“Experiences too deep for deception”

I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about a psychologist’s experience in a concentration camp. I was immediately struck by this quote from Gordon Allport’s preface:

[Living in the concentration camps,] how could he find life worth preserving? A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to…..Dr. Frankl’s words have a profoundly honest ring, for they rest on experiences too deep for deception.

That sums up exactly why I wanted to read this book. I want to hear why life is worth living from someone who has seen the most suffering that life can offer. I want to hear from someone who can truly understand the temptation to suicide or despair. I don’t want to hear from someone who feels hopeful because they see some good that came out of their suffering, or some lesson that they learned from it, or because they see it as some form of discipline or redemptive suffering that will make sense from the viewpoint of heaven. I want to hear from someone who was able to find meaning and joy in the middle of absolute desolation.

Auschwitz_survivor_displays_tattoo_detail.jpg

I first started thinking about this when I read this beautiful article by a woman who held her dying newborn. I was really captivated by it because she did not write about the happiness that came from knowing her daughter was going to heaven, or a positive outlook that allowed her to appreciate the few hours she had with her, or because she learned a spiritual lesson from her experience; instead, she was granted the grace of feeling the joy of heaven on earth, right in the middle of her suffering.

I was flooded with peace. I was filled with the deepest joy I have ever felt. I could not understand why sorrow and grief had occupied any inch of my body before that instant. This was a different world….We were right inside the heart of God.

To me, this was an assurance that the promise of joy is true. Because of her situation, this mother’s story was “too deep for deception.” I have never felt this joy, but I believe her, because the circumstances of her witness make it reliable. As she writes:

[I]f I could share only a sliver of what it felt and breathed and loved like in that NICU room, you would never again fear any doubt of the divine or the existence of an afterlife.

Even when I’m angry at God, I still love the saints. I love their witness of holy joy in every possible circumstance of life. I love Corrie Ten Boom, because she gives us this same assurance of the joy to come: “I’ve experienced His presence in the deepest darkest hell that men can create. I have tested the promises of the Bible, and believe me, you can count on them.” I love the apostles, because, as my mother once told me, the fact that they were willing to be martyred for their faith in Jesus shows their witness can be trusted. They must have seen it with their own eyes if they were willing to die for it, and pass their faith on to others. I love Laura Fanucci, the mother whose newborn died, because she shared with us her firm reason for hope in the midst of unspeakable suffering. And I am loving Viktor Frankl, for the hope he gives me. I’ll leave you with this beautiful image of Frankl’s wife, who became a vision of heaven for him:

Tilly Frankl

My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness….A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way–an honorable way–in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

 

 

 

Image of Tilly Frankl on her wedding day: source

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7QT: the benefits of Food Stamps

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I used to struggle with spending my food stamps for anything other than the bare necessities. After a while, though, it became too much of a hassle to scrupulously separate my shopping, and I began to realize that it was all right to spend my food stamps on anything the system allowed. Here are 7 wonderful things food stamps provide, besides just nutrition:

  1. Easy meals. Some people can make healthy stuff from scratch every day; I can’t. From frozen burritos to things like pizza dough, deli meat, and bagged salads, convenience food can mean the difference between me throwing something in the oven and taking a little nap before suppertime, and me freaking out, yelling at the kids, and going out for McDonald’s.
  2. Healthy convenience foods. If you don’t have to worry about your budget so much, you can buy better stuff. Instead of the cheapest frozen pizza, you can buy bake-at-home stuff with real vegetables on it. Instead of fruit cups in heavy syrup, you can afford the stuff packed in real fruit juice. Instead of spaghettio’s, you can get the good canned soup. For your husband who always forgets to pack a lunch, there’s Clif bars and V-8.
  3. Stuff your kids will actually eat. Cherry tomatoes! Gogurts! Instant oatmeal! Cheese sticks! Clementines!
  4. Stuff you really don’t need, but every kid should have once in a while. Lunchables, goldfish crackers, those little breadsticks-and-fake-cheese-dip things.
  5. Things you can stuff in your kids’ lunchboxes. Juice boxes, granola bars, fruit snacks. These double as ways to keep your kid from screaming in the car, and ways to pack for an unexpected outing. That’s pretty darn close to a necessity.
  6. Fancy ingredients. Feta cheese, olives, artichokes, hummus, avocados, fresh herbs…all kinds of things that didn’t usually make it onto my list until I had food stamps. It’s nice to be able to vary your diet more and make any recipes you want!
  7. Ice cream.

