A Red Dress and a Coat

The girl, but not the dress

There once was a little girl who had a red dress she loved. It was a long red sundress and, for a farm girl in the 1980s, it was the closest thing to a princess dress she was ever going to get.

That little girl was me. And as an aside… my classmates in primary school pulled me aside and told me Santa wasn’t real, in the tone of: “I’m about to destroy your world.” I knew I had to play it cool, but I wasn’t really upset. I’d seen what the other girls got for Christmas compared to what I got, and it made way more sense to think that my parents, who’d just been through a devastating drought year followed by a devastating flood year, were the ones in charge of my Christmas, rather than thinking some benevolent fairy liked the other girls better. It made me feel better about the whole thing.

I shared that aside because unless you understand what it was like growing up on a farm in the 80s, there’s no way you can understand the importance of this red dress to me.

But at some point, my conscience twinged me. I saw those kids in Africa. I felt I was called to give this dress away to some girl who was much poorer than me. Because after all, we had cattle and hogs and chickens and a big garden I had to work for two hours every day all summer, and we never, EVER went hungry. I wasn’t comparing myself to the girls whose Christmas haul was so much bigger than mine. I was thinking of those who had it harder than I did.

So I wore the dress one last time and asked my mom to give it away. Years later I found it in a pile in the utility room, and I was pretty mad at her. Ha! Don’t you know how much that cost me??? As a mom I totally get it… that is called “I have four kids and too much to do and how do you send a dress to Africa, anyway?”

I tell this story because I’ve been thinking lately that maybe my daughter’s arrival really didn’t change everything for me, after all. Maybe it just forced me to face the misalignment between what I believed about living the faith–as a set of concrete actions taken in a concrete world–and how I was actually applying it.

A year or two after that Red Dress story, I was going to Confession—still pretty young—no older then ten—and I confessed to the priest, “I don’t FEEL anything about God.” I was really, really worried about this, worried about my soul.

The priest said to me, “If you see a guy with no coat and you FEEL bad for him, your FEELING does nothing at all for him. He needs a coat. It doesn’t matter if you FEEL compassion. It matters that you give him a coat.”

I walked out of that confessional feeling free and very empowered, because man, DOING things is within my control!

The question that invites reflection is this: what happened in between those two formative experiences and the arrival of my daughter to cause me to embrace a world view that blamed others for their mistakes and their bad luck alike, and refused to see that the systems under which we live are structurally skewed toward people like me and against others?

That’s a big question, and probably the answer is less important to you reading this than it is to answer similar questions for ourselves individually. But I thought I would share, because I am reading Eric Clayton’s Cannonball Moments, and the first question in that book is an invitation to reflect on the moments when we recognize the conflict between what we think we are, or want to be, and what we are living in our bodies. The first insight I gained was that when I was young, there wasn’t one. The misalignment he highlights, for me, happened later.

Reflections from the intersection of the prophets and the Sermon on the Mount

I’ve been listening to the Bible in a Year, and the long exploration of the prophets, where I am now, has been quite illuminating. First of all, I never really processed that a whole lot of the prophetic books don’t mean “Israel” as the nation of Israel, but the northern kingdom. It clarified for me that Judah is in fact what I spent most of my life thinking of as Israel. I just figured prophets were speaking to the whole nation of Israel all the time, but that’s not actually true. That’s why we hear so much about Judah. Not every prophet is speaking to everyone. They have specific crowds they are called to talk to, to address specific problems in those communities.

I have been wrestling with the idea of the prophetic call for quite some time. Priest, prophet, king: through baptism, we are all called to all these things. Prophets, by definition, have the task of saying what the considers-ourselves-religious crowd doesn’t want to hear, because it is inconvenient and uncomfortable. Occasionally they talk to the pagans (the unchurched), but mostly they’re talking to people who think they are God’s chosen and are not living it.

As I listen to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel et al rail against their various audiences, what strikes me is how blatant the idolatry seems. If people were burning incense and sacrificing children on mountains and building “gods” out of wood and gilding them with gold, that’s pretty flagrant!

