Saturday, December 1, 2018

St. Edmund Campion and the Advent of Advent

It’s the First Sunday of Advent – it’s finally here! But, in truth, it actually started late on Saturday.

That’s because, liturgically, Sunday always begins late on Saturday. It’s a ritual reckoning of the Sabbath – sunset to sunset – that we inherited from Judaism, and it’s why we celebrate Sunday Mass as early as Saturday afternoon.

It’s also why Sundays have two celebrations of Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours: First Vespers is prayed on Saturday in the p.m., and Second Vespers on Sunday itself. Thus, even when we don’t attend the Vigil Mass, our corporate Sunday observances are initiated by priests and religious (and laity) who intone Evening Prayer I the night before.

And here’s how Evening Prayer I kicks off the First Sunday of Advent every year: “Proclaim the good news among the nations: Our God will come to save us.” It’s the antiphon that heralds the first psalm of First Vespers for the First Sunday of Advent. In a sense, it’s the advent of Advent, the first little liturgical hint that something big is on its way.

It’s also an appropriate bridge this year between Advent Sunday #1 and the day that precedes it – Saturday, December 1 – which marked the feast of the English Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581), a true proclaimer to the nations.

Campion came of age during the English Reformation and his studies at Oxford led him to question the Crown’s usurpation of papal authority. At great risk, he threw away a career in the Church of England and traveled to Rome to pursue a Catholic vocation in the Society of Jesus.

After ordination, Campion taught for a time, but in 1580 he returned to his homeland to surreptitiously serve the persecuted Catholic minority. As a priest-outlaw, St. Edmund was always on the lam, and he regularly made use of disguises so that he could better minister to the faithful.

Betrayed by a spy and convicted of treason in 1581, Fr. Campion suffered a brutal martyrdom on Dec. 1. Yet that wasn’t the end of the story. Campion’s heroic efforts and courageous example helped the English Catholic Church survive its period of persecution, and it emerged intact and vibrant in the modern era.

St. Edmund’s life was an advent of proclamation. May his prayers aid us in imitating his resolve to proclaim the Good News.

A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange. It originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, Indiana. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Veterans Day 2018

Although I get (and distribute) the New York Catholic Worker newspaper, I rarely read it all the way through – as I used to do when I was hanging around Chicago’s St. Francis CW House. But I’m older and cranky and tired most the time now. When the CW bundle arrives in our mailbox every month or two, I’ll usually lay the pile out flat, scan the headlines for names I recognize, and then distribute them in our church’s vestibule the next time I’m there for Mass. “I’m sure somebody will benefit from these,” I’ll mutter.

Last week, however, for some reason, some providential reason, I leafed through a copy of the latest issue, page by page. That’s when I came across Dan Jackson’s moving testimonial, “Dorothy Was Right All Along.” He’s referring to CW founder Dorothy Day’s pacifism, which was unequivocal. Like Jackson, I found Day’s Christianity inspiring in my youth, but I held back from her call to total nonviolence. “I might get married and have children someday,” I argued (with anyone who’d listen), “and I’d have responsibility for protecting them, even if it required returning violence for violence.” And I am married, and I do have children today, and I would do whatever was necessary to protect them.

But war is another matter altogether. It seems impossible to reconcile modern, total war with the relative niceties of just war criteria. The aims of today’s wars are especially elusive and fungible, yet the costs are always incalculable. Jackson’s poignant reflection was a stark reminder of the latter. He describes an epiphany he had while working at a Catholic cemetery one summer. He’d witnessed numerous military burials, but one in particular jarred his soul.
No one spoke. No one coughed. The twenty-one gun salute reverberated under the arches of the nearby Whitestone Bridge. The only sound at the gravesite was the uncontrolled sobbing of this boy’s father. As they never had before, my eyes filled with tears. That was the day I stopped doubting Dorothy. That was the day I became sure that she was right all along.
I had Jackson’s testimonial in mind as Veterans Day arrived this year – the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. A friend of mine posted a recording from that day in 1918 when the guns went silent along the front. It’s surreal: one moment Europeans bent on slaughtering each other across stretches of land, the next moment there was calm. You can even hear the birds begin singing after the pause.

