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.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Smoke and Crowns

Opium is one of the world’s oldest drugs. A Sumerian script details the joys of taking opium 5,400 years ago. It was used as a medicine and sedative by a variety of cultures. In the age of exploration, opium and tobacco were combined and smoked recreationally.

In the early 1800s, in a campaign to circumvent Chinese trading regulations, the British East India Company began selling opium grown in India to independent traders for silver. The opium then reached the Chinese coasts through middlemen and was sold through local dealers in China.

The aggressive marketing of the British led to recreational opium usage spreading wildly in China. There were discussions of legalizing and taxing opium, but in 1839 the emperor banned narcotics and closed the port of Canton. About 2.6 million pounds of opium were confiscated without reimbursement. But the country was already suffering epidemic addiction. By 1900, an estimated quarter of adult men in China were addicted.

St. Mark Ji Tianxiang was born in 1834 in China. Raised a Christian, he served his community as a doctor who served the poor. He got sick and treated himself with opium, soon becoming addicted.

Orthodox martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion
As he battled his addiction, he continually went to confession. Since addiction was not well understood at the time, the priest thought Tianxiang’s continued opium use was a sign of insincere repentance. Tianxiang was told to stop coming to confession unless he was clean (and thus truly repentant).

He couldn’t stay sober, but he still knew and desired God’s love. He continued to go to church, even as he was denied the sacraments. He kept going for thirty years. He prayed for martyrdom, figuring that was the only way he could be saved.

In 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, Tianxiang was rounded up with several other Christians. He refused to deny God, even under threat and torture. He asked his executioners to kill him last so that no member of his family would have to die alone. He watched nine members of his family die before being beheaded himself. He was canonized along with his fellow Boxer Rebellion martyrs. Their feast day is July 9.

There presently is an opioid epidemic in this country. 80% of the global opioid production is consumed in the U.S. Most people addicted didn’t chose opioids. It’s not a party drug. Many were given a prescription for a valid reason. Morphine was a revelation in a time when medical procedures offered no pain relief. Heroin hit the scene as the “hero,” a pain killer not addictive like morphine. Percocet, OxyContin, Oxycodone, Fentanyl (which 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine): each promised all the good feelings in a newer, healthier way, but the addiction came too.

Addicts are seen as criminals, unproductive leeches on society, who waste charity on drugs, who abandon their families, who commit crimes and then demand handouts and methadone and rehab centers. And a lot of that is true. It’s hard to be addicted and productive. And poor decisions abound. But they are still people, people going through a really rough reality, and they deserve to be met and helped as individuals rather than written off as a whole.

What’s most inspiring about St. Mark Ji Tianxiang’s faith is that he didn’t give up, even when the Church gave up on him. So many people leave the faith when people in the church abuse, insult, or ignore them. And that’s understandable; it’s hard to return to a place with such negativity. But Tianxiang seemed to understand that the truth was more powerful than its gatekeepers. He loved God, even when his priest didn’t believe in him or when he was denied the sacraments. He kept showing up. That’s 30 years of loyalty and love that prepared him for his moment of martyrdom.

I worry about the current crisis. There are no easy solutions. And there will always been new drugs and new people becoming addicted. As long as there is suffering, there will be addiction as people try to escape the pain the world can cause. But I am hopeful that there are success stories out there, that there are those who break the habit and sober up and lead productive lives again. I’m hopeful that there are people who are compassionate and willing to help the suffering without indulging their usage. I’m hopeful that even in times of despair and battles and isolation, people can still find God’s love. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Praying and Forgiving


I was never a big fan of Ke$ha (despite concrete memories of blasting “Tik Tok” in my dorm parking lot). But I was definitely team Ke$ha went the reports of her producer’s abuse surfaced. She alleges that he sexually, physically, and emotionally abused her throughout their professional relationship. When she tried to get a new producer or get out of her recording contract that dictated she work with him, she was denied. She was basically left with the choice of continuing to work with her abuse or give up her music.

This week, fours years since her last music release, she released a new song, “Praying.” It’s raw and honest, and the video is filled with religious symbols. She wears wings and sings about moving on, becoming stronger and not holding on to hate. She hopes that her abuser changes for the better. It’s not quite forgiveness, but it’s not letting the evil in her life keep a hold over her. The video was released on July 6, which also happens to be the feast day of St. Maria Goretti.

