlighted example was Christmas cards that don’t say Merry Christmas.

Really???????

Isn’t the ACTUAL problem with Christmas that capitalism has erased Christ and turned it into a moneymaking scheme??????

Hence my illustration this morning.

This is one week’s worth of trash and two weeks’ worth of recycling for a family of six in the holiday shopping season.

Dragging it all outside, I thought, “And Christian culture thinks ‘happy holidays’ is the problem??????”

It feels hypocritical to write this out. The majority of those efficiently-nested boxes are there because we ordered them. The second trash bag is full of styrofoam packing. Normally we only put out 2/3 of a bag of trash a week. (I have no idea how so many households of two and three people put out 3, 4, or 5 bags of trash a week. Where is it all coming from? Even when we were in diapers we didn’t fill a bag a week.)

I don’t like that I’m caught in this consumeristic view of the holiday. Of course, I love giving gifts to my children—as any good parent does. What brings joy to our children brings joy to us.

But it seems so odd to me that when we as Catholics are in the season of Advent, a time ostensibly devoted to simplifying our lives and letting “every heart prepare him room,” what we’re actually doing is piling on more, more, more. Cluttering things up. Both physically and mentally.

Come to think of it, I’ll bet there’s a clear reason Christian culture is so desperate to find a scapegoat that they’ll chase after Christmas cards that don’t say “Merry Christmas”:

Otherwise, we’d have to admit that everything that’s wrong with Christmas, we did to it ourselves.

Thoughts on nonviolence and how it’s organized

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.”

Susan Jacoby, Wild Justice, pp. 336-337

Every once in a while, someone points out that Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek was the polar opposite of passive acceptance of injustice. (Read this for that mind-blowing take on a very familiar passage.)

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.

Rugged Individualism as heresy

I am sharing multiple times from America’s podcast interview with Bro. Guy Consolmagno, because it kept blowing my mind. My last post, in which he pointed out that you can’t have a well formed conscience without FIRST listening to authority, leads naturally into another quote:

“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.

Gullibility, Misinformation, and the Ninth Commandment

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?”

Again, shocker: FALSE.

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.

Freedom, Masks, and Vaccines

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

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.

Of course, we likely wouldn’t need to mask anymore if people had just gotten vaccinated in the first place. But lots of people who oppose masking also oppose vaccines, and are using the same arguments, while adding objections based on poor information. mRNA as a vaccine technique did use embryonic stem cells to test whether it was even a viable idea. But that’s it. Working on a COVID vaccine there’s been zero connection to abortion.

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?

Freedom and Fraternity

There’s a lot in this section of Fratelli Tutti that should make us squirm in America. In #103, Pope Francis reminds us that freedom and equality are insufficient without dedication to concrete love of neighbor. Without making a political (he does use that word) priority of taking care of each other, liberty is nothing more than “living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.” Liberty, as God intends it, is directed toward the welfare of the other.

And then, of course, there’s the excerpt above. What follows it is a reminder that efficiency is often at odds with the common good.

In recent years, I’ve become deeply convicted about the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” #109 addresses this. Plenty of us don’t, in fact, need help from a “proactive state,” because we’ve been born into functional educational systems and families that can get us to the doctor.

We all stand on the backs of our parents, grandparents, teachers and communities. Within our communities, we support each other; this is good. It WORKS. I certainly didn’t need any of those COVID stimulus checks, and how to use them in a way that best served the common good was a matter of no small debate in our household.

But it’s a mistake, and I would argue, contrary to Christian discipleship, to assume that simply because many of us don’t have need for a proactive state means nobody does. Look at the injustices and inequalities that litter America’s history:

These are just a few structural realities whose consequences have rippled down through history. If we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then some among us are fighting a way, way bigger battle than others.

These are hard realities to accept in a time of such profound division. But the Cross IS hard, and the Holy Spirit gave us a shepherd at this time who’s calling us to confront the things that make us uncomfortable.

God is Not A Trained Monkey

Another post from my personal archives today…. (Lectionary reference dates from 2014)


Two vignettes:

Photo by WELS.net, via Flickr

One: A priest I know once talked about throwing open the Bible and taking whatever your eye (or finger) lands on first as a sign from God. He called it Bible abuse. A provocative statement, given that probably every one of us has done that at some point.

Two: Long ago I read about a person who invited a couple of missionaries over for dinner. They would not eat from the dishes being passed around the table until they had prayed over each one and received Heavenly “clearance” to proceed. At first, the author was offended. Then he decided this was a sign of their total dependence on God to tell them what was and was not safe.

To me, these two examples illuminate how easy it is to twist faith and try to turn God into a trained monkey that performs on command. We’ve been trained, by a fascination with larger-than-life stories of faith, to expect big and dramatic communications from God–and to esteem blind, uninformed faith in defiance of reason.

And I realized that fascination with these kind of stories encourage the mindset that fed my struggles with anxiety in the first place.

There are certain catch phrases in religious conversation: God’s will and radical faith, for instance. In my brain, over the course of years, that twisted into: if you aren’t willing to leap off a proverbial high bridge, trusting God to catch you, your faith is not good enough. Never mind what you know about gravity. Having faith means being willing to do what doesn’t make sense to you, because God’s way is not your way.

It’s that whole billboard thing again: the expectation that God is going to arrange a message so clear, so obviously aimed right at you, that you can’t possibly mistake His meaning.

God certainly can and sometimes does work that way, but if you expect all divine communication to consist of a “billboard,” you’re going to spend most of your life thinking God has nothing to say at all.

In this weekend’s readings, both Elijah and Jesus went looking for God in solitude. In quiet, in the absence of stimulation and demands on their attention. In extended stillness.

Hearing the voice of God is a skill that takes practice, and if you neglect that practice even briefly, you start to lose it. If I say that modern life is not conducive to hearing God, it sounds so trite as to render the words useless, but that doesn’t make them any less true. How many people fill every waking moment with noise–and sleeping moments, too, for that matter? The radio has to be on in the car, exercise must be accessorized by ear buds, and white noise generators are supposed to facilitate sleep.

Photo by albedo20, via Flickr

There’s a reason people throughout history have gone on silent retreats and even lived as hermits. It’s silence where you learn to recognize God’s tiny whispering sound in the midst of the earthquakes and thunderstorms that make up life. It’s in the emptiness that the puzzle pieces begin to click. And it’s when you start to be comfortable in the void that you start to realize it’s not a void at all, but a wonderful sense of peace, and the beginning of a new way to know God.

I do believe there are times when God speaks in a thunderclap or a burning bush–proverbial or otherwise. The vast majority of the time, though, God’s voice speaks from within, through the utterly ordinary stuff of life. But you only recognize it if you’ve invested the time to listen to the silence that makes the connection in the first place.