Post 295

Oh Pinocchio! Reflections on Lying

I once looked into the story of Pinocchio. I was familiar with it only through the Disney movie version, so I was interested in the book when it crossed my path. I didn’t get very far, because it struck me as a dreary and pointless collection of adventures. Interminable would be the right word. But I bring it up because of the nose. The key thing to know about Pinocchio is the thing about the nose. It grows. The nose grows whenever Pinocchio lies. I’ll return to this.

Do you stay awake at night remembering the embarrassing things you have said and done? I have finally stopped wincing at the recollection of a lie I told. I once planned to make a cherry cheesecake for a dinner party, but I found that shopping for the ingredients was expensive. The recipe called for a lot of Philadelphia cream cheese, for instance. I stood there looking at the brands and the prices, and after a long pause, I went for the cheaper brand. I made the cake and the people at the dinner party really liked it. Another guest, Ruth, turned to me asked me, point blank, whether I had used Philadelphia cream cheese. I was kind of stunned. I was quite new at cooking and baking, and I didn’t know whether it was very bad for me to not have used Philadelphia cream cheese. I said yes.

Some would say that it was a ‘little white lie,’ but I don’t want such a defence. The best defence I could give myself would have to do with the element of being surprised by the question, and being put on the spot in front of others. But even that is not a full excuse. The truth is that there isn’t a full excuse, by which I mean that there isn’t an excuse that absolves me completely of my responsibility. My failing reveals that, in the moment, I was more concerned about my reputation than the truth. I was worried that people would think that I was a stupid cook, or a cheap cook, or both.

Nowadays, I don’t think I’d bring a homemade cheesecake to a dinner party. What if the host has prepared a chocolate cake? You don’t want the desserts to compete. Mind you, I suppose it’s possible that I had volunteered to supply the dessert. I can’t remember much about the event, other than this conversation that everyone else has forgotten. Everyone is so busy remembering other conversations that they’ve had.

As for Ruth herself, she may think, to this day, that I used Philadelphia cream cheese. Or maybe she knew I was lying. So maybe I’ll just come out and say: Ruth, I’m sorry I lied to you about the brand of cream cheese.

Ruth?

Are you there?

(Bloggers must always assume, almost simultaneously, that nobody is reading, and that everyone is.)

Oddly, I tell this story before telling you that I have strict standards when it comes to telling the truth. And, until quite recently, I felt that I was in very good company in this regard. Isn’t everyone else doing their best to always be honest? Isn’t honesty the norm?

Our society does still have a Judeo-Christian outlook about the essential things. Dishonesty is still considered bad. When people observe that President Trump is a liar, they mean it as a criticism, not just as a neutral statement of fact.

So people don’t want to admit that they have lied. The exception to this is that they will admit it when they expect that their listener will applaud their deceit. “I told the officer blah blah blah, and he totally believed me!” Cue chuckling.

And thus you wouldn’t know, from looking around, or from talking to people, that they lie, frequently, repeatedly, almost habitually. They use it as a means of getting through life in the smoothest way possible.

But I am so tired of it! I am tired of all of the versions of this. I’m tired of the big-boastful-in-your-face lies, and I’m tired of the smiley, fake-ity, I’m-so-nice lying! I am exasperated by the people who pretend that they are entirely on your side, but unable to lift a finger to assist you when you need it. Their hands are just, well, tied. They just, well, can’t. “Sorry! I’m so sorry! I wish you the best! I can’t help you this time or the next, but I’m really so nice, and I’m really so caring!”

The truth is that when you care, you will actively seek for a solution. You may be limited in what you can do, but you will exert yourself. You won’t be sighing and smiling and blaming this circumstance and that policy; you’ll just make an effort. People are creative when they are motivated. When someone cares, then they will apply their intelligence to figuring out how they can help.

The most exasperating of all, of course, are those who cast themselves as holy, and yet who won’t do anything to help those who need it. Indeed, they are the most practiced of all in appearing concerned and helpful while being entirely dismissive. The only question for them is how much effort they need to expend in appearing to be ‘good,’ before they can get back to their lair and their favorite apps. And sometimes it’s worse than this. I remember being told by someone, “I’ll pray for you,” and when I questioned that comment, which was quite out-of-keeping with the context, he apologized, because he knew that he was using this line in the worst possible way (almost as a curse).Those who are the most publicly holy are often the quickest to put on a smile, but behind it, there is nothing. There is no empathy, and there is no kindness.

This phenomenon is as old as the hills. When Jesus told his Good Samaritan parable, you notice that the ‘holy’ characters act badly when nobody else is watching: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:31-32). (A Levite is a priest’s assistant.) And Jesus rebuked the pharisees, who burdened others while doing nothing to ease these burdens. They burdened others by making new rules, and by appearing, themselves, to set an example of holiness. Their techniques worked, in that others felt badly for not being able to attain such high standards. The average person couldn’t be bothered with setting aside one-tenth of the kitchen herbs for the Lord, and consequently felt like a sinner compared with the Pharisees, who always acted righteously, or so it appeared.

Nowadays when we say the word “Pharisee,” we know that we are talking about the ‘bad guys,’ but it wasn’t like that then. Back then, they were seen as the holy ones, the ones who had been abundantly blessed by God as recognition for their upstanding lives and pure hearts. For Jesus to criticize them was absolutely astonishing.

Who are the new Pharisees?

They are everywhere. Some are in the pro-life movement. Some are doctors and teachers. Some work at your local church. Some preach. In every corner of the world, finding someone who is widely perceived as ‘good’ and ‘holy,’ is all too often a case of finding someone who looks great from the outside, but is entirely rotten underneath.

Do I exaggerate? Or am I simply saying that the phenomenon, existing in Jesus’ time, condemned by Jesus, continues today?

And right now, I am saying that you can see it in the lying. The lying face smiles, and tells you that she really, really, cares about you, but can’t do a thing to help. The lying face nods sympathetically, but forgets about you the moment you turn your back, or worse: actively hopes for your undoing.

The phenomenon was captured perfectly by the VeggieTales song, “Busy.” Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/UsqruZS4nyM

The lyrics are:

Archibald (Mayor): I’m busy, busy, dreadfully busy
You’ve no idea what I have to do.
Busy, busy, shockingly busy
Much, much too busy for you.

Larry: Oh, I see.

Archibald and Doctor: We’re busy, busy, dreadfully busy
You’ve no idea what we have to do.
Busy, busy, shockingly busy
Much, much too busy for you.

‘Cause we’re busy, busy, frightfully busy
More than a bumblebee, more than an ant.
Busy, busy, horribly busy
We’d love to help, but we can’t!

One of the interesting indicators of lying has to do with facial expressions. I once came across the phrase ‘micro-expressions,’ or something to that effect. Ah yes, an internet search just now shows me that I have remembered the right phrase.

Here’s what Wikipedia says,

“A microexpression is the innate result of a voluntary and involuntary emotional response that conflicts with one another. This occurs when the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) responds appropriately to the stimuli that the individual experiences and the individual wishes to conceal this specific emotion. This results in the individual very briefly displaying their true emotions followed by a false emotional reaction.”

Do you understand? Have you seen it?

Sadly, I have seen it many, many times. I notice it quite often when someone in a service-industry related job, usually in a receptionist-type of capacity, is quite happy to deliver bad news. There’s that flash of a smile that’s gone very quickly, and replaced by a sober expression telling you that the booking you need is unavailable, or that you’ll have to pay an extra service fee.

One of the most memorable examples for me of observing a micro-expression was in a conversation where a man was telling his friends, a husband and wife, that he had landed a new job, and was now working for the same big employer that they were working for. There was a look of horror on the face of both husband and wife, replaced almost instantaneously with smiles and words of congratulations. It was quite remarkable, and really quite creepy as I reflect back on it.

I speak about these micro-expressions because they are commonplace, and reveal surprising things. They show that people habitually disguise their very negative real feelings in order to project a much more positive image.

Now you’re asking whether there’s any harm in that. You’re saying that the world would be far worse if people didn’t fake it.

I understand your point, and I agree that it would be really grim if the airline guy started laughing upon saying your plane is delayed until tomorrow.

But the line must be drawn at LYING. It’s just not right for people who don’t care to say that they do. It’s just not right for people to say that they wish it were otherwise, when they don’t.

Is this a Canadian problem? To some extent, I think it is. I think that Canadians are particularly concerned about appearing ‘nice’ from the very first moment of meeting (meaning that, arguably, things can really only go downhill from there), and are particularly prone to stepping in with a lie. I also believe this is a Christian problem. Christians want to appear to be ‘nice,’ and will speak words of support and solidarity when all they really, really want is for you to fail.

You say that I rant.

Let’s say that I don’t even go for the obvious first line of defence, and ask you to define a rant. Let’s say I accept that, and let’s say that I want to talk about that.

First, does the notion of ‘ranting,’ (unending, and almost irrational or hysterical complaining) as a way of describing human expression, not in itself show that we, as a society, are highly uncomfortable with a genuine exploration of topics? Does it not show that we, as a society, would really just rather if we all stopped saying anything in order to resume the smiling façade?

And second, may I ask: Are some things worth ranting about? Is there something wrong with expressing strong dissatisfaction when something is, in fact, amiss?

If addressing a problem in a long and detailed fashion is a rant, then sign me up for ranting, provided that I have a free moment or two.

Truth needs to be given more respect. We must challenge the notion that it’s fine (or even noble) to lie in order to spare someone’s feelings. It’s not. It is very, very, wrong.

A trusting person can go for years, or decades, believing that he or she is surrounded by the Very Best Kind of People, because none of these people will ever reveal otherwise — not intentionally, that is. The false front misleads, as it is intended to. The pretense of kindness or holiness creates an artificial world, and this can be sustained for a very long time, provided that those who are deceived do not question too rigorously, and provided that those who are deceived always give ‘the benefit of the doubt,’ to the liars.

You see, the reason that Jesus needed to expose the evil of the Pharisees was because the Pharisees were successful in their deceit. They really did have the people convinced that they were earnest, humble, devout and full of love for the Lord. Anybody who wondered about the inconsistencies in the behaviour of the Pharisees would not speak up. And, as a matter of fact, a person critical of such holy people would even doubt himself; he would say to himself that the apparent flaws of these good men must be due to his own sinfulness.

So when Jesus ‘went public,’ he condemned these ‘holy’ men openly. He needed to release the common people from their awe and admiration of these deceivers. He loved the common people, and so he gave them the truth.

The deceit never goes on forever. Sooner or later, God allows the mask to fall, and you see that the deacon is a thief and a liar. You see that the priest was an abuser and a liar. You see that the mother-figure was a fraud and a liar.

Notice that in each case of problematic behaviour, you will always be dealing with someone who is a liar. Lying is what creates the context and opportunity for further evil.

Satan is the father of lies. He has no power other than to tell lies.

To the extent that you tell lies, you are imitating his example. You are being his follower. I don’t care how you dress it up or ‘reframe’ it in your head. The fact is, you’re doing it. You are telling people that you really hope for this, but you in fact are hoping for the opposite. You say that you want this, but you want something different. You tell people that you don’t care about that, but you do.

In addition to the I’m-so-nice-but-unable type of lie, people often tell stories where they are the innocent victim.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is such a thing as an innocent victim. The Old Testament account of Job is not a fiction.

But I want you to think, for instance, about all of those stories you’ve heard from the wife about the husband. In all of those stories, the wife is the innocent and selfless victim of an uncaring brute of a man. The truth is, most couples are equal. When you hear one spouse complain about the other, you would be quite right in assuming both are to blame, usually equally, over the course of a week. When you hear the woman complain about her husband, I warrant that in 99 cases out of 100, she is omitting the details about her own contribution to the problem.

I spoke to a lawyer who worked for the federal government. Her responsibility was to write cheques to victims of residential schools. In other words, she was charged with distributing the settlement funds. She listened to the stories of victims, and the worse the account of the suffering or abuse was, the bigger the cheque she would write. She shuddered at the stories that she heard.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

In this context, some of the stories would be motivated by money. The teller of the story would say to himself or to herself that the alleged perpetrator, being dead, wouldn’t care what is said now.

As I said, don’t get me wrong. There is such a thing as an innocent victim. The Genesis 37 story of Joseph and his scheming, dastardly brothers is not a fiction. In the case of children institutionalized or otherwise put into the care of uncaring or predatory adults, this is appallingly frequent.

But sometimes, people make up stories. They think that it doesn’t matter, that they aren’t hurting anyone. However, every offence against truth is an offence against God. Every lie is a very serious problem.

And speaking of lawyers, I recently attended a function where a lawyer told me about his past addiction to crack cocaine. I can’t remember how he worded it, but he referred to his addiction in such a way that made it sound as if he really had no choice in the matter. I challenged him on this. Was the choice of beginning the crack cocaine not his? He really didn’t like this, and his hackles went up. He said that I was berating him, and extracted a promise from me that I wouldn’t berate him any further if he told his story of how he got addicted in the first place. I said okay, though I think, on reflection, that I conceded too much with my promise. I should have used the obvious first line of defence, and asked him to define ‘to berate.’

So this is his story. He is in court with a female client charged with a crime. When the court session ends, she asks him to drive her home. He says no initially, but she says that her back and such-and-such make it difficult for her to get home. He agrees and drives. While he is driving, she begins using crack cocaine. The car fills with smoke. He angrily asks her to stop, but she doesn’t. He is instantly addicted. He reaches what she gives as the destination, about which he said to me, “it was probably a crack house.” From then on, he is addicted, but after great efforts through various agencies, he frees himself from his addiction.

I asked him how he got his own crack cocaine. He had a three-part answer.

(Beware of multi-part answers. “I couldn’t come to watch your performance because just when I was almost out the door, I was made to do more cleaning for the worthy charity, and my car was in the shop for repairs.  Plus I was still recovering from a bad case of the stomach flu, and I didn’t want to make anyone else sick.”)

The first was that “there are crack houses everywhere.” The second was that “she took me to a crack house” (so he knew where it was thereafter), and the third was that, “when you’re addicted, you’re addicted — you’ll find it.”

So do you believe his story? By being a nice guy, and agreeing to help a woman in need, he winds up, through no fault of his own, with a crack cocaine addiction.

