Christian Life

On Bishops and Bellyachers

I was in the grocery store when I snapped. It was two months into lockdown. As an immune-compromised person, I’d begun my Coronavirus journey cautiously—staying in, and wearing an N-95 mask if I had to go out. My roommate had been shopping for the items we were unable to get delivered. So it’d been some time since I’d experienced the outside world, and the transformation was jolting.

Perhaps it was the decimated dairy case—particularly perplexing because I’d read that many dairy farmers had dumped their milk for lack of demand. We, however, were clearly suffering from an acute lack of supply. Perhaps it was the purchase limits on other items I knew farmers were being forced to trash due to an alleged drop in demand—like potatoes. Perhaps it was the one-way aisles and big red Xs taped to the floor in the checkout line at designated standing positions, making me feel like so much herded cattle. Perhaps it was the saran wrap over the keypad on the card reader—as if customers wouldn’t touch it just as often as they would’ve touched bare buttons; as if saran wrap were self-sanitizing. Or perhaps it was the flip-flop on single-use plastic bags. The San Francisco area municipalities deemed them a grave environmental evil and banned them several years ago. But now they’ve done a 180: reusable bags are now the public nuisance because they might spread the virus, and single-use plastic has been restored to a-okay status.

It might’ve been any one of those things that ruptured the shackles of my complacency; more likely it was the accumulation of all that nonsense in addition to the stupidity and government overreach I’d been reading about in other regions. At any rate, the real enemy had revealed its monstrous face, and it wasn’t a virus: it was the renunciation of reason and the fetishization of fear. It was the mad dash toward despotism being made in the name of safety. I’d seen the enemy, and I’d made up my mind to wage war against it, even if I went to jail or caught my death of COVID-19—or both—in the process.

I fear life amidst tyranny more than death of any kind.

So when I heard about the Liberty Fest rally at the California State Capitol on the 23rd, there was no question about my attendance. As a Catholic, I felt it was imperative to protest the closure of churches, and as a writer, I felt it was important to bear witness.

I’d read that there’d been arrests at previous protests, so I made preparations for that possibility. I coached my roommate on what to do if she received my call from jail, and gave her my father’s phone number in case she needed to raise bail. I then contacted my dad, who is sympathetic and supportive, and advised him that if my roommate called, he could rest assured that I hadn’t broken any Constitutionally valid laws. 

Then I set out for the Capitol.

What I found there was nothing short of exhilarating. It was a little slice of normal—the old normal, the real normal. A tiny island of nerve and pluck in a seething ocean of worry and panic. A party at a funeral. The mood was positive, excited, energized. And the crowd was diverse. Although some leftist outlets have chosen to focus their reporting on the presence of “extremist groups,” I saw nothing of the kind as I circulated through the crowd. 

I did see families and individuals of all races, tattooed bikers both male and female, beautiful Latinas dressed like 1950’s pin-up girls, dark-suited pastors, military members in uniform, a blue-haired religious liberty protestor, a hippie drum circle, and a man in a Guy Fawkes mask.

The majority of the people were like me—there to protest the closure of churches. I’d estimate that 65% of the homemade signs were religious liberty-related. I decided to talk to these people. 

I spoke to countless Christians from all over California. I spoke to Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and other mainline Protestants. Outnumbering them were the Evangelicals—they came from so many different churches, it makes my head spin.

But out of all those names and faces, two stand out: Emma Gonzales and her daughter, Donna Estrada.

What makes these two ladies special? They’re the only Catholics I met. Of the countless Christians I spoke to, only these two shared my particular faith.  

They seemed surprised to meet a fellow Catholic. They’d attended every lockdown protest at the Capitol, in spite of the great distance from their home in Southern California. At the previous rally, they’d brought a bundle of rosaries Emma had made to give away for free. They’d had only one taker—just one person was willing to accept a free rosary. This explained why they were surprised to meet me; they’d not really encountered any other Catholics in their protests.

I was shocked. I expected more. I expected better. I’d spent I don’t even know how many hours on social media reading Catholic-penned posts complaining about the closure of our churches and the failure of our bishops to do anything about it. But when an opportunity for action had presented itself, those same “fed up” people had chosen to stay on the bench and let others play the game.

I couldn’t help but think about our local bishops and their lack of decisive action. I live across the street from a Catholic church, and via their bulletin I’d received several updates about the bishops’ alleged actions to promote re-opening our churches. These updates were generally trite and empty assurances that our leaders were leading, but were occasionally slaps in the face to anyone reading between the lines, such as this quote from Bishop Michael Barber in a recent parish email:

When I was interviewed by KGO Channel 7 and KTVU Channel 2, I made the point that if churches follow the same safety protocols as Safeway or Home Depot or the tattoo parlor, why can’t we reopen?  I think it is reasonable and absolutely necessary we follow safety procedures.  It is not reasonable, and it is a violation of our religious freedom, if the government tells us we cannot reopen “because we are a church”.  As a diocese, we have voluntarily closed our churches for worship.  Nevertheless, I declined to sign the petition to reopen on Pentecost.

He might as well have said, “I’m putting on a tough face for the press, but when the cameras stop rolling and it’s time to actually do something, I won’t, even though I know it’s ridiculous to assert that an abortion clinic is safer than the house of God. Oh, and in case you forgot, I’m responsible for taking away your Mass—I did this voluntarily.” 

Then there’s San Francisco’s ironically named Archbishop Cordileone, who recently wrote

I am also well aware of the spiritual distress that so many of our people are experiencing due to the unavailability of attending Mass in person.  I therefore wish to send you this communication to update you on steps we are taking to reopen for public Mass here in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. 

The thing is, his “communication” says little to nothing about any concrete steps toward re-opening. It’s just mumbo jumbo about how he’s “been joining [his] brother bishops in California for our weekly videoconference meetings to discuss the current situation”; how he’s “consulted with top experts in the fields of health care and epidemiology”; and his “form[ing] a committee of pastors and lay people to draft safety protocols.” The whole thing sounds like a bureaucratic shell game designed to distract the laity into thinking Big Things are being done, while in reality the action being taken is Big Fat Nothing.

Adding to the absurdity of both bishops’ stances is the fact that they have kept churches open for private prayer. Apparently that’s safe, but Mass isn’t. The people sit in the same pews. They breathe the same air. They pray to the same God. And they take the same safety precautions that could be taken if Mass were to be offered. But one is kosher while the other is verboten. This makes absolutely no sense unless the Liturgy itself is somehow virulent. 

Perhaps that’s what the bishops privately believe. 

Both bishops take great pains to emphasize their cooperation with state and local authorities, including Governor Newsom. Bishop Barber writes on the Oakland Diocese’s website that “the Catholic bishops of California are working with the Governor’s Office.” And Abp. Cordileone states that, when it comes to the resumption of public Masses, “We all agree that we should do this in sync with government regulations.” 

In a state like California—which has all but declared open war on Catholicism—working with the political leaders and following regulations is like pushing the self-destruct button. In a battle to save your life, you cannot “work with” someone who wants you dead. To trust such a person to consider your best interests—to count on them to help you survive—is not only naive, it’s suicidal.

And the fruits of the bishops’ efforts to “work with” the state government—California’s guidelines for re-opening churches—reveal this in spades. The government is attempting to regulate virtually every aspect of our worship, down to the manner in which we receive Holy Communion. And they’re attempting to prohibit the cornerstone of the Eastern Catholic Liturgy, without which there can be no service whatsoever—singing.

So much for “working with” the authorities. Looks like that strategy didn’t exactly pay off.

If our bishops really had our spiritual health in mind—if they were really lionhearted—they would’ve followed the example of Minnesota’s bishops and re-opened our churches in defiance of Newsom’s stay-at-home order. There’s no reason why limiting attendance and social distancing couldn’t keep people equally safe at Mass as the identical provisions have for in-church private prayer. It raises the obvious question: why don’t our bishops want us to go to Mass? There’s no possible answer that isn’t either frightening, disgusting, infuriating, or some combination thereof.

I’m reminded of the adage I’ve heard the parish old timers use often: We get the leaders we deserve. My experience at the Capitol affirmed this. Are you a discontented Catholic, angry that we have complacent cowards at best, and criminal perverts at worst, as bishops? Then stop acting like a complacent coward yourself. Stop bellyaching on Facebook about how bad things are and start working to make them better. Get out of your comfort zone and into the battle zone. If you’re not willing to make sacrifices to save and sanctify your Church, don’t be surprised when your Church is the thing being sacrificed.

