Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. -Psalm 127:3-5 

Grandma annette and meI’m sitting in a Panera in Minneapolis across from my aunt. Bright, midday sunlight cascades through the window beside our table, keeping my soup warm, but the conversation with my dad’s older sister keeps my heart warmer. She talks to me about her four sons, informing me on what my cousins are up to now, three years after my last visit, and I tell her about my current job hunt and current crush. After two days crammed in a van with my immediate family crossing the country and a week of driving around central Minnesota visiting aunts, uncles, childhood farms, cemeteries, and distant relatives, it’s nice to have some one-on-one time with her.

“You know,” she says after a pause, “it’s so nice to have you guys visiting from Texas. Now that all the cousins have grown up, I’ve just been thinking about what a blessing it is to have all my brothers and sisters and their families so nearby.”

I nod and stare at the crumbs on my plate, thinking about the previous day’s relaxing expedition on the Mississippi– accompanied by another aunt and cousin– and then to the ensuing evening at her house, where other cousins’ spouses and newborns joined our already sizable clan for a riotous celebration of familial reunion. “Yeah, it’s kind of a shame that we live so far away from everyone else,” I say, “but I’m so glad I decided to come on this trip after all. This was exactly what I needed.

“You know, a large family is kind of like a tree,” I go on. “It starts out small, when Grandma and Grandpa got married, and it takes an awful lot of care and attention while it’s still just a little sapling, but now, decades later, we’re all beneficiaries of the fruit of that union. I wouldn’t have you or my dad or any of my other seventeen cousins if they hadn’t been so open to life.”

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The signing of Obamacare

While President Obama is “focusing on the economy” (whatever that means) instead of the “phony scandals” at Benghazi, the IRS, the Justice Department, the Associated Press, etc., Americans who care about their eroding religious liberty are focusing on the HHS Mandate, which goes into full effect today.

In case you missed the last two years of Health and Human Services hell, here’s a brief rundown of where we are today regarding the mandate:

The Timeline

August 3, 2011: All group health plans must cover “[FDA-]approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity.” FDA approved contraception includes Plan B (“morning after pill) and Ella (“week after pill”).

February 10, 2012: The Obama administration offers a “compromise.”

According to a White House “fact sheet,” some religious employers will no longer be required to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-causing drugs; coverage for those services will instead be provided for free directly by insurance companies. This does not protect anyone’s conscience.

First, the problem is helping employees get abortion drugs, not the cost of providing those drugs. Since providing insurance benefits would still help employees get insurance, religious employers still have to choose between providing health benefits that help employees get abortion drugs, and paying annual fines.

Second, thousands of religious organizations self insure, meaning that they will be forced to pay directly for these services in violation of their religious beliefs.

Third, it is unclear which religious organizations are permitted to claim the new exemption, and whether it will extend to for-profit organizations, individuals, or non-denominational organizations. -The Becket Fund

April 26, 2012: HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius admits she did not consult legal precedents on religious liberty when drafting the HHS Mandate.

October 11, 2012: In an election debate, Vice President Joe Biden erroneously claims:

“With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear. No religious institution—Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital—none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact.”

October 12, 2012: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops responds accordingly:

This is not a fact. The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain “religious employers.” That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to “Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital,” or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served.

HHS has proposed an additional “accommodation” for religious organizations like these, which HHS itself describes as “non-exempt.” That proposal does not even potentially relieve these organizations from the obligation “to pay for contraception” and “to be a vehicle to get contraception.” They will have to serve as a vehicle, because they will still be forced to provide their employees with health coverage, and that coverage will still have to include sterilization, contraception, and abortifacients. They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries.

July 19, 2013: Hobby Lobby wins preliminary injunction (translation: Hobby Lobby doesn’t have to include abortifacient drugs in its insurance plans while its lawsuit continues). From The Becket Fund (which is representing Hobby Lobby):

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, a federal court granted Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. a preliminary injunction against the HHS abortion-drug mandate, preventing the government from enforcing the mandate against the Christian company.  This victory comes less than a month after a landmark decision by the full 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 5-3 that Hobby Lobby can exercise religion under the First Amendment and is likely to win its case against the mandate.

August 1, 2013: The cutoff of the grace period for religious non-profits. After today, ALL employers in America must include contraceptives and abortifacient drugs in their insurance plans. Currently, there are 63 separate lawsuits against the HHS mandate.

What’s the Big Deal?

