Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Family That Stays Together

If you're free this weekend and find yourself in central Ohio, you can catch Darwin as Juror No. 12 (the jerk) in Twelve Angry Men, performed at the local courthouse. We're a theatrical household, and production week is a given in our house, but as I'm on the audience side of the show this time, I confess to breathing a sigh of relief that the long nights of rehearsals are coming to an end. Make no mistake: I support Darwin being in the show with my whole heart, and practically blackmailed him into auditioning since I couldn't do try out myself, what with the baby and all. Still, the intensive nature of rehearsal is a strain on the household, pushing the evening later and later as everyone waits up for Daddy to come home and tell us all the news from the night's run.

When, at age 18, we pictured our future married life, we had a very hazy image of what life would be like with our imaginary large family. We pictured children who were us in miniature, great family achievements, an exciting career path, and of course lots of sex. Somehow, we didn't factor in the petty distractions: a soft baby in bed next to us looking at us with big eyes just as things are heating up, someone pounding on the door demanding how to spell "juror", the cat throwing up on the floor, someone having a tantrum downstairs. And these are simply the happy, normal parts of family life that test us in small ways. There's nothing big or dramatic that happens to us -- all that is for the stage. Our marriage and our family is built on the minor happenings of everyday life. "The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones." (Lk. 16:10) Always look to the small matters first; the great ones are of almost no consequence.

Catholics love conversion stories, for the same reason everybody loves rom-coms. We get to watch somebody fall in love with the faith, overcome obstacles, and at last reach the altar -- and then we fade to black. The story stops right when it gets interesting; right when the hard part starts. 
The radio program This American Life made the point in their 2009 episode "Somewhere Out There". Ira Glass interviews an American man who went on a ridiculously romantic quest for a Chinese opera musician -- a woman he'd fallen for, thought he didn't even know her name. 
But the interview isn't really about that. It's about the rest of the story: They did marry, but as Glass explains, "it was really hard. The novelty had worn off and the framework of their entire relationship was an ocean away... After going through those rough years when they even considered splitting up, the story of how they met came to feel less and less important and they didn't talk about it as much. Now that have a different story." The husband, Eric Hayot, describes it as "the story of struggle and pain passed through, and fought through, and overcome. And that's a story that you don't tell in public because no one ever asks how did you two stay together? Everyone always asks how did you two meet?"
This blog, though it is a small thing, and not particularly about our marriage, is in fact an account of how we have stayed together over the years. Not that there's much drama about that; we never doubted that we would stay together, and "staying together" seems rather fraught language to describe our uneventful life and family. But we have here a nearly thirteen year account of how we've grown as individuals and as a couple and as a family, and how growth in one of those areas is truly growth in all of them. What strengthens me as a person strengthens our family, strengthens me as a mother and wife as well as an individual. In fact, I would question any experience which I felt made me stronger at the expense of being a wife and a mother, since those are not just elements of my personality but bound up with my vocation -- and therefore, my salvation. 

In this present instance, the theatrical vocation I thought I had for myself is coming to fruition in my family while I sit and watch and my baby sits and nurses. And this is only for a season. My turn is coming up with the summer musical, because God has so split his gifts among us that Darwin does not sing and so the musical is mine, all mine -- mine to share with the five older kids who can perform, anyway, and the baby who will probably be at all rehearsals. Baby always comes, because I'm faithful in small things. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Great War, Volume Two, Chapter 4-3

This section ends Chapter Four and our time with Jozef for now.

Prerau, Moravia. June 14th, 1915. “Major, I believe there’s something wrong with the tracking of the requisitions.”

The officers were milling about on Monday morning as the enlisted men from the Major’s detail got the civilians in order to begin the second day of the requisition fair.

“Eh? What’s the trouble, m’boy?” asked the major, puffing to get a new cigar lit.

“I went to the stables last night to look in on a particularly choice mount I’d requisitioned for the regiment. I remember them painting the requisition number on his flank. Yet when I found the horse with that number in the stables, it was a completely different horse. Perhaps some horses were double numbered, or the clerks are covering for some mistake, but this was definitely not the horse I had chosen.”

The major shrugged. “Easy to misremember a number, and hard to find one horse among a crowd. I wouldn’t let it trouble you. The men are very practiced in these fairs, and the horses will all arrive in the end. Best not to worry yourself and to concentrate upon finding more good horses to round out your quota today.”

Before Jozef could ask any more questions, the major turned away went to join another knot of officers. Jozef felt a moment’s wash of frustration as he watched his receding back in its crisp dress uniform which was little changed in the last fifty years since the wars against Napoleon III and Wilhelm I. It was natural enough this old man would not remember which was horse was which, would assume that everything could be smoothed over by the clerks who managed his books and thus his whole operation. Perhaps that was the explanation. Men with the poor wages of enlisted men had been given the power over hundreds of valuable horses because their commanding officer was too old to bother himself with details, and so of course the temptation might become too great to take the odd horse here or there, take his beautiful black hunter and substitute for it a common gray cart horse. Still, if the major could not be bothered to investigate the issue, there were surely others who could.

He was thus surprised that when he managed to draw Rittmeister Hofer aside during a pause in the morning’s fair, he got little more interest than from the major. “Doubtless you just confused the numbers, von Revay. A day full of horses followed up by good champagne is hardly a spur to precise memory. It’ll all sort out in the end.”

It wasn’t until lunch that Jozef found a ready audience for his concerns in Rittmeister Korzeniowski.

“How many horses do you believe are missing?”

“I don’t know. There was just the one that I was looking for. If it is indeed some scheme to make off with the better horses, we need to check more.”

The Polish officer drew a little notebook from the breast pocket of his uniform tunic. “There I think I can help you.” He turned a few pages and then held it out for Jozef’s inspection. Neatly listed out were all the horses that Korzeniowski had chosen, with a note of both the requisition number and the appearance of the animal. ‘263 Chestnut Mare, 281 Bay Gelding,’ and so forth. More than forty were listed, with a line drawn between Saturday’s choices and today’s. “The little stars mark particularly choice mounts,” Korzeniowski explained. “If there’s some sort of scheme afoot, those are the ones we should check first.”

And so after the requisition fair wound to its close for the day at three in the afternoon, while the rest of the officers returned to the hotel for some pre-dinner refreshment, Rittmeister Korzeniowski stayed behind with Jozef. The requisitioned horses now filled two of the long stable buildings.

Jozef led the way to the stable he had visited the night before, which contained the horses that had been requisitioned on the first day. It took time to find each horse listed in Korzeniowski’s book among the quietly milling herd of animals. It soon became clear that Jozef’s experience with his black hunter was by no means unique. Nine of the horses Korzeniowski had selected on the first day were gone, including all but one of the ones he had marked with a star, each replaced another horse that was older or heavier than he had chosen.

