I have four kids, and each of them is in a different school this year. (Long story.) Two of them are in seat (one because parochial school, one because special ed), the other two are all online so far.
Today is the first day I have to have one of my in-seat kids at home for learning, and since I’m groaning internally about it, I want to stop to acknowledge the great blessing that my two highest-maintenance kids have, in fact, been able to have relatively normal schooling all the way to October 21st. I have been on fire in my writing–laser focused and accomplishing a lot.
At the same time, some really beautiful things have come out of having two kids at home for school. I’ve gone running with my 6th grader a few times. Taken afternoon walks with him at other times. Eaten lunch with my high schooler, who, in an ordinary year, we’d barely see because he’d transition between school and marching band and be gone for ten hours and do homework the rest.
Also, I have a lot better picture of what my kids are doing at school this year. I’m puttering around the kitchen during middle school zooms and for that reason I know all the teachers by voice and name and I know that one teacher has a chirping smoke detector in her house, and I can hear the banter in the class. I can ask intelligent questions about the things the kids are studying, because I have some clue what they are.
It’s a give and take. There are plenty of things that feel constraining about this mode of education, and keeping spirits high… or, well, in the neutral range or better… requires constant vigilance. I feel much more guilty for going to take my hike/bike/sit/pray times when there are kids at home. But there are things to love about it, too.
This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”
I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!
Today’s reflection is (slightly) adapted from a post originally written seven years ago on my personal blog.
Having wrestled anxiety for most of my young adult life, I don’t often plumb the depths of my psyche too much anymore. I may be emotionally and psychologically healthy these days, but I’m far from immune to doubt. Doubt is an inevitable part of the human experience. We doubt God, we doubt our leaders, those we love, and of course, ourselves. The decisions we’ve made, especially the big ones, sometimes lead us to places that don’t look like what we envisioned, and we start thinkingif we’d chosen another path, things might be easier.
This happens to me most often when I’m ticked off at the world, i.e. husband and kids. They are my vocation, so when family life seems really hard, a niggling thought will sometimes come to mind: could I have heard the call wrong? I have always been drawn to silence and stillness. Why didn’t I ever seriously consider religious life? A life of prayer, of contemplation, without the familial demands that wear me down, the unceasing noise that shreds my inner peace, the constant busyness that makes it almost impossible to dip into the well of the Spirit. Wouldn’t I be a better disciple if my life were devoted to solitude and prayer?
The end of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain surprised me when I read it:
Look at that: a contemplative monk, questioning his vocation because–gasp–it’s not contemplative enough. Because he’s got distractions. Because his mind is rattling like a piggy bank. (Oh, that is so me.)
That made me rethink another quote I’d read years earlier:
When I first read it, I interpreted it to mean that I will be a better disciple if I am in a situation that challenges my weaknesses least. But in light of Merton’s quote, I realized: what if the very soul stretching that comes from struggling with my vocation is what makes me a better disciple? After all, if we’re never challenged, how in the world can we grow?
If patience, pride and self-centeredness are my weaknesses (and believe me, they are), then family life, in which patience is tried every moment of every day and self-centeredness is forced by virtue of necessity to give way to self-emptying–family life seems ideally suited to make me a better disciple.
In other words, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence…until you get there and realize what you’ve left behind.
I have begun reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” and thought it might be worth simply sharing as I read, since it’s new to all of us.
The topic seems like a timely reminder, given the state of the world right now. I can’t quote it all, but Pope Francis sets the tone in the introduction by pointing to St. Francis of Assisi’s trip to visit the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. He went during the Crusades–a time when the goal of Christianity was to conquer and convert the Muslims–and instead modeled peaceful conversation with no agenda at all.
Two things strike me here: one is that with this trip, St. Francis, quietly and without making a production of it, issued a sharp rebuke to the entire goal of the Crusades. A rebuke that, with the benefit of hindsight, was well deserved.
The other is that Pope Francis is setting the stage to remind us that our worldwide politics of division (because it’s not just an American thing) is directly counter to holy living.