We are all, collectively, the Body of Christ. While you sit on your La-Z-Boy hiding behind whiny tweets, the rest of us can accomplish nothing. The fingertips may wish to move forward, but if the other parts are too indolent and fearful to budge, the entire body languishes. So quit assuming someone else will solve our crisis; the hierarchy is a pack of wolves, and your fellow laypeople are as lazy as you are. Stand up already, and awaken your snoozing Catholic friends, too. 

The time to act is now. And the right person for the job is you.

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The Last Time I Slow-Danced With Death

Originally published at The Stream

It seemed so Providential. So heaven-sent. So meant to be. And perhaps it was. Perhaps I will never really know for sure.

What I do know is, when I saw her email sitting in my inbox, my heart skipped a beat. My article on ancient child sacrifice and the modern abortion epidemic, in which I’d quoted this woman—interviewed while seeking an abortion—had only been up for about three hours. But she had obviously seen it—why else would she be emailing me? 

I swallowed the lump in my throat and opened the message. I fully expected to see a string of curses and epithets directed at me personally. What I found, however, surprised me. The message was respectfully written—complimentary, even; and, although the author did take issue with some of what I’d written, she’d done so in a cool-headed and reasonable fashion. 

This was clearly not your typical hysterical, off-the-rails, rabid pro-abort. I decided right then and there to try to change her mind.

Since abortion was temporarily outlawed in her state due to the coronavirus pandemic, I figured I had a bit of time to work on her. So I decided to take it slowly. In that first reply to her, I focused on thanking her for her civility and trying to explain the writing choices with which she had taken issue. I also expressed my compassion for her situation by explaining that I myself was post-abortive.

Late that night, she wrote me a beautiful, heartfelt reply. She included grisly details of her medical condition, which was severe. She also described her dire financial situation. She’d been living paycheck-to-paycheck as a single mom, without any familial support, until she lost her job entirely as a result of the pandemic. She even included a photo of her two adorable sons. All of this made me feel incredibly close to her in spite of the hundreds of miles between us. She ended by expressing her belief that pro-lifers are zealots who force their beliefs onto others and disregard women’s rights.

Well, I had to respond, not only because of her misconceptions, but because of the bond with her I now felt. However, I didn’t want to respond with words alone. I wanted to respond with concrete resources and solutions to help her choose life, because the obstacles she’d presented were both real and daunting. 

This is where social media proved its merits. I posted that I was seeking support services in her area. Within minutes I had the names and addresses of crisis pregnancy centers, phone numbers for pro-life counseling hotlines, and a dozen other life-affirming resources, all in her general vicinity.

Having gotten my ducks in a row, I sat down to write my reply. I thanked her for sharing so much with me and told her how privileged I felt that she had given me such an intimate glimpse into her world. Then I answered her complaints about pro-life “zealots”:

I wish you could be a fly on the wall in my apartment–better yet, in my mind and my heart. … After I read your heart-rending message, I spent the entirety of my morning and early afternoon combing through my contacts, making phone calls, sending emails—hunting down people in your area who are prepared to help you in a tangible and substantial way. 

I then listed all of the resources I had gathered for her, and said: “If you knew how many people were involved in obtaining this information—people who have all been touched by your story … your perception of ‘people like me’ might soften.”

Lastly, I told her a bit of my story. I told her about the two abortions I’d had—how they’d damaged my mind, body, and soul in ways that I will regret for the rest of my life. I told her I wouldn’t wish what I’d been through on anyone, and particularly not on her. I pleaded with her to at least consult the resources I’d listed and explore all of her options before making a decision that would change her life forever.

Within minutes, she replied. She said she hadn’t read my entire email, but promised to do so later. “However,” she continued, “I want you to know I’ve already obtained access to an abortion, with much difficulty, so I didn’t want you to continue using your time to seek resources for me. I do appreciate your empathy.”

My heart sank, but I made a conscious decision not to abandon hope. After all, she only said she’d “obtained access,” not that she’d gone through with it. I made an urgent plea for prayers via my social network.

At this point, I was connected to someone who personally committed to paying all of the mom’s expenses over and above what the pregnancy centers could cover—including her rent, utilities, and medical expenses. “I am not limited in what I can give,” this saintly woman said in a very emotional telephone conversation. “Please give her my number and ask her to call me.”

So I made a last-ditch effort and sent another message. I notified the mother of this new offer and gave her the benefactor’s name and phone number. “As for me,” I concluded, “I will still be here, no matter what you decide. If you ever need to talk, you know how to reach me.”

After that, I played the waiting game. I tried to distract myself with a sewing project, but still found myself jumping every time I heard the new email notification on my phone.

Finally, her reply came: “I am no longer pregnant…” The words were a kick in the gut. I felt dizzy. I almost couldn’t read her closing words of thanks for my concern, time, and empathy as the tears began to flow.

I was beside myself. A child had been murdered. And a woman—a woman to whom I had come to feel deeply connected—was now broken in a way that could never be fixed this side of eternity. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to tear my hair out.

I got in my car and started to drive. As I got on the freeway, I finally felt sufficiently alone to unleash the scream I’d been restraining deep within. “Why, God? Why, why, why … ” I couldn’t stop wailing. 

I still haven’t figured out the answer.

I’m trying to console myself with the knowledge that I proved pro-lifers to be deeply caring people to someone who had thought of us as cruel would-be dictators. I’m trying to console myself with the knowledge that God transforms all evil into good. I’m trying to console myself with the hope that I planted a seed that may someday blossom into a conversion.

Yet a baby is still dead. A woman is still irreparably wounded. And my heart is still shattered.

But was it worth the fight? Absolutely.

Will I do it again? You’d better believe it.

Will I lose more battles? Indubitably. 

And I will inevitably suffer additional heartbreaks that’ll hurt just as much as this one. 

But here’s the crux: I know I am doing the right thing, because it honors the Author of Life. 

And nothing else matters.

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Child Sacrifice in the COVID-19 Era

Originally published at OnePeterFive

“It’s very difficult for us to recapture people’s motivations for carrying out this practice … Perhaps it was out of … a sense that the good the sacrifice could bring the family or community as a whole outweighed the life of the child.” — Dr. Josephine Quinn, on Carthaginian ritual infant sacrifice

“The reasons and need for abortion (health, severe diagnoses, financial, protection of family resources, etc) do not go away during a pandemic. In fact, they are likely to be exacerbated.” —Jen Villavicencio, MD 

In the midst of, and as a result of, our current global pandemic, the battle over abortion has escalated to a fever pitch. Five states—Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Iowa—have declared abortion non-essential, and have effectively banned the procedure for the duration of the outbreak. Planned Parenthood and so-called “abortion rights” groups, however, have filed lawsuits against all five states, and it remains to be seen whether these bans will be upheld in the higher courts.

Meanwhile, the abortion lobby is pushing back hard, not just against the bans, but for increasing access to unsupervised DIY medical abortions, arguing that prescriptions for abortion pills should be made available via telemedicine, without an in-person appointment at any point in the process— allowing women to literally flush their children down the toilet without any supervision whatsoever. 

Both sides are gearing up for a fight to the finish. And the coronavirus may be what definitively propels this nation in one direction or the other—toward sane provisions for the protection of life or irretrievably further into the black hole of the culture of death.

Did anyone see this coming? If we didn’t, we probably should have—because where God has been abandoned, societies have always devolved into using child sacrifice as a means of solving their problems, especially in times of crisis.

The ancient Carthaginians, for example, sacrificed newborns at locations called tophets. It is thought that these sacrifices “may … have been seen as a philanthropic act for the good of the whole community,” states Dr. Josephine Quinn, a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford. Some experts conjecture that these sacrifices were instruments of population control and  that well-to-do Carthaginians used them as a means of preserving their wealth.

Child sacrifice is a well-documented facet of early Mesoamerican cultures. For example, at El Manatí, an Olmec “sacred place” dedicated largely to the worship of water, archaeologists Ortiz and Rodriguez unearthed countless bones of “newborn (and possibly unborn) human babies,” including “infants whose bodies had apparently been dismembered and/or cut into sections” interred alongside figures of pagan deities.

Franciscan Friar and missionary Bernardino de Sahagún documented the child sacrifice rituals of the Aztecs in great detail. One of their gods, Tlaloc, required the tears of these children to wet the earth, else the rains would not come—so they believed. Consequently, if the children did not cry, priests would tear off their fingernails prior to the sacrifice.

According to researcher Andrew K. Scherer, the Maya also performed child sacrifice in a variety of circumstances. Infant sacrifices, for example, might be performed to appease supernatural beings who might otherwise have eaten the souls of more important people.

In Peru, the Chimú people sacrificed children “to appease the El Niño [weather] phenomenon,” according to archaeologist Feren Castillo. The later Inca culture drugged their child victims with alcohol and coca (the leaf from which cocaine is made) prior to their sacrifices, which were performed on a variety of occasions, including during wars and natural disasters.

