Friday, March 24, 2017

Freedom of Choice

Freedom. It’s that idea that America hinges on. A new world, the land of the free. The casting off of old traditions and dynasties and oppression. A fresh start. Every man the master of his fate. It’s the foundation of the nation and pinnacle of our goals, but what exactly is freedom? And what is the point of it?

In the modern, relativistic understanding, freedom means I am able to make my own choices without interference. It doesn’t matter what I choose, as long as I have the choice. I do what I want. Having the choice is tantamount. What choice is made is secondary. 

As a teenager, I’d say, “Well, I’d never get an abortion, because for me, it would feel like killing my child. But I can’t tell someone else not to.” I got to avoid advocating abortion while promoting the freedom of choice. All it took was a worldview where killing is a personal feeling. What may be killing to one person isn’t to another. Relativism: the original alternative facts.   

In a world like that, there is no right choice or wrong choice, because having the choice itself is virtue. St. John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” We should not be hindered by the state or by others. We do have the right to freely exercise our conscious. But our conscious should be informed by a moral guide. Our choices should matter. We need freedom in order to pursue the truth. Without truth, freedom is a useless tool. 

Living under a communist state, St. John Paul II had a lot to say about freedom. In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he cited John 8:32 (“and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”) and said: “These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.”

We are mired in illusory freedom, hollow promises that we control the universe, that we shape the truth to our desires. In a way, we are all little Veruca Salts; we want whatever we want, and we want it now. If freedom only means getting what we want when we want it, then we are never any better than a whiny, spoiled child. We never have to grow up or develop virtues like patience, charity, and self-control. In fact, it makes us slaves to our impulses and desires. Jesus goes on in John 8 to say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36).

True freedom means we are not subject to physical and psychological pressures and temptations. We can pick up crosses and flee temptations. We can help the needy and ward off demons. We can turn from our sinful nature and resist a sinful world. Freedom means being free from both external forces and internal impulses. 

Choice is not the goal of freedom. Choice is only an opportunity to exercise freedom, to exercise one’s conscious free of coercion. There is no point in being free to make up my own truth and have choices in which my decision is arbitrary. But freedom to pursue and affirm truth, to reject that which enslaves me, to make the right choice: that is a worthy virtue.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

New, and a Bit Alarming

I usually shy away from latest pop culture faux outrage war distractions. Who cares about red Starbucks cups or the Ten Commandments in courthouses except journalists who need to fill airtime and column length? But yes, I will delve into this one.

Beauty and the Beast was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. It’s my favorite Disney film; I still want that library. So I was already trepidatious of the announcement of its live-action remake. I don’t need a realistic-looking candlestick or Belle’s mother’s backstory; I have the classic. And yet the nostalgic millennial in me wants to see that ballroom scene anew. So as the release date got closer, I expected the usual debate: do we really need to be remaking the classic Disney films? Yet, that wasn’t the debate I got.

Instead the debate was about Disney’s first “openly gay” character and his “gay moment” and the boycotting of the film based on that. First off, I doubt that it is indeed Disney’s first openly gay character. Characters sexual interests aren’t always on display in children’s film, seeing as they have nothing to do with the plot (Frollo et al offering exceptions). It certainly, in my opinion, isn’t the first Disney film to have a gay character. As for first “openly gay?” Maybe, depending on what one has to do to qualify as “openly.” But it seems regressive to blatantly single out that aspect of the character and call that monumental.

Second, they picked the wrong character to make gay. When I heard there was a gay character, I immediately thought it would be Cogsworth. Why? No particular reason. But there is no particular reason to make any side character gay. LeFou is Gaston’s sidekick, the dorky comic relief to the villain (my opinion on whether Gaston is a villain notwithstanding). He greatly admires Gaston and wants to be like him and follows him around, hoping to receive some Gaston’s greatness by proximity. Some people have interpreted his admiration of Gaston as sexual attraction since 1991. And I think it’s a valid interpretation. I think it’s plausible. But it’s better character development if he’s not.

