All posts by Ryan Kraeger

Ryan Kraeger is a cradle Catholic homeschool graduate, who has served in the Army as a Combat Engineer and as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant. He now lives with his wife Kathleen and daughter Evelyn near Tacoma, WA and plans on going to school to become a Physician's Assistant. He enjoys reading, thinking, and conversation, the making and eating of gourmet pizza, shooting and martial arts, and the occasional dark beer. His website is The Man Who Would Be Knight.

Sicario, Excitement and Paying Your Dues

Recently a trailer for the movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” came across my Facebook feed. It was not a typical trailer. Typically a movie trailer shows clips from the movie with pulse-pounding soundtrack, and possibly a deep, gravelly, middle-aged male voice-over. This trailer had scenes from the movie, but it had explanatory subtitles explaining how the movie related to real-life drug wars. It explained that the movie demonstrated how cartels bring a complicated reality to south and central America, and that the violence that erupts between them is more like a guerrilla war, or even a conventional war, than it is like U.S. gang violence. When that violence spills over onto American soil two of the movie’s characters (who I gather were adversaries in the first film) will join forces to “start a war.” My assumption is that they were trying to aggravate violence south of the border in hopes that it would either draw the violence away from U.S. soil, or provide a reason for U.S. forces to engage in the war outside the U.S.

I don’t have much taste for war movies, or even crime movies, anymore, so up until now the trailer was disquieting but not particularly memorable. But it was the last line that really got me thinking. The final scene of the trailer had the words, “Come experience the excitement in theaters.”

Seriously? That’s what this is about?

I mean, I knew that’s what this was about. It’s an action film, designed to be exciting and to convince people to spend money to experience that excitement, ultimately in order to make money for the directors, producers, actors, investors, etc. Money is the goal, sex and violence sell. Of course they want you to come and experience the excitement.

I just didn’t expect them to be so… bald about it. So obvious.

Essentially the movie makers are selling an experience of adrenaline. In that sense they are no different than the makers of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battleground, Halo, or any of a thousand combat related video games. They are trying to simulate the excitement of combat in a marketable package, i.e. a package that involves no risk of bodily injury or death, no heat, dust, sweat, boredom, no training, no discipline, no obedience, no separation from family…

… see where I am going with this?

I will not deny that war is exciting. Having spent some time in war myself, I acknowledge that some of the most exciting moments of my life have occurred in war, formed of the level of adrenaline, focus, clarity and just sheer aliveness that, for most people not saints, only occurs when your life is in jeopardy. I will go further and say that a young man could do worse than make a career of pursuing that excitement. It is not excitement that I am against, it is cheap thrills.

Violence, like sex, excites because it is a matter of life and death. We were made for life and death, for real struggle, real investment, real risk and real growth. That is, we were made to fight real bad guys to rescue real good guys (both physically and spiritually). We were also made to make real love that forms real relationships and real babies. There is a proper place for both sex and violence in art, namely to illustrate the truth of these realities and to inform our choices about them in the real world.

The problem with video games and action movies is not that they are realistic and exciting, but that they are not real. When you go to a movie theater to watch people get killed on the big screen you invest nothing of yourself. You feel the rush and roller-coaster, and you may even have a significant emotional event, but when that experience is over you have not changed. You are still the same person you were before the movie. You may have a new appreciation of some topical issue of the day, you may be emotionally moved, you may have had a spiritual epiphany, but unless that mental and emotional reaction is translated into decision, and from decision to action, and from action to habit, it has not changed you.

It is necessary to bear this in mind when watching war movies. If you want to experience the excitement of a firefight, or of fighting a fire, or of digging up IED’s, then pursue that. Join the military, or the police force, or the fire department. Suffer through basic training, put in thousands of hours at the gym, thousands of miles on your feet, training-for-ruck-marches-imagethousands of rounds on the range. Obey the orders of those appointed over you, deny your own inclinations, place yourself at the service of your team. Learn to be faithful in little things. Make your bunk, sweep your floor, scrub the platoon’s toilets. Do maintenance on your vehicles and equipment, take pride in them. Endure the boredom of sitting in a firing position all night, or of driving down dusty roads 12 hours a day. Accept the banality of having to answer to idiots and power-trippers who are in charge of you only because they have been in a few months longer. Miss your chance for a “real” fight time and time again, and still keep showing up to work, putting in your time, taking pride in your performance. Volunteer for harder, more difficult assignments, accept greater responsibility.

Sooner or later you may get your chance to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Or maybe you won’t. But if you pay your dues for enough years you will gain something better. You will learn that excitement is not an end, but a byproduct. It is something that happens when you are engaged in meaningful work, because meaningful work in this world is always risky, but you will not pursue the excitement anymore, you will pursue the meaning.

This is something you will not get from action movies or video games. You can only get it from life.

Images: PD-US

Catholicism is Impossible

“Baby Jesus” by Jennifer Hickey

Earlier this week a friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by Melinda Selmys of Catholic Authenticity on Patheos. In the blog she describes some of the challenges surrounding the use of NFP, particularly the issues that arise when the risk of an unintended pregnancy are so high as to be unacceptable, but abstaining from sexual intercourse is not conducive to mental and emotional health. A priest told her in essence to try her best, and if she failed to know that she really was trying and to leave it in God’s hands. She describes the mind games encouraged by this situation, saying:

“What it meant was that I was in a position where I couldn’t have a realistic discussion about what I actually wanted in my sex life… but provided I was responding to seduction, swept away by my passions, or just doing it because I felt pressure it wasn’t really my fault.”

I recognize this mind game in my own life. To pick one example, let’s say I have composed a particularly biting and sarcastic email, deliberately not giving myself time to think, stifling that nagging feeling that maybe I should reconsider or at least wait a few hours, and pushed the send button before I could come to my senses. Later on in the throes of regret I told myself it was “in the heat of anger.” It wasn’t. I wanted to be cruel, and I encouraged and hid behind a feeling of anger to make that cruelty possible, and now I allow myself enough regret to make me feel I am not so uncharitable after all.

She goes on to say:

“–the attitude that I generally find in Catholic chastity culture… external circumstances are always the Cross that God is calling you to bear. Internal weakness, on the other hand, is natural. Everybody stumbles. It’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody actually practices the teaching. It’s understood that you are going to succumb to passion, that “frequent recourse to the confessional” will be necessary. That if you’re actually rigid enough to follow the teaching as you profess it, well,  probably that would be harmful. But nobody actually does that.”
I do not know if the author actually believes this statement of the “dirty little secret” of NFP, i.e. that no one actually practices it strictly. The comment boxes, both on the particular Facebook thread I read, and on the article itself, contained both rebuttals and affirmations of it. In any event, I don’t want to turn this into an NFP blog. For what its worth, my wife and I practice NFP, it doesn’t seem to cause us too much stress (Deo Gratias), and I don’t think I have ever come across this “Catholic chastity culture” she references, so my two cents on the topic would likely be neither here nor there.

Rather, I want to address the unspoken assumption at the heart of some of the comments, and of much of the debate around (insert hot button topic of sexual ethics in the Church today). NFP is one such arena, but I have personally heard this argument used more frequently in regards to debates around homosexual behaviors and lifestyles, and reception of sacraments by divorced and cohabitating couples. Very few are even talking about what I consider to be the real epidemic, that of pornography within the Church. The argument goes something like this:

“Sure the Church teaches X, Y and Z. But that is not what people actually do. Lots of great Catholics do exactly the opposite and they are still good people, and it’s just a shame that they can’t be more open about it until the oppressive, backwards Church changes her teaching to reflect how people actually practice.”
The problem is that this thinking is 100% wrong-headed. It is exactly backwards.

Whenever I hear this argument used, i.e. that the Church should adjust her teaching to practice, because her ethic is just too hard for people to live up to, I can’t help but think they have understated their case. God’s commandments are not too hard.

They are impossible.

Of course NFP is hard (for a lot of people, not for everyone). Chastity in general is hard. And, as Dorothy Sayers would remind us, lust is not the only deadly sin. There are, in fact, six more, though we often tend to ignore them. Temperance is hard, industry and frugality are hard, generosity is hard, honesty and patience are hard, mercy and justice are hard, and of course, don’t even get me started about humility and charity.

Let me repeat the title of this blog: “Catholicism is impossible.” We get hung up on pelvic issues, (NFP, contraception, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, but always on the one that other people are committing) possibly because these are so noticeable, possibly because we are just obsessed with sex as a race. We talk about everyone else’s sleeping arrangements and never notice our own sins of gossip and slander. We neglect to mention the extortion, usury, greed and envy that are the backbone of our nation’s economy. We don’t bat an eye over the gluttony and sloth wreaking havoc on our health and happiness.

Have you read the Sermon on the Mount recently?
Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

Or to pick another example:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:22-27
Since when has ease or convenience ever been one of the Gospel’s selling points? This is the standard we are called to live up to.

Everyone has a secret failing. For some, NFP is hard. Probably for most. Those for whom it is easy do others a disservice when they act or speak as if it should therefore be easy for everyone, or as if it was easy because of their own merits or strength. Continence, which means perfect control over the appetites, is a gift of God, given to all eventually if they struggle long enough (everyone is continent in Heaven) but very few seem to receive it right away.