But it was a calm arranged by the very parties who’d initiated the conflict in the first place, and it prompted me to track down a movie that depicts a different, more organic ceasefire that preceded the Armistice by several years. The movie is Joyeux Noël (2006), and it tells the tale of the Christmas Truce that spontaneously occurred along the French battle lines in 1914. German, French, and British soldiers put down their arms and fraternized across enemy lines. They ate and drank; they shared photos and played soccer.

We watched it tonight, and I couldn’t help thinking that this silencing of guns was accomplished by those who were most directly affected. The men who were killing and being killed themselves decided to stop the slaughter. In time, their superiors compelled them to take up arms again against each other, but the men had chosen, even for a brief period, to choose against killing as a way of solving problems. It didn’t make sense to them. The cost was too high.

It’s still too high.

Veterans Day is the day we honor the living, and I do thank vets for their service and sacrifice. I’m also committed to praying for peace so that fewer of those who follow them in service will have to be commemorated on Memorial Day.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Musical Tribute to Bill W.

My dad was an alcoholic. I loved him very much, and I know he loved me – and my brother and my sister and my mom. He was sober off and on the latter half of his life, and when he was sober, it was largely due to A.A.

Here's El Ten Eleven's tribute to Bill W., A.A.'s founder. Alcoholism is war, and I believe my dad fought valiantly with the weapons at his disposal. A.A. was one of them. Thanks, Bill, indeed. Rest in peace, Dad.


Saturday, September 22, 2018

Our Local Pro-Life Guardian Angel

Last Thursday night, St. Joseph County Right to Life held its 27th Annual Right to Life Benefit Dinner. "The event was a huge success," read a follow-up email from the organization, "raising funds that are critical in our continuing mission of sharing the sanctity of life through education, advocacy, outreach, and prayer." At the end of the evening, my son and I had the privilege of making the following fundraising pitch.

It’s always a joy for me and my wife, Nancy, to come to this banquet every year, and tonight is a special joy because we have two of our kids – our youngest – with us for the first time: our son, Nicholas, and our daughter, Katharine. As if that weren’t enough, Nick and I also have this honor of coming up here together, father and son, to ask you for…money.

But before we get to money, we want to talk a minute about guardian angels.

We all know about guardian angels, and if you’re Catholic, you’ve been praying to your guardian angel since you were a tot – which means you’ve also probably taught your own tots the same guardian angel prayer that your parents taught you. “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love entrusts me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.”

But not just Catholics. Other Christian traditions acknowledge the role of personal heavenly guardians based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones,” he says. “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Jewish tradition incorporates a similar idea, and we read of an angel, Raphael, coming to the aid of the wayfarer Tobiah in the Book of Tobit.

OK, so we have guardian angels. What does that have to do with Right to Life and money? I’ll tell you. A week ago, I was in my car and the radio was on. At the top of the hour, the local news included a brief reference to Whole Woman’s Health Alliance getting the nod from an Indianapolis judge to proceed with their plans for a west-side chemical abortion center – bad news for the babies, bad news for the moms, bad news for the West Side and our entire community. But the bad news was balanced with a bit of hope: “If the Indiana Health Department doesn’t object,” the announcer said, “the order will become final on October 2.”

October 2nd – I perked up. Did you? For us Catholics, it’s the feast of the Guardian Angels – a high holy day in Catholic families with young kids. It’s the day we thank God for his provision in our lives as we celebrate the personal angelic companions he gave us – especially since we grown-ups probably don’t think about them much of the rest of the year.

But they’re always there, as the prayer says, enlightening us to truth, protecting us from harm, and guiding us forward. And that’s exactly the kind of work that St. Joseph County Right to Life has been doing since 1972 – a year before the passage of Roe v. Wade. Think of it: Even before abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court, St. Joe County Right to Life was all set, in place, and ready to act as our community’s guardian angel on behalf of the preborn.

You can bet that’s what they’ll be doing between now and October 2nd with regards to that new abortion clinic. St. Joe County Right to Life will be educating, advocating, and leading the charge to stop that place from opening if at all possible. And all while they continue doing everything else they do in our community – some things visible, like the billboards for the Women’s Care Center, and some thing less visible and behind the scenes.