See the rest of the 7 Quick Takes at Kelly’s!

How political feminism demeans 50% of women

worf and dax

Well, this is what came up when I searched “traditional Catholic wedding.” Now that I think of it, for people who live in a very traditional society, Klingon women don’t seem very oppressed.

So Mike Pence won’t eat alone with any woman besides his wife. Liberals find this upsetting, because they interpret it as an objectification of women. Isn’t he saying that women are nothing but temptations, and if he was sitting next to a pretty one, he couldn’t be responsible for his actions? Nobody’s wondering what his wife thinks about it. The focus is the conservative man’s attitude toward women, marriage and sex; but nobody’s looking too closely into the conservative woman’s mindset. Maybe Karen Pence agrees with his rule; maybe she doesn’t. But let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she understands and respects where he’s coming from. In fact, let’s assume it’s possible for a conservative woman to have a modern marriage.

Let’s face it: this stereotype of conservatives is our fault for electing Trump. But when feminists assume that all conservatives are as misogynistic as he is, or have old-fashioned, patriarchal views of marriage, they’re including conservative women, too. After all, 42% of all women voted for Trump. Are they masochists who like to be oppressed? Are they deluded dupes who never heard of feminism? Are they too stupid or cowardly to stand up for themselves? Whichever it is, it’s not very respectful of women, is it? Feminists are, by default, assuming that all women who espouse conservative views of marriage, relationships, and sex aren’t worth listening to. They’re assuming that we needn’t take conservative social views seriously, even if women hold them. They’re assuming that you can discount the experiences of 42% of the women in America, just because of their vote. That flies in the face of everything liberalism stands for.

I’m a conservative, but I didn’t vote for Trump. Every time I start to sympathize with feminists, though, they drive me away by their disrespect for my beliefs. Feminism, which claims to speak for all women, seems to be increasingly driving away all but a small, radical group of them. At the Women’s March, many white women felt unwelcome because the organizers were so focused on marching for minority rights that they downplayed white women’s concerns with Trump and the direction America is taking. Similarly, feminist women who were pro-life were officially disinvited from the Women’s March.

Let’s return to Karen and Mike Pence. It’s possible, of course, that she is oppressed or stupid. It’s certainly possible that she’s wrong. It’s even possible that she’s a misogynist. But are you willing to say the same of every woman who believes that abortion is wrong, or that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund contraception, or that marriage is only between a man and a woman? Is every conservative woman not only wrong, but also stupid, evil, or helpless? What an insult to women! If you think we’re wrong, fine; but at least pay us the courtesy of assuming that we’re smart, modern women who’ve thought things through.

Good men through the ages

Indian elephant

I’m finally filling in my gaps in world history, starting with a book about India. I’ve always loved India–the colors, the architecture, the music, the dance. No surprise that Indian history is just as beautiful.

I was especially struck by the story of Ashoka, a 3rd century BC king. After a dissolute youth and a period of ruthless and violent conquest, Ashoka suddenly repented and tried to rebuild his life–and his entire society–around a strict moral law. I can only imagine that his new subjects–the ones who survived his earlier massacres–were less enthusiastic about his conversion. Yeah right! Now he decides to be non-violent!

But it seems to have been a real conversion! Ashoka set up dozens of carved edicts, abolishing the death penalty, urging care for the environment, developing highways, and even trying to enforce religious tolerance. I find this so touchingly familiar. Tell me you’ve never gone through this stage: Guys, look at this cool thing I just found out about! I’m going to change my whole life, right now, and you should too! I’m not going to stop talking about it until you do! Ashoka even sent a kind of missionary to the east and the west, he was so excited about his new ideas.