Likewise, those for whom patience comes naturally should no go around telling everyone else that patience is easy. The same for every other virtue/vice.
But those who think that the Church should change her teaching to reflect practice have mistaken what the Church’s teaching is. It is not an arbitrary decision that some actions are okay and others are not. When the CDC tells us not to smoke tobacco it is not because a bunch of old white men in D.C. decided that they hate tobacco and are choosing to punish those who like it with cancer. The Church makes statements about what she believes to be fact: e.g. homosexual activity is not in keeping with the best nature of man; usury is not in keeping with love of neighbor; contraception is harmful to marriages and societies; gossip is harmful to communities and souls, and so on and so forth. We may agree or disagree, but let us not have any muddled thinking that these teachings ought to be based upon what people actually do. If people actually were chaste, just, temperate, merciful, humble and charitable, we would not need teachings. We need these teaching because we are, in fact, unchaste, unjust, intemperate, vengeful, proud and selfish. We need to teachings to tell us when we have fallen short, and to warn us to try harder.
I will share with you my own discovery from that process of trying harder, that if you try to battle a besetting sin long enough you will find that two things are true:
  1. You are not really trying as hard as you think you are. You have not resisted to the point of shedding blood, you have not quit your job, moved towns, smashed your computer, engaged an accountability partner, changed your route to and from work, sold your car, cut off your hand or gouged out your eye. Until you have done those things, you aren’t really trying.
  2. Even when you do really try with every fiber of your being (that in itself is a gift) you will find it is impossible. Sure, you may rope yourself off from the sinful act itself but the desire is still there. Part of you still wants it. It is not a sin in itself, but it is not perfect continence either.
We must strive for perfection, not in the hopes that our striving will accomplish it, but so that our striving and failing may reveal our weakness and frailty to ourselves. Then we will pray as we ought, “Lord, I can do nothing on my own. Have Mercy on me, a Sinner, and save me by your power.”
 
When the humility, weakness and vulnerability of the Infant Jesus enters our souls and shapes them into His helpless image, (swaddled in a feeding trough, or nailed spread-eagled to a wooden beam, both show the same vulnerability) then His power will be made perfect in our weakness.
Merry Christmas! God Bless us All!

Witness to Love

A few years ago I had the opportunity to give a talk at John Paul the Great Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana. While I was there I enjoyed the hospitality of Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret, a young Catholic couple with three children. It was a wonderful stay, a great experience of traditional Cajun hospitality. The Catholic homeschooling alumni circle is very small so it turned out Mary-Rose actually grew up with my cousins in Virginia.

Fast forward to last year, I was scrolling through the National Catholic Register and saw Ryan and Mary-Rose featured in an article. Since then I have been in contact with them via facebook and email, and a few weeks ago Kathleen and I FaceTimed with them for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. About half of our conversation was just visiting with some great folks, but for a good part of it we talked about the Verrets’ new project called “Witness to Love.”

Based on their experience with marriage prep in their home parish over several years they began to see a troubling trend among the young couples they were seeing through the program. Too many of the young couples were not showing up in Church after their wedding day, and the five-year divorce rate was frighteningly high. After talking with over 400 couples in their parish and diocese, they began to notice a trend that those newlywed couples who maintained a solid relationship with their parish usually did so because of a personal relationship with people, specifically other couples, in that parish.

In response they developed a new marriage prep program which centers around the engaged couple choosing a couple within the parish that they know and respect, and asking them to be their mentors as they prepare for marriage. Both couples then begin a journey of preparation, facilitated by the parish, which ideally results in closer ties to the parish community and a long term relationship between the two couples that can at need serve as a lifeline as they move through the challenges of married life.
What follows is an excerpt from an interview that Kathleen and I conducted with the Verret’s via FaceTime last Saturday. You can read the full transcript here.

Ryan K: The place to start is for readers who have never heard of it before, who have never heard of Witness to Love. In a few words, what is your bottom line take away, where did it come from, what are you trying to do with it?
(Ryan and Mary-Rose looking back and forth at each other, laughing.)
Mary-Rose: Kind of a “tag-you’re-it.” Okay. Witness to Love really came from a place of desperation and prayer. We saw couples that were getting divorced not long after the wedding, which is normal, but discouraging, especially when it is couples that you’ve worked with and tried to walk with.
Ryan K: From your parish Marriage Prep program?
Ryan V: Yeah, couples that you’ve had in your own home.
Mary-Rose: Yeah, couples that we’ve sat down with, on our sofa, and, you know, they had assigned mentors that we worked with, and they never reached out for help. It just… the frustration from dealing with those situations over and over again. I think that often people don’t actually scratch the surface enough in the parish or the diocese to find out what is going on with these couples. We’re not set up in such a way to follow-up with them, to know if they get divorced. It’s such a small percentage of people who come forward for annulments when they get divorced. We don’t know how many people in our congregation don’t actually become part of the congregation, and we don’t know how many are actually separated or divorced. So Witness to Love came from just getting involved in a community and seeing where these couples were ending up, if they were separated, if they were divorced, if they were not in church, and following up with these couples and interviewing them as to what happened? What went wrong? Why didn’t they ask for help? Why didn’t this older, assigned mentor model… why was it not working?

Ryan V: We had this very unique way of how this changed, instead of Jack and Jill going to the rectory when they had already rented the hall, and the florist, and the limo company and all these things, and they had their date. They can’t put that date on a calendar in a Witness to Love parish until they have chosen their mentors and have begun this whole process and understand how they’re going to grow. So they don’t like it.
Ryan K: That’s a fairly radical change of practice.
Ryan V: But the priests when they get on board with it, they like it because they know they aren’t just going to be a sacramental vending machine.

Ryan K: So can you talk a little bit about the mentor couple. You mentioned some of the criteria that need to be met [mentor couples must be chosen by the engaged couple, must be married more than five years, active in the parish, and have a marriage the engaged couple admires]. Are they vetted through the parish, or is there a process that the mentor couples have to go through of formation?
Mary-Rose: That’s a great question, and I think that’s the question that priests, or deacons, or anyone who is involved in marriage prep, especially if they’ve understood the traditional model, would say, “Wow, these mentors need to be vetted, trained, and this all has to work.”
Ryan V: In the traditional model, mentor couples are expected to be sort of catechists. They are expected to be theological, spiritual, kind of moral experts, whatever that means. But our starting point was, this is not step one of getting a person involved in the faith process. They need to see a witness, I wouldn’t say particularly a “relationship expert,” but if you’re going to find someone who has been married five years or more, and who has a marriage that you look up to, and that is in the church, going to Mass, that’s pretty vague.
Mary-Rose: Intentionally so.

Kathleen: Yeah, that [traditional model] is essentially the type of program we had. Ryan was going to be deployed for over half of our engagement.
Ryan K: Which of course brings in its own set of challenges, but they were a couple out of… where were they?
Kathleen: Colorado.
Ryan K: Colorado. And we never saw them face-to-face, we never heard of them before, we haven’t talked to them since. I think we got more out of a few dinners with Deacon George and his wife than we did out of all the sessions with… I don’t even remember their names.
Kathleen:  I couldn’t even tell you. Our assigned mentor couple.
Mary-Rose: It was assigned?
Ryan and Kathleen: Yes.
Ryan K: I think that kind of speaks to what you’re talking about, that kind of “check-the-block” mentality. So, you kind of think of couples as falling into two categories. There’s the kind that are already going to church, they are active in the parish, and they have a firm intention to stay married and be engaged with the parish afterward. So they may feel like they don’t really need this. And then there’s the couples who have not been active before, and may not know anyone in the parish. So how do you bridge that gap, someone who may not know any couples in the parish at all?
Mary-Rose: That is a great question, and I think, frankly, that is close to half of couples, they just can’t even make that leap and that connection. So we worked with parishes, we have, really the gift and the blessing of having some of the best pastors and the best parishes in the country who are very passionate about this and are committed to figuring it out. So we, over the years, have worked with these pastors to find solutions to these problems. And in working with these parishes we’ve found the solution of what we call, sort of cheeky, but “showcase couples.” [These are] couples where the parish says, “Look, these couples are, we feel, beautiful examples and beautiful witnesses of what marriage and family life is supposed to be like. These couples, we present them to you, you can choose any one of these couples. Here’s a little bit of information about each of them. We are happy to introduce you to the couples, and we are happy to tell you which couples we think might be a good fit for you, but you still have to choose and you still have to ask.”

Ryan K: So what would you say to the other half of the couples, or probably less than half, those few couples who say, “Hey, we’ve been attending this parish right along. We don’t really talk to anybody so we don’t know anybody here, but we’ve been going to Mass, and we’re not missing the sacraments, and we’re going to stay married. I don’t feel like we really need this.” What would you say to them?
Mary-Rose: We only grow in relationships.
Ryan V: We discovered this sort of line in reality that human beings only grow in relationship. You know we develop these personal gifts only in relationships with feedback, where honest feedback and honest growth can take place. I think it’s easy to see that our culture is attempting to thrive on isolation, and young people like to be connected, but not to really be committed. Tons of friends on Facebook, but if someone is having a crisis in their life, you know, unplanned pregnancy or whatever, and everyone is giving them the wrong advice, or doesn’t even respond. I think the reality is, if you’re going to grow as people then you need this kind of extension of what’s happening in your life, which leads into the parish life.
Mary-Rose: And I think, honestly, you have to examine if someone says, basically, I don’t need a mentor. I go to the parish but there isn’t really someone that I have met in this parish that I feel that I would be comfortable going on this journey with. That speaks, honestly, to two things. Either the parish is not providing opportunities for relationships, it is not a true community; or, the engaged couple is not engaging in the community. We know many couples who have been married a similar amount of years as us, and they were formed in Theology of the Body, they were going to church regularly, but they had, in many ways, isolated themselves from feedback, especially in regard to their marriage and their relationship. You know, you basically put on a public face, but you don’t let anyone get close enough to see that your marriage is actually in shambles, and there’s domestic abuse and there’s affairs. I mean, these are good couples, from good colleges, with lots of kids and beautiful families, but sometimes when you scratch the surface it’s a mess. No one is immune from divorce, and the more we isolate ourselves, no matter where we come from or where we go to church, the more likely we are to find ourselves in a difficult situation.