The problem with being a criminal lawyer is that a lawyer may be tempted to steer the client in the direction of the ‘best’ story. The lawyer knows which facts are most damning, and hopes that those facts don’t surface at trial. The lawyer also sees that if certain other facts were to be introduced, then the case would go better for the client. It becomes a dangerous game. Every lawyer likes to win a case, and a record of winning cases improves your reputation and your business.

But any lawyer who encourages his client to lie is violating his professional duties and is being immoral. Indeed, he may bear more guilt for misleading the listeners than the criminal, because the lawyer chooses the path of deceit in a more calculated way, and because he takes the position of adviser. Those lawyers who find themselves seeking the gray area, where truth is obscured, should find a new line of work, asap.

By contrast, a good criminal defence lawyer does not reinvent the past. There are ways to pursue a rigorous examination of the prosecution’s version and evidence without introducing what is false. Indeed, the dedication to the truth must remain of paramount importance for defence lawyers, who are tempted to win cases, and to help their clients. There is a limit to how much one can help. There’s a limit.

In the same way, there is a limit to how much we can ‘be nice.’ There is a limit, and that limit is truth. There’s a line. On this side, there’s what’s true, and on that side, there’s what’s false.

In North America, many people live by the rule (at least while outside the home) that “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” It’s a problematic concept, and not necessarily Christian, for that matter. Review the New Testament if you don’t believe me. How many times would Jesus’ words be condemned by the modern world as being less than ‘nice’?

It should be: “If you can’t say something true, then don’t say anything at all.”

Being ‘nice’ by lying, by pretending to be who you are not, by pretending to feel what you do not, is wrong. When repeated over time, such lies can add up to paint such an enormously false picture of a person, institution or situation.

Yet these false pictures will one day be exposed. So be honest. Don’t say what you think sounds good; don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Eventually, the truth will come out (because God is merciful and will not allow the charade to continue) and the relationship will be in shambles.

Those who work in service industries, who in fact do not care at all for the people they serve, should also reconsider their line of work. Don’t be a receptionist if you don’t like people. Don’t work for an airline if you envy the people who travel. Look for a new job asap. Some types of work involve many hours of interaction with inanimate objects. Do that instead.

So now I return to Pinocchio. You’ve heard, I think, that the human nose continues to grow even after one reaches adulthood? In fact, they say that the nose grows one’s whole life. Others disagree, and say that it isn’t the case that the cartilage continues to grow; it is merely an issue of gravity making it appear larger. Does it matter whether or not there is growth if the consensus is that it appears larger as we age? The larger appearance, whether real or just perceived, contributes to the increasing ugliness of aging men and women. We all begin with a cute little nose, but years later, it looks really quite different.

As I learn more and more about the human heart and the woeful choices being made generation after generation, I can’t help but wonder about this too.

What if people’s noses do grow (or appear larger) in direct proportion to how much they lie? A lie at a time, and a fraction of a millimeter added on, day after day, week after week, month after month. Uglier and uglier. Maybe it is this way. Maybe it is some sort of visual indicator of lies told. Stranger things than this are true.

But of course, I don’t know. I don’t know if the nose knows. I don’t know if the Pinocchio story has this dimension of truth. What I do know, however, is that God knows. God knows that you often leave the truth aside, and that you don’t need to.

So for the sake of your soul, and maybe your nose, if you can’t say something true, then don’t say anything at all.

Post 294

Sent

The theme for this Sunday’s Mass involves the idea of being sent to deliver a message that God wants delivered. Of course, God could deliver the message himself, but 1) God likes to share, by which I mean that God involves us in his plans. An obvious example of this is that God could have made new humans without the cooperation of humans, but his design involves our participation. 2) God’s request to send a message forms a test for the one who is sent: Will you be faithful to God’s wishes for you to say what he wants said? and 3) Sending a regular person as his messenger forms a test for the ones who hear the message: Will the listener(s) discount or even despise the messenger that God has chosen?

In the first reading (Amos 7: 12-15), we don’t hear the long, long warning that Amos delivers to Jeroboam II and the Israelites. What we do hear is Amazi’ah telling Amos to stop prophesizing in that location. Their names start with the same letters, but Amos is the good guy and Amazi’ah is not. Mind you, Amazi’ah clearly views himself as the Protector of Everything Good. He fulfills the role, played by many throughout history, of defending the status of a corrupt leader, of protecting the status quo, of ‘standing with,’ as we now say, those who need to repent and take the truth to heart. He tells Amos that he is not being appropriately respectful towards the location, which is the home of King Jeroboam II, the king of Israel. Amazi’ah informs Amos that this “is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amazi’ah is ‘educating’ Amos, telling him that it is not a good idea for him to prophesy here. Amazi’ah doesn’t tell him that he cannot prophesy, but he says that he can’t do it there. He tells Amos to move along, move along. He says, “Go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there.” In other words, get lost.

In response, Amos does some educating of his own, informing Amazi’ah (and us) that he isn’t a prophet. He isn’t even the son of a prophet, he says. In other words, it wasn’t his idea to stand there and say things like “Your wife shall be a harlot in the city and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword.” (Those lines are actually just after the reading for tomorrow, so I feel slightly guilty for colouring outside the lines, but there you have it.)

I find Amos’ reply in defence to be quite endearing and even poetic. He says, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” A sycamore tree has big low branches, and if you tend it (“dress it”) properly, the tree will do a good job of producing something like figs. When Amos talks about his work, he talks about it in present tense. We call him a prophet, and Amazi’ah calls him a prophet, but Amos doesn’t see himself as a prophet. He says “I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.” He doesn’t say that he was a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees. He says “I am a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees.” Amos doesn’t know what the future holds, so I suppose he is expecting to return to that work.

I wonder what kind of flocks he had. Sheep? Goats? I find it amusing that when I type the word “goat,” my computer offers me a picture of one. Here he is: 🐐. And here’s a sheep 🐑. Baa.

Distracted? Me?

So anyway, in his humility and simplicity, Amos describes what happened: “And the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me,`Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'”

The words describing God’s actions are quite simple, yet they are strong. God is described as ‘taking’ someone from one place and giving them an entirely new direction: “Go” and an entirely new responsibility: “Prophesy.” The imperative form of the verb is being used here. It’s not “Could you please go?” and it’s not “I would really appreciate it if you would go.”

God says “Go.”

In the Gospel reading, Jesus repeats this pattern. He calls those whom he has chosen (“and he called to him the twelve,”) and then he sends them (“and began to send them out two by two.”) He gives specific instructions. Wear sandals and bring a staff (a practical thing, but also shepherd imagery for the future), but don’t bring money, a bag, food or an extra tunic.

Imagine if he were speaking to the modern audience. North Americans can’t go across town without bringing a water bottle. (Drinking water to stay Hydrated = virtue itself.) Jesus would say, “Don’t bring a backpack or a suitcase, wheeled or not. Don’t bring a hat or pants that can convert into shorts. Don’t bring a water bottle, energy bars or a propane stove. Don’t bring a tent. Don’t bring your phone, your credit cards and don’t pack any cash . . . ” Honestly, I think some people would refuse to go, just on the grounds that they couldn’t bring their coffee. (Pun not intended, initially.)

He also gave instructions about what to do if people would “not receive you” and “refuse to hear you.” That was, of course, what happened to Amos. He wasn’t welcome in Bethel, where he went to warn the Israelites and their king. Jesus directs, “Shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them.” It is interesting to see that there is a response that is not only permitted, but commanded if the one who is sent is rejected. The response is physical, but it signifies something big: God’s displeasure with those who were supposed to receive his messenger and his message.

What was the message? The message was that it was time for people to repent. (“So they went out and preached that men should repent.”) To repent means to evaluate what you have been doing, and to understand that your excuses for wrongdoing are unacceptable. It includes making amends to God, and, in some cases, making amends to people against whom you’ve sinned.

Looking at the Psalm (a section from Psalm 85 will be read this Sunday), there is the idea of listening to God, and God wanting to communicate with us: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts” (85:8). Interestingly, the description of the audience has three parts. Are those three different groups, or are they different ways of saying the same thing? It refers to a) his people, b) his saints, c) those who turn to him in their hearts.

The answer is that God will speak to whomever will listen (“Let those who have ears, hear!”) wherever they are in the world and wherever they are in their life journey. This includes, most importantly, those who are not typically or traditionally viewed as being part of “his people” or “his saints.” When the truth is revealed, won’t everyone be so surprised to discover who has been, in fact, open to God’s message and who has not? Who would have expected that the herdsman over there was paying such close attention to God? In the same way, it will be quite surprising to discover who cares about God and who doesn’t. Picture the seller of braided string bracelets who sits at the street corner, hoping to interest some tourists. Maybe she is the one who is actually attentive to God’s call. Picture the young university student working late into the night. What do you know about her response to God’s call? Then there’s the bus driver who spends his days navigating the bumpy roads in the interior of his country. What does a prophet look like to you? Someone with white hair and flowing robes? Someone standing on the street corner with pamphlets? Ultimately, those who “turn to him in their hearts” (i.e., those who genuinely love and care about God on the inside, as opposed to those who act as though they do, for the sake of gaining admiration or other benefits), are “his people.” They are “his saints.”

And then we have St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about St. Paul lately, and it was all because I was wrestling with the readings for this Sunday. My issue is that St. Paul’s writing is always really loaded. It’s chock-full of words and phrases. I came to realize, in the end, that you don’t have to be concerned if you can’t digest all of it. In almost all cases, even the tiniest portion of a letter from St. Paul is crammed with so many intricate sentences with clauses upon clauses that you would have to read each sentence three, five or ten times to get your mind around even the grammatical structure of each sentence (Where’s the main idea here?). And hearing it read at Mass means that it goes by very quickly. You’re fortunate if you can grasp a couple of concepts as the words zoom past you. There’s a reason that the Church serves only thin wedges of his letters at one sitting.

St. Paul’s letters are, of course, valuable. “They’re letters from a Christian to other Christians, and we’re Christians,” as WiseOne put it. They show the issues that were confronting Christians at the time, and they contain explanations about what the Christian life is supposed to be. Having said all that, St. Paul’s intention was quite focused: he was writing to certain communities, keeping the connection and wanting them to persevere in the faith. His letters are different from the Gospels, for instance, which were intended as a more-or-less public record of the life of Christ.

I spent a long time trying to understand why his writing is the way it is. The style of the letters make the letters quite ‘heavy’ and almost rigid. For this reason, when St. Paul says, “Rejoice,” you can barely appreciate it, because he says it in such a solemn, sophisticated and, well, often long-winded way. It’s not just that the letters are complicated. Complicated things can be very exciting in the way that they reveal the truth. I like the mystical style of St. Pope John Paul II, and I like the philosophical style of Pope Benedict, and I like what I’ve read of Pope Francis’ writing. Their writing styles are rich and full, and although they are often complicated, they’re not circuitous or boring. St. Paul’s writing, on the other hand, doesn’t yield the same proportion of “aha!” moments and “wow, that’s really well put!” moments in relation to the amount of effort one must exert to comprehend it.

That’s my take, anyway.

Let’s go talk to St. Paul.