Yet, unlike our personal guardian angels, who are spirits and don’t need income, our communal, pro-life guardian angel does. St. Joe County Right to Life has expenses just like any other organization, and it relies on our contributions to make ends meet. So, please, on behalf of all those guarded by St. Joe County Right to Life, be as generous as you can.

Friday, August 31, 2018

A Reading List for a Eucharistic Life

Last June, I had the distinct privilege of sharing my testimony at a Notre Dame symposium put on by the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Center for Liturgy. The symposium’s overall theme was “The Eucharistic Life,” and at week’s end I had the chance to relate my own spiritual story according to a Eucharistic vision. I was grateful to Dr. Tim O’Malley for the invitation, to his staff who helped me with the many details, and to the symposium participants who listened attentively to my remarks – not to mention my ums and ahs, my rambling digressions and my sobs. I don’t often get the chance to talk so freely in public about my faith history and conversion to Catholicism – my favorite, my most favorite tale to tell – and I relished the opportunity to do so at such a receptive gathering.

Then, a week or so ago, I received a follow-up email from Carolyn, the Center for Liturgy’s Program Director. “We are assembling a list of resources for our participants,” she wrote, “so if you could, send along your top 3 recommendations for indispensable books/articles that have meant a great deal to you in your study and formation that you feel our participants should know about and read.” Thankfully, mercifully, Carolyn tacked on this addendum: “Feel free to send more than 3 if you like.”

It was like an unexpected, delayed bonus on top of the honor of actually sharing at the event. As a frequent bookstore habitué (and former bookstore clerk), recommending books is second only to actually reading them in my way of seeing things, so Carolyn didn’t have to prod me for a response – especially since she lifted the numerical restriction.