Maria Goretti was born 1890 in Italy. Her father died when she was young, and her mother struggled to raised the children alone. On July 5, 1902, an 18-year-old man grabbed Maria while she was sewing on the steps of her home and tried to rape her. She cried out that it was a sin and he would go to hell. The man began choking her, then pulled out a knife and stabbed her 11 times. When she tried to reach the door, he stabbed her three more times.

Her family rushed her to the hospital. Halfway through the surgery (which was without anesthesia) the surgeon asked Maria, “Think of me in Paradise.” She didn’t realize the seriousness of her condition and said, “Well, who know which of us is going to be there first?” The surgeon replied, “You, Maria.”

The next day, she forgave her attacker and said she hoped to see him in heaven. She died later that day. Her attacker was captured and admitted to the attack and that he had attempted to rape her before. He remained unrepentant until a few years later when he had a dream that he was in a garden with Maria. She gave him lilies which burned his hands. When he was released from his 30-year prison sentence, he went to Maria’s mother to ask forgiveness. He was present at her canonization in 1950. She is the patron of young women, purity, and rape victims. While St. Maria Goretti is known as a martyr, her strongest testimony is the forgiveness she was able to show her attacker. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

In God We Trust



Despite my faith in God, I’ve always maintained that the separation of church and state was a healthy part of this nation’s history. And it is a part of history: I’ll list the Enlightenment and Deist influences in our founding when others claim the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. I’ll point out that “under God” was only added to the pledge and “In God we trust” only added to our currency in the mid-twentieth century. I’ll cringe when I see an American flag in a nave or sanctuary.

On a selfish note, if there was not a separation of church and state, then Catholicism would have never been tolerated here, and my joining the Church would have been a monumental hurdle. On a less selfish note, the country had seen the corruption of European intermingling faith and politics, resulting in lots of bloodshed, and sought a place where one could express his conscience without the threat of execution. People could worship freely and express their political views freely and work together on common interests. The public square could be civil without being uniformed. 

But over time, that idea of diverse ideologies coming together to build society got distorted. It is no longer alright to have differing ideas. Diversity means diverse in looks, ethnicities, genders, and orientations. But you must be uniform in your religious and political stances. This article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the current problem with liberalism: in its claim to celebrate diversity, it is intolerant of an individual’s conscience. 

As I became Catholic, my political stances became more liberal. Issues of social justice, dignity of work, just economics, respect for the environment, preservation for all life, were all influenced by my understanding of the faith. But so too were issues of family structure, sexual ethics, and religious liberty. In the binary world of American politics, I couldn’t find a home—even if I wanted to. 

In liberalism, it’s kinda-sorta ok to believe in God. As long as that belief doesn’t contradict established liberal politics. Your God loves the poor, hates war, and is all about love is love is love? Come on in. Your God requires you to follow certain moral standards, profess a creed, and convert others? Take your bronze-age ideas elsewhere, bigot. Hippy Jesus is very big; he was just a brown dude who spoke up for outcasts and preached love. Well, he also overturned tables, cursed trees that didn’t bear fruit, warned of hell for non-repentants, and asked his followers to eat his body. Oh, and he was God; that was kind of his thing.

Jesus didn’t come to organize the masses in political resistance or overthrow the Empire. He didn’t come to chill with prostitutes and thieves and be totally cool with their lifestyles. He came to defeat death, to open up the kingdom of heaven, to reunite man with his creator. He poured out mercy and love. But that mercy and love has a context that cannot be pushed aside in favor of feel-good relativism. 

I used to think it was sort of silly that America took up the banner of God in its fight against “godless” communists. How did saying “under God” undermine a political foe? But it was true that the communists were godless. Atheism was the state religion. Adherence to the state system was the de facto doctrine. Who needs a God-guided conscience when the political state can instruct you? 

Maybe the USSR fell, but part of its ideology has won. Because there is a belief in western politics now that beliefs must be uniformly secular. God-guided conscience cannot be tolerated, even when tolerance is a purported principle of the state. A politician can advocate for a just wage, banking regulations, environmental protections, and universal healthcare. He can even say that abortion restrictions are counterproductive. But because he believes everyone is a “sinner” and that abortion is “wrong,” he is not welcome in the public forum. Concepts like “sin” and “wrong” are transgressions to modernist liberalism.