Blogger: Good afternoon, St. Paul.
St. Paul: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! — You can just call me Paul.
Blogger: Call you Paul?
St. Paul: Sure, yes; we almost always drop the “saint” when we talk to each other in heaven; we’re all saints, so we —
Blogger: It’s understood?
St. Paul: Exactly!
Blogger: Makes sense! Makes sense. Having said that, since I’m, well, still on earth, would it be alright with you if I keep the “Saint” part?
St. Paul: Oh, sure, sure.
Blogger: Just habit, I suppose.
St. Paul: I understand. And, don’t get me wrong: It’s a wonderful title, “Saint.”
Blogger: Well yes, of course. It’s a great title. Better than Mr.
St. Paul: Or Dr.
Blogger: Or Ms.
St. Paul: Or Sir
Blogger: Or Your Highness
St. Paul: Or Your Grace
Blogger: Ooh, yes, I suppose so. Food for thought, there. But anyway, let’s get started. I’d like to review this portion of the reading for tomorrow’s Mass. We’re starting in at line 3 of your letter to the Ephesians.
St. Paul: Not with the salutation? Did they lose the salutation?
Blogger: It’s here, but I guess the salutation isn’t part of the Mass readings this time.
St. Paul: I was just joking.
Blogger: Oh.
St. Paul: I knew they didn’t lose it.
Blogger: Right. I get it! Now let’s jump into it. Looking at the first line, why don’t you do the honours and read it?
St. Paul: Of course; my pleasure. I wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Blogger: And then you added–
St. Paul: Yes, I wrote: “He has blessed us in Christ.”
Blogger: That’s nice.
St. Paul: Yes, yes. I wanted to remind the Ephesians that our blessings flow from and through Christ.
Blogger: And then you mentioned the ways that God has blessed us.
St. Paul: Yes. God blessed us in Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
Blogger: What did you mean by, “in the heavenly places”?
St. Paul: This is a reference to the many types of spiritual blessings that God wishes to bestow upon us. Also, I liked to remind everyone about heaven. People liked to hear about heaven.
Blogger: And then you talked about the idea of being chosen.
St. Paul: Yes, yes, that was the heart of this part, and that’s probably why the Church chose this part of my letter for tomorrow. I wrote, “He blessed us even as he chose us, in him.”
Blogger: The “in him” part is referring to Christ?
St. Paul: Yes, of course.
Blogger: So you’ve mentioned Christ three times now.
St. Paul: Can’t go wrong there!
Blogger: It’s clear whose side you’re on, for sure. Nowadays we typically don’t mention Christ’s name as often as you do in your letters. I mean, there are some people who try to emulate your style, but they’re often going for a ‘look.’ A look of holiness, you know.
St. Paul: Ha ha, yes! I understand. I understand.
Blogger: And then you’ve got this part about “the foundation of the world.”
St. Paul: Ah yes, that’s when God chose us. God chose us “before the foundation of the world.”
Blogger: Sort of a sweeping phrase?
St. Paul: ‘Sweeping’ phrase?
Blogger: The phrase sounds grandiose.
St. Paul: Ah. (Smiles.) Thank you.
Blogger: You seem to like throwing those in.
St. Paul: ‘Throwing’ them in?
Blogger: As in, you like to add phrases into your writing that remind your audience of the significance of the topic, and of the Christian way of life.
St. Paul: Ah, yes, well, of course! Of course! It’s necessary. The Ephesians, well, you know, they were like everyone else. It’s necessary to remind, to teach always. When you are not there in person, especially it is essential to teach constantly. Every word is an opportunity. Every phrase is a chance, not to be squandered.
Blogger: And then you wrote that God chose us “to be holy and blameless before him.” And here, you’re not saying that you and the Christians, new and old, are holy and blameless, are you?
St. Paul: Well, we try to be.
Blogger: But you’re not bragging, are you?
St. Paul: What do you mean, ‘bragging’?
Blogger: Are you being boastful? The modern ear, you know, is on guard against boasting, especially from Christians.
St. Paul: I boast only in my infirmities.
Blogger: Ha ha. Good one!
St. Paul: (Smiles)
Blogger: Just to interrupt myself again. Do you joke around more now that you’re in heaven? I mean, in comparison to how you were while on earth?
St. Paul: Heaven is very fun. A “blast,” as people say. Lots of joking around; lots of laughing.
Blogger: Were you a serious fellow, while on earth?
St. Paul: I was.
Blogger: Not so much joking?
St. Paul: Not so much, but I was joyful on the inside.
Blogger: Seriously?
St. Paul: Of course! (Smiling)
Blogger: You wrote what God chose us to be.
St. Paul: Yes, I wrote a good section here. I wrote: “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
Blogger: That’s quite a mouthful.
St. Paul: Mouthful?
Blogger: It’s a lot — you know, a lot of concepts in there.
St. Paul: It is, but I really wanted it to be complete. A person has to exert an effort, you know. These letters — these letters had to last a long time. I couldn’t write every day. I needed to put in as much as I could. To teach constantly, that was my way.
Blogger: Here you mention “the Beloved,” that’s—
St. Paul: Yes, that’s Jesus.
Blogger: And I see the phrase “according to.”
St. Paul: According to, yes.
Blogger: You really like that phrase, didn’t you? In the lines for Sunday, I see it a lot of times. You wrote, “according to the purpose of his will” and “according to the riches of his grace” and “according to his purpose” and “according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things” and “according to the counsel of his will.”
St. Paul: It’s a connector. It’s to help me explain how things are and how they came to be that way.
Blogger: You weren’t worried that it was too complicated?
St. Paul: Oh, no, no, no. Not too complicated. It explains. The more information, the better. If a person doesn’t understand it the first way, perhaps they will understand the second way. If they don’t understand the second way, then perhaps they will understand the third way.
Blogger: And then what about this: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us.”
St. Paul: Ah yes, that’s a good part. And it presents even better in the original.
Blogger: Was that section intended as —
St. Paul: Yes, as educational, to teach, to remind them of everything that God has given us, through Jesus
Blogger: And then —
St. Paul: Then it is: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Blogger: Whew! That’s a lot!
St. Paul: You think so?
Blogger: Yeah!
St. Paul: You would have preferred it shorter? Simpler?
Blogger: Well, I mean, the heart of the sentence is rather hard to find.
St. Paul: But they liked long letters.
Blogger: They liked long letters?
St. Paul: I think so.
Blogger: Well they really are pretty long. Did you know that there are websites with statistics about the Bible, and I found out that this letter of yours is 2,422 words long?
St. Paul: Really!
Blogger: You’re surprised?
St. Paul: I’m surprised that someone would have counted. A person doesn’t have much time on that side of heaven.
Blogger: Well, it would have been counted by a computer.
St. Paul: Ah, of course.
Blogger: But don’t you think that’s a lot of words?
St. Paul: It’s a good length.
Blogger: It must have taken a while?
St. Paul: Yes, but it was worth it. I’m just glad that the letter didn’t get lost on the way, after all that writing.
Blogger: Did that ever happen?
St. Paul: Yes.
Blogger: Oh, that would have been a disappointment.
St. Paul: It was hard at the time, but I never lose things anymore. (Smiles.)
Blogger: No, I guess not!
St. Paul: Heaven is really incredible. It’s even better than I said.
Blogger: I bet it is.
St. Paul: You should come!
Blogger: I will! But first I have work to do.
St. Paul: Blogging?
Blogger: Yes, and other things.
St. Paul: Like what?
Blogger: Gardening, cooking, to name a couple. And with cooking, I’ve been trying a new thing lately.
St. Paul: A new thing?
Blogger: Yeah, it’s really exciting. I switch countries as I go through the week. Sundays is Polish and Ukrainian food, and Mondays is Spanish and South American food. On Tuesdays I do Korean and Asian food, and so on.
St. Paul: No Mediterranean food?
Blogger: Oh yes, that’s on Thursdays. It’s usually Italian, but last week I did Greek.
St. Paul: I like olives.
Blogger: Do you eat them in heaven?
St. Paul: Of course! All varieties, including some I had never tasted while on earth.
Blogger: Wow.
St. Paul: It’s pretty amazing. Eye has not seen.
Blogger: Ha ha!
St. Paul: Seriously, you should come.
Blogger: I will, I will. I just want everyone to come as well.
St. Paul: Don’t worry. They will, eventually.
Blogger: Sigh. Yeah, but to watch them, you’d think they have no plans.
St. Paul: Ha ha, I know. But God has plans; it’s okay.
Blogger: And he’ll get his way!
St. Paul: Absolutely!
Blogger: Okay, I guess we should keep going. Where was I? Oh yes, I was saying that the sentences are so dense. Take the last sentence, for instance. Pardon me for saying it, but by the time I get to the end of the sentence, I feel like I’ve lost the thread.
St. Paul: Really?
Blogger: Maybe it’s just a different style.
St. Paul: A different cuisine.
Blogger: More olives?
St. Paul: More olives.
Blogger: And feta.
St. Paul: Can’t forget the feta. Goat cheese is always a classic.
Blogger: And was it a Jewish style? I have heard that in the oral tradition, it was typical to rely on repetition. The speaker would say things three times in order to make the details stick?
St. Paul: Well yes, of course. It’s a good tradition. Always repeat. Repeat and repeat. People need that.
Blogger: People get distracted, and they forget.
St. Paul: Exactly!
Blogger: But to return to this sentence, it seems to me that the heart of it is: “For he has made known to us the mystery of his will, to unite all things.”
St. Paul: Yes, things in heaven and earth.
Blogger: But your version has so much extra. Yours is: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
St. Paul: (Smiles) It’s a good sentence.
Blogger: But it could have been more simple, easier to read!
St. Paul: Each sentence should be an elegant meal. I have included all of the ingredients and combined them just so.
Blogger: You wanted to make beautiful, elevated sentences?
St. Paul: Precisely! To encourage, to inspire! I poured myself into those letters. Like a libation.
Blogger: But you don’t talk like that now.
St. Paul: I could, but I’m talking to you, and you, well, you aren’t drawn to that style.
Blogger: No. It’s kind of, well —
St. Paul: But you do use a lot of words.
Blogger: Well —
St. Paul: 2,422 words is a short blog post for you.
Blogger: But they’re not complicated words, with so many clauses! Not usually, anyway!
St. Paul: Ah, I see.
Blogger: Are you allowed to tease people when you’re in heaven?
St. Paul: Ah, well, interesting question. The verb “to tease” is not complicated, but the subject can be. Jokes in heaven are never offensive, and are never hurtful, but there are jokes in abundance. Friendly, funny banter is a source of great amusement, and we enjoy each others’ sense of humour. We’re all really relaxed and we laugh a lot. Jokes are part of the fun. Ear has not heard . . .
Blogger: Sounds delightful. But I should continue with your letter, because those parishes that read the longer version will read verses 11, 12,13 and 14 as well. Shall we proceed?
St. Paul: Yes, please!
Blogger: In the next section, you make a distinction between the very first believers in Christ, and those who have come to believe later?
St. Paul: Here I have used two parts, but the reward is the same.
Blogger: It says that those “who first hoped in Christ” have been “destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory,” and that those who believed later, are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” Then you switch again to the “we” form, saying that being sealed with the Holy Spirit is “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.”
St. Paul: Yes, we all share in the reward.
Blogger: Of the promises of Christ.
St. Paul: Of the promises of Christ, and, through Christ, his bride, the Church.
Blogger: Heaven being one of the promises?
St. Paul: Heaven being one of them.
Blogger: How does this excerpt from your letter fit in with the Gospel and the other reading and Psalm?
St. Paul: I thought that was for you to figure out?
Blogger: Well, yes, I was working on it, but since you’re here . . .
St. Paul: Very well. Christ has chosen some to hear the word first, but of those who believe, there are some who are then sent to bring the message to others. We see that Amos was called in a unique way, and Jesus also sent the twelve out with specific instructions. Yet in another sense, everyone is ‘sent,’ because we are all called to bear witness with our lives that we are faithful to Christ, in accordance with our state in life and our circumstances.
Blogger: You said “in accordance with.”
St. Paul: It’s a good phrase.
Blogger: I’m at 4,334 words.
St. Paul: Can I add something?
Blogger: Of course.
St. Paul: The other element here is the overflowing goodness that God has in store for those who turn to him, which are shown by the words of the Psalm, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” The imagery suggests both bounty and providence, for it says, “our land will yield its increase,” and accordingly, about the ground, the psalmist says, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,” and about the sky, the psalmist prophesies: “Righteousness will look down from the sky.” It is about an end to corruption and unfaithfulness. The psalmist says, “Yea, the Lord will give what is good.”
Blogger: You say that the psalmist “prophesies,” so this is intended to tell us about the future, or has it already happened, with the arrival of Christ?
St. Paul: The words of the Psalm are mysterious; certainly the arrival of Christ is a fulfillment of the words, but the Psalms are never ‘exhausted,’ as it were, and all who believe in him can look forward to “our inheritance until we acquire possession of it,” as I told the Ephesians. The words of the Psalm can be understood as describing not only the reign of Christ but also the Christian inheritance, the idea of “heavenly places.”
Blogger: I understand. Thank you, St. Paul.
St. Paul: You’re very welcome! Thank you for having me. Best wishes with your cooking, and all else!
Blogger: Thank you!

Nice fellow. Very congenial. Surprisingly easy to talk to. I like him.

And I like Amos too. Amos, herdsman, dresser of sycamore trees, prophet.

🐑 🐑 🌳 🐐 🐐 🌳 🐑 🐑

 

Post 293

Seven Steps: Reflections on Being a Prophet

Here’s my WikiHow guide to being a prophet, inspired by the readings for tomorrow, the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Without intending it, I’ve got seven steps on the seventh day of the seventh month.

Step One
There is no step one. There is no reliable way to be ‘prepared.’ You never know when God might call you. More importantly, you never know how. By that, I mean that God’s plans for you will very likely run in a direction quite opposite to the one you thought you were going. When he calls you, he may ask you to begin doing something that you didn’t think you would ever do. Moses viewed himself as someone unable to speak well, yet he was called to speak to the Egyptian pharaoh, and he spoke many, many times after that, to all of the people of Israel. David was a shepherd boy when he was anointed king. St. Joan of Arc was thirteen years old, standing in her father’s garden, when she received visions of angels. There are so many examples. Furthermore, only God will know whether you are the type of person he wants for a particular mission. You may not think you are good enough, but he has plans for everyone.

So carry on. Do whatever you are doing. Preferably, do what you’re supposed to be doing, but God may still call you to be his prophet even if you’re doing what you’re not supposed to be doing — just ask St. Paul.

Oh, and another thing. Know that God calls everyone for something. He may not call you to be a prophet in the specific Jonah-in-the-streets type of way, but there are many job openings in God’s business, and he is always hiring. Wherever there is a scrap of good will, God will use it. You are mistaken if you believe that you are ready to do God’s will, but that he hasn’t yet noticed. He knows, and he will use you to your full potential.

Step Two
Receive the invitation. In the first reading for tomorrow, God says to Ezekial, “I send you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The people also are impudent and stubborn.” (Ezekial 2:3) God is complaining that his love for his people has not been returned, that everything has been entirely one-sided. He is, in many ways, a lonely God. He confides in the one he sends.

The invitation may have supernatural qualities. (Generally, the more unusual the mission, the more likely that it will be accompanied by supernatural elements.) You may be shown a vision of something or you may hear God’s voice. When you have a vision, it can be that you picture it vividly in your mind, the way you can picture something in your imagination when you want. The difference is that when you imagine something, you are the artist; you are the director. You decide what elements to include and exclude. You make it the way you want. When God gives you a vision, you do not choose what the elements are. It appears before you as if you are watching a story. As a result, you don’t always know the context. You don’t know the context because you didn’t build the scenes. Most significantly, there is no date-stamp on visions. You almost never know when these things will happen. Indeed, a vision can include information about something that has happened, is happening now somewhere you cannot humanly see it, or something that will happen if certain other things do or do not happen. A vision is mysterious in the sense that it signifies more than can be understood by the recipient. Like a poem, some of the meaning is obvious and other parts are perplexing, but complete understanding is elusive, and may not come for quite a long time. Moving on to the idea of a voice, sometimes called “interior locution,” God’s voice is usually not audible on the ‘outside,’ through the sense of hearing. Yet it is best understood as hearing because usually there are words. These words could, in theory, be written down as they are received. However, sometimes the meaning is made clear, but in order to write it down, you would have to choose your own words to reflect the meaning. For this reason, you will see that the saints will use phrases like, “I was made to understand.” It’s a way of expressing that God revealed or explained something, but that the words are your own.

The reason that God uses supernatural signs and wonders to begin a mission is that they signify, in a memorable way, an alteration of the normal course of events. They serve as a way to strengthen and prepare the one he has chosen, and over the course of time, the memory of the supernatural invitation can serve as a comfort when things become more difficult.

Step Three
Follow the instructions that God gives. These instructions may be quite specific, but they may also be open-ended. He may set you loose upon the world to do what seems to you to be right to do. He may even reassure you that your own preferences and instincts (for lack of a better word), are in keeping with his will, along the theme of “love and do what you will.” Both styles of mission, the specific and the general, have their challenges.

Step Four
Enjoy the interaction with God. In this one verse, at 2 Corinthians 12:7, St. Paul twice wrote the word “elated,” when describing how it felt to receive “the abundance of revelations.” While it is true that people can pray and try to understand what God is saying in response, often this is difficult. Personally, I used to regularly consult people who I felt were wise and holy. It was comforting to be able to question someone in person. I believe that it was a good practice and supplement to prayer, and I am thankful that God used those people in my life as a source of advice. When you approach someone with good faith, hoping that God will speak through them and enlighten you, then it is unlikely that you will be disappointed. In any case, prayer is, for most people, hard work, because you have to concentrate on what you are trying to say to God, and when you think that you know what God wants, you may still question whether your understanding is correct. We perceive a ‘divider’ between us and the supernatural God — you could call it a veil or a lattice. What a change, then, when this veil is moved aside somewhat, for just a moment or on several occasions. What a change to be able to converse with God in an easier way, where answers are more distinct. Of course St. Paul is elated.