“I've been mulling over your request quite a bit,” I wrote back after a couple days. “Here's the list I came up with.” I’ve cut-and-pasted the list below, and I’ve included some brief annotations [in brackets] as to why I think each item is relevant to a Eucharistic way of life.
  1. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (1952) and, her follow-up companion volume, Loaves and Fishes (1963).
    [As I’ve noted elsewhere, I didn’t become a Catholic because of Servant of God Dorothy Day, but I don’t think I would’ve become a Catholic without her. It’s also true that her love of the Mass and the Eucharist, and how she very intentionally allowed the Eucharist to thoroughly permeate everything she thought and did and attempted, was a powerful witness. Even before I joined the Church, she was my hero bar none. After I joined the Church, she was my mentor through her writing. I still want to be like her when I grow up.]
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949).
    [Although my brother tried to get me to read LOTR and The Hobbit back in the 1970s when they were hot off the press, I couldn’t be bothered (!). After becoming a Catholic, I finally got around to Tolkien’s astounding epic, and it was like a spiritual epiphany. It's like a roadmap of the spiritual life, and a sacramental sensibility hovers over the entire corpus. Dr. O’Malley's recent piece for OSV on Tolkien’s elvish waybread as an image of Eucharistic sustenance captures what I'm getting at superbly.]
  3. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940).
    [I was in Chicago living in an urban studies center on the South Side, and just piecing together the whole mystique of Catholic Worker-ism and Catholicism when I stumbled across this novel about a delinquent priest ministering to a persecuted Mexican Church in the 1930s. It clicked, and Greene's gripping narrative about the lengths people will go to – the lengths they in fact actually went to – to receive the Eucharist permanently framed my sacramental identity.]
  4. Myles Connolly, Mr. Blue (1928) – especially Mr. Blue's movie pitch in the middle.
    [That "elevator pitch" about halfway into this short novel is almost like a mini-novelette unto itself. It, too, is a powerful picture of the centrality of the Eucharist to the Christian project, not only for the sanctification of individual believers, but for the salvation of the whole world.]
  5. Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959).
    [This monastic sci-fi masterpiece is hard to describe, and it's even harder to put into words why it's so unsettling and alluring. At the heart of it is a continuity of ancient tradition and community that revolves around liturgy and prayer, and so, like Dorothy's autobiographical writings, I think Canticle modeled for me an all-encompassing Eucharistic worldview that I couldn't resist.]
  6. C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) – particularly the beginning about the children falling into the painting.
  7. [I zoomed through Lewis's Narnia Chronicles when I was a 7th-grader, and I've come back to them periodically – and not just to read them to my own kids, but for my own pleasure and edification. Dawn Treader in particular has stood out in my memory over the years for its thread of adventurous journeying that has its genesis in a metaphysical accident. A group of children are gazing at a painting of a ship at sea, and the painting comes alive – and the children clumsily tumble down beyond the picture frame and into the painted scene. As an Evangelical, I came to interpret this imagery in terms of Christians inhabiting the Biblical literature. As a Catholic, I've come to further embrace that opening sequence as a potent metaphor for how we can be drawn into and come to inhabit the liturgy itself. In other words, the real adventure of Christianity is at the altar, the fount, and the kneeler. When we inhabit a sacramental universe, then anything can happen.]
Plus, three movies – all of which were books first (or at least a play in the case of Wit), but I like the movie adaptations a lot:
  1. Babette's Feast (1987)
    [This quiet, unassuming film is based on a short story by Isak Dinesen. On the surface, it's a romantic tale of serendipity, sacrifice, and love. Look deeper, and you'll see Christ and his Church, kenosis and metanoia, and a profound ecclesial longing for heaven. Moreover, you'll see a Eucharistic feast like no other.]
  2. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
    [Maybe this is a stretch, but this fantasy film (based on Michael Ende's novel) fleshes out what Lewis was getting at in those first pages of Dawn Treader. The movie's hero, Bastian, is alienated and lonely and put upon at school, and he finds solace and escape in a beguiling storybook that increasingly occupies his consciousness. In time, Bastian is swept up into the story he is reading, and he takes on a critical role in the unfolding plot. "Real" world and the world of the page fuse for Bastian, and what had been an entertaining diversion soon swamps all other temporal concerns. Again, it's an image of inhabiting that I associated with a life centered on liturgy and sacrament.]
  3. Wit (2001)
  4. [I've been showing this HBO production of Margaret Edson's play to my nursing students for eons. Emma Thompson is superb in the role of Vivian Bearing, an English scholar who is dying of cancer. To me, its frequent biblical, hagiographic, liturgical, and sacramental allusions are palpable and illuminating. Every time I screen it for my students, I see something new – every time, really! It's a remarkable play, and this film version is astonishing. And the Eucharistic epiphany – a moment of breathtaking nuance and grace – is unforgettable.]
Come to think of it, I recall that Disney's version of Beauty and the Beast – the animated one from 1991, not the live action one from last year – had some powerful Eucharistic undertones. [Selfless love, transformative grace, death into life, and more.] Oh, and Diary of a Country Priest (1936) by Georges Bernanos is highly recommended, as is the old film version from 1954. [Both convey that same idea I found so compelling in Dorothy Day and Miller's Canticle: That a Eucharistic life is one that is shot full of Christ, and there's no out of the way corner or nook of our experience that escapes his expansive, crucified presence. "Does it matter?" the protagonist confesses at the very end. "Grace is everywhere...."]

Dom Hubert van Zeller is uniformly wonderful. Anything by him is recommended. [It's true. I've never encountered anything by Van Zeller that I didn't find captivating, instructive, and beneficial. And, as a Benedictine, even when he's not writing about the liturgy and the Eucharist explicitly, he seems to lean on their ubiquity, always in the ether informing and pervading everything else. That's my goal, too. I'm working on it.]

    Sunday, July 22, 2018

    In Gratitude for a Fresh Glimpse at Dorothy Day


    I can't recall if I sent you a thank-you note for that book, but I'm finally reading through it, and I'm grateful you sent it along.

    You mentioned that the author is a friend of yours. If you're in touch with him, please tell him that he has succeeded in coaxing the dying embers of my Catholic Worker enthusiasms back into flame.

    I didn't become a Catholic because of Dorothy Day, but I don't think I would've become a Catholic without her – and Peter...and the whole messy Catholic Worker schtick

    Deo gratias.

