Viva il papa

My heart is in Rome today.

I feel a little silly, fighting back tears as I watch CNN. The papal helicopter is taking off. How odd, to feel such a personal connection to a man thousands of miles away, who doesn’t know that I exist, who was my papa for eight years.

I keep returning to that moment, in October 2006, standing in St. Peter’s Square during a Wednesday audience, when he smiled and took my hand in both of his as his ‘pope mobile’ went by. I won’t trivialize the encounter by attempting to relive the emotions I underwent then. It is just such a blessing to have something tangible to hold on to and go back to as the world watches the leader of my Church step down.

A very holy friend of mine (now in seminary) once shared a personal reflection on the fifth joyful mystery of the Rosary—the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple. He said the mystery provides an opportunity to learn detachment. The mystery recalls Mary undergoing the first pangs of separation from her son. She says to him, “Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been seeking you, sorrowing.”

I didn’t understand this reflection at the time. In fact, I resisted it. Isn’t closeness to Jesus the whole point and goal of the Christian life? Why would he separate himself from anyone, least of all his mother?

I won’t say I understand it now, but it becomes clearer in bits and pieces as I continue the slow slog into adulthood. I’ve learned it over the years from various friends grown distant; or as I watch sisters and girlfriends get married; in saying final goodbyes to some of those closest to my heart; as my family members continue to move across the country in pursuit of their own lives. And now Pope Benedict has provided me with yet another lesson in detachment. Ultimately, the man in the office of the papacy must guide the Roman Catholic Church as the vicar of Christ—not as the shepherd and father of the faithful in his own right. The man Benedict is only a man. The next pope will be just as much vicar of Christ, just as much shepherd of souls, just as much my papa.

For today, I’m going to be a little bit sad. Saying goodbye is always sad. But letting go is part of the Christian life. It’s part of dying to self in order to live in Christ.

May God bless Benedict XVI abundantly in his prayer-filled retirement. May he guide the Church as we look toward the conclave, and may His Holy Spirit direct the choice of our next Pontiff. Whoever he may be: Viva il Papa!


‘Niceness’ isn’t a virtue

Everything I need to know about the real world, I learned from Fr. Mastroeni.

It was the first day of my freshman year, and I had been condemned — er, assigned — to this diminutive Italian priest’s Catholic Doctrine course. Theology 101. Older students looked at my class schedule and turned a little green. “You have him for Theology?” And then they’d collect themselves and clear their throats and say, “Oh, well. You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.”

He had skin like leather and black hair, spidery black eyebrows, and spiky black hairs that jutted out of his nose and ears. During classes he slurped black coffee from a travel mug, and his cassock rustled as he paced back and forth, back and forth while he lectured. On the coldest winter days he’d order the students at the back of the room to open the windows.

“Get some air moving in here!” he’d yell, and then grin as we huddled into our coats and breathed on our frozen fingers so we could take notes.

He threw around platitudes like candy at a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade.

“Throwing away your notes from class is like throwing away your heritage!”

“Living the spirit of poverty doesn’t mean buying lots of cheap stuff. It means making what you do buy count for a long time.” (He once lectured us for a good ten minutes on the art of buying the perfect pair of shoes.)

But perhaps his greatest lesson, repeated countless times over the course of that semester and the following, was this: “‘Niceness’ isn’t a virtue!” He would throw up his hands as he said it and stare at a spot on the ceiling while the words echoed around the basement classroom.

I was taken aback by this at first, but it sank in over time. In many ways, it’s still sinking in. Two weeks ago I hung up the phone at my desk and sat on my hands, which were shaking uncontrollably. I’d just received the angriest voicemail I’ve ever heard, from a man who does not know me and never will, calling me hateful and un-Christian because I had had the audacity to lay out the Christian opinion on the homosexual lifestyle in an op-ed. I thought, with a rueful laugh, “At least Fr. Mastroeni would be proud.”

There is no virtue in hiding behind “niceness” when you’re faced with the atrocity of sin. “Nice” wants everyone to get along, shuns confrontation, and looks the other way in the face of real ugliness. A prime example: abortion. A dear friend of mine spends her Saturday mornings outside a local abortion clinic, approaching women on their way into the facility and offering them literature and information on alternatives. Somehow she manages to do so with a smile, even when these same women respond with cruel words and ugly gestures. She is charitable and kind, but she is not nice. She  looks evil in the face and calls it what it is. That’s virtue.

