Monday, September 4, 2017

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

History is written by the winners, they say. But that’s not entirely true. Living in the South proves that. The Lost Cause narrative sustained, even if it’s not the national narrative. There are still Rebel flags and monuments to Jackson and Lee and reenactments of Confederate victories. The reasons why these persist are varied, and yes, many of those reasons are rooted in racism. The war was lost, the cause was wrong, but no one wants to say that their boys died in vain. Losers write history too.

How historical times or events are remembered and interpreted say more about the current times than those of the past. How interpretation of the past shows how we want to connect the present to some larger narrative. We want our times to make sense. We want to connect to moments of victory or morality or innovation. We want assurances that we are moving humanity the way it ought. So we fit our values and missions into the larger historical context. We align past heroes to ourselves, obscuring context. And when the stories don’t fit, they get reinterpreted or replaced entirely.

After the Civil War, President Johnson pardoned the Confederates. This was so that Southerners would not be punished by Northerners thus continuing the division. Rather, Confederates were reabsorbed as Americans, accepting the union and the label of American. That’s why in the South, the Confederacy is often remembered as part of America—Americans fighting Americans, i.e., a civil war. The regional memory is different than the national memory, and the fight over statues is really a fight over the story. Every group wants their story told, their memory validated. Collective memory is at the core of a group’s identity. It is worth fighting for. So the struggle to dictate the story can lead to violence and destruction.

Whether the statues should stay or go should be debated. Personally, I think there are cases for some to stay and some to go, and it would have to be determined on a case by case basis, factoring in the intent when it was erected and the community’s past and present situations. Baltimore city government decided to remove its statues before they became foci of conflict. And they had a point. The statues have become tangible beacons of the division of narratives.  Letting a frenzied mob tear down or vandalize property legitimizes chaos; it allows emotional outbursts to win over civil social discourse. Politics becomes not about rationalized ideology but about brute force.

Iconoclasts seek to erase history. They want to distance themselves from a dark past and create a new utopia, free of any tainting, residual influence. They want to purify themselves by sanitizing the landscape. In doing so, they disregard the past, destroy art, damage buildings, desecrate burial grounds.

We see iconoclasm in ISIS blowing up ancient sites, smashing some of Christianity’s oldest churches and even Muslim holy places to dust. We see it in the Red Guard destroying the Four Olds during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During the French Revolution, the heads of the statues of Notre Dame were decapitated, and the cathedral became a Temple of Reason.

In the sixteenth century, the iconoclastic Protestants smashed stained glass and statues and threw out relics.  This was beyond a reformation; it was obliteration. The Church, her art, and her contributions were sought out to be erased. Along with political power, the iconoclasts wanted control over the community memory, to shape history as they wanted.

There are narratives that are truer and more just than others. There are reasons to remove images that represent oppression. But we must be careful from becoming iconoclasts, from believing that a purified landscape and erased history will lead to a pure, new society. There are no pure societies. There is nothing new under the sun.

In 1984, George Orwell says, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Floating Together

With the flooding in Texas, I’ve seen images of floating masses of fire ants. When fire ants sense danger, particularly flooding, they start linking together. They form a mass, with the vulnerable eggs, larvae, and queen bundled in the center. The wax on their bodies helps them float. Members rotate from below the water line to above so they don’t drown. They can float this way for weeks, until they find dry land.

It’s a terrifying but fascinating image. A single ant cannot possibly withstand a hurricane and massive floods. But together, the colony can survive. They see each other through, they protect their vulnerable, and they take turns bearing the most difficult task.

This is how the Church should work. By working together, we accomplish collectively what we can’t do alone. We protect and care for our most vulnerable. And at times, the individual has to suffer. When underwater, it’s difficult to remember the collective purpose; you’re just afraid of drowning and panic. But if the group is working together, then they won’t let you drown; you’ll be lifted up above the water line. Another will take on the sufferings when you can’t, just as you took on sufferings for the betterment of another.

We are a living, shifting body. That’s how we’ll ride out the flood. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

St. Raymond Nonnatus

St. Raymond was born in 1204 in Catalonia via caesarian, thus earning him the name Nonnatus (“not born”). His mother died in childbirth. As a youth, he watched his family’s sheep. He joined the new Mercedarian order, which had been founded to ransom Christians from the Moors in North Africa, and was trained by the founder, St. Peter Nolasco.

He ransomed hundreds of Christians until he got to Tunis, where his money ran out. So he offered himself as a hostage for 28 captive Christians. He began preaching to his guards. The Moors allegedly bored a hole through his lips and padlocked his mouth shut to prevent him from preaching. He was ransomed and returned to Spain in 1239. He died at the Castle of Cardona in 1240 and was buried in the chapel he prayed at as a child.

Locks are placed at his altar representing prayer requests to end gossip, rumors, and false testimonies. He is the patron of the falsely accused and the confidentiality of confession. He is also the patron of expectant mothers, newborns, obstetricians, and midwives. His feast day is August 31. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

St. Eulalia

Eulalia of Merida
St. Eulalia of Barcelona was a young martyr who died under the persecution from Diocletian in the fourth century. The thirteen-year-old refused to renounce her faith and was subjugated to a series of tortures including being rolled in a barrel with glass stuck into it, having her breasts cut off, crucifixion, and decapitation.