“This must truly be my lucky horse,” Korzeniowski said, rubbing the nose of the dappled mare which was the only remaining of his choice picks. “It was a farm lad leading her through. Perhaps that’s why the others didn’t give him a full look. Nothing grand about the owner, but the horse I could see was a very fine one. Even so I almost let him go. I could see the hope building in that farm boy’s eyes. He loved that horse, that much I could tell, and had seen its potential and given it every care.” He paused to drop a kiss on the horse’s forehead. “You won’t have nearly such a pleasant life in the cavalry, poor creature. But any trooper who gets you will love you. And Poland needs you.” He scratched the horse gently behind the ears and then turned it loose to mill among others. “Wretched, isn’t it, how war turns honorable men into thieves. And yet we honorable thieves must track down the common thief who is making off with the horses that we have lawfully taken.”

Continue Reading...

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Long Retreat

Over the course of my lifetime Lenten observance, I've tried all the tacks. 

The Standard -- when I was 14, I gave up soda, which led to better lifetime habits.
The Rigorous -- the year I gave up sugar, and didn't even eat a piece of the cake at my brother's surprise Leap Day birthday party.
The Basic -- years I've been pregnant and have just stuck with the meatless Fridays and Ash Wednesday observance.
The Habit-Breaker -- the year I tackled getting up early and being organized. It didn't stick.

There's nothing wrong with these sacrifices. They were done for love of God, and God sees all our sacrifices, small and large, and honors them. However, I feel like I've always made my Lenten observance about myself: my bad habits, my lifestyle, my self-improvement. 

When Jesus went into the desert for forty days, he wasn't trying to kick a bad habit. He didn't need spiritual self-improvement. The forty day sojourn in the desert was a time of preparation and deep communication with the Father before Jesus started his public ministry -- a retreat. I wish I could remember where I recently read that ministry to the public depleted Jesus's human nature, so that he needed to withdraw to pray. If Jesus needed that, how much more do we?

This year, I'm taking a Lenten retreat. I'm giving up Facebook -- not because I think it's bad, but because it's so full of noise and instant gratification that it consumes my mental and spiritual space. I want to spend time with the people, in my town and in my parish, that God has put into my life -- people whose very differences from me push me to smooth the edges of my personality that are rough and hone the edges that are dull. 

I'd like to use the space that giving up social media affords me to do more reading and writing. Reading is easy -- I spend a lot of time nursing the baby, enforced sitting, and it's time that can be turned to reading books without detracting from the rest of my day. Writing I need to choose more consciously. I'll keep writing here, of course, and I want to turn my mindless evening Facebook scrolls into editing time for my novel. And, inspired by this Dappled Things post about Why Should You Write?:
So, that’s a lot of correspondence for you all. And I must say, while we’re on the topic, that some of the most meaningful and effective things I have written have been in letters. Unless you get to be someone like O’Connor, your letters are really only read by one person, sometimes two. But boy do they come to mean a lot! So write some letters, if nothing else.
I'm going to put my new fountain pen to use by writing letters for Lent, and I'd be delighted to send one to any reader who will send name and address to me at (I suppose it goes without saying, but that information won't be passed on or used for any other purpose.) If you're a longtime commenter and I never seem to respond to anything you say, please let me send you a letter this Lent! If you read but never comment, let me write to you! If we're friends who never see each other, I'll send you a letter! If you live in my town and we run into each other every Sunday, I still want to write you a letter.

I haven't said much in all this about spiritual development or prayer for Lent. That's because I find that when I know it's Lent, I naturally pull back from indulging in foods, and I add in prayers like Stations of the Cross with the parish. For a discipline, I'm not going to be putting sugar in my tea, but that's so that I have something to be consistent about. I don't want to layer on the practices this Lent because I want to take it as a time to assess what God wants me to do where he's put me -- in this family, in this parish, with these gifts and these flaws. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hiding The Truth is not Pastoral

Mark Shea wades into the recent controversy about Cardinal Marx's suggestion that perhaps the Church may in certain individual cases come up with some sort of blessing to be applied to same sex unions. (There's some dispute as to what Cardinal Marx meant, with initial reports suggesting he proposed a standard approach to blessing such unions and clarification from his spokesmen suggesting that he was more ambiguous, but that ambiguity does not come into Shea's piece so I won't bring it up here further.)

Shea proposes nothing definite, but argues that the cardinal may be onto something because the presence of same sex marriages will be an established fact that the Church must deal with, and failure to do so will, he argues, result in rejection by many younger people who support same sex marriage in large numbers. It's a long post, but I'll try to quote the key sections below:

[H]ow do the people who are currently shouting denunciations at Cdl. Marx propose the Church proceed in a world where, like it or not, gay unions are here to stay? Put bluntly, if they do not want some kind of blessing on gay people, would they prefer the Church devise a curse for them?

My guess is no. Very well then, my question is this: what do we want to do, as Catholics committed to the evangelization of the entire world, including gay people? What concrete course of action do we propose for the Church to engage the here-to-stay, not going anywhere, immovable, staring-us-in-the-face sociological fact of a world which not only has gay unions, but has a rising generation of people, gay and straight, who have absolutely no problem with gay unions and who are increasingly alienated from a Church that does, in fact, appear to them to curse gay people? (We’re talking roughly 75% of Millennials here.)

If you say (as I suspect most of Cdl. Marx’s critics do) that the Church should simply do nothing, then at least be aware that “nothing” will, in fact, be read as rejection, not as nothing–by that 75% of Millennials. Mark you, I’m not talking about gay unions per se. I’m simply talking about the mere existence of gay people and the straight people who care about them.
If the message the Church is sending to every gay person on the planet–and to their straight Millennial friend–is “You are rejected” then it will be only the most extraordinary and motivated person who persists in seeking Jesus in the face of such rejection. And make no mistake, the most zealous and vocal Catholics are typically the ones sending just that message to gays and the straight people who love them. Indeed, they send it even to gay people who have committed to live in chastity and celibacy. I cannot count the number of times I have seen gay Catholics I know–faithful, chaste, celibate ones–spoken of as sinister fifth columnists within the Church and regarded with suspicion simply because they are open, frank, and honest that they are sexually attracted to people of the same sex.
I think the entire “burn heretics, not make converts” approach to the Catholic life is radically wrong and foreign to the mind of Christ. So I return to my question: what do we propose about evangelizing people in a world where gay unions–and an entire generation of people who do not even see a problem with them–are already an established sociological fact?
Jesus didn’t tell the centurion, “Get out of my sight, slaveowner!” He commended him for the progress in grace he had made. He didn’t tell the Samaritan woman to depart from him. He met her where she was and helped her take a step toward faith in him. At no point, does he order her to go home and break it off with her fifth husband.

I suspect something similar is where the Church will wind up with gay unions. Gay people, like everybody else, will come to the Church for spiritual help sooner or later because the Holy Spirit cannot be denied and gay humans, like all humans, hunger for God. And when they do, real shepherds are not going to slap their faces and send them away any more than Jesus slapped the centurion for daring to approach him while still owning other human beings. Shepherds are going to meet them where they are in all the complexity of their lives.