Section 2370 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality.158 These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil:159

Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception (emphasis mine), by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.160

Let’s be real: everyone knows that Catholics don’t believe in using contraception (despite whatever the majority of “Catholics” may actually practice in defiance of their church’s teaching). But it’s not just contraception. Drugs like Plan-B and Ella cause a type of abortion by preventing the fertilised egg from implanting in the wall of the uterus.

Just in case anyone was unclear based on what “Catholics” like Kathleen Sibelius, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden are always saying, sections 2271 and 2272 of the Catechism say:

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.75

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.76

2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,”77 “by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.79 The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.

So. Let’s lay this out:

1) The Catholic Church and many other Americans of other faiths strongly condemn abortion and contraception, including procuring them, not just performing them oneself.

2) Contraception is readily available for $9/month at your nearest Walmart, Target, or convenience store. Just stop and let this sink in for a moment: I could literally walk half a mile from my house to a convenience store and buy some condoms for a few bucks. I work in a restaurant– I’m not exactly raking in the dough– and on several occasions, my own coworkers have pointedly popped some birth control pills in front of me. Clearly, no one has to choose between starving and affording birth control.

2) President Obama and Kathleen Sibelius, claiming to champion the cause of “women’s health,” have imposed a law upon the entire American populace requiring that all employers purchase and provide insurance plans to their employees which include contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. The penalty for non-compliance is $100 per employee per day. For a company the size of Hobby Lobby, that amounts to a staggering $1.3 million per day in fines.

3) On top of all this, our own beloved IRS is the organisation charged with determining who may be exempt from the mandate. To qualify as a non-profit, an organisation must fit the description in section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the amended Internal Revenue Code of 1986. The very same IRS charged with targeting religious and conservative groups!

It’s That Simple

The Obama administration could very easily clean up this mess without repealing his precious Affordable Care Act. All the HHS needs to do is offer a real exemption for employers whose conscience does not allow them to procure contraception and abortifacients for their employees. If they really believe that these things are indispensable, they can still include them in other plans, but just remove them from religious employers’ plans.

That’s really it.

No push to ban birth control on the part of the Big Bad Catholic Church.

No “war on women” on the part of evil conservatives.

Just a request not to be forced to violate one’s conscience.

Instead, the President and Secretary Sibelius insist on running roughshod over the First Amendment right of Americans to practice their religion freely, without intervention or imposition by the state.

World Youth Day

One of my friends is currently attending World Youth Day, where he has joined over one million (read: 1,000,000) other young people from around the world in a celebration of their faith in Jesus Christ. Soon-to-be-Saint Pope John Paul II inaugurated the first World Youth Day in Rome in 1986, and since then, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis have continued this tradition of evangelisation of the young people of the world in cities as diverse as Denver, Manila, Sydney, Madrid, and Cologne.

During these week-long festivities, attendees attend catechetical conferences, make pilgrimages, and give witness to the mystical body of Christ in the celebration of the Mass.

The Question

My friend, Alex, is in Rio de Janeiro at the moment, where he recently shared some of his more amusing experiences in this Facebook status:

Screen shot 2013-07-27 at 1.25.07 AM

Our friend, Chris, a Protestant and all-around great guy interested in our crazy Catholic Church, asked:

Screen shot 2013-07-27 at 1.56.57 AM

To a non-Catholic, it certainly can seem that such adulation (not to be confused with adoration) for the Pope verges dangerously upon the idolatrous. The Pope is a mere man, not Jesus Christ himself, after all.

The Response

Within Catholic theology, there are distinctions for different types of worship. In fact, the word “worship” itself tends to be rather loaded to English-speaking listeners. A bit of etymology can help us out here:

In modern English, we most often use the word “worship” when we refer to the respect and honor given to God alone. However, the word comes from a much older Anglo-Saxon word “weorþscipe” (worth + ship), and in older variants of English, the word “worship” would be understood differently depending on many different contexts. For example, as an honorific title (“Your Worship”). Even in modern English, we sometimes speak of “hero-worship,” though many people who express extreme admiration and respect for a heroic individual would insist that they do not deify that person.

Where English is limited in this regard, Latin and Greek are more nuanced. Thus, Catholic theologians draw a sharp and unmistakable distinction between the worship reserved for God alone and the respect and veneration due to certain humans and even holy objects.