A Muslim bowing toward Mecca or a Hindu throwing dye during Holi or a Christian with ashes on his forehead are acceptable. But non-Enlightenment philosophies that lead to those rituals aren’t. Keep the look; drop the belief. For a believer, the truth is deeper than public displays of cultural diversity. The rituals point to faith and the faith is rooted in truth. How could someone be expected to reject the truth in favor of hegemony? God is more important than human politics. Truth is more important than human feelings. 

The Muslim and Hindu and Christian can fundamentally disagree on many things. And that may cause problems. But they can also agree on many things and work together. Literacy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, decent housing, decent wages. The basics of society don’t require philosophical uniformity.

So maybe it is unfair for America to slap “In God We Trust” on its courthouses and currency, because not all Americans trust God or worship the same one. But not all Americans are secularists either. Some are religious, the true kind of religious where their faith shapes their values and politics, where it permeates their daily lives. Religious liberty means no state religion, including a state religion of “none.” It also means that citizens are free to practice their faith and advocate for a society that reflects their religiously-rooted values. We individuals can freely say in the public forum that we place our trust in God.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Dissolution of Hope



God’s not distant. He’s all too close. I do not doubt his love. I do not doubt he’s desire to see me reconciled to him. But I’m distant. I’m arresting his will. Why do I have such power? Why do I feel so strong? My sin feels so mighty that it’s overpowering my Creator. My God whom I love but can’t seem to love enough.

My strength is illusion, yet it’s jarring. The weight of free will. The clear realization of my brokenness, of how far I am from where I claim I want to be. In the moment there isn’t guilt or contrition, not yet, because it isn’t about me. It’s about the cosmic injustice of someone like me having so much ability to thwart God’s will. 

I’m unwilling to call it despair. Despair is for the people who doubt God’s love, who are going through a dark night of the soul, who experience distance or rejection or judgment. If anything, I’m the opposite, overwhelmed by it all. Yet the root is the same; somewhere I have taken on burdens I don’t need to take. I have rejected hope by refusing to place my trust beyond myself. 

After missing Mass for, well, every day since Sunday, despite actual efforts to go several times, I finally caught some chapel time alone. I like chapels when they’re dark and quiet anyway. I couldn’t kneel for more than a few moments due to scrapes on my knees. So I just sat there with Jesus, watching the little red flame flicker, holding on to that flicker like a lifeline. 

And I knew God was patiently there with me, just being. “You don’t have to reach out. I’m already here.” He knows reaching out is too difficult a burden for me right now. 

I don’t have to seek his attention or explain myself or pretend it’s all ok or check down a list of symptoms to prove it’s not. I don’t have to make it to daily Mass. He’ll take my chaplet when I’m waiting outside the closed recycling center. He’ll take my gratitude when I’m picking myself off the ground, blood running down my hands and knees. He’ll take my tears and confusion when I go home to cry during lunch and don’t know why. 

He’ll met me where I am even when I find myself in places I don’t recognize.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Dark Waters



The past month or so has been challenging. Not because anything’s wrong—everything has been going well in fact. But my broken brain doesn’t know that. I’ve been fighting moments of darkness—of sticky black clouds caught in my chest, of paralyzing fatigue, of thoughts I don’t want to revisit once my mind is right again. The surface remains calm, too calm, numb. The unsettling calm before a storm. 

I don’t know how unwell I might be; I just know I’m off from my normal. The world feels a little off. And I try to self-care by buying fresh flowers, hanging more art, not being alone too long. There is an undercurrent of urgency to find the fix, fill the void before I really fall in. My day becomes a set of rules: sleep, hydrate, shower, clean, don’t cry, don’t binge, don’t drink, don’t call that person and burden them with the chaos you can’t yet explain, don’t cry again. When I feel normal, I worry about how long it will last. Because some sticky black clouds don’t wash away in the summer’s afternoon thunderstorm.

I want to be better. I want to not be better because my writer’s block has subsided. I understand the stereotype of the addicted writer now. It’s a balancing act of tapping into the insanity of creativity and staying stable enough to survive the real world. For now I’m choosing the latter, but I sympathize with those who chose the former. 

I know there are brighter days. I know there are solutions. I know God loves me unconditionally. But knowledge doesn’t stop the drowning; I have to swim too. I have put in effort when effort feels insurmountable. Somewhere in this mess are lessons. Somewhere I can probably learn how to properly understand and utilize suffering. Something about it all is miserably and beautifully human.