And yet I feel that most of the charges being leveled against God’s people in ancient times still ring heartbreakingly true today. But our idols are more subtle. Money is a big one. I struggle with its influence in my own life and household. Politics is HUGE, and individual political figures & issues, in particular. Idolatry. No one who professes Christianity wants to acknowledge that, but I do not see how anyone could argue that I am wrong. I’ve never had anyone do so. When I point it out, they just pretend I didn’t say it and move on. If you can’t answer the charge, it seems to me, that’s an invitation to examine one’s conscience. It certainly has been in my life. That’s how I’ve ended up where I am.

The last few weeks, I have also been listening to Fr. Richard Rohr’s series of talks on the Sermon On the Mount. It was recorded shortly after the fall of Communism, and his references to Communism versus capitalism (isn’t it odd how we capitalize one, to demonize it, and not the other?) are startling both because they are so out of context and still so right on point, because 30-odd years later we, the Christian capitalists, are still arguing about communism.

This series of talks was really eye-opening. I highly recommend it. To break open what the Kingdom really is, and what it means to live in the Kingdom—to acknowledge how far off our so-called Christian culture is from what Jesus actually called us to do—to be challenged in our judgments both as liberals and conservatives… it’s a very Christ-centered, radical approach to the intersection of faith and the real world. It is giving me a lot to think about. I don’t have it worked out; I’m just beginning to process. In fact, I think I might go back to the beginning and start again. (FYI, it is on Hoopla for audio download, which is how I am listening, so check your library.)

So that’s what my spiritual life looks like at present. I’m not sure how valuable any of this is to anyone out there—I feel like effective blog posts are supposed to present a problem and solve it, and I’m more just faith sharing here—but who knows? There has to be some reason I felt compelled to write all out, right?

Why I’ve Been Quiet

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I’ve been pretty quiet lately. First of all, this summer has been something like… I don’t know… imagine that a glitter bomb went off on your lawn and you HAD to pick up every individual piece of glitter. You wouldn’t have much mental space for, well, anything else.

That’s how I feel lately. But that’s not the whole reason I’ve been quiet. A few weeks ago, Claire Swinarski posted to Substack a piece called “Maybe Jesus Shouldn’t Be Your Job.” Intentional Catholic is definitely not a job. Let’s be frank: Barely anybody even reads this. I certainly don’t make money off it.

But a comment she made in that link really pierced my conscience. She said it’s way easier to write a lyrical, poetic spiritual blast that goes to 10,000 people* than it is to witness Jesus to your family, friends, and children. (*Liberally reworded.)

I thought: Ouch. That is SO true. And it is SO me.

And then I thought: Maybe I need to focus on witnessing Jesus to my children for a little while.

My youngest two children are in that stage of life where they pick at each other all.the.time. In the immediate wake of this revelation, I learned a new response to it. As things are escalating, I say to each of them, “Even now, even in this moment, you are called to be a follower of Jesus.” I need to work on how to make the line clearer. Subtlety is not a hallmark of teen and almost-tween boys. But it’s awkward simply to say that.

So that, in addition to “picking up glitter,” is where I have been lately. But I have laid out a few posts, so I should be back to semi-regular posting.

https://thecatholicfeminist.substack.com/p/maybe-jesus-shouldnt-be-your-job

Dorothy Day: both/and and the power of money to corrupt

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When I began reading “All the Way To Heaven,” the letters of Dorothy Day, I was shocked by how flamboyant and… earthy… she was as a young woman. Of course, before her conversion she was very worldly—divorced in a time before that was common; living with another man; having had an abortion. But to see her sensuality, her sass, etc. in black and white was really quite something. The early letters were way more… INTERESTING… than I expected the writings of a saint-in-progress to be.

The turn was abrupt when she found God. But once I made the adjustment to the totally different writing style, it was more spiritually edifying. 🙂

One of the gems I highlighted actually came from Robert Ellsberg’s introduction. It synthesizes a great deal of what’s in the book, so I’ll share it here. It’s in the context of how her ministry was founded on Matthew 25 (“when I was hungry, you gave me food…”). He says: “For Day, that meant not just practicing the works of mercy—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless in her house of hospitality—but also protesting and resisting the social structures and values that were responsible for so much suffering and need. The Catholic Worker movement was not intended to resolve the problems of poverty and violence in the world, but to provide a model of what it might look like if Christians truly lived out their faith in response to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors.” (Emphasis mine.)