This will offend Puritans, whose first and last impulse is always to drive the impure away from Fortress Katolicus. But it seems to me that the Church is pretty much bound to take this route. It will not mean sacramentalizing gay unions. Rather, it will mean finding some way to help gay people take steps toward Jesus (who is the only one who can untangle the human heart) where they are.
[You can read the full post here.]
Now I think it's important to say that Mark is right that there is a faction within the Church which is so suspicious of people who are gay (in the sense of being consistently sexually attracted to those of the same sex, regardless of whether they act sexually on those attractions) that they do indeed attack even faithful gay Catholic writers who write about ways for people who are gay to live chastely according to the Church's teachings. This is a problem. Christ came to being salvation to all who are willing to follow Him, and that includes people who are gay. We must have a welcoming place within the Church for those who are living according to the Church's teachings under difficult circumstances: those who are gay, those who are divorced, those who are unwillingly single, those who struggle to follow the Church's teachings within their marriages.

However, there's another problem which Shea's 'will we bless them or curse them?' dichotomy fails to address. There are many within the Church who believe that while perhaps the Church's official, on paper teachings on issues such as contraception, gay marriage, and divorce cannot change, that the Church can route around those teachings in her practice. Cardinal Marx seems to some degree to be aligning himself with this allegedly pastoral approach, in which the Church loudly affirms the good aspects of such things while never mentioning that by the way they are against God's law. The proposal that the Church perhaps in some cases offer some sort of non-sacramental blessing for same sex unions must necessarily be seen as participating in this kind of "let's pretend the Church's teachings don't exist" exercise.

The Church's job is in fact more difficult that Shea seems to acknowledge. Yes, a large and increasing percentage of the culture are not only accepting of same sex marriage but ready to reject as a bigot anyone who does not accept it. The Church has a divine mission to reach everyone with Christ's message: gay or straight, pro or anti same sex marriage. And yet the Church also has a duty not to conceal and obfuscate God's law. The Church cannot offer a blessing ceremony for civil marriages that follow the breakup of a valid marriage, nor can it offer a blessing ceremony for same sex couples. There might be those who would argue the Church should offer a blessing ceremony of sorts for same sex couples who are committing to live together chastely, and indeed there is nothing immoral about sharing a roof with someone who you love but are not able to sleep with. But because of our current cultural moment it seems particularly imprudent to offer something that would look so very much like a winking approval for a sexual relationship. We must be honest with ourselves: Many of those who find proposals such as Cardinal Marx's appealing are indeed looking for a tacit approval of sexual relationships that the Church considers wrong. Under the guise of being pastoral, what is actually being sought here is a change in practice if not yet of doctrine.

Jesus does not just accompany us where we are. He also calls us to do hard things. To see this we need look no further than the story of the rich young man, the young man who said he followed all the commandments and on whom Jesus looked with love. What does Jesus do then? Ask the young man to do something even harder: sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and follow me. And when the young man goes away sad, Jesus lets him go. He doesn't hold a blessing ceremony for the young man's attachment to riches.

This is the thing which all factions within the Church can forget too often. Jesus asks us to do hard things. He asks us to love people who seem unlovable to us. He asks us to give up things we love. He asks us to abide by God's law even when it seems impossible. He asks us to give up much in order to follow him. And in return, he offers us God's love and eternal life. This is hard, hard stuff which should not leave anyone feeling self satisfied. If you feel you're a great Christian, you're probably doing it wrong. And this is what those who are so eager to label themselves "pastoral" these days need to remember. That Jesus was willing to talk to anyone, to eat with anyone, to love anyone, but that he also called us all to take up our cross and follow Him.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Immediate Book Meme: Sick Day Edition

photo by Evan Laurence Bench
There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

We are all in various stages of recovering from the flu and/or a cold, so there's been plenty of reading and watching going on.

1. What book are you reading now?

The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge.

The Four Cardinal Virtues, by Josef Pieper.

The First Four Notes, by Matthew Guerierri
About Beethoven's Fifth. Not always the lightest material, especially when it's covering various Enlightenment and Romantic philosophers, but the author's style is compulsively readable. And then you get gems like this.

1a. Readaloud

Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

2. What book did you just finish?

3. What do you plan to read next?

Christ's Body, Christ's Wounds: Staying Catholic When You've Been Hurt In The Church, by Eve Tushnet.

Letters of Love and Deception, by Emily C.A. Snyder.
A new collection of stories inspired by Austen, by playwright (and my college roommate) Emily Snyder.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, by Flannery O'Connor.

Essays on Woman, by Edith Stein.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

The Power of Silence, by Robert Cardinal Sarah.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, by Pope Benedict.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Nothing on my conscience at this particular second.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West. Our copy was a favor from Leah Libresco Sargeant's wedding reception, and it's been sitting on our library mantel waiting for an opening in the reading schedule.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Re-reads; books I've been given as gifts; WSJ reviewed books.


And an addition because I have some fine recommendations:

7. What are you watching?

Over the Garden Wall

A ten-episode series from Cartoon Network, about two brothers halfway through the journey of their life who find themselves in a dark wood. Chockful of storybook archetypes, fantastic voicework, and music in various shades of Americana (including some shapenote singing!). We received this as a Christmas gift and have watched it through three times already.

April and the Extraordinary World

A steampunk adventure story set in a world where the Franco-Prussian war never happened (yes, that’s actually a key plot element). Within the first five seconds my daughter sighed, "I  love this." Streaming on Netflix

The Long, Long Holiday (from the French: Le Grandes Grandes Vacances)

A five-episode series about children living in occupied Normandy during WWII. Tintin-style animation against lovely backdrops; exciting and poignant, but not too scary for children. The Canadian dubbing from the French provides some excellent accents. Streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Orphan Opening: Noir

As Helen unwrapped her solitary dinner from brown paper as greasy as the smile of the man who had taken her order the stale smell of half-cooled fish and fries filled the apartment. No welcome smells of home cooking, of mother's meatloaf and green bean casserole, for her. Not even the fresh sizzling smells of the corner tavern. But here at least she could eat in solitude, without the, "Looking for some company, sugar?" of the paunchy man in the gray suit she'd found sitting on her usual stool at the bar.

Pounding at the door. So much for solitude. She made sure the heavy chain was fastened. The old locksmith who had sunk long screws into door and frame had sworn that chain could hold a grown man, at least for the first few shoves. What recent stories might draw an unfriendly reaction? The teamster trial. The police captain whose suspect had beat and hanged himself. The city council elections. More pounding. What was the use? She undid the bolt and opened the door until the chain pulled tight.

There was a ghost on the doorstep. At least, there was Joe in a worn gray raincoat and dripping Homburg. The same Joe she had last heard from in '45, on a piece of war department stationary saying, "The Adjutant General of the Army has notified me that your husband, Cpl. Joseph F. Ward, died while on active duty with the Army. While I know that nothing I can say will lesson your loss..." It was in her file drawer now, along with the marriage certificate and the half completed paperwork for the divorce.

"They said you were dead."

"Lena. Please." The door chain went taught. His face was pale. He was leaning against the door, not trying to force it. "Please. I have to tell you."

She pushed the door closed enough to unlatch the chain, felt him stagger back, opened the door.

"All right. What do you want, Joe?"