The adoration of God in the Blessed Trinity and the Eucharist (which Catholics believe is the very Body and Blood of Jesus, no longer bread and wine) is referred to as latria in Latin. Latria directed toward anyone or anything other than God himself is idolatry.

The veneration of saints, relics, holy sites, and other human persons (including the Pope) is rightly referred to as dulia. Dulia can be further broken down into varying degrees such as hyperdulia (the extreme honor given to the Virgin Mary above the other saints but still an entirely separate kind– not degree– from the latria given to God) and “absolute” and “relative” dulia (the former being conferred upon human persons, whose dignity lies in being created in the image of God, the latter being conferred upon holy objects such as relics or sacred vessels used in the Mass by virtue of their connection with God).

Latria

Hyperdulia

Dulia

The Takeaway

So, perhaps you non-Catholics are raising a skeptical eyebrow at all of this Catholic mumbo-jumbo. It all seems like so much legalese, full of technicalities, and really how can one discern whether another person is truly worshiping Mary or the Pope, anyway?

And that’s all right.

In the end, the answer to that question lies entirely between an individual and God, who alone can read our hearts. For my part, I can say honestly that I have never in all my life as a Catholic been encouraged or taught to idolise our Blessed Mother or our Holy Father. These kinds of distinctions may seem arbitrary, but to my mind, this confusion is exactly why we need to be precise in our understanding of what we believe and why we do things. To my non-Catholic readers, it may be helpful to consider that Catholic culture is very hierarchical, and as with any culture, the language we use shapes the way we think.

Of course, there is still the question of why we ought to honor the Pope at all. I’ll address that more in another post, but suffice it to say for now that we really do love the Pope as our Papa, and we respect him as the successor of St. Peter, to whom Jesus gave his own authority to act as his vicar until he returns.

If you still have questions or thoughts to the contrary, I love hearing from you! What do you think about latria and dulia? To my Catholic readers, have you ever had a near-brush with the Pope?

One of my female friends recently shared Lindy West’s article on Jezebel, “Female ‘Purity’ is Bullshit.” To her credit, she admitted that it was not a perfect article, but evidently, something about the piece resonated with her. It resonated with me, too, but perhaps in a different way.

Beneath all the requisite cussing and feminist outrage, it is clear that Ms. West is on to something: the odious double standard that exists in modern society vis-à-vis sexual purity on the part of men and women. West introduces the catalyst for her article, an apparently chauvinistic piece (though the link does not seem to work any longer):

I came across two things today that hurt to read. The first was a dumb collection of dumb shit written by a dummy, entitled “Why Good Girls Have Become As Extinct As Unicorns” (NSFW). In it, the anonymous male author explains that modern women are disgusting sluts who deserve to be taken advantage of, so if you manage to find a “good girl” (ideally by grooming her from kindergarten onward), you should legally cleave to her and imprison her in your bungalow posthaste before some other dude snatches up “your” prize. You can always cheat on her later when she gets “boring,” which she definitely will, because she’s not a person, she’s just a vagina. This is “the mindset of men in the 21st century.” Deal with it, ladies.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that there is a lot of truth in that last bit. For whatever reason, we have accepted the idea that a man’s sexual prowess is a badge of honor while a woman’s is a scarlet letter. This simply won’t do, but not for the reasons Ms. West assumes. Her “comprehensive look at female purity and why it is bullshit” is rather, well… uncomprehensive, actually.

You Can Tell Something Is Bullshit If All of the Justifications for It Are Bullshit

Okay, guy, so why do you feel like you want/need/deserve to settle down with a “pure” woman? I’m genuinely listening.

West’s hypothetical conversation with your average Joe leans heavily on the physical aspect of things, though she does acknowledge his vague desire for certain character traits as well (though not without taking a random jab at southern, conservative Christians in the process). In the end, she unearths the man’s candid motivations:

“No! I just mean that I struggle with the same powerlessness and insecurity that all human beings do, so as a coping mechanism I take advantage of our culture’s patriarchal power structure and exorcize my feelings of worthlessness by perpetuating shame-based proprietary attitudes over women’s bodies. Basically I’m obsessed with controlling women’s lives because I can’t control my own.”

Now it’s my turn to call bullshit on this one.

If I were attracted to a girl, I think it is fair to allow me a little concern over her sexual history, not because of any stupid reasons about stretched out vaginas or sluts being gross. God help me if I ever make such a poor argument! No, it is fair that a man be concerned about a woman’s past for the same reason that she ought to be concerned about his: as it is unjust to consign all promiscuous women to the trashbin of “slut,” so is it equally unjust to brand all promiscuous men as “pigs.” Both are human beings with inherent dignity not contingent upon their sexuality.

