Category Archives: Men’s Issues

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

What is it you want to change?

In our world today, we believe what we’re told. We’re not skinny enough, not fair enough, not tall or muscular enough.

I’ve fallen into the trap before. I skipped many meals in my teenage years in a bid to look better.
I did get skinnier, but all I got were lustful looks from the opposite gender.

I saw this quote from St. Catherine of Siena and it was a good reminder that we should strive to love ourselves the way God would love us:

What is it you want to change?
Your hair, your face, your body? Why?
For God is in love with all those things
and He might weep when they are gone.

I do not deny that we are our bodies, for that would deny the gift that God to us.

I also am not saying that we swing to the other extreme and say that we are ONLY our bodies — for that would deny the unique soul that God has given us.

Humans are a hylomorphic (body AND soul) composition and we need to acknowledge both.

When eternity is our reference point, everything that happens here is actually very little.

May we keep that in mind and remember that the Lord loves us exactly for who we are (provided we try our best to be the best versions of ourselves!) (but even when we fail to take care of ourselves, He still loves us.)

Prayers for all those struggling with body image issues, I love you.
God loves you.

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Image: PD-US

A Lesson for a Chaotic Soul

Recently I learned a hard lesson. It was a concept that I knew was coming, as people close to me had informed me of the changes I needed to make. But because I am basically an infant in the spiritual realm, it took me awhile to really get it. It was worth it though because it could basically change my whole life… hopefully, when I learn to unite with God’s will!

Now I normally don’t like to share my spiritual or life lessons that I encounter because I am very young (23 years old), and I am basically still in the process of learning to walk down the paths that I feel God has set for me. So I always feel that I have little credibility in the words that I write. Even so, I feel that what I have realized is very important for every person, no matter who you are.

In recent years, my life has been pretty hectic. I knowingly chose for things to be this way, but I never anticipated the amount of adjusting that I would have to do. Within the past 20 months, I quit school, got engaged, got married, was blessed with my first child. I’ve adjusted to being far away from any family or friends, and I’ve adjusted to my spouse’s crazy medical school life. I’ve adjusted to being a mother and I’ve taken on all of the changes required for the title. I’ve also adjusted to being in a new and intimate relationship with my husband.

That being said, I may have adjusted but I have not responded to my situations in the holiest way. The way I’ve reacted to my environments and relationships have caused me more anxiety and despondency than I thought possible. It caused me to resent my spouse, have a negative outlook on my life, and worse, it drove a wedge between God and myself. I found myself being overly fearful of the future and I didn’t even want to be open to God’s will. Then I started to be ashamed of myself in front of God, knowing that I was avoiding His gaze. What if God asks me to do something difficult? My spiritual director tells me that her priest says that we can’t reach Jesus unless we climb the cross. Well, the cross freaks me out!

When my husband and I would have a conflict, I would panic, shut down, and tell myself that I couldn’t handle his shortcomings. I would use up so much energy trying to change his perspective and then end up angry when I didn’t succeed. In reality, God was teaching us both a lesson in being patient and more aware of each other on our journey through marriage.

When we needed to consider big life decisions, I immediately assumed the worst and panicked. I scrambled to figure out how I could travel down the path of least resistance, even though we really didn’t know what was going to happen yet. In reality, God was probably giving me the opportunity to trust Him.

See a pattern? I was relying on myself and my will because I felt in control. I was also relying on my husband to be perfect and I expected him to respond exactly how I needed him to when in reality, he was learning as much as I was. And who was I not relying on? God the Almighty Father, who basically has the perfect plan for my life.

Here is my main point: If we do not involve God internally, our external reactions will reflect the chaos of our souls.

So how are we supposed to gain internal peace? That may look slightly different for each of us. For me, it entails the need to heal past wounds so that I am okay with myself as God created me. It also will require that I recognize in His infinite and perfect love for me. I have to be able to trust in His ultimate plan, no matter how hard the lessons of the cross will be.

When this happens for each of us, we will be able to carry the crosses and shortcomings of those we love without losing internal peace. No matter what happens, our souls will remain in an undisturbed state while God helps us to grow interiorly and draw into a deeper union with Him.

Parents Are An Image of God

The image of God that parents can portray is meant to make a mark in the hearts and memories of the children it serves. In this way, parents will do much more in the lives of their kids by leaving with them a living impression of God in a way that is impossible for anything else in Creation to make. If we do our job correctly, we parents can lead our children to a deep faith in God that is more valuable than any other inheritance we could leave them.

