Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Marquette Martyr and the Power of Prayer

My friend Frank Weathers has posted about the reported beheading by ISIS of photojournalist James Foley, a graduate of Marquette University.

Frank quotes and links to a moving piece Foley wrote on the power of prayer.

Foley joins the ranks of Christian martyrs.  May God have mercy on his family and friends and on all those suffering in the Middle East.  James Foley, pray for us!

I'm Just Down the Road from Ferguson

In fact, here's the cake in Ferguson, Missouri that Karen and I photographed in June.  It's in the revived downtown, which is filled with local shops, black and white owners, a charming area.

The cake is to the right, above the bench.

The situation in Ferguson is complex, and I'll add what I can as a lifelong resident of the St. Louis area.

St. Louis has long been a very segregated town.  The city of St. Louis is an independent city, not in any county.  Though my father grew up in North St. Louis, for my whole life North St. Louis has been black and South St. Louis white.  Now, however, pretty much the whole city is black, with a few white enclaves here and there.  Rehabbers who come in and "gentrify" city neighborhoods are white and very liberal and childless.

St. Louis County surrounds the city of St. Louis on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.  North St. Louis County is mostly black; South St. Louis County (where I live) is mostly white.  25 years ago Ferguson (which is in North County) was a white working lower-middle-class suburb, comprised of North St. Louis city residents who moved out of the city when what is called the "white flight" began.  The black presence in Ferguson is fairly recent, and is apparently comprised of the next generation of migrants from North St. Louis, who are now black.  This is why the Ferguson city counsel and the police force is still almost entirely white - the change in racial mixture in Ferguson is fairly recent.  And for whatever reason, the blacks have not yet caught up politically there.

On the Illinois side of the river, there are a number of communities which are either all black or all white, including all black East St. Louis, which is consistently listed as one of the most violent cities in America.  Belleville, Illinois is the exception, as Belleville is mixed, though the neighborhoods in Belleville are either all black or all white.

There seemed to be much more racial tension in St. Louis a generation ago, though if you look at Facebook groups dedicated to the situation in Ferguson or to comments at the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, you'll see there's still plenty of racism seething below the surface.

I was out of town all of last week when this situation first exploded, and from what I can see it's pretty complex.  There are a number of factors that play into it - racism, poverty, unemployment, outside agitation, a history of police brutality, the extreme militarization of the local police force - who are untrained and who are embarrassing my military friends, the lack of political leadership, the fact that most protesters are peaceful but the violent ones are causing a ton of trouble, the effect of the shocking images of a kind of civil war in the streets, and the shooting that started it all - which could be justified or could not be justified, as only an impartial examination of evidence will tell.

Meanwhile, here are a few other views of the Ferguson cake.  Here are all my posts on the Cakeway to the West project.  Quite honestly, we've put our picture taking on hold, as most of the remaining cakes are in neighborhoods that aren't too safe to begin with, much less at a time when this much rage is brewing.

The cake is near the lower left in this shot.  It appears storm clouds were gathering over Ferguson, even in June.

The Spirit of Antichrist comes to your Local Parish!

Miss Anita Moore, O.P., Esq. (Third Order Dominican) left a stirring comment on my recent post "Muzak for the Spirit".  She had culled this comment from a post on her own blog (V for Victory).

It's clear that Miss Moore is a gifted writer, as you can see here where she asks if the modern suburban Mass is inspiring saints.  She calls this shopping mall inspired narcissistic self-worship the Cruise Ship of Peter, in contrast to the Barque of Peter ...

All are welcome aboard the Cruise Ship of Peter -- they even have a song about it that they sing at the beginning of Mass! -- all, that is, except anyone who might rock the boat.  What might the Cruise Ship do, one is tempted to wonder, with a Francis of Assisi, or a Dominic de Guzman, or a Catherine of Siena, or an Alphonsus Liguori, or a Fulton Sheen?  Would they have to walk the plank?  How much has the Cruise Ship liturgy to do with immemorial tradition?  Does it inspire missionaries and fortify martyrs?  Does it remotely resemble the Masses of Aquinas, wrapped in awe; or those of the Recusants in Elizabethan England, where it was death to be a priest; or of Father Willie Doyle on makeshift altars in the muddy trenches of the First World War; or of the Cristeros in their secret refuges from the Masonic Mexican regime; or of the first and only Mass celebrated by Bl. Karl Leisner, secretly ordained in Dachau on Gaudete Sunday, 1944, desperately ill yet on fire for souls?  Can one picture Father Augustine Tolton on board, his soul blazing like a beacon from the crumbling lighthouse of his overworked body, his trembling hands raised amid the mellow strains of "On Eagle's Wings"?

It's a strong post, written with that kind of zeal throughout.

