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The Day Before Joy

Sometimes I ask myself, “”what if tomorrow everything changed? What if everything I have hoped for comes true? What if my self-pity become painfully stupid as it is made clear that darkness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning?

And then I think that if there is a reason for hope, then despair is pathetic. After all, how silly will it be if I spent my last days prior to a blessing in self-indulgent mourning? And what if I make myself so accustomed to my mourning that I re-shape myself into a monster who is not even able to partake in joy when it comes?

I imagine God looking at some of us and saying “what the hell?! I gave you all of these things and you ignored every good and perfect gift because you were preoccupied with staring at the list of desires you were determined to check off your life list?!” And then I stand right beside God and condemn us with an agreeing declaration of “what losers!”

I know that the fulfillment of my human desires may not come in this life. But my religion is meaningless if I do not believe that a new day will come eventually. And so I do my best to act with that knowledge in mind. After all, I hate looking stupid, even if God and I are the only ones watching.

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Abortion, Prayer, and Despair

My heart broke tonight. And it is much easier to sound snappy than weepy. So here goes.

I was at the Opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life. I had just met Fr. Frank Pavone a few hours before and had spent an hour reading his book (I had only previously skimmed a few parts of it). I was re-energized on the topic of abortion as I haven’t been since 2003. As we stood waiting for Mass to begin we chatted with some seminarians from Boston. They confirmed that Cardinal O’Malley would be there, which only added to my excitement.

The mass began and it was beautiful and wonderful. I laughed at myself for not being able to distinguish Wuerl’s voice from DiNardo’s. So much for being a sheep who hears a voice and knows it (maybe I should have stayed in Boston)!

Cardinal Wuerl’s opening remarks were good and I appreciated his emphasis of the young people present. Yay. I noticed that he didn’t say anything about pregnant women, but it wasn’t likely that there were many there.

Eventually there was the homily.

Vigil Mass for Life: Homily

It must have been truly excellent, because I heard the whole thing. And that is not exactly normal for me with a 5 minute daily mass homily, let alone a 25 minute exposition on unity. I kept expecting examples in the homily to tie into abortion and so was kept on my toes as they did not.

Then came the prayers of the faithful, and it finally clicked with me: something was wrong. We prayed for the pope and bishops, that “through their leadership they may re-awaken in us a respect for all nascent human life.” We prayed for elected officials. We prayed for families, including those couples suffering from infertility. We prayed for those who “promote a culture of death.” We prayed for those who are haunted by the memory of abortion. We prayed for those discerning a call to consecrate life. We prayed for the poor, sick, lonely, disabled and dying. We prayed for the deceased. And then we were done praying.

DiNardo gave some concluding remarks, and I was crushed. I had somehow thought that the bishops really cared about ending abortion, and here was the chairman of the committee on Pro-Life Activities and so many of his brother bishops who were not even engaged enough to pray for those women who might choose abortion. Suddenly the full weight of the excellent homily fell upon me. Our bishops are so immersed in their world that they simply do not have stories of real women who face issues like abortion. No one planning the liturgy was connected enough to women at risk for abortions to bother inserting one little prayer for them into the mass. I know that many women are forced into abortion, but I suspect that at least 98% of abortions in the United States are ultimately determined by pregnant women. But we somehow think that we will stop abortion by marching around DC and not recognizing pregnant women in any way in our most central prayers for life?

God obviously knew all of this and was not surprised at my pitiful complaint. “So,” came the clear response, “since the bishops are obviously not up for stopping abortion, what will you do?”

“Nothing” was my immediate response.

God simply looked at me. Apparently my answer wasn’t good enough.

But really, why should I have had a better answer planned? I am not one of the women who sits around thinking about how bishops are so clueless in their male-centric elitist world. Sure, I know that they are clueless about some things, and that Cardinal Law was not the last of his kind, but really. Bishops are pastors. They take care of people. And even if they are dreadfully condescending toward women, they still care enough about them to have a clue about their reality, right?

So why would it be anything other than utterly reasonable for me to expect bishops to lead their local churches in the fight against abortion? Why would I even consider that they might be incapable of praying for women?