Ryan K: So one of the themes that kind of stuck out to us, you were talking about growth. Someone who says, “Hey, we are going to Mass, we are doing fine,” but they are stuck in a holding pattern. They are focused on where they are but what you guys are trying to do is to call people to not stay, not stagnate. If you are standing still, there is more. That was one of the things that stuck out to us first. Then there was the idea that having someone able to look into the inner reality of your marriage, or your relationship if you are not married yet, that’s scary. That kind of vulnerability where you can say (to another guy), “I can’t stand to be around her right now,” to have that relationship where you could say that to somebody, that takes some humility and some vulnerability. I can very easily see why that would not recommend itself to most guys.
Ryan V: Yeah, and that’s why I think it’s important to know that this is all designed to be gradual. It’s over time. And I think the mentor process, that after the wedding this is not done, but we are setting you up for a lifelong relationship. So there is time to grow and grow, and for things to go deeper.
Mary-Rose: We were meeting with some couples who were going through our process recently, and I remember one of the wives saying, “As a mentor couple, honestly I thought this was going to be easier, but you are really asking us… there is no surface level option in Witness to Love. When you first read the question you are thinking, how can I answer this in a superficial way, you can’t. You have to be honest, you have to be real, you have to be open. And the vulnerability that is required of you as the mentor couple, you basically have to admit that you’re broken. And how you got from where you were to where you are now, and share that with the engaged couple. And it’s difficult.” But it’s so healing. And when the engaged couple hears that this mentor couple that they really admire and really look up to isn’t perfect, and didn’t always have it together, and is even now growing and working on their marriage and you can’t ever say it’s good enough, the power in that! … I was just on the phone with a lady who is in her seventies and she was saying as the marriage prep coordinator for her parish, she was going through all this and she said, “You know, I realized we still have a lot we need to work on.” I was just like, wow! That’s awesome.
But we’re always, always going to be working. So for an engaged couple to say, “You know, I think we have a good thing going here, I don’t think we need this.” It’s just not possible.

 

Please check out Ryan and Mary-Rose’s work and consider supporting them through prayer and spreading the word.

 

Blessed are the Pure in Heart: pursuing a life of integrity

What does the word integrity mean to you?

Is it a catchphrase? Something that calls up vintage 1950’s sepia images of Boy Scouts saluting and pledging to keep themselves “physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight?” Does it evoke images of West Point Cadets, clean-cut and standing arrow straight in spotless uniforms? Captain America telling the world, “No. You move?”

Is it a word that you take seriously? Or is it a caricature, something that was drilled into your head in Basic Training as one of the “Army Values” by the same Drill Sergeant who taught out of the other side of his mouth “if you’re not cheating you’re not trying, and if you get caught you’re not good enough.”

Does integrity mean telling the truth? Doing what you believe is right?

For me, integrity means so much more than that.

The word integrity comes from the Latin word “integer.” This word, of course, survives in the English language in mathematics, where it indicates a whole number that is complete in itself. An integer is not a part of something, it is a whole, real number. It can be divided but the divisions are artificial, the number is real.

“Integer” is also the root of other words, such as integrated, and integral. Something that is integrated is drawn together into a cohesive whole. It speaks, not so much of homogeneity, but of unity. An integral part of something is a part that is not divisible from the whole without altering the nature of that whole.

It is this linguistic background that informs my view of integrity. When I speak of the “integrated life” or a life of integrity (I prefer the former term) I mean a life lived without contradiction (speaking against) or duplicity (duplex, double-ness, two-faced-ness). That is, I strive to bring every aspect of the human person (myself) into absolute, perfect cooperative synchronicity with every other part.

This is hard to explain in abstract terms, but there are a number of metaphors and examples that I think of in connection with it. I like the image of a fencing lunge, in which the entire body drives behind the tiny point of a flexible foil. The slightest disunity of the body, the smallest mis-coordination between the body parts would deprive the lunge of its speed and power. This holds true for almost any physical or martial skill, from arm-wrestling to combat shooting. Nearly any of them at its highest level is a study in disciplining the body and mind to choose one thing without distraction or dilution.

In Japanese calligraphy “each movement of the fude, or brush, is ideally performed with the full force of one’s mind and body, as if one’s very life depended upon the successful completion of each action.

I think of the title of Søren Kierkegaard’s magnificent “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” He examines Jesus’ statement from the sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” and isolates the life-long choice of God, and rejection of all that is not God as the key to holiness.

I think of Jesus’ words:

27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old,[a] ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[b] 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28.

This adultery of the heart is the real sin, not because the body doesn’t matter, but because it does matter. By the time adultery of the body is a risk, the heart has already been compromised. Any (sexual) thought or desire willingly spent on a woman other than your wife is energy not spent on her. It is a little wavering or duplicity in the all-of-you that detracts from the whole.

Integrity is focus, the unwavering focus of the will upon the beloved, which is first and foremost God. This focus is maintained through all the vagaries of life, through all distraction, situation and circumstance. Prayer is silence with Christ, service of other people is service of Christ, studying is learning the world that He has created, , exercise is worshipping Christ through disciplining the body. Dishes washed, diapers changed or folded, picture books read, block towers built, all of these are for and with and in Christ.

The more fully I practice this ideal, the more I begin to understand sin in a new way. Sin is anything that distracts and draws me away from this primary purpose of my life. This means that I will have to answer for things like all the time I wasted playing video games or aimlessly scrolling on Facebook. And it is not to God that I will have to answer, or at least, not in the way I have always imagined it. God is not going to show me all of my sins and glare at me and say, “You had better have a good explanation for all of these.” He is going to look at me and I am going to look at Him and then I will kick myself (for a purgatorial moment) for all the time I wasted chasing dross instead of loving Him.

It also means that I need to re-evaluate my response to my own weakness and sinfulness. The primary need is to focus on Jesus. When I fail at that, it does me no good to look back on that failure and wallow in guilt and self-blame. That is just more time wasted, more time not focused on Him. Instead I need to give it to Him, confess it if necessary, and then return to looking at Him. Since this happens about 40 or 50 times a minute, I get a lot of practice at it.

This is integrity, or at least my approach to it: a constant turning back to the goal.

It’s My Body

quote-i-do-not-believe-that-we-have-a-right-to-tell-other-people-women-that-they-can-t-control-joe-biden-113-90-00One of the most common allegations made against pro-lifers, specifically anti-abortion advocates, is that it is an example of a bunch of old white men trying to tell women what they can or can’t do with their bodies. This allegation calls up all the righteous indignation of feminism, autonomy, and moral outrage against those old white men that seem to be responsible for all of the evils in the world.

Of course this allegation is more of a stereotype than an argument. For one thing, it ignores all members of the prolife movement who are:

  1. Young
  2. Non-white
  3. Female

Which is a good portion of the prolife movement, actually.

kqpbolic
If it were, it would be a lot easier not to take this guy seriously.

Secondly, no reasonable person would dream of discounting someone else’s position simply because of age, race or gender. Imagine the outrage if, during a debate, a respondent dismissed his opponent’s remarks by saying, “You are young, black and female. You have nothing worth saying.” The world would explode, and rightly so. By the same token, “You are old, white and male” is not an adequate response to an argument.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the statement hinges upon a misrepresentation of the anti-abortion argument. The anti-abortion argument, as I understand it, rests upon the nature of the fetus. It maintains that because the fetus is a separate organism, its own body, it has a right to life.

The distinction is critical. If it were an issue of telling women what they can or can’t do with their bodies there are tons of other candidates. We could be seeking to outlaw contraception, body piercing, tattoos or plastic surgery. We could extend this to both genders and outlaw alcoholism, obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyles, unsafe sexual practices etc. All of the above are either arguably or demonstrably unhealthy to varying degrees. They are not illegal, however. They are not illegal because of the principle of autonomy. We in our culture do not believe in legislating what people can do with their own bodies. (Of course we developed from a culture that did believe in doing that, hence the laws against suicide, etc.)

However, let’s take a look at the case of smoking. We do not outlaw smoking because we believe in the individual’s right to autonomy, to do what he likes with his body, even when it is patently and unequivocally bad for him. However, we do outlaw secondhand smoke in many areas, under the (rather specious) argument that secondhand smoke exposure harms other people.

The distinction, again, is important. You have a right to do whatever tomfool things you want to your own body, but you do not have the right to do things that will harm other bodies.

pregnancy-week-10-fingernails_4x3
Human Fetus at 10 weeks gestation.

The abortion question is in the same boat as smoking. You may do as you like with your body under most circumstances. However, in the case of pregnancy, the context changes and there are now two bodies under consideration. The anti-abortion argument is that no one, not even the doctor or the mother, has the right to destroy another body, i.e. the body of the fetus.

This is why the abortion debate, as with all pressing debates in the public arena, cannot be reduced to catchphrases and memes. This discussion cannot be furthered in 140 characters or less without drastically oversimplifying and misunderstanding the other’s position.

Road to Emmaus, Part 2

The following is an excerpt from the manuscript of a novel that I have been working on for a year and a half.

