More from the U.S. Bishops

I’m posting this today, not because any of us think what happened to George Floyd was okay–I’ve yet to meet the person who thinks that–but because we, as Catholics, need to be reminded that it’s not enough just to think it’s not okay.

Our bishops have talked about the realities of institutional racism through this document, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call To Love.” They’ve told us also that we have a responsibility to act, and that the first part is to recognize how we are complicit in the continuation of racism in our country. And that is the part too many in the Catholic community are unwilling to do. This week I’ve encountered Catholics who won’t even read this document because it calls us into that hard examination of conscience, and they refuse to believe there’s anything to examine.

This is one of those times when being Catholic requires us to be intentional. Because if we aren’t, then we aren’t really being Catholic at all. We’re letting pre-determined worldly values determine how we interact with the world, rather than doing the hard work required when our faith directs us.

COVID-19: In Search of A Balanced Perspective

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

There are basically two kinds of posts filling up my Facebook feed right now. I’m sure it’s the same for you.

On the one hand, there are the conspiracy theories and memes filled with outrage over having to mask or social distance or really, having to endure limits and inconvenience of any kind. The we-should-just-open-up-and-get-herd-immunity posts. The the-numbers-are-always-changing-and-that’s-a-sign-that-it’s-all-baloney posts. Yesterday I saw a meme that bemoaned ruining our economy for a disease with a death rate of only .1%. (FYI: I went to the CDC and did the math, because I’ve been wrong before. The death rate is 6%.)

On the other hand, there are strident posts that imply that it’s universally too soon to open up, that everyone should stay in lockdown, that no church anywhere under any circumstances should sing, because it’s dangerous. Posts that pass judgment on others’ choices, without knowing the circumstances and in some cases, exaggerating the level of the violations.

Those who share the first type of post are almost exclusively from rural areas where the case load has been low. Those who share the second are almost exclusively urban dwellers living with ongoing trauma caused by the exploding body counts in their vicinities.

The thing is, both these points of view contain nuggets of truth. Where I live, it makes no sense to deny assembly singing; we’ve only had one death and a hundred cases since the whole thing began. That would be a precaution that causes unnecessary damage to communities without any benefit.

On the other hand, there *is* real mental health suffering going on because of the shutdowns; I’ve thought since day one that we could have a whole generation in need of counseling after this is over. I have four children. I did counseling myself for the first time in my life during this pandemic. Parenting during this is a nightmare for a person who suffers scrupulousness and, by extension, anxiety. What if I’m the one who ends up passing the disease to dozens of others and causes the deaths of hundreds because I’m too cavalier? What if the hospitals get overrun and my developmentally disabled daughter is the one who has to be denied a ventilator?

But because I’m so sensitized to my children’s mental health, to my own anxieties, and to the high stakes for my own family, I’m really cognizant of the need for balance.

In some places (like where I am), the damage being done by shutdown might, in fact, be worse than the damage avoided.

But maybe not. Because maybe shutting down prevented us from becoming a hot spot. Prevented us from the unbelievable anguish of burying our loved ones without being able to say goodbye or gather to remember them and send them off to Heaven.

The trouble is, we don’t know. We won’t know until it’s over and all the data is in—and maybe not even then. In real time, the situation is always in motion; the numbers change because new information comes to light, not because of some great conspiracy.

There *are* places where the fears are totally justified. As we, out here in the low-caseload areas, start reopening, it’s tempting to assume that what is true here is true everywhere. And then, to judge others for being more cautious. And our lack of sympathy causes people in areas where the danger is real to react more strongly—which makes us lash out more strongly still—which makes them angry…

It’s American tribalism on full display, in all its ugly, unchristian glory.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

The beautiful thing about being human is that we are capable—if we will choose to exercise the ability—of adapting our understanding based on new information. But when the stakes are so high, our Christian responsibility to be cautious about what information we choose to partake of is more crucial than ever.

I propose that as Christians, our responsibility—our DUTY, in fact—is to check the bias of EVERY source BEFORE we click through, and to refuse to click through to any source that leans strongly right or left. Moderately left, moderately right, these sources are balanced enough that we can properly form our consciences. Clicking through to extreme sources only encourages greater extremism. If we want our media to behave with integrity, we have to quit rewarding them for misbehaving. If we want integrity in our news reporting, we have to demand it by not supporting those who violate our trust.

Frankly, on this Memorial Day, committing to greater integrity in our information consumption seems like a good way to honor those who gave their lives to protect this country. Don’t you think?