Or consider the raging gay marriage debate that will be picking up steam in the coming months. People tend to stand way back from this issue. Most of us know and love people who are gay. We recognize their struggles and, if we’re fair, we acknowledge that the way we Christians are asking them to live (celibate) goes beyond what most of us plan (or hope) to do in our lives. Even those of us who are single now can look forward to a happy, healthy marriage. What will that marriage offer? Stability, family, love, intimacy — those good, human things we’re all wired to yearn for. Most of us fear the possibility of ending up alone. Your heart should break for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction and all that they may have to give up in order to live virtue.

But the reality remains that gay marriage goes against the natural law, and it goes against God’s law. Let’s put it in simple terms: God made man and woman, and he made sex between a man and a woman to bring about children. That’s what marriage is for. We can’t blink at that because we’re uncomfortable with it. Instead, we need to be more fervent than ever in loving our gay friends and family members, and we need to look as a culture at the ways in which we define love and intimacy. Does a life without marriage have to mean a life lived alone? Why do we allow it to be that way, if so? We have set up sex as an end to be achieved, a good in and of itself. That thinking is screwed up. Love can be expressed in multiple, beautiful ways that are not sexual. Just look at the two holiest, most loving people who ever lived: Jesus and his mother. They were both celibate.

Over the last two years, a constant theme of this blog has been community. How can we create structures of community for those who, as Jesus says in the gospel, are unable to marry? (See Matthew 19:12.) That should be our challenge and our work, not hiding from the issue because we don’t want to hurt feelings. Niceness in this case gets nothing done, and there are souls on the line.

In short, niceness weighs the pros and cons and determines that it’s more important to be comfortable (and well-liked) than it is to fight to save souls.

Niceness isn’t a virtue.

Sometimes life isn’t comfortable or safe. We’ve made a virtue out of safety, and we’ve forgotten that the Christian life is a battle. There is a daily battle being waged for every individual soul, and it’s our responsibility to pitch in. Eternal lives are on the line.

I’m writing this as the world’s most confirmed coward. I can barely confront my roommates about minor areas of housekeeping, and I live in utter terror of being disliked. I have never dreamed of battles or glory, my one experience firing a gun made my knees knock for about an hour afterwards, and the very idea of “resisting to the point of shedding [my] blood” makes my hair stand on end.

Regardless of what I like or what makes me comfortable, though, there remains the stark reality that niceness can’t ever be a virtue because life simply isn’t nice. Be kind. Be loving. But resist the urge to succumb to easy, comfortable niceness in living the Christian life.

And thank God for good friends who provide love and support when the battle gets rough, for loving families who train us in the way we should go, and for wise teachers who give us the lessons that prepare us to face the realities of an often harsh and supremely not-nice world.


Guest Post: What day is it? It’s Valentine’s!

This guest post comes courtesy of my sister. Whether your care about Valentine’s Day or not, it’s a good reminder for every day: Where there is no love, put love, and there you will find love. 

By Sarah Baker

(This post originally appeared here. But my sister’s pretty cool, and she said I could borrow it.)

Any of my friends or family will tell you that I abhor Valentine’s Day. And they’re partly right. I’ve said so every single year since…ever.

donkey valentineBut I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year. It’s just a day. One day out of 365 days on the calendar. It’s the feast day of a great Catholic martyr, St. Valentine. And it’s a day to celebrate love, which is a beautiful thing. So why on earth am I so vehemently against it?

After some serious introspection and personal reflection and prayer, I’ve come to the conclusion that the feelings I have against it are purely selfish: I am bitter.

I’m bitter about never having gotten flowers or chocolate or gifts from anyone (other than my Mom, who is the best Mom in the world!*).

I’m bitter about never having been on a romantic dinner date with the love of my life.

I’m bitter about the fact that while my friends are out having love showered upon them I am at home (or usually at work covering for them so they can go on their dates) feeling lonely and unloved.

And then I had a major catharsis: I am the biggest hypocrite that ever lived. I am wallowing in self pity because I feel unloved, but what am I doing to love others? How can I expect to feel loved if I am unwilling to give love away? The funny thing about love is this: The more you give, the more you receive in return. My personal hero, Blessed Teresa of mother-teresa-picture-12Calcutta, said it best: “I have found the paradox: that we must love until it hurts; then there is no more hurt, only love.”

And a further cathartic moment led to this realization: I may not have received Valentines from human men, but every single day I am blessed with the gift of life and the ability to see the beauty of the world I live in.

I may not go on romantic dinner dates, but every single day I have the ability and blessing to attend Holy Mass and receive Christ, the King of my heart, into my very body, into my soul.