Today, two of the most common justifications for abortion are financial unpreparedness, and a desire to control family size—echoes of Carthage. Another common justification is the prioritization of personal goals, like career and education, over the birth of a child—me over you—echoes of the Maya. Bernie Sanders thinks abortion can help save the world from climate change—echoes of the Aztecs and Chimú. Planned Parenthood dismembers pre-born children and sells their parts for profit—echoes of the Olmecs. 

What’s perhaps most disturbing, however, are the echoes of the Incas. Like them, many are using a natural disaster—in our case, a pandemic—to justify the slaughter of our children.

Take, for example, Heather Artrip, a Texas woman currently seeking an abortion who said: “I … would like to have a third child at some point. Right now is not ideal considering we are experiencing a global crisis, a pandemic.” Then there’s Kamyon Conner, the executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, who claimed now was a ‘particularly bad time’ to restrict abortion, since coronavirus-related unemployment is making it even more difficult to financially support a child, and women may worry about the consequences of being pregnant during a pandemic. 

Meera Shah, chief medical officer for a New York City area Planned Parenthood affiliate, stated: “Abortion care is essential and life-affirming, especially now when there is so much insecurity around jobs and food and paychecks and childcare.” She continued, “People are really thinking hard about continuing their pregnancy right now. It feels scary for a lot of people.” She also stated that she has noticed an uptick in their number of abortion appointments.

If women are so scared to be pregnant right now that they are considering and choosing abortion, the environment on social media is certainly not helping. Dr. Jasmine Patel, Ob-Gyn, tweeted: “By postponing abortions, you are sentencing a woman to pregnancy that has more risks [sic] for her health and transmission of #COVID19.” Lara Adams-Miller, a self-proclaimed “biological healthcare professional” (whatever that means), tweeted that the state abortion bans are “particularly sinister in light of how at-risk pregnant women are to srs covid-19 [sic] complications.” Kae Bender likened unplanned/unwanted pregnancy during the pandemic to “torture,” and Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL, called it “inhuman.” 

And then there are the folks who are overtly advocating abortion as a response to the pandemic, like Heather4amazon on Twitter, who stated: “What costs more resources[:] 1) a doctor’s visit and a couple of pills[, or] 2) months of prenatal visits and birth[,] resulting in a hospital stay[?]” And, perhaps most blunt of all, Hayley Vecchio said this on Facebook:

You might be thinking that modern-day abortion, although perhaps done for the same reasons, is not the same as ancient ritual infant sacrifice. For one thing, where’s the ritual? 

Believe it or not, it is not at all uncommon for women to engage in some kind of ritual behavior around their abortion experience. This phenomenon is described in Dr. SusanT.Poppema’s book Why I Am an Abortion Doctor:

Some women … stage what amounts to rituals around the procedures. A patient came in recently with her partner and brought candles, clearly making the experience a ritual way of saying, “I am proud of myself for making this choice, also sad about the choice.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. A simple web search yielded dozens of pre-scripted abortion rituals. I found several combining neo-paganism with Judaism, for example, including this

Bless You, Rachamaima, Compassionate Nurturer of Life, who helps us choose life. Amen. I was on the abortion table when this prayer just came to me, addressed in the feminine … Divinity here is a compassionate, female gestater of life … During the abortion, my partner kept whispering the prayer in my ear, over and over, the syllables incantatory.

Another quasi-Jewish abortion ritual has two parts—“the first is for casting out, and the second is for purifying, or cleansing.” It involves multiple people, includes scripted prayers to the “Divine Presence,” and utilizes two bowls of water—one of which is meant to represent the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath for purification—and bread crumbs. The perversion of the mikveh into an abortion ritual appears to be fairly common. Then there’s this Judeo-pagan “self-birthing” abortion ritual, also involving a mikveh element, which focuses on affirming one’s own “inner beauty and Divine sparks,” and “involves blessing of the newborn/renewed self.” It is essentially self-worship.

But don’t think the Jewish tradition is alone in this behavior—far from it. The Pregnancy Options website has very conveniently compiled abortion rituals for and from virtually every faith tradition, including a Native American ritual, a Buddhist ritual, a pagan ritual, and a ritual “based on Christian and … African-American [c]ultural [t]raditions” involving “a plant, water in a container … a white candle, a glass or metal bowl (in which paper can be burned)” and ancestor worship. One of the many elaborate pre-scripted prayers in this particular ritual states:

I embrace my faith and African principles that empower me to choose. I choose because God has entrusted me with the power of choice. I choose for myself thereby I am living the principle of kujichagulia … It teaches [b]lack people to name themselves and their reality and to choose for themselves. I am naming my reality and choosing for myself.

Yet another ritual on this site—described as a “liturgy” and including a “celebrant”—includes prayers to “Holy Wisdom,” “Mother Goddess,” and “Father God,” and ends with an anointing with oil not unlike that which occurs at Confirmation. 

But the mockery of Holy Mother Church doesn’t end there—there’s actually an abortion ritual for “Hispanic Catholic women” which employs multiple sacramentals and centers on prayer to the Virgin Mary.

If there’s any remaining doubt in your mind that what we are doing today in the form of abortion is analogous to what our ancestors did in the form of infant sacrifice, these final two rituals ought to dispel it. First, this ritual from Sarah Kerr, PhD, a self-described “death doula”:

The image we held for Gabriel [the baby] was of a lighthouse, flashing a loving message to him … letting him know … that he was not going to be able to land here. We told him the date for which abortion had been scheduled, and that if he wanted to turn around on his own, he could do so before then. Otherwise, his parents would go ahead with the procedure, bringing as much beauty and love to it as they could… We offered prayers of gratitude to those who have fought so hard to make abortion safe and legal … We carried our prayer bundle outside to the fire pit, and built a hot, beautiful fire … We called out, by name, to the ancestors who would be waiting for [the baby] … We prayed that his voyage be blessed. And we laid the bundle on the fire. Then we turned and … listened while the offering was received by the hungry fire spirits.

And finally, as if that weren’t close enough to ancient pagan nature worship, there’s this, found on Facebook:

Commenting on the modern revulsion to ancient child sacrifice, Dr. Josephine Quinn stated: “We like to think that we’re quite close to the ancient world, that they were really just like us—the truth is, I’m afraid, that they really weren’t.” 

Actually, doctor, you might want to re-examine that position. We’re still sacrificing our babies, often in an overtly ritual manner—the only elements that have changed are the methods being used and the gods being worshipped. Today, the gods in whose name these sacrifices are committed are science, money, success, and, primarily, the victim’s own mother, who essentially deifies herself by claiming authority over life and death in the name of achieving her own ends. 

And now, during a plague that might well be a chastisement from God for our sins—including and especially that of abortion—the bloodthirsty gods are crying out for even more slaughter. Just when we most urgently ought to be repenting of such heinous crimes, the forces of darkness are pushing us to kill the innocent on an even grander scale.

Will you sit idly by and watch the escalation of violence from the sidelines as an impotent spectator? Or will you take action to defend the defenseless at this most critical moment, when we are potentially poised to finally win this bloody war? When you stand before the judgment seat of God, how will you answer for your downtime during this period of crisis?

Get involved. Make calls to your local legislators. Write letters and emails to your governor and congresspeople. Express your support to those leaders who are defending life—they need the encouragement—and let those who are promoting abortion know that they will never have your vote until they change. Pray—every day. And if you are able, reach out to the abortion-minded and strive, in charity and with patience, to change minds and hearts. Don’t wait. The right time is right now.

Our hands are bathed in the blood of the innocent. What will you do to make atonement?

The Saint, The Sinner, and the Wrath of God

originally published at OnePeterFive

Sunday was my thirteenth day in coronavirus quarantine. I must confess that, although I have done some liturgical sewing and have spent more time than usual exercising, cooking, and praying, most of this precious downtime has slipped by without anything of note transpiring. 

But Sunday was different.

My church—a small Melkite parish—is currently closed, but our priest has live-streamed Orthros and Divine Liturgy the past two Sundays from his own home, which he has re-arranged for this specific purpose. I tuned in yesterday from the utilitarian comfort of my sewing studio. 

It was Mary of Egypt’s feast day, and our priest told us this saint’s remarkable story during his homily.  She spent the first seventeen years of her adult life as a prostitute—not motivated by desperation per se, but rather by lust and love for the sport of leading others astray. At the end of that time, she traveled to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross to seduce the pilgrims gathered there. She attempted to enter a church in which the True Cross was being venerated, but an invisible force prevented her entry, not once, but three times. Realizing that her impurity was what was blocking her, she retired to a corner of the churchyard and looked up to see an icon of the Virgin Mary above the church. Beset with grief over her sins, she promised Mary that if she would be allowed to venerate the True Cross, she would renounce her life of sin and go wherever the Virgin wished. Again she approached the church, and this time she was allowed entry. 