Step Five
Experience the suffering. When people talk of the suffering of a prophet, they refer to the idea of being kicked out of town, or generally hated. We’ll get to that, but right now I want to explain something else. In the same way that there are supernatural gifts, there are supernatural sufferings. God does not give supernatural gifts without a counterbalancing component of supernatural suffering. This suffering is not the typical kind, that we all receive as we live out our lives. These are sufferings which are hidden and painful for an entirely different set of reasons. As an example of a type of supernatural suffering, I could give the example of heightened sensitivity to sin and evil — supernatural vision, if you will. That may not sound too bad, but here’s my analogy. When I was a child, I once asked my father whether he thought it would be neat if we could see (with our unaided eye) germs (bacteria, viruses). He said no. And indeed, if you stop and picture it for a moment, you can see that it would be horrible. But you see, sins are like germs, and being able to see them more clearly can be a kind of supernatural suffering. But there are many other types of supernatural suffering. St. Paul refers to the way that he suffers, and the following words have caused a lot of speculation: “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me (2 Corinthians 12:7-8).” People wonder what kind of suffering he had. They have latched on to the word “flesh,” and said that probably St. Paul suffered from some type of lustful temptation. That’s not it. Lust is a normal temptation, along with greed and envy and all the other germs. It’s normal to be tempted by lust. I think for a man, hormones produce an almost-constant background noise, and for a woman, hormones produce a powerful cyclical gift/problem. St. Paul was not referring to this. The word “flesh,” is there to show you how close the problem is to him, and how painful it is. He’s making an analogy for something which is so difficult to express: “A thorn was given me in the flesh” is something that people can understand, even if they cannot understand the spiritual version of it. Who wants to have a thorn in the flesh? Being pricked by a rose thorn is painful; imagine if the thorn stayed there for any length of time. St. Paul is referring to a kind of spiritual suffering, and I think it is the constant harassment of a spiritually evil being, a demon who is given permission to harass and annoy with all manner of methods. The description that St. Paul uses is, “a messenger of Satan.” I don’t know what type of harassment he received from this being, but it was bad enough that he asked God, three times, to remove this suffering.

Step Six
Experience the suffering. And yes, I repeat this intentionally. In addition to supernatural suffering, there is, invariably, suffering which is not viewed as supernatural, because it is familiar. It happens. The life of a human person does involve a lot of suffering — ask Jesus. We too often forget that, as a person, he would have experienced all of those problems that we do. He would have had, at some point, the hiccups, and not known how to get rid of them. He would have sneezed; he would have coughed. He would have gotten cold and had goosebumps. He would have gotten too hot and had beads of sweat on his skin and in his hair. When he drank water, sometimes it would have gone down the wrong way. He sometimes would have stubbed his toe or gotten a pebble in his sandals. He would have dropped things and had things fall on him. He would have been thirsty and he would have been hungry, sometimes. He would have had skin rashes and scrapes. God allowed him to experience all of our weaknesses. But in addition to all this, he suffered all of the hardships associated with being a prophet. He would have suffered all of the rejection referred to by St. Paul: “insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” Notice especially the word “contempt,” in the Psalm. Contempt means something more than hating. It suggests hating something that is beneath you. The hater perceives himself or herself as ‘above’ the other. When you feel contempt for someone, then you have no mercy, and you feel that there is no need to show any kind of respect. In Psalm 123, the speaker begs God for an end of this kind of suffering: “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud.”

In the Gospel, Jesus experiences suffering of this kind. Notice that Jesus “marvels” at how people in his home town reject him. Amazement is also a human experience, and Jesus clearly experienced it sometimes. God is all-knowing, but God did not reveal everything to Jesus all the time. Jesus also experienced the ‘veil’ of separation from God. Jesus was not quite expecting the experience that he had in his home town. Naturally, in addition to being amazed, he was also saddened, both for them and for himself, and would have felt the feelings described in the Psalm. (It is no accident that the Psalm is paired with this Gospel reading.) Jesus was not someone without feelings. He was not untouchable. Both physically and emotionally, Jesus could be hurt.

The people of his home town rejected him because they knew him. They believed that they knew everything that there was to know about him, and so they were confused about the gifts that they saw. Notice that they speak among themselves, and do not ask Jesus their questions. They acknowledge his gifts and his abilities: “And many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands!” (Mark 6:2) However, Jesus is spoken about in the third person. They do not speak directly to him, because they do not want to praise him or even interact with him. So their questions remain unanswered. If their hearts were not clouded with jealousy and contempt, they would have seen that there are two possibilities to answer their question. The first is that Jesus had more abilities than they realized, that these gifts had been hidden for many years. The second is that Jesus was called for a special mission.

Exclusion is a powerful tool, and is often immoral. It is, for example, always immoral to banish or forcibly remove someone from their homeland. Our home country is closely tied to our identity, and to require that someone leave the region that he calls home is a violation of human dignity. Exclusion from a group is also serious, and those who exclude wrongly, pleased with their own power, will one day have to account for their actions. It will not go well for them, because, in addition to answering for the suffering they caused the one who has been excluded, they will also need to answer for the gifts and graces which they lost the group as a whole. We are, after all, meant to share our gifts with one another, and those who prevent this from happening will have a great deal to answer for.

What I find quite interesting is how painfully OBVIOUS it is to the home town detractors that Jesus is nobody special. They feel that their proof is conclusive: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” They are so entirely certain that they’ve got him completely figured out. The fact that they can name his parents, his relatives (incidentally, “brother” in Scripture ≠ “brother” in modern usage), and his occupation translates, for them, into knowing who he is and what he can do and — more importantly — shouldn’t be allowed to do. What arrogance! Who can really know another person? Who can really know how another person is called? By putting Jesus into a box, they put God into a box. In the same way, if we wrongly discredit a prophet, or someone who is called by God for a particular role, judging that they are acting of their own accord, and not in accordance with God’s will, then we limit God. You say, “Certainly God would never choose him; he’s a such-and-such.” You say, “Anyone can see, from such-and-such, that she is sinful,” but you are blind to the truth, and the kingdom of heaven has caught you unawares. Trust me, God can paint with colours you haven’t seen, and speak with words you’ve never heard. Who would have predicted that the rosary would one day include the mysteries we call ‘luminous’? Similarly, maybe one day there will be not just an Old Testament and a New Testament, but also a whole other section, making it a tripartite holy book. I can’t say; I’m just saying that the future is impossible to predict, and God can do what is so unthinkable that we don’t even stop to consider whether such a thing would happen or not. While we’re wondering whether the answer will be A or B, God suddenly brings about Δ. And the corollary to this is that God uses whomever he chooses. When we look at Scripture, or read about the saints, everything seems normal now, and we can tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys, but when it was happening, everything was far less clear. There was no Voice-Over Narrator or Ominous Music. Events and individuals were not yet unpacked. Nobody knew that the sea would divide, and nobody knew that the girl was going to lead an army. Believe me: God loves the element of surprise, and he loves the element of Right Under Your Nose. He can hide his chosen people in plain view. Bethlehem was bustling the night Jesus was born. When the King of Kings entered the world, who paid attention? And consider Mary, who went about her day without fanfare. The Mother of God had no paparazzi.

Jesus’ words, in the face of rejection and disbelief, were about the plight of the prophet: “And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house'” (Mark 6:4).

Step Seven
Receive your reward. By “reward,” I do not mean a human reward. There may appear to be no human reward at all. Look at the readings. In the first reading, God says that the people may not listen. He says, “And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that there has been a prophet among them.” God is no fool; he knows that the people may refuse to hear. In the Psalm, the psalmist talks about receiving contempt over an extended period of time. In the second reading, St. Paul talks about weakness that shows no signs of leaving: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” And in the Gospel, Jesus leaves his home town without much in the way of miracles. You would say, in all these cases, that the missions have the appearance of failure.

Yet the prophet is not motivated by a reward. The prophet is motivated by a desire to do the will of the God who sends him. Sometimes God sends his message through angels, sometimes there is a miracle, sometimes people have dreams, and sometimes there is writing on the wall — just ask Belshazzar. And of course, there are more ways; God is not limited to a certain number of styles or formats. Being a prophet is about cooperating with God to say what God wants to say at a particular time to a particular individual or group of people. For the prophet, the message is actually secondary, and so are any of the supernatural benefits or sufferings. The prophet’s focus is on saying or doing whatever God wants said or done. It’s for this reason that St. Paul can write, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . when I am weak, then I am strong.” Living this is difficult, but he knows the proper response.

Nevertheless, God is good, and he doesn’t forget his prophets, who look to him. He doesn’t forget about those who have done his will. Having learned not to put his faith in human beings (I sometimes say, “They’re all bad, but none of them are all bad”), the prophet looks to God for mercy, and hope in God is never misplaced. Despite what appears to be excessive delay, God is eager to help those who look to him. As a matter of fact, he is the generous gift-giver who can hardly wait for the day that you open your gifts.

The Psalm talks about the servant watching and waiting for God to act. The servant here represents the prophet, who attentively watches for any sign that the time has come for his promised reward. Between you and me, I might be tempted to suggest, instead of the word “servant,” the word “dog,” because it would help with the visualization — is there a creature as attentive as the indoor dog, who watches your every move for a sign that it’s time for a walk or a treat? — but the point is that the prophet waits. “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he have mercy upon us.”

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Canada Day 2018

Someone found me yesterday
I was the one who had sent a letter at Christmas to his father
Year after year
His father died in 2002
But I sent my greetings not knowing
That the man who had married my aunt had been buried at sixty

Merry Christmas I said every year to the Hindi man
Who had smiled a wide smile many years past
“Baby Duck is just water” as he filled up the glass

He couldn’t find me on Facebook couldn’t find me online
But he carried a folder with received letters and photos
The address was there; maybe she was here?

This man from the east
Stopped people on the street
Showed them my photo as he got nearer and nearer

Have you seen this woman?
He asked two different people
Because my address confused — a place and a way and a wynd

They looked at him — elegant garments, gemstones set in golden rings, and an iPhone for each hand
They said they’d never seen clothes such as these
Where are you from?

This man is from India
He brought me overly generous gifts in multitudes of three
And we talked until nearly midnight

At midnight there were signs in the sky
Fireworks to mark the day of a different kind of birth
He apologized for not telling me the news of the death
He wanted the letters to arrive uninterrupted
The letters that said Merry Christmas to the Hindi man
Year after year

Post 291

All That Noise: Reflections on Envy

The Gospel reading for tomorrow, from Mark 5, is the one where Jesus cures the daughter of Jairus.

The theme of God being opposed to death appears in tomorrow’s first reading from Wisdom 1 and 2 (“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist”), and this ties in with Jesus wanting to rescue Jairus’ daughter from death. That all makes sense.

What caught my attention, however, was the notion of envy mentioned in the first reading: “but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.”

In the past, I did not understand the power and prevalence of envy, and how it acts almost as a fuel in the very bodies of so many people. It spurs them to action in the worst ways, and poisons their words. An envious person sees threats all around, and is in a constant state of competition. An envious person is unhappy when others are praised or exalted for their honest achievements or gifts, and an envious person is usually reluctant to praise or offer genuine compliments to others. The thing about envy, however, is that until you know what it looks like, you won’t even see it. It’s a very, very hidden thing, one that people will rarely admit to.

And envy does not occur very much in the stereotypical pattern of a poor person envying a rich person, for the reason that they usually live worlds apart (with the notable and dangerous exception of the impoverished nanny who works in the home of those who hire her). One of the main components of envy is proximity. A middle-income man will be more envious of his middle-income neighbour than he will be of the rich fellow who lives in the gated community across town. He rarely thinks about the person he doesn’t often see, but this neighbour with the new car is right before his eyes. For this reason, family relations that are not insulated with abundant love can be poisoned by envy. A mother can envy her daughter from the very earliest years. A woman can envy her sister-in-law. A cousin can envy a cousin. The frequent interaction brings information and opportunities to compare, which has very negative effects in envious people, and so the most competitive dynamic is often between women who are in the same workplace or social group, whether it’s a religious group or a soccer mom gathering at a child’s game. Who has the biggest diamond? Who has the most talented children? Who took the best vacation? Who is the prettiest? But even without physical interaction, there can be envy of people who are ‘proximate’ in terms of backgrounds or situations; how many women watch Meghan Markle and wonder why she has ‘succeeded’ where they haven’t? And of course, social media is set up in such a way that it fosters envy while bringing people together. It gives people the time to study the lives of others (as they appear to be), when the truth is that it would have been better for these people to know less about their ‘friends.’

Anyway, after reading the first reading, I looked for the theme of envy in the Gospel reading that I have heard so many times. I’ll show you what I see. Here are the lines: “While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James.

It’s easy to consider the words of these people, notifying Jairus that his daughter has died, as being purely informational. But let’s slow this down. Jairus is well-respected in his circles. He is one of the leaders of the local synagogue. Humans being what they are, these two elements would be enough to incite envy among others, but we do not need to rely on that, because a moment spent in consideration of their words will reveal quite a bit. The speakers know that Jairus is in distress. This man has left his home to go looking for Jesus. Jairus is well-known, and if he seeks Jesus, the fact will be public soon enough. Jairus believes that Jesus has power to restore health to his daughter, and Jairus is single-minded. He is going to find Jesus and he is going to make his request. As Jairus hurries to find him, does he not pray that he will be fast enough? Does he not pray that Jesus will say yes? Then he sees him! He wastes no time. Not only does he make his request, but he also “fell at his feet.” What would that have looked like? That is more than bowing. He is kneeling at Jesus’s feet. Scripture says that Jairus “besought him,” in other words, pleaded with him, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” His words echo the words tucked into Psalm 30 for Sunday’s Mass: “Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be thou my helper!”

Anyone who knew Jairus would know that he is absolutely desperate for the life of his daughter, and that he is now hoping for a miracle.