In his brilliant teaching on the family, found in Familiars Consortio, St. John Paul II wrote, “By virtue of their ministry of educating, parents are, through the witness of their lives, the first heralds of the Gospel for their children.” In this way parents have a role in presenting to their kids their first ever experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The modern saint wrote “through the witness of their lives” to highlight that children learn the life-giving Gospel through the everyday encounter that they have with those who gave them life. Just as Jesus presented the Gospel through words and deeds, so too do parents present the Gospel to their kids through words and deeds.

By loving and caring for our children, we make manifest to them the solemn truth that love exists; and if they see that love exists, it is possible and easier for them to see that there is a Being who is Love. Experiencing love allows our children to know The One Who Is Love, making the mystery of the communion of love in which we participate more accessible to their human understanding. Furthermore, I think that if our children do not have this experience of love as a foundation for their faith, it will be much harder to come to know personally this Great One Who Is Love.

We remember God can do anything, even overcome our brokenness, as Dr. Peter Kreeft has stated, “He writes straight with crooked lines.” However, God has sought our assistance in the creation and raising up of human persons in this life. We can see purpose for the slow growth in independence that children gain naturally as they age. Furthermore, within this purpose we see immense importance in the role of the parents to shape and prepare their children for a good life.

Even though we are imperfect and lacking, we are called to overcome and eclipse the terrible images of parenthood that are plaguing modern society. We need to overcome our desire to be “cool parents” who let our kids do whatever they want as long as it does not get in the way of their busy schedule. We should force ourselves to not give in to what is easy for ourselves in raising our kids, but seek to do the good things that are hard, but most beneficial for the physical, mental, and spiritual develop for our children.

As a father, I have noted the beautiful impression of God that I am able to leave on my children. Some of the ways that we do this are obvious, like providing for our children’s needs just like God our Father provides for all of our needs. However, there are many more ways I see in my role as daddy in leading my beloved children to God.

1. My kids wake up and I have already left for work. On most days, my wife promises them that I will come again before dinner. I come home to fulfill the beautiful prophesy just as Jesus will one day come to us again.

2. One day during Mass, my baby daughter started to cry. I swooped her up and held her close to calm and soothe her. So too does our Heavenly Father want to swoop us up and comfort us when we are upset.

3. I need to work to keep my promises that I make to my children so as to be the image of Our Father who always keeps His promises.

4. When my children come to me and I give them my full attention, I allow for them to grasp the loving attention that God gives us all.

5. In the same way, when I am able to help my children out with their problems, I can image for them the Good Father who will help us as well.

What are some other ways parents can reflect God to their children?

One Year into the Heart of Fatherhood

May 31, 2014 – A day different from all others for me. Half asleep and running on fumes, in the wee hours of the morning, I watched the birth of our daughter Lucy.

My life, sleeping patterns, and focus during Mass would never be the same again. It has been a year of highs and lows: from seeing Lucy’s face light up with a gigantic smile to cleaning a diaper explosion in the car seat; from hearing the word “dada” for the first time to hearing her scream for the one hundredth time as she is trapped in the prison chamber for babies known as the car seat.

Yet I wouldn’t change any of it. God has taught me so much during this past year of fatherhood that I would never have learned in the seminary or monastery. As much as I have begun to teach Lucy about life, God has been teaching me about his love as Father through Lucy.

Love is a choice. Sure, Lucy is cute at 3 PM walking around the house, smiling and giggling like only little girls can. It is really easy to love and kiss her then. The same child is much harder to love at 3 AM when she’s wailing due to a nightmare, teething, an upset stomach, or who knows what. Yet I have to love and take care of her just the same at 3 AM as 3 PM since this is my duty as a father.

Each yes to love opens me to a greater love for God. Every diaper change is an opportunity to love Jesus, for whatsover you do to the least of my people you do unto him. Am I perfect at this? Certainly not. Do I complain, grumble and get upset sometimes? You bet! Fortunately, it is happening a bit less now as I learn to be patient.

For example, three months into fatherhood, we were driving to visit my wife’s family in Ohio. Lucy began to cry in the backseat and would not stop. My stubborn nature did not want to stop the car but keep going to Columbus, yet Lucy continued to cry.

My wife asked me to stop at a nearby rest area and I relented, begrudgingly. Turns out Lucy needed to nurse and have her diaper changed. Thankfully my wife was stubborn enough to talk some sense into me to stop the car.

I realized that I was so fixed on the goal of getting to the destination that I became easily angered when I had to stop for something that was out of my control.

Little children quickly show you that your life is no longer your own. They have needs that only the parents can meet. Your own plans have to change to meet them.

The difficult sacrifice is also beautiful. Our lives weren’t given to us by God to manipulate and control. God gave us life so that we can love him and serve him through others. Is an ordered life virtuous? Sure. This is a cross for parents. We can’t keep everything in order with kids who are constantly throwing us into chaos.