Ashoka edict

As you can imagine, things didn’t go very well for him. I was expecting him to get assassinated pretty soon, but he seems to have made it to old age. His moral reform, of course, didn’t last any longer than he did. But by his own account he never gave up: “I am never fully satisfied with the end product of all my work, my exertions and the conclusion of my business…but work I must for the public good.” He also makes this heartbreaking admission in one of his edicts: “now I realize how hard it is to persuade people to do good.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s an old, old story, trying to make heaven on earth. Ashoka wasn’t the first to try to do it through political means, and he wasn’t the last. It’s never gonna work, but it sure is tempting.

Good men through the ages

trying to find the sun…

Five year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains.

And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?

“Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Creedence Clearwater Revival

elephant picture: source

sculpture of Ashoka’s edicts being carved, at the Parliament Museum in New Delhi: source

Wonderful things that happened after my crisis

Long story short: after my fourth baby, I went into a tailspin. I tried a couple different medications, and Wellbutrin made me suicidal, so I checked into the hospital. I spent ten very good days in the psychiatric ward and had electroconvulsive therapy. (See my article about the spiritual effects of it here). After that I was supposed to remove stress and responsibility from my life for a while, so that my brain would have time to build on the changes from the shock therapy and establish a more positive thought pattern. So we attempted to free me up from some of the stress of living with a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and newborn, in my parents’ house, with my mother who has Alzheimer’s. Ha ha! That didn’t work. Instead my brother and sister-in-law took the three big kids into their home, and I moved into my sister’s house with my husband and newborn to recover.

What a mess! Except it wasn’t. Here are some wonderful things that God did in my family’s life as a result of this crisis.

  1. My family came together. They have always been loving and supportive, but my breakdown provided an opportunity for them to get even closer. There were several family meetings, in which my parents and all 7 of my siblings got together to help us figure out what to do, and how they could help. Everyone gave what they could: babysitting, money, shelter, driving, prayer, and help figuring out logistics and planning. And afterwards, when things were a bit more stable, they kept up the group conversation, to keep us all in touch and within reach for mutual help.
  2. I got wonderful one-on-one time with the baby. Instead of being the littlest of four, always set down so I could feed the big kids, or carried like a football while I did the laundry, she got to have that only-child experience of being the center of my universe. I think she’d be fine either way,  but it was nice for me! I had similar experiences with the other kids; my family’s help made it possible for me to spend a glorious hour outside with my two year old,  enjoying the wind and the shadows and the trees and the mud, and give my other kids their heart’s desires: my undivided attention to their very favorite Legos and ponies, respectively.
  3. We experienced life with my sister’s family, who are called to a special charism of poverty and generosity. We learned to live with less stuff, waste less, and pay special attention to the liturgical seasons. We learned to live in a sort of community, everyone contributing to the household and accepting anyone who showed up.
  4. We lived out of our suitcases for three months. It actually helped me appreciate what I had, and appreciate what it would be like to be dirt poor–using both sides of every paper, saving boxes to keep my clothes in, piecing together my sewing scraps to make a wall hanging because I had no pictures. And I missed very little of the massive pile of stuff I left at my parents’ house. We’ll see how quickly I can keep this new-found minimalism, but so far in our new apartment we’ve managed to get rid of a lot of junk and live with less than we’ve ever done.
  5. My family’s generous actions had good results for them, too. My sister, whose kids are almost all grown, got to have a baby around the house again; my other sister, who did a heroic amount of babysitting for me, told me that she’d been helped out a lot at another stage in her life, and it was nice to have the opportunity to pay it forward and help someone else. Driving us and our kids back and forth for visits and moving gave my siblings opportunities for long-awaited visits with each other. Siblings got to catch up, aunts and uncles got to know nieces and nephews, cousins got to play together. Yup, one big long crisis-fueled family reunion!
  6. My children had the experience of living at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. They came back home with all sorts of wonderful habits, like brushing their teeth and following along at Mass and clearing their plates after dinner, and all sorts of other things that I totally would have taught them, any day now. They learned to play with kids of different ages and how to adjust to a different family’s schedule.
  7.  _I_ learned how resilient and grounded they are. My kids’ maturity and patience in dealing with all the changes (along with my sister-in-law’s kind updates on their little triumphs and achievements) was really encouraging to me as a parent.