To synthesize: her example demonstrates that true discipleship is not an “either/or” prospect, but a “both/and.” It is personal charity and work directly with those in need… AND a commitment to work to change systemic structures that underlie, facilitate, and even cause poverty, inequality, injustice, and (to extrapolate into today’s terms) natural disasters.

So many of our conflicts in the Church happen because we choose to ally with one side or another of worldly divisions, thus abandoning huge portions of the Gospel mandate. It’s EITHER abortion OR the death penalty. EITHER abortion OR taking on the structures that enable injustice and inequality.

And too many times, Church leaders who see the fracturing of the Gospel mandate are afraid to speak too pointedly, for fear of alienating The Money.

One of Dorothy Day’s letters was addressed to the bishops of California during a worker protest where she got arrested. The editor says they’re not sure whether it was ever sent or not. But in it, she was absolutely flaying the bishops for being afraid to stand with the workers, because of a fear of losing contributions from the wealthy who supported corporations over workers. She was saying, “How much better off would we be if the Church would get rid of all its properties and just depend on God to provide what is needed, when it’s needed?”

Not that this is ever going to happen, but it was shocking to read, because she’s right. When you’re worried about pissing people off and having them take their money and walk, you’re afraid to call them out when they need to be called out. This has been the case for years in the Church, as we have swung farther and farther toward “abortion is the only issue that matters” at the expense of the rest of the Church’s social teaching.

(Money really does corrupt, doesn’t it???? I am pointing all manner of fingers at myself here… just recognizing a reality!)

I have one last post to write on Dorothy Day, but to wrap this one up, here’s one last gem from her on money, in response to “a priest critic.”

“I do not think, however, that we are guilty of envy or begrudging a rich man his wealth if we point out the abuses of the capitalist system which allows one man to accumulate the most of the world’s goods while other families suffer year after year, the aching pinch of poverty if not of actual destitution. St. Jerome and many many Fathers of the Church, and our Leader Himself condemned the rich and no one would dare breathe the word of envy in connection with them.”

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.

The Point Isn’t To Win

For a change, I don’t have much to say. This was quoted in one of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s daily reflection this week, and it struck me as deeply relevant to my spiritual journey. Isn’t defensiveness where the “bad” anger comes from, after all? It resonates strongly with a line from Rory Cooney’s song “Do Not Fear To Hope”– “our God sees not as we see; success is not the prize”– which itself reflects Mother Teresa: “God has called us not to be successful, but to be faithful.”

The reference provided by the CAC is: Gregory Boyle, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2021), 130. Which, I think, needs to be a book I explore now…)

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.

Signposts from Augustine and Dorothy Day

It’s been a minute since I posted here, but not for lack of spiritual journeying… just struggling with how to write it publicly. God continues to place signposts in my journey to balance Godly anger and detachment. Sometimes I don’t quite know how to balance the two.

I spent Lent reading the letters of Dorothy Day, because I thought, “If anyone has figured out this balance, she’s that one.” “All The Way To Heaven” was the recommendation of a priest friend of a friend.

In the first 40% of the book she was not at all what I expected from Dorothy Day. It’s really interesting to watch her own spiritual journey unfold. Then there comes a sharp turn. I’m still only at the 46% mark (she wrote a lot of letters!) but I am thoroughly engrossed by it all. But I wasn’t finding the nugget I was looking for–the thing that showed me how to be an activist and advocate for social justice without being angry all the time.

Then, without warning: this.

Whoa.

But, because God doesn’t deal in the obvious and the clear-cut and the black-and-white–he just doesn’t–within 24 hours, I stumbled across this quote in the front of a novel I pulled from the library to read:

Okay, then.

So… I suppose the divine message here is to hold things in tension? That this struggle is real, and inevitable, and a part of the journey?

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.

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.