Being a former prostitute myself, I have always considered St. Mary of Egypt a patroness, although perhaps not one of my principals. But as I listened to my priest relate her story, I realized that I had never been truly contrite about those years spent peddling iniquity—sure, I recognized that what I did was wrong, and I obviously repented, but as for feeling a deep sense of grief over the sin aspect of what I had done, like St. Mary of Egypt felt outside that church? No, that I had never experienced. I had always at least partially justified what I had done by telling myself that, given my extreme circumstances and lack of other options, what I had done was really not all that bad. Not exactly good, but not exactly evil, either. 

This realization perturbed me. So I prayed for the grace of true contrition right there during Liturgy.

Late that night, I felt restless, and decided to go for a drive. I hadn’t been out of the house in several days except for walks around my own neighborhood, and I just wanted to blast my music and feel the road race by beneath me—I didn’t care where I went. And so I started out without any clear destination in mind.

Almost as if on auto-pilot, I found myself traveling customary paths—roads that were familiar because they were routes to places in which I used to live or work. And before I knew it, I was on my way to the apartment where I had lured so many men into sin.

As I approached the corner on which the building stands, I started to feel a great weight on my chest. Breathing became significantly more difficult. I turned the corner and saw the place itself, and it hit me like a sock on the jaw: “My God, what have I done to You?”

I realized the weight on my chest was the weight of my sins. And I realized that I had made a grotesque mockery of God’s laws, laws given to us out of love and for our protection. But, most painfully of all, I realized that I had deeply wounded the only One who loves me infinitely and unconditionally. He had given me everything, and I had squandered it in filth.

A shower of profound sorrow washed over me. It was more than I could bear. I had to get out of there. So I pressed the gas and raced down the street, although I was gasping for breath and could barely see the road through my tears.

I kept driving—visiting the sites of many past mistakes—shedding years of uncried tears.

*             *             *

Sunday was noteworthy in another way, too: the latest interview with the exiled Archbishop Viganò was published. In it, he discusses the COVID-19 pandemic and how it relates to matters of faith. He speaks of the pandemic as an instrument of divine wrath meted out upon a world saturated with sin, and, more especially, a Church hierarchy which has abandoned its own doctrine, embracing in its stead secularism, “religious relativism,” and even blasphemy. He characterizes God as a Father who “sends us many signs, often very sternly” to repent, this being one of them.

Abp. Viganò calls for the ‘immediate and absolute’ conversion of “[t]he Pope, the Hierarchy, and all Bishops, Priests, and Religious.” He also calls upon our societies to repent of sins “such as recognizing the right to abortion, euthanasia, and sodomy” as well as “corrupt[ing] children and violat[ing] their innocence.” 

“Public sins,” he goes on, “require public confession and public atonement”; otherwise, we “cannot evade God’s punishment.” 

In other words, it is time for the whole world, and especially the Church, to have its St. Mary of Egypt moment. Like her, we are being denied access to our churches. And like her, according to Abp. Viganò, it is because of our impurity.

St. Mary of Egypt spent the last years of her life battling, and ultimately overcoming, her temptations and doing penance for her sins. She was rewarded for her efforts with great spiritual gifts, including the ability to perform miracles. 

Right now, we are all in the equivalent of St. Mary of Egypt’s churchyard—and, in this quarantine environment, we have ample time to reflect upon our sins and how they might have contributed to our present crisis. Will we, like her, be gifted with the grace to repent in time to save our society, our souls, and our Church from ruin? Or will we selfishly cling to the world we have grown complacently accustomed to, which is so repugnantly offensive to Our Lord?

I urge each one of you to pray for the grace of true contrition. I can tell you, it hurts like nothing else on this earth, but don’t you think it’s about time we stopped indulging every pleasure-seeking whim and started doing a little productive suffering? I, for one, intend to start doing penance right now, today. And, during this painfully pregnant pause in our mostly misguided lives, every member of the Church Militant—including and especially the hierarchy, going all the way to the very top—should and must do the same, if we are to escape the horrific fate we so justly deserve.

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Finding My Father

Originally published at One Peter Five

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting in the back of my father’s car, listening to the music he loves. He would pick me up from daycare in the late afternoon, and I would close my eyes and fall into whatever song was playing – “Dear Prudence” by the Beatles, maybe, or “Through the Long Night” by Billy Joel, or “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” by Neil Young. Through my half-asleep reverie and half-lidded eyes, I would glance up and see my father smirking at me in the rearview mirror.

“Are you asleep back there?” he’d ask me, amused.

“No, Daddy,” I’d slur, “I’m just resting my eyes.”

In the supreme sweetness of those moments, I didn’t have to plan, or worry, or steer the situation to serve my own ends. I was secure in the conviction that I was in loving, capable, and protective hands that would pilot me wherever I ought to go.

I have spent the majority of my life trying to recapture that feeling.

* * *

My parents divorced when I was still too little to understand what the word meant. It didn’t take long for me to figure out it signaled the end of the world as I had known it.

Prior to the divorce, my father had been my primary caregiver. My mother spent her evenings nightclubbing and snorting cocaine and her days sleeping off the previous night’s revelries – often in a stranger’s bed. Where my mother was indifferent, my father was doubly attentive. Where my mother was absent, my father filled in the gaps. He cooked my dinners – grilled cheese sandwiches were his specialty. He ran my baths. He read me bedtime stories in my favorite rocking chair, and, ultimately, he taught me how to read those same stories back to him.

All of that changed when my parents split. My mother was given custody, and she moved me half a continent away from my dad. With her, meals could not be relied upon – there were times when I had to steal food from grocery and convenience stores to avoid starvation. With her, I was expected to take care of not only all of my own needs, but many of hers as well – I was essentially running the household by the age of 10. And with her, there were no more bedtime stories.

But there were plenty of tall tales. My mother lied so often, so flagrantly, and with such gusto that she often managed to fool herself. She’d lie to enliven dull facts, to bury unflattering realities – heck, she lied just to pass the time. Most of all, she lied to manipulate, and most people fell into the traps she laid at least once.

I was no exception. As a child, I must have been to her what a small rural town was to a snake oil salesman: innocent, credulous, and ignorant of ignominy. In other words, I was an easy mark.

The majority of the lies my mother told me were about my father. When I had to do without some necessity on account of lack of funds, she’d blame him. She’d tell me he hadn’t sent the child support check for that month – she couldn’t admit that she had squandered it on drugs – and call him a tightwad who loved only what was in his wallet. She’d put me on the phone to ask him for money, and the awkward silences and irritation-tinged resistance from him that followed seemed to support her contention. The fact that he was rapidly becoming wealthy climbing the corporate ladder at the oil company for which he worked, and the fact that he spent so much time at that job, even during my visits with him, seemed to verify my mother’s claim that he was purely materialistic and parentally maladroit.

But I desperately wanted to disbelieve, and I went on a mission to win some sort of display of pride and affection from him. I got it into my head that the way to impress him, the way to make him love me, was by overachieving. So I got straight As up through high school, was first chair in band and orchestra, and seized every opportunity to prove to him that I was special.

In 7th grade, for example, I fought hard for – and won – the school board’s permission to skip 8th grade. But when I told him the news, he barely looked up from the newspaper he was reading. It was my greatest coup, but it didn’t seem to impress him in the least.

So I began to believe my mother’s claims that he was cold, and uncaring, and interested only in his money. I began to believe that I was not a priority for him. I began to believe that he just plain didn’t love me.

* * *

It was at around that same time that I began to lose my faith in God.

Growing up in the Bible belt, I had always taken the existence of God for granted, even though neither of my parents was religious. I prayed in inverse proportion to the quality of life with my mother – the worse things got, the more I prayed. I remember countless nights spent lying sleepless upon the pallet of blankets that functioned as my bed – we could not afford an actual mattress – my hands tightly clasped together, my gaze fixed upon the moon shining through my window like a beacon on the pitch-black prairie nights. I remember calling out with my whole heart, “Please, please, save me from this hell. Dear God, please help me find a way out.”

The years wore on and on, and things with my mom got worse and worse; by the end of my time with her, she and the ex-con she’d shacked up with were completely strung out on crack cocaine. When they weren’t distracted by fighting each other, they were making – and carrying out – threats against me. Every night brought a grotesque circus – either my mom and her boyfriend would try to beat each other to death, or the crew of junkies, felons, drug-dealers, and other assorted miscreants in their circle of friends would drop in for an impromptu party. Every morning brought broken beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays, vomit on the carpets, passed-out strangers, bloodstains on the furniture – all of which I was expected to put right.

