Only Heaven

I like to sing hymns to my babies at night: they make nice lullabies, and they’re a good shot in the arm for an exhausted mama.  Tonight I was singing “…and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day,” and I thought sure–on the very last possible day.  I’m not trying to be funny here.  Sometimes it feels like God waits until the last minute.

My mother’s Alzheimer’s is progressing terrifyingly fast, and every morning she suffers through an attack of spiritual doubt and misery.  This morning she told me “everyone keeps talking about mercy…all about mercy….”  She couldn’t finish her sentence, but I thought I caught the implication: where’s the mercy for me?  I didn’t know what to tell her.  I believe in God’s mercy on the last day, but I don’t know why, for some people, He doesn’t send it earlier.  Where is the mercy in my brilliant, wise, eloquent mother spending the last ten years of her life in confusion and humiliation?

I know I’m missing something here.  I know–I believe–that a life of hardship can have more joy and peace than just the promise of heaven.  But I don’t see it right now.

Sometimes a crumb falls
from the tables of joy,
sometimes a bone
is flung.

To some people
love is given,
to others
only heaven

–“Luck” by Langston Hughes

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Virtue, Luck, Mental Health, and Pedophilia

Marble, Feet, Legs, Hands, Limbs, Art, Sculpture, Stone

In All the King’s Men, there is a tender scene where teenage Jack Burden and Anne Stanton find themselves alone in the house after a rainstorm and almost, but not quite, make love for the first time.  For some reason he can’t explain, Jack can’t go through with it, because it doesn’t seem right somehow.  Then his mother comes home unexpectedly, and he doesn’t get a chance to change his mind.  In retrospect, though, Jack decides that it was his great virtue that prevented them from sleeping together:

I suddenly had the feeling of great wisdom: I had acted rightly and wisely….And so my luck became my wisdom…and then later my wisdom became my nobility, for in the end, a long time after, I got the notion that I had acted out of nobility….and frequently, late at night or after a few drinks, thought better of myself for remembering my behavior on that occasion.  (p. 447)

This really hit home for me; how many actions or decisions do I pride myself on, thinking they were a result of virtue, when actually they were just a result of luck, or my natural inclination, or my particular psychology?

It is only at the end of the book, when Jack has come to forgive his father for betraying the trust everyone had in his spotless virtue, that he realizes the corollary to this principle: not only can virtue really just be luck or disinclination, but vice can actually be the result of an excess or perversion of virtuous intentions.  “A man’s virtue may be but the defect of his desire, as his crime may be but a function of his virtue.” (p. 660)

I’ve always loved this quote, and recently I realized that it’s very similar to something C.S. Lewis says in the preface of Mere Christianity:

No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin.  It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion.

He goes on to point out that God judges us, not by our outward nature–our inclination either to “niceness” or “nastiness” of character–but by what we freely choose to do with the personality we’ve been given:

If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are quite likely to be satisfied with your character as it is….You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper….You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing….it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom….But if you are a poor creature–poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels–saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion–nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex  that makes you snap at your best friends–do not despair.  [God] knows all about it.  You are one of the poor whom He blessed.  He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can.” (Book 4, Ch. 10)

Let’s talk about “those wretched creatures” who have to deal with something much more seriously consuming than an inclination to anger or vanity: sexual disorders.  It’s really upsetting to see how many Christians don’t realize that same-sex attraction is an inclination, not a sin in itself; that God (and the Church) does not judge anyone for bad inclinations, but only for acting on those inclinations.  Same-sex attraction is like any other inclination or temptation; something you did not choose for yourself, but which you have the responsibility to conquer.  And here is something I’ve only realized recently: the same is true of pedophilia.  I recently came across a heartbreaking website called Virtuous Pedophiles, which functions as a support group for people with pedophiliac inclinations who find themselves alone in their struggle to stay chaste.  The intention of the website is not only to function as a support group, but to spread awareness of this horrible struggle; to teach non-pedophiles that pedophiliac urges themselves are not sins or crimes, because, like other temptations, they are beyond our control.  Understanding this is the key to helping pedophiles resist temptation and keep children safe; because only if we understand that there is such a thing as a “virtuous pedophile” will we be motivated to give him the help he needs.  As it stands now, most people would recoil if someone confessed pedophiliac urges to them, and many therapists would feel obligated to report them to the police as potential molesters.  How can pedophiles get the moral support and psychological help they need, if we act as if temptations and urges that appear unwanted in their minds are just as bad as actual molestation?