I avoided answering God and instead thought about how I must be wrong. Clearly there was some intelligent pro-life strategy going on here. John Paul II talked too much about a woman’s place, and women freaked out, and so Benedict XVI took a step back to allow women to say things for themselves (albeit in a limited role with no consideration for authority in the Church). So maybe something similar had happened in the US Church. Former bishops must have said stupid things about women and abortion, so current bishops are keeping their mouths shut and focusing on general issues, the way that we are all involved. It isn’t personal, it is political. Or maybe they were afraid of touching the extremely difficult issues that come with recognizing exactly what one is saying to a pregnant woman when one declares that abortion is not, indeed, her choice. So maybe it was an intelligent tactic that I was missing because I am not trained in these things.

But how on earth could there be an appropriate pro-life strategy that requires bishops to not even include one prayer for women who will struggle with pregnancy and consider abortion?

I can accept that it is up to young women to end abortion, and that we can’t rely on old men, regardless of their religious roles. But I can’t accept that we are somehow supposed to end the evil of abortion without so much as the prayers of the bishops. For the first time I feel real despair. And beyond that, there is fear. Are we to be responsible alone, without even the support of appropriate prayer?

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What religion is this?

At Christmas two of my sisters spent a fair bit of time discussing the crucifixion. One questioned why Jesus would have to die. So that we could be saved, of course.

But why? Why on earth should blood somehow justify? Because God says so… No, because perfection must offer restitution, because symmetry demands because…

I said little and only offered slight translations and clarifications as I tried to wrap my head around the issue. Of course it should have been funny. Here we were, three young women in our 20s who had as Christian an upbringing as anyone I know. And yet we lacked the easy answers.

I was glad that I was not the sister playing Christian defense as it gave me time to reflect. The only thing that I could come up with was that physical death is necessary to give us an idea of how very serious sin is. This is a disturbing thought because it calls into question all of our casual happy Christianity, but what of it?

And then there is something else: reality. It does not make sense to me to dislike the idea of a God who allows/requires/demands death and so reject that God. Because even if one does so, one is still left with the reality of death in this world. A happy God who is all bubbly life is of little use to me if there is not a happy bubbly world to go along with that God. And there is not. So no matter how much I struggle with an insane God who sacrifices the lives of real children in order to make some point about ritual purity, I cannot reject the God out of hand. Instead I hold concepts of God loosely as I await further truth and clarity.

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Me on Memory, John Paul II on Hope

I am quite convinced that holiness has little to do with happiness. I know that misery is often wonderful for drawing people to God while happiness causes us to focus on our own enjoyment rather than God. But we cannot merely ignore happiness in an attempt at an oh-so-holy misery.

I know, I know, I know. Sort of.

But then something happens and it makes me wonder whether there isn’t also something to the idea of formation and cultivating a certain disposition which may bear fruit at the most unexpected time. Who is to say what the appropriate gestation is for hope?

Despair is my disposition. It isn’t a deliciously tempting sin, it simply is a part of me. And my flesh and my heart fail continually and I wonder if perhaps my hidden heel somehow missed being covered by the baptismal waters. I swim in sin and breathe grace.

Somehow hope has take hold of me and I have understood it to be perfectly mysterious and random.

But then I was looking through old papers over Christmas, and I wonder whether I am not being a bit silly and even perhaps dishonest with myself. I used to cultivate hope. I thought that I had failed, but perhaps, perhaps not? I do not presume that my peaceful optimism will last–and it feels so much less presumptuous to think of hope as optimism–but it is another sort of sin to fail to appreciate what is both real and Good.

And so I must give at least a slight nodd to the person I once was: a young woman who dared to cultivate hope.

I have no idea where I found these quotes, they were printed without citation and only labeled “John Paul II for those who find it hard to hope.”

Being holy means living in deep communion with the God of joy, having a heart free from sin and the sadness of the world, and a mind that is humble before him.

What could seem to human eyes a slow and uneven path, is actually God’s method.

Do not be afraid; Christ has overcome the world. He is with all of you. May his peace always brighten the horizons of your life.

Where are you, you ask the Lord. “I am here. Wherever you are, I am also there. I am the Eucharist. I am in your midst.”

