Month: October 2014

“Barefoot in the Park” Lessons for the SYNOD ’14

I’m not in the habit of taking life lessons from ’60s movies, especially not ones starring Jane Fonda. But Barefoot in the Park is an exception: I think for Catholics struggling with all the news about the Synod on marriage and the family can take a lesson from this odd little movie about marriage and family. At a climactic moment, Robert Redford’s character, a lawyer, turns to his newlywed wife Jane Fonda in the middle of their first real marital spat, at 2 AM,  and attempts to cool the rising argument with a calm warning: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in court, it’s this: be careful when you’re tired and angry. You may say something you’ll regret. I am now both tired and angry.”

This doesn’t just apply to marriage, but to human persons in general—that’s how we work, in any relationship, including relationships among human persons within the Church. Dismissive slips of the tongue, sharp-toned criticisms, heedless insensitivity, or harsh judgments rise easily to the surface of our conscious speech when the normal filters of prudence and patience have been worn down by frustration, exhaustion, or even irritability.

We often say things in the heat of the moment that we regret afterwards. In a world charged by constant frenetic activity and powered by instant communications media, taking the time for proper introspection is easily neglected. Much, much too easily neglected. In the current furor over what the Synod has (or hasn’t) said, I think Barefoot in the Park‘s lesson of patience and prudence in speech is one that Catholics of every stripe would do well to take to heart.

In modern communications, we have a tendency to react very quickly; to make declarative judgments on third-hand info before we know all the details. It takes about twenty seconds to see a Synod headline (calculated by media-ites to rock the boat, because that’s their bread and butter), skim the article without dissecting it for what kernel of truth it may contain, and reshare it on Facebook. It takes about ten seconds to skim the comment of someone who disagrees, and formulate a dissenting reply.  The Church moves at eternal speed, not at human speed. But we react (and overreact) at lightening speed to everything the Church does.

The Synod, or some people within the Synod, produced a document, and the media released an avalanche of over-reactive reporting, which in turn generated an immediate and frantic response from Catholics and non-Catholics of all kinds. And, lo and behold, barely a week later headlines have flip flopped wildly in varying directions, stirring up similar flailing reactions from Catholics across the world (and across the web).

Why? Because we’re all tired and angry. We’re tired of the controversy over the Church’s stance on gay marriage. We’re tired of being entrenched in a war we know we’re losing with a media gone blind and deaf to eternal truth. We’re tired of telling everyone on all sides hyped up by the controversies that no, really, the Church isn’t going to change her stance on anything. (Really. Just believe us, we know what we’re talking about.) We’re angry over the misrepresentation; the media is angry we can’t just get with the times, or at least give them better headlines.  We’re angry at reports that lobby groups might be rigging the Synod. We’re impatient with the cardinals, we’re impatient with the Pope, we’re tired of the media kerfuffle that ensues every time a Catholic with a collar opens his mouth.

Here’s a thought—let’s wait five years. Let’s wait until the dust settles, the tempers cool down, and the media memory starts to collectively fade. It’s going to be quite some time before the Synod is actually finished, and even more time before it releases its official documents (not just an interim “report”). So whether you dislike Synods in general, are anxious over the Pope, annoyed by the Cardinals, or just terribly confused, just take a minute or two—or a year or two—to cool down and see what happens, to see if anything has really changed (and therefore really needs all this attention).

I’m not recommending we all ignore the Synod and go walking barefoot in the park like Robert Redford. But, hey, let’s be careful what we say about the Synod when we’re tired and angry.

photo credit: cns


Love Is Here to Stay

On Brittany Maynard and George Gershwin 

In 1938, George Gershwin, gifted composer and songwriter with his brother Ira, died at a tragically young age of brain cancer. His death was sudden, and Ira was devastated. George had left one song melody to which Ira had not yet written the words. When he finally sat down to write them, he entitled it, “Love is Here to Stay.”

In the sentimental lyrics, it’s easy to hear the echoes of Ira’s grief as he copes with George’s death. Most renditions don’t include the intro, but it speaks poignantly of a search for stability in a tragic world:

photo credit: wmky

The more I read the papers
The less I comprehend
The world and all its capers
And how it all will end.

Nothing seems to be lasting—
But that isn’t our affair
We’ve got something permanent,
I mean, in the way we care.

The song then enters its main theme, the theme of everlasting love:

It’s very clear,
Our love is here to stay
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies
And in time they go—
But oh, my dear, our love is here to stay. . . .

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble;
They’re only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.

Of all the songs the brothers wrote together, this posthumous one touches the most powerful truth: that human beings, in the midst of suffering, want a love that doesn’t end. They don’t want a world that constantly changes, that gives only to take away, a pain-filled world that crumbles around us leaving us empty and longing for something permanent. It’s hard enough to cope not only with “the world and all it’s capers,” but, like Ira Gershwin, with a more personal—we can even say, more painful—loss. Even surrounded by a disintegrating world, the human heart finds solace in the permanence of love and in knowing that love makes perseverance through suffering valuable.

Yet, not everyone sees value in suffering with love. For some, love is a many-splendored but totally temporal thing, which suffering renders impotent and death cuts off with finality. To them, heartache, pain, and suffering are simply to be avoided at all costs, and ultimately an invitation to despair.

I was reminded of this sadder perspective when I encountered the recent buzz over another individual suffering from brain cancer—Brittany Maynard, a woman who has very publicly decided she would rather commit suicide than accept suffering for herself or her family. Her response—at root a pitiable but also selfish one—stands out in particular contrast, for me, with the other people I know who have battled similar illnesses.

