Thursday, February 15, 2018

[insert school/city name here]


“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” It’s the headline we read every time there’s another mass shooting. The Onion, struggling to remain satirical in a world stranger than fiction, knows the power of the headline’s meaning. Replace the city’s name, update the number of fatalities, add new picture, repost. It’s always the same. It’s all the same.

Early reports of a shooter on social media. You notice, but don’t click. Don’t bother unless it’s close by or they start reporting fatalities. Injuries don’t warrant attention anymore. Rumors of multiple shooters. Rumor debunked. Images of victims running away, of SWAT teams gathering, of onlookers crying. Early reports of the shooter’s name. Numbers start to come in from hospitals: x dead, y wounded. No, x+z dead now. Calls for gun control. Calls for not using this event as a call for gun control. Thoughts and prayers. “Thoughts and prayers are not enough.” Reports that police have found shooter’s journal and social media. Analysis starts on his motive (it’s always a him). Conjecture. Loner, bullied, radicalized, heartbroken, mentally ill? Honoring the hero that died saving others.  Vigil for the victims. How could we have prevented this? How could we prevent the next one? Then another disaster strikes the news cycle, and the story slips down, eventually becoming just an item on the lists of deadly shootings. The local community is left to bury their dead and deal with their trauma, and everyone else just hopes the next community isn’t theirs.

After running through the cycle a few times, it’s not so shocking. It’d be silly to say that a shooting is shocking. It’s scary and tragic and traumatizing, but not shocking. It’s not a surprise. We know our role in the routine. We all have our stock answers, our trusty thoughts and prayers and gun lobbying statistics. I used to wonder how people in war-torn places dealt with everyday life when there are soldiers and shootings and bombers all around them. But I think I get it now. You bury empathy unless it hits too close to home. You don’t let yourself mourn every life lost. There isn’t time for mourning or processing or deep introspection. You learn which routes are safest, physically and mentally, and make that your routine. You turn off a part of your own humanity because you’re in an inhumane environment.

At the beginning of the school year, kids across the country do fire and tornado and active shooter drills. Because they are disasters that children need to be prepared for. Because they are disasters that can’t be predicted or prevented. Any post-Columbine student knows how to react to a shooting just as much as a fire. Repeat the drill so if the real thing happens, you can just go on autopilot. Turn off that part of your humanity. Know your role in the routine. Carry the training into the real world, to your work, your church, the movie theater, the concert venue. Always be alert. Always be ready. Why are our kids so anxious?

Why are our kids so anxious? Because it is beyond their control. That’s part of the training. We have no control over a fire or a tornado or an active shooter. They’re just disasters that sometimes happen. It’s an inhumane environment; just get out alive. We have no way to prevent this, says the only nation where this regularly happens.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Roses are Red, Ashes are Gray…


Due to an unfortunate lap of calendars, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day this year. For the Church, there is no question: Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent trumps a saint’s feast day. But on a practical level, people are trying to figure out how to have nice dinners and chocolates on a day of fasting and penance.

It truly shows the secularity Valentine’s Day has taken. Because some people aren’t concerned at all with Ash Wednesday’s arrival. It’s a day of romance and celebration. Although the martyr Valentine would probably be more than happy to suppress his feast for Lent.

But people have a hard time letting go of feasts and are eager to look for loopholes out of fasts. I feel like trying to find compromises of combining the two kind of miss the point of both.

Cardinal Dolan recently pointed out that the day of feasting and the day of fasting do have something in common: they are both matters of the heart. Romance is a shadow of greater love. Pink paper hearts and lace prepare us for bloody hearts and spears. This year, the 14th is still about a heart, but the Sacred Heart. It’s about the love that dies for its creation, the love that led Valentine to martyrdom, the love that encourages us to spend 40 days in fasting and penance. Lent is somber, but it needn’t be dreary. There is beauty and expressions of love to be found in a toned down season. It’s a time to work on your relationship with Christ. It’s a six-week getaway with the one you love.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Spiritual Speed Skating


The Winter Olympics. Also known as that period where I marvel how these talented athletes don’t break their legs every single day while also judging that one skater’s slow rotation from my slothful sofa. Olympians make it look so easy, because they are the best competing against the best. Because they have dedicated their entire lives to that one moment. Because I don’t see their lives when the camera is off. But it is hard work. It toils on their bodies and spirits. They have a few seconds to prove themselves in front of the world—victory or defeat.