Right vs. “right”

The past two weeks have been really intense for me as it is crunch time/deadline days for preparing presentations for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) convention, which went online this year because of COVID-19. At the same time, where I live we are opening up. From this point forward, the discernments get harder. Now we have to weigh our responsibility to uphold the life and dignity of our fellow human beings against the danger of being so overprotective of physical health that we cause lasting damage to the emotional and mental health of ourselves and those we love. To say nothing of causing unnecessary suffering from deepening poverty, as more economic damage happens.

For weeks before opening, we’d had virtually no new cases where I live, so the calculation looks quite different here than it does in many other places. In some ways, it makes it more difficult. How long can we remain isolated from those we love? Yet if we loosen up in some areas and loved ones loosen in others, then we’ve both just multiplied our exposures. My state has been open 2 1/2 weeks now, and naturally we are seeing cases again. Not a lot, but to see regular cases after weeks of almost none makes it clear that we can’t be cavalier.

Which brings us, among other things, to the “do we mask?” question that has become yet another a lightning rod, another opportunity for political division in our country. The reaction of certain quarters of our population (“I’m not wearing a mask! When I woke up this morning I was in a free country!”) is what, specifically, made this Chesterton quote jump out at me this morning. This is one of those moments in which we are challenged to recognize where a worldly value has come to be more important than Godly ones. Has become an idol.

I don’t wear a mask at all times, and in masking, in opening up, every moment requires a discernment for me to make sure I’m practicing what I preach. Or at least, to try. I don’t like it, but it is the spiritual exercise of life right now–for all of us.

The Secret To Happiness

There’s so much bad stuff going on in the world–and even in our houses, the wearing daily grind of togetherness causes so much stress–that it feels almost insensitive to acknowledge out loud how beautiful some of this stay-at-home experience is.

How can we find beauty in our world when so many are suffering and dying, when so many have had the pain of losing loved ones they can’t even be with in their last hours? Can’t gather to bury?

But beautiful things are happening in our homes alongside the stress of isolation. With the punishing busy-ness removed, creativity has flowered, giving rise to new traditions. My family kind of hopes the birthday parades continue! For Mother’s Day and birthdays this spring we wrote up affirmations and left them hidden around the house for the honoree.
We’ve cooked well, regularly eaten together on the deck. Taken lots of walks and bike rides, done lots of work in the yard. All because we weren’t chasing the futility of the rat race all over town.

And for all of that, in the midst of this upheaval, I give thanks to God.

Small Sacrifices

Background image by Public Domain Images, via Pixabay

It’s been a hard slog, the last couple of months. Although Memeland USA has tried to lighten the mood by joking about it (my personal favorite was a picture of Doc and Marty, with the words “First Rule of Time Travel: Never go to 2020!”), the humor is only an attempt to bleed off some of the stress. Some among us are struggling financially because of lost income. Some because of the stress of illness or death–coronavirus-related or not–in a time when families can’t even gather to grieve. Some because mental health is hard to maintain in a time of anxiety and isolation.

That last was the struggle for me and my household. It took us a full month to get our equilibrium–which I achieved partly by counseling, partly by a 100% withdrawal from all news sources. And prayer, of course, but prayer guided me to those real-world solutions. Prayer is rarely a fix-all on its own. In prayer, God guides you to what *else* you need. God is the creator of science and psychology, after all.

I still have to be vigilant about mental health in certain quarters in my family, but I know we had it pretty easy compared to others. My Facebook feed is filled, top to bottom every day, with evidence that more people are still struggling than not.

I’ve started dipping a toe back in the news now, and the vehemence and acrimony of the protests against stay-at-home orders and masks are really striking. I heard a report this morning that in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a man threatened a business owner with a gun because he didn’t like the citywide requirement to wear a mask inside businesses. I mean, really? REALLY??

Full disclosure: I’m a flute player. Wearing a mask makes me feel like I’m suffocating. But I’m wearing them anyway, not when I’m outside, but when when I go to the grocery store or the hardware store. Why? Because I trust the medical authorities who say this is one small sacrifice we can make for the greater good.

That news story this morning just blew my mind. I don’t know what that man’s beliefs are. What I can say for certain is that his actions show a lack of respect for life and the Gospel. The Christian call is about self-emptying, about placing others’ needs ahead of our preferences.