This is the condition of the true Christian. He can nurture a trustful optimism, because he is certain of not walking alone. In sending us Jesus, the eternal Son made man, God has drawn near to each of us. In Christ, he has become our traveling companion. If time marches on inexorably, often shattering even our dreams, Christ, the Lord of time, gives us the possibility of an ever new life.

I hadn’t read those in years, but I was silenced by the last lines: “If time marches on inexorably, often shattering even our dreams, Christ, the Lord of time, gives us the possibility of an ever new life.” Oh, how could I have forgotten that I ever knew them and then have them show up as a deep internal truth later? Of course this is my whole life, but I am somehow still surprised.

I imagine myself to be somehow passively, randomly hopeful now. I have forgotten the many, many times I played this song incessantly. I have forgotten how desperately I tried to live Hope.

I remember so little of my life. Perhaps it is a protective blessing. But I do not want to forget to be thankful for the ways that I benefit from faithfulness during bitter times.

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Laodicea and John Mayer

You know that you are a pathetic Christian when you feel like you could sing a John Mayer song to God. But sometimes inspiring pathos is what Raes do best.

Oh half of my heart’s got a grip on the situation
Half of my heart takes time
Half of my heart’s got a right mind to tell you
That I can’t keep loving you
Oh, with half of my heart
With half of my heart

I know your works;
I know that you are neither cold nor hot.
I wish you were either cold or hot.
So, because you are lukewarm,
neither hot nor cold,
I will spit you out of my mouth.

For you say, ‘I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,’
and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

So I will allure you; I will lead you into the desert and speak to your heart.

God will revive me after two days; on the third day God will raise me up, to live in God’s presence.

I sought him but I did not find him.

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Felix Culpa Babies

I live in a world that devalues children. One of the many sad results of this is that followers of Christ devote their energy to emphasizing the great value of children to the point where other truths are obscured.

This is particularly true among “faithful Catholics” who greatly desire to answer John Paul II’s call to promote a culture of life. Often, instead of promoting life with all of the careful nuances of Church teaching, we simply assert that everyone should always “welcome children” and suggest that the bigger the family, the better.

I have seen oh-so-many articles and blog posts in which a parent of a “large” family will write about the rude comments that people make. Invariably someone will reply to the post with the suggestion that the person say “and which one of my children do you think should not be here?!” and the large family mutual admiration society all delights in their superiority.

The thing is, this is a dreadful approach for Catholics. And we suffer from our own medicine.

We say “IVF is wrong” and suddenly someone holds up her baby and says “you think my child should not be here?!”

Children are good. Children are always good. Even if a child is born as the result of rape, that child is good, and it is wonderful that that child is alive.

But the choices of adults which result in the birth of a child are not always good. Sometimes parents are evil, sometimes they are blinded by their desire for children, and sometimes they are simply selfish or lazy.

When a parent selfishly gives in to the desire for sex, despite knowing that it is likely to result in the conception of a child who will take emotional resources away from the older children who are already under-parented, it is a mistake. It is a mistake which may be smaller than IVF, and utterly incomparable to rape, but it is still wrong.

Married couples are called to procreation in the fullest sense. This requires the greatest of self-denial in sacrificing oneself for one’s children. And sometimes justice demands that parents deny themselves the pleasure of sexual intercourse in order to insure that their procreation is not mere reproduction.

And it is wrong for us to perpetuate the idea that selfishness is to be commended when it results in the great good of a child. This is why I will always think “how wonderful!” when I hear about a pregnancy, but I will not join in with those who call self-indulgence “heroic.” Perseverance while suffering the consequences of sin may be heroic. But sin is never heroic, no matter how small the sin, and how great the joy of the felix culpa.

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Saintly Marriage: Why it Matters

The ideal of celibate marriage is not one that should be accepted by most couples in the form of renunciation of conjugal intercourse. Instead it should properly be understood as a challenge to examine one’s love for one’s spouse in comparison to one’s love for God.

Sexual activity isn’t what really matters. Love is. What is the honest answer to the question of whom one loves? It should be God. And then when someone asks about one’s love for one’s spouse or children, the answer should be a declaration that obviously one loves them appropriately since one loves God. Yet in comparison to one’s love for God, one’s love for one’s spouse must look like hatred.