If we're going to explore a side character, wouldn't be more interesting to have a character struggling with never being popular/strong/handsome enough and dealing with the jealousy and idealization he has for his friend? And how does Gaston react, helping the poor guy or basking in the power he holds over him? My problem with LeFou’s added open gayness isn’t the normalizing of homosexuality or a studio pushing an agenda and evangelicals getting over-reactionary (haven’t they supposed to have been boycotting Disney since the ‘90s anyway?). My problem is that an interesting interpersonal dynamic is reduced to sex. Again.

Our culture sexualizes everything. Two people can be friends, but if they are too friendly, then it is sexual. Intimacy is a sign of sexual feelings; it is assumed everyone is repressing or expressing attraction. LeFou can’t have an obsessive admiration for another man without it being sexual. This over-elevates sexual attraction to the height of relationship. And it undermines other interpersonal dynamics of intimacy, kindredness, and friendship. A true friendship is deeper and more intimate than plain sexual compatibility. Our culture does not value intimate friendship. Deep, platonic love doesn’t sell.

Beauty and the Beast departed from the Disney formula in a major way: Belle and Beast did not like each other at first. In fact, they hated each other, and had an unhealthy, uneven power dynamic. They develop a friendship. They sacrifice for one another. And then they fall in love. The romance is slow and rooted in friendship. (Compare it to Little Mermaid, which came out just two years earlier. Arial and Eric fall in love without even talking.)

I want more movies that value platonic soulmates. I want characters who love one another and are the most important person in each other’s lives and who have zero sexual interest. I want friendship properly valued and celebrated. I want sexual interest to be only a component of a deeper relationship, and I want romance to grow organically.

I know that’s a lot of ask of a Disney children’s film. But children’s films often tackle heavy issues. And they reflect the values of the surrounding culture, which is why it’s so disheartening to see the sexualization of a character that need not be sexualized. After all, who needs superfluous sexual desire when there’s “far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, [and] a prince in disguise?”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

All or Nothing

Last summer I was at a panel on vocations that included married, religious, and priests. They basically talked about being called to their particular vocation, the challenges in it, etc. At one point, someone had asked the Franciscan sister about all that she had to give up to be a sister or something to that effect. She replied, “You can’t have it all. You have to choose.” She went on to say that she saw millennials stalled in life because they were afraid of choosing. Choice means cutting off possibilities, and we want to keep all our options open. We were raised to be whoever we wanted to be, to have it all. But this sister was saying that that was impossible. You can’t have it all. You have to choose.

Her words have stayed with me for months, because I’m one of those millennials she was talking about. I’m afraid of heading down a path I’ll regret. I want escape routes and backup plans. I want to keep my options open, just in case. Which is another way of saying I want it all; I want all the choices. 
But if you have all the choices, all you have is choices. There is no commitment, no purpose, no sacrificial love. You can’t have it all; why would you even want it all? “Have it all” became a rallying cry for many women who wanted to climb the corporate ladder and still manage the home. There are dozens upon dozens of movies about women learning how to balance the two worlds. “You can have it all” became “You should have it all.” You should want career advancement and a stable family. You should work 60 hours a week and keep the home clean and wear heels and buy a house and update your Instagram and get a bonus and pass on worldly wisdom to your children. You are entitled to whatever you want in life. But what if life has limited time and resources? What if some of your dreams conflict with others? What if what you want isn’t what you need? What if your plan and your purpose aren’t the same thing?

Modern individualism shuns the idea that you can’t have or be exactly what you want. (Yet at the same time, the trope of the chosen hero, fulfilling his destiny, remains inexplicitly popular.) But if our hearts are set on God, we should be what he wants us to be, who he made us to be. It’s not about settling or giving up on a dream. It’s about finding true fulfillment by making the choice and making a commitment. 

We have free will. We can shape our lives as we please. But fulfillment will come from commitment, not achievement, from ordering our lives toward the single goal of serving God, not the varied life goals we place on ourselves. Life isn’t about checking off a list of achievements; it’s about journeying toward God, becoming a better person and bettering the world around you. You can do that in any role: a working mother, a religious sister, a doctor, a wife, an artist, a combination of the above. But you have to slow down long enough to understand and commit. By letting go of some of the options, closing some doors, waking from some dreams, we are left to find our purpose exactly where we are. Choose, commit, and live a life of intention and dedication.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Woman of Worth

When it comes to faith and women, one of the best and most frustrating passages in the Bible is Proverbs 31: 10-31. I say best because I actually like what it has to say. I say frustrating because it is used by some groups in unhealthy ways to keep women “in their place.” I don’t know why this passage is so cherished by men who seemingly want to control their wives, because the woman I see in it has great independence and influence. 