And I suppose there’s a third thing, which is that there’s more than one way to interpret “far away” and “near.” In St. Francis’ case, it was both physical and philosophical difference. My guess is that Pope Francis is gearing up to admonish us to be “brothers” in both those spheres in modern life, as well.
Sharing today the second of three posts about my journey in pondering the relationship between faith and fear. This one dates from March 2, 2011.
A pastor named Rob Bell wrote a book that raised people’s hackles because they felt it espouses “universalism,” the idea that nobody’s going to go to Hell. I ran across this topic here, and it got me thinking. Not about Rob Bell, his book, or the existence of Hell—frankly, because I think the whole discussion is a distraction from the primary issue.
I have no patience with the sentiment “I believe in God, but I’m not really religious.” Or “I’m more spiritual than religious.” Cop-out! If you believe in God, that God is creator of all and above all, then it makes no sense to act as if that belief doesn’t matter. When the stakes are so high—Heaven and Hell, eternal life and eternal death—how can you stick your fingers in your ears and ignore the call to act, saying “la la la I can’t hear you?”
On the other hand, being “religious” because you’re scared of going to Hell is a pretty poor version of Christianity. If that’s all your faith is based on then it’s bound to do one of two things: get twisted into some hideous distortion of true holiness (how often do we see that happen?), or fall to pieces entirely. Holy living should be a response born of gratitude to the One who gave us everything, love for the One who continues to pour out goodness on us, even amid the pain and difficulty of this fallen world. And by love, I mean a conscious decision to act, not some touchy-feely, ephemeral happy place.
When you love someone, you try to get to know them, to understand what they want, what makes them tick. When you love someone, you look for ways to make them happy, you look for ways to deepen your relationship with them. When faith becomes an act of love, the discussion of Hell, its existence or lack thereof, is….well, perhaps not completely irrelevant, but certainly beside the point.
Hell is the absence of God. Look around the world. Everything beautiful in this world, everything that makes it worth living, is from God: love, cuddles, creation, skies and outdoors and fresh air and friendship and music and all the things that make our hearts skip a beat. To be separated from all that? If that doesn’t give you the shudders, then I don’t know what will.
I don’t think much about Hell, end-times or the apocalypse, because it scares me, and when I’m scared I focus on fear instead of on my true job as a Christian. My true job is love. I’m trying to learn to live in such a way that I am acting out of love for the One who made me, acted out toward the people and the world He created. I have a long way to go; I’m well aware that I’m not guaranteed a place in Heaven just because I say I believe in God. Actions speak louder than words, and fear is not a good long-term motivator. Besides, it’s not like I have any control over the apocalypse (or lack thereof). God’s the editor of the final markup, not me. Thank…well, thank God.
The Kate of 2020 steps back in to note that I apparently had a lot more answers when I was in my thirties than I do now. 🙂
In light of the discussions taking place online these days, it seems like a good time to revisit what the US Bishops have to say about racism, and in particular institutional racism, in our country, and what that reality means for us as faithful Catholics. There’s a lot of anger going around these days on both sides of every issue, and we ramp each other up. Extremism on one side begets extremism on the other. Neither of which are justified, but people only want to point the finger at the other side rather than acknowledge extremism on their own.
Too many Christians seem eager to write off the entire question of civil rights and institutional racism because of violence in some protests. Of course, horrific things like people shouting “let them die” outside a hospital where police are fighting for their lives are equally indefensible.
It’s so tempting to take the extremes, because the extremes are easier. It’s really messy in the middle, where we have to call out both “let them die” and the institutional racism that has sparked the protests which, in some cases, have turned violent. It’s easier to blame one or the other and act like the problem is ONLY one thing.
The reality is, whenever we paint things in absolutes–whenever we write off one point of view because of the faults of some among them–we are part of the problem. That messy place in the middle is exactly where we must be as Christians.
Our bishops are telling us in the clearest possible way that race matters, that racism is real, that we are part of it whether we mean to be or not, and that we thus have a responsibility to act for change.
I cannot say it strongly enough: read this letter in its entirety.
I’ve been at this Intentional Catholic business officially for 18 months right now, but in reality for much longer. One does not come to such a pithy, focused phrase “just like that.” It develops over time.