Neither could say just how long the stranger had been standing near them. He was tall, a little above the average, but other than that not very out of the ordinary. He wore an ordinary homespun travelling cloak over a linen robe of decent quality and excellent craftsmanship. He carried no staff or bundle. It was hard to tell how old he was, for his face was full and his limbs vigorous, even powerful. On the other hand, his eyes and forehead and the corners of his mouth were lined with wrinkles. There was a depth of wisdom and compassion in his eyes, such that Clophas was at one moment sure he was in his thirties, and at other times thought he must be at least sixty.

“Good evening, friends,” the stranger said, inclining his head and smiling at them. When he smiled his whole face crinkled up and his eyes shone with merriment as if he understood some joke that was known to him alone.

“I am sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I have only heard a little of it, but I have been very intrigued by what I heard. What is this event that you have talked about so loudly and with such feeling? And why does it make you so sad?”

“I am sure you know all about it already,” Clophas answered, feeling a little annoyed at the stranger’s familiar manner. “I see that you have come from Jerusalem, and by your accent you hail from Galilee. Are you the only visitor to the city this Passover who does not know the things that have been happening there?”

“Tell me,” the stranger answered. “What things?”

“Jesus of Nazareth,” Clophas answered shortly.

The stranger seemed not to notice the old man’s annoyance, or not to care, for he asked, “Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?”

“Do you know nothing?” Miriam asked in amazement. “Not to know who Jesus is!”

“Who do you say that He is?” the stranger repeated.

“He was a prophet,” Clophas answered solemnly and impressively. “The greatest of all prophets that ever were, mighty in word and deed before God and Man. He spoke the truth fearlessly, but some folks don’t want to hear the truth, and some of those folks are powerful men. Our chief priests and elders brought shame upon Judah by turning Him over to the cursed gentiles. They tried Him, beat Him and crucified Him like a common criminal, who never in His life did any evil, but only good for all.”

The stranger listened to this statement with a strange, indecipherable expression. His eyes were sympathetic, but there was also an expectant attitude, as if he were waiting for Clophas to say more. There was the air of a schoolteacher who has listened to his student’s reply but has not yet heard the answer to his question. There was even a hint of amusement, as if his student’s incomprehension was somehow a bit comical.

“There’s more to it,” Clophas went on. “We had hoped… we, His followers, I mean… we hoped that He would be the One. You know, the Anointed One who was to restore Israel.”

The stranger arched his eyebrows ever so slightly.

“I thought He was the Messiah,” Clophas finished.

The stranger smiled and asked, “But didn’t your wife say something else? Something even stranger?”

“Well, sir, since you ask, there is more. Some women of our company, my wife among them, went to the tomb early this morning, this being the day after the Sabbath. You understand, this is the third day after He died, but they say that the tomb was empty and that there were angels standing there who told them that Jesus is not dead, but alive.”

“Is this true?” the stranger asked Miriam directly.

“It is, sir,” Miriam replied. “And some of our men went after us and saw exactly what we saw, except for the angels. The tomb open, the linens empty, and no Jesus.”

At this, the stranger’s eyes crinkled shut and his lips spread into a wide smile. He threw back his head and laughed as if he could no longer contain his mirth. “Oh foolish, foolish children of men,” he cried. “Foolish sons of Adam!” He turned back to them and beckoned them to walk with him. “Foolish men, so slow of heart to believe what the prophets said! Did you not know that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer all these things? How else was He to enter into His glory?”

“I don’t understand,” Clophas said, rather stiffly, half inclined to send this impudent fellow packing. However, for some reason he could not explain the stranger’s words filled him with excitement and he could not tell him off for his impertinence. Instead, he fell in step beside him, and Miriam followed right along with him.

“Think about it,” the stranger invited. “Go all the way back to the beginning, to Adam’s sin in the Garden. Did not the Almighty One promise then that the Messiah should come, born of the woman’s seed? Did He not warn that the serpent would strike Him upon the heel? Yet what would be the consequence of that for the serpent?”

“The Christ would crush his head.”

“So it has been! The serpent struck, and sank his fangs in the heel of the Son of Man, and got his head crushed for his pains!”

Clophas and Miriam were silent for a while, digesting this. Then the old man spoke. “Your words are strange, and you speak with authority. I am not sure I understand you, but… Tell me more! How was the head of the serpent crushed?”

As they walked the stranger spoke to them, taking them back to the very beginning, and speaking of the sin of Adam, which brought death into the world as its result, punishment and remedy. He spoke of the suffering of the innocent: from Abel whose sacrifice pleased the Lord and who was then sacrificed by the jealousy of his unworthy brother; to Zechariah son of Barachiah, the High Priest and faithful prophet who was slain in the very temple itself. He spoke of Isaac, the young man who in obedience to his father carried the wood for his own sacrifice up the mountain and would have offered up his life had not the angel of the Lord spared him and substituted for him a ram.

He spoke of the lamb of the Passover, whose blood smeared on the doorposts spared the children of Israel from the angel of death. “Not of their own worth did the death of the lambs save Israel, but only by looking forward to the death of the true Lamb of Passover, the Son of Man.”

He spoke to them of the thousands upon thousands of sheep, goats, doves and cattle killed every year in the temple, whose blood could never satisfy the demands of the Law, for they all belonged to God anyway. Lebanon itself could not have sufficed for fuel nor its flocks for a worthy holocaust for God, who created them all and maintained them in existence. He spoke of the suffering of the righteous prophets at the hands of the unrighteous and of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “By His sufferings my servant shall justify many.”

“Even the very history of Israel will speak to you of the suffering of the Christ, for when have not the Children of Israel been persecuted at the hands of the nations? Truly you have been a holocaust, that the mercy of God might be extended throughout the earth and all nations might find redemption.”

Clophas frowned. “There are not many in Israel who would want to hear you say that, sir. I perceive you are a rabbi, and so you undoubtedly see things differently than the rest of us, but it sounds to me like you’re saying our sufferings at the hands of the Romans are for their sake.”

“I tell you, you are subject unwillingly, because of your sins, but that this suffering is for the glory of God and shall be the means of redemption for all who will accept it.”

“Then God subjects us to suffering against our will for the sake of others?”

“You subject yourselves and each other to sufferings by your own evil ways, but God will not be turned aside and will make use of your evil to bring about your good.”

“What has this to do with Jesus of Nazareth?” Clophas asked.

“But do you not see? All the lambs, goats, and cattle could not bear your iniquities. How could they? The Son of Man, this Jesus of whom you speak, is the Righteous Servant who needs no justification and so can willingly give Himself up for your justification. And I solemnly tell you, that is what He has done. He bore your stripes, and took upon Himself the punishment that will make you whole.”

“But He was only one Man,” Miriam said. “How could He take on the sin of the whole world?”

“He was not only a man,” Clophas answered. He stopped walking and let his jaw hang slack as his eyes stared at the stranger. “This is what you are saying isn’t it. He is what Cephas said He is.”

The stranger did not answer.

“He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

“We have reached the inn,” the stranger said.

Clophas blinked and looked around him, and saw that indeed, they had. He had not remembered entering the town, but he had been so engrossed in the conversation that he had not even noticed where their steps had led them.

“I bid you good evening. Peace be with you,” the stranger bowed as if he was taking his leave.

“Sir! Do you go on from here tonight?” Miriam asked in astonishment.

“I do,” the stranger answered.

“But it is many miles to the next village. Have you a place to stay?”

“I have nowhere to lay my head, not even a fox’s den or a bird’s nest.” He said this cheerfully, as if it did not concern him in the least, and his eyes twinkled as if there were some joke in that statement that he was waiting for them to get.

“Sir, if we have in any way found favor with you, let me prevail upon you to accept our hospitality,” Clophas said. “God has been good to me, and He bids us share our bed and board with those who have none. Our Master, Jesus, would have bid us do the same. For His sake, will you not stay with us this night, and continue on your way in the morning? Then we might continue our conversation, for I must say, my heart has not been this excited by words since I last heard the Master speaking to us. I long to hear more.”

“As you wish. I will never refuse to accept hospitality where I am offered it,” the stranger laughed.

Clophas led the way into the inn and greeted the landlord, who was a friend of his. He paid for a room for Miriam and himself and the stranger, and asked that food might be brought to them.

“Certainly, Clophas. It will be up as quickly as we can prepare it. What will you have?”

Clophas turned to the stranger. “What would you like to eat?”

“Some bread and wine will suffice,” he answered, smiling.

As they walked up the stairs Clophas remarked, “I don’t suppose you are aware, but Jesus was more than only a Rabbi and Master to me. He was also my nephew, the son of my brother’s wife. I loved Him as dearly as any of my own sons, and I don’t mind telling you, somehow, that His death… well, it hit me hard. Not just because of our hopes for Israel, but because He was such a good man. He was more than a good man. The favor of God was upon Him.”

They reached the upper room where they were to stay for the night and laid aside their cloaks and staffs. Clophas went on. “And now I see that He was more than a good man. He was the Son of God!”

He dropped onto a cushion and sat with a look of astonishment on His face letting the revelation sink in. “How could it have been? How could we not have seen?”

“Cephas saw it,” Miriam answered. “Perhaps, the others of the twelve? I am sure His Mother knew all along.”

“What must it be, to know your own son is also… I don’t know. We have looked upon the Face of God and lived!”

“I have scolded and berated Him,” Miriam marveled. “What must He have thought!”

“He loves you,” the stranger answered quietly.

“What you say is strangely like the sort of thing Jesus used to say,” Clophas remarked. “Who are you?”

There was a knock on the door, and a servant entered bearing the bread and wine. He set them on the table in the center of the room, bowed and left.

“Come. Recline and eat with me,” the stranger invited.