One woman, Elise, who is battling breast cancer, has five children, one of them an infant, and is facing this battle with a radically different attitude: an attitude of loving trust, of confident surrender to the Providence of God. Or I think of Andre, a 14 year old hero, who lived every day of his short life to the fullest even though he spent his final years suffering in a hospitable bed with a very low “quality of life.” His suffering, his sacrifice, his courage and joy, and especially his faith in God, fundamentally impacted—even sanctified—the people around him.

This is the difference: people like Brittany see no value in suffering that is offered up in love, but people like Andre and Elise really live their belief in a loving God who can bring goodness out of the worst heartache or most devastating medical diagnoses. They really live the love only hinted at in the sweet 1930s love song—that real and perfect love, the love of God, which is here to stay. It is a permanent, life-changing event, in the face of which death and suffering have lost their sting. Unlike Brittany, they face the painful, frightening battle or suffering and death with a response of love—a love that fills their suffering with significance far beyond the comprehension of the world.

And that mystery is why, while everything may indeed be going to hell in a handbasket and maybe after all the world is coming to an imminent end around us, Christians live differently. “We’ve got something permanent—I mean, in the way we care.” We don’t face radical loss the same way as other people do. We face it with the confidence that no matter what comes, this changing life is not all.

Christians live differently, because for us, this life is just the beginning. As impermanent as this world is, we know we’re destined for something more. This life is only the prelude, the intro to the final love song—when Love will be here to stay.

photo credit: classicfm

When You’ve Lost the Culture War

Every day, I walk by the Capitol building in Washington, DC, along with thousands of other busy DC commuters.  On clear days, it stands out sharp and white against the skyline, a thing of beauty. And every day, when I pass it, I hear echoing in my head words from one of my favorite movies, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “Look, it’s the Capitol Dome!”

(Except you have to say it like Jimmy Stewart, with a slight stutter: “L-look! It’s the C-Capitol Dome!”)

His companions roll their eyes, because it is very easy to lose one’s appreciation for being in the Capitol every day. Rookie Senator Jefferson Smith, played innocently by James Stewart, comes to DC with bright-eyed, eager enthusiasm to serve his country well and do some good in the world. Eager, that is, until he gets kicked in the gut by the gritty reality of politics in Washington. But he chooses to put his idealism into action, even if he loses the battle, rather than abandon it for the ways of the world. What happens to him is not unlike what Chesterton says happened to him in “The Ethics of Elfland.”

They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.

I’ve realized that “practical politicians” here in DC have long abandoned the causes I believe in. When the odd headline queries what GOP leaders will do about gay marriage, I almost laugh. I have little doubt what they will do. The culture is against them, and, fighting for the favor of the culture, they will probably comply. Recently, for the second year in a row of decisions that can only be expected in the current social climate, the Supreme Court, in the old “silence gives consent” method, tacitly legalized gay marriage in a slew of states, including the one in which I live.

What do you do when you’ve lost a cultural war? I know cultures change (at least in the last two centuries) all too quickly for perfectly accurate predictions to be made about where they’re headed or what is or is not inevitable. But during the week I sit in an office building in DC realizing that for miles and miles around me are people who, even on the slim chance they opposed it, could never raise their voices against gay marriage in any public forum without being utterly ridiculed and shouted down.

No matter how we slice it, the cultural tide, at least for now, has definitively decided that anyone who opposes “gay rights” is essentially ignorant, or hateful, and at the very least hopelessly outdated.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: to continue to oppose the normalization of gay “marriage” in our culture is to take a stance which requires no little courage and will certainly rub some people (including well-intentioned loved ones) the wrong way. It will mean rejection and mockery. It will mean being branded as a proponent of hate despite the fact that all we want to do is help our culture seek authentic love above misguided acquiescence to gut passions.

I don’t know if there is anything we can compare this to. The rise of contraception? Maybe. But even that one is far more open to public debate in Catholic and secular circles alike. I think that this particular war is a war we have, for the most part, lost at this point in our cultural evolution. How do you battle something operating (falsely, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) under the banner of love? We simply don’t have a ready response.

All the arguers are now tired. They’ve run out of ways of repeating themselves to deaf ears. Like the disillusioned Jefferson Smith, we realize that no one is listening no matter how hard we fight. How do we change this? What will turn the tide?

The lucky thing about tides, I suppose, is that they always change. October 7th was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, a commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto, which took place at a time when the tides were similarly lined up heavily against the kingdom of Christ. Christendom was splintering interiorly, with the Protestant Revolt, and was battered from without by Muslim forces–a situation not unlike today. But against all odds, despite the predictions of all the pundits of the day, something happened. The Battle of Lepanto was won by the Christians, armed primarily by the power of prayer. And for that era, Christian Europe was saved from utter destruction.

The consolation of living in the kingdom of Christ is that this kingdom is not my kingdom. It’s His. And He is no fool as a ruler. Ultimately, whatever is happening, however dire the situation appears to one who hopes for Heaven, we know that nothing will happen without His Providence directing it to serve a role in His ultimate plan of redemption.

So, what do you do when you’ve lost a cultural war? You keep fighting. In whatever way you can, in whatever means reason and faith dictate—and especially by prayer—you keep fighting. Speak the truth in love, even if you are met with hate. Even when it seems like a lost cause.

Because, after all, “Maybe lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, Mr. Paine.”


The Sarcastic Soul

I was blessed to be published over at Crisis Magazine this week!

So, why the cultural tendency to sarcasm? Part of it probably has to do with the tremendous polarization of society and how easily we can dismiss “them”—whoever disagrees with us—with a wry smile, a snorting “OMG so true,” a hashtag, or a Buzzfeed list. It’s psychologically comfortable to reduce someone else’s opinion to a sardonic image and half a sentence (not always inaccurate)—because it excuses us from actually engaging them. And it can be all too easy to let what should be a passing wry laugh become a permanent cynical mindset.

Read the rest over at Crisis!