Think well, speak well, do well.

Camillus is a new saint to me. I had to go look him up. He was a gambler with a bad leg and, it seems, a bad temper, because the hospital where he went for treatment kicked him out for being quarrelsome–all this according to Franciscan Media. But once he was converted, he managed to change, and in the end he took care of plague victims. How’s that for a turnaround?

But his “think well” and “speak well,” in particular, really stuck out at me today. We’re living in a time when we’re under stresses we recognize (hello, COVID), but whose impacts upon us we don’t necessarily recognize.

I really believe a lot of the toxicity of social media right now is a sign of people driven right to the edge of what they can handle and then having one more feather put on top of them. Us, I mean. It’s me, too.

We aren’t able to tolerate some things, and other things we might be able to think critically and rationally about, we swallow wholeheartedly, because we’re just that overwhelmed. We simply don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be everything we’re called to be and everything we’re capable of being. So we see things that are wrong, and we totally lose it. We go wild with outrage instead of stopping to think, “Wait… is this clickbait, designed to manipulate my emotions by using loaded words and ignoring context that really matters in understanding the situation?”

I’m talking of social media, but of course it’s in our homes too. I’m so over my kids telling each other to shut up. The count is now 138 days that we’ve spent with way more togetherness and way less structure than we’re built for. What little tolerance they ever had for each other has long been exhausted. It’s a constant battle, trying to call them back to their best selves. Too often the same criticism applies to me.

None of the externals are changing any time soon, but maybe just being aware of it can help us be less reactive, to stop and think instead of knee-jerk reacting to things we think are totally intolerable. Because as the old adage says, what we think and say becomes what we do and who we are.

#seethegood: scrupulousness

I’m thinking a lot these days about that old adage, “work as if everything depends on you. Pray as if everything depends on God.”

I’m definitely a “work like it depends on you” kind of person. The thing about scrupulousness is that if you aren’t doing All The Things 100%, you think you’re not doing enough. You may be doing things A-G, but things H and I are still sitting there. What if your modest contribution was the tiny drop that made the difference between success and failure? It doesn’t matter if Things H and I are totally outside your comfort zone. In fact, that’s all the more reason why you ought to get over yourself and do them.

It sounds nonsensical when put into words–egotistical, even.

I recently listened to an interfaith podcast where they explored personality types not by Meyers-Briggs, but by enneagram, through a lens of how personality impacts faith: what we’re good at, what our spiritual “fatal flaw” is. The enneagram makes more sense to me than Meyers-Briggs. I can’t keep all those letters straight. But on the enneagram scale, I am a #1. To a T.

So for me, it’s natural to work like it all depends on me. I’m aware of the need to balance that with the “pray like it depends on God.” And I do. I pray a lot.

(But do I pray enough? asks scrupulousness.)

The purpose of that aphorism is to stress the need for balance, but for a person who bears the cross of scrupulousness, there is no balance. It’s always “more, more, more.” On both sides of the equation.

When I express this, certain people chastise me for lack of faith: if only you would trust God/Jesus/give it to Mary, all this internal conflict would go away.

No doubt that’s true for some personality types, but not for an enneagram #1. Anxiety binds itself around you like a spiderweb. You can’t get rid of it. It sticks to you no matter how much you try to shake it off.

Most people don’t “get” this. They seem to think I’m choosing the angst–as if I haven’t spent my life looking for a fix. Through solitude in nature, I can find temporary (and partial) respite. I can nudge myself a degree or two in the direction of release, but the current inexorably brings me back. It is how I was made.

I’m working toward being at peace with this, though. Because the fact is, God doesn’t make mistakes, so if I was made this way, it was for a reason. And if that’s the case, then in this apparent weakness (the people on the podcast said, “Oh, those poor people!” when hearing the description of Enneagram #1), there must be strength, too. A gift to be given, a gift that in fact requires this particular set of traits.

I don’t have it all figured out, but I can #seethegood at least this far: I recognize that my scrupulousness helps me to be a better steward of God’s gifts. It challenges me to use those gifts to the best of my ability. And it prevents me from living an unexamined life filled with conflict between my faith and my lived actions. I have a whole different set of conflicts to wrestle, but at least it’s a clear-eyed, authentic struggle.