    – Rick

    Decades ago, in Eugene, Oregon, I read Dorothy Day's autobiography and decided to move to "the city" to find out about this Catholic Worker thing she started. Before I left, I forked over to Harper & Row for a whole box of Long Loneliness paperbacks, and I handed them out to family and friends and strangers. I urgently wanted others to meet this extraordinary woman – to see Jesus through her eyes, to meet him again, as I had, with her help.

    Years ago, here in South Bend, I asked the New York Catholic Worker community to sign me up for a bulk subscription to their newspaper. Ever since, every month or two, I get a tight roll of 50 copies in the mail. I spread them out on a table, weigh them down with encyclopedias to flatten them, and then place them in the vestibule and exits at my church. It's not quite the same as passing out copies of Dorothy's autobiography. Still, there's always the possibility that somebody will, out of curiosity, pick up one of the newspapers and discover the Catholic Worker for the first time – and, indirectly, discover Dorothy.

    However, Terrence Wright's new book, the one Joe sent me, has brought me up short. I read it eagerly, and I'm looking forward to reading it again. Far from nostalgia, it makes Dorothy's complex legacy and the rollicking CW ethos come alive, succinctly and compellingly. And, for me, it was a powerful reminder of why I've been pushing The Long Loneliness and the newspaper all these years: Because Dorothy Day knew Jesus, and she hoped the Catholic Worker – through the works of mercy and peacemaking and clarification of thought – would help others to know him and make him known.

    So, stand by, Ignatius Press. Once I scrounge together the cash, I'll be contacting you for a boxful of Wright, and I'll get back into the book-pushing business.

    Thursday, July 12, 2018

    Our Lady of Good Help

    The airport cabbie was blunt. “Champion? It’s a bump along the road – you don’t even slow down for it.”

    My wife and I explained that we were looking for Our Lady of Good Help. “Oh, you’re here for the shrine,” he said. “That’s different.”

    He was right on both counts. Champion, Wisconsin, is little more than a dot on the map, but the shrine there is a bustling hub. As the only fully approved Marian apparition site in the USA, Our Lady of Good Help hosts thousands of pilgrims every year.

    The shrine’s origins dates back to the mid-19th century when Belgian immigrants settled the area, including the Brise family and their teenage daughter, Adele. A cheerful girl despite a disfiguring youthful injury, Adele was both pious and affable.

    One day, Adele was walking to the gristmill with a load of wheat. A shimmering lady clothed in white appeared between two trees, but the vision rapidly dissipated. After a second sighting, Adele asked her confessor for advice, and he told her to ask the lady who she was and what she wanted. On the way home from Mass later that same day, October 9, 1859, Adele saw the lady again and made bold her inquiry.

    “I am the Queen of Heaven,” came the lady’s reply. “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.”

    Adele balked, but our Lady met her objections with a simple formula: “Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments.” Then, before vanishing, the Queen of Heaven reassured the young apostle. “Go and fear nothing,” she said. “I will help you.”

    From that moment on until her death in 1896, Adele dedicated herself to carrying out Mary’s charge. Along with a handful of companions, who associated themselves with the Franciscan Third Order, Sister Adele worked tirelessly to build up the faith of the fledgling immigrant community. They built a chapel, a convent, and a school, and when the compound was miraculously spared during the devastating Peshtigo Fire of 1871, all lingering doubts about Adele’s visions were dismissed.

    Green Bay Bishop David Ricken declared the apparitions “worthy of belief” in 2010, and in 2016, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the grounds a National Shrine.

    A version of this story originally appeared in Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville. For more information on Our Lady of Good Help and the shrine at Champion, Wisconsin, follow this link

    Sunday, May 13, 2018

    Divided by Birth Control? Naah.

    “Purity is the beginning of all passion.”

    The 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae is coming up in July, but the Wall Street Journal got a jump on the commemorative analysis. “Catholics have overwhelmingly rejected the document’s teaching,” Francis X. Rocca avowed on Saturday, and the upshot of that rejection was captured in his essay’s title: “A Church Still Divided by Birth Control.” Rocca offers as evidence the Pew Research Center’s 2016 U.S. study which “found that only 13% of weekly Mass-going Catholics thought contraception was morally wrong.”