Without comment, as if it was the most natural thing in the world that this stranger should invite them to join him at the meal that they had bought and paid for, Clophas and Miriam moved to the cushions by the table. The stranger sat reclined at the head, and reaching out His hand He took the bread. Raising His eyes to Heaven He thanked God for it, Blessed it and Broke it, saying, “Take this, both of you, and eat. This is my Body, which is given up for you.”

Without warning, Clophas felt terror welling up in him at these words. In response to them there flooded to his mind all of his sins, every one of them as far back as he could remember. He saw thousand upon thousand acts of petty cruelty, uncounted lustful glances, less than honest statements to business associates, snubs and jibes and cruel words to his wife, to his sons, to complete strangers. He saw them, and could not hide. “All of these I have done,” he whispered.

Then he saw more, not things that he had done, but things he might have done but chose not to do. He saw beggars, orphans and widows that he had turned aside from, restitution for wrongs that he had never made, truths he had never spoken. He saw the countless times he had withheld words of praise or kindness or love to his family and those closest to him.

He wept in sorrow, and he saw that Miriam beside him was weeping also. He looked back to the stranger.

Clophas had heard the Master speak of the infinite compassion of God, and it had seemed to him a beautiful idea, but not one that he really needed or understood. Now he saw that he needed it. He needed it with all his being.

He understood it, now, because he saw it. It had never occurred to him to wonder what infinite compassion would look like formed on a human face. He probably would have thought it impossible, but this Man was looking upon him with more love than he had known in his entire life. It

That face! The eyes, the mouth, the beard, they were all His. The pierced hands were holding out to him a torn chunk of bread, and He was saying, “Take it and eat.”

But it was not bread, really. The stranger had changed it. “This is My body,” he had said. Clophas believed and because he believed he hesitated. But the stranger continued to hold it out to him with that same look of love.

Clophas took and ate, and gave some also to his wife.

 “Who are you?” he asked.

Jesus took the chalice, blessed it, and raised it over His head saying, “This is my Blood, the Blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Clophas threw himself flat on his face and he felt Miriam doing the same beside him. “Jesus! My Lord, my Savior, my God. Have mercy upon a poor, foolish sinner.”

“Take the cup, Uncle,” Jesus told him. Clophas could hear the twinkle in His eye and the laughter in His heart. He raised himself up and reaching out, received the cup from his nephew. Jesus smiled at Him, wrinkling up His brown eyes until they almost shut, just like He always had. He had smiled just like that while they spoke on the road, but they had not recognized Him.

“Take it and drink, and give it to Auntie as well.”

Clophas obeyed. He raised the cup to his lips and drank, and then handed it to Miriam who did they same. When they had finished it, they turned back to where Jesus had been sitting.

He was gone.

“Jesus!” Miriam called out. “Where have you gone? Do not go away.”

“He hasn’t, Miriam,” Clophas laughed for sheer joy. “Did you not hear? ‘This is my Body. This is my Blood!’ He has not and never will leave us as long as there is a follower of His anywhere in this world.”

“How did we not recognize Him?” Miriam asked.

“We did not believe,” Clophas answered. “But still we recognized Him without knowing it. Didn’t your heart burn when He explained the scriptures to us? Who but Jesus could speak like that?”

“He spoke as if He were the Master of the Scripture itself! Just as He always used to, when He confounded all the scholars.”

“Because He is! He is Master of the Scriptures and the Sabbath, and the storms and winds, and everything else, just as He was always saying. Even death!”

“Only we were too stupid to listen,” Miriam laughed. “I shouldn’t be laughing because it’s a terrible thing. Only I don’t suppose it matters to Him anymore, so why should it matter to us?”

Clophas leapt to his feet. “Grab your cloak, Wife. Let the landlord keep the money, but we will not be sleeping here tonight. We must get back to the others and tell them everything.”

“I declare! I feel young enough that I could run the whole blessed way!” Miriam danced around the room like a little girl.

They snatched up their cloaks and ran down the stairs. They paused only to bless the innkeeper and the few guests in the common room, before skipping out into the gathering darkness. Hand in hand, with light in their hearts and psalms on their lips, they began the long walk back up to Jerusalem together.

Road to Emmaus, Part 1

The following is an excerpt from the manuscript of a novel I have been working on for a year and a half.

“So you are leaving, Clophas?”

Old Clophas looked up from the sack that he was packing. “Yes, Cephas. Miriam is not as young as she used to be and she wants to reach the inn by nightfall. We have already stayed a bit longer than we ought, and it will be a good stretch of the legs to arrive before dusk.”

The burly fisherman snorted with a subdued chuckle. “Miriam is getting old? Are you sure it is Miriam and not yourself?”

“I’ll walk the legs off of you,” the older man shot back. He slapped his thigh, still solid with muscle despite his years. “I was hauling wood and stone all over Galilee while you were still sucking on your mother’s breast. You spent your youth sitting in a boat, but you can’t sail across dry land, fisherman.”

Cephas tried to return the friendly jibe, “Fisherman I may have been, but I have put more leagues on these two feet in the last three years…” He couldn’t finish the thought.

The two stood in silence together, Cephas weeping openly but quietly. Clophas clapped him on the shoulder, a friendly slap that would have felled a large goat. “I know, son.”

“I can’t even think about what to do now,” Cephas wept. “The others haven’t begun to think that far, but soon they will, and do you know? I have that awful feeling they will look to me.”

“As they should,” Clophas answered stoutly, trying to find some words that would keep his young friend’s spirits afloat. “Who else is there, now?”

“But you don’t know how I failed. I failed Him. When He needed me most I failed Him.” He swiped his sleeve across his face, and the dust in the fabric made an awful mess of the tears and snot in his beard.

“We all did. All except our women. And young John. I was not there but I can’t say I’d have stuck it out any better than you. And when my Miriam went, I didn’t.”

“Ah, but you weren’t there when I… I did not just run away. I tried to follow him. I went behind the crowd from the garden to the High Priest’s house.”

“That was bravely done.”

“Was it? The moment they began asking questions of me I denied Him. I tell you I repeated it three times and swore an oath, I had never seen Him before in my life. Him! He whom I loved more than any brother, or even my wife or children. I always swore I would have died with Him…” He broke off sobbing.

Clophas did not answer for a minute. When he did his voice was grave. “I did not know that.”

He understood why Cephas looked older now, why he seemed subdued, somehow. Everyone had their share of the great sorrow, and most had their fair portion of the shame, but Cephas wore it differently. He threw himself into the grief without reserve, diving headfirst into self-blame without even an attempt at excuse. He was flogging his own heart unmercifully, but at least he was talking. The day Cephas stopped talking, that would be the day to start worrying.

John, now…

“Cephas, you must bear up, man. They need you.”

“I am unable to help them. I am a worm and no man. He knew what was in me. I tell you He saw the cowardice my boasting concealed. Prophesied it. Told me to my face, and I still did it.”

“And yet He loved you anyway.”

At these words, Cephas choked out a high-pitched, crack-voiced cough. For a moment, his face was strained and paralyzed as if his tears were caught in his throat, strangling him. He was holding his beard in both hands, as if he would pull it out by the roots. For a moment Clophas worried, but he needn’t have. Cephas was incapable of restraining an emotion for long, and in a second he had burst out with renewed weeping.

The door opened and Clophas’ wife, Miriam, came out. She saw the state Cephas was in and she shook her head sadly, her own eyes far from dry.

Cephas made no effort to restrain his tears in her presence. In another man this would have been play-acting, but with Cephas they knew it was not. His heart truly was broken, past the point of caring, and he barely even noticed their presence, drowning as he was under his waves of grief. “And now they have even taken His body away! Why was I born to see this day? Why did I not go to death with Him? Then I would be with Him, but now I do not even know where I can go to find His blessed bones.” He made as if he would rip his tunic, but it was already torn down the front.

Clophas shook his head. “What do you mean you don’t know where to find His bones? Surely one of the women can show you where He is laid if you do not know. I intend to have Him moved within the week, as soon as I can arrange for payment on the new tomb. My brother’s son shall not lie in a borrowed tomb so long as I have a denarius to my name.”

Cephas looked up at the older man. “You do not know? You will not find His body. I don’t know where it is.”

“What do you mean?” Clophas asked, but Cephas was sobbing and tearing at his beard again.

“Cephas,” Miriam scolded, though her voice was gentle. “Buck up man. This will not do. The others need you. The Master would expect you to strengthen your brothers, not wallow in your own self-pity.”

Clophas thought this was a bit harsh, seeing as it had only been three days and two nights. However, he didn’t know but that Miram was right, and what Cephas needed was to be taken out of himself just then.

Cephas obediently made an effort to dry his eyes, and still his weeping at least long enough to bid them farewell. “Are you sure you won’t stay the night?” He asked.

“Pish!” Miriam answered succinctly.

“I think we won’t make it to Emmaus tonight,” Clophas observed.

“We can make it a fair bit of the way, and if it weren’t the Sabbath I would have been gone yesterday. I will not stay in this city another minute longer.” She spat on the dust of the street with inexpressible hatred.

“I must stay as long as… I suppose as long as Mother Miriam does.” Cephas muttered through his tears.

“You should go home and see your family as soon as may be. I expect she’ll want to be going home soon anyway,” Clophas said.

“She said she will live with John, from now on,” Miriam observed. “The Master especially asked him to look out for her. Almost the last thing he said on earth…” Her voice sailed up a few octaves and she buried her head in her hands.

“Well, I guess we’d best be off,” Clophas said. He embraced Cephas and kissed him on both cheeks. “Be well, Simon bar John. When you return to Galilee, look in on us.”