I am alive and I am healthy. I like to think I’m intelligent, and I know that I am beautiful because I am exactly how my Creator made me. I am surrounded by family and friends. I’d say all of that is reason enough to believe that I am loved.

So with all these amazingly lovely feelings welling up inside me, I made a decision. This year I won’t let Valentine’s Day get me. I will go on a “date” with Jesus in the form of Holy Mass and a holy hour. I will get dressed up for no reason other than to make even more beautiful the physical body God gave me and delights in. I will go and see a movie, even if it is by myself. And I will make sure to tell my friends and family how much I love them regardless of the Valentine’s well-wishes I get.

Because at the end of the day it matters not what others do for me, but what I do for them. Isn’t that what loving others is really about? It’s not the emotions or the warm fuzzy feelings associated with those we love, it’s the decisions we make to place them before ourselves and to think of their needs and desires first.

So to all my friends and readers, and especially those of you who are also single, let’s try to make this a selfless holiday, in which we embrace the true meaning of love and make a conscious effort to give that love to those around us.

It’s like your own personal Valentine’s Day challenge.

I dare you.

Sarah Baker is a nurse living in Texas, who blogs at How to Survive Online Dating.

sacred heart

*LifeintheGap heartily concurs.

The week in review

In the interests of time, ability, and just plain old Monday blues, the following post is brought to you news bulletin style.

  • My car got towed for the first time in my life yesterday. If you’ve ever had this happen to you, then you know. There’s nothing quite so odd as walking to the place where you know you left your vehicle, and finding it very decidedly not there. I could hear the wind whistling and see the tumbleweeds bouncing across the lot. Thank goodness I wasn’t alone, or I probably would have lost it right there, in the middle of an abandoned Arlington parking lot. Have I mentioned that Arlington parking is the worst in the world? ImageIn the past six months, two parking tickets and now this. I obey signs, too, so don’t laugh. The trouble is, there are no signs. They hide them. On purpose. I would have been humiliated facing the woman behind the trailer window in the impound lot, except that she had a mullet. Who can be ashamed in front of a grown woman with a mullet? No one.
  • ImageI had a birthday and turned an unspecified age. Don’t ask, it’s rude. The key point here is not how old I am, but how loved. Seriously, thanks so much for all the text messages, emails, Facebook posts, phone calls, and what have you. I’m so blessed.
  • Lent is almost here. Does anyone else get nervous before Ash Wednesday? I always dread it, the same way I dread jumping into a cold body of water. Once you’re in it’s fine, but that initial chilly plunge…the very thought induces a shudder.
  • On a completely serious note, while I’m trying to be understanding, I can’t shake my own selfish sorrow over the pope’s announced resignation. Father mentioned it before the opening prayer at this morning’s Mass, and I kept hoping my ears were still adjusting to being awake or something. It’s like being told your grandfather just stepped down from his role in the family. Of course I want him to rest and I am in complete agreement that he ought to be able to fulfill his duties, but there’s the little kid in me that’s still got to get over the initial fear/fury at being abandoned. May God bless him abundantly in these next months, and give us the proper new Pontiff.


Guest Post: Love is perfecting–but don’t insist on ‘perfect’

Guest Post #2: A fun and literary look at love, idealism, and how accepting the less-than-perfect isn’t “settling”–it’s what love is all about.

You can read the original here.

By Ellen Turner

It’s an age-old question: How are we supposed to draw the line between making an ideal out of love and our beloved, and being a cynic about the impossibility of love?

Are we supposed to believe all the poems and songs and movies that talk about how powerful it is, how eternal it is, how transforming and beatific it is?

Or, if we see other people who believe all that, perhaps we should shake our heads and say, wow, you poor dumb suckers, and walk away as the “sadder but wiser” participants in the game.

I suppose I’m not the only one to wonder, as countless books throughout history have had quite a bit to say on the subject.

A couple of years ago, I directed Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s about a man everyone thought to be outstanding and perfect, intelligent and kind, who turns out to have a less-than-perfect past. His wife is a woman of high moral character and unyielding principles. When she discovers his history, it almost destroys their marriage. The scene of discovery has some of the most poignant lines of the play, words that choked me up almost every time I heard my students deliver them.

an_ideal_husbandLady Chiltern: You were to me something apart from common life, a thing pure, noble, honest, without stain. The world seemed to me finer because you were in it, and goodness more real because you lived. And now — oh, when I think that I made of a man like you my ideal! the ideal of my life!