    Since “weekly Mass-going” is one of my own criteria for distinguishing between “practicing” and “cultural” Catholics, I was taken aback. How could it be that so few practicing Catholics in this country embrace this essential teaching of the Church?

    So, I tracked down the study – and what Rocca reported is true (if you trust Pew Research – which I do). But, as usual when it comes to Catholic controversy, there’s more to the story. A couple easy hyperlink clicks later, and I came across additional Pew data on American Catholicism that I found illuminating. “Most U.S. Catholics rely heavily on their own conscience for moral guidance,” goes the headline, and by “most” the Pew folks mean 74% of the weekly Mass crowd as well as 73% of their “not highly religious” (non-weekly Mass) counterparts – a statistical dead heat.

    As the Pew summary noted, the Church herself strongly endorses reliance on our consciences when it comes to moral decisions, but there’s a caveat: We have a duty to form our consciences properly through ongoing recourse to Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium (CCC 1785). Claire Gecewicz, the Pew researcher who summarized the Center’s findings, acknowledges this, but then she goes on to speculate that U.S. Catholics “may not look directly to the Bible, the pope or the Catholic Church’s teachings when making difficult moral choices, but they may be guided by these sources indirectly through their own ‘well-formed’ conscience.”

    Is it just me, or is Gecewicz describing something that sounds like circular reasoning?

    In any case, I do not accept Rocca’s assertion that U.S. Catholics have dispensed with the teaching of Humanae Vitae for the simple reason that U.S. Catholics seem to be, by and large, unfamiliar with what Paul VI’s encyclical actually teaches – or else, they’ve forgotten what they should’ve heard in their Pre-Cana classes. I admit I have no Pew Research to back me up on this, and I could be totally off base, but I’ll bet your typical weekly Mass-goer who dismisses Humanae Vitae assumes it’s a document exclusively about what you can’t do.

    Yet, those of us who have taken the trouble to read the encyclical and ponder Paul VI’s teaching know that it’s mainly about what you get to do – that is, fully experience mutual self-giving in marital intimacy as God designed it, along with all its benefits beyond the bedroom. Conscientiously following the teaching of Humanae Vitae does involve some sacrifice, but it “fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another,” Pope Paul explained, and it “helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity” (HV 21). And that’s just a sample of the Holy Father’s wisdom. There’s plenty more where that came from – we just need to get the word out.

    How? The best way is to really live Humanae Vitae. Teach Humanae Vitae. And be unabashedly grateful for Humanae Vitae. It’s true and beautiful and a sign of hope in a confused and confusing world.

    Sunday, April 8, 2018

    Divine Mercy Sunday on the 294

    Once I’m past the toll plaza gate, I’m in the
    chute. Eastbound or westbound, Ohio or
    Chicago, no turning back without
    hassle and a fee.
    It’s a river, and no matter how many times I
    run its course, there are flashes and
    splashes of fresh sights and sounds, plus
    strangers floating alongside – on their way to
    destinations of their own.
    And once I drift over to the Tri-State after
    sidling into Illinois, I’m committed again. Miles
    tick by, and the transponder silently posts my
    tribute. It’s the contract I signed when I
    flopped down on the current of the
    road. The cost accounted for a priori; a free
    exchange – cash for mobility. 
    Northward lies Wisconsin. Cheese shops, Harleys, and
    hills. Headaches and hope – who knows what can
    happen? But I won’t make it that far today. About
    halfway, I’ll turn around – the funny kind of
    turnaround required by the Tri-State: Proceed from the
    oasis, a few miles or more, then exit, re-enter, and
    back on the current in the opposite direction. 
    Another tentative journey to be continued.

    Saturday, March 3, 2018

    For Dom, After the Rains

    Homeward I choose the usual route
    Along the river behind the university,
    Ignoring the pylons, proceeding.

    There ahead, an expanse of
    Water in the street, overflowing
    From the banks and up to the
    Sidewalks on the other side.