One thing I’ve learned is that living the faith intentionally always, ALWAYS involves a lot wrestling. In fact, I would argue that a faith that is complacent, that thinks it has simple answers, is not intentional at all. The world is too messy for complacency. We are too small for the problems we face. When we think the answer is simple and obvious, it’s a good sign that we’re missing a LOT of context.
I’ve been wrestling hard with what being “intentionally Catholic” means when people are saying horrible things online. Self-righteous memes so badly stripped of context, they cross into falsehood; distortions; statements by Christians that do not reflect Christ.
Today I’d like to reflect on a handful of influences I’ve been wrestling lately, surrounding this conundrum.
#1: my husband saying, “You may need to stay off Facebook this fall.” I recognize the wisdom of this advice, but I struggle because my ministry is precisely to address the messiness of the issues where real life intersects with faith–issues we address via the political process. And also, Facebook is my professional networking avenue.
But as my husband constantly points out, no one ever changes their mind. So when is it worth wading in? When I do, how do I respond in a way that respects the human dignity of the person on the other end of the e-connection, when such egregious errors are on display?
#2: A friend of mine shared Bishop Barron’s podcast for yesterday’s readings with me, in which he tied together the call from Ezekiel–yes, in fact we ARE supposed to correct our fellow Christians–and the “how do we do that?” outlined in the Gospel. Bishop Barron focused narrowly on how to respond when one has been personally wounded. Truthfully, it felt insufficient. It’s not personal offenses that I feel so compelled to respond to on social media. It’s public statements by religious people who do not see the inherent conflict between their statements and the faith that is so precious to them. Jesus’ guidance, applied in this situation, seems… insufficient. Sure, I could message a person privately, but if that person is making public statements, he or she is leading others into error. Speaking to them privately seems–well, not to be repetitive, but “insufficient.”
I’ve spent a lot of time praying: “Should I ignore this, Lord? Or speak?” I responded in passion a couple times and felt that I, too, wasn’t representing my faith authentically. Another time, I walked away and found a calm, sincere response bubbling up. I thought I recognized the voice of the Spirit in that, so I went back to share, only to be publicly (and passive-aggressively, i.e. in detail but not by name) excoriated. I came away feeling that I really have no idea what the heck God is asking me to do about all this.
Which brings me to Influence #3: a story told by Steve Angrisano in a breakout session on chant that I listened to this weekend. (While pulling crabgrass in my back yard, if you want to know.) He talked about a priest who had two best friends stand at opposite ends of the room. He surrounded one of them with other girls of similar age, and had them all call out a number between 1 and 100. No one in the room could pick out the number from the original girl–except her best friend, who had spent so much time listening to her friend, she knew the voice and could pick it out of the cacophony.
I am trying to spend enough time with God to do that, but I feel no confidence in my ability to pick out God’s voice right now.
Actually, that’s not true. I feel great confidence that I can see God’s will in the issues themselves. But in how and when to speak, I have no earthly idea.
I have no answers today. Only thoughts. Wrestling. Because that’s what it means to be intentionally Catholic.
I’ve been sidetracked often lately in sharing these quotes from Gaudium et Spes. This excerpt comes from a chapter called “the life of the political community,” and it’s really striking in an era of political division that rests, fundamentally, on the question of how much government control, regulation, and oversight is appropriate.
As Catholics, we’re supposed to let the Church’s teachings guide our world view, but if this quote raises hackles, as I expect it will, I would suggest that it indicates an area in need of examination of conscience and–better still–of digging in to what the Church actually teaches.
The sentence immediately following this quote does address government overreach, but the wording is clearly referring to dictatorships. As much as we love to throw around such claims in America, a rational view of the world should make it clear that we have never been anywhere close to the dictatorial regimes of Europe or Central America. And the paragraphs following this excerpt talk about the need to frame all political philosophy in the context of the common good (in other words, common good is more important than adherence to a theoretical philosophy) and about the proper relationship between Church and the political community–shades of both religious liberty *and* separation between Church and state. It’s well worth digging into this, given the bitter divisions of our time and the devotion to political ideology over Catholic teaching (on both sides of the spectrum).