But I want to focus on her own quotation of Bishop Fulton Sheen, with which she begins her post.  (I leave the words in red, as Moore herself features them) ...

The modern world, which denies personal guilt and admits only social crimes, which has no place for personal repentance but only public reforms, has divorced Christ from His Cross; the Bridegroom and Bride have been pulled apart. What God hath joined together, men have torn asunder. As a result, to the left is the Cross; to the right is the Christ ... The Western post-Christian civilization has picked up the Christ without His Cross. But a Christ without a sacrifice that reconciles the world to God is a cheap, feminized, colorless, itinerant preacher who deserves to be popular for His great Sermon on the Mount, but also merits unpopularity for what He said about His Divinity on the one hand, and divorce, judgment, and hell on the other. This sentimental Christ is patched together with a thousand commonplaces. ... Without His Cross, He becomes nothing more than a sultry precursor of democracy or a humanitarian who taught brotherhood without tears.  
Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ

Sheen elsewhere says that the spirit of antichrist is exactly this separation of Christ and His cross.

This sounds a bit unscriptural, for St. John tells us something a bit different, doesn't  he? ...

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:2-3

But, as Chesterton points out (and as I have quoted elsewhere), crucifixion is the "inevitable result of
incarnation".  So, in denying the cross of Christ, we are denying the full effects of the incarnation of God - and this is the spirit of antichrist.

The sham Christ - the "cheap, feminized, colorless, itinerant preacher" - and his smooth-sailing Cruise Ship of Peter are not just matters of taste.  Bland as they are, inoffensive and universally tolerant as they try to be, they are the expression of the most horrible and demonic thing on earth.

The Hidden Secret of Success?

Sister Sarah Brown (left) sings to Sky Masterston, "Suddenly I'll Know When my Love Comes Along"

I was an atheist and she was a devout Christian.

She was only 18 and I was (at the time) about twice her age.  She was one of my actresses - pretty and talented, and backstage we used to talk about all sorts of things.  The conversation at one point drifted around to her future.

"I don't believe in going on lots of dates," she said.  "God will send me my future husband."

"But if you don't date a lot of different kinds of guys," I said, "how will you know what sort of man you're interested in marrying?  How will you know what kind of guy you're compatible with?  How will you even know what guys are like in general, and what sorts of guys are trustworthy and what sorts of guys are not?"

"God will show me."

"Yes, but he'll show you the way he shows you everything else - in fits and starts, by trial and error, with lots of mistakes on your end along the way."

"No.  He will send me my husband and I will know immediately."

That smooth.  That easy.  That stupid.

As I said earlier today (in paraphrasing Flannery O'Connor), she was good, but not right.  


John H's comment from my post "You Can't 'Program' Salvation" is more penetrating than it may first appear.

Facing the messiness of human interaction and romantic pitfalls and broken relationships, there's good reasons to be uneasy. But all of that is part of being human. What these various formulaic procedures for life (or, as I called them elsewhere, faith-based LARPing) are doing is offering a magical formula for success. It's saying: follow these steps, and you will succeed. It's the same thing whether it's Tony Robbins selling you confidence or prosperity gospel hucksters or easy tricks for real-estate wealth. It's trying to sell you "this one weird trick" for solving life's problems so that you don't have to fear failure. And then when you do fail, you either decide you were deficient for not following the rules exactly right, or you move on to the next get happy scheme.

Indeed, in the audio book I'm currently recording, which is by an evangelical Protestant, and which has many good points, there seems to be an assumption that the "one weird trick" needed for eternal success is membership in the club.  You're either Christian and you can get your heaven card punched; or you're outside the circle and you only have hell to look forward to.

Now, I know the author personally and I know he takes the Faith more seriously than this, and I know he understands the need to allow God's grace to sanctify and transform him internally, but the temptation seems to be to fall back on a default position that this is all a kind of elaborate gimmick, a program that "does the trick", so to speak.


This is why Pope Francis (to the horror of many devout Catholics) tells us not to lead with our condemnation of abortion and "gay marriage" - because we are more than our sins.

And faith in Christ is more than a program, more than a quick-fix, more than a get-rich-quick scheme. more than a way of repressing the stuff that makes our life difficult.  It is death to the Old Man, who is on the wrong trajectory, and life in the New Man, by whose stripes we are healed.  It is a slow, frustrating and scary transformation - but that slowness, that frustration, and that fear (which comes from abandoning ourselves to God): that's all part of sharing His cross.

Our sins are simply symptoms that we're not yet in character as Christians (to borrow an acting term).  The point of our faith is getting in character for Christ: becoming loving people who are plugged in to the transcendental reality of the Kingdom, who are bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit who has set up shop within us, who are allowing His love to operate through us, and through our natures.  The point is not simply avoiding sin (important as that is); the point is death and rebirth: death to an old self that is selfish and always out for his own narrow agenda, applying his own ridiculous program everywhere he goes; and birth to a new self, who, cooperating with the presence of a God who is Love, continues the process of incarnation and resurrection, "redeeming the time" (Eph. 5:16) of his life and the culture in which he lives.