Sir Robert Chiltern: There was your mistake. There was your error. The error all women commit. Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals?  … Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. (43-44, Dover Thrift Editions)

Certainly, we can agree with Sir Robert that women make ideals of men. Young women are in love with love, and, when they find an object (and I say “object” though I am talking about a man, for he is functionally an object in the worst of these cases) which can supposedly carry the weight of all their fairy tales, well, they get used to the idea that this is it. This is “the perfect guy,” the one who will “make all their dreams come true.”

It’s natural that every woman should assume that she will be the one to have the perfect life, because really, with any amount of self-respect, we recognize that we are worthy of perfection and so expect that we will have it. That’s a good thing, stemming from a sense of our dignity and worth and our privileged place in creation. And when we find that guy who makes the world seem like a better place, a finer world, who makes goodness seem more real merely by the fact of his existence, it’s easy to get carried away and decide that yes, here is the perfection for which I was made.

But it’s a two-way street; men are not immune from making ideals of the women they love. For instance, the concept of medieval love, which was by no means localized or specific to a certain place or story, was all about the man pedestalizing a woman he didn’t actually know. Think about Dante and Beatrice, or Arcite and Palamon falling in love with Emily in The Canterbury Tales.

For a little more development on this idea, let’s look at Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Why did he ever fall for a flake like Daisy, anyway? Perhaps I’m being too harsh with her, but given the outcome of the book, I have very little energy to spend on pity. (If you haven’t read it: it ends very sadly.) Perhaps she had been more equal to him in her younger years, but, based on the following passage, I don’t think she ever deserved him. Here the narrator recounts the moment that Gatsby first kissed Daisy, shackled himself to a mortal, and limited his godly potential:

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his l ips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. (112, Scribners, 1953)

He’s completely gone over her, and shapes his whole life, where and how he lives, in order to pursue her and win her back, years after this moment, years after she was married to someone else. She is “perishable,” yet he gives up his incredible potential, for indeed he is a man of great talent and intelligence, to join himself with this mortal, white-faced girl.

Certainly, she is beautiful. And certainly love requires sacrifice. But he gave up everything for her, remade himself. He makes himself a slave to a woman unworthy of his great devotion, his star-struck love, and is killed because of it. Meanwhile, she lives without outward consequence for the harm she has done, the evil she has inflicted.

I think it’s safe to say most of us fall in love more than once. It would be glorious if each of us could end happily with the first person we fell in love with, and never have the distraction or memory of someone else who might at odd and unexpected times come back to our consciousness. But, for most of us, that isn’t realistic. And should we really hold it against someone else if they also have loved someone else before they loved us? Maybe a little healthy jealousy in love is, well, healthy.

Making ideals of the man or woman we love doesn’t end well for them, and it doesn’t end well for us. Pedestalizing and idolizing mere humans sets them up to fall short of our expectations. It sets them up for failure, andit also sets us up to blame and perhaps hate them for it when it was really our fault in the first place.

Does this mean that we have to throw up our hands and embrace a life of celibacy, because really, why should we put ourselves in a less than ideal situation? Why commit to something we know will only end in imperfection? Let’s hold out for that perfect situation, we think, whatever it might be. That’s what we’re worth, after all.

But, hold on. As Charles Ryder puts it in that most brilliantly and subtly Catholic of all Catholic novels, Brideshead Revisited, “To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.”

So, if that really is the root of all wisdom, perhaps it’s something we should contemplate doing. And if we should contemplate doing it, how on earth can we do it without lowering our self-respect by accepting something less than perfect, without lowering our standards, and without hurting either ourselves or the person we allow ourselves to love?

Real human love doesn’t mean perfection on earth — of course we were intended for perfection, and of course we should never abandon that goal, never forget the dignity and the beatification of the perfection that is our birthright. But human love, in its best form, is a perfecting force. Because it is human, it is flawed. Because those participating in it are human, they are flawed.

If you can look at a fellow human squarely and honestly, and, like Robert Chiltern said, love them despite their flaws and their shortcomings and perhaps sometimes because of the peculiarities of character that those flaws lend them — if you can look at them like that and still decide that they are worth it, then you might, one day, actually achieve that share in divinity. Love is a perfecting force.

The best love sees somebody for what they are, and, though content with that, tries to help them to become the most worthy version of themselves. Love sees the actuality and the potential, and is not solely focused on either one.

Ellen Turner is a high school teacher-turned-editor in DC. Her blog is Taking Back Our Brave New World.