And that’s my point for today. The whole point of being “intentional” about the faith is to take it out of the realm of the vague generalizations. It’s easy to talk in general about self-emptying, but the real test is what happens when you’re asked to make a sacrifice for others. Especially when you’re already struggling with loss of income or freedom of movement or mental health or loved ones.

For years, we in the religious community have criticized American culture for being hedonistic, for the idolization of instant gratification and “me, me, me.”

Those are totally just criticisms.

But the response to this pandemic shows that hedonism, instant gratification, and “me, me, me” is just as much a problem among religious people. (How many of those signs demanding an end to stay-at-home orders invoke God?)

This pandemic is nothing if not a series of opportunities to make sacrifices. When I think of people in Italy and Spain, who weren’t even allowed outside (because where would they go without encountering others?), it is abundantly clear to me that my stay-at-home order, which allows for biking and hiking and playing outside and taking walks in the neighborhood and going to the grocery store and on and on and on, is really a *very* small ask for the health of the community.

And now, as my community begins to open up–today, in fact–the discernments are going to get more complex. With schools and businesses closed, there wasn’t really anywhere to go, anyway. We had no choice but to honor the greater good by staying home.

Now, we have to start learning a new balance, because as important as “flattening the curve” was, economic motion is vital to the community, too.

But we can’t be cavalier about it. To be a Christian in this new reality means we have to think, rethink, and rethink again. All the rules and rituals we take for granted have to be re-examined. How do we best balance the safety of the community and the need to slowly expand exposure to this new virus, against the need to get the economy moving again so that everyone can regain the dignity inherent in work?

It’s inevitable that for the foreseeable future, we’re all going to have to give up things we’d like and deny ourselves things we’d like to do on our own schedule, but which now have to be planned around the greater good. It’s not going to be fun.

But we can view this as an invitation to grow in faith and holiness–by self-emptying, by doing the things we don’t like for the greater good.

Did Mary Ever Have To Apologize?

Madonna of the Streets, Roberto Ferruzzi (1854-1934) / Public domain

I’ve always been afraid to admit this, but I struggle with Mary. Mary is supposed to be the perfect model of motherhood, one who can understand us and our struggles.

I’ve spent a lot of years feeling like a second-rate Catholic because I can’t relate to Mary. I’ve been praying a long time to figure out how to fix that, but I had to begin by understanding why the disconnect exists at all. I’ve finally realized it boils down to this: Too many devotions and narratives surrounding Mary treat her as if she were divine. As if she knew every detail of her life, struggles, and sufferings in advance. As if, after that one question, “how is this possible?”, she never again had questions or doubts.

Too many devotional prayers and lay reflections are written as if this omniscient and unflappable Mary can answer prayers on her own strength, rather than acting as an intercessor. (See note below.)

When I’m struggling with hard questions in family life, I can’t call upon a heavenly mother who already knew everything and had all the answers. How is she supposed to help me? If she knew everything and never made any mistakes and her kid was God, what possible commonality is there between her life and mine? I know nothing and my life is a hot mess of mistakes and my kids are DEFINITELY not God. How is *she* supposed to enlighten my spiritual struggles?

Frankly, I don’t believe that otherworldly, ethereal Mary ever existed. The things that keep me awake the most at night aren’t sins. They’re unknowns. They’re mistakes. Errors in judgment, comments I never imagined might wound, assumptions that lead to words that cause hurt feelings, but without malice or ill will. Miscommunications. Misunderstandings.

Was Mary immune from all those screwups because she was sinless? She couldn’t have been. Those kinds of minefields depend as much on other people as they do on us. It defies our knowledge of human experience to think Mary never had to apologize for unintentionally hurting someone.

As I laid awake early this morning fretting about an error (not sin), contemplating the potential for far-reaching fallout, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Mary I *could* relate to. A Mary who, even without sin, had to navigate all the minefields of uncertainty and lack of clarity that are part and parcel of being human.

Surely, raising the son of God made that experience more, not less intense. When your kid is God, how do you ask for advice from other parents? How do you teach the son of God what it means to be human?

This Mary—the Mary who knew and lived with uncertainty, who questioned herself and laid awake nights, begging God for clarity and peace of mind—this Mary, I can ask to pray for me.

(Note: I don’t believe anyone actually thinks Mary is divine. But I do think many prayers are poorly written, and the words we pray shape our unconscious attitudes. The best Marian prayers keep her role as intercessor squarely in focus. In recent months I’ve really come to appreciate the Hail Mary for this reason.)