There was no avoiding this huge disruption, and I thought my family and I would barely survive it. God had plans to bring a lot of unexpected good out of it. Thank you, God.

Find the rest of the 7 Quick Takes here.

Renoir onions

“Onions” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1881

 

How is a love marriage like an arranged marriage?

Boy, that sounds like the beginning to a stupid pun. But actually, it’s my new article at Aleteia!

The ways we’ve changed have strained our marriage, but they haven’t broken it — because, as it turns out, our marriage wasn’t built on our original compatibility; it was built, like my Pakistani friend’s [arranged marriage], on our basic good will and love for each other, and on our commitment to marriage for life.

Our marriage really isn’t that different from hers after all.

Read the rest here!

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Last week I was glancing through a book of Norse Mythology and remembered the sad story of Baldur, the beloved light-bearing god. When Baldur’s mother Frigg hears a prophecy of his death, she makes every object in the universe promise not to harm him. “She took an oath from fire and from water, from iron and from all metals, from earths and stones and great trees, from birds and beasts and creeping things, from poisons and diseases.” The evil god Loki, however, finds out that she has neglected one thing: the harmless-seeming mistletoe. While the gods are enjoying Baldur’s new invincibility, throwing every weapon they can find at him and watching it bounce off, Loki tricks one of them into throwing the mistletoe at Baldur, and he dies. The guardian of the underworld agrees to let him back into the land of the living if the gods can really prove that he is as beloved and universally mourned as they say; so Frigg again visits every creature, and every creature sheds a tear for Baldur. (Every creature but one. You can read the full story here.)

This time around I was struck by the anthropomorphization of inanimate things: fire, water, metal, stone, and so on. This seemed different to me than the kind of sentimental worldview that treats pets like people. The elements are only alive in relation to the gods; Baldur’s goodness and beauty is so powerful that even inanimate things respond to it. The implication is not that earthly creatures are as worthy as humans in themselves, but that they are raised to a higher level by contact with the gods.

Then on Sunday, we sang a hymn based on St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, which refers to creatures like fire, water, and wind as our brothers and sisters. Suddenly I realized that Christians also have a tradition of anthropomorphizing creatures. The Canticle of Daniel (Daniel 3:52-57) doesn’t just bless God through or for his creatures, as St. Francis’ canticle does; it actually tells the creatures themselves to bless the Lord.

Sun and moon, bless the Lord…
Fire and heat, bless the Lord;
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and cold, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord.

We don’t believe, like pagans, that the sun and the moon really have consciousness and will; but in some mysterious way we believe that the presence of the Lord is enough to give life even to inanimate things. The prophet Isaiah says that “the mountains and the hills will break into singing before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12), and Psalm 114 says that when Israel left Egypt “the mountains leaped like rams, the hills like lambs.” Obviously, there’s some poetic license here; but I think it’s more than that. The presence of God doesn’t just metaphorically bring life; it actually animates the inanimate, as it animates the dead. The difference between this and an animist or pagan worldview is that animals and inanimate objects don’t have life in themselves; they only have life in relation to God. The life is all God’s, and it is so powerful and superabundant that it animates everything around it. And just as the presence of God evokes joy and praise from all creation, the death of God on the cross evoked sorrow: the curtain of the temple ripped, and the sky was darkened. Just as the material world wept for Baldur, it wept for Jesus.

What do you think? Am I way off the mark? I love this vision of creation. I feel like it takes all the beauty of pagan mythology and gives it deeper meaning through the truth of Christianity.

picture from The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum, found here