Still, in chaos we can reflect on how God enters the messiness of our own lives and loves us despite our scars and shortcomings. I have thought about this while loving Lucy. I love her just because she is my daughter, not because of some cute thing she does, but because I am her father. How much more does God love us just because we are his children?

And that is the point of the family, to be a symbol of God’s love in the world. We may struggle to live this out in the world, but each time we fall we must get back up and try again. This is God’s will for us: to show the world we are Christians by our love, beginning in the home. May we all take the daily crosses of family life and offer them to God with love for the sanctification of the world.

Feminism did not Kill Chivalry

Before I begin, let me preface this by saying that it is an extremely rough sketch of a very complex topic. If there are any real historians out there reading this (for a laugh, no doubt) I welcome your criticism and correction.

This was the most PG feminism/chivalry meme I could find.

One of the more popular tropes you hear around the internet is the lament among some of the women that: “Chivalry is dead!”

It is usually followed pretty quickly by a man who, under the impression that he is being both witty and original, retorts: “Yeah, and women killed it.”

This exchange shows only that neither the woman nor the man understand chivalry. If it was something that feminism could kill, it was not really something worth having in the first place. Feminism did not kill chivalry, but it has been implicated in vandalizing the corpse.

Chivalry has been one of my life long interests, not merely as an historical study, but primarily as a way of life. I have sought to incorporate it into my daily life, and to live it. As I have gotten older, my understanding of it has evolved and deepened, and it is no longer even remotely defined for me by social niceties such as holding doors, picking up the check, carrying groceries, etc. The long historical view of Chivalry destroyed that caricature a long time ago.

Charlemagne, First Holy Roman Emperor

The concept of chivalry arose in a recognizable modern form between 1170 and 1220 AD but its roots go back much further. The word comes from the French “chevalerie,” which means “horse soldiers.” (Our modern “cavalry” is descended from the same root). Originally little more than mounted gangs of teutonic raiders, with the drawing to a close of the Dark Ages and the beginnings of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne, these gangs began to merge and coalesce into larger groups. It was from these larger groups that the concept of knighthood and chivalry arose.

Historic chivalry had three pillars:
1) The martial virtues
2) The social virtues
3) The religious virtues.

The martial virtues were the oldest of the bunch. These had been in existence in warrior cultures from time immemorial, what Jack Donovan calls “the tactical virtues.” These were strength, courage, competence, honor and loyalty. This is the bare bones moral framework you need for a group of men who have to fight on a daily basis just to survive. These were also the foundation of chivalry, and this is a very important thing to understand. Chivalry was founded on the warrior ethos of men who lived with violence as a way of life, and to whom loyalty to “us” versus “them” was the supreme civic virtue.

With the development of Medieval Society, an increasingly complex world, warfare was no longer the secondary occupation of every man, but became the primary occupation of a select few men, those who had the aptitude for it or were born into the warrior class families. Among these the martial virtues were still the foundation of their ethos, but an increasingly civilized world began to demand more of them than simply skill in separating heads from bodies.

Enter the two great civilizing influences, the women and the Church. It was these two forces that took chivalry from being essentially a gang ideal, and made it the dominant cultural ethos of Europe for hundreds of years.

Edmund Leighton’s 1901 painting “The Accolade”

Women influenced the development of chivalry by introducing the “courtly virtues.” In more broad terms we might consider this the social component of chivalry. These virtues included culture, refinement, soft speech, table manners, dancing, singing, music, and later on with the Renaissance, arts and letters. Respect for women, sometimes an almost worshipful adoration of them, also attached itself to the ideal of chivalry. The reason why women encouraged and rewarded these virtues was as a sort of self-protection. They were dealing with big rough men whose day job involved killing other big rough men and taking what they wanted. Women needed protection from the enemy men, but also protection from their own men as well. The ideal of respect for the weak, the helpless, and especially women offered at least nominal insurance against the appetites of men used to taking what they wanted by force.

The Church reinforced this adaptation and added a spiritual component, sanctioning chivalry with ceremonies of knighthood, blessings and prayers. The Church tried to inspire an ideal of monastic piety as a third component of chivalry, most clearly seen in the monastic chivalric orders, such as the Templars and the Hospitallers.

Chivalry began to decline with the advent of gunpowder. The knightly class no longer reigned supreme on the battlefield. Instead they were slowly replaced by anonymous, massed, paid professionals, and later a core cadre of professionals training and commanding an army of conscripts. With warfare no longer their sole reason for existing as a class, even in theory, the primary foundation of chivalry collapsed. The martial virtues that formed the basis of chivalry as a way of life decayed, kept alive only in sports and occasional military service. Without the vitality and urgency of constant exposure to death, chivalry lost its mojo.