    I ask, go through? Will I stall out,
    Get stuck, or worse? There's risk,
    But I have stuff to do and I'm
    Tired. Turn around the
    Big van, then, bit by bit,
    Forward left, reverse right,
    And back home by a safer way.

    Next time, maybe,
    I'll watch you test the
    Depths before following.


    Sunday, February 18, 2018

    In the Wake of Parkland

    Here’s a post from my friend Mike:
    Curious question, with no comment desired other than indicating your response. Debate is not welcome on this thread. What do you think is the primary reason for mass shootings in the US?   
    A. Gun availability and proliferation 
    B. Violence in entertainment 
    C. The breakdown of the family 
    D. Lack of mental health resources 
    E. Other (please specify)
    Mike got scores of answers, if not hundreds (I stopped counting after a while), and they ranged all over the place, including many who wrote in some version of “All the above.” So did I – here it is:
    Abortion, euthanasia, mercy killing, capital punishment, targeted killing, drone warfare. We're immersed in the culture of death, and we've all grown accustomed to solving problems by killing people. So, yes, all of the above (A, C, and D especially), but also a zeitgeist that implicitly condones destroying human life as an acceptable means to reach a variety of ends.
    That was on Friday. On Saturday morning, I snagged my Wall Street Journal from the curb and located Peggy Noonan’s column: “The Parkland Massacre and the Air We Breathe.” In it, Noonan articulated and expanded on the same point I was trying to make in response to Mike’s question – a point the column’s sub-title succinctly summarizes: “What’s gone wrong with our culture that produces such atrocities? It’s a very long list.”

    Noonan answers her own question with another question: “What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?” Her list overlaps my own, and she adds some more: “The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal.” Noonan speculates that all this cultural upheaval is responsible for a pervasive moral illness in our body politic. “A nation has an atmosphere. It has air it breathes in each day,” she writes. “America’s air looks clean but there are toxins in it, and they’re making the least defended and protected of us sick.”

    What caught my attention, however, was the 40 year figure – why forty? A quick scout around the internet finds other retrospectives since Ash Wednesday’s horrific events in Florida utilizing a similar reckoning, more or less. Some go back to just 1999; others go back to the mid-1980s; few go back further than 1978 – that 40 year mark mentioned by Noonan. In fact, according to CNN, only two of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history occurred before then: Austin in 1966 and Camden in 1949.

    Why? What happened around 1978?

    Consider: Abortion on demand was legalized in this country following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Since then, abortion on demand has become part of the fabric of our cultural consensus – that is, a medicalized form of killing has become a normalized means of addressing challenging human dilemmas.

    And it's not just an American phenomenon. A friend recently gave me an essay by actress Patricia Heaton about Iceland’s “success” in eliminating Down syndrome. Heaton astutely observes that Iceland “was not, in fact, eliminating Down syndrome. They were just killing everyone who has it.”

    So, without excluding questions of easy access to guns, lack of mental health resources, and the breakdown of traditional mores, here’s my own curious and honest inquiry: Could it be that we’ve just gotten used to killing as a way of life, especially since Roe v. Wade? Could it be that we’re raising one generation after another with that mindset?

    And, if that's the case, what can we do about it? What ought we to do?

    Wednesday, January 31, 2018

    Unintentional Irony: NPR, Abortion, and Maternal Devotion

    I listen to National Public Radio all the time (as my kids can attest) because it’s informative, well produced, and convenient – radio is a terrific medium for those on the go and, what’s more, it’s free!

    However, like most mainstream media outlets, NPR leans pretty far to the left, especially when it comes to social issues, and particularly concerning abortion. Probably they’d deny such editorial leanings, and they’d point to the numbers – like, maybe, the balanced amount of airtime they grant representatives from both the pro-life and pro-choice camps. But you can’t listen to NPR long without picking up on a subtle emphasis in tone and language that betrays their pro-choice bias. What's more, pro-choice adherents and their positions are rarely criticized, while pro-life spokeswomen are frequently patronized by their on-air NPR hosts.