God help those of us who were blessed with healthy psyches, to not attribute our luck to virtue; and God help those who, as my husband pointed out, were saddled with bad self-esteem and attribute their bad luck to moral shortcomings.  Most of all, God help those of us with really “wretched machines” to work with, who need help and prayer more than anyone.

P.S. As I was writing this, I discovered a wonderful post about “Virtue Privilege,” where the author discusses the ways in which virtue without empathy can lead to a lack of mercy.  Here is my favorite part:

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

Attitude of Heart

A quick review of a spiritual self-help book that has meant a lot to me.  (I’ve also written about this book here.)  God kept putting this book in my path, through various recommendations and offhand mentions, until my sister sent me a copy out of the blue and I finally read it.  These days it’s one of those books I give to people so often that I like to keep an extra copy on hand.  (This post ran in its original form on Simcha Fisher’s blog.)

Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart by Fr. Jacques Philippe

searching for an maintaining peace

This is a small, extremely easy-to-read little book, written in a gentle and tender tone.  At first glance it seems to offer the kind of cliche spiritual advice that is hard to take to heart, but it is actually full of extremely practical advice about breaking destructive mental habits.

Fr. Philippe begins by dismantling the subtle temptation to fight the “wrong battle,” which he describes as the misplaced desire to attain peace by conquering all of our faults and all of the external obstacles to peace.

…if we expect peace…because everything is going well…and our desires are completely satisfied, …then it is certain that we will never know peace or that our peace will be extremely fragile and of short duration.

This is a double temptation–to doubt God’s mercy on our sins, and to doubt his ability or desire to aid us in our troubles.  Both lead to despair–either despair of salvation, or despair of any happiness and peace in this world.  If instead we contemplate Christ’s love for us, embodied in the Cross, we will gain the confidence we need to survive our trials, whether they go away or not.  Fr. Philippe describes his own peace after adoration, not as a feeling that conditions are going to improve, but as an “attitude of heart:”

The external situation was always the same, there were always problems to solve, but the heart had changed, and from then on, I could confront them peacefully.

Here’s a prayer upon making a decision, which demonstrates how effectively Fr. Philippe cuts through mental confusion and scrupulosity:

‘Lord, I have thought about it and prayed to know Your will.  I do not see it clearly, but I am not going to trouble myself any further.  I am not going to spend hours racking my brain….I know well that, even if I am mistaken, You will not be displeased with me, for I have acted with good intentions.  And if I have made a mistake, I know that You are able to draw good from this error….’  And I remain at peace.

One last snippet, which is explained further but makes a good mantra all by itself:

The reasons why we lose our peace are always bad reasons.

First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 2

Please see part 1 here.

The pictures in the Baltimore Catechism say it all.

Did you ever try to talk yourself out of sadness or depression by “counting your blessings”?  I don’t mean to disparage this important exercise in gratitude, but it doesn’t usually work for me.  For one thing, I may be in the kind of mental state mentioned in Part 1, where external blessings seem irrelevant; or I may be in such a difficult stage of life that it seems impossible to find blessings meaningful enough to outweigh my troubles.  But the core of the problem is that even when I do feel blessed and happy, it doesn’t always reassure me of God’s love.  Where was he when I was unhappy?  Where is he when others are suffering?

Fr. Jacques Phillipe, in his short and wonderful book Searching for and Maintaining Peace, gently reminds us not to lean on our blessings–or lack thereof–to answer the question of God’s love.  Because happiness is so fleeting, we must place the source of our peace in something deeper, something that remains true beneath the cycle of sorrow and joy.  He later asserts that peace can only be found in contemplation of the Cross; but I never understood what that meant until now.  (I hope to post more fully on Fr. Phillipe’s book later this week!)