Saint Edmund Campion, martyred at Tyburn, England, 1581.
Saint Edmund Campion, martyred at Tyburn, England, 1581.
John Henry Cardinal Newman, 1801 – 1890

Move up a couple of centuries, into the 1500 to 1800’s, and a second pillar of Chivalry was removed with the fruition of the Protestant Reformation. Christendom fractured from a loosely allied group of warring states, nominally loyal to the Holy Roman Empire and to the Church, into discrete nations, each one claiming their own land until, by the beginning of the 19th century boundaries and national identities were relatively fixed. Loyalty to a religion that transcended the nation, i.e. the Church, was seen as suspicious at best, and treasonous at worst. England ran the full gamut from Edmund Campion’s martyrdom in 1581 to the ostracism of Catholics experienced by John Henry Cardinal Newman in the 19th century.

With the Church no longer the dominant social force, sanctity was no longer held up as the ideal for the knightly class. They had a vague religiosity, they went to church on sundays, endowed orphanages and such, and maintained a perhaps mostly social code of honesty, fair play and straight dealing, but the primacy of almsgiving, penance and prayer was lost.

Fight to the death? No thank you. It might ruin my mutton chops.

With the martial and religious virtues gone, only the social virtues were left to take up the slack. The late renaissance through the 19th century was the highpoint of the secular humanist liberal education. The goal of this education was to produce liberal minds, minds conversant with the classics, but also on the forefront of modern knowledge, broad, cultured, sensitive, urbane. This liberal minded gentleman probably also had some familiarity with fencing, boxing or some other vaguely martial sport. He supported his local parish, and had his own family pew in church on sunday. This was the gentleman of Newman’s day. Newman, of course, was under no illusions that such an ideal was a religious one, but as far as it went, as a purely human goal, the gentleman was a worthy ideal.

The days of the gentleman were numbered, however, with the rise of the industrial revolution and capitalism in the west. In the Middle Ages commerce was seen as disgraceful for the chivalric class, and money was valued chiefly as something to give away or live splendidly with. In the modern world, money is everything. The coup de grace came when the liberal education of the 19th century gave way to the career preparation of the 20th century as the primary educational model. The meal ticket replaced the development of the person as the end of education.

Chivalry became a set of things men do instead of what we are.

At this point, I think we can say that chivalry was dead. Not, certainly, as a personal code for a few dedicated individuals, but as a cultural force. The only remnant of the ethos of fighting men was a vague network of social niceties, mostly revolving around male-female relationships. The distinct maleness of chivalry being divorced from such gestures as holding the door and picking up the check, it was too easy for this bastardized version to be caricatured, ridiculed and dropped, but make no mistake, chivalry was gone before feminism arrived on the scene.

It is a matter for debate whether feminism could have arisen at all otherwise.

This is why any serious discussion of chivalry and its role in the life of modern men must take into account the historical origins and nature of the code. I am not interested in talk about reviving the social niceties of the 1950’s. Like all social etiquette, they were valuable and meaningful in their time, but customs change with times and it is no use lamenting them when they are past.

It was the foundation in a masculine ideal of danger, courage and risk that gave chivalry its power, and as soon as that foundation was lost, the whole structure inevitably followed. Any real discussion of a new chivalry must begin by recapturing the martial virtues of strength, courage, competence and honor. Without this foundation we are merely wasting our time.

For more about #TheNewChivalry go to www.themanwhowouldbeknight.com

10 Steps to Beat Pornography

pornographyPornography is a big problem in modern society. Actually, no. Pornography is a huge problem in modern society. Did you know that 10-15% of all search engine requests and 20% of smart phone searches are for pornography? Studies show that 90% of boys and 60% of girls are exposed to pornography before they are 18 years old. In addition, 70% of young men and 20% of young women view pornography every week and pornographic sites have more monthly visitors than Twitter and Amazon combined.

While the numbers are high, especially amongst males, it is not true that all men view pornography, and we must not allow ourselves to believe that pornography constitutes normal sexual behavior. However, especially for young men, if any sort of regular pornography use is not dealt with swiftly it risks becoming a debilitating addiction.

The good news is that authentic religious observation and involvement has been shown to contribute in a major way to lessening pornographic use and dependence. The following then, are ten steps to help beat pornography. The steps focus on the spiritual life but some of them will require major changes in one’s practical life, but if we are sincerely determined to regain control of who we called to be as men and women in Christ there is no other way.