He wavered for a moment on the threshold, then pitched forward onto the floor. The sound of his body hitting the floor was sickeningly dull, but she heard him give a long, ragged moan. She grabbed a shoulder and turned him over. He'd gained weight in the two years since the last time he'd died. His eyes were open and rolling. The smell of blood hit her first. When she pulled his coat open she saw the dark stain soaking his shirt.

"I came to tell you."

But then he didn't, even as she shook his shoulders and slapped his cheeks.

"Goddamnit, Joe." The words were unexpectedly thick in her throat. "It's like you to show up here and widow me a second time."

She went through his pockets before calling the police. Nothing. No wallet. No keys. Not so much as a laundry ticket. Someone else must have done the once over already, or he'd been concerned not to be traceable if picked up.

It was as she was on the phone with the police station she noticed the corner of white sticking out of one clenched fist. She pried his fingers open as she heard the sirens coming down the street. There was no time. They'd be at the apartment in a moment. Her purse sat on the little kitchen table, next to her cold dinner. She shoved the card between old pages of her reporters notebook and plunged it back into the purse. By the time the sergeant appeared in the doorway, stamping the wet and grime of the street off on the mat, Helen was back where a new widow belonged, next to the body.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Reader Sanity

I didn't realize until I went back to look for it how long ago it was I wrote my Reader Madness post about my struggling reader, or how many excellent responses on that post that I never acknowledged. Thank you! Thank you! I read every one of them and found much helpful advice.

As a result of a number of suggestions, I went and read up about dyslexia on various sites. The symptoms there were a mixed bag. The reading processing difficulties did seem to line up with my daughter's struggle. But the attendant symptoms, unrelated to reading, didn't match her behavior. Still, I thought, whether or not she has dyslexia proper, since her reading problems match dyslexia symptoms, I'll use dyslexia solutions.

I googled something like "reading program dyslexia" or "learning to read dyslexia" and took tips from blogs. I watched videos of kids following specific routines for learning words. I showed them to my daughter, who thought she would like to try working with words that way. So I found a list of 100 most common starter words, made flashcards for the first twenty, and we began with those.

Perhaps you are wondering why I don't provide links for all these resources. The main reason is that it was a while ago, and I don't remember exactly what sites I used. But also, searching was my friend. No one link I found was worse than the others, and the systems were very similar everywhere. There was no magic bullet site, and so it helped me to read around a bit and see what was out there.

When we did our word work, my daughter would pick a flashcard. She'd read the word if she knew it, or if she didn't I'd sound it out for her and then tell her what it was. She read it. She spelled it as she tapped each letter, and then underlined it as she said the word. She patted down her arm as she spelled the word and said it. She traced the word with the back of a pencil or pen. She wrote the word on a fresh page of her word notebook, and then checked to see if she was correct. Usually, she was.

We were very diligent with this for a time, but it is ever my personality to streamline systems and trim away the busy work. Not all those repetitions seemed to be necessary on every word, and then, and then, I found a way to reinforce words that she absolutely loved.

Dick and Jane.

Yes, citizens of the 21st century, my daughter is learning to read with a whole-word system which has been long abandoned by the greater educational community. Our readers are the reprints of the ca. 1965 series which added African-American children to the mix; the children play so happily and equally that you'd never know that racial tensions were coming to a great historical point in that era. (There's a picture where a white shoe salesman kneels in front of the black mother to help her try on shoes as her twin daughters play in the store.) My daughter knows all the letter sounds, the basic consonant digraphs, silent e, and some of the basic vowel digraphs. She sounds out very slowly, though not as slowly as when we first started. But there is excellent word reinforcement in Dick and Jane. You have a setup like so:

See Dick
See Dick run.

The second line immediately reinforces the first. This pattern is repeated often, for more complex sentences, especially when new words are introduced. My daughter likes it because it's an instant triumph. She learns the words on one line and gets them again right on the very next line. Her sight word knowledge has improved, and she is sounding out more effectively. She is delighted that she can read 50 pages in no time at all.

We also have the David and Ann books, from the Catholic series Faith and Freedom, which she tolerates. But it's Dick and Jane (and Spot and Puff and Sally and Pam and Penny and Tom and Pete and Mike) that she wants to read to me every night in bed

I don't dislike them. The pictures, which take on the narrative burden the simple text can't convey, are charming and have some interesting anthropological costume and setting details. (The David and Ann readers are even better for this, to my mind.) And I don't mind hearing the stories, because I love that my daughter wants to read to me. If I have to spend the next six months listening to Dick and Jane, I don't mind. We have years ahead of us to build up more proficiency. Reading is a skill for a lifetime.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Orphan Opening: Award

Back at the apartment, the important people gathered to congratulate him.

"What a night for you, Gillespie," said Johnson from Marketing, who'd always hated him. "Lifetime Achievement Award. Quite the banquet they threw, better than last year's do for Matthews."

"Maybe next year it will be you," said Gillespie, and Johnson, who felt that it should have been him this year, smiled in his sardonic way. 

Jean was mingling with the guests, her expensive body as much a testament to his success as the engraved crystal pyramid at the center of the table. Her laugh floated over the conversation.

"Yes, that was his son," she said to Lewis's wife. "They like to have a family member give out the award. I thought they'd ask me, but apparently Dylan volunteered."

"He looked so nervous," said Lewis's wife. "I was worried for him at first. Is he here now?"

"Dylan?" Jean's perfect red lips flattened. "No, he and his sister left immediately after he gave the award."

"Maybe Sarah was sick," said Tammy Andrews from HR, who had emceed the awards banquet for ten years. "I saw her waiting for Dylan backstage with their coats. I shook her hand and it was cold as ice."

"Maybe she was having a nervous breakdown," said Jean. "Someone told me she was crying. She's always been high-strung. Her mother is like that."

She moved off to eclipse some other woman.

"We should have a speech," bellowed Davies. "That boy of yours doesn't take much after you, choking in front of an audience. He started reading his notes three times, and in the end he just crumpled them up and said about three boring words. I'd have thought your son could deliver something a little more inspiring."

Gillespie had been disappointed in Dylan's bumbling performance, but he didn't intend to let Davies know that. "Short and sweet. These banquets go on too long anyway."

"Not long enough for you, surely," said Johnson. "Was that the paper he gave you along with the award? How touching -- a son's tribute to his father, too tender for public consumption. Let's have it now."

Gillespie fished in his pocket and pulled out the wrinkled page. Immediately Jean, sensing a chance to perform again, was at his side. 

"I'll read it!" she called to the crowd. As people gathered around, ready to be entertained, Jean got into character. She adopted Dylan's slouch and warmed up the crowd by parodying his awkwardness at the microphone. She held up the paper and took a deep breath, then clutched at her neck as Dylan had clutched his tacky wooden crucifix. Gillespie's snicker signaled to the group that it was okay to laugh. Paper, crucifix. Paper, crucifix, each time broader until the audience roared their approval.

"Read it already," someone howled.

Jean finally opened up the paper and read in Dylan's nasal voice. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I present my father with your company's Lifetime Achievement Award, given only to those whose performance demands the highest acknowledgement. Usually a standard list of career accomplishments is read off, but tonight I give you my father's true legacy. As you may know..."