Cephas embraced them both, and they set off for the city gate.

Clophas knew better than to interrupt his wife while she was trying not to cry. He waited until she had wiped her eyes and put a spring back in her step before he spoke to her again. “How is young John?”

“Right as rain, though more than a bit shook up, I think. When I saw him last he seemed nervous and fidgety, like he was expecting something but didn’t want to expect it too hard.”

“Hey now, come again?” Clophas asked in amazement. “I saw him yesterday and I thought he was not long for this world. Like a dead man walking. Not even walking. He sat and stared out the window all day when he wasn’t checking on Mother Miriam.”

“He was a broken man,” his wife agreed. “Though he was admirable during…” she paused and looked her husband in the eye hesitantly.

“You needn’t scruple to say it, I already know. He went and watched the whole bloody business with you and Mother Miriam and the other Miriam. I stayed put.”

“You didn’t stay put,” she reassured him anxiously. “You were trying to rouse up some petitioners among the merchants. At least you were trying to do something.”

He grunted dismissively. “For all the good that did. Who would defy the chief priests to their beards? And anyway, I knew well enough it would come to nothing, and it would keep me well out of it.”

“You are too hard on yourself,” she murmured, gently squeezing his forearm with one hand.

“But what’s this you say about John? How has he recovered so fast? I would have sworn he was likely to follow the Master sooner rather than later.”

“That’s true. He did not budge all yesterday, except when he was looking after her.”

“He looking after her! As if she needed it. She was more likely looking after him.” Clophas chuckled. Then he looked at his wife as a new idea struck him. “Say, Miriam. Do you suppose that was what the Master was doing? Asking His best friend to look out for His Mother, but more for his sake than hers.”

“I shouldn’t wonder. He was a clever one, and He saw more than most men do.”

“I saw it,” Clophas pointed out, smiling. He nudged her with one arm.

“After the fact,” she retorted, but she was smiling too. “But at any rate, John was barely able to hold himself together, and last night he fell apart. He did not sleep a wink, but he could not weep either. You know, some griefs are too deep for tears.”

“They are indeed.” The old man knew it was useless to try to hurry her. She would tell her story when and how her mind happened to wander through it.

“But then this morning, you know how some of the women went out to the tomb?”

“I heard something about it from Cephas, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Did he go with you?”

“Not at first, you see. It was just us, and we had those spices and the myrrh and aloe, and linen cloths to wash the body, for you know we had left Him in such a state because of the Sabbath.”

“Yes.”

“Well, we had been preparing everything since sundown on the Sabbath, and I don’t suppose any of us had slept much either. Probably why none of us thought of it…”

“How did you get the tomb open?” her husband interrupted.

“There you go, spoiling the story!” she cried. “That was what I was getting to. We spent all night preparing and bless me if we didn’t forget that one simple thing. The bloody great stone! It took five men to put it in place when we buried Him, and we had to get the temple guard to lend a hand, and there we were, three women, blithely walking to the garden as casual as you please, with no more idea than… I don’t know what!”

Clophas sighed patiently.

“I’m getting there,” she told him. “Anyway, Salome had the thought first, you know how she is clever about planning things, and ordinarily she would have been the one to think of it in the first place. Magdalen had the idea to run back and call some of the men to help, but just then we turned the corner and saw it.”

“What did you see?”

“As I live, Clophas, the tomb was already opened.”

“So that’s what Cephas was babbling about the body not being there. Grave robbers I suppose? A damned shame, I say.”

Miriam stopped and stared at him. She shook her head and continued walking.

“What did I say?” Clophas asked in surprise.

“Grave robbers indeed! And that sealed with the procurator’s own seal, and watched by the temple guard! We saw their fire ashes and even their cloaks scattered about here and there like they had left in an almighty hurry.”

“I don’t understand…”

“And anyway, do you think I would be this cheerful about it if I thought some good-for-nothings had stolen the Master’s body, that I went out before sunrise to wash and anoint?”

“All right, then tell me. If it wasn’t grave robbers then what was it? Was the Master’s body there or not.”

“No.”

“Where was it?”

“Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know.”

“Did you go in and see the spot where you had laid Him?”

“I’m getting there, Old Man,” she snapped. “Let me get there.”

He shook his head and gestured for her to continue.

“So there we stood in front of that gaping empty cave, with the rock off to one side. It was tossed, you see, not rolled. Some powerful thing grabbed that rock and heaved it like a shot putt.”

Clophas did not respond to this claim.

“So we went in, and there was no body, just an empty shroud all by itself. Magdalen takes one look at the spot and shrieks like a lost soul, just wailing and tearing her hair and carrying on! You know that dramatic way she has. Anyway, she screams and screams and then takes off out the door like a rabbit, and I don’t think she must have stopped running until she reached the house.”

“She must have arrived while I was out this morning because I never heard her.”

“We were standing there all come over with all these different feelings. Must have been quite a few minutes we stood there and stared and hardly dared to whisper to each other. I felt all cold and sinking, but then you know I think I was excited too. Nervous, you know, and expecting something. Like John was today. And all of a sudden we heard this voice. It said, ‘What are you looking for?’”

“Who was it?”

“Well, I turned and I about fainted. There were two young men there. I say young, though in truth they looked older than you are. They were the most beautiful men I had ever seen, and you could just tell they were not to be trifled with. I suppose if I had not been so astonished I would have been terrified.”

“But what did they do?” her husband asked in astonishment.

“They didn’t do anything. The one just asked, “Why do you seek the Living One among the dead? He is not here.”

“I suppose we must have looked as stupid and amazed as we felt because the other one laughed and said, ‘He is Risen! Just as He said He would! Don’t you remember all that He predicted while you were still with Him in Galilee?’ He said it all laughing, like you would scold a child who didn’t remember his lessons.”

“Risen?” Clophas asked in amazement, “What does that mean?”

“At that moment, we heard a rush of footsteps at the entrance to the cave, and here comes John. Magdalen must have run like the wind to cover the miles to the house and he ran twice as fast to cover the miles back. I don’t think it can have been more than 30 minutes.”

“John was always a fast runner,” Clophas observed.

“He stops at the outside all out of breath and gasping like he would faint, but he doesn’t come in. He just gasps and looks all wondering and confused. But I could see the idea coming to him. It spread across his face, no, across his whole body, like the sunrise.”

“What idea?”

“And then a few minutes later up comes that big, lunky Cephas. He sees John at the door, but I don’t suppose he even gave him a proper look or he might have paused.”

“Cephas? Pause?”

“You are right!” Miriam laughed, this time with breathless excitement.

“Where were the two young men?”

“The angels? You needn’t scowl at me like that, I know what they were. Anyway, they weren’t there. We didn’t see them come, we didn’t see them go, and that with only one way in or out and John standing at the door. Explain that if you can, stubborn Old Man.” She pushed him playfully.

“What did Cephas find?”

“He found the grave linens just as we had left them, only no body in them. Then he saw the cloth we had used to cover His beautiful face. It was not lying with the shroud. It was lying off by itself to one side, neatly folded.”

Clophas was silent.

“We all went out, then. We met Magdalen near the tomb, weeping and laughing like a mad woman. When we asked her what was wrong, she laughed at us. She laughed and said, ‘Nothing is wrong, nor ever can be wrong again, ever.’”

“Had she gone mad?”

“She said, ‘He is risen!’”

“Hold on there, Miriam,” her husband protested. “I don’t understand this. Did you or did you not find the body?”

“We did not. Have you not been listening?”

“That is what it sounded like. But if you did not find the body, did you find out who took it? Or who knows where it is?”

“No.”

“Then what I can’t figure out is why in the name of all that is holy do you seem so happy about it? I have been gone all day making preparations for our departure, so this is the first I have heard of all this. Do you know something I do not know?”

“O Clophas. I don’t know. Magdalen is convinced she saw someone she thought was a gardener, and she asked him where the body was. Only it turned out it wasn’t a gardener. It was the Master.”

“Miriam of Magdala has never been known for her steadiness of mind, you know that. Especially under stress.”

“I know, but…”

“And do you think it likely that she, of all people, would see the Master and not recognize him? Gardener indeed!”

“I am telling you what she said. The other menfolk all scoffed when we came back and told them.”

“Told them what? What do you think has happened? Come out and say it plain, woman!”

“Well… I don’t know. I’m afraid to think it, but then, He did so many wonderful things, and then there were all those strange predictions that He made. I didn’t understand them at the time, but… Clophas, what if it’s true what Magdalen said? What if the Master is alive.”

“Miriam, you saw Him die. You laid Him in His grave with your own two hands…”

“Yes, I know He was dead. But what if He is not? What if He came back to life?”

They stopped walking and stood facing each other in the middle of the road. “Miriam,” he said, and then he stopped. He had kept so busy since Friday morning, continuously running here and there to make arrangements. He had tried to organize a petition for clemency among the Jerusalem merchants. When that had failed and it was too late, he had begun searching for a permanent grave for the body. The Sabbath was a solemn one, and as the oldest man in the family it had fallen to him to lead it. That was no easy task, with everyone in the house grief-stricken to the point of distraction. Then the preparations for the journey had kept him out in the city all day. He had truly not had a moment to pause and digest his own reactions to this event.

He supposed now that that was not entirely accidental on his part.