A woman like the one described in Proverbs works hard. She brings in income for the family, makes the purchasing decisions, buys land and farms it, and cares for her family. “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, kindly instruction is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31: 25-26). This is not a quiet, meek maid to her husband. This is somebody who is active in the community, who makes her own money and speaks her mind.

Up until the Industrial Revolution, work and home were less divided. You made and sold your wares out of your house. A man worked, but he was still around his children. A woman cooked and cleaned but also helped in business transactions. Yes, there were distinct roles for men and women, but the family unit was kept together throughout the day (the children weren’t going off to school or anything; they were working alongside the rest of the family). It was really in the 1800s that idea of “man leaves house to work; woman stays in house” arose, physically separating men and women and work and home.

A woman can cook dinner and spin thread when the oven and spinning wheel are in the same room. She can’t do both when she’s in a factory. A woman can tend a field and raise her baby when there are grandparents or older siblings to keep an eye out. She can’t when the grandparents are off at their own jobs and the older children are in school. Families spend their days isolated, sorted out by age and gender. Then for a few hours a night, they try to reconnect and make it all work. 

Our modern system makes having a functional family difficult. You spend most of the day apart. A woman as described in Proverbs needs a support system to care for children, make their clothes, cook their food, tend the vineyard, and bring in income. At the very least, she needs a husband who also works hard and who values and supports her contributions. But she most likely has the wider support of extended family and the community. 

Still, I find the passage a surprisingly good description of what makes a great woman. She does her work diligently, she cares for her family, she speaks in wisdom and is valued for her contributions. It is not a definitive command of what womanhood should be, but it is a good role model. 

It is also worth noting that this passage is a poem. Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic poem of 22 lines, each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The woman of worth is quite possibly Wisdom, who is often personified as a woman in the Bible. Wisdom literature is non-narrative; it exposes understanding of nature and reality. The passage serves a guide on what wisdom is and how virtue is to be utilized in society by both men and women.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Particular Care and Attention

The women’s movement is complex and multi-faceted, and in many of those spaces, I feel out of place. I do think women should be treated fairly under the law. I do think women should have property rights and voting rights and maternity leave rights. I do think martial rape is a thing. But I don’t hide abortion under the banner of “reproductive rights,” I don’t advocate free love, and I only use the term “blame the patriarchy” when it comes to fashion that denies me pockets and comfortable shoes. 

I don’t think feminism can fit into a single definition or movement. Women are fighting for their voice and rights in various cultures and situations. They all want to be treated like equal human beings, but they have different ideas of what victory looks like. My ideas are based on my cultural background, my experiences, and my faith. But often I’m treated as though I’m too Catholic to be a real feminist or too liberal to be a real Catholic. 

But it is Catholicism that has made me more liberal and made me ponder my role in life, which includes the fact of my womanhood. The faith has exposed me to an understanding of the world beyond modernity. I have to live in the times I am born, but I do not have to be a product solely of my times. Christianity raises up the oppressed and cares for the injured, so if women are oppressed or injured, then Christianity seeks their liberation. 

Because March is National Women’s Month, I thought it would be good to highlight my understanding of some of the issues regarding femininity and women’s roles in the Church and in society. Sometimes I feel trapped between two poles who refuse to see the arguments of the other side. Mostly I just feel left out of the current climate completely. But I am determined to participate anyway, because a feminist fights for the right to make her voice heard and her view acknowledged. 

"If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." -Abigail Adams

Monday, March 6, 2017

Martha, Martha

I was at a recent women’s retreat which focused on the story of Martha. Although familiar with the story, I was surprised to realize we were only unpacking five verses. Such a short story for me to remember so vividly. I think part of the reason the story of Martha sticks with me is that I come from a line of Marthas, the women who plan and organize and set up and clean up, the ones who are the first to arrive and last to leave, the ones who get stuff done. It’s easy for me and the women I know to identify with Martha, who is trying to accommodate Jesus and his disciples in her home. And it’s easy to feel her frustration at Mary for not helping and her (probable) frustration at Jesus for taking Mary’s side.