This is the astonishing - but also messy and difficult - truth.  And of all people, devout Christians should not be afraid of it.

Though, of course, when Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army does (much to her own surprise) fall in love with a streetwise secularist (i.e., a gangster), Guys and Dolls becomes just like a Flannery O'Connor story without the violence - and we see God's grace operating in our lives in spite of our best efforts to guard against it.

You Can't "Program" Salvation

In Flannery O'Connor's short stories, the grace of God is shown to operate in shocking and disturbing ways.  For Flannery, the door to salvation opens the moment our own selfish walls are cracked (usually violently), allowing God's grace to rush in - along with horror and remorse, which are aspects of Awe and of the Fear of God.  Indeed, horror and remorse can quite literally be the closet we come on this earth to experiencing God's love.

For instance, in her story "The Comforts of Home", at the climax of the action, the protagonist Thomas aims a gun at "the slut", a disturbed and enticing young woman who has invaded the carefully controlled and circumscribed arena of his home, where he lives alone with his mother.  For Thomas, "the comforts of home" are the greatest good.  He has a "program", which is to eliminate from his young life anything spontaneous, anything unpredictable, anything that his own narrow and selfish ego can not control.

Thomas fired.  The blast was like a sound meant to bring an end to evil in the world.  Thomas heard it as a sound that would shatter the laughter of sluts until all shrieks were stilled and nothing was left to disturb the peace of perfect order.

But you can't "bring an end to evil in the world", and certainly not with the barrel of a gun, and indeed not with any "program".  Thomas learns that as soon as he fires the pistol ... but I won't ruin the ending of the story for you.  Nor can you force upon your life "the peace of perfect order" - for such a peace is never a man-made thing.

The reason we can't defeat evil with a mere program or find true peace with a mere programmatic approach to salvation is that God is not the dead idol crafted by our own hands that we typically make Him out to be.

And this has a lot to do with the messed up world of Catholic Dating.  But I'll explain that in a minute.


In O'Connor's story "The Lame shall Enter First", the protagonist, Sheppard, is a social worker, and an atheist.  He believes that evil can be eliminated through reason.  His faith is in telescopes, microscopes, evolution and the program.  For him, the program is an institutionalized form of love, a kind of heartless charity that selflessly seeks to build a paradise of "perfect order" by means of caring for those who are suffering with a kind of condescending concern, the genuine but rather thin concern of a social worker.

As part of this program, Sheppard allows a troubled teenage juvenile delinquent to move in with him and his ten-year-old son (his son is someone Sheppard entirely neglects).  But this delinquent, for all his troubles, is the closest we come to a Christ figure in the story.  Ironically, Sheppard (who doesn't believe in Jesus) sees himself as a kind of Jesus, a kind of benign selfless deity, when in reality he is supremely selfish in his devotion to the program, which is meant ultimately to serve his own narrow ends, though he can't see that until the very end of the tale.

In an early confrontation between Sheppard's son, who defends his father, and the troubled teen, who's recently moved in, the reader, at least, begins to perceive this, and we see it through the perceptive eyes of Johnson, the delinquent.

"He's good," [the son] mumbled.  "He helps people."
"Good!" Johnson said savagely.  He thrust his head forward.  "Listen here," he hissed, "I don't care if he's good or not.  He ain't right!"

In many ways, that's what I've been saying about the Devout Christian community in these series of posts.   They're good but they ain't right - meaning, among other things, right in the head.

Michael Lichens comments on Facebook ...

I grew up as an Evangelical when "I Kissed Dating Good-Bye" was added to the canon. I still remember being turned down for a coffee date because, in the woman's own words, she wasn't sure if I was the one God wanted her to marry. My reaction was something like, "Dude, I just want to get coffee and maybe see a Chris Farley movie."
The result: many of the guys in my youth group days remain unmarried or got divorced and many more are quite jaded. Courtship was promised as a panacea but it ended up not correcting the problems of secular culture while adding some new and fun problems of its own. The only thing it seemed to do was placate paranoid parents for a few years. 
I also went to a small Catholic college where the vast majority of the kids were homeschooled and found that this stupid Evangelical fad had been adopted in some Catholic homes wherein girls would even tell potential men that they needed to call their dad before a drink could be consumed with the young lady. Just bloody weird.

"Just bloody weird" means (in Flannery O'Connor short story speak) "they're good but they ain't right."