There is debate as to whether St. Eulalia of Barcelona is the same as St. Eulaia of Merida. Both legends are of a young teen girl in Iberia who suffered a series of tortures under Diocletian's reign. Both had doves appear at their deaths.

I learned about St. Eulalia as Barcelona experienced a terror attack yesterday. More than a dozen people died from an attack by North African Muslims. One portrait of her has her lying in the streets during her tortures. It’s a serene scene for one of martyrdom.

She was buried in Barcelona. In 713 during the Moorish invasion, the body was hidden (recovered in 878). In 1339, she was relocated to the crypt of the new cathedral which also bore her name, Cathedral de Santa Eulalia in Barcelona. She is the city’s patron, and her feast day in February 12. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Words Don't Do

Last weekend I watched along with the rest of the country as violence erupted in Charlottesville. It was sad, but not surprising. In a way, it felt overdue. White supremacists and neo-Nazis chanting “blood and soil” and “the Jews will not replace us,” rallying around vestiges of the Lost Cause, literally carrying torches and swastikas. It was surreal but familiar. Anarchists and fascists fill the plots of books from 100 years ago. But now they are also on the streets.

There is a lot of anger, a lot of absolutism, a lot of whataboutism, and a lot of false equivalences. There is no moment of respite. It just keeps mounting. It is difficult to imagine a peaceful solution. This is what happens when competing ideologies run out of negotiating space. Fundamental ideas clash so hard that they turn into actual clashes.

There have been those criticizing others for not speaking out publicly or not getting physically involved. I am probably viewed as complacently silent because I haven’t typed “Nazis are bad” on facebook. But I don’t think social media activism is real activism. I’m alert, and I’m willing to jump in and help at my micro/local level, and I hope I have the courage to do the right thing. Evil must be confronted. Evil must be condemned. But we must also not allow it to overtake our lives and fill us with hatred. We have to continue on living and loving. 

Monday was the feast of St. Maximillian Kolbe. He was a prisoner of Auschwitz and offered to take the place of a father set to be tortured and killed. During a weekend of such bigotry and anger, it seemed appropriate to recall the ideology that led to places like Auschwitz. Racism, nationalism, anti-Semistism, sexism, a belief that ends justify means—they all divide and dehumanize and have no place in civilized discourse.

St. Maximillian Kolbe had a deep devotion to Mary. His last words were “Ave, Maria.” How fitting that his feast day leads into the Feast of the Assumption. And what more can be said? How many times does one shout condemnation into the void? How many times does one tweet “thoughts and prayers” to the latest victims? How many times will history repeat itself? Ave, Maria. Ora pro nobis.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Enduring the Pain

Suffering is a two-edged sword, and it often hurts like one. It is universally experienced in one form or another and yet massively misunderstand. It stands as an impediment, to our health, our happiness, our best selves, our securest beliefs. How can I go on when I’m in pain? How can God be loving and allow suffering? Just, why?

It’s part of the human condition; it’s part of the fallen world; it can unite us closer to Christ. All true statements that don’t mean much when someone is actually in distress. They just want the pain to stop, and the philosophizing about it can come after.

Today’s society sees no ambiguity in pain: it is bad. You have the right to never suffer. Drink, eat, fuck, shop—find the distraction that works best. Take pain medication. Take more. Have the doctor assist you in your suicide. The world is too painful. It would have been better if you had never had to suffer at all. It would be better if that child never has to suffer. It would be better if the disabled were gone instead of suffering. It would be better if their caregivers were free of their burdens. A better world has no suffering, but it seems to have a lot of death.

The idea of pain-free life actually diminishes life, because then life that is not pain-free seems inadequate and futile. St. John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, “In a social and cultural context which makes it more difficult to face and accept suffering, the temptation becomes all the greater to resolve the problem of suffering by eliminating it at the root, by hastening death so that it occurs at the moment considered most suitable.”

The cases for abortion or euthanasia makes compelling emotional arguments. People are in pain and distress; they are suffering. Of course their choice is understandable. You wouldn’t want to suffer in their place, would you? Life is hard enough; why make it harder?

That God allows suffering is one of the hardest parts of the faith for many to accept. Wouldn’t an all-loving, all-powerful God make pain stop? The answer is that the world is broken; it causes pain. By allowing us freewill, God allows pain to continue. But pain and suffering can be used to bring about good. They draw us closer to God and to one another. When you understand suffering, you understand the need for people to be loved. In pain, you stand with Christ in his passion, with the martyrs in their last moments, with all others who are hurting.

God does not want us to suffering; he does not delight in pain. But he is pleased in our endurance in faith. He is pleased with the hope we hold. He is pleased by the love and compassion we express. Pain is our weakness; the endurance of it is our strength.

Society fears pain so much that it lashes out, promoting addictive drugs or behaviors—to the point of promoting death. Rather, we as a society should help one another endure the pain. True mercy is holding the hand of one hurting, not throwing them away. True dignity loves a person, no matter their circumstance. When one is in turmoil, it sometimes takes several others to help her endure. That’s the importance of community.