How long has his daughter been ill? It would have been well known that Jairus was very concerned about her. His concern has reached an all-time high, sending him out into the streets looking for Jesus. Yet in this context, some people come from his house and, interrupting Jesus, give him the devastating news. They bluntly inform him of his daughter’s death, “Your daughter is dead,” and then, without missing a beat, talk about how Jairus should not inconvenience Jesus. Do you see it? Do you see the lack of compassion for Jairus, disguised as a high regard for Jesus’s time? In the name of not ‘troubling the Teacher,’ they tell Jairus that everything he feared has already happened, and that his efforts are futile. There is no sympathy here for Jairus; there is only feigned sympathy for Jesus. Perhaps some of these speakers were afraid that Jesus might be able to help Jairus, and they are trying to block Jairus from receiving any further assistance from Jesus. It’s actually very evil, and their words are recorded here for more than just information.

What does Jesus do? He ignores these words. It is because their words are neither good nor neutral. They are lies. Specifically, they are suggesting to Jairus that he is being a pest, that he has already troubled Jesus too much, and that if he continues to hope for Jesus’ help, then he will be troubling Jesus “further.” In other words, they are telling him that he has been doing the wrong thing by seeking Jesus’ help, who they respectfully refer to as “the Teacher.” They are sending the message that he is not worthy of Jesus’ help, due to the fact that Jairus is not himself at the same level as Jesus (he may be one of the temple leaders, but he is not “the Teacher”) and because his circumstances — a dead daughter who is now beyond help — do not merit further attention.

How often do we get the lie that God is not accessible to us? How often do we get the lie that we are too small — just one of the billions of people on earth — for God to care for us at all? Or how often do we get the lie that our problem is too small for God to care about? How often do we fear that God wants us to suffer? How often do we fear that God doesn’t mind if we live or die? How often do we get the lie that making a request will have no effect, that God doesn’t want to be ‘troubled’ by our petitions?

All of these things are lies, and the readings for tomorrow can go a long way to counter these fears and these lies. The readings tell us that God does not want death for us; he does not want suffering. A vision of what he wants is in the second reading, where we learn that Christ suffered so that we do not have to suffer. It says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” This is mainly a reference to spiritual benefits, but understand that God cares about all aspects of our welfare. The more of our lives that we entrust to him, the better prepared we will be for receiving the surprises that he has planned for us.

In addition to ignoring the words of these advisors who give bad advice, Jesus comforts Jairus, who at this point, must be filled with fear that he has lost his daughter, and that his efforts were all in vain, and that Jesus is powerless in this situation. Jesus says to Jairus, as he says to us all, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Do not fear. Only believe.

Whenever you are afraid about the future, ignore the voice(s) that tells you all hope is gone, and things will go badly for you. Ignore the voice(s) that tells you that you will fail and that your efforts — past, present and future — are pointless. These voices come from the devil, the father of lies, who is, as the first reading says, full of envy. (The devil envies us because God loves us and because God is willing to be born as a human and die for us.) These voices are nothing more than noise.

It is no wonder that Jesus did not take these false advisors into the room. This is fitting because their efforts had been to prevent Jesus from coming to the home. So now there is a reversal. At first, Jesus is outside the home and the advisors were in the home (the Gospel says that these advisors had come from Jairus’ house), but now all the advisors and all of the false friends are put outside: “But he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.”

As further confirmation of the evil intentions of the advisors and crowds and all who made themselves comfortable in Jairus’s home, notice that the Gospel shows them laughing at Jesus’ words. When he says that the daughter is not dead but sleeping, they laugh at him. They laugh at God! Such people as these are, in a sense, dead, (“through the devil’s envy death entered the world and those who belong to his party experience it”) because they do not enjoy and proceed with their own lives. Instead, they are envious spectators of the lives of others. Neither do they have the spirit of sharing that is described in the second reading from 2 Corinthians 8; they cannot rejoice in the success and victories of other people. A person who is wholesome can enjoy the happiness of others. The accomplishments of others can be shared and appreciated by those who didn’t even have a hand in that accomplishment. Look at the words of the second reading, about those who have supplying those who don’t have. It is the opposite of the spirit of envy. A person without envy can partake, in a way, in what they don’t themselves have, and enjoy life even more. I can be glad that you can understand technology better than I can; I can be glad that you enjoy building roads better than I would. I can be glad for the people who climbed the mountain; I can be glad for the people who won the game against all odds.

So the people who habitually surrounded Jairus laughed at Jesus. These noisy friends, relatives, ‘helpers,’ and onlookers are removed, and the only ones left of that group are Jairus and his wife. They are the only ones who genuinely care about this girl, the twelve-year old that Jairus called his “little daughter.” The voices and the noise brought by everyone else is finally shut out.

The daughter is awoken (whether she was dead at any point, I do not know) and Jesus directs them to give her something to eat. This detail shows his kind thoughtfulness, and is meant to remind us that Christ thinks of such things. So let nobody doubt God’s providence and care. He wants what is best for us, and where there is suffering, it is for a greater purpose which is also for our ultimate benefit. So even if we are, like Jairus and his family, surrounded by those who hope for evil to befall us, and who delight in our suffering, there is nothing to worry about. If we call upon Jesus, he will come and disperse the false advisors, those who envy you and make plans against you. He will disperse these, and silence the tumult. Your foes will not rejoice over you, as the Psalm says. Indeed, they will stand outside while Jesus stands with you. So let us say, with Jairus, in the words of the Psalm, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may praise thee and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to thee for ever.”

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Because I Actually Like Quebec:
Reflections on the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Tomorrow, on June 24th, the Catholic Church honours the nativity of Saint John the Baptist. He is the patron saint of builders, tailors, printers, baptism, conversion to faith, people dealing with storms and their effects (such as hail), and people who need healing from spasms or seizures. He is the patron saint of a variety of places, such as Puerto Rico, Jordan, Quebec, Newfoundland, Charleston in South Carolina, Cornwall in England, and various cities in Italy. I got that from thoughtco.com because so far I can’t find an authoritative list.

The readings for this special day, which will be heard throughout the entire world, in so many languages, fit together in such a way that they can be understood as pointing to John and his mission.

The Gospel reading is about the time right after his birth. It’s good to think about St. John the Baptist as a baby. We tend to remember him as the guy from the desert who eats locusts and wild honey and who looks and sounds fairly wild. We remember him baptizing Jesus and maybe we remember that he was imprisoned and killed.

This Gospel reading (Luke 1:57-66, 80) brings us to the time when he was newly born. The topic in the room, on the day of his circumcision, was his name. A name, when inspired, signifies both mission and identity.

And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechari’ah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.”

There is so much to consider, even in this short segment from the Gospel reading.

Notice the simple bravery of the parents — St. Elizabeth and St. Zechariah. With their words, they go against the grain, confounding expectations. They do not allow their son to be given the name that everyone expects he will be given. Where do they get this strength? How is it that they act in this confident way, not taking their cues from those around them?

You can say that Zechariah knows what to do because Angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple more than nine months previous, which is true, but that alone does not explain everything. He does not gain strength just because something spiritually significant happened to him.  It doesn’t work that way. The average life is chock full of wonderful little coincidences, answers, signs, messages and meaning, which can be accepted (and pondered and treasured) or rejected (and reframed and forgotten). Even an angel appearing before your eyes can be believed or doubted, because believing is a choice. And as a matter of fact, Zechariah did not believe the words of Angel Gabriel when they were spoken to him, despite the supernatural circumstances. For this reason, Zechariah received a ‘souvenir’ of his encounter with the angel: his disbelief cost him his voice. Do not think that God was being cruel. The muteness that Zechariah experienced served as a constant reminder to him and everyone around him that something very significant had happened. The experience of sudden muteness confirmed that he didn’t just imagine an angel in the temple. So during the period from the angel’s announcement up until the day of his son’s circumcision, he was quietly learning that God fulfills his promises. He amended his views of God; he had previously made God smaller than he should have, doubting that God could give them a child at this late stage of life, and doubting that God cared for him as much as God did. So now Zechariah accepted the truth of what God would do for him. Now Zechariah drew strength in knowing how strong God was, and in knowing that God would be willing to do good things for him and his wife. Look at the words from the psalm — now Zechariah could say, “I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength.” So this is where both Zechariah and Elizabeth drew their strength to walk a different path. They knew that this is what God had called their family to be. Their family was specially chosen, and the proper response to God’s gift, invitation and benevolence was to follow what God wanted, not what others wanted or expected. The choice they made, to insist on the name “John,” was very significant, because it was a testimony of their choice to adhere to the will of God. It was, in fact, a test, and they passed with flying colours. Zechariah was given back his voice, and the passage following this one is known as the canticle of Zechariah. Zechariah was a man of good will, but God wanted him to grow in his faith and trust. Now Zechariah could say, as in the words of the psalm, “I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works!” And indeed, the proper response for everyone who learns of these events is to wonder and marvel at the ways of God. His ways are surprising, generous and wise, and we are supposed to be impressed; we are supposed to have a reaction of respect and awe. Here are the lines in the Gospel describing the reaction of the people: “And they all marveled . . . And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?'” Too often our attitude towards God is characterized by indifference and boredom; we treat him like a television show we’ve seen before. We figure that we know who he is and what he can do and — more importantly — what he can’t (#scienceisking). We act as though we know what he will and won’t do with our lives and the lives of those around us. We yawn. We don’t marvel. We don’t treasure or ‘store up in our hearts’ our memories of special coincidences, signs, and answered prayers. We were so grateful at the time, but now we let what was amazing slip out of our consciousness, and we act as if God isn’t looking out for us.

The next aspect of the readings is precisely about God looking out for us. The readings speak about his care for the infant in the womb. Understand that these readings are not only about Isaiah and John the Baptist. Look at all of these lines about the unborn baby. The first reading (Isaiah 49:1-6) says, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” The psalm says, “For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb . . . my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.” An unborn baby is different from a born baby in its quality of hiddenness. The born baby can show you how cute he is, how helpless and in need of your care. The born baby can impress you by opening his clear eyes for a moment and meeting your gaze. You can look at his fine hair and little toes. He can cry. The unborn baby, by contrast, is hidden. She doesn’t have the help of her cuteness to encourage everyone to admire her and want to care for her and protect her. She is silent and can be easily forgotten or dismissed in the way that a newly-born baby cannot. But we were all once like that; we were all once unborn, and God speaks to us about who we were then. Long before anyone knew us, God knew us. What does that say about God? What does that say about us? It says a lot. It reminds us that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and it reminds us that it was part of God’s design that we should exist. He wanted us to exist, even if nobody else did. Each person is part of the divine plan, and we are brought into being because we are part of that plan. Moreover, he has in mind for us more than our existence; he has in mind for us a wealth of good — an eternity of good — which will come about as we fulfill our mission. The idea of mission is contained in the idea of naming. “He named my name,” from the first reading signifies that he knows our identity and what we will be called to say and do.

In the case of John the Baptist, there are several events that are recorded in the Gospel. We hear of him first when an angel appears to his father. The angel tells Zechariah that he is to name his son, who is as yet unconceived, “John.” We hear of St. John next when he is in the womb. Upon hearing the voice of Mary, who carries within her the unborn baby Jesus, he leaps for joy in the womb of his own mother. However, it is not long afterwards in the narrative that we read that he is living as an adult in the desert. How long has he been there? The Gospel does not tell us, but it is safe to say that nobody would have predicted that the little baby named John would grow up and wear camel skins in the desert. With the early signs surrounding his birth, perhaps people expected that he was to become a great priest, or perhaps that he was the long-awaited Messiah himself.

Another story of John’s life has to do with his willingness to challenge the King. King Herod wanted his brother’s wife for himself, and he arranged things so that he could marry her, contrary to Jewish law. John spoke up against this illegitimate marriage even though it could be fatal to speak up against the king. This was bravery. The term bravery is applied broadly nowadays, and sometimes incorrectly. I heard of a pilot being praised for bravery by landing a plane that was damaged, but what should be praised in that case is skill, not bravery. Bravery is best defined as going from a place of safety to a place of danger, for a good reason. A pilot flying a damaged plane is already in danger, and his efforts are applied to get himself out of danger. I’m not criticizing the pilot; I’m just saying it’s not exactly ‘bravery.’

Bravery is correctly applied to anyone who speaks out against corruption or immorality, when speaking out is viewed as wrong or even untimely. Speaking up has its risks, and John knew that. But part of John’s life’s mission, in addition to preparing whomever wished to be prepared through baptism, was to denounce evil intentions when he came across them. The attitude of the Pharisees and Sadducees was wrong; they had an attitude of entitlement and superiority. Instead of making a whole-hearted effort to be repentant, they rested on their genealogical and spiritual connections to Abraham and other holy men. They came for baptism out of curiosity and out of a sense that they deserved to receive anything good that the masses were getting. They played a role in society that was all pretence, and John knew it. John said, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7) What do you think would be the risk to John of speaking in this fashion to the religious elites? What happened to Jesus when he spoke in the same way? In the past things were as they are now: those who are accustomed to receiving respect for their wisdom and holiness become absolutely livid and filled with rage when anyone questions their motives or behaviour. They view themselves as above reproach, and are scandalized when anyone challenges them.

Yet speaking out and speaking up, whether it is viewed as ‘wrong’ or ‘rude’ or even badly-timed, is so often exactly what is necessary, and it is what everyone is called to do, at least once in a while. If you don’t speak up, then a particular evil may claim more victims. If you don’t speak out, more innocent people may be hurt. And if you don’t speak out, those who are doing what is wrong may not change. It is so good that movements have arisen where women feel safe to speak about abuse they have suffered. It is for the best, not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators to face what has happened. It is good for the public to get used to the notion that someone might be popular yet evil, or funny yet evil, handsome yet evil, and rich or poor or young or old, yet evil. Let what has been done in the dark come to light. Any contract that aims to buy silence is immoral, insofar as it prevents people from saying what is true. I was disgusted with Michael Cohen, lawyer for President Trump, when he gleefully announced that he had paid a woman for her silence. He was really pleased with himself because he did it without his client’s knowledge and used his own money. Like many people who have dulled their conscience, Cohen seemed to believe that the rules of the legal system are the only ones that matter. In a similar vein, I have heard people say that the only acceptable method for accusing someone of a crime is to use the legal system. How impractical! The legal system is not equipped to address many important types of wrongdoing and harm, and the legal system is often compromised. I say that if the words are true, then let the victim choose his or her forum. Do not place arbitrary restrictions on how and when someone can reveal what happened to them.