Why is this?  Why is it that devout Catholics or devout Protestants, who are certainly serious about their faith, end up missing the mark so badly in their contrived efforts to be good?  Why do they end up being sort of good, but never quite right?  Why, just a few weeks ago on this very blog, did I choose the primary advice I was giving to my newly Catholic friend Dave Treadway, a devout former evangelical I was sponsoring into full communion with the Church, to be this ...

The Spirit of Unreality is the greatest threat to devout Catholics these days - the temptation to make God and His Church into a kind of idol, something that we can control and make use of for our own narrow ends. 


It's because we trust more in our program than we do in the grace of God.  The grace of God is disturbing and unpredictable.  It's alive and shocking.  It calls us out of our comfort zones and sometimes makes our precious little plans fall entirely to pieces.

This is not to say that God operates without His own program.  But his program is a living and awesome thing.  God does not challenge evil by shooting at it with a gun, in order to "shatter the laughter of sluts until all shrieks" are stilled.  When God loves, it's a love that goes far deeper than that of an atheist social worker, who believes that a disembodied charity can lead to a man-made New Jerusalem on earth.

After all, there are limits to the carefully controlled and programmed or programmatic love that the social worker shows his client / son, as we learn in a scene where the teen confronts his Sheppard, the boy (Johnson) lying in bed, his face turned against the wall in anguish ...

"You make out like you got all this confidence in me!" a sudden outraged voice cried, "and you ain't got any!  You don't trust me no more now than you did then!"  The voice, disembodied, seemed to come more surely from the depths of Johnson than when his face was visible.  It was a cry of reproach, edged slightly with contempt.
"I do have confidence in you," Sheppard said intensely.  "I have every confidence in you.  I believe in you and I trust you completely."

... but he doesn't.  And in many ways he shouldn't, at least in the context of the story's plot.  But the point here is that his love isn't really real - there's an Unreality there.  It doesn't go as deep as it should.

And, symbolically, when Johnson confronts Sheppard, it's Jesus confronting us sinners.

We protest, we devout Christians - we protest loudly - that we do indeed trust Our Lord and His disturbing presence among us.  But, when we get right down to it, do we really?

In one of her essays, Flannery hit the nail on the head, when she described us as closet Manicheans who are convinced that grace cannot penetrate fallen nature ("The old heresy of secular vs. sacred," as Reilly Washburn identifies it).  Some of my readers objected to Flannery's assessment, but if we really believed that grace could operate in nature, we would believe that even something as ordinary and simple as coffee and a Chris Farley movie did not have to be guarded against with a kind of spiritual prophylactic; we would not think that Eros was Satanic or that (as Christopher West suggests) a couple should only marry once they can "love" without feeling sexually attracted to one another.

If we trusted God and believed that His grace could operate in and redeem nature - in fact if we could open our eyes and see that it was doing so all the time all around us - then we could also trust that coffee and a movie and other ordinary things could open up to us gifts of life and God's surprises that we ourselves need not program, orchestrate or stage manage the life out of.

"Do not quench the Spirit," Paul tells us (1 Thes. 5:19).

But we do that all the time, we devout Christians.

Perhaps it's because we think that sin is the center of the story, when that's not the case at all.

But more on that later ...

"Christian Courtship" and Neurosis

My friend Sean Dailey posted a link on Facebook to the article Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed by Thomas Umstattd Jr., which is a long article on the topic of Christian dating (a topic I've been writing about recently).  Many of my readers had already called my attention to this article, which is jaw dropping in its description of a world I didn't know existed, a world of contrived pseudo-romance and brutal repression that is far worse than the dysfunctional but relatively normal problems in the dating world that I have seen and have been reflecting upon.

Apparently, there's a trend in devout Christian circles to turn any form of dating - which should be a casual and fun way of getting to learn about the opposite sex - into super-serious "courtship", which is not exactly courtship, but an obsessive-compulsive attempt to drain desire, affection and fun of anything spontaneous.  This is clearly a reaction against the sexual hook-up culture, but one wonders which is worse - the disease or the cure.

Chestertonian Reilly Washburn has some very perceptive and funny things to say ...

Frankly, it wouldn't frustrate so much, but for the fact that it's just so unbearably silly. And not Silly, like Monty Python, or wearing a lampshade on your head with a bottle of champagne, silly. It's knee-jerk reactionism. Theologically reductionist, historically revisionist, linguistically post-modernist, packaged and sold with a Cross and an Ichthys. Christianity's latest version of double-think and newspeak, like "Facetious" instead of "Sarcastic", or "Bless your heart" instead of "Screw Off", or "Covenant" instead of "contract". Compartmentalized, dichotomized, un-analyzed, nonsense. Intolerable bollucks. The old heresy of Secular vs. Sacred, and it didn't even have the decency to put on a new dress. Just borrowed something from her great-great-grandmother's closet, dusted it off, cut it shorter, and voila! "Courting" 
On the plus side, however, this is always something that gives me a great zest for the drink! Because, you can't argue with these people. They are like cultists. Courting cultists, cultivating delusional courtly gestures. I sincerely wouldn't have a problem with earnest people desiring to bring back an agrarian lifestyle and traditional courting. I may not agree with it, but I could respect it. But, don't half-ass it! Don't get your oxfords all polished up, your dress slacks in order and lint-free, and then throw on a tuxedo t-shirt. Don't tell me you're "Courting" when in reality, you're just dating with an unhealthy obsession and fear of loneliness and failure. Call it "dating with an unhealthy obsession and fear of failure", or what the rest of us call, "Dating". 