  1. Commit to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion every day. Holy Communion is food and strength for the journey and if we don’t have it atop our list then we are not serious about the battle. Getting to Mass everyday will almost certainly require earlier mornings or shorter lunch breaks but how much do we want success?
  2. Seek out the sacrament of confession as often as needed. If you are in the midst of the battle consider getting there at least once per week, but if you need to go every day, go every day. Remember this sacrament is the chamber of mercy and this is where we can really ask God to transform our hearts.
  3. Find a Spiritual Director (usually a priest) who you can meet with regularly. Pornography is a sin and all sin thrives in secrecy. We must shine a light on the dark areas of our life and call them out. You must be completely open with your spiritual director about the struggle so that the path to healing can begin.
  4. Spend 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening in prayer. Depending on where you are you might be able to spend this time in a church, but if not, find a quiet place where you can simply talk to God. You may begin by reflecting on a short Scripture passage and you may additionally find it helpful to write your prayer into a journal. Most importantly, the bulk of this time should be an attempt at heart-to-heart conversation.
  5. Pray a Rosary each day asking the Mother of the Lord for purity. The beauty of Christianity is that we exist amongst the communion of saints and we can, and should, ask all those in heaven to intercede for us.
  6. Deal with the device that is leading you to sin. If you access pornography on your smart phone then contact your provider to have data disconnected from your phone (or alternatively move to a simple phone). If the home computer is the problem then get it out of the house until you are ready. These actions can seem extreme but pornography is extreme and it must be dealt with in a radical way.
  7. Say goodbye to friends, contacts or situations that are causing you to fall into sin. Each person must examine their own life to see those things that are stumbling blocks to success and deal with them. These are personal decisions but how much do we put on the price of true freedom?
  8. Spend regular quality time with a group of friends of the same sex who share your faith and are active in the faith. If you don’t have any faith based friends then start engaging with your local parish to meet some. This step is not necessarily about gathering to discuss faith or personal struggles but establishing relationships with good men or women who are also on the journey.
  9. Get busy. The old phrase that ‘idle hands make the devil’s work’ is true. If we spend excessive time lazing around or playing computer games we are leaving an open door for temptation. The positive choices are endless; sport, charity work, hobbies, visiting the needy etc. When our head hits the pillow at night we should be really tired, if not there’s a problem.
  10. Don’t allow yourself to believe that your personal struggles put you in a category apart from everyone else on the planet, and in addition, do not make the struggle be beat pornography bigger than it needs to be. In other words, don’t give the devil too much credit. We all struggle in various ways but as Pope John Paul II once said,We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”

A Couch Is NOT a Promise

couch not promise

Not too long ago, my best friend moved in with her boyfriend.

It’s a big deal: this is her third long-term, serious relationship, but the first one she felt confident enough in to say, “Hey, I like you so much, I’m going to live with you.”

I have very mixed feelings about this whole thing.

First of all, I am Catholic. I am on fire for God and the Church and the idea of living with some man before marriage gives me the heebie-jeebies. (My best friend, by the way, is not Catholic—she’s not even Christian—she vacillates between agnosticism and atheism but, I am convinced, contains a healthy dose of pagan virtue.)

On the other hand, I am delighted that she cares this much about a guy—a few years ago the idea of marriage disgusted her, now she’s well-versed in diamond rings and carats and clarity and likes to drop hints about her preferences to the Boyfriend.

About a week after the big move I met up with my best friend and asked her cautiously about sharing her space so intimately with another human being for the first time. She reported a nearly seamless move: she loved getting to spend more time with Boyfriend and sharing their commute to work. She loved getting to play with his dog.

I asked her: did you get to do any redecorating? She said they bought a couch together.

A couch.

A couch is a major purchase.

Couches are expensive. Big. Room-ambiance-changing. If a relationship goes south, you cannot set the couch between both parties and whistle and call until it comes galumphing over to its favorite owner. If a relationship goes south, it really matters who gets to keep the couch (where memories have been made but—almost more importantly!—where you can continue to sit/sleep as a single person in a single’s apartment, enjoying your major financial investment in furniture).

My best friend considers the couch a promise.

A couch is not a promise.

The problem with moving in with a man before you marry him is that you have to think about things like, “is it worthwhile investing in a couch?” My husband and I just bought a couch. We had to juggle some finances to do it, but it will be in our home until it grows old and dies from our kids and pets and friends abusing it. What will happen to my best friend’s and Boyfriend’s couch? Will it live to a ripe old age? No one knows.

Couches are furniture, not promises. When I think about my relationship with my husband five, ten years from now, I do not rely on something as flimsy as a couch to tell me he will still be by my side. I have the Sacrament of Marriage to bolster me up; that’s a promise so strong that I actually cannot picture life five, ten years from now without him.

To everyone out there wondering where your current romance will take you in the future: furniture purchases are about as accurate as tea leaves. A promise to stand by one another, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, requires stronger binding than stylish upholstery.