As the life of John proceeded, he experienced new and unusual things. He taught and he had disciples. Crowds came to see him, and one day, Jesus came too. John spoke with Jesus and baptized him. Who, in all of humanity, has had that honour? John did not know everything, but God allowed John to understand that Jesus was the Messiah.

In the end, John was killed. The daughter of King Herod’s wife danced for him, and King Herod rashly announced, in front of all his guests, that he would give her, Salome, whatever she asked. This is a promise that is invalid, but even if I had been there to tell Herod that he didn’t have to keep his ‘promise,’ he wouldn’t have cared. What he cared about was his reputation, and so when Salome asked for (on the advice of her evil mother, Herodias) the head of St. John the Baptist, cowardly King Herod went ahead and ordered the execution of the holy man, and his head was given as a gift to this girl who should not have followed the suggestion or direction of her mother in this case. King Herod was not brave enough to say the words that he should have said, something to the effect that “I spoke wrongly; I cannot give you absolutely anything you desire; I will not behead an innocent man.” He chose not to say the words, just because it would have felt Awkward; it would have been Embarrassing, and not quite as grand and generous as he wanted to seem. He didn’t have the nerve. So in the end, everyone did what was wrong. They — Herodias, Salome and King Herod (and, for that matter, was there nobody in the room able to exercise any influence to stop this idea from being carried out?) — could have chosen otherwise, but they didn’t, and St. John the Baptist’s life was cut short. The baby whose name had been foretold was sacrificed.

In honour of St. John the Baptist, let us practice bravery in speech. Say what everyone knows but doesn’t dare say. Stand up for what is right with just a simple word or phrase. Say “no,” if that’s what needs to be said. Say “no” as St. Elizabeth did when “they” wanted to give her child a name that was different from what had been foretold. Say “no” as St. Zechariah did when “they” wanted what they wanted, despite St. Elizabeth’s response. Say “no” to those who want to present a façade of righteousness or compassion while trying to silence those who know of their dark hearts and dark deeds. It’s a fact that it is better for your misdeeds to be known now than later. Now there’s still time to repent. Now there’s still time to say sorry. Now there’s still time to make things better.

Everyone is called to speak up sometimes. This is not just for those who are famous, or who see themselves as activists. This is not reserved for those with a special calling, and this is not reserved for the times when there is a popular campaign dedicated to speaking up and naming names. When you make a decision, as a person, to be authentic — when you make a decision to be completely truthful in your words — then you will soon find that you do not need to look for opportunities to speak. The opportunities will find you. By this I mean that God will arrange things so that your unique voice will need to be heard. Perhaps someone will ask you that honest question, and you will feel they deserve to know the truth. Or maybe nobody will ask the honest question, but the truth will still need to be heard. The important thing is to be decided, independent of social fashions, that you will follow your conscience and God’s expressed will to you. He’ll take it from there, giving you a variety of circumstances and situations where you will feel called to speak out. St. John the Baptist didn’t purposely try to learn about the details of King Herod’s immoral life, but he learned about them, and he spoke up.

Nobody wants to be chastised, and usually people don’t want to be the ones to chastise another, especially those who are enjoying power or popularity or both, such as a Bill Cosby or a Harvey Weinstein. My point is that you do not have to live an extraordinary life to be called in the same way that St. John the Baptist was called, because we are all called to be faithful to the truth.

I really like the first reading.

Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Post 289

Hidden Depths: Reflections on Identity and Suicide

People underestimate the complexity of each other. We meet someone and we immediately begin the process of analyzing them and categorizing them, according to the patterns that we have learned up to that point in our lives. Before long, we’ve given this new person a pigeon-hole, a file folder, a number, whatever. It’s sometimes provisional and it’s sometimes immutable. I suppose you could call it judging, but that does imply making a decision about their moral qualities, and often it doesn’t go that far. The process of sizing each other up is so natural, so second-nature, that I would say there isn’t anyone who doesn’t do it. We size up everything around us, so why wouldn’t we do it with respect to human beings? We need to assess our environment; we reflexively determine whether something is helpful or harmful to us, and we learn by comparing what we encounter with what we have encountered in the past.

I was once sent an email with a whole bunch of questions, and one of them asked what I notice first about a person. I thought about that for a while. I think that I answered it quite accurately, saying that I notice quite a few things almost instantaneously, without even really thinking about it. Upon meeting someone, I get an impression of their physical size, age, gender and race. When I can’t determine gender, I notice that I can’t determine gender. Later, other elements come into focus, such as style and demeanor.

We’re used to noticing quite a bit about each other without realizing it. There’s nothing wrong with having impressions, and there’s nothing wrong with having preferences, tastes, likes and dislikes. Why should I be apologetic about disliking a certain accent, or a certain type of clothing? You are the same way, having likes and dislikes. It’s even possible that your list of dislikes is longer than mine. In any case, the issue is not in noticing or not noticing. The issue is what you do once you’ve noticed. You’ve noticed that she’s the wealthy one, and he looks like he’s unemployed. Do you treat them differently? This man is a recent immigrant and that man is a popular soccer player; do you distrust one while idolizing the other?

What do you do with your impressions? That’s the key thing.

But my point right now is that our impressions of each other, even when they are gathered over repeated encounters, are still going to fall short of the truth.

There are a few reasons for this. The first element is that most people maintain an image. They want to be seen in a certain way. And the list of ways that they want to be seen is astoundingly long. You have in your mind a list of ways that you might want to be perceived, but people are very, very, complex, and there are some people who want to be perceived in ways you wouldn’t dream. For instance, some people want to be perceived as inept and incompetent. They nurture and foster this image because it is a way of getting others to help them, and do their work for them. Some people want to be seen as having mental issues, because it allows them a greater freedom to behave in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be tolerated.

The second element is that, in general, people don’t want to draw attention to themselves regarding things that they know to be wrong. Someone commits a murder or does some other horrific thing, and the neighbour is interviewed saying that the murderer was such a quiet man. They are shocked, of course. There’s the assumption that if a person isn’t acting wildly, then he’s safe and quite predictable. So we are surrounded by people who are thinking and feeling and wanting all kinds of things, but they blend in, because they are not acting wildly.

We are thus shocked when someone commits suicide. They seemed fine. They weren’t acting wildly or acting distressed. In order to understand what has happened, the new trend is to immediately blame mental illness. I disagree with this approach because it is illogical. Suicide does not necessarily mean that there was mental illness. Mental illness can increase the likelihood that one would be tempted to commit suicide, but it does not work in reverse, where you can conclude, upon hearing of a suicide, that the person had mental illness. It’s kind of annoying the way people without any clue of the circumstances start cooing about how sad it is that so-and-so had a mental illness. Suicide is not conclusive proof.

I actually believe that in the moments before suicide, God gives the person enough lucidity to make a real decision. I believe this because I believe that when the moral stakes are high, God doesn’t allow for random accidents. When the moral stakes are high, there are decisions being made and personal intention is at the forefront.

Suicide is a radically violent act. A person who commits suicide is a murderer. A person who commits suicide chooses to disregard the thoughts, feelings and desires of everyone in the world except his own. A person who commits suicide chooses to disregard the pain of all those who will be hurt by his death.

If someone commits suicide, and you are surprised, then I say that you did not truly know that person. You did not know that he had the ability for such violence within him, in the same way that you did not know that your murdering neighbour had the ability for such violence within him. You did not know, further, that he was capable of disregarding (or even intending) the pain of those he seemed to love.

When I learned, last month, of the suicide of 28-year old Tim Bergling, known as Avicii, I was brought back to April of 1994, when I was told that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. Cobain was 27 years old at the time. The name of his band was Nirvana, a word describing the ideal afterlife in Buddhism. I heard the news from a teenage fan of his, who was shaken and distraught.

I am not impressed with the choice of Mr. Bergling to commit suicide, especially in light of his fame. Nor am I impressed with Kate Valentine, otherwise known as Kate Spade, whose name appears on expensive handbags throughout the world, in her decision to commit suicide yesterday. Those who are very famous have a responsibility to not cause scandal. They influence others by their choices, and this means that they must be extra vigilant about their actions. I believe that in the case of famous people, God gives additional grace to prevent them from doing what is wrong and detrimental to society at large, and for this reason, it is far worse for them when they intentionally choose to do what is wrong. Committing suicide is wrong.

Who is the victim in a suicide? The idea that the person who killed himself must have been in a lot of pain, is neither a full answer nor an excuse. By that rationale, almost any crime or immorality could be excused. A murderer is often beside himself in rage or jealousy before killing his victim. That’s pain; that’s mental anguish. A woman who commits adultery is eaten up by lust before being unfaithful. That’s pain; that’s mental anguish. A man who wants the money for gambling is often fixated and without rest before committing his robbery. That’s pain too. Most serious acts of immorality are preceded by a period of obsessing and a form of distress.

The fact that there is a great deal of mental anguish or pain prior to the decision to do A, B or C, does not give license to relieve the pain in any way you would like. In what circumstances do we accept the answer, “I just couldn’t help myself”? It’s usually a highly problematic answer, being almost always false.

Human beings suffer agony in a million ways, but we still must choose what is right. Moreover, we are always given the ability to choose what is right.

This ties in with my point that human beings are more difficult to understand than we think. We think we know someone, and then they do something shocking. This shows that we did not know them as well as we thought. You thought this man was gentle, but nobody who commits suicide can be properly called gentle, in light of the violence and permanence of the action. You thought that man was happy, but if a person ends his own life and his closest friends didn’t see it coming, then he wasn’t as happy as he seemed. There were depths within that person which were dark and hidden. What does Avicii mean, after all? Avici refers, in Buddhism, to the lowest reaches of hell, where those who commit the worst sins go. It’s spelled with a single “i” ending, but apparently Tim Bergling was so enamoured with the word as a way to identify himself that he was willing to modify it to use it. Yet his excuse for not using his own real name was that “Tim Bergling” was already taken on Myspace. Was Tiim Bergliing taken too?

Who is the victim in a suicide? Many are wounded. There are the close family members and friends. There are more distant relations and acquaintances. There are, in the case of the famous, the admirers. In fact, all who learn of any suicide are wounded, because suicide becomes more ingrained as a ‘solution’ for difficult times, and suicide becomes normalized, and — it’s painful to say it — even glamorized. And, in the midst of all this, what a shame that something so horrible and hopeless is whitewashed by people wanting to be or appear enlightened or sympathetic.

The one wounded most of all, however, is God. All sins are an offence against the Eternal God before they are an offence against mortal man. It’s God’s code that we violate when we go against what is right.

The reason for this, and also the reason that we cannot fully understand or appreciate one another (or even ourselves), is that each person is a mystery. When you consider the working of your own mind, and what you continue to learn about yourself, you realize that you are constantly rediscovering new things about who you are and what makes you tick. Marriage, likewise, is a process of continual discovery, where each spouse learns more about the other all the time. An individual’s personal identity is filled with so many aspects that the modern discussion has resorted to talking about identity conflict and changing one’s identity, the way we might talk about changing our outfits or style. Such talk is foolish. With new experiences and with new knowledge, we may change our perceptions and therefore our behaviour, for better or worse, but we are ultimately the same person. Our identity is our identity. Our soul is our soul. And body and soul, each person is a mystery that only God can understand, and those who cut short their lives or the lives of others, are preventing the mystery from coming to fruition (though it must be said that in his mercy, God always has yet another back-up plan; God can never be thwarted).

We are a mystery, further, because we do not know God’s plan for our lives. We do not know what he will make of the clay that is us. We do not know how he imagines us and how he will bless us and shape us. In the same way, we do not know what his plans are for everyone around us. All we can know is that his plans are for the ultimate benefit of each person, without the benefit to one person diminishing the benefit to another, as if God were constrained by human rules and limits. The path that he has planned is unique for each person, and each life story is an exciting one, with many twists and turns. Each life story is, in fact, amazing. The key thing to know, however, is that there are an endless number of variations on your life story, and the end result depends on your willingness to cooperate with the plan that he has for you. The plan is going to surprise you, because just when you think that you know the rest of the story, he’ll do a zig and a zag, just to see if you’re still following along. The plan will surprise you, because just when you think that you know what he wants, things will go up and things will go down, and he’ll show you that all he wants is for you to be willing to want what he wants. Consider Abram, who knew that he would never have a child from Sarah, his wife, the love of his life, and that he’d die in Ur, where he was born. Then he discovered that he was to leave Ur and go to an unknown place. He obeyed. Then he discovered that he was to have a son with his wife Sarah. He believed this too and it happened, and Abram’s name got changed along the way. Later he realized he would have to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeyed again, but at the critical moment, he was told that God didn’t want this sacrifice. Abraham never knew what was coming next, but he believed in God’s goodness. The knowledge of God’s goodness was his anchor. Abraham’s confidence did not come from thinking that he, Abraham, was good. Abraham’s confidence came from knowing that God was good, and that God would fulfill his promises.

If you read the bible carefully, you will notice that saints and prophets are praised when they believe that God will fulfill his promises, that God will be as good as he says he will be. It’s praiseworthy because it is difficult. When St. Elizabeth praises the Blessed Virgin, she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:45)

So let there be no room for despair. Hang in there.

Don’t be afraid and don’t believe the lies given to you by the devil, of unending suffering, impossible struggles, humiliation and defeat. Those are lies. All lies.

Wait for the plan of your life to unfold. Wait to discover the mystery that is you.

Know that God is good. He always has a plan, even when all seems lost.

Post 288

Up Late Last Night

Writing Again

Writing
What can I compare it to?
I say it’s like
A fire
Intensely burning
Yearning
To flash
To be bright
To give light
Writing
What can I compare it to?
I say it’s like
An ocean
Immeasurable depths
Down, down, down
And across
A crossword puzzle, I guess
Words this way
Words that way
And again
Writing
What can I compare it to?
I say it’s like
The wind
Pent up
Suddenly urgent
Then spent
Blowing free!

 

 

Saint Stunts

People mistake
‘bout the big league saints
Y’ know?