Jean's voice faded out as she read down the page, an ugly line appearing between her brow.

"This is stupid," she said, with a force laugh. "It's Dylan's pathetic little idea of a joke." 

She made as to tear the paper, but Johnson was there to lift it from her hand. 

"Let me," he said. Jean stalked out of the living room down the hall, and as she shut herself in her room Gillespie heard the lock click. A flat feeling of disorientation held him in his place as Johnson's dry voice continued the monologue.

"As you may know, my father started an office affair when I was ten. When I was thirteen, he divorced my mother and married that woman. After six years he was ready to trade up again to a younger model, and so his second marriage ended. The unhappiness he has caused can barely be calculated. Every time my father looks at this award, I hope that he will remember that it signifies not only the esteem of his colleagues, but the women he's failed and the children who hate him and every promise he's ever broken.  This is for you, dad. You deserve it."

People left quickly after that, avoiding Gillespie's eye as they muttered their excuses. At the door, Johnson handed him back the paper.

"See you Monday," he said, and left.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Black Bottle Man

I was provided with a review copy of Black Bottle Man, by Craig Russell (2010, Great Plains Teen Fiction.)

Perhaps you're familiar with the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Bottle Imp, about a devilish bottle that gives the owner whatsoever his heart desires, at the forfeit of his soul. The catch -- there's always a catch! -- is that if the owner dies without selling the bottle for less than he bought it for, he goes straight to hell. Those who take on the bottle for greed or for a joke end up spending most of their time trying to find someone who will take on the burden and release their soul from bondage.

"What profits it a man," the Gospels ask, "to gain the whole world and lose his soul?"  The fool who thinks that the ends justify the means soon realizes that in this case, the means are the ends. The devil, in an extravagant parody of generosity, gives anything a bargainer asks for, as long as a soul is on the line. Once the deal is struck, the poor fool soon realizes that nothing is worth the price he's already agreed to pay. Any champion who might confront the devil on his behalf must be willing to stake his soul on the outcome, but who can defeat the devil at his own game?

Stevenson gave his tale the flavor of the Hawaiian islands he loved. In his novel Black Bottle Man, Craig Russell transposes the story to the northern plains of Canada and America. On the eve of the Great Depression, three families are torn apart when two of the wives use a mysterious black bottle in a desperate attempt to have children. The resulting deal with the devil drives their ten-year-old nephew Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson to lead a hobo existence, condemned to pull up stakes every twelve days as they travel the West seeking a champion who will fight the Black Bottle Man for all their souls. And in the course of their traveling, they discover a folk magic that seems drawn straight from a Tim Powers fantasy -- hobo signs that effect what they signify, a sacrament of the road.

Both the signs and the narrative voice serve the deeper qualities of the novel, a book which is unstinting in its moral landscape. Good and evil, selfishness and sacrifice, matter in this story. Choices have serious consequences -- and complicated consequences, in the case of the innocent children bought by twisted magic. The story is told in a wonderfully plainspoken Midwestern voice, rich in the sounds and smells and the feel of the land that Rembrandt wanders throughout his lifetime. And there is love too -- the love of husbands for their wives, the love of the old for the young, and the new, electric love of a teenage boy who knows he can never stay near his girl long enough to form a family of his own.

A few quibbles: the story jumps back and forth in a time in a way that paces the narrative, but I do wish that the present-day arc had been allowed more development. The backstory of a character who becomes important was rushed to the point of obliqueness, and surely the easy length of the book could have stood the weight of a few pages more devoted to the climactic battle the reader has been waiting for.

Still, these are minor points that shouldn't deter anyone from seeking out Black Bottle Man, especially since it's received some high praise from Julie D. of Happy Catholic. It's marketed as teen fiction, and this is where categories serve readers poorly; it's good fiction that involves a character who is a teenager at one point.

Amazon sells the Kindle version; the paperback can be bought from the publisher.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Busy Time of Life

It's quiet around the house at the moment. It's also a few minutes before midnight. That's when it gets quiet, which makes it a perfect time to write, if you don't need much sleep.

We've been going through a busy time. A good time. A happy time on the whole. But a busy time.

Some of this is caused by work. I've been at my company for a bit over five years, and I seem to be edging up towards promotion. That's great, but it means that suddenly I'm being asked to take on a lot of extra tasks. When I started, it was a struggle to convince many people that they needed to consult with the pricing team about what they were doing. Now I seem to have won that battle, and everyone wants pricing input. It's very gratifying, but it takes a lot of time. It's also a good reminder that if promotion does come one of these days, it's a bit of a mixed blessing. I've often noted that the people who are a level above me spend much, much more time working, traveling, and thinking about the company's problems than I do. Now I'm getting a small taste of that life, and I'd better decide if I like that flavor before I make any decisions that make it permanent.

However, the reason why things don't quiet down until nearly midnight is not because of work. The last year seems to have put us into the position of having a child at nearly every stage of life short of adulthood. Baby is a cheerful, burblely fellow, but he expects never to be set down. The walker and the bouncy seat are anathema to him, and why not, I suppose, when he has eight people who love to him take turns holding him. I saw some study recently that the amount of personal contact a baby has affects his intelligence and social adjustment later in life. If that's true, this fellow will be the most well adjusted genius on the planet. (Though really, we're a fairly average bunch around here, so I question that. I was no prodigy, and we do not seem to be rearing any either.)

And then we have the four year old boy who is bouncy as only a four year old boy can be, the emotionally tempestuous seven year old girl, the nine year old boy who is old enough to have interests but young enough to at times be a victim of his own overflowing energy and distraction, and the three older girls.

I don't know what I expected it to be like to have teenagers (a category into which I will lump the soon-to-be-twelve-year-old as she certainly passes for it.) I suppose I imagined versions of my own teenaged self, which honestly might have been hard to take. That is one thing they are not.

The oldest is closing on sixteen but has shown no great hurry in studying to get her learner's permit and start driving. She loves Pokemon, reads through lots of light science fiction and fantasy novels but can't get into Lord of the Rings, is embarrassed by kissing in movies, but is delightfully un-tempestuous in her own emotional life. There is the fourteen year old, who is hard to interest in the American history books which I've been so enthusiastically trying to share with her in her school this year, who loves to watch murder mysteries (preferably BBC) but falls asleep while watching action movies with her Marvel movie loving older sister, who needs always to have some big craft project going to keep herself happy and who does not feel secure unless there is a schedule and it involves doing something. And the third, nearly twelve, who like her next older sister can be emotionally tempestuous at times but has a passion for organization and neatness which causes her to want to write all of the math problems for a day's lesson in one third of notebook page (only answers, no work, because writing out the work is messy) and also leads her to compulsively organize the pantry every time groceries are brought into the house.

Some will warn you that when children become teenagers they no longer want to talk to you. This is not the vice of our young ladies, however. These girls want to talk: about their day, about their friends, about the latest musical they are all singing, about the annoying behavior of their younger siblings, about anything that passes through their heads. Often when this talking urge comes on them I'm just wishing I could sit down to write, but I don't have the strength of will to send them off and sit down to write novel. There's something so precious and engaging about this time, these people from us and yet wholly separate and different, and the fact that they want so very much to spend time and talk with us.