Of course, that isn’t the full story. In actuality, Martha is the one not doing anything, while Mary is. In the Greek, Martha is passive, being controlled by distraction and worry. Mary is active, placing herself as a disciple and intently listening to Jesus. Martha is unaware of her interior state; she believes that she is doing right by letting Jesus into her home, but she has failed to go into his presence. Again, it’s so easy to sympathize with Martha, for I’m really good at loving Jesus on the intellectual level, but the whole, actually loving part is still a struggle. 

Furthermore, in insisting that Mary come help, she is denying Mary’s gifts and inside forcing Mary to conform to Martha’s standards. And she doesn’t even confront Mary directly, instead going to Jesus to point out Mary’s presumed flaws. Jesus calls Martha out, telling her that it would do violence to Mary to pull her away from the Lord and that needless distraction is keeping Martha away as well. She is not hosting so much as she is using her role as host to keep her distance. 

Martha is using her external duties to deny her internal state. That is, Jesus is present in her home, but she is still not embracing him. Similarly, Jesus is present in our tabernacle. Through baptism and confirmation, the Trinity dwells in me; through the Eucharist, I take Christ into my home. And yet, I do not fully accept him. I want a moment, an encounter, but I want to keep an arm’s length as well. I want to be moved, but I don’t want my foundation shaken. I keep myself distracted, pretending that I’m busy with very important things, when really I’m just scared to go sit at his feet and give him everything I am. 

In Luke 10:41, Jesus calls Martha out on her worries, using the double vocative, “Martha, Martha…” This is only used a handful of times in the Bible (with Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and Peter). Each time, the Lord is calling attention to that moment, and the person’s life is about to change, being transformed by their call. Here Martha’s excuses are exposed for her fears. She is called into Christ’s presence. The next time she is mentioned in the Gospels (John 11 and 12), she is as active as Mary, a true disciple.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Trendy Tradition

I came across a study recently that said millennials practiced Lent at a higher rate than the two generations above them. In 2014 (the year of the study) 20% of millennials planned to fast during Lent, compared to 10% of boomers. Even more surprising, while 80% of boomers were aware of Lent, only 57% of millennials were, meaning that over a third of millennials who knew about Lent were practicing it. 

While secularism and atheism are on the rise, especially in younger generations, researchers are finding that millennials who do practice faith tend to be more conservative and orthoprax in their religion. They want authenticity and apologetics and sacraments. They want something that permeates life beyond Sunday morning. When church is not a social obligation it becomes a personal conviction. When the world celebrates heterodoxy, orthodoxy is radical. But millennial orthodoxy does produce some odd challenges. Should confession apps be used in the confessional? Does the church have low-gluten wafers? Are ashtags appropriate?

Ashtags—when people post selfies on Ash Wednesday showing their ashes—have gotten some heat for defeating the point of Ash Wednesday, turning a day of penance into a widely-shared selfie. But aren’t the ashes themselves a contradiction of the day’s Gospel reading? We are implored to not display our practices in order to appear holy. 

Yet, we are also called to share the faith. If done with right intent, ashtags can be tools of evangelism. “Look, young people go to church in the middle of the week. They practice a liturgical faith. They care.” If we wear our ashes out in the public throughout the day, getting the usual, “You’ve got some dirt there” comments, then sharing it on social media is a natural part of the routine for millennials. “Here’s my morning coffee. Here’s my doggo. Here’s my acknowledgement of human mortality and call to repentance.”

Millennials came of age in an unstable world: broken homes, financial crises, multiple war fronts. Those that find faith need it to be solid. There is a thirst for meaning, for experience, for sanctification in a world that seems so fluid and bleak. Liturgy provides the foundation of the past; honored adaptation of it ensures its future. Even in a secularizing world, I find hope. I witness at the growth of liturgical appreciation, I look at new churches stylizing old themes, and I feel that modernism and postmodernism are last century’s problems. Post-post-modernism might just return us to where we started. There is hope in the ashes.