They figure
‘slike Batman
Super powers n’ stuff

‘cept with more prayin’
n’ rosaries
n’ stuff

Levatatin’
Bilocutin’
Readin’ souls
Conversin’ with the Lord
Stigmata n’ stuff

When y’ want

Visions
Healin’ powers
Miracles
Left right n’ cen’r
‘terior locution n’ stuff

When y’ want

Truth is
Well
Truth is

Ain’t like that
Ain’t like that
Just ain’t

The saints’d tell ya
They’d tell ya
It ain’t

It’s
It’s

Well, it’s diff’rent
I’ll tell ya
Diff’rent

It’s like
It’s like

It’s like
You’re not in charge, see
Don’t call no shots
Don’t press no buttons

Don’t get to choose
No timin’ on gifts
Or kind

That’s why they’s called
Gifts

God ain’t no vendin’ machine
Push this
Get that

And saints
Well
Saints got that

They get that
They’d tell ya
‘Salways surprisin’
When all sudd’n ya
Flyin’

 

 

FYI IFY

FYI
For your information

IFY
I forgive you

 

 

And That Was That

There was a time
When I said what I thought
And that was
That

They wouldn’t hurt me
On purpose

Not really and truly
On purpose

Who would hurt someone
Who meant well?

They just
Well
They just didn’t mean it
They just didn’t know better
They just didn’t realize
They just didn’t think it through

And failing that
Maybe

Maybe they were just a Little Messed Up

So let me say
That
It’s much easier to forgive
When the excuse comes first
When the sympathetic mind has defence after defence
And theories galore

So now has come a time
When I say what I think
And that is
That

It’s tougher
By a wide fucking margin
To forgive
When you happen to know
That

Choices were made
Words were calculated
Actions were planned
Stories were told
Facts were hidden
Falsehoods were spread

On purpose

And Messed Up
Isn’t the truth

To forgive
When you happen to know

They meant it
They knew better
They realized
They thought it through

It’s tougher
As I said
With emphasis

But it can be done
It can, in fact, be done
Many times over

Step out of yourself for a moment

See yourself from another angle
See yourself as someone you needn’t protect
See yourself as someone mortal

Who will die
Who, in a way, doesn’t matter
Who can be rejected and neglected, at least for now

Consider Christ
Who asks this of you
Out of love for him, you can say

It doesn’t really matter, in the end
What good or harm was intended for me
While I lived my life on earth

What matters is
What good or harm I intended for others
While I lived my life on earth

With your eyes on Christ,
You can say
I will do your will

You ask for this
You give the grace for this
So I forgive

 

 

Nevertheless

I won’t be seeing you
Anytime soon

Trust me
It’s for your good
And mine

Yours
Because
You might say something you regret

Mine
Because
Caution is a form of self respect

 

Post 287
(A guest post)

December 15, 2017

. . . I am glad you came.

Do not worry . . . it is not your writing; it is mine. Do not worry, the punctuation can change; it is the same voice.

Do not worry about the future, for the future is filled with happiness; many things will change. The sky will become clear and blue, the air will be fresh, the sun shall be yellow [in all areas of the world] and one will be able to look at it without pain. Snow and cold will not be so cold and will not kill, and neither will heat. Remember my promises, and do not ever doubt what I say, for you have believed . . .

I love you . . . I will take care of you through thick and thin. I am always there, no matter where you are, whether in the fields or the forest, the plains or the mountains, or the desert or the ocean — I am with you always. When you are alone and distressed, I am with you. You can always put your trust in me.

[Regarding instructors and grades] . . . the marks given by those who mark fairly — those grades will remain. But those who are reluctant to give good marks, when deserved, are ignoring their conscience and not being honest, and this is not pleasing to God.

[“What about FTR?”] They have been chosen from around the world for a special purpose. It [FTR] will also show what you believed even on the other side, for there will be books, which I will supply, of the events that happened. It [FTR] is something that is also part of my plan. There will still be more [members] to go and come, and [but] the time is coming. I will show you who is supposed to stay and who is supposed to go. They also will be blessed for believing. Those who rejected this gift of God as ‘too strange’ or ‘dreaming’ will see it was real. All in it will see each other for the first time . . . And afterwards, many will rejoice, for their Saviour has returned.

Post 286
For my mother

Required Reading:
Four Truths About Motherhood to Counter the Four Modern Lies

The modern world has a commercial mindset, and views every aspect of human life through the lens of money. Everything is an object or a service to be bought and sold.

For this reason, the modern world has difficulty comprehending things done for free. It has special labels for one-time donations of time and energy (it’s a Random Act of Kindness!), but sustained projects, where there is no profit or fame, are confusing to the world. Even those who begin projects just for fun begin to feel, at one point or another, that they should be making money at their project. They begin a fashion blog, just for fun, but before you know it, their blog is filled from top to bottom with affiliate links. They begin a cleaning/organizing blog, just for fun, but before you know it, their blog is clogged with reminders to buy their upcoming book or to hire them as a speaker for your next event. It’s too bad. Why not continue how you began, when blogging was thought of as another hobby, something done for personal enjoyment, and not for profit?

Even volunteering is coloured by the same what’s-in-it-for-me mentality. People want to know that their volunteering efforts will be rewarded with free pizza, a free drink or two, a good view of the main act, a chance to meet people and a cool t-shirt. Afterwards, they’ll include the details of their volunteerism on their updated resume. There’s no crime here, of course, but my point is that if you want me to be impressed with your volunteer activities, let’s talk about why you volunteered in the first place.

The world doesn’t try to understand what cannot be bought and sold, and doesn’t try to understand those who operate on a relationship model as opposed to a profit model. The world sympathizes with volunteerism, to a point, but those who sacrifice ‘too much’ are viewed as, well, not too bright.

The world sends the message that if something is without price, then it must be without value. It’s a message that, sadly, many people have accepted and internalized.

Far too many otherwise-intelligent men and women believe that those who earn less money have less value as human beings.

This belief, incidentally, is behind much of the discrimination against children. Children are treated as unimportant, and are quite openly spurned, laughed at and discounted. They are viewed as simple and transparent, when the reality is that their thoughts, feelings, struggles, dreams, wants and needs are usually quite hidden from view. The truth is that the nine-year old girl that you see before you is just as complex as you are; the five-year old boy that you see is as much of a mystery as you are. They are often more intelligent, sensible and wise than you are, and they are often holier than you. Dismiss them at your peril.

People value themselves and each other based on money — specifically, take-home income. You can’t say they are competing on net-worth, because people hide the amount of personal debt they have. They compete on perceived take-home income, assuming that the more you make, the more you’ll have.

And so it is that motherhood is undervalued. Motherhood is seen as a trade that earns no income, and so motherhood, on its own, is considered incomplete.

LIE #1: “Motherhood is not a real job.”

I wrote the lie this way because this is exactly how much of the post-feminist world views motherhood, society and the purpose of life. The lie takes for granted that the purpose of life is to succeed, to ‘define’ yourself by the money you make, and further assumes that you’ll be needing a job to define yourself.

By the standards of the world, things are ‘real’ when they involve money, and of course, the bigger the bucks, the ‘realer’ they are. This lie puts motherhood into the category of temporary work or volunteering, something which can be undertaken for a while, but which should ultimately be replaced (or at least supplemented) by something more dollars-and-cents-ible.

I disagree with those who try to win approval for motherhood by showing how similar motherhood is to familiar occupations. A mother, they say, is a short-order cook, a baker, a janitor, a nurse, an event coordinator, a personal assistant, a secretary, a mentor, a teacher, a gardener, a taxi-driver. They go on to say that the woman who stays at home deserves to be paid such-and-such an annual sum, when you consider that she works about 16 hours a day, is on call, and switches between all of these tasks at a moment’s notice.

No, no, no. By justifying motherhood by its workplace equivalents, and by coming up with some sort of a price tag, one is falling into the trap of quantifying economically what should not be quantified economically. Motherhood is not meant to be measured or thought of in economic terms. It must be viewed in terms of relationship, not in terms of commerce. People are, at their core, relational beings, not commercial ones.

Similarly, even if someone were to stand up and show graphs and charts, spanning generations, proving that there are long-term economic benefits to a society if mothers stay home to raise their children into adulthood, I would still caution against evaluating motherhood in terms of economic prosperity.

The truth is that motherhood is a gift.

TRUTH #1: Motherhood is a gift.

There are three vocations:
1) Married life
2) Religious life (priest, brother, sister)
3) Single life

Motherhood is distinct from the mothering instinct, the latter being something which comes with being female. The mothering instinct can be evident through the stereotypical expressions, such as wanting to take care of dolls or wanting to hold babies, but it is not limited to these expressions. The empathy, compassion and tenderness that a woman feels towards friends, parents, communities and nations are also expressions of the mothering instinct.

Motherhood is a natural result of married life, which is one of the three vocations, but openness to motherhood, in and of itself, does not guarantee that one will become a mother.

Motherhood is, after all, a gift. It’s not something that you earn, or that you’re entitled to by right. It’s a free gift of God, and it’s one of the biggest gifts a human being can receive: another human being.

When it comes to gifts, there are right ways to receive them and there are wrong ways.

Accepting the gift of motherhood properly means accepting it with your whole heart, and accepting it as a relationship. It means treating it with awe and respect, and giving it a preeminent spot in one’s life. Indeed, very little should come before it.

God is first. Family life is second.

Everything else can scramble for third place.

Motherhood must not be viewed as a burden, and evaluated according to how much money it costs or how much it hampers your earning capacity. It should not be viewed as a temporary occupation which takes you out of the workplace, aka ‘the real world.’ Motherhood is not something that interrupts your life. Motherhood is a gift of life, and a gift of relationship.

LIE #2: “Children need to go to school.”

When I think about schools, I hardly know where to begin.

The problem with schools is that most of society has stopped thinking about them. Children spend the best part of their daily lives there, for years, and society turns a deaf ear to children who say they don’t enjoy it.

Your opinion, if you are young enough, just doesn’t matter.

Let’s think about schools.

Let’s think about everything about them. Let’s think about the average day of a student. Let’s think about all of the decisions that are made about their lives by people who don’t know them and who don’t care about them.

You will see that most of the rules which shape the life of a child in school are designed to make the child ‘manageable.’ Any time you have a group of living beings confined against their will, the trick is to make them manageable. Consider prisons or asylums or zoos.

Various measures are put into place in order to maintain control over children in school. Children are divided into different rooms and these rooms are governed by adults (‘teachers’) who are assigned to them. The children are told when and where to sit and stand, and occasionally they are told to lie down on the floor. Sometimes they are told not to run, and sometimes they are told to run. They are required to participate in various physical activities at times chosen by others (‘physical education’). They are told when they may or may not eat. They must request permission to drink water or to use the washroom. They are made to stand in lines, and younger children are often told to put their hands behind their backs while they stand or walk in these lines. Silence is enforced repeatedly, using various techniques. These are the physical elements of control.

Most teachers will tell you that all of this control is necessary.

Teachers like control because it makes their job easier. Teaching is, after all, a job.

Once control is achieved, after a greater or lesser struggle, requiring minimal or great amounts of time, and minimal or great amounts of psychological manipulation, the goal is to deal with the minds of the children.

Let’s think about that part too.

Students are required to learn things that they don’t care about, using resources that they haven’t chosen and methods that may or may not be interesting. They are required to complete craft projects at a moment’s notice with almost no latitude for artistic freedom, and read ‘literature’ that virtually no adult would willingly inflict upon himself. They are made to stand in front of the class to give presentations and answer questions. They are made to write about things that don’t interest them. They are shown movies that they haven’t chosen (often on a daily basis because many classrooms nowadays use videos as a babysitter during lunch, free-time, and indoor recess) and they are required to sing songs that are wretched.

Now let’s think about the teachers.

The teachers are there because they are paid to be there. If you took away their salaries, they would not volunteer to do what they do.

A teacher is an average person, to the extent that there is such a thing as an average person. A teacher is, for the most part, of average intelligence. It is not particularly difficult, in the U.S. or Canada, to become one. Getting into the faculty of education has always been easier than getting into most other faculties, and once you’re in, the courses are not difficult. You’d be surprised and a little disturbed to see how many courses are about psychology. The student graduating with a Bachelor of Education degree believes that she has learned a lot about how to get children to behave the way she wants, using cutting-edge psychological ‘tools.’

Alright. So you have an average person with an average intellect going to work. The workplace is physically clean and safe, the physical demands are minimal, and the chances that one will be injured or die on the job site are next to nil. The hours are typical for a white-collar occupation, and there are many days off. The government pays the salary, and the salary is better than decent, with increases based on seniority, and not on performance. There’s no fight for clients or customers. Job security is good. As for status, it’s excellent. Society smiles upon teachers, believing the lie that it takes a whole village to raise a child.

There are two things that are very difficult about being a teacher.

The first is that it is very difficult to secure control over a group of individuals who are being confined against their will, and being made to follow someone else’s game plan. Unlike teachers, students are not being paid to be there. They have no choice.

The second is that a teacher must interact with other teachers and staff. In almost any school, the internal conflict between the adults is apparent within a few hours of interacting with the staff. Almost any observant person will soon see that the staff at a school is divided in many ways. Various factions vie for recognition and perks. Teachers watch for opportunities to expand their own circle of influence, so that their opinions about who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad,’ will have the desired effect. The teachers who are unpopular are avoided, talked about, taken advantage of, not helped, and even sabotaged. Teachers smile and fawn upon the principal or others who seem powerful (“Ooh, I love your hair!” “You need to go home and get some rest!” “Of COURSE I’d love to help you out with that!”), but it’s artificial, and they’ll tell you what they really think, if it would be to their advantage. Indeed, if you’re in a school when everyone seems to have gone home, you may stumble upon Teacher A griping to Teacher B about Teacher C, or about the principal. And in a school where the women outnumber the men, the men become the sounding-board for the grievances of many female teachers; they expect the male teachers to take their side, husband-style. These men learn to sound sympathetic, because that’s the game they play.

I believe that schools suffer from in-fighting and back-stabbing more than the average business because businesses generally need to move and operate more quickly than government institutions. Businesses are like rivers, flowing constantly and changing to adapt to the customers, which is their environment. Survival is less of a sure thing, and false moves may mean that the company dries up. By comparison, a school is like a stagnant pond, where nobody is there because they want to be, but where everyone can safely predict the school will go on. Sure, politics are everywhere, and social climbers play games everywhere, but some places are worse than others. Schools are some of the worst, and I sympathize with teachers who are there to teach.