The days went on and on, and my frantic petitions to a God I believed in but knew nothing about grew in intensity and frequency. I never felt that they were answered. Eventually, I grew to suspect that nobody was listening on the other end.

* * *

By the time I was a teenager, I was fully convinced that neither my heavenly nor my earthly father cared for me in the least. I’d completely stopped praying, and my relationship with my dad was set for shipwreck. The grilled cheese sandwich and rocking chair days seemed a lifetime away. When I was eventually able to leave my mother’s house at age 14, I went to live with my grandmother rather than my dad.

The explosion didn’t come until I was 21. After years of below-the-surface seething resentment (on my part), we finally had a major blow-up. He’d said he would pay for me to go back to college, and I had moved halfway across the country to get to the school I wanted to attend – but when the tuition bill arrived, he told me he would help with that semester, but after that, I’d be on my own.

For me, that was the last straw. I let him have it. He reacted in kind. We both said things that never should have been said.

And then, for the next fifteen years, we said nothing whatsoever.

* * *

In my late teens and early twenties, I spent most of my time being angry. I was forever telling myself and others that I didn’t need my parents, because I was clearly capable of taking care of myself, and I often tried to convince myself that there was no logical reason I should love them. At the same time, I was furious at my parents for neglecting to care for me, because I was sure that I would not be so messed up as an adult if I had been better loved as a child.

I was mad at the various institutions that should have intervened to remove me from my abusive mother’s home long before I finally managed to make my escape, because I felt that my life wouldn’t have turned out so lousy had I not had to endure that hell.

I was mad at the universe and life itself for forcing me to exist, because I regarded my existence as a despicable thing.

My anger at my father grew to apply to his entire sex. I truly believed that all of the world’s problems could be blamed on flaws and proclivities generally attributable to men. Wars, genocides, and violence of every conceivable variety were the product of too much testosterone. If men were taken out of the picture, the world would be a better and more peaceful place. So I thought.

As much as I was angry at my personal patriarch, and at patriarchy in general, I was also angry at the Heavenly Patriarch. I grew to disdain the very idea of God; I felt that such a being likely did not exist, and that if He did, I wanted nothing to do with Him. Any deity who would allow children to suffer the way I had was not worthy of my praise.

Step by step, I wrote first my father, then other men, then God out of the script of my life.

* * *

In my mid-twenties, I became a high-priced call girl. That’s when my wising-up process began. My clients were politicians; CEOs; athletes; journalists; men who had made a fortune in tech; and, occasionally, Average Joes. I even had one young college student who came to see me every time he received a financial aid disbursement – a single visit would just about exhaust his entire surplus over and above his tuition.

All of these men had one thing in common: they were all wounded birds – lonely, alienated, bearing heavy baggage. Most of them were seeking something more than mere physical pleasure – some kind of meaningful connection. The majority could have been better served by a trained therapist, as that is the role in which so many of them cast me. For whatever reason, they chose to recline on my couch rather than a shrink’s.

Perhaps the illusion of anonymity was a factor: in that world, we had our own type of confessional seal – it is understood that what is said between a call girl and her client is privileged. These men knew they would never encounter me in their “real” lives, which made me safe in a way that other outlets might not be. Consequently, my clients, particularly my regulars, poured their hearts out to me. In my boudoir, they stripped away more than just their clothing – they also discarded their pretenses, putting me in a uniquely privileged position to see men as they truly are.

By and large, my clients were in miserable marriages. Some had wives who withheld sex and affection or used them strategically and manipulatively; others had wives who disrespected, belittled, or dominated them. These men were driven to buy a rough facsimile of traditionally feminine attention by the hour at an exorbitant rate because they could not get anything like it at home.

Should their spouses decide to divorce them, they generally lost everything – their homes; their savings; and, most painfully for the majority of my clients, their children. One man who came to see me had only recently ceased sleeping in his car, because his ex-wife had taken the house, and he was not immediately able to find somewhere else to live. Another hadn’t seen his son in over a year because his ex-wife had simply stopped sending him for visitation, and neither the courts nor law enforcement had intervened. Yet a third could not wrest custody of his daughter away from his mentally ill ex-wife, even after years of documented erratic and irresponsible behavior on her part, because of the court’s deep bias in favor of mothers.

These men were not unique. I encountered countless others in similar circumstances.

I had always considered myself a liberal and a feminist. But there, literally laid bare in front of me, was case after case providing evidence that defied my worldview. These were not cruel tyrants, callously taking advantage of a system made to favor them due to generations of male domination. Nor were they contented contenders competing side by side with their co-ed co-equals on a level playing field. These were vanquished prisoners of war being made to pay for their own crimes, whatever they might be, plus the alleged crimes of their forefathers, by spiteful women who were already benefiting from boundless institutional compensation. These people were told dozens of times in dozens of ways every day that they were bad and wrong, simply, at least in part, for being male.

I saw so very many men – good men, for the most part, if weak in flesh – persecuted and made unjustly miserable. I couldn’t disregard the evidence; I had to revise my position.

* * *

Since I’d been wrong about men, I had to accept the possibility that I was wrong about other things, too. When I went back to college in my late 20s, I discovered that that was indeed the case. I was at an extremely liberal school, but that didn’t stop my general chemistry professor from spending an entire class challenging her students’ atheism. Her ultimate point? You don’t get something from nothing, no matter what reaction occurs. You have to put something in to get something out. If that’s so, how did the something from which the universe originated come into existence?

It sounds so simple and reasonable now, but at the time, this blew my mind. It defied everything I had believed my entire mature life. But again, I could not ignore the evidence lying in front of me, so that day, I revised my identity from “atheist” to “agnostic.” Shortly thereafter, I began my search for whatever it was that had generated the original something.

I test-drove virtually every major non-Christian religion. I even went to a voodoo ritual, just to check it out. The only one I seriously considered adopting was Judaism. I studied and attended synagogue. But when it came time for the mikvah, I backed out. Something, I wasn’t sure what, just wasn’t quite right. Something was missing.

It took me about eight years to find out what that something was.

* * *

I was living with my boyfriend and had been for about four years. I had gotten out of sex work – indeed, I had quit for my boyfriend. My life was better than it had ever been, yet something was still missing.

One day I pulled up to park in front of our North Oakland apartment, and the car parked on the street in front of me had a Catholic radio bumper sticker on it. “Ha!” I thought. “What could they possibly find to talk about for 24 hours per day?”

But then I started seeing those stickers everywhere. It seemed as if every third car I’d see had one. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to tune in to that station. What I heard surprised me. It made sense. And the people were not weird the way the Protestant media people were; I had grown up in the era of televangelists and TBN and had always found those personalities to be at least slightly creepy. But the people on Catholic radio seemed really…normal. And reasonable. I found myself listening to the Catholic station at work – I was cleaning houses at the time – and the programs I heard dampened the drudgery of my menial labor.

After a couple of weeks of this, I woke up one Sunday morning with a burning conviction: I had to go to Mass. As soon as possible. I felt as though I would not be able to go on living if I didn’t make it. I spent all day hemming and hawing, but finally, that evening, I went to my first Mass.

It would not be my last.

* * *

After a bit of searching, I found a Latin Mass parish that felt like home. I found a priest to catechize me who ended up having perhaps the most important influence over me of anyone in my life.

He was so patient with me. He would listen to me vent all of my skepticism, the objects of which were numerous. Then, in a clear and detailed manner, he’d use science, philosophy, history – whatever was germane – to prove the truth of whichever concept or teaching I’d gotten hung up on. He took my doubts and objections and dismantled them with surgical precision. In short, he did what my chemistry professor had done so many years prior, only he took it one step farther: he proved to me that God existed, then identified and familiarized me with Him. He not only satisfactorily answered my questions of what, Who, when, and where, but was able to tell me why. That was all it took to convince me to become Catholic.

But this priest did more than just convert me – he provided a model of what a father could be.

As my baptism approached, I began to feel like the ongoing cold war between my biological father and me was not only stupid, but an impediment to my true and total conversion. My priest agreed. So one day, in the fall of 2013, I picked up the phone and called my dad for the first time in 15 years.

He was overjoyed to hear from me. We cried, laughed, and cry-laughed. We had a long talk that included apologies, explanations, expressions of regret, and a commitment to building a better relationship in the future.

* * *

The loss and eventual rediscovery of my fathers have made the defining saga of my life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I found them both at almost the same time, lovingly prompted and prodded by a man whose title happens to be “Father.”