When Waiting is Really Hard

love gives lust takes

In reaction to the increasing physical immorality spreading through society today, and in an attempt to counter the message  constantly being sold through advertising, movies, music, and even best-selling books that says sexual intimacy is not only okay, but expected, outside of marriage, the Catholic online world has been buzzing with all sorts of articles on how to stay pure.  Each week it seems Jason Evert’s online blog for young adults comes out with a new list of suggestions for how to become pure, remain pure, return to purity, or increase in purity.  And while this is an incredibly important message, it can be a little discouraging when you prioritize purity as a couple, but still find it very hard to do so—not because you’re tempted to break the rules, but because saying no to what feels good and natural is hard.

For couples who have been dating long enough to be past the “he’s perfect, she’s perfect, we’re perfect for each other and neither of us can find fault in the other” phase, the struggle to remain pure becomes hard on a whole new level when you reach an understanding that comes with trusting each other with more of yourselves.  While physical attraction tends to be an initiator of relationships, and the main facet in them in the beginning (which is perfectly acceptable, as long as there is a desire to know the person better individually, and not just use them for their appearance), the temptations to take things too far tend to center around the “newness” of it all.  You’re both excited to be discovering each other, you’re not serious enough yet to be having intimate conversations or discussing deep mutual feelings, and simply touching each other sends electric sparks through the air.  During this phase, purity is hard because it puts a limit on how many new things can be experienced, but it is also the beautiful restraint which forces the couple to look beyond the physical attraction and truly learn to love each other’s hearts and souls.

But after the two of you have your first fight, endure hardship together, and start to learn all the “perfections and imperfections” (to use a beautiful phrase from Inception) that make your partner who he/she is, you start to form a deeper bond with him/her.  The deeper it goes, the more intimately you begin to know each other, and the more you desire simple affections, quiet moments, and complete closeness.  Your hearts start to feel so intertwined, you become so familiar with the quirks and little things about the other one that make them so unique, and you start to share things together more exclusively.  And as this emotional nearness increases, the longing to physically be as close as possible to the other person, to physically become close to them in the way you are becoming emotionally close, can often be even stronger and harder to resist than the initial, flirtatious, excited temptations.

When your longing to take the next step in the physical area of the relationship is based on a desire to complete the feelings of unity that the two of you have been building, when it comes from an almost spiritual yearning rather than just base attraction, it becomes easy to justify the temptation in your mind.  It’s easy to think “I’m not lusting after them, I just want to be close to them”; while this is a beautiful desire, outside of marriage it is a very persuading argument for impurity.  When thoughts like that take over the mind, not only does it become harder to say “no” when you both feel so united, but it also becomes harder to keep your thoughts pure—because when you’re thinking like an engaged couple, but not actually engaged, your mind starts dreaming of and preparing for things upon which it is not yet appropriate to dwell.

This is a very personal topic, and it is easy to feel alone in this struggle when so many articles and talks about purity make it seem like if you’re following the rules, everything should just be easy.  For those out there dating, trying to do so in a holy, pure, Catholic way, but still finding it incredibly hard nonetheless, do not be discouraged.   As paradoxical as it may sound, a date cut short because temptation was particularly intense is more rewarding than a date that went too far.  When you both look at each other at the end of the night, hold hands, exchange chaste kisses on cheeks, and know that you both want so much more but are offering it up for the sake of pleasing God before yourselves, then kneel before your separate beds to pray, being able to say to God “We took care of each other, Lord.  I put his/her soul before my own desires tonight, so I could take care of him/her for You.  Please see the sacrifice and give us grace instead.  Bless her/him, who I miss so much already, and thank you for the gift of true love stronger than lust”, nothing is more rewarding.  And should God join the two of you together “until Death do you part” one day in the future, the reward will be tenfold when you can pull each other close and come together as husband and wife, giving each other the gift of yourselves so carefully preserved, and showered with grace as you unite both body and soul.  So do not feel guilty or alone when your God-centered relationship still hurts sometimes when yearnings cannot be satisfied: purity is extremely hard, but it is so worth the wait.

St. Joseph, Most Chaste Spouse of Mary, pray for us!

Does Contraception have a place in Christian Relief Work?

I was recently invited to tour a new medical ship run by the international Christian relief organisation Youth With a Mission (YWAM). This particular ship, destined for work in Papua New Guinea (PNG), is larger and newer than their current vessel, and it will allow YWAM to increase their medical assistance by 500%, offering healthcare immunisations and training to 1.3 million people, a quarter of the nation’s population. The ship will offer basic but vital services which many of the poorest people of PNG would have little hope of accessing otherwise, such as optical and dental treatment, pregnancy assistance, as well as medications to fight malaria and tuberculosis. There was no doubt in the presentation and ensuing discussion that the work being undertaken was of immense value, truly taking up the most basic Christian tenant to offer help to those in need.