Meanwhile, these posts on dating have touched on something that goes far beyond the frustrations of single young Catholics.  They've touched on a problem central to the Catholic Church and to Christian life itself.

But more on that later ...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Muzak for the Spirit

I have been on the road with my actress Maria and her husband for a while now.  We are ending up a tour of nine shows in ten days in four states.

Today we find ourselves in a small town in Minnesota off the interstate.  We made the mistake of going to Sunday Mass, as we are obliged to.

This is always a crap shoot.  Why, in the universal Catholic Church that Christ founded, is it such a risk to go to Mass at an unfamiliar parish?  But it always is.  Today we rolled the dice and got a pair of snake eyes.

The church was new and the artwork in the narthex ugly, except for the old historical stuff from the old beautiful church that has since been torn down.

But the atmosphere!  Atmosphere is a difficult thing to describe.  The atmosphere from beginning to end in the Mass and everything associated with it was suburban, insipid, bland, uninspiring, contrived, and gay (in the worst sense of that word).  The homily was not really heterodox, not really orthodox - just kind of fuzzy and flaccid.

But there was one real moment.  When the congregation prayed the Our Father, I closed my eyes, and you could hear the genuineness of that prayer.  These people were praying that prayer, with a unity and an earnestness.  This was the one moment when heaven and earth were palpably together at that Mass.

Of course there's always that other moment when heaven and earth come together at Mass - the consecration and the communion that follows: and that transcends any inept nonsense on our part.  But right there in this shopping mall parish as communion began, the intense and creepy piano player (who's apparently the "music minister") began ad libbing pop fills on the keyboard.  Loudly.  So that you could neither pray nor focus on anything else.  And the message of the music was: this is not threatening, everything is comfortable, everything is indistinguishable, this life devoid of passion is the omega point of creation - this lame and soggy existence is the nirvana that all "persons" have sought.  Resistance is futile.  It was muzak for the spirit.  And it came at the most intimate part of the Mass.

I left the building, skipped communion (I was in no shape to receive it at that point), but returned when the music had stopped and stayed in the narthex for the blessing and dismissal.

And as we left I thought, is it any wonder that the Church these days seems powerless in the face of evil - small evil or great evil?  Is it any wonder that something like what I just experienced has no hold on the hearts or minds of anyone, or any normal person?  Is it any wonder that bishops enable pedophiles when the greatest single moment in the lives of any of us - communion with God - can be trivialized and emasculated in this way?

I would rant more, but it's time to head to Iowa for tonight's show.  Pray for us and pray for our Church.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Sign of Humility

The Hidden Life of Jesus

Today begins the Novena to St. Genesius, patron of actors.

On this First Day, I am focusing on the Virtue of Humility - the last virtue actors typically think of.

As I wrote to a friend ...

Of all the paradoxes of the Faith, humility might be the most startling - and paradoxically, the least startling, as the brilliance of this virtue consists in being unnoticeable.  Those of us who are members of the Fraternity of St. Genesius (the patron saint of actors) pray every day a decade of the Rosary while meditating upon the Hidden Life of Jesus.  I think there's great wisdom there, for actors are tempted to be noticed at all times - but the vast majority of the life of Christ was lived in the midst of the ordinary, in a humble household, utterly unnoticed by the world.  In that sense, His first Sign came before Cana.  His first Sign was hiding Himself in the joy of humility.

What I mean in that last part is that St. John, in his gospel, uses various Signs that Jesus performs as milestones in the story.  These Signs are all miraculous works that convey deep truths about Our Lord and His mission - the first Sign being the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana, and the last Sign being the Raising of Lazarus from the Dead.

But, of course, everything Jesus did was a sign.  In fact, everything in the Bible operates both on a literal level and on a symbolic level - where symbolically the meaning of any event ripples out, backwards and forwards in time, informing and unfolding all of salvation history.  Indeed, even in our daily lives everything we see, everything we do, everything that happens to us are things that are both meaningful in and of themselves, and are at the same time "signs", or vehicles of deeper meaning.  And God never violates the inherent dignity of any one thing by making it point to something else: the Raising of Lazarus was both a sign of the mystery of the Resurrection offered to us all, and also a great gift to Lazarus and his family and friends.  The signs of God operate through the validity of the things themselves and the things they signify.