This is not a finished story – the getting-to-know-you process with both my fathers is ongoing. I’m still learning, and slowly at that, who my fathers are, how to love and respect them, and what it means to be a daughter. It’s the most exciting journey I have ever undertaken.

My dad summed things up perfectly: “I do believe the ending, when it comes, can still be a great one, and I hope we can write it together.”

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The Sleepy, Hollow Labyrinth Within

 

 

“A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere … the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie.”

 

When I was 13, I attempted suicide for the first time. Life with my crack addict mother was a mad, merciless merry-go-round which ever threatened to whirl off its undercarriage. And, although an infinite parade of psychopathically violent boyfriends, perverts, junkies, and career criminals hopped on and off this ride with apparent ease, I was unable to leave the not-so-funhouse. It seemed the only exit was the permanent one, and, with the assumed assistance of two handfuls of pills and a half-bottle of rum, I endeavored to escape.

But, like most kids my age, I had no idea just how tough it is to snuff out one’s own candle. When people accuse those who have achieved this feat of taking the easy way out, they betray the same ignorance I possessed at age 13—there is nothing easy about killing oneself, for one thing, and no one makes the final decision without sincerely believing there is no other way out of their quagmire, easy or otherwise.

What people who have not experienced it do not know is, depression is a sleep-mask—it blinds, and thereby disables, the sufferer. It narcotizes, hypnotizes, and paralyzes one into an incapacitating slumber populated exclusively by nightmares. In this somnambulistic labyrinth, there are no guideposts—one can merely grope at thorny walls. Ultimately, the sleepwalker cannot find the exit in such a palsied state—yet, only after clawing one’s fingers raw in an attempt to scale the walls does one conclude that death is the only way out.

 

*             *             *

 

“By divers little make-shifts in that ingenious way which is commonly denominated ‘by hook and by crook,’ [he] got on tolerably enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of [his] labor, to have a wonderfully easy life.”

 

And that was me at age 30.

Having escaped my mother’s hellacious world through law enforcement intervention, married and divorced, and moved all over the country, I’d finally settled in California and enrolled in a private college by means of a generous scholarship. But I’d also begun to suffer the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and a genetic disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which had left me unable to perform most “normal” jobs. Bills mounted and eviction loomed. Finally, out of great desperation, I made the decision to become a call girl at age 24. By 25, I was the top-rated escort in the San Francisco Bay area. And by 30, I’d become accustomed to the expensive, fast-lane lifestyle such “success” engendered.

I’m sure that, to all outward appearances, I was a carefree, fun-loving party girl, a girl who allowed both her money and her affections to flow freely. Perhaps a bit like a combination of Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ophelia in Trading Places—a scrappy, lighthearted working girl who could drink a man three times her size under the table.

But that was just a mask I wore.

As a child forced to ride shotgun on the reckless drive that was my mother’s life, I had coped with the black, bottomless chasm within and without by creating a lush, intricate, vivid imaginary world. I retreated into Technicolor fantasy—sometimes I sailed so far away from the outside world that I had difficulty distinguishing reality from the experiences I’d invented. In my mind, I lived in a different time, a distant place, and among people completely disparate to the inmates of my mother’s subterranean dystopia.

But as a call girl, I was highly priced, highly rated, and thus subject to high expectations. My work demanded engagement—I could not simply drift away to make-believe shores. So I did the next best thing—I became a make-believe person.

By age 30, I had made a tangled mess of my life, and that old, too-familiar demon known in clinical circles as “major depressive disorder” once again began to take over. Once again, I was trapped in the sleepy, hollow labyrinth. And once again, I became convinced that death was the only way out.

 

 *             *             *

 

 

“The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal.”

 

Never let it be said that I don’t learn from my mistakes. Having failed to accomplish the job with two fistfuls of sleeping pills and a bit of booze at age 13, I was doubly determined to get it right at age 30. I was on several heavy-duty prescription medications at the time, both for depression and the many complex issues related to my chronic conditions, and I had just had them all refilled. I took every last one of those pills—in sum, over 500, about 20% of which were morphine.

And again, I did not die.

Apparently God had other plans for me. Perhaps the purpose of my survival was to tell you the tale here and now—because even if you aren’t personally afflicted, depression is all around you, and you may very well have a part to play in someone else’s twilight drama.

 

*             *             *

 

I still find myself being pulled back into that labyrinth from time to time. But I have several tools now that I did not have in my pre-Catholic life that help me keep my head above water.

First and foremost among them is the gift of prayer, the ultimate suicide hotline. It’s a direct link to someone who sincerely understands the nature of suffering, and has experienced intense distress—more so than any of us. Indeed, in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ was so anguished and anxious that He sweated blood. And the agony of His Passion is beyond anything anyone else has ever experienced. Tortured and mocked by His own beloved creations, abandoned by His closest friends—and betrayed by one of them—left to die like a common criminal in the most brutal and agonizing method imaginable, Our Lord has definitely trudged through the black chasm. When we pray, we are speaking to someone who knows exactly what we are going through—not merely because He is able to read our hearts, but because He has made His own journey through the valley of misery. He not only gets it, He also cares and wishes to help—and there is no one better equipped to do so.

The sacraments are also powerful tools in the battle against depression. When my soul feels overburdened, and I feel regret or remorse over the mistakes I have made, the Confessional is available to wash it all away. And if I feel alone, far away from God, I can reconnect with Him in a most magnificent way by receiving the Eucharist—no one who acts as a living tabernacle is alone or separated from God.

Finally, my Catholic community acts as a nurturing surrogate family; it’s a place where I know I am loved and accepted, and where I can indubitably find the support I need, no matter what. I have found solace in the friendships formed therefrom, and I’m deeply indebted to the numerous friends (and strangers) who have provided spiritual, emotional, and practical assistance in countless ways when I have been in need.

Becoming Catholic has filled my life with love and light where there was once only agony and darkness.

 

*             *             *

 

“As Ichabod approached this fearful tree … he thought his whistle was answered—it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches … Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze”

 

Ichabod Crane, deep within his own Sleepy Hollow, mistook a pumpkin for a severed head and a malicious man in a clever costume for a murderous phantom, and it cost him his life. Like him, we who labor under the burden of melancholy mistake opportunities for obstacles, and molehills for mountains.

We cannot escape this myopia alone. When we are in that place, battered and blinded and bumbling about, it is almost impossible to see the forest of hope and God’s love that surrounds us all, because the trees appear as encroaching problems too massive to overcome. We need a hand, a light, to guide us. And your kind words may act as an extended hand for someone drowning in despair; your listening ear and objective perspective, sympathetically shared, may be the light that helps a troubled soul find a path out of their sleepy, hollow labyrinth.

It has been said, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” If you know someone enveloped in darkness—and most of us do, whether we realize it or not—it’s not helpful to them to hear you say “chin up,” “just shrug it off,” or “think positive.” It’s just not that simple for that person. You may be able to do these things, but they cannot–if they could, you can be certain they would.

So, instead of cursing that person’s darkness, light a candle for him or her. Remind that person of God’s love; help him or her brainstorm solutions to the most pressing problems; and, most importantly, pray for that person, and make sure s/he knows you’re doing so.

You might very well save a life.

 

All quotations contained herein were taken from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

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On Longings and Lies

At Mass this morning, a baby girl was sitting in the pew directly in front of me. She had wide, inquisitive eyes and dark, fuzzy hair that stood on end. Her carrier was turned in such a way that she was staring right at me throughout the first parts of the Mass, and every time I knelt, we were within inches of one another. I tried to ignore her, but she refused to allow it. Every time I looked away from her, she started to fuss. So we began to play games with our glances—I would roll my eyes about, and she would smile. And that would make me smile.

At the Offertory, her father took her out of the carrier. She stood facing me, gripping the back of the pew, and when the Sanctus came, and I once more knelt down, her tiny hands rested next to mine. Slowly, in that characteristic wobbly baby fashion, she reached out to grab my finger.

And that’s when a whimsical interaction turned into a heart-rending reality check. Because when those delicate fingers touched mine, what flashed through my mind was: This is what I threw away. This is what I destroyed. This is what will never be, not for me.

You see, I have two children. But they’re dead. And I never got a chance to hold their hands. They never even drew breath. Because I aborted them. And those are the two biggest mistakes of my entire life.

*             *             *

I was 16 when I got pregnant the first time. I was on the pill—actually, I was on the pill both times I got pregnant. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t get pregnant if you’re on the pill, because it’s a lie.

I knew I was pregnant at the moment of conception. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt the presence of another life like an epiphany—it was as clear to me as if someone had pranced into the room in a very grandiose fashion: Here I am! Look at me! And there she was. I know she was a girl the same way I knew I was pregnant. I can’t explain it. I just know.