As a man, I can’t deny that the thought of all those other men’s genitals inside my wife does cause me a certain visceral reaction, but that is merely my base nature protesting. Even a philosopher cannot spend his entire life in the abstract, so I’ll beg your indulgence for such a passing thought. Surely, this is not limited to the male psyche as there must be women out there who feel the same way about their husband’s body.

Even if men tend toward the physical and women toward the emotional, though, we are all physical and spiritual beings, and my concerns lie more in the realm of character. A person’s dignity may be independent of his sexual activity, but it is true that our physical actions can either affirm or deny that dignity. To put it another way, if you dressed up like a fool and started capering around on the sidewalk downtown, I’m not going to crucify you because you are still a human being with an inherent dignity that I must still respect, and yet your behavior cannot help but tell me something about your character. What you do without reflects what you are within. It is you who obscure your own dignity by acting in such an undignified manner, even if your dignity still remains within.

And so it goes with all other actions, especially with regards to sexuality.

Of course, I suppose if, like one of my coworkers, sex is as passé to you as shaking someone’s hand and holds no metaphysical component, then none of that should really matter. But for me, anyway, it’s about more than just atoms rubbing against each other; for me, that friction results in the spark of the transcendent.

Men Are Lying

Ms. West then asserts,

Men can’t actually care whether or not women are “pure,” because there is no way for “purity” to be verified. It’s just not a real thing, and chasing some phantom virtue for your entire life is a great way to ensure that you waste your goddamn life. By Professor Unicorn’s own admission, above, even if you claim to be “pure” he will probably just assume you’re lying, and even if you can somehow prove your purity he will get bored with you eventually anyway, because boner. This entire “conversation” is just an effort to rig a system in which men get to determine female worthlessness no matter the input. There is nothing you can do to be pure. Meanwhile, they get to do literally whatever they want with anyone, to anyone, at any time. The double standard is so blatant it’s almost too boring to point out.

I feel your pain, Ms. West, I really do. This man, at least, isn’t lying when he says that he has experienced the same frustration. In our culture where men are expected to be sexually experienced, how many girls do you think will believe me if I tell them that I have reserved my virginity for them? How do I know that a girl won’t get bored with me because I’m not as “experienced” as she is?

However, I have to disagree with the idea that purity is “just not a real thing” or that “there is no way for ‘purity’ to be verified.” Again, let us move above the realm of the physical and consider that, perhaps, purity is a disposition instead of a physical state. True, we may not be able to “prove” purity, but this attitude is reflective of the modern obsession with scientism. At the risk of sounding New Agey and overly sentimental, I believe that a discerning person can tell when he comes in contact with the divine, and what is purity but the presence of God living in someone’s soul? As a Catholic who takes Jesus at his word (or at least tries very hard to), I believe him when he says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

I know Ms. West would likely interpret such a passage as typically chauvinistic and patriarchal, but I apply this standard just as much to myself as I do to women: “3Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).

Watch this video, and tell me that we can’t know when someone radiates purity.

Women’s Unhealthy Choices Are Nobody’s Fucking Business

Everyone makes unhealthy choices sometimes.

Unfortunately.

Life is long and complex.

Ain’t that the truth?

Everyone has sex with partners they regret, and strays out of their comfort zone for the wrong reasons, and enters into self-destructive relationships with the best intentions. But those choices are unhealthy for the person making them, not for anyone else.

Er, not quite. At least personally speaking, at this moment in time, I do not fall into the category of “everybody.” And as convenient as it would be if the fallout of our own errors were limited to ourselves, this simply isn’t true. It’s a blunt analogy, I’ll admit, but the terrorists flying planes into skyscrapers engaged in “self-destructive” behavior that had serious consequences for thousands of other people. We would like our own sexual mistakes to be limited to ourselves, but that pain you were feeling earlier about the double standard? That’s proof right there that our decisions to have sex have consequences for our future sexual partners, too.

And those choices have no bearing whatsoever on anyone’s worth as a human being. Sometimes perspective, born out of pain, can actually make life richer. Your good choices are yours and your bad choices are yours too.

Ok, now you’re back on track! O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem (O happy fault which merited for us so great a redeemer)! And this is the beauty of the God I know, in that he has the power to take even our sins and to pull some greater good from them.