And Jesus, the Word Incarnate, when giving Signs, both tells us words that signify things and also shows us actions that signify things.  With that in mind, consider for a moment the mystery of the Sign of the Hidden Life.  By living most of His existence on earth in utter and total obscurity, He is both doing wonderful and simple things, and giving us a profound and powerful Sign.


If you'd like, join us in the Novena, which begins today (the day following the Assumption) and ends on the vigil of the Feast of St. Genesius - which is also the vigil of the Feast of St. Louis, the patron of my home town, a place that can also use your prayers.  Let us unite the intentions of all readers of this blog who are joining us in this Novena.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stirring the Waters

From an email to a friend ...

I'm beginning to think that Vatican II and all the confusion that followed it, and even the secularization and default atheism of our culture, is being used by the Holy Spirit to cleanse the Church.  The waters have been stirred, and we are being asked to step in them to be healed (see John 5:1-9).
But, contrary to that, most devout Catholics seem to be using their faith to prevent God from operating in their lives, using it to keep the real world at bay. 

Of course, that last part is a huge oversimplification - but there's a lot of truth to it.

A Soul Mate from Your Zip Code

Re. the Catholic Dating thing.  A reader wrote to suggest that by using the term "non-sexual hook-up", I could be inadvertently doing some damage, as many guys and gals who at least have friendships with one another will now begin to second-guess themselves.  "Oh no!  This could be a non-sexual hook-up!  Maybe it's not a simple friendship!  Maybe I shouldn't be enjoying myself having coffee with Mindy!"  But, then again, that's part of the problem - this eternal second-guessing.

Another reader sent me a link to a commentary by TV personality Mike Rowe, which has been making the rounds, but which is worth quoting ...

I had drinks last night with a woman I know. Let’s call her Claire. Claire just turned 42. She’s cute, smart, and successful. She’s frustrated though, because she can’t find a man. I listened all evening about how difficult her search has been. About how all the “good ones” were taken. About how her other friends had found their soul-mates, and how it wasn’t fair that she had not.

“Look at me,” she said. “I take care of myself. I’ve put myself out there. Why is this so hard?”

“How about that guy at the end of the bar,” I said. “He keeps looking at you.”

“Not my type.”

“Really? How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“Have you tried a dating site?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? I would never date someone I met online!”

“Alright. How about a change of scene? Your company has offices all over – maybe try living in another city?”

“What? Leave San Francisco? Never!”

“How about the other side of town? You know, mix it up a little. Visit different places. New museums, new bars, new theaters…?”

She looked at me like I had two heads. “Why the hell would I do that?”

Here’s the thing ... Claire doesn’t really want a man. She wants the “right” man. She wants a soul-mate. Specifically, a soul-mate from her zip code.  She assembled this guy in her mind years ago, and now, dammit, she’s tired of waiting!!

I didn’t tell her this, because Claire has the capacity for sudden violence. But it’s true. She complains about being alone, even though her rules have more or less guaranteed she’ll stay that way. She has built a wall between herself and her goal. A wall made of conditions and expectations.

Many of my devout Catholic friends have done exactly the same thing.  They're looking for a soul mate within their own zip code (so to speak) - and worse than that, within their own extended, highly specified nine-digit zip code.  They think that they must marry a devout Catholic mate.  Now, granted, religion is a crucial part of a family, and disagreements on matters of faith can be fatal, but having said that, if you're only going wading in the devout Catholic pool, you'll find there's hardly enough water to swim in.

After all, guys, if you meet a woman who loves you and she's not a devout Catholic to begin with, she'll be drawn to your faith, as it's the center of who you are as a devout Catholic man.

But more importantly, marriage is about character.  Find a mate with a good character.  Because (duh!) religion is also primarily about character - or at least it's supposed to be.  Rebirth in Christ is meant to reform our characters - eternally.

What this means is that people who are Good without being self-consciously Christian get their Goodness from Christ without knowing it.  Christ is the source of all Goodness, and all Goodness comes from Christ.  Period.  Don't fret about that.  To do so speaks of your insecurity, not God's.

And then there's the odd corollary - that most religious people are far from Good.  And sometimes a serious "devout" streak is the sign of some serious psychological issues, or at least some very bizarre character flaws.

My friend Sean Dailey observes ...

All the reeeeally devout Catholic women here, married or single, peddle Juice Plus and think that gluten is the spawn of Satan.

This gets to the fact that God's story is always bigger than our story.  There are a lot of "anonymous Christians" our there, whether that fact suits our expectations or not.

Let me illustrate this with a true story.


One of my actresses is an agnostic.  She's also very politically liberal and an out-of-the-closet Lesbian.  She would, therefore, be a kind of horror to many of my Devout Catholic friends.