The greatest challenge of marriage for me so far has been to learn to love my husband more than myself, and yet still less than I love God.

This week has been a great reminder of how very far I am from that. On Monday night I set the alarm so that I could get up in time to go to Mass before work. On Tuesday morning I turned the alarm off and stayed in bed for another half hour. It was lovely to be there listening to my husband’s breathing. Prior to getting married I could make myself get out of a cozy bed while it was still dark in order to go to Mass. But now the hard floor is too wonderful to leave when my husband is there beside me.

Thankfully God loves me more than I love God and I got the unexpected opportunity to go to Mass later in the day. But there could not have been a clearer indication that my love for Josh won out over my love for God. Yes, there are times in marriage when one needs to put service of spouse above spiritual practice, but it was not as if my sleeping husband cared whether I was there beside him. It was all about me.

Today I walked into a Mass that had started two minutes early. As I checked to insure that my cell phone was silenced I noticed that I had new voicemail from three missed calls. I did not check to see whose calls I had missed even though it was unusual to have new voicemail from the morning.

Then suddenly during consecration I realized that it could have been that something was wrong with Josh. I hadn’t seen him online in the morning. I had assumed that meant that he had closed Gmail in order to work without interruption, but it also could have been a sign of something wrong. Perhaps he was locked out of the apartment and his only way of contacting me was the cell phone which I ignore while at work.

I realized that I was being silly. I also realized that the priest had finished the prayer while I had been thinking about Josh rather than God. Unlike earlier in the week, I had not consciously chosen Josh over God, but Saint Paul might as well have been standing beside me with an “I told you so” look.

Marriage is a great gift and beautiful path of salvation. But it is also one of the most alluring temptations of damnation. Women in particular are especially vulnerable to spiritual damage in marriage because many of us are naturally inclined–and all of us our taught–to pour ourselves entirely into marriage. And the harder we work on our relationships, the more we give ourselves to our spouses, and the better our marriages are, the less we are drawn to the Triune God. For our energy is directed to our spouses and we are satisfied with something wonderful; something dreadfully less than God alone.

One obvious help for many married women Saints was wretched husbands who drove their wives constantly back to the arms of God for solace. That is not exactly the sort of aid to salvation that I desire!

And yet as I look at my life it is clear that I am constantly in danger of damning myself through “love” of my spouse! I am not worthy to be the disciple of Jesus Christ. Yes, I continually pray “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word…” but so often I am not really aware of how unworthy I am. For I am too busy loving my husband to notice that I hate my God.

This is why I must look to the ideal example of Our Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph and all the Saints who followed after them in the most perfect of marriages. It is not that sexual intercourse is bad, but rather that forgoing it for the glory of God is emblematic of the pure devotion to God which characterizes all the Saints. And the great love for God which makes spousal love seem like hatred by comparison is precisely what I lack.

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Anti-Contraception as a Path to Catholicism

I always find these sorts of stories so fascinating. In a world where many (most?) people find the Church’s teachings on sex somewhere between oppressive and silly, some couples find it so attractive that they become Catholic.

I found the idea almost laughable the first time I heard it. I was sitting in the back of a car with another college student, being driven to the state capital for a pro-life press conference. The people at Mass Citizens for Life were a good deal smarter than the Bush administration when it came to appearances, and so they provided us with a ride in order to fill the pictures with young women rather than middle-aged men.

I chatted with our driver, himself a middle-aged man who would not be in any pictures. We talked about the religous makeup of MCFL (roughly half Catholic and half Protestant at the time) and the pro-life group on campus (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish). He was a Catholic who had been raised as a Protestant, and told me that he knew several people who had become Catholics after the wives had started researching family planning methods.

Weird, weird, weird, I thought. Who would find anti-contraception ideology attractive enough to make them want to change churches?

I am obviously quite a bit more sympathetic now, but I still find these sorts of people fascinating because their approach to life is so different from my own. I do believe that the essence of the Church’s teaching on birth regulation is the best for women and thus for everyone. But, taken at the surface level, I do not see how it can ever be initially attractive to more than a very small group of people.

What am I missing?

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