Justice = Kindness

Background Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

It has not been pretty in my house, these last 125 days. Have you intuited that from my posts? It seems all I do these days is fret, gnash my teeth, and talk about the lack of peace in my house–the strain of kinda-sorta-not-exactly-quarantine, the lack of structure, the endless snipping and sometimes screaming, the teenage hormones and the childhood overreactions.

The other day I had my youngest two children working on dishes. In their resentment at being forced to work (not that they had anything else to do; they were totally bored), they instantly fell to squabbling. “You can’t use the spray hose that way,” “you’re taking too much space at the sink.” That kind of nonsense.

I turned to them and said, “That’s enough! I don’t want you two to say anything to each other you wouldn’t say to ME if you were working with ME.” Because they are kind to me, if not to each other.

It was a stroke of brilliance–the Holy Spirit’s, not mine, just to be totally clear.
They are accustomed to being horrible to each other. To be told to treat each other as they treat the person they trust the most required a hard reset. They didn’t like it, but for one of them, the tone of voice changed instantly. In the other it happened after I said, “Would you use that tone of voice talking to me?”

Yesterday’s readings struck a chord so deep, it resonated in my whole being. Our new associate’s homily tied together the various parables brilliantly. It can be much harder than we realize to judge between good and evil, he said. Which is why it’s not our job to rip out the “weeds,” but instead to be leaven–to live the faith in a way that causes the whole culture to “rise.”

But the words that stay with me the most were those from the book of Wisdom. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.”

In these heavy, momentous days of pandemic and communal examination of conscience, there are many of us concerned with justice. There’s a lot of righteous indignation, a lot of holy anger at the way huge sections of the Catholic faith have been lopped off, cafeteria-Catholic style, to force them into a political box.

People are speaking up for justice, but too often there’s no kindness involved. I fear that the pursuit of justice will fail, because of the way the campaign is pursued. Without kindness, calls for justice often come across as bullying. Nobody’s heart is being changed when they feel they’re being bullied.

None of which changes the fact that the world is crying out for God’s justice. I want to be clear on that, lest anyone read this post as a justification for dismissing calls for justice. Or for resisting guidelines put in place to protect the life and health of all God’s children. The right has plenty to answer for. Blistering the “mainstream media” for liberal bias makes no sense when one eagerly and uncritically gobbles up sources whose violations of journalistic integrity are far more heinous, if in the opposite direction.

For right and left alike, what we choose to do now–whether we are willing to examine our hearts and work to overcome our biases–this is truly a question of following God versus making an idol of self. Calls for justice, specific to this time and place, are necessary. In fact, they’re an imperative of discipleship. These things need to be said.

But the way we say them matters.

Maybe, in the days and weeks to come, “justice = kindness” can be our guiding principle, the standard by which we measure our online presence. We want justice. But are we actually modeling Godly justice–by our kindness?

What if we all vowed to say nothing we wouldn’t say to the person we respect and honor most in the world? How much more calm, measured, and productive might our national discourse be?

More from the Council

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).

#seethegood: human connection

Late Sunday morning, my teenager was driving us home from church. I had a full docket of things I wanted to do: fold laundry, some shopping, etc. But as we pulled in the driveway, my teenager said, “Mom, we never took that bike ride. You want to do that now?”

Exercise was not on my agenda. I’d done hard workouts 7 days in a row, and my body wanted a break. Plus–obviously–I was busy.

But when a teenager asks you to spend time with him, you drop everything else. “Yes,” I said.

We did not only a full bike ride, but one that was a third longer than a full ride. My legs were crying out for mercy. But that lovely day, I remembered again how blessed I am to be suffering through this time of uncertainty and isolation in the arms of my family. I have people to touch. People to be with. Our family life is fraught with conflict, stress, anxiety, bad feelings. Too much togetherness. Infrequent and insufficient breaks from each other. An ever-shifting landscape that renders arbitrary every discernment of what social gatherings feel safe or unsafe. Kids lashing out. Kids fighting over screens. Kids fighting with each other.

And yet, I am not alone. A few weeks ago, a national reporter had a conversation with the morning show host, saying, “I haven’t touched the skin of another human being in three months.”

I knew then that having my children to hug and kiss, to cuddle on the couch, my husband to hold hands with, is a blessing I need to keep my eyes fixed upon. Because it is a big one.

Sometimes It’s Not Talking About Us. And Sometimes It Is.