And yet, I desperately wanted to be wrong. Even as I sat in my high school philosophy class feeling my body rearrange itself to make room for the budding life inside me, I clung to my shred of disbelief. I scribbled and passed a note to my best girlfriend: “Big problem, need help, meet me after school.”

She and I drove to the other side of town to buy a pregnancy test—we wanted to avoid being seen by anyone we knew. Then we went to the used book store where she worked and squeezed into the employee restroom to await the result. Neither of us said a word as we watched two undeniably pink lines appear in the rectangular window. We knew those lines were an equal sign with a whole mess of trouble on the tail end of the equation.

*             *             *

It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that I would have an abortion. Everyone in whom I confided my situation presumed that’s what I would do. Not a single person asked me if I wanted my baby, or suggested adoption as an alternative. They spoke about “the abortion” as if it were a reality already in existence, a decision already made: When are you getting the abortion? I bet you can’t wait to have the abortion. Don’t worry, you’ll feel better after the abortion.

This included the nurse at the Planned Parenthood clinic where I went for a second test, still hoping against hope that all other indicators had been somehow broken or misguided. After she told me I was most definitely pregnant, she launched into a speech she had clearly given many times before.

Of course, she said, I couldn’t even consider having my baby—and yes, she did use the term “baby.” My reputation, my hopes, my dreams, my goals, my whole future—they would all be ruined if I carried to term. And imagine the suffering of the poor child; it simply wasn’t fair to bring a baby into the world without reliable and adequate means of support and at my age. Imagine the shame and discrimination such a child would face, having a mother so young.

And besides, I was still a child myself, she said, patting my hand and giving me her best impression of a Glenda the Good Witch smile. She was my friend. She felt my pain. She knew what was best for me, certainly better than I—after all, she was an expert.

According to her, the best thing I could do, the only thing I could do, was terminate my pregnancy. By any means necessary. She even told me how to get around Oklahoma’s parental notification laws, referring me to a clinic in Dallas where they “put women’s interests first,” and consequently didn’t ask pesky questions about whether an out-of-state minor had parental permission for a surgical procedure.

My boyfriend and the father of my baby also assumed there would be an abortion. Not only did he not want this particular baby, he never wanted any children whatsoever. He seemed resentful, as if he were annoyed with me for getting pregnant. He called the clinic recommended by Planned Parenthood to find out how much they charged, and scraped together a couple of hundred dollars—his half of the cost—in a matter of days.

As soon as he’d given me his share of the money, he began to nag me about following through. Did you call the clinic today? Do you have the money yet? How are you going to get the money? When is your appointment? What are you waiting for?

I felt like I was being swept away by a pro-abortion tide. Amid all of that pressure and in the center of all of those projected opinions, I never stopped to ask for one of the most important opinions of all—my own. In that echo chamber of voices telling me to kill my baby, my own voice was drowned out, and, at any rate, didn’t seem to carry much weight. After all, who was I? Like the Planned Parenthood nurse said, I was just a kid without any means of support. And how could literally every person I talked to be wrong?

So I made the appointment. And I had the “procedure.” But it was not a cure for anything. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that your dreams will be shattered unless you have an abortion, because it’s a lie. On the contrary, an abortion is the beginning of a life-long nightmare.

*             *             *

Two weeks after my seventeenth birthday, I married the father of my baby, the little girl I threw away. And about three years later, we got pregnant again. This time, things were both very different and exactly the same.

This time, I had no clue I was pregnant. There was no epiphany. Whereas my daughter made her entrance onto the stage of my life with a burst of light and great fanfare, my son tiptoed onstage, unnoticed by every other actor. I didn’t even realize he was a boy until after I’d shoved him into the orchestra pit.

Whereas I had spent the nights leading up to my first abortion tossing and turning, deep in apologetic internal dialog with the child I was about to discard, heavily conflicted about the so-called choice I was making, I initially felt no internal conflict whatsoever about my second abortion.

I still felt I had no choice—and my husband again contributed heavily to that feeling with his vocal determination to remain childless. But another influential factor was my own dissolute lifestyle in the months leading up to my discovery of the pregnancy. I had ingested countless teratogens in the form of various recreational drugs and alcohol, and was terrified that any baby that had been simmering in the cesspool of my womb for three months, as had been my son, would be born with horrible defects that would cause him a lifetime of suffering. The feelings of guilt engendered by that thought made me feel like a cornered alley cat—and having another abortion was my flailing effort to claw my way up the side of the building to escape the consequences of my own self-indulgent actions.

I made the appointment at the least expensive place I could find. I soon discovered the reason for the rock-bottom rate. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s possible to get a “quality abortion” at a bargain price, because it’s a lie. Firstly, there is no such thing as a “quality abortion,” and secondly, even with medically sanctioned murder, you get what you pay for.

It was obvious the minute I walked into the doctor’s office that she was really much more into the baby-delivering end of her practice than the baby-killing end.

The first clue was, every other woman in the waiting room was happily pregnant. They wore their baby bumps like badges of honor. Their faces radiated the joy of expectation. What must they think of me? I wondered as I sat down amongst them.

A beaming blonde leaned over. “When are you due?” she asked me.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell her, “I’m here to get rid of mine,” so I lied and instead said, “Oh, I’m here to find out.”

“How exciting!” She positively glowed with glee. I wanted to weep.

The second clue was, there were snapshots of the babies the doctor had delivered wallpapering every inch of that office. When I laid back on the cold metal table and put my feet in the stirrups, I discovered that even the ceiling was plastered in pictures. While the doctor brusquely tore away at my flesh (I was bedridden and bleeding afterward for several days), crushed the life of the tiny boy inside of me, and I cried out in abject pain, little toothless grins mocked me from above. Everything that could have been, but would never be, was right there in front of me, confronting and contemning me with joys I would never know.

I wanted to scream, “STOP! I want to keep him! Give him back to me!” but it was too late. My son was gone.

And every day since the deaths of my children, I have felt the two holes in my life where my son and daughter should be. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that your life will be more complete after an abortion, because it’s a lie. It will feel like something is missing for the rest of your life.

*             *             *

There are very few people in my life who know about this part of my past—at least there were before today. It’s something about which I am deeply ashamed. Abortion is by far the worst thing I ever did—and I did it twice. It’s something I don’t merely regret, because “regret” is not a strong enough word to describe my feelings about what I did. I rue it. I lament it. I mourn it. Every single day. I have built intricate psychological cubicles in which to compartmentalize the crushing pain of it all, just to enable me to function on a day-to-day basis.

It is not my aim to give a political lecture, or to give statistics about the emotional, social, and psychological damage wrought by abortion—there are people who are already doing a much better job of that than I possibly could.

No, all I hope to do by telling my story is to add my voice to the tragic chorus saying, “I did this, and it was horrible. I did this, and it was not a solution—all it did was create a larger problem that will never be solved, not in this lifetime. I did this, and I really wish I hadn’t. I did this, and I hope you won’t make the same mistake.” I’m telling my story with the hope that I might save even just one woman or girl the suffocating sorrow I have felt all these years—and that I will continue to feel until the day I die.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that bringing a new life into the world will close doors for you, because it’s a lie—the birth of something new always represents the opening of a door. And don’t ever let anyone tell you that destroying a life through abortion will open doors for you, or that it will help you realize greater fulfillment, because those, too, are lies—the biggest ones of all. Pushing your child off the stage of your life closes the door between the two of you, but it doesn’t sever the bond. And you can knock on that door ’til the end of time, you can pound on it ‘til your fists are bloody, but abortion seals that door shut. The only thing that provides some hope and eases the pain is seeking, and finding, the mercy and grace of God and the promise of a life to come. And yet, the void—the hollow space where your child should be—remains.

And inside that void, the longing whispers of what might have been will echo endlessly, inescapably, for the rest of your life.

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About Anna, A Friend of Mine

 

I want to tell you about Anna.

She is one of most remarkable people I have ever met. She immigrated to the United States from Poland in the 1980’s. Actually, “immigrated” is not the most precise word—“defected” is more accurate, as her native country was still under a Communist regime, which was by no means willing to let her go. She was one of the leading computer scientists when that technology was in its infancy—for that reason, the Communists were desperate to hang on to her, and the Americans were salivating at the prospect of her switching sides.

For Anna, the choice, if not the process, was simple. As a devout Catholic, Anna naturally preferred to live in a place where she would be free to practice her faith. So when U.C. Berkeley offered her an attractive position, and the U.S. government offered to facilitate her escape, Anna seized upon the opportunity, and left her entire life behind—family, friends, and possessions—to embark upon a perilous journey into the unknown with only her faith and her intellect to rely upon.

*             *             *

 

 

My friendship with Anna was hard-won.