    This despite the fact that pro-lifers are speaking up for a marginalized and persecuted class of humanity that can’t speak up for itself – the very kind of sub-group that NPR likes to draw attention to and defend. Even so, sometimes the NPR editors make programming decisions that buttress the pro-life cause, despite what seems to be their intention otherwise.

    Case in point: Two unrelated stories that appeared on two different shows on the same day a couple weeks back. In the afternoon, there was a story on All Things Considered about pro-choice pioneers in Chicago that provided illicit abortions prior to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The underground group went by the name “Jane,” and they developed an elaborate, clandestine system to evade the law, connect with women who sought abortion, and then perform the procedur themselves – despite a lack of medical training. The ATC segment featured early Jane enthusiasts, including Martha Scott:
    Scott says she performed hundreds of abortions. It's a relatively simple procedure, but she acknowledges that there were risks to what they were doing. Some clients ended up in the emergency room; some had to undergo hysterectomies. “You're messing around inside somebody else's body. It’s not necessarily given that you won’t do harm,” Scott says. “It wasn't perfect, by any means. But we were dealing with women who really didn't have other options.”
    By itself, it’s a typical NPR abortion puff piece, and it paints the pro-choice scofflaws in the best possible light. The members of Jane are what NPR’s largely progressive listening audience would call abortion heroines, after all, who risked jail time, unemployment, and social ostracism in order to facilitate the termination of unwanted children. Yet, in all the years (decades) that I’ve been listening to Public Radio, I can’t recall a single comparable story lionizing the peaceful pro-life activists who risked all the same things in order to bring pregnant women alternative, life-affirming choices.

    Even so, NPR itself highlighted that alternative perspective earlier in the same day that the Jane story appeared. It was a Story Corps segment during NPR's Morning Edition that featured a conversation between April Gibson and her teenage son, Gregory. When Gibson got pregnant as an unmarried teen, she apparently didn’t consider abortion an option – or else she couldn’t. “I just took care of you,” she tells Gregory in the Story Corps segment. “I did what I was supposed to do.” Maybe she didn’t really have other options; maybe she didn’t have folks like Scott and her ilk proffering cheap termination services.

    From an NPR point of view, that sounds like an injustice: Gibson shouldn’t have been compelled to any baby-related “supposed to do.” I’m guessing All Things Considered might’ve preferred to relate Gibson’s story as an cautionary tale: “See what happens when women don’t have choice? They have to take care of a baby.”

    But Gibson tells her own story with confidence and joy, and she makes it plain that she has no regrets. “I couldn't believe what people told me about myself or about ‘those people’ like me,” she tells her son – and us. “This is my baby, and I love him, and I can feel something. It’s not a fairy tale, it's not a failure. It's just a process, and now we're here, 16 years later.”

    It was a moving testimony, and I couldn't help thinking about Gibson and Gregory later in the day as I listened to the story about Jane. All those hundreds of abortions that Martha Scott and her friends performed, and the hundreds of Gregorys who perished as a result. Their moms might’ve been convinced that they were justified in resorting to a dangerous permanent solution in order to address whatever crises they were in at the time, but there’s no doubt that they also missed out on what Gibson calls “a process” – that is, the mysterious unfolding of lived life with all its tragedies and sorrows, its hopes and possibilities.

    Gibson doesn’t mention abortion in her conversation with Gregory – she might even be pro-choice, for all I know – but it’s very clear that she’s glad he’s in the world. No doubt, all those many women who took advantage of Jane's abortion services were facing excruciating circumstances, or else they wouldn't chosen such an extreme solution. But how many of them had a chance to talk with somebody like April Gibson, who could've assured them that there was still hope? The hardships she endured as a single mom, the doubts and sense of failure – no fairy tale, as she says – were clearly well worth it. It’s an outcome she could’ve never predicted at the time of her pregnancy, but that makes her decision to “just take care” of her baby – to do what she was “supposed to do” – all the more valiant.

    Happily, it's a valiancy that Gregory himself both recognizes and cherishes. As he told his mom at the end of their conversation, “You’re just the greatest person that I ever know. And I just want to be like you.”

    Me, too. Thanks for your heroism, April, and for sharing your story – and your son – with the world.