Even as I feel frustrated with my inability to keep up so many things I want or need to be doing with my time at home, I tell myself and feel that these are the golden years. Even as we dealt tonight with a sobbing child angry because she had to share a treat she was unexpectedly given with her siblings. Even as the four year old confided that he had soiled his pants. Even as the nine year old literally bounced off walls and counters and the baby wept whenever he was not held. These are the days when people are happy and healthy and all spats aside all love each other. We don't know how many days like this we will be given, but we try to be thankful for them even though they are exhausting.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: MrsDarwin Agonistes

There are little gifts that God gives you, touches of humility that remind you that only his grace suffices. One of these, for me, is being the sole adult in charge of ~40 eighth-graders at Confirmation class. If I had six, or ten, or fifteen students, I might deceive myself that the level of engagement or any spiritual growth in my class was due to my words or the sheer force of my personality. But with such a large group, in the infelicitous setting of the school cafeteria (in which even a not insignificant carrying voice can be eaten by the space), the only effective operator is going to be the Holy Spirit. This, for a teacher, is a veritable Litany of Humility, because it sure would be nice to feel like I, myself, was engaging the class and enlightening the mind.

The other side of that coin is being content to put the off days on the Holy Spirit as well, but I haven’t hit that point either.

With Confirmation being only two months out, I planned to talk about the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I found a tree graphic that I could hand out, on which the kids could write the gifts at the roots and the fruits in the branches. I I flipped through Matthew and wrote down a large selection of passages that we could examine to see how Jesus embodied the gifts of the Spirit, counting on having students look them up themselves. I wrote up a note to send home for next week’s service project. I borrowed my kids’ joke books for a halftime dad joke competition.

I did this and I did that, and I started my class and realized, partway in, that it was going to be one of those days.

Maybe not on the student end. It was a class ‘most like any other class, in which MrsDarwin talks a lot and busts that one guy who thinks he’s funny and tells someone to put away his phone and asks the girls to please direct their attention up here. But I could tell I was floundering. I didn’t have a whiteboard I was counting on. There was only one crate of twelve Bibles for the entire class. I could not get many people to allow that their confirmation saint had used the gifts of the Spirit. I gauged the mood and decided to pass on Biblical examples. One thing the kids seem to enjoy less than talking in class is looking up anything in the Bible.

“Do you even know anyone, here, now, in this town, that has any of the gifts of the Spirit?”

Hands stayed resolutely down.

“Good thing you’re being Confirmed!” I said. “Clearly, your high school is going to need people who have these gifts.” 

We moved on to my ace up my sleeve, the dad joke competition. You’ve seen the YouTube videos. Two people face off, armed with a list of groan-inducing jokes (all clean — that’s part of the dad joke ethos). The first one to crack up loses. It’s good clean fun.

I could only field about ten volunteers. Everybody else was content to spectate. We had some skillful straight faces, but the kids weren’t reading their jokes loudly enough to reach the back row. The activity I’d counted on for a good fifteen minutes of cheerful engagement was running out of steam, and even pulling up a couple of guys from the peanut gallery wasn’t doing it. In retrospect, I figure that I should have just made everyone take a turn, but I know that some kids feel very sensitive about being in the spotlight, and I do try to respect that.

We discussed next week’s service project: a toilet paper drive for the local free store. We’ll wrap individual rolls in plastic bags so that the free store can distribute them conveniently. 

“Imagine,” I said, “not even being able to afford toilet paper.”

No, that was the wrong thing for a group of 13-year-olds to imagine. 

With half an hour left, I was actively watching the clock. I was able to buy some time by answering questions about service hours and forms and turning in envelopes — procedural matters that have nothing to do with the core of the sacrament of Confirmation.

“Look, guys,” I said, “my kids don’t go to school.” Heads raised at this. (I heard a muttered, “We know”.) “That means,” I forged on, “that I don’t like busy work. So if we can fill the next fifteen minutes, I’ll dismiss you early.” Bargaining with students is admitting weakness, but a feeling of desperation was settling upon me. “So I’m going to ask you about a service project you’ve done, and I want you to tell me what gift of the spirit you drew on, and what fruit you saw from it.”

There are about five people in my class able to speak loudly enough to fill the space, so I ended up going from table to table, sitting with each group of 5-8 kids. It had the potential to be a fruitful small group, with one minor problem. Small group discussion is best facilitated with a chaperone for each group, keeping the conversation alive and on track. As I talked with each group, I could feel the rest of the room slipping away. Kids were getting up, pulling out phones, goofing around, throwing paper airplanes — that really happens! It’s not just in the movies! Just as I felt I was making some progress with one group, I’d need to put my foot down in another part of the room or send someone off to sit away from friends.

We made it through to 5:00, and most of the kids even listened when I asked them to push in their chairs and take their papers home. As I say, a normal class — nothing bad or unusual. But I was drained and unhappy and ended up at home stress-eating chips and salsa and drinking a gin and tonic to clear the lump growing in my throat. It’s too early in the year to have a crack-up. But Holy Spirit, send me a sign that any of this is taking root.

Later in the evening, I saw this meditation from Brandon Watson:
At His Baptism, the Father acknowledges His Beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. At the Transfiguration, the Father also acknowledges His Son. But on the Cross no acknowledgement comes, and the Son cries out in the anguish of it.
That’s exactly it. Even more so than the acknowledgment of the students, we long for acknowledgment from God, some sign that he is well pleased. How easy everything would be if at every moment we had the consolation of knowing that our work was prospering, or had prospered, or was going to prosper! It is, of course, a mercy to not be literally crucified at the instant of crying out for acknowledgment, and some comfort to remember that the Holy Spirit works as he wills, not as I will, but there’s no satisfaction of victory, of a job well done.

It’s an act of faith to start in again preparing for next week, this time with more crowd control built in. Eight more classes until we get a needed infusion of grace.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

No True Fallacy

A note on the "No True Scotsman" fallacy:

This fallacy consists of making an assertion about a group such as "No Scotsman would cheat at cards" and then defending the truth of the statement by reverse applying the claim to membership on the group. Thus:

"No Scotsman would cheat at cards!"
"On the contrary, Angus is a Scotsman and he was caught cheating at cards."
"In that case, Angus is No True Scotsman, for no true Scotsman would cheat at cards!"

It's important to realize that this is only a fallacious line of reasoning _if_ there is not logical between the original group and the claim made about it. For instance, there is no logical connection between being a Scotsman and refraining from cheating at cards.

However, if there is a logical connection between the group and the characteristic applied to it, no fallacy is incurred. For instance, "No good parents lock their child in a room and starve him for days." The phrase "good parent" does not identify some random demographic group, which might contain both some people who do imprison and starve their children and some who don't. Rather, 'good parent' is a group which definitionally would not contain such parents. If you imprison and starve your children, then you aren't a good parent.

Of course, at times the terms themselves will be in dispute. For instance, you'll often see the following exchange played out in the political realm:

"No devout Catholic can support abortion."