She was one of the first Catholics I met as I was entering the Church. I had only recently begun to come to Mass, and, searching for a way to get to know the people in the pews around me, I answered a request in the parish bulletin for volunteers to help make the flower arrangements. Anna was one of the two other people on the Flower Team, and that is how we met—surrounded by plush bundles of white roses, ensconced in the heady perfume of stargazer lilies, and framed by curving tendrils of vibrant greenery.

Anna rarely spoke while we arranged the flowers. When she did, her words were often self-deprecating, spoken in a tentative, tiny voice, like that of a shy child. She never made eye contact. She seemed impenetrable—she didn’t laugh at our jokes, and didn’t participate in our small talk. She reminded me of an escape artist—locked inside a safe, which was then wrapped up in chains and tossed into the ocean—only she wasn’t trying to get out.

I looked at this unusual creature, always dressed in gray and black with hair to match, and with thick glasses that hid her downcast eyes—this small, quiet, seemingly anti-social and possibly self-loathing person—and I sensed profound pain from deep wounds. I looked at her and I saw a challenge. I made up my mind to win her friendship, come what may.

*             *             *

 

 

It was not easy. But the more difficult and remote she was, the more determined I was to earn her trust. If I saw her working on a project around the parish, I would stop what I was doing and impose my help upon her. Then I would use that opening to impose my conversation upon her.

For example, one day I saw her sitting on the side steps sorting rose petals for a procession. She had a massive box filled to the brim, and she had to remove all of the wilted and decaying petals. It was a tedious, incredibly time-consuming job.

“Hey, how’d you like some help with that?” I asked her.

Barely audible, she replied, “It’s okay. I can do it.”

“I know you can, but you’ll be done in half the time if you let me help you.”

“It’s okay. I can do it.”

“Okay,” I said, sitting down next to her. “How about this. You do your half,” I said, scooping a massive armful out of the box and dumping it into the pocket-dip created by my long skirt, “and I’ll do mine.”

She shook her head, but one side of her mouth curled up just the tiniest bit, hinting at a smile. That was all the encouragement I needed to keep chiseling away at her granite facade.

*             *             *

 

 

The real breakthrough came when we started sewing. Our priest had requested new cassocks for the altar servers, and I started teaching a free sewing class with the goal of training a few more helpers for the project, which was daunting.

Anna was the only person who showed up to every single one of those classes. I think they made her see me in a new light, because she began to open up to me. In fact, our relationship underwent a radical transformation.

Where she had once been silent, she became unsilenceable. She just plain would not stop talking. She’d ask me a question, and I’d get three words into the answer, then she’d interrupt me and go on prattling. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. It was downright crazy-making. She’d corner me after Mass and talk my ear off for two or three hours. It’d be dinner time, and my stomach would be growling—loudly—and I’d be saying Hail Marys for help in making my escape. I’d say, “Anna, I really need to go home now,” and she would just go on talking as if I’d said nothing whatsoever. I could be in my car, with the engine running, and she’d stand between the open door and the rest of the car, making it impossible for me to close it and drive away.

Where she had once been remote, she became incredibly clingy—she got to the point where she wouldn’t make a single decision, big or small, without consulting me first. In practical terms, this meant that she was calling, texting, and emailing me upwards of ten to fifteen times per day. I once tried to tell her, “Anna, I’m not qualified to advise you on anything. You’re older than me, wiser than me, have more life experience, and are more mature in the faith, too. If anything, you should be mentoring me.”

“Oh no,” she replied, looking deeply troubled that I would make such a suggestion, “you are very holy, Bettina.”

And this was horribly uncomfortable for me, because, although she was completely ignorant of my scandalously unholy life prior to coming into the Church, I was not—indeed, every moment of every day, I experienced feelings of visceral pain and intense shame over the things I’ve done. I wanted to cry out, “Oh Anna, you are so sorely mistaken! If you knew even one tenth of the things I’ve done, you’d be disavowed of that notion, lickety split.” But I knew that was not a wise idea.

So I became an expert in avoiding her. I stopped answering her calls, and stalled on replying to her texts. I got to the point where I’d figured out a zillion ways to sneak out of the church unseen after Mass so I wouldn’t get stuck in a talk hold with her. People would see me running across the parking lot and shoot me puzzled glances. But I didn’t care. I didn’t want to lose my entire Sunday afternoon and evening to a one-sided conversation.

And then she did something that made me feel ashamed.

My health had been getting worse for quite some time. One day I stepped on the scale and discovered I had dropped from 112 pounds—already a very low weight for someone my height—to 106 pounds in less than a week.

I flipped out.

I was worried that there might be something other than the usual RA and Ehlers-Danlos issues going on with me—that maybe I had cancer and was dying. I called an advice nurse, who recommended that I go to the ER. So Anna drove me.

But that wasn’t all she did. She sat at my bedside praying the rosary for me, over and over, for about 7 straight hours.

That, my friends, is Christian love in action.

In the car on the way home, she told me a bit about her childhood. Her mother and sister had treated her more like a servant than family. She was always and only given what was left over after they were done helping themselves—whatever food they didn’t eat at meals, whatever clothes they were tired of wearing, and so on. As for her father, he had rejected her outright. Refusing to ever touch her, he told her on a regular basis that she was “too ugly to love” until he abandoned the family entirely.

And suddenly I understood why she had begun to cling to me so tightly—I might have been one of very few people to take an active interest in her. I might have been the only person who ever courted her affection.

After that, I decided to confront the issues between us directly—she was totally deserving of that respect and consideration, and it had been childish and cruel of me to deny it to her. I wrote her a long letter telling her everything I loved about her, while simultaneously delineating my boundaries in a very concrete way.

And wouldn’t you know it? After that, things got a lot better.

*             *             *

 

 

We spent Thanksgiving Day of 2014 together. I was working as a live-in nanny for a well-to-do-family at the time, and they were away with relatives—I was alone in the big house. Anna’s son was unable to make it home for the holiday, and I knew it would be very difficult for her to spend the day by herself. So I invited her to spend it baking apple pies with me.

We had an absolutely delightful time. We peeled, cored, and sliced pound after pound of apples and debated the finer points of pastry-making. She told me about the traditional baking methods used in Poland, and reminisced about the decadent desserts she had made and eaten there.

We then had a simple, yet somehow very lavish dinner. She had roasted a chicken in advance and brought it with her. I showed her how to make rice pilaf with white wine and butter-caramelized onions. And we sautéed some carrots with garlic, honey, and ginger. The house was overflowing with delightful aromas. We ate like queens.

Afterward, we took a walk around the neighborhood. I had news I knew she would not take well, and somehow it has always been easier for me to break bad news while in motion—almost as if, by immediately moving away from the spot in which they had been spoken, I could somehow escape the ramifications of my words.

“Anna,” I tentatively began, “I need to tell you about something.”

“Yes, what is it?” she asked, looking over at me. Her eyes gleamed, catching the reflection of the setting sun.

“My grandmother called me a few days ago. The one who lives in Oklahoma? And, well, she asked me to come back. And, I kinda have to do it…” I trailed off.

Anna stopped walking. She took hold of my hand and clasped it between both of hers. She bit her lip. Her eyes glistened. But she didn’t say anything. She just looked at me.

I felt myself starting to break down. Quietly, I said, “Let’s go back to the house, Anna.”

Slowly, silently, we walked back, hand-in-hand.

*            *             *

 

 

The day before I left for Oklahoma, I came to the church to say goodbye to the people there. Anna lives across the street, so she was there, too. After I had hugged or shaken hands with everyone else, I came to Anna.

Anna had never been the hugging type. And even though I had never before gotten the signal from her that it was okay to do so, that day I threw my arms around her and held her tight.

While I was holding her, she put her head on my shoulder. In a trembling voice, she whispered in my ear something that cut right through my heart. Something to which I could not respond.

“Don’t go,” she said. “Please don’t go.”

*             *             *

 

 

But I did go.

Ironically, the forward march of technology had passed by the former computer science expert—she knew little about modern computers and electronic devices, and it was not long before we lost touch as a result. As time moved on, the emotional distance between us became ever more reflective of the physical distance, and when I came back to California about a year later, we were almost strangers.

Several years ago, Anna nearly died from an auto-immune related lung disease. She had been given only a few months to live by the doctors who ultimately, much to their own surprise, cured her.

Over the course of the time that has passed since I returned, the disease has recurred.

At first, Anna was merely very sensitive to smells. The incense used in the Mass was overwhelming to her, so she would come to Mass, but she would have to wear a surgical mask, and she would sit in the vestibule.

Eventually, she stopped coming to Mass altogether. Nobody—including me, I’m ashamed to