When she was a teen (and before she started dating only women), she got pregnant - and this was back in the day when this was a rare thing.  The baby's father never publicly acknowledged his son, and never provided financial assistance to his upbringing, and my actress never pressed him for it.  For years, this man lived in the same town as my actress and their boy, and even became a pillar of his Protestant church a few blocks down the road - all the while, remaining entirely out of his son's life.

When the boy was 18 or so, his unknown father's mother was dying.  Her death bed request was that this man acknowledge his son.  So he did, and suddenly re-appeared in the life of my actress.

Now, in all this time, what had my actress been doing?  Had she spent her days bad mouthing this absentee sperm donor, as she certainly must have been tempted to do?  Had she expressed her anger and loneliness by poisoning the well, and ruining this boy's image of his missing father?  And then, when the man showed up, a kind of Christian hypocrite on her doorstep, 18 years late and thousands of dollars short, did she throw something at him and show him the door?

No, she did none of these things.  She told her son that this was his biological father, and that if he wanted to try to build a relationship with him, that was his prerogative, and she would not get in the way.

Now, dear readers, what is this an example of if not of holiness?  This agnostic Lesbian made an 18 year sacrifice out of love, and I know of very very few self-styled Christians who would even have attempted to do the same.

I've been a Catholic for 14 years, and I've never done anything that good.


The grace of God is active in this world in ways that we keep denying, in ways that we can't comprehend, in ways that we deliberately narrow down and truncate.

Yes, as Catholics, we have the sacraments, we have the fullness of Truth, we have the Church - but we are still sinners, still isolated individuals, still hungry for giving love and receiving love: and that's the human condition.

Don't limit God's grace.  Find Goodness where you can - and it's all over the place.  Find Truth and Beauty while you're at it, even in the places where you'd least expect it.

Throw away the Juice Plus and the gluten free pasta and venture out of your own zip code.

When Mother Teresa and her nuns would help a dying person on the streets of Calcutta, they would not stop to ask his or her religion.  They would simply love that person.

Start doing the same, and this dreadful ice will begin to thaw.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

More on Emotional Porn

A reader (and fellow writer) at the Ink Desk has asked me to elaborate on what Flannery O'Connor means when she talks about sentimentality as a kind of emotional porn.

Dena Hunt writes ...

Kevin, I can usually follow you, but I've been having some trouble here. I've never had trouble following Flannery, but her remarks in this context mystify me. I cannot see that "pornography is essentially sentimental." I can only believe that we regard "sentiment" differently.
I DO understand how and why prudery is forbidden by the Church. I DO see that people--of both genders and in all sorts of relationships--behave with emotional irresponsibility and/or predation, while excusing their behavior because it's "non-sexual" (It's certainly not a-sexual, however--though they don't really get that part of it. Witness the intimate "friendships" between certain women and practicing homosexual males.)
But how this involves grace-into-nature is not clear to me.
Fighting for what/whom one loves. I do get that. It's depicted graphically in my first short story, "Pear Trees," (Dappled Things, c. 2007)

I reply

Here's what I think Flannery means.
We certainly see the rejection of God's presence in nature in the modern secular world.  Scientists sometimes graft a materialist atheist theology onto their work and claim that all arose from nothing [no cause] and that only chance governs existence.  And non-scientists really do believe that our "natures" can be overcome by a mere act of will.
In the Catholic world, I notice the same sort of thing, especially in devout young Catholics.  While they believe in God and while they admit that God's presence and his grace can penetrate nature, they come at the problem from a modern secular perspective, and they assume (as everyone around them does) that nothing in nature innately bears the mark of the logos - which is to say that they believe that God is not intelligible in nature.  In this they are as handicapped as the non-believers Paul referred to in Rom. 1:20 - "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people [who don't believe] are without excuse."
Thus there appears, even in the Church, a "Manichean" strain, a separation of nature and grace.  Much of Flannery's program as a writer was to shock the reader into seeing the operations of grace in nature - and she could only do this through tactics such as violence because we had grown inured to this mystery.
And if you separate nature from grace [or deny that nature has any intrinsic function designed by God] then you forget two big things.  1. You forget that sex has a built-in purpose (secularists are better at forgetting this than Catholics), and 2. You forget that sentiment - feelings and emotions - have a built in purpose.
This second one is harder to see.  But you and I have written about betrayal before.  There seems to be a lot of betrayal going on among dating devout Catholics these days.  They don't become physically intimate, but they become emotionally and spiritually intimate.  Not realizing that such intimacy implies at least "friendship" and "loyalty" and all the other obligations that go with such sentimental bonds, one party simply dumps the other and moves on (even after months or years of intense closeness), in what I've been calling examples of a "non-sexual hook-up".
And so what pornography and sentimentality have in common is the deliberate cutting off of each from what they imply, removing each from the context in which they are placed by nature, and severing them from the demands they make and the crosses they force us to bear.