Here, as far as I can figure it out, is the answer: God proves his love for us by sending his Son to save us from Hell.  Everything else is extra.  We don’t have to rely on mental contortions to try to justify the apparent imbalance of God’s blessings; instead, we can rest assured that the only truly necessary thing–salvation–is given to everyone. Dayenu.

This also helps me deal with the paradox of the Bible’s promises.  How can God promise peace, happiness, prosperity, and freedom from fear to the just man, when we see good people suffer all the time?  These promises only make sense when they are interpreted in the light of eternity.  They do not promise peace and happiness according to earthly definitions, but heavenly ones. I think this must be the secret to the serenity and happiness of the saints even in the face of torture and martyrdom.

Most mornings I pray the Canticle of Zechariah, which contains a long list of God’s promises to

save us from our enemies…to show mercy…to set us free…to worship him without fear…to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)

Usually I find this comforting, but sometimes it is very hard to believe.  I know so many people who are at the mercy of their enemies and feel no peace.  But as I read the Canticle more closely, I noticed that it provides a specific answer to this problem: God will “give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  The shadow of death may be more present at some times than at others, but in this life it will always be there.  The only remedy, the knowledge of salvation, is guaranteed to us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  This is the certainty we were looking for at the beginning.

The next time you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, I pray that God will send you comfort and aid.  But if he doesn’t, remind yourself that, although you have nowhere else to go, everything you really need to prove God’s love and to bring you ultimate happiness is already there.

Do Catholics Have Crisis Pregnancies?

Let me tell you about a woman I know.  She is a cradle Catholic and firm pro-lifer, happily married to a supportive and loving husband.  She lives in a modern apartment in a safe, friendly neighborhood, and her family’s income is enough to provide for their necessities and a few luxuries too.  She has a wonderful support group of like-minded family and friends.  But last year, she became unexpectedly pregnant and it was one of the biggest crises she ever faced.

She was thrown into panic–she had two children under 4, and already felt overwhelmed; she was on anti-depressants; they already had four people squished into a 3-room apartment, and couldn’t afford to move; they had enormous student debt; and her husband was scheduled to be in the middle of an unpaid internship the month the baby was due.  She worked a physically demanding part-time job, and the pregnancy brought with it panic attacks, severe insomnia and nightmares, back pain so bad it made her limp for a few months, and depression that occasionally reached the point of suicidal thoughts.  She was angry at God, afraid of the future, and resentful of the baby.  She felt horribly guilty that she couldn’t view the baby in her womb as anything but a burden, and she felt ashamed to be so overwhelmed when she had such a fortunate life.  She was so scared of another pregnancy after this one that she was flooded with temptations to take birth control or get sterilized.  And once, at the darkest point, the thought of abortion came into her mind.

This woman is me.  I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t think it was possible for someone as fortunate as me to have a crisis pregnancy.  Thanks to God, and to my marvelous group of friends and family, the temptation never returned.  But it opened my eyes to the fact that anyone can have a crisis pregnancy…and this means that anyone can be tempted by abortion.  I already knew that many women get pushed into abortions, and suffer terrible guilt afterwards; but now I felt like I understood what they have gone through.  I gained a much deeper compassion for women planning or recovering from abortions, a compassion which I hope will continue to guard me against ever stereotyping or vilifying them.

I also learned something about the pro-life movement (or at least, that part of it that I’ve experienced): we are so concerned with welcoming new life and affirming the blessing of parenthood that we pretend we’re always happy about it.  When a woman like me finds herself in a crisis pregnancy, she may be scared to admit it.  After all, doesn’t she realize how many infertile people would kill to be in her position?  And doesn’t she understand what a blessing fertility is?  And shouldn’t she make sure everyone sees her joy, so she can witness to the Gospel?  When a pro-life woman with several kids gets the usual “are you done yet?” or “how on earth can you manage?” comment in the supermarket, she feels compelled to reply with something enthusiastic, like “we’re happy to have as many children as God gives us!” or “oh, we love having a house full of little ones!”  I used to always have a cheerful reply like this waiting, so I could be a good witness for the secular world.  But during this pregnancy, things were so bad that I couldn’t muster up a pro-life rallying cry.  I couldn’t even joke about the trials of pregnancy.  It was deadly serious.  So instead, I started admitting to people–first my husband, then my friends, then even my coworkers–that I was not expecting this, and I was having a hard time.  And suddenly, I didn’t feel alone anymore.  No one responded with “oh look, she was pro-life until she got pregnant!” or “I’m glad I’m not Catholic, I wouldn’t want to be drowning in diapers like her!”  Instead, I received the support and sympathy I needed.