“Jesus is dead, Miriam,” he said. Tears welled up into his eyes and he felt like an apple was stuck in his throat. He swallowed but it remained, an aching, throbbing pain that was, nevertheless, only a shadow of the deeper, deadlier ache in his heart. What was the point of going to Emmaus, or back to Galilee or anywhere? “Jesus, is dead,” he repeated. He began to sob, and he hid his face with his sleeve. “Miriam, I loved Him. He was my Master, my Teacher. I would have sworn by the Throne of the Almighty One that He was our Messiah. I thought… no I knew! Great things, Miriam. He was born of David’s line and not many of us are left who can claim that. How long, O Lord, how long!” He yelled the last words to the sky.

Miriam wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly, laying her gray head against his thick, warm chest. He held on to her just as tightly and wept. “But before all that, He was my nephew. My own brother’s son, all I have left of Joseph, my brother.”

“He was never Joseph’s son,” Miriam reminded him gently.

“I know, I know, woman,” Clophas replied, without any bitterness. “But still, Joseph raised Him. He was all I had left of Him. And He was such a good boy. I held Him on my knee when He was a baby, and His little hands plucked my beard. Those same hands that… Oh the cruel nails! Oh Miriam! I loved Him. I loved Him. My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken us? Why didst thou not take me and spare Him?”

The grief welled to the top, flooding the lump out of his throat with wave after wave of sobs. He did not try to hold it back. Miriam held him as he gave way to the sorrow and let the pain show itself as it would.

It was quite a few minutes before they were calm enough to realize that they were not alone on the road.

Whatever you did for the least of these…

Someone told me a few weeks ago, in the middle of a martial arts related discussion, “I think that stuff is cool, but I don’t do martial arts. I am a lover, not a fighter.”

It is no exaggeration to say that I have been thinking about that pretty exhaustively ever since.

I have been thinking about it because my initial reaction was, “That’s a contradiction in terms.”

I did not voice that thought because I did not want to start a controversy with a half-formed thought that I wasn’t prepared to defend. I have been examining it ever since, however, and I am pretty well convinced that my initial gut reaction was correct. How can you love anyone or anything without being willing to fight, at least in theory? Being a lover without being a fighter is impossible.

I admit to taking that a little bit out of the context in which it was spoken. We were discussing martial arts and it is quite possible to love without doing martial arts. For instance, Jesus never did any martial arts, as far as we know. Neither did the vast majority of the saints. Even the military saints, who presumably practiced their craft in one form or another, as often as not gave it up at some point to become monks.

So it isn’t martial arts or military training per se that I mean when I say that being a lover without being a fighter is impossible. However, martial arts is a handy example of what I am trying to get at. Too often, I think, our pacifism is not motivated by love or compassion, but by denial or indifference. My reticence to begin a discussion about this is a prime example. I didn’t hold back because I cared about my colleague’s sensibilities but because I didn’t care enough to begin a dialogue.

If my wife or daughter are attacked, the “I’m a lover not a fighter” dichotomy is instantly revealed for the hogwash it is. At that moment I had better become a fighter, or I am a lousy lover. The kind of “love” that refuses to fight for the beloved’s well-being is not worthy of the name.

Of course, fighting takes many forms. The most enlightened and effective form of fighting is the form that eliminates a conflict before it can occur. It preempts the danger, ideally by turning the enemy into a friend, or by finding a mutually acceptable compromise, or by avoiding the circumstances that would lead to conflict, or finally by preempting imminent attack so effectively that it neutralizes the threat before it can become fully developed.

Suppose we have fully developed this enlightened approach and our family is perfectly safe. We have no threats impending on ourselves or our family or friends. Are we now justified in considering ourselves a lover and not a fighter?

I contend that no, we can’t. Firstly, because that is not actually the case. We are not perfectly safe. We are in the middle of an all-out spiritual war, we just don’t see it.

Secondly, because the only reason any of us has any safety is because, somewhere, somehow, someone is fighting to make that possible.

Thirdly, because even though my family and I are safe, that does not discharge my responsibility for charity. We must not forget that subsidiarity is balanced by solidarity.

Throughout this world countless people are under attack every day. There are homeless and immigrants a few miles from your door, if you live in most American cities. There are more than 600,000 children being murdered by abortion every year in our country. 20.9 million people around the world are held in slavery. Children are being abused, exploited, raped, murdered, tortured, and forced to do all of these things as child soldiers. Women are being abused by their husbands and boyfriends, probably on your block or in your apartment complex. Within your city there are hundreds of elderly who have not had a visit from a family member in months or years.

As Catholics we believe that all people are beloved by God and all are worthy of being loved, wanted, and cared for because of that. Of course we are required to show love first and foremost to those closest to us (subsidiarity). However, we are still responsible in some degree to all and for all (solidarity).

This is why we, as Catholics, cannot claim to be lovers but not fighters. Love in a fallen world requires fighting, because the world is horrendously dangerous. Threats are all around us. We cannot allow that to paralyze us with fear or hopelessness. Jesus has died and risen. The war is won, it just isn’t over yet. We must be cheerful, but we must fight.

One day we will stand in judgment. On that day we will see a crowd of children, too vast to count. They will be bearing the scars of their abuse: saline burns, limbs torn off by landmines or industrial machines, physical scars, mental and emotional scars, and spiritual scars. All of these wounds will be glorious, not limitations but badges of glory, transfigured in the Mercy that suffered with them and for them. They will look upon their abusers and murderers: abortionists, terrorists, pedophiles, pornographers, drug dealers, unscrupulous politicians and business owners. They will look upon them with love and mercy and say, “We forgive you.”

I suspect a large part of the eternal fate of such people will depend upon how they react to that forgiveness, either humbling themselves and accepting it, or hardening their hearts and despairing. But that is not our concern, right now.

Those children will also look at us. It is good to think about what they will say to us.

What will they say to me? Will they say, “Thank you for everything you did for us. For all your prayer, fasting, sacrifice, sleepless nights, donations, risks; everything you did and suffered on our behalf to give us a whole, healthy, and happy life”?

Or will they have to say, “We forgive you for turning your back on us.”

And how will I respond?

Whatever they say to me, Jesus has already told us what He will say: “Whatever you did for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me.”

A Conversation with Jesus

This has been a rough week for our family. On Wednesday our daughter, Evie, had a series of six seizures for no apparent reason. She had been having a run-of-the-mill case of viral gastroenteritis, it seemed, without even a high fever, and then suddenly she was seizing. Neither we, nor the paramedics, nor the ER staff, could find a temperature higher than 99. Febrile seizures may be fairly normal and benign in children, but seizures without fever are scary and concerning. By the third seizure she was exhausted and slow to recognize us or interact with her surroundings. After the fourth she was completely out of it, between the metabolic demands of that much neuromuscular activity in such a short time and the meds they gave her to prevent more seizures. Even with Ativan and Keppra on board, she still had two more.

We got family and friends praying, and I set my younger brother to the task of finding the phone number for Fr. Kyle, the priest on call for our area. He came and anointed her between procedures. Then we had nothing to do but watch and wait.

As my wife, Kathleen, and I knelt there beside our daughter’s bed, watching her sleep, unable to make her wake up or fix whatever was wrong with her, I don’t think we had ever before been more miserable or anxious or just plain helpless. We both know enough about medicine to know a number of really bad reasons why a previously healthy toddler might suddenly have half a dozen seizures in less than 18 hours. We understood all the tests and the reasoning behind them, and when the doctors and nurses left us to go care for other patients, we understood that.

It just hurt. I think it was Elizabeth Elliot who said, “Sometimes there is nothing to do with suffering except to suffer it.”

We wanted our Evie back. So many times, many times a week, even multiple times a day, we look at this gorgeous little toddler and wonder how on earth we came to be blessed with her. The only conclusion is that we don’t deserve her. She is all gift.

She is such a beautiful little girl, with her blond hair, blue eyes, delicate features, and huge, happy smile. More than that, she is smart and excited and curious and sensitive and loving. She has always been quick to notice when other people are sad and give them hugs and kisses and “make it all better.” We wanted her back the way she was, not brain damaged or worse.

But beyond that, we knew that no matter what happened, we would always love her. Her intelligence and even her personality are fragile things, and a virus or bacteria, or a tumor, or just the wrong mix of electrolytes in the wrong place in her brain, could alter them forever. But she would still be ours, and we would still love her just as fiercely and just as tenderly; perhaps even more so.

And then, in the middle of the anguish, the thought came to me, “What about all the others?”

And I realized that throughout this world there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of children who don’t have what Evie has. They don’t have anyone to love them. They could go through seizure after seizure until they died on the floor and no one alive would care.

There are children being abused, or children sick and suffering, or children being exploited, who don’t know what it is like to have parents who would stay up all night crying and praying for their safety. I thought of victims of human trafficking, refugees, children in poverty, and children in war zones. I felt like Jesus was saying to me, “You feel this way about Evie because she is yours. But all these children are mine. Your love for her is a shadow of the Love I have for each of them, and for Evie.”

I remembered Him saying, “Whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you did to me.” That brought a sense of trust, which is hard to explain, but was real, nonetheless. I did not have any impression that He was promising to heal her, but rather that He was with her, even as He was with other children in far worse places with far fewer resources. I guess the most accurate way to express it is to call it a strong sense of His Presence in and with the most helpless. Not despite the helplessness, but somehow because of it and through it, as if helplessness were the prerequisite for His most intimate closeness. We and they can suffer nothing that He does not suffer with us.

Even in the midst of it all, I found myself feeling real compassion for these other children, and for Jesus in them, being neglected, abused, abandoned, or exploited.

I really believe that He was present with us in a special way in that moment. I desperately showed Him my grief and anguish for the one child He has, temporarily and conditionally, put in our care. In response, He showed me a glimpse of His own grief and anguish for the uncounted number of souls in His eternal and unconditional care.