“Trample my courts no more! To bring offerings is useless; incense is an abomination to me.” (Is. 10:13)
Isaiah really didn’t mess around, did he? Most of the time we focus in on the feel-good prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.
But in yesterday’s first reading, Isaiah says, “Guys, seriously. God’s not interested in what you’re bringing to the altar. You’re trying to substitute ritual for meaningful action in your real life. Your worship is useless. What gives worship meaning is what you do outside these walls, and you’re not doing it.”
This reminded me powerfully of a lengthy reflection I read a few weeks ago. The context is race, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the way we interpret various passages in Scripture. When we hear passages like today’s, we shake our heads at those poor blind, hard-hearted Israelites. But when the readings of comfort come, we think they’re meant for us.
Today I just want to share a couple of paragraphs from that article, which was an uncomfortable but eye-opening read. In fact, the article is one of many in a magazine issue devoted to forgiveness; the whole issue this came from is on my to-read list. I encourage you to click through.
There’s a lot on my mind these days that speaks to how we live the faith in the real world—a world that, at the moment, is defined by crises and division. More now than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.
It seems there is no safe subject; even small talk leads to conflict. This morning on a bike ride, I encountered my kids’ former bus driver, and stopped to chat (from across the street). I asked about coming back in the fall. The answer was a hard pushback on the forthcoming citywide masking requirement—a requirement that makes a lot of sense given that during the first wave, we had practically zero cases, and now we are averaging 30+ per day. “I’m VERY strongly anti-mask,” she said. ”I think it’s a personal choice.”
How does one respond to such vehemence? I know what I WANT to say. I WANT to say that as Christians, our world view is supposed to reflect a Gospel that tells us self-emptying, treating the other’s needs as equal to our own, is the way of discipleship. A Gospel that we believe tell us life is precious, and the right to life far outweighs personal “choice.”
I WANT to say, “Can’t you see that you’re setting aside your prolife convictions? That you’re using the exact same language used by the pro-choice movement for decades?”
But how do you communicate any of that without sounding holier-than-thou, preachy, and generally self-righteous?
It didn’t matter, because all I got out was, “Oh, I’m not.” Then she was pouring out her grievances, and thirty seconds in, I thought, I’m supposed to be home in 40 minutes. I just need to politely say “good luck” and move on.
So I did.
I spent the rest of my ride pondering this exchange and others. So many things have become wedge political issues that have no business being so. A pandemic should NOT be a political wedge issue. Racial justice should NOT be a political issue. Supporting women who have experienced harassment, abuse, or assault should NOT be a political issue. These are things people of faith should be unified on. Certainly the Catholic Church, flawed as it has been in practice, has spoken clearly on them all. How on earth has politics become more important in forming our world view than our faith?
But I realize that a lot of the refusal to budge on these issues is a reaction to scrupulousness–a scrupulousness that leads to making assumptions about people. From there, it’s a short skip to judgment.
There’s a lot of judgment on social media these days.
*I’m* judging a lot. Most of the time I don’t post my judgy thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
I think those of us who believe we have a societal responsibility to public health, who care passionately about racial justice and victims’ rights–those of us who care about these issues are so angry, we don’t always recognize that our words and our tone can do more harm than good. That sometimes, in our passion for justice, we cross the boundaries of Christian charity.
I know, that sounds like “tone policing.” I get it. But tone DOES matter, because when we make assumptions about what people are or aren’t doing; when we pass judgment; when we belittle and dismiss and make sweeping generalizations about everyone who (fill-in-the-blank)—
When we do these things, we make everything worse. We aren’t bringing people to a greater understanding of the truth. In fact, all we’re accomplishing is hardening people in their perception of persecution. They become less open to hearing, less open to examining the conflict between their worldly perspective and the Gospel.
Below (in the comments, on Facebook), I am sharing an op-ed that really hit me hard. I don’t often share (or read, for that matter) from the New York Times, because to so many people, it epitomizes the “liberal media.” But I think people across political spectrums will be surprised by what this man has to say.