"All the science of the Saints is included in these two things: To do, and to suffer. And whoever had done these two things best, has made himself most saintly." -St. Francis de Sales

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Burnt Offerings

Nagasaki was a small fishing village until the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan. It grew into a major port with strong influences by Portuguese sailors and Jesuit missionaries. In 1580, the city became a Jesuit colony. Japanese Christians who were being persecuted in other regions sought shelter in Nagasaki. It was called the Rome of Japan. Although there were growing efforts to quash Western/Christian influence, southern Japan continued to be openly Christian. Franciscan and Augustinian missionaries also made their way to the region.

In 1614, Catholicism was banned and the missionaries forced out of Japan. Many Christians fled or were martyred. Christianity went underground for centuries, until missionaries returned in the late nineteenth century. In 1890, Nagasaki got its first bishop, the Catholic population in the diocese doubled. By the twentieth century, Nagasaki was once again the center of Japanese Catholicism. Of course, the city is often known for something else.

Yesterday, the president responded to North Korean bluster by threatening “fire and fury, like world has never seen.” But the world has already seen pretty egregious fire and fury, so what was his threat? How far is he willing to go? Seventy-two years ago today, the U.S. dropped its second nuclear weapon over Nagasaki (the first being dropped over Hiroshima three days earlier). The events ushered in a new era – humanity now had the ability to obliterate itself. And it became a question of whether we were willing to.

In the intervening years, it has been a testament to humanity that while the number of counties with nuclear capabilities has grown, no one as resorted to use of nuclear weapons again. But the threat lingers, and quick-trigger mechanisms and narcissistic leaders make the threat feels real.

Recently, I read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which follows the rebuilding of the world after nuclear destruction—right up to the next nuclear destruction. While the book offers the hope of the persistence of the faithful, it also articulates the despairing that humans don’t learn from their mistakes. They repeat the same threats and violence. Sin is uncreative. So of course the Cold War talk of nuclear annihilation crops up again on the anniversary of the first nuclear bombings.

In particular, the Christian community of Japan suffered from the bombings. The Urakami neighborhood of Nagasaki was the epicenter of Catholicism in the city; it was also the epicenter of the atomic blast. Of the 12,000 Catholics in the Urakami district, 8,500 were killed, including those worshipping in the cathedral, which was the largest Christian structure in the Asian-Pacific until that day. The Japanese could not understand why Westerners would harm civilians who practiced a shared (Western) faith.

Dr. Takashi Nagai was a resident of Nagasaki. He said, “…It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s Providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on the altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?” On August 15, 1549, St. Francis Xavier arrived in Nagasaki. On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered WWII. Dr. Nagai interpreted the end of the war coming on the Feast of the Assumption as a divine message. But did anybody hear it? Or does the cycle of violence just start again?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Good for the Body, Good for the Soul

This week is NFP (natural family planning) week, coinciding with the anniversary of the release of Humanae Vitae. I don’t often think about NFP, as I’m unmarried. But I do like to bring it into conversations when birth control is brought up, just tiny reminders that there are options not found in pharmacy aisles. As someone who doesn’t practice it I don’t feel like it’s my place to sell it.

However, as a Catholic, I do take issue with how it’s often pitched as “Catholic birth control,” a loophole allowed by the Church to get the same result. As with so many things, intent matters. One must be open to life, even if there are serious financial or medical reasons to space out births. Procreation must always be a component of the sexual act, even if the act does not result in a pregnancy.

However, putting aside the philosophy for the moment, an interesting thing is happening: NFP has started to gain admirers outside of devoted Catholic circles. Women have started to see the dangers in hormonal methods (mood swings, masking underlying health problems, and increased risk of blood clots, cancer, and stroke). That, along with the cost, has led some to seek more natural birth control methods which don’t treat a functional female body as something that needs a medical cure. NFP relies on a woman (and her partner) paying attention to her body. She learns to recognize the signs of fertility and make decisions accordingly.

NFP can be used to achieve or postpone pregnancy. Its use to achieve pregnancy is gaining use among couples who have been on hormonal birth control for years and then decide to have a child. Going off hormonal birth control can create big emotional and physical changes. Learning to know her body’s natural signs helps process those adjustments. 

Technology is making natural methods easier to track and more and more accurate per woman. Recently, a Swedish nuclear physicist made the news when her fertility app, Natural Cycles, was approved by the European Union as a certified method of birth control. Modern NFP methods are 99.6% effective when used correctly. Although I’ll admit, correct use is harder to come by when it rests on each individual’s dedication to tracking and subsequent decision making. But no one is claiming it’s the easy method. 

NFP also destigmatizes fertility. Birth control isn’t a matter that the woman “takes care of.” The couple engages in conversation about tracking and when it is/isn’t good for them to be intimate. Morality and consequence and desire are all open to discussion, and commitment to practicing NFP is a mutual endeavor. 

I think it’s interesting—and good—that NFP is gaining more attention outside of a religious context, because it is so much more than “Catholic birth control.” It encourages respect for the body and respect between individuals.