As I tuned into the speed skating, I figured this sport had a low learning curve for me the viewer. No weird technical jargon, no judges’ scoring system to unpack. Skate fast = win. And it seemed like that for the first few rounds. I thought it was odd that they competed in pairs; why not eight or ten out there like runners do? Then in one fall I learned why.

The pair competing was Norwegian Allan Dahl Johansson and Dutch Koen Verweij. Johansson crashed just before the halfway mark. There were gasps, as there usually are with falls and crashes at the Olympics. Then the commentators said, “This is it for Johansson and for Verweij.” How does his competitor’s fall affect him? For the rest of the race, they watched Verweij, knowing his chances of medaling were all but gone. Without someone to race against, the pace was lost. And now it was just him. You could see the agony in his face and legs. You could see the strength and training and resolve it takes.

It reminded me of how we need people in our spiritual challenges. Even if we think we can go it alone. Even if the other people aren’t necessarily friend. It’s harder alone. It’s all but lost alone. The toil wears faster. The resolve falls quicker.

Others can make it look easy, as if prayer and spiritual relationships develop naturally. But they take pain and practice and a lot of hard work. They only look easy because you see a few seconds of that person’s life. Each decision comes after hours and months of prayer, confession, failing, and resolve. Each decision is a moment for victory or defeat. And it’s much harder to attain victory alone.

Friday, February 2, 2018

A Light in Winter


Since joining the Church, one of the feast days that really draws me (and which I don’t understand doesn’t get more importance) is Candlemas. It sounds so quant and English in my mind, and I suspect there is some novel I read as a child that mentioned it, which is why it enthralls me. Soft glowing candles in the dreary winter season. As for its actual meaning, I don’t give it much thought.

Candlemas marks a few important things in the infancy narrative of Jesus. But they are foreign traditions so they are easy to miss. It’s been forty days since Christmas Day. Women were considered unclean after giving birth, and 40 days after bearing a son, she could reenter social life. This was marked by bringing the baby forward to a priest and making an offering, either a lamb for turtledove. So the feast is sometimes called the Purification of Mary.

The ritual also marked presenting Jesus, her first born child, to God. The scriptures said, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:23).  Like Hannah and Samuel, Mary took Jesus to be presented at the Temple (although she didn’t leave him there). So the feast is sometimes called the Presentation of the Lord.

During the presentation, Simeon recognized who Jesus was and rejoiced at living long enough to see the Messiah. His canticle calls Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” So the feast is sometimes called Candlemas, and the Church uses that day to bless the candles for the year, both for church and home use.

As the last mention of Jesus as an infant, it the official end of the Christmas season. So you should really take down those Christmas decorations now.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Fresh Fallen Snow

Tennessee weather is some manic, unsettled creature that could be written by Tennessee Williams. This past week saw 50 degree swings in 24 hours. It snowed, slightly, and everything shut down. It happens every winter. We get our one or two snows that actually accumulate, and all the Northerners are quick to make fun of how the South shuts down for snow. And the Southerners are quick to cite the fiscal costs of salt trucks and plows for mountainous roads that only get icy once a year. We just wait a couple days until the temperature hits the 60s and melts everything. The snow doesn’t stay.

Southerners know how to appreciate snow. We anticipate with the excitement of a child. We watch it fall in wonder. We made and cancel plans around it. We let our routines fall away to the mercy of nature.

It’s not often in modern society that the environment shapes our day. We’ve developed our environment-proof bubbles. AC and heat and street lights and snow plows and storm drains. All good things. But that means we are accustomed to temperate, lit, dry places; we don’t really notice the differences outside beyond whether or not it’s jacket weather. Our day-to-day lives stay the same during sweltering July afternoons or rainy February evenings.

Our forefathers kept rhythm with nature. Yes, out of necessity, but I believe it did them well. Rise with sun. Go inside when dark. Siesta in the heat of the day. Hunker down in winter. There is waxing and waning, work and rest, a time for everything. And it’s beyond our control.