Evie got better. She slowly recovered over the next few days. We do not know what caused the seizures, but they have not come back. We have a plan going forward. God has been good to us. But the call remains for us to be aware of the children who didn’t make it, or who are still locked into a living hell of suffering. They exist, and Jesus is with them and loves them and suffers with them, no less surely than He was with Evie; and just as surely as I asked Him to be with my daughter, He has asked us to be there for His children in some way that He will reveal in His time.

When He does, we must be prepared to answer Him.

Balance of Extremes

Classical morality has often been described as the finding of a Golden Mean or Happy Medium between two extremes. We find this concept in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and again in St. Thomas Aquinas, that virtue is the mean between two extremes of vice. So courage is the mean between foolhardiness and cowardice. Temperance is the mean between luxury and abstemiousness. Fully integrated sexuality is the mean between profligacy and what we might call “prudishness” for lack of a better word.

I like the theory of the golden mean as a working model for morality. It appeals to my conservative nature. I have a natural bias towards the safe, balanced and sensible. It is appealing on the moral level, and perhaps even more so on the political level, given our current polarized ideological milieu. Who doesn’t want to see a little more moderation and compromise in our political sphere?

On the other hand, I can’t help but notice that the law of moderation, if taken to an extreme, can suffer from its own critique. It is a safe route, leading to a tendency towards fence sitting, mediocrity, and complacency. The decent sort of man can easily become obsessed with his own decency, and keep the middle way as an end, rather than a means.

I have found it more useful in my own life to consider the balance of extremes to be the true Catholic way, rather than a balance between extremes.

I first ran into this concept in C. S. Lewis’s great essay “On Chivalry” (reproduced in part here.) He was the first one who spoke to me of the balance of extremes in the person of the knight, who chose to embrace both extremes of his society rather than walk the safe way between them. Chesterton also spoke of it, this time referencing the Catholic Church, in “Orthodoxy,” which I beg permission to quote at length below:

“As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind–the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing.  For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west.  No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness. In case any reader has not come across the thing I mean, I will give such instances as I remember at random of this self-contradiction in the sceptical attack.  I give four or five of them; there are fifty more.”

The “Odd Shape” of Christianity emerges from the very fact that its enemies can attack it simultaneously from every side, each accusing it of an opposite vice, and each with equal justice.

Christ Himself predicted as much, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:


“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not cry.’
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Luke 7:31-35.

I have come to think that maybe errors and heresies and sins are not often, or at least not always, so much wrong in what they assert as in what they deny.

(I should point out here that I am putting this forth as a model, open to discussion, correction and rebuke, not as a dogma.)

I don’t think it is possible to have too much of a virtue, or to believe a truth too fiercely, or to love someone too strongly. You cannot outdo Jesus, at any rate. What is possible is to lack the opposite virtue, to ignore the opposite truth, or to despise another person. Politically, it is not that the left or the right is wrong about what they positively assert, but they are very wrong in what they deny. So when the left proclaims the value of the individual, concern for the poor and needy, and proper care for women in difficult pregnancies, they promote legitimate values that Catholics of all stripes should be 100% behind. When the right proclaims industry, personal responsibility, and defense of the unborn, they also proclaim legitimate values. As Bishop Barron said, subsidiarity is a value, and so is solidarity, and they either oppose or balance each other, depending on your attitude towards them.

Parenting is another great example. To take one such, some parents value teaching children empathy, sensitivity and a sense of emotional connection with other people. Others emphasize incisiveness, critical thinking and independence. Neither of these sets of values is bad. I don’t think it is possible to care too much about others, or to think too clearly. When there is an imbalance, my first instinct is not to look for the exaggeration but to look for the deficit.

I see this in physical pursuits, as well. I don’t think I have ever seen an athlete who was too strong or too flexible. I have seen many athletes who were not flexible enough to prevent their strength from becoming pathological, or not strong enough to keep their flexibility from becoming instability.

I think that as a model of holiness, this balance of extremes rather than between extremes is more helpful, since it includes all that is good in both sides of the debate. This is the nature of the Church in the world; and the nature of Saints, who always shattered the expectations of the world; and of Jesus who was meek and humble of heart, but fierce and unpredictable in debate, gentle with the humble and dangerous to the proud.

Miserere Mei, Deus, Domine et Pater

O Father, Brother, Lord,
And God, Spouse of my soul,
Forgive my many sins, my crimes.
Lave my wriggling, red, whinging soul
And wipe away the deeply layered grimes,
The residue that clings
The stench that stings
Your nostrils. Take sandpaper
To the corroded rust
Of all my lies, my pride,
My many acts of lust,
And leave me clean and naked, pure and white,
That I might rest forever in your sight.

 But O Good God, still more I petition
You to grant me sorrow
For all my lack, especially of contrition,
Sorrow for all my omission
Of every good and worthy deed.
I reach out in utter need
From the depths of my abstraction,
The aching distraction and nagging
Sense of loss, the dragging
Weight of never-to-be-filled void,
Vacancy and vacuum where does not exist
The good that I was called,
Challenged,
Capable to perform.
Culpable omission, Father.
I did not do what I could,
What I should,
What I would have, if I loved you.

 For the good I might have done,
O Father, Mercy.
For the back I turned on you in your great need,
O Lord, Have Mercy.
For the vicious self-absorption which paid no heed,
O Brother, Mercy.
For the hanging (frightened) back to let you bleed,
O Savior, Mercy.
For the vacuous “I don’t care” behind my lack of deed,
O Lover, Mercy.
For the love grown stagnant, cold,
O Giver, Mercy.
For the calling shirked, shoved aside, shouted down and put on hold,
O Caller, Mercy.
For justice unwrought,
Battles unfought,
Truth untaught,
Pearls unbought,
And the good infection of grace uncaught,
O Divine Fisher, Have Mercy.
For the saint I might have been
And am not,
O Sanctifier, Have Mercy Upon Me.

Living Sacrifice: An Ontological Justification of “Getting in shape” New Year’s resolutions

Here we are, one month into the New Year. (Is it still even a “New” year? Or is it just the year now?) How many of you made resolutions? You don’t have to raise your hands, but feel free to. I won’t know one way or the other.

How many of those resolutions had to do with getting in shape (e.g. eating less, exercising more, losing weight, etc.)?

How have you been doing so far?

If you have been doing well, congratulations! If you have been doing poorly, I am sorry to hear that, but don’t get discouraged. Every day is a new day, and past failure is not an excuse for present apathy.

This morning I was praying and I had a thought return to me that has sustained me for many years now, in keeping on with physical training. I share it in the hopes that if you are keeping up with your physical training goals it will add a new layer to that training, or if you are not, it will provide you another reason to keep trying.

The thought was basically Romans 12:1. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.”

Of course you might think, “How does my getting sweaty and feeling like I want to puke while I slowly light all my muscles on fire from the inside honor God?”

It is a reasonable question, but may I say, it is reasonable from the presupposition of Cartesian dualism.

What does that mean? It means that that question comes from one of our society’s hidden, unquestioned assumptions that who we “really are” is spiritual or mental, and the body is kind of an afterthought. It is the house of “me,” but not really me in the sense that my Ego is me. This notion is often traced back to Descarte’s famous dictum “I think, therefore I am,” but really it is much older than that. You can find it throughout the Manichean traditions and even a bit in Plato.

But in Catholic theology the human person is regarded as a psychosomatic entity, or as my childhood pastor and mentor Fr. Morelle put it, a “bodysoul” creature. Neither a soul trapped in a body, nor a body somehow entangled with a soul, but a creature that is inextricably and by design both body and soul. We may think of it as enfleshed spirit, or spiritualized matter, and either model has its value but neither is complete.

What does this have to do with my beach muscles, or lack thereof?

Scala Naturae — From the Liber de ascensu et decensu intellectus of Ramon Llull A.D 1304

Well, it has to do with Medieval cosmology and its relation to the purpose of Man in the Universe.

Medieval thinkers posited a heirarchical order of being, with non-living matter on the bottom and God at the top. The ladder of being ascended in order: non-living matter, (some sources include fire here), plants, animals, humans, (demons), angels and God.

This is a simple, intuitive and elegant model of the universe with very ancient origins, appropriated by Catholic scholars to explain Man’s position in the universe. “Above” us on the ladder is the spiritual universe. “Below” us is the physical universe, which is a shadowy, less real realm. We serve as the crucial link between the two realms. We are the “bodysoul” that unites the kingdom of seraphim and cherubim and all the choruses of angels with the world of elephants, amoebas and elements.

The purpose of both realms is to worship God, for from Him we come forth and to Him we return, Blessed Be He Forever. Each realm worships Him in its own way. Angels worship by sheer, terrifying direct knowledge, obedience and freedom. Material things worship by obeying unfreely the physical and biological laws that govern them.

Humans alone (that we know of) worship God in both our physicality and our spirituality. We obey physical and biological laws, but we also worship by knowledge, obedience and freedom.

So, of all the creatures in the universe, we are the only ones who can worship God freely by physical actions. This is why the Church places so much store in physical morality, over and against the Manichean heresies that claimed that what the body does did not matter, because it was mere matter and the spirit was separate from it.

One of the ways in which we worship God with our bodies is by enjoying the capabilities of those bodies, whether this be by our sexuality, athletics, dancing, hiking or what not. We alone can interface with a physical universe of incredible complexity and beauty, enjoy it and offer gratitude for it. We are the only spiritual beings with bodies.

It just seems a shame to me to be one of the only such creatures in the universe, and yet never know or care what that wonderful body is capable of.

Anyway, that’s my thought.

You can do it!