Looking back, I think this may actually be a good form of witness, too.  Certainly, it’s good for secular people and pro-choicers to see examples of joyful parenthood; but it’s also good for them to see that, even when parenthood is a crisis, it’s worth it.  As a priest once said to me, you can’t be sure that you’re faithful until temptation comes along and you resist it.  You won’t really know that you’re pro-life until you are tempted with abortion and choose life; and nobody else will know it, either.  By all means, let’s show the world how happy a life open to God can be.  But let’s also be someone they can relate to–for their sake and for ours.

Many thanks to the strong and amazing Rebecca Frech, at the blog, Shoved to Them, whose post about crisis pregnancy inspired me.  These thoughts have been on my heart for a long time, but her post crystallized them in my mind and inspired me to write.  Her follow-up post gets a little more specific about temptation to abortion and solidarity with post-abortive women.  And by the way, here is the happy ending:

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

I love this baby more than I have ever loved anyone else in my entire life.  I can’t help thinking that some of that is due to the hell I went through to bring her into the world.  I paid for her with my blood, sweat, and tears and she was worth it!

The Hidden Cross of ADHD

Quick post before I go to work.  I work at a supermarket deli with a boy I’ll call Steve.  He’s extremely hard to work with–rushes around all the time, making funny faces and talking constantly and singing at the top of his lungs, making unfortunate jokes, telling everyone what to do.  The hardest part is that he never gets anything done himself.  He’s extremely obnoxious and slows everyone down, and he can’t understand why nobody likes him.  He’ll charge in and order everyone around, start doing some simple task, then immediately get distracted by three other things.  He’ll stop what he’s doing to answer the phone call you were about to pick up.  At the end of the day, he’s complaining how exhausted he is from working so hard, and he certainly has been running around all day–he’s not lazy–but somehow he’s gotten nothing done, and everyone else has to pick up his slack.

Even the nice people can hardly deal with Steve.  I’m one of the ones who’s nicest to him, and I’ve still lost my temper with him many, many times.  Until the other day, when it suddenly occurred to me: Steve has ADHD.  He’s not stupid, and he’s not lazy; he just can’t keep his mouth quiet and his mind and body still enough to complete a single thing.  And here I am, treating him like a jerk, when it’s not really his fault.

I work with a lot of people with various disabilities, and with most of them it’s easy enough to tell, from their slow speech or their facial structure, that they have mental problems.  But when a person has a disability like ADHD, it’s easy to mistake his symptoms for character flaws.  These people have a hidden cross: they have an excuse for being hard to live with, but it’s not very evident, so they get judged unfairly.  I’m ashamed of myself for not seeing it sooner, since I have a close friend with ADHD and I should have seen the signs earlier.  I’m resolving to be more aware, in the future, that many more of my co-workers may have hidden crosses like this.

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One last note, about ADHD: the friend I mentioned above was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, and it was literally life-changing.  I was reluctant to accept the diagnosis, because I grew up in an era when classroom diagnosis of ADHD was rampant and lots of kids were medicated unnecessarily.  But I learned that ADHD is not just some trendy diagnosis-du-jour, but something that can really drag down an otherwise intelligent, creative, and hard-working person.  It makes you look like an unaccomplished person who can never see things through, when in reality you’re working as hard as you can.  It makes you doubt your self-worth, and blame yourself for your failures instead of blaming your disability.  And it can be very hard for other people to recognize, because it doesn’t always fit the stereotype of the hyperactive little boy; often it is characterized as the “innattentive” type, which doesn’t involve hyperactivity at all.  I’d encourage everyone to read a book that opened my eyes to the reality of ADHD: Driven to Distraction by Edward Hallowell and John Ratey.  There’s also an extremely helpful book by Melissa Orlov, The ADHD Effect on Marriage, which despite the title can be a good guide for friends and relatives, not just spouses.