So, Ladies (and Gentlemen!)…

I can wholeheartedly agree when West says,

Girls and women, if no one has ever told you this before, or if you just have trouble believing it: you are good, you are whole, you are yours. You do not exist to please men, and your value as a human being is not contingent upon your sexual capital.

And I offer my most sincere apologies for the behavior of so many men when I hear stories like this,

I got catcalled outside the coffee shop in the middle of writing this article—my brain mired in thoughts about purity and sexualization and objectification. A dude drove by in a car, leaned out the window, and yelled “EXCELLEEEEEENT!” (I will concede that it’s possible he just mistook me for Rufus.) So what is it—am I supposed to be modest and pure, or do I become a sexual commodity as soon as I step outside in a belted muumuu and janky flip-flops? Well, the two aren’t nearly as incongruous as they appear. A catcall is entirely about reminding you that you are not yours. The purity myth is entirely about reminding you that you are not yours. The fetishization of female purity in a world where catcalls are an acceptable form of communication telegraphs one thing very clearly:

“Women, stop sexualizing yourselves—that’s our job, and you’re taking all the fun out of it.”

Why a man would conduct himself promiscuously and then demand continence from his future wife, I will never be able to understand; I can only speak for myself, but I am a servant of Christ and Mary, and I hope (not expect or demand) that my future wife will have held herself to the same standard to which I hold myself. And if she hasn’t, then I pray for the grace to be able to take the log out of my own eye, since God knows my soul is not always pure, even if my body remains untouched.

Ms. West rightly senses that something has gone amiss in our culture, but she throws in the proverbial towel and concludes that women should be able to conduct themselves just as promiscuously as men and that purity is a pie-in-the-sky fairytale that should be ignored.

I, on the other hand, propose that the street runs both ways.

Gentlemen, I’ll leave you with some advice from St. Josemaria Escriva. “There is need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and nullify the savage work of those who think man is a beast. And that crusade is your work.”

Ladies, there are still unicorns and shining knights out there. God knows I’m trying, and I’ll keep fighting. I hope, instead of “[fucking] all of it” like Ms. West advises, that you’ll keep fighting, too.

After reading “Pushy Christians and People Who Disagree” on Loren Zocosio’s Tumblr I See God in That, I found myself with mixed feelings. On the whole, I agree with Zocosio’s attitude that the best way to share the Good News is through gentle, loving respect for those whose beliefs differ from our own. Respect is good. Loving our neighbor is good. I hardly disagree with the premise of this argument.

However, the devil is, as they say, in the details, and being the overly-analytical, precise-to-a-fault nitpicker that I am, I can’t help but add a few caveats to Zocosio’s post.

While I believe Mr. Zocosio understands how to carry out the balancing act of hating the sin but loving the sinner, I’m not convinced that most other people have mastered that art yet, and I become wary when I see blithe statements like, “Our biggest mission is simply to love.”

A truism is a truism is a truism is a truism is a truism.

Well… not simply.

You see, we live in an era that talks a lot about “love” but hasn’t yet formed a consensus on what, exactly, “to love” entails.

I don’t take issue with Zocosio’s proposition that Christians preach the Gospel via their loving respect for non-Christians. The mature Christian knows how to love without compromising the truth. Yet, I so often hear people– especially people of my own generation– toss around phrases such as, “I believe in love” or “Live and let live” or the oft- and ever misquoted, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

So… basically 1 John, chapter 4…

We live in an era when relativism and apathy rule the day, and to take any sort of moral stance– even applied solely to one’s own life– is often interpreted as some sort of H8!-ful indictment of everyone who differs. Instead of hungering for the truth, many people would be content to just “coexist” instead of confronting their woundedness and seeking out the Great Physician– and I say “woundedness” because “woundedness” and “sinfulness” are one and the same: not rebellion against an arbitrary code, but an illness that is both contagious and curable. How easy it is to recall Jesus’ admonition, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” while conveniently forgetting his request to “Go, and sin no more.”

Perhaps it is this insistence upon “tolerance” that drives many Christians to their pushy proselytizing. In my experience, many conservatively-minded Christians feel rather– “besieged” would not be too strong a word– by the secular world and thus take the Great Commission even more seriously. Ironically enough, I have also met many politically liberal people who feel the same way about the religious right-wingers always trying to impose a theocracy upon America, as evidenced by this recent exchange with a friend of mine:

“What I don’t understand is this push, recently, to subjugate women and take away their rights and ban birth control–”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said. “Who’s trying to ban birth control? Are you talking about the HHS mandate? Because I haven’t heard anything about anyone trying to make it illegal. All I know is that the Catholics and some other Christians just don’t want to have to pay for contraception in their insurance plans, not outlaw it.”