Depression and the Great Lie

The liar spinning his lies.

The suicide of Robin Williams has led to a number of posts on the internet about depression.  Both this one and this one are well worth the read.

It may be presumptuous of me to add anything, as my own personal pain has been quite mild by comparison.  Not that I don't have "mental issues", as my friends and regular readers will no doubt be happy to tell you!  But my own struggles have mostly been with anxiety and with demons of a different stripe.

However, I did experience one long dark night, a period of what could be called depression or despair or murkiness, a mixture of anger, hopelessness and listlessness that lasted for about two full years and that only recently ended.  Many of the posts on this blog were written in the midst of it.

It was "situational" for me - dealing with some very dark truths of human nature brought about by two situations that somehow managed to plumb the depths of who I was as a person.

And by far the worst thing about it - and perhaps this is true of all who suffer from chronic depression - was the lie.  The great lie.


We can all endure a certain amount of suffering and disappointments, even great pain and anguish in our lives if we can perceive the purpose of the pain.  If we're fighting to defend our nation in a just war and we get taken prisoner, the torture and deprivation we endure is out of love for something greater - and that makes all the difference.  But if the war is meaningless, if we were drafted in a conflict that was designed to fill the pockets of the corporate oligarchs who are trying to enslave us, then the suffering has no context - no meaningful context, and in that case seems unendurable.  Pointless.

Losing sleep because you're nursing your newborn is difficult, but a blessing.  Losing sleep because life seems meaningless and you can't function is a curse.

So love makes any sacrifice a glory, and even if our own sins bring about a darkness - that at least is part of God's plan and is an aspect of his Severe Mercy.  Being crucified for a sin you're guilty of is awful, but it's not so bad as what an innocent man suffers, as the Good Thief pointed out to the Bad Thief on Calvary ("And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." - Luke 23:41)

All of these ways of suffering are difficult.  But it's at that moment when even God seems to drop out of the equation that things are really bleak.

And in that moment the lie, the great lie, comes directly from the mouth of the father of lies.  And his favorite tool is the very meaninglessness and injustice that fuels our pain and that makes us long for a suffering that is justified, when he convinces us that ours is not.

Perhaps the most terrible of the Temptations of Jesus was one that was not spelled out, one that we can only infer.  When the devil tempted Our Lord in the wilderness, the theme behind his hideous whispers was power, power to compensate for doubt.  "If you are the Son of God ... prove it and Lord it over nature!  Lord it over others!  Lord it over death itself!"

But in that darkest of all dark moments, that terrible time on the cross when the sun itself went black, what was whispered in His ear must have been something like this ...

It's worthless.  You're worthless.  You thought you were the Son of God.  You thought you were doing good, helping them.  But they don't want your help.  And this is the hour for which you were made?  Ha!  It's an hour of emptiness.  This is an hour of absurdity.  Nothing matters.  You call this a sacrifice?  It's an empty gesture in a universe of empty gestures.  Your precious Father has abandoned you utterly - and you deserve it.  Because you're worthless.  "Are you still maintaining your integrity?  Curse God and die!"

That last line is from the Book of Job (Job 2:9), and I'm sure Satan used it, for the devil knows his Scripture well, and can quote it to his own advantage (see Luke 4:10).

But so does Our Lord.  When the dying Messiah cries out, "My God!  My God!  Why have you abandoned me?" - He and his listeners knew the rest of the Psalm, which ends with triumph and glory.

But my point here is that the great lie, the trump card played by the Prince of Lies, is the horrible untruth that everything is meaningless and that we do not matter.  No one can come to suicide without passing through that terrible curtain.

The antidote to this?  By the grace of God, Pope Benedict XVI explains the incredible ...

Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary.

That may be very hard to envision when you're in the throes of depression (it's hard to envision even on a normal day!) and that truth can only be conveyed if we offer more than mere words to one who is suffering.

But when I was depressed, that's what got me down the most - the conviction that my efforts were all for naught, that everything I did was simply selfish, that even my most ardent attempts at being loving and self-giving were sins in disguise, and that no matter what I did, it was never enough, that there was no way to escape from the utter indifference of the universe, that even the human heart was empty and all its passions contrived, that, as Lucy once told Charlie Brown when talking about his beloved dog, "Snoopy only loves you because you feed him."

In other words: "Are you still maintaining your integrity?  Curse God and die!"  Don't forget it was Job's wife who told him that, the woman he loved most in all the world.

So, my friends, life can be far more difficult than we often pretend it is.  And the inner struggles of those around you can be far greater than you could ever imagine.  So love them.  And remember, as Chesterton said (my emphasis) ...

Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point -- and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”