“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.

Though there is a place for the individual in theology, white theology, in profound syncretism with American culture, has distorted the Bible to be solely about individual redemption. So it is blind to the reality that when Scripture says, “I know the plans I have for you”, the “you” is plural and addressed to an entire community of people that has been displaced and are in exile. All Scripture has been reduced to individual interactions between God and a person, even when they are actually between God and a community, or Jesus and a group of people. As a result, white theology defines racism as hateful thoughts and deeds by an individual, but cannot comprehend communal, systemic, or institutionalized sin, because it has erased all examples of that framework from Scripture.

Secondly, white Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when studying Scripture is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society — and it has made them blind and utterly ill-equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.

Erna Kim Hackett, “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy”

Wedge Issues, Tone Policing, and the Christian call

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

The social quality of personal property

I know this is kind of a long quote to process, so let me rephrase it to clarify why it struck me so forcefully. If we forget that our personal property has a “social dimension,” we’ll end up making an idol of it, making it all about ME and what I want. Getting resentful at the suggestion that the “social dimension” exists at all.

And when that happens, it’s easy for people to say, “See? This system of private property is corrupt. It doesn’t serve the common good.”

In other words, if we are too grabby about what’s MINE, it’s going to give people ammunition to suggest that the whole system is flawed.

The writers were undoubtedly thinking of giving ammunition to communism when they wrote this, but given the unpardonable and growing disparity between rich and poor these days–underscored by who gets COVID and who doesn’t; who has to put themselves at risk to go do low-income “essential” labor while the rest of us work safely from home–it seems like a pretty spot-on reminder for our day and age, too.

Public limits on personal property

A few weeks ago I decided we’d all adjusted as well as we could to COVID and I could return to Gaudium et Spes. I posted once, with the quote “…man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others.”

Right after that, current events overtook me again. But here I am now, sharing this quote, the second in a group of three that really struck me. In our polarized political atmosphere, a point of view has developed that believes government has no right to limit personal property–that to do so is an overreach.

But it turns out that this point of view is inconsistent with Church teachings. This sequence from G&S (it’s paragraphs 69-71) makes very clear that government *does* have a right to regulate private holdings. We can debate all day the extent and the appropriate use of that right, but government does have a licit and totally morally upright role.

Interesting, right?

Small Graces

When I landed on #seethegood as a “word” of the year, I had no idea just how appropriate it was going to be. I thought I was just choosing it because I tend to get gripey about ordinary life and stressors. I had no idea this was God giving me a heads-up that we were headed into a year that broke every mold. Preparing me to cope with it.

All the memes about murder hornets and cats with laser eyes are funny because it really does feel like we’re standing under one of those dump buckets they put into pools now, we just didn’t know it.

I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed lately, bent down under the weight of the toxicity of social media and the unrelenting bad news and micro-aggressions (and macro, for that matter) against human dignity permeating the news.

This weekend, a friend reminded me of my commitment to #seethe good in 2020. Yes, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on, but there’s a lot of good too.

I needed that reminder. In the early days of the shutdown, with nothing to focus on except the present moment, I was really aware of the need to keep focused on the blessings–and I did.

But the increasing toxicity of online interactions–making wedge issues out of a pandemic, followed by the horrific response of a scattered few to the demands for racial justice, plus some things that have happened within Catholic circles in recent weeks, have really worn me down. It’s been hard to focus on anything but the feeling that we’re galloping toward a precipice, and soon it will be too late to stop.

In recent weeks, I’ve been hard-pressed to find things to post about. The echo chambers are deafening on both sides of every issue, and I had nothing of substance to add. When I did, I found myself either ignored or ripped to shreds.

What has been lacking on social media (at least on my feed) has been the small beauties, the small celebrations, and it felt incredibly tone deaf to insert those into the entirely-justified righteous anger being communicated since George Floyd’s murder.

But I realize now I have to keep looking for and acknowledging those moments of grace, those snapshots of divine beauty. And I think everyone else needs those reminders that goodness is still there, like Sam Gamgee seeing the star that shines through the break in the clouds in The Return of the King.

So I’m going to devote Mondays to that for a while. To the small beauties, the intimate graces. Here’s my first offering: the first hollyhock to bloom beside my house, a reminder of my childhood and something I’ve wanted for a long time.