The conversation then veered into the topic of various pro-life (or anti-choice, depending on your parlance) bills which have been passed in several states, particularly regarding sonograms and trans-vaginal ultrasounds.

“I can’t believe how many of these politicians would support this very invasive procedure– I mean, say you’ve got a 14-year-old girl who’s been raped, and now they want to force her to undergo this trigger–”

“Well, I will fully admit my ignorance about how, exactly, a trans-vaginal ultrasound is performed, and I promise I will go research it because I wasn’t aware of it being “invasive,” but I think it’s rather extreme to assume that pro-life activists are trying to subjugate women when a pro-choice writer herself argued that her fellow abortion advocates should stop calling such ultrasounds rape. The point is, I have personal experience with these people, and I can assure you that they do not wake up each morning ruminating on how to force women back into the dark ages.”

I use this example to illustrate how beleaguered so many of us feel– whichever side we’re on– even if those perceptions are skewed. I was, however, dismayed by her assumptions about my friends’ motives because even though I am convicted that abortion is the murder of an innocent child and a grave violence to its mother, I recognize that most people who support it do not wake up each morning jazzed to go kill some babies. It is a rare person who can maintain his own belief that others are misguided while also recognizing and even rejoicing over their noble intentions, but that is precisely the kind of love I believe Zocosio is advocating.

Yes, we should respect others and let our actions speak more than our words, but we must not also fall into the safe and comfortable trap of letting heterodoxy pass as high-mindedness. True Christian love entails fraternal correction, though always in context. It’s easy to be that infernal salesman who ignores the “No Soliciting” sign on someone’s spiritual front door, but such an approach demonstrates a lack of trust in God’s grace and timing.

Personally, each morning I try to remember to ask God the Father to grant me an opportunity to manifest his love, the Holy Spirit to grant me the wisdom to recognise such an opportunity, and Jesus to grant me the courage and fortitude to carry it out cheerfully, and I am often surprised by how much other people will open up after they are assured I’m not out to “save” them.

I think my friend Laura sums it up well:

I know I have very strong views. I’m very Catholic, very pro-life, very conservative, etc., and I don’t compromise on that. If anyone asks me about those views, I’m more than willing to talk about them and explain them. However, I’ve never thought that flat-out telling people they are evil because they don’t believe or live exactly like I do was a good idea. Reason #1) I’m not the one who decides who’s evil and who’s going to hell. That’s God’s job. Reason #2) That’s not the way to earn trust and respect. That’s the way that people get ticked off and never listen to you (or anyone even remotely resembling you) ever again!

If they see my life and actions, hear my reasons, and decide that they want to follow… I will do everything I can to help. But when it comes to deciding how to live their lives, I can’t make that decision for them. Only they can.

Such an attitude is exactly in keeping with 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” And by doing so, even when we are not actively preaching the Gospel, we can still make God very present by loving others where they are.

As my friend Betsy is fond of saying, “I have always thought that the purpose of my life is not to be a spotlight seeking to expose the darkness of other people’s sins, but to be like a lighthouse, constantly shining and unmoving, guiding them in the right direction.”

Pope Francis washes the feet of juvenile delinquents on Holy Thursday via http://www.catholic.org

One of my favorite Latin sayings is “Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.” Where Love is found, there, also, is God.

There is a beautiful chant version of this phrase from the Taizé community, and for some reason, it has been coming to mind more and more often of late. I was meditating on the simplicity of this idea the other day, wondering how I could apply it more concretely to my daily life rather than just allowing it to float abstractly as a pretty aphorism through the clouds of my mind.

Today, I have found an answer to that question.

Only a few moments ago, I learned of the explosions in Boston at the finish line of the famous marathon. As I watched the videos of those bombs shattering the crowds gathered to cheer on the racers, my heart was in my throat. Then, the reports of the victims whose lower bodies have been maimed, then, the inevitable death count. The disbelief, then the shock, and finally the sense of powerlessness and fear I experienced were oddly reminiscent of the emotions I felt watching the attacks of September 11.