The ship is currently moving up and down the east coast of Australia raising awareness and seeking young people as medical and general volunteers. The reason I was invited aboard was to help them create an awareness of the work amongst young Catholics, especially those who might look to give a few months to volunteering. As the discussions developed I knew there was one question that needed to be asked, and that was their policy on abortion and contraception. While I was relieved to learn that as a Christian organisation they did not carry out abortions, they did distribute the contraceptive pill and the Depo-Provera injection which is designed to prevent pregnancy for three months at a time. Their reasoning for distributing contraceptives was because they operate within the medical policy of the nation in which they serve and contraceptives are part of the ‘health’ strategy of PNG. Their response was not a real surprise and they are certainly not the only Christian relief agency travelling this path (even World Vision is the same). Contraceptives now form a large part of the medical response in developing nations and that is often because it is tied to much needed relief dollars from wealthier nations such as Australia and the USA.

From a moral standpoint though, treating fertility as a disease to be stopped is never an authentically human or Christian response. The long standing Judeo/Christian theological tradition is that fertility is a gift allowing and calling couples to share in the life-giving power of God. And while that has never meant that all couples are obligated to have 10 children, it does not follow that we are able to sterilise the meaning of the sexual union as a complete sharing of two people.

It is a tragedy that natural and scientifically accurate methods of fertility awareness (such as the Billings Ovulation Method) are not taught to these poor women as opposed to injecting them with what is a dangerous drug every three months. After all, a women is only fertile for a small portion of every cycle; natural fertility awareness respects and helps a couple to understand this and plan their family accordingly. Contraception doesn’t care about a woman’s natural cycle, it simply kills fertility completely as if it were some sort of cancer. Even the communistic Chinese government has tested and authorised the national teaching of the Billings Method to help couples comply with their one child policy; of course they don’t care about the moral value of sexuality, but it shows that the method is understood to be highly effective. Teaching couples about fertility awareness helps them understand their bodies and appreciate the gift of their sexuality; handing out contraceptive pills and injections to women is unfortunately more akin to the way we de-sex animals and far below our dignity as beings created in a divine image.

And in addition, even though the YWAM medical ships may not carry out surgical abortions, it is part of the workings of the pill and depo injections that they act as chemical abortifacients, meaning that they stop the implantation of an embryo that has already been formed as a new life. Women are thus likely having very early abortions and being completely unaware of that fact. Anyway, once the theory of contraception has been accepted, the idea of abortion is never far behind. They are two sides of the one coin which says that fertility is a medical problem to be dealt with.

It is very unfortunate that over the past forty or so years a number of Christian (Protestant) welfare organisations have bought into the heavily funded agenda from groups like Planned Parenthood which says that the distribution of contraceptives and even surgical abortion is necessary in the developing world. It is something which the Catholic Church, for some of the reasons above, finds intolerable. And admittedly it makes work with Protestant welfare groups, which on the most part have good intentions, often impossible. The saddest aspect of it all though is that these groups, working under the Christian flag, are standing beside policies that are harmful to the people and families they seek to serve.

The Single Best Way to Reduce Abortions

When Lisa Selin Davis told a cabdriver she was going to have an abortion, he pulled the car over on the Brooklyn Bridge in a blizzard. He begged her not to do it. Davis, then a 22-year-old aspiring filmmaker, had conceived the child with a married man she met at a film shoot. But she “didn’t want that baby, with that man,” she wrote in an essay that recently printed in the Perspective section of the Tampa Bay Times.

The story is sad but bold. When Davis resisted the cabdriver’s appeal, he took her to the clinic to which she had asked him to take her, where after it was over, she woke up sobbing in pain and a paper gown. She was sure she would never be a mother. She was wrong. Fifteen years later, she wrote, she gave birth to a daughter and later, to another. And, she added, “I want my daughters to have the option of safe and legal abortion, of course. I just don’t want them to have to use it.”

Davis’s is one of countless voices that roots for the right to choose to abort despite an admitted distaste for abortion. Abortion is regarded and protected by many as a “necessary” evil — a procedure to be avoided, but to be accessible for when other options are undesirable. Davis wants her daughters to have the right to choose to abort but she doesn’t want them ever to have to exercise it. In the essay, she doesn’t say what her daughters can do to avert ever feeling like they need to. Other voices like hers have made suggestions:

In the essay’s combox, a commenter wrote that abortion can be avoided by teaching “safe” sex, and making it easier for people to access contraception. In a recent tweet, author Rachel Held Evans issued a reminder “that the single best way to reduce abortions is to make birth control more accessible and affordable.” These suggestions are problematic because they propose – rather ambitiously – that the path to the prevention of abortion can begin at sex.