As I’ve begun to follow the liturgical calendar, I’ve noticed that the annual flow seeped into me. A season of growth, anticipation, preparation, celebration. Birth, work, death, judgement, rest. The endless summer of parables. A feast that turns an ordinary Wednesday into something special.

It’s healthy to break out of the industrial era grind: set hours, set days, repeated and repeated with an occasionally three-day weekend. So that’s why Southerners are right to stop for snow. It’s a temporary hiatus. It’s an opportunity to stop and stare at nature in excitement and childlike wonder. In a few days, it will all return to normal, so give in to the moments of interruption.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Woman Deeply Troubled

There are times when I feel like Hannah in the Temple. Alone and emotional and crying at God. I’ve had several of these Hannah moments, and she’s become by favorite woman of the Old Testament. Her faithfulness is admirable. Her anguish is relatable.

But lately I’ve also started to think of Eli. He is well-regarded, wise, faithful. But he failed Hannah in her moment of pain. He sees only a crazed woman disrespecting the sacred space. He doesn’t see her pain. Instead, he accuses her of being drunk. And I can’t help but think part of his judgment comes from her being a woman, and a childless woman at that. She’s no one important. What concern is her spiritual struggle?

Hannah confronts him clearly: “But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time’” (Samuel 1: 15-16). Eli realizes his error and prays that Hannah’s petitions be granted.

When Hannah has Samuel and dedicates him to the Temple as she promised, she recites what is called Hannah’s Song and what is a prefigurement of Mary’s Magnificat. Her prayer is considered a role model of prayer in Judaism and read during Rosh Hashanah. It’s beautiful and uplifting.

Yet I still identify most with Hannah in her low moment. They are moments of frustration and exhaustion and emotionality. But they are raw and real and healing. The communication with God is full of gripes and tears, but it’s still communication. It’s better to be in the Temple acting like a hot mess than not in the Temple at all.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

St. Emilia

St. Emilia of Caesarea lived in the fourth century, just when Christianity was becoming widespread across Rome. She came from a wealthy family and married a lawyer/rhetorician named Basil. Together, they raised a strong Christian family. Several of her nine children are venerated as well: Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Peter of Sebaste, Naucratius, Theosebia (a deaconess), and Macrina the Younger (Macrina the Elder is Emilia’s mother-in-law, also venerated).

After her husband’s death, Emilia lived with her eldest daughter Marcrina. The women lived a life of study and devotion, attracting other women. The family’s property was turned into a monastic community for female virgins. The servants were treated as equals, and the women followed an ascetic way of life.

Somehow when I initially looked for a St. Emily, Emilia didn’t come up. She’s not as well-known in the West, but she had a strong role in the development of Eastern Christianity through her children. I like to imagine that she and Macrina got along as well as my own mother and me.

St. Emilia’s feast day is May 30. Her sons Basil and Gregory share a feast day on January 2. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Go and See the Baby

The Christmas story tells us that God became man. He arrived a baby, to a poor family, on the outskirts of the empire. No one special on the surface. But people recognized something great about him. Wisemen traveled a great distance just to find him. The angel told the shepherds the message we all follow around Christmas: Go and see the baby.

Being at the age where friends are settling down means there’s suddenly babies in my life. While I’m struggling with myself, these people are creating whole new people and keeping those tiny, soft people alive. There’s a je ne sais quoi to their big eyes taking it all in and trying to make sense of the their world.

And the world around them has changed by their presence. The parents, grandparents, and friends are all enthralled by the babies, their personalities, their schedules, their every milestone. And everyone wants to see the baby. Looking at it, holding it, be able to stop it from crying—we feel better about ourselves just by being with the baby.

I always thought it would be cool to be pregnant during Advent. But I never really thought about having a baby during Christmas. I don’t think the shepherds or wisemen were brimming with 20-something female hormones, but they still were enthralled by a baby. And we think it’s because that baby is God. But it’s also because that baby is human. Babies are enthralling: so much potential in such a small, squishy body. So much joy and love around it. It seems contradictory that God would come to us in such a humble way, but really, I can’t imagine any better one.