Watching those crowded sidewalks reminded me of all the times I have been in a similar situation. When I was watching the Bastille Day parade in Paris last July, or wading through the sea of Austinites waiting for the New Year’s ball to drop on 6th Street two years ago, how many potentially lethal trash cans or manholes did I stand beside?

What if that were me? Why is this allowed to happen again and again and again? Where is God, really?

Such questions are natural, I think, in the face of evil and suffering. We will likely never have an answer to these questions, but I believe I have found a hint: Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.

In an era when the word “terrorism” has been sound-bitten to death, I am reluctant to trot it out, but the execution of these bombings appears designed to inspire fear– fear that at any moment, I might be an innocent bystander, cheering on the sidelines when suddenly, violence will be visited upon me. This instinct for self-preservation is understandable, but we must not concede to such fear! The power of these acts is deeply tied to their ability to make us withdraw into ourselves, to shrink from the world and all its attendant suffering. Yet to do so is to hand the perpetrators their victory.

Secondly, the randomness and senselessness of such violence can make us feel powerless to stop such increasingly common acts of evil. The world is a dark place, and it seems to be growing ever darker. What can I do– really– to stop such wanton destruction?

This simply won’t do.

“Perfect love casts out all fear, for fear involves punishment, and he who fears has not been made perfect in love,” says John. Far from closing us in on ourselves, love draws us up and out. If we have been fortunate enough to escape the bombings in Boston, then we must remember: this is not about me. Who can add a second to his life by worrying? Rather, I found myself asking: how can I help those affected by this tragedy? What creative, restorative good can I contribute to a community that has been blown apart by the destructive force of evil?

Although, in the wake of today’s tragic events I at first felt sad and powerless, I was struck with an inspiration. It is true that there is much evil prowling about the world, but I wield a power even greater than such forces for wickedness: I have the power to love. Every moment of every day, I have the ability to defy the darkness by freely choosing to exercise love. If love is an act of the will, and if it is true that “Where love is, there is also God,” then instead of passively waiting for evil to strike, I can by my very will make God present at any moment by an act of love!

My heart goes out to all of the victims of the bombings today, but far from being discouraged, it is bursting with the inspiration to be a better person, a holier person. If you want to stop the school shootings and the domestic abuse and the suicides and the wars and every other sort of evil darkening our days, then

Right here,

Right now,

Go love.

Tim photo

It was two years ago that my beloved Mr. Brian Jacques passed away. Now, I find myself saying goodbye to another man with a more personal connection to my life.

For the past twenty-eight years, my mother has worked with Mr. W. “Tim” Bartlett, Jr., owner of Bartlett’s restaurant in Austin. Since I last posted, I began working part-time at the restaurant as a greeter, but I grew up knowing Mr. Bartlett more as a friend than as a boss.

On the morning of February 2, 2013, Tim passed away peacefully in his sleep at only 61 years of age. I had spoken to him less than 24 hours before my mom broke the news to me on Saturday morning, and– needless to say– the announcement has been quite a blow to all of us at the restaurant.

Mr. Bartlett was “the best boss in the world,” according to many who have worked under his command, and I can personally attest that he has always taken care of not just my mom for her service to his business, but everyone who makes up the larger Bartlett’s family. Despite being the owner of a successful, upscale restaurant, Tim was always present in his place of business, never above helping out with a broom and dustpan or personally attending to his regular guests who came to support their favorite local restaurateur. Just a few weeks ago, while I was in the process of buying my first car, Tim was only too eager to connect me with his used-car dealer friend, even offering to go look at vehicles with me.

The suddenness of Tim’s death is, I think, both a blessing and a curse: the former because he was up and about in his restaurant, chatting with regulars just the day before he went instead of languishing through a terminal illness; the latter because of his youth and our inability to properly bid him adieu.

Mr. Bartlett’s death has reminded me of this quote by William Penn, founder of the colony of Pennsylvania:

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness or abilities that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

I am happy to say that in all the years I knew him, Tim embodied this philosophy to a “T.” His passing has reminded me of the fragility of life and its fleetingness, of the words we will hear next week on Ash Wednesday that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and of the importance of doing our very best, expressing our love, and living our lives with energy and passion as did Mr. Bartlett.

Thank you, Tim, for everything. We will miss you even while your spirit carries on in the restaurant that bears your name here below, but I can’t wait to join you with the best of company at the eternal feast soon.

You can read Mr. Bartlett’s obituary in the Austin-American Statesman here.

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Requiescat in pace.

Amen.