But that implies that conception is the problem, and that “not using contraception” is what causes it. It doesn’t consider the possibilities that conception isn’t the problem; that contraception — which has created a perceived gap between sex and procreation — is part of the problem; and that sex’s status quo in our culture can and should be transcended. It dismisses the true single best way to reduce abortions: practicing chastity.

Chastity acknowledges that “not using contraception” does not cause conception, and that sex at just the right time does. It acknowledges that consent alone doesn’t make sex safe, and condoms don’t make sex safe — that who you’re having sex with and when and why affects sex’s safety, too. Chastity acknowledges that the path to the prevention of abortion cannot start at sex, but must start at birth or adoption, when we’re chosen; that it must continue in our homes, where our parents are supposed to start our sexuality education; that the prevention of abortion does not depend on contraception, but on the the definition of sex (which — for chaste people — is a sacred, physical sign of the commitment spouses made to each other on the altar where they were married, ultimately designed to bond them and to make babies).

Chastity eliminates extramarital pregnancy because it eliminates nonmarital sex. Chastity eliminates unwanted pregnancies within marriage because married couples who practice chastity also practice NFP. And because pregnancy is never not valued for people who practice chastity, even if achieved when a couple that uses NFP planned to avoid a pregnancy. Chastity eliminates conception in rape because a person who practices chastity does not rape.

But chastity is widely dismissed. It is sometimes scoffed. It is a cure that a culture rejects because using a Band-Aid is easier, because we are desperate to prove we can have our cake and eat it, too.

Chastity accepts that we can’t.

Click here to read Davis’s essay in full.

Why Chaste People Should Get Uncomfortable

Ten years ago, I crossed a modest stage in a well-lit gymnatorium at a private, Protestant school. I was one of 14 high school seniors who wore royal blue caps and gowns and breathed happy sighs of relief upon being given what meant more to us than diplomas:

Freedom.

For me, freedom meant transition. It meant I turned from a Catholic kid in a Protestant class of 14 to a Catholic kid on a secular campus of 40,000 — from a young woman who knew everyone to a young woman who, most days, knew no one.

I wasn’t ok with that. So I did what I sometimes still can’t believe:

I got uncomfortable.

And I did it on purpose.

I didn’t know yet that getting uncomfortable was good for a person who practices chastity. Here’s how I learned:

Resistant though I was to rubbing elbows with strangers, I saw no solution to isolation other than to turn the courtyard outside the University of South Florida’s Cooper Hall into my turf. I decided I did not require a stranger’s invitation to share a bench. I did not request a clique’s permission to be part of a party. I decided 40,000 potential friends were too slow at being the first to start conversations. So, I started them, which was uncomfortable, because I could not predict how they would end.

Sometimes, my disregard for my comfort zone did what I wanted it to do. Some of my best undergrad friends were the students whose picnic tables I picked instead of sitting alone at empty ones. Other times, my disregard for my comfort zone did what made disregarding it uncomfortable: it’s a sad day when somebody’s response to your “hello” is an eye-roll and a swift exit.

But it’s only a sad day until it isn’t, until you’ve done an uncomfortable thing enough that it doesn’t make you uncomfortable anymore — a killer skill for a person who practices chastity.

A person who practices chastity, the virtue that requires us to abstain from sex outside marriage, has to talk about it (often in public, on first dates, in a culture that thinks it’s weird). A person who practices chastity will probably be mocked, and will probably be rejected. A single person who practices chastity accepts that he or she might never have sex (ever, or again). A married person who practices chastity accepts that marriage doesn’t mean sex any time for any reason. A person who practices chastity saves sex or sex from now on for marriage, which means wedding night sex probably won’t be seamless.

Which means people who practice chastity are put in positions our culture calls uncomfortable. It means we have to make sacrifices where other people don’t think we should. It means we have to be disciplined where others might not have to be. Which is why chaste people should get uncomfortable, make sacrifices, and practice discipline in areas of life outside chastity.

My disregard for a comfort zone in the courtyard outside USF’s Cooper Hall wasn’t just valuable because it helped me make friends. It was valuable because I got better at disregarding comfort zones. Somebody’s decision to sacrifice trips to Starby’s isn’t just valuable because it saves him or her money. It’s valuable because it helps him or her get better at making sacrifices. Somebody’s decision to ditch the snooze button isn’t just valuable because it pushes him or her into starting each day earlier. It’s valuable because it helps him or her get better at being disciplined.

So let’s do it.

And let’s do it on purpose.