"But I'm a devout Catholic, and I support abortion!"

In a case such as this, what is at issue is the definition of "devout Catholic". It's not that the first person is indulging in the 'No True Scotsman' fallacy, but rather that the two people have different definitions of the term "devout Catholic". One person means "identifies as Catholic and feels strongly about it in some sense" while the other means "believe all the things that the Catholic Church teaches".

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sex and Truth

We wrote previously about NFP and Church Authority and also about NFP and Truth. In this final post in the series, we'd like to talk about sex: what it is and what it isn't.

There is some problematic thinking about sex which is common among a certain stripe of Catholic today, thinking which is in some ways a reaction to an equal and opposite set of errors that were common perhaps fifty years ago. What I mean by this is perhaps best summed up by a class on the Theology of the Body which MrsDarwin and I attended perhaps ten years ago. The speaker was an unmarried young woman who worked for the diocesan office of evangelization, and as she began the class she said: "There's no greater happiness that we'll ever experience, no greater love, than when we're united with God in heaven. And you know what thing on earth is the closest that we'll ever get to that perfect unity with God's love in heaven? When a husband and wife have sex. In fact, really, those of you who are married, I don't even know why you're here right now. You could be home having sex right now and experiencing God much more directly than you will here listening to me."

Let's give the young thing credit and assume that she knew not of what she spoke. MrsDarwin and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.

I'm glad that there has been good theological thinking and writing done over the last few decades looking at how the act of spouses having sex is not merely an expression of controlled lust or a way to have children, but a means of husband and wife physically expressing their love for each other and openness to the children who may come to them. John Paul II's book Love & Responsibility is particularly good and readable in this regard. The Wednesday Audiences collected under the title Theology of the Body proceed to incorporate this thinking in a wider understanding of the human person and it place within salvation history, but if you strictly wanting to read about how spouses deal with each other and with sex virtuous, I think that Love & Responsibility is more focused and readable.

However, like any useful and exciting line of thinking, people quickly began to take it too far. This isn't a fault of John Paul II's thought, and I don't want this post to be seen as a wholesale rejection of theology of the body. However, treating any good as the greatest good is wrong even if the good itself is genuine, and this is what I think we begin to see when people attempt to give sex a significance and power beyond its nature.

This becomes an issue when people then face the possibility that even as a married couple they may need to voluntarily abstain for a time from sex in order to avoid having having for children for a time. I've heard it argued, by people who believe that Catholic couples should be given permission to use artificial contraception in such circumstances, that it's wrong to ask a married couple to abstain from sex for a time because sex is the highest expression of married love. The analogy put forth in this case was that asking a married couple to abstain from sex for a time would be like asking a priest to abstain from saying mass.

So let's take a honest look at sex. Under the title of "having sex" fall acts which are (or in some cases simulate in sensation) the human reproductive act. Biologically sex has an inherently reproductive character. (If it didn't, we wouldn't be having these angst-ridden conversations stemming from people are worried about getting pregnant but still want to have sex.) However, it is also an intensely pleasurable experience and it provides a feeling of closeness between the couple. Looking at the place of sex in the natural world, this also fits with the reproductive nature of sex, in that young humans take a long time to rear and so closeness between the parents (not just at the time of conception but for many years afterwards) if of great importance to all involved.

In Catholic terms, these two aspects of sex are called its procreative and unitive dimensions. And these two aspects, the unitive and procreative, are what make sex such a powerful metaphor. This is, after all, the somewhat amazing thing from a religious perspective, that the thing we as a couple want to do in order to express our love for each other, can in the process of the physical expression of that love result in the creation of a new and unique human being. Our love can, metaphorically, be given human form as a person capable of acting and loving and being united one day with God in heaven as befits a creature made in the image of God.

And yet, for all that this makes sex a great metaphor for God's creative love that generates the world and all of us, let's also have a little realism about what sex is actually like. For starters, men and women in general, and individual spouses in particular, do not usually advance towards climax at the same speed or in the same way. Indeed, one of the ways in which both spouses need to show some generosity and love for each other in the way that they have sex is by taking into account that the other is often not going to be advancing simultaneously.

This need to think of the other and have consideration for them is in fact often talked about enthusiastically by theology of the body popularizers. It's pointed to as a way in which spouses being virtuous (and thus generous to each other) in their approach to the act of having sex itself results in better sex. This is true, in the basic sense that the couple will often have more fulfilling sex if each is conscious of looking after the other's needs. And yet, this is often simplified optimistically to something approaching a magazine headline in the checkout aisle" "more virtuous sex is more amazing sex!". True to a point, but one must also keep in mind our all-too-imperfect human bodies.  The fact is, no matter how determined you are to to be generous to your spouse, you cannot make your spouse come by sheer force of will. There will be times when you are quite simply, physically, out of sync: where one of you is much more easily aroused than the other, when you're not in the same mood, when things aren't just working. This isn't because you lack generosity or virtue, it's because our bodies are imperfect and they don't always do what we want them to do.

Add to this that while sex absolutely has a strong unitive dimension, the experience of it (like any extremely strong bodily sensation) has an isolating aspect as well. Sex at and near its climax is so bodily that one's awareness of the other is heavily filtered through one's own sensation. The end result of having had sex is usually a sense of profound unity, but only after passing through stages in which the sensations of one's own body far outweigh the awareness of the other. After all, it is because the most intense aspects of sex are experienced oneself that sins such as pornography, masturbation, and prostitution have such a draw. While they may not offer the full experience of being united with another in passion, they do easily provide enough of the individual enjoyment of sex to be sought after.

What does this have to do with anything? My aim here is not to run sex down or suggest that it's not an important part of marriage. Indeed, the Church considers sex to be an important enough part of marriage that you cannot validly contract a Catholic marriage if you are physically incapable of having sex.

However, I do think it's important to have some realism about sex in order to develop a proper understanding of what it does and does not mean for a couple to have to be moderate at times in their sexuality. Sex is not the only way that a married couple can show love to each other. Indeed, at some times it is not even the best way to show love for each other. And while only a married couple can morally have sex, that does not mean that they must or can have unlimited sex without consideration for any other factor once they are married.

When we marry, we promise to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. That promise will almost certainly mean periods during which sex is not good, healthy, or perhaps even possible. People should keep this in mind before making arguments like, "NFP is an occasion of sin for some couples. Sometimes they just have to use contraception because otherwise the husband is going to end up using porn or being unfaithful." I was appalled some years ago when I read a piece about marital infidelity in which the author said a common time for a man to become unfaithful was right after his wife had had a baby. How could anyone do that? And yet that is a period during which the wife physically needs to heal for several weeks before being ready to have sex again, and at the same time has much of her attention taken up by an engaging little creature who is not her husband.

Virtue is a habit to the good. If a couple finds it impossible to abstain from sex for periods of time without falling into all sorts of vices in order to give release to their 'needs', it quite honestly sounds like their attachment to sex has become un-virtuous. This doesn't mean that it's a problem to like sex, or that it's sinful in and of itself to miss it and feel a certain frustration when you have to abstain for a time. But something which drives you to serious sin when you lack it is something you are enslaved to. And no matter how good a thing is, we are not meant to be enslaved to our pleasures. If we are at any risk at all of developing that sort of vicious attachment to sex, which should be an expression of love rather than of addiction, some conscious schooling in self denial and detachment is very much needed.