Dealing with the parents is popularly seen as one of the difficult aspects of being a teacher, but for the most part, parents are quite afraid to rock the boat. Parents are generally compliant when the schools make rules about what their children are allowed to have in their lunch boxes, and what their children must do for homework, and what money or objects the parents need to supply. The parents generally don’t protest when the school dress code changes or when the pick-up or drop-off rules change. The parents generally hide their frustrations from the teachers and school administrators. Once at home, however, the parents become easily exasperated about homework issues, and parents often live with the fear of being judged by the school for any number of things (will the school think I’m a bad parent if . . . ?).

Indeed, anyone looking at the situation from the outside would think that the child and the parent exist to please the school.

The lie is that children need to go to school, but the schools and the teachers are the ones who need the children. The government gives money to the schools based on how many students are enrolled. No students means no money, which means no teacher salaries.

School administrators are tempted to see children as dollar signs, and this applies to administrators in the public system, the private system and the homeschool system. More students means more money.

I write all of this about schools because the lie that children need schools is damaging to motherhood and family life. Sending your child to school damages the bond that you have with your child because it drastically reduces the time that you have to spend together. What time you do have with your child will be spent satisfying the schools. Your child’s sleep schedule will be based on what works best for the school. Your child’s evenings will often involve homework, assigned by the school. The energy of the child is consumed by the school; there is far less time for family life. Further, when the parent sends the child to school, the child learns that the parent will not be there to assist him. He is to fend for himself in all of the experiences of the school day, and there are many. It’s called ‘learning to be independent,’ but independence is misunderstood when it comes to children. When you want to be independent, you break away. Children are not breaking away when they go to school. They are being sent away. There’s no choice involved; it’s compulsion, approved by the state and almost all of society. Children have no choice but to deal with everything with little to no help. The child learns to turn to friends to share what can be shared, but the painful experiences aren’t easily confided, and so the child is sometimes left to carry these burdens alone. The suffering of children is so often hidden. Mainly, they pretend they aren’t suffering.

Not long ago, I told a teacher that a student was crying. She was dismissive: “Someone’s always crying.”

The lie is that children need schools. They don’t need them. Teach your child to read when your child seems ready to read, and the rest will work out on its own. We’re in a very literate society now, and there are resources upon resources available to everyone. Being able to read unlocks millions of doors.

There is no need to separate from your child. Your child will be fine without school, and will learn at home everything that she needs to know and more. Given freedom, your child will discover what she’s interested in, and will astound you by becoming quite the expert. Let it happen. Don’t believe that schools are necessary for human development. The truth is that civilization has functioned quite well without schools. The modern school is a failed experiment.

If you want your child to be properly socialized, then develop a deeper relationship with your child. Be available to your child. Give your child the experience of a relationship grounded in unconditional love. Feeling loved is the best foundation to prepare your child for life. Feeling loved is the best education, because it gives a person the confidence to fully accept others, and it teaches a person how to build relationships.

This is an education that your child will not receive in school. It is a very rare thing for a child to feel loved in school. The varied friendships and ‘friendships,’ experienced by children are not loving ones. They are more like political alliances, fleeting and dependent on so many things. In a word, those relationships are conditional.

Teach your child what it is to be a friend. To be a friend is, first, to care deeply about the welfare of the other. When you genuinely care about someone — when you love someone — you want everything good for them, in this world and the next. To be a friend is, second, to share. This idea of sharing is barely understood nowadays, because we share so little, being part of an affluent society.

Let’s talk about it in terms of the family. The normal mindset is that a parent provides for the household, and provides for the children. The dynamic is understood as a system where the adults do all the giving and the children do all the receiving. Jokes abound about children as the annoying needy ones, which is so tragic. The parents are, on this model, the keepers of the treasure, and they must be very stingy with it, so as not to increase expectations and so as to avoid ‘spoiling’ the child. There’s a lot of tension with that mindset. It’s time to reframe this whole relationship. Think of the relationship in terms of sharing. Be wiling to share the things that you own in a non-grudging way. Be glad that you can share your home with your child. Instead of shining up your home for the upcoming book club and the party you’re going to host, think about sharing these nice things with your family. That’s your team. Your team is not your bible study group or your bridge pals. Currently, so many people trip over themselves to be good and generous hosts while asking family members to put up with that dull and ordinary second best whatever. It’s not right. Stop saving everything ‘for company.’ What’s the motivation behind that anyway? Is it really about being thoughtful to your guests? Sure, sometimes it is. But most of the time, it’s about impressing them with your ‘taste’ or talents or wealth. What a waste of time. Be glad that your hard work has allowed you to obtain food and other necessities that you can share with the family God gave you. Be glad that you can enjoy the little extras with your child. Be cheerful when you shop with your child at the grocery store; buying the things that look good, on the spur of the moment, can feel like a delightful conspiracy. So what if your cart is filled with chips and pop this time? Maybe you all have a craving; it’s nobody’s business. As much as possible, make household objects belong to everyone. You already live together; why not share? Mothers should be willing to make their items available for their daughters, especially if these items would otherwise sit unused most of the time. That purse, this necklace, those rings — who cares? Life is short and your daughter won’t forget your generosity and your healthy attitude towards worldly trinkets. What’s the alternative? She waits for your death in order to use your Gucci purse? That’s just gross.

Now let’s talk about other kinds of sharing. Talents are worth mentioning. Share your talents with your children. Let them into that part of your world, instead of waiting until they’re away or asleep to enjoy your special interests. Why does your best friend know more about you than your kids do? It’s time to open up. Cancel your girls night out and tell your no-longer-young daughters about dating and about the romances you had that were never meant to last. Tell them about getting engaged. Hearing your tales of what worked and what didn’t will be illuminating. They’ll be wide-eyed and laugh with you and maybe even cry with you. By the time you’re done, they’ll understand you so much better. They’ll get you. Hello, in-jokes. Hello, openness and communication.

Why do parents think that their children will confide in them when they never confide in their children? Let’s be transparent, especially within our own families. Don’t pretend you were spotless when you were young, neither thinking, hearing nor seeing anything evil. Revealing what you learned and suffered will not create a license for them to choose wrongly. That’s a lie. Let’s talk about the past and the present. If you feel hurt by an outsider or by someone in your family, go ahead and say what you feel. You’ll get to the bottom of it, and your relationship will be strengthened in the end. Don’t be reluctant to reveal to your children what you actually like and don’t like. Don’t be scared; the truth is that everyone is embarrassed to admit they like certain things. Let them read your emails. Show them the draft before you hit ‘send,’ because their input might be mighty insightful. Tell your child about the future you dream of. It’s okay. Be vulnerable. If you feel like it would be really cool to be a rock star, or learn to speak Irish, go ahead and say it. And tell your child about the things you fear. Do you fear getting old? Are you afraid of looking stupid at the upcoming talk? Are you worried about finances? It’s okay. Be vulnerable. Secrets are part of being in relationship. Share your secrets. Show your children who you really are; develop an authentic and deep relationship that can weather distance and time.

A child learns about socialization by experiencing relationships. It is family life, and not school life, that offers the best opportunity to be in authentic relationships shaped by unconditional love. What a lie it is that a child needs to be in school in order to become socialized! School separates the child from his family for most of his young life. In exchange for strengthening his relationship with his family, a child is given hours within the artificial and constraining atmosphere of the school, always interacting with children his own age. These interactions are usually superficial and almost always fleeting. The lessons learned with such relationships are often bittersweet. Children learn to avoid seeming and being vulnerable; they learn that popularity can be achieved by certain methods, and that the cost of unpopularity can be very high.

It’s time to bring them home, mama.

Truth #2: Children do not need school to learn or to be socialized.

Lie #3: “In this day and age, children need to develop certain skills.”

This lie suggests to people that the prospects for future happiness (usually referred to as ‘success,’ as if financial success results in happiness) are increased in proportion to the number of skills that you acquire. You should have ‘marketable skills.’ You should be ‘marketable,’ it is said, as if you are for sale — as if you are a cantaloupe on display.

This lie hits parents hard. Parents want to line everything up so that their child will be able to compete in the ‘real world.’ They think about rounding out their child’s portfolio of skills. What shall it be? Hockey, football or basketball? Soccer? Cheer-leading or softball? Gymnastics? Something artsy? How about an instrument? Violins are great, but what about the viola? Accordion, anyone? How about singing or ‘speech arts’? What about a leadership club and how about signing up for the Save-The-Earth-on-Tuesdays-and-Thursdays-Club?

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t view these extra-curricular activities the same way I view schools, the most obvious difference being that they can usually be discontinued if they’re not working out. It’s good that these activities and the instructors for these activities are chosen by the child and the family, not imposed on the outside world in a heavy-handed way.

Nevertheless, there’s a pressure associated with the notion of skills. The message is that your effectiveness as a parent can be measured by the length of your child’s resume. Moreover, the child’s very image becomes very tied to his or her extracurricular activities. The extracurricular activities thus become burdened by considerations apart from whether the child is enjoying them, and before you know it, Dexter can’t drop out of hockey because of what his friends might think, and Kassidy can’t drop out of piano because of what her mother’s friend might think. Compulsion rears its ugly head.

So much has already been written about the over-scheduling of kids, so you already understand the issue. The issue is that the child and the family lose too much time which could be spent together. The modern notion of skill acquisition is an attack on motherhood because it changes everyone’s idea of what successful motherhood looks like. Instead of valuing time together and developing a meaningful relationship with her child, the mother feels pressure to have something to ‘show’ for her child’s years with her. It needs to be obvious that she ‘got things done,’ that she and her child were ‘productive.’ She made sure her child learned to swim, skate and ski. She put her daughter through dance and her son through hockey. Her daughter knows how to change a tire and her son knows how to cook — because the mother is up-to-date like that.

Whew.

But I’m not quite done. I want to say three things. First, the mad scramble to quickly acquire skills underestimates the ability we have as adults to learn a lot and to have fun doing so. People enjoy learning things that interest them, and so there’s no need to act as though what’s not learned early won’t be learned at all. Second, many extracurricular activities are a bad influence anyway, raising false hopes and skewing priorities, and even fostering arrogance by giving children the illusion that they are experts. Third, sometimes God asks us to give up things that are perfectly good. He might ask you to give up something that you’re excelling at, and which you enjoy. He may ask you, either through prayer and reflection or through unavoidable circumstance, to give up something which you’ve always associated with being a good mother, such as having an organized schedule, making home-cooked meals, or reading bed-time stories to your children at the end of the day. It just may be that he tests you, to see if you can still say, “thy will be done.”

Truth #3: Skills, Schmills. God will use you where he needs you and you’ll be ready.

Lie #4: “You don’t want to be a helicopter parent.”

The phrase “helicopter parent” is meant to refer to a parent who is always around, hovering nearby, when the parent should be gone. It is a derisive phrase, obviously, and is typically used by those people who want to be alone with the child. They dislike the supervision and interference of the parent. Such parents are ‘getting in the way’ of a proper learning experience, or a proper social experience. It is also used by parents who are less involved with their children, who want to find a term which scorns and impugns parents who stay near their children.

Nevertheless, the negative motives of those who give the phrase its power are not the point. The fact is that the phrase exists, and it exists as a lie. The message is that if you knew better, then you would avoid suffocating your child, and stunting her development as a person. If you knew better, you would see the damage that you are doing to your child, preventing her from interacting with the ‘real world’ in a legitimate way. Your involvement is detrimental to your child, because when you are nearby, you are distracting her and unduly restricting her freedom.

Lies, lies, lies.

The truth is that a mother who loves her child is sensitive to her child and knows her child. In the context of a close relationship, numerous personal details have been worked out, and it is not for the outsider to determine what works or what doesn’t work for them. To judge by outside behaviour is to underestimate the ability of mother and child to understand each other. To judge by outside behaviour is to underestimate the goals of the mother and child. Does closeness between mother and child mean that the mother wants her child to become helpless, with no mind or will of his own? Does closeness between mother and child mean that the mother wants her child to be an imitation of her? Why these assumptions? What do you know about the preferences of each? What do you know about the extent of consultation and discussion that has occurred beforehand, and will occur afterwards? What do you know about the plans and goals of parent and child? What do you know about God’s plan for the mother and her child?

The relationship between mother and child begins as a hidden one. My point is that the quality of hiddenness can continue, long after outside observers fail to see the need for a connection. Jesus stayed with his mother when he was a fully-grown adult. I say this not in order to say that people should live at home until the age of thirty, as Christ did, but in order to say that Mary, the best mother the world has ever had, is distinguishable not only by the fact that she gave birth to the Saviour, but also by the fact that she was always there. She was always available to him.

Truth #4: The Blessed Virgin was a helicopter parent too.

Summary

Abortion and contraception are, of course, attacks on motherhood, but our society’s hostility to motherhood does not end there. This blog post has addressed four lies which attack motherhood. Each lie accomplishes this by separating the mother from the child, in order to reduce the strength of the bond between the two. Lie #1, that motherhood is not a real job, does the most damage, as it puts pressure on women to work outside the home, with the idea that ‘the real world,’ of commerce, is more important than relationships. The truth is that motherhood is a gift from God, and proper acceptance of this gift entails making God and family life a priority. Lie #2, that children need to go to school, is the other side of this false coin. School, in its present form, is a waste of precious time, because both learning and socializing are better done outside of it. These two lies, taken together, have the effect of sending the mother this way, and the child that way. Lie #3, that children need to develop skills, has the effect of eroding whatever remaining hours that the mother has with her child. The mother, far from being a destination for the child (along with the rest of the family), becomes the means by which the child reaches other destinations, and she becomes little more than the one who drives the child to a playgroup, a club, a practice, a job. Lie #4 is similar, in that it attacks the way that mother and child interact during free time. It challenges the nature and style of the interaction between mother and child, but also adds insult to injury, because it second-guesses the mother’s ability to make sound decisions for her child, and the child’s ability to communicate his preferences to his mother. The lie of the ‘helicopter parent’ is that you wouldn’t want to be one. To the extent that being a helicopter parent means being available and attentive to the needs of one’s child, we can safely say that Mary, mother of Jesus, was the best pilot of all. But before you picture her rising up and speeding away, let me bring you a different picture completely.

Look there. Do you see her?

There she stands, at the foot of the Cross. I suppose you could say she is grounded. She is sorrowful, yes, but she is also steady and strong.

She waits. Soon she will hold her Son in her arms again.

Blessed art thou amongst women.