And this is where we see the problem with taking sex as symbol of God's creative love too literally. Is there symbolism? Yes. It is an act of love which is fruitful and brings for new life. But when we're enjoying sex, particularly in the way which leads people to say that it's impossible for them to abstain for a time when they desire not to conceive, we're not enjoying it as a reflection of God's love. We're enjoying it as a very intense bodily sensation. We're enjoying it for what it does for us.

None of our pleasures should own us. Although sex is absolutely a good for a married couple, it must not be allowed to become a god, and to avoid that we must treat it with the moderation with which we would treat all other goods.

MrsDarwin: The first commandment says, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." Only God is God. Only he fulfills every desire of the human heart. No creation can do this. Sex cannot do this, no matter how virtuous the marriage and admirable the spouses. A spouse cannot do this, no matter how holy and generous and wise. At some point in every marriage, the spouses, whether fertile or infertile, providentialist or abstinent, no matter their temperament or character or suitability, must accept that the other cannot meet their every need. Our hearts are such that only God can fill them.

Sex is an essentially marital way of showing love -- not that marriage consists of sex, but that sex is only licit within marriage. But the sacrament is more than sex. Sex is procreative, yet not every instance of sex will result in procreation -- due in part to the cyclical nature of a woman's fertility. Sex is unitive, but many instances of sex provoke disunity. A couple desperate to conceive can find that the burden of sex makes the act divisive and unsatisfactory. A couple out of physical sync, or with differing levels of stamina and health, can end up in two radically different states, a deeper divide than the mutual longing of abstinence. This is not necessarily because of sin -- in fact, a couple trying to avoid the stimulating effects of pornography or fantasy can end up, in the short term, less satisfied than those who resort to those aids.

The fact that marriage is a sacrament means that grace is essential to it. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that there are times in marriage in which only grace will suffice, even for the happiest marriage. Casti Connubi states
61. ...There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. This truth of Christian Faith is expressed by the teaching of the Council of Trent. "Let no one be so rash as to assert that which the Fathers of the Council have placed under anathema, namely, that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe. God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you."[48] [emphasis added]

62. This same doctrine was again solemnly repeated and confirmed by the Church in the condemnation of the Jansenist heresy which dared to utter this blasphemy against the goodness of God: "Some precepts of God are, when one considers the powers which man possesses, impossible of fulfillment even to the just who wish to keep the law and strive to do so; grace is lacking whereby these laws could be fulfilled."
As anyone who has lived a millisecond of the Christian life can attest, grace does not mean that living virtuously automatically becomes easy. It simply becomes possible, regardless of our feelings about it. Fertility does not cease be a blessing even when it becomes a burden; it does not cease to be a burden simply because it is a blessing. Acknowledging the procreative nature of sex, whether through trying to conceive or by abstaining in a fertile period, does not necessarily feel less daunting because it is an exercise in honesty. God's grace has a way of revealing to us the parts of ourselves that we'd rather hide: a desire for gratification, the need to cling to illusions of control, the emptiness we try to fill with the admiration or desire of the other. The physical stripping down of sex is also a metaphor for the spiritual stripping down of marriage, in which you are not enough for me and I am not enough for me, but only his grace is enough for me.

Since as humans we do not actually have any control, no matter the means used, over whether a particular act of sex will result in conception, all we can do is to be faithful to God in the moment. Sometimes that moment calls for abstinence when sex would be more satisfying. Sometimes that moment calls for openness when isolation would be more comfortable. Sometimes there's a glorious joy when all things work together for the good for those who love him, and every touch seems inspired, and God's good will is the only desired consequence. What we must not do is decide that the insufficiencies of his grace can somehow be overcome by a condom. If we fail, we fail; the sacrament of Confession is for us sinners. But claiming that rendering sex sterile is not a sin, not in this case, not in my circumstances, if only you knew, is a spiritual setback to sub-Eden levels. Adam and Eve at least wanted to be like God and know good from evil; how embryonic our spiritual state to want to have the control of God and yet not want to know good from evil? 

Monday, January 15, 2018

History in our Library

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a piece from the archives about how our house links us with the Freedom Riders.

The previous owner of our house was the former dean of the local Methodist seminary, a man who was active in the civil rights movement and rode with the Freedom Riders. Tonight, going through some of the books that had been left in the house, I saw a folded paper peeking out of a tome entitled Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65and opened it to find a facsimile of a letter. 
Delaware, OH
September 20, 1963


We the students and faculty of the the Methodist Theological School in Ohio are among your many brothers in Christ who were deeply shocked and appalled by the brutal bombing of your church and killing of your children this past Sunday.

Our shock has been mixed with guilt, for we are part of a large body of professing Christians who have been slow to rise to the call of our faith and cry out against injustice, inhumanity, and oppression. We know ourselves to be among the many whose silence has led to your suffering. We therefore ask your forgiveness as we pray for God's.

Knowing of some of your immediate needs we have collected gifts of money which we are sending to the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, whom we were privileged to have among us for a short time a few months ago and to whom we confidently entrust the employing of these funds where he sees the need as greatest.

We would not, however, salve our consciences by sending such gifts. While we were already active in the struggle for freedom and justice for all, we have, since last Sunday's tragedy, rededicated ourselves to this task and redoubled our efforts to break through every wall of silence and separation, of fear and hatred, of apathy and unconcern. For we are determined -- praying that God may hold us to and guide us in our resolve -- that your children shall not have died in vain.

Walter R. Dickhaut, Jr., President
Student Association

Van Bogard Dunn, Dean
The Methodist Theological School in Ohio
On a hunch, I flipped to the index of the book, and as I suspected, there was an entry for Dunn, Van Bogart, on page 271. 
On March 29 (1964), seven white theology professors and two Mississippi Negroes approached Capitol Street Methodist Church of Jackson for the Ester morning service. "That's far enough -- no end runs," announced the spokesman for a line of ushers interposed on the front steps. A standoff ensued. "I guess you'll have to arrest us," concluded Rev. Van Bogard Dunn, dean of Methodist Theological School in Ohio. While being led away toward a sentence of six months' jail and a $500 fine, Dunn got the commanding officer to say that police would have taken no action without the explicit request of the church ushers. The reply was legal grist for Jack Pratt of the National Council of Churches, who planned to argue on appeal from paragraph 2026 of the Methodist Church Discipline that no Methodist church could ban interracial worship on legitimate religious grounds.
Many of the books left here (and there were many left) contain notes tucked inside or a review of the work clipped from the newspaper, or cards marking the book as a gift. The Dunns were great readers and inscribers, and many of the books were dated on their receipt. I had been gathering up a number of volumes that were of no personal interest to Darwins, but now I see I'm going to have to flip through each book, which means I'll be sucked into reading most of them, and the library shelves aren't going to get lighter any time soon. 

(You may remember one of our previous finds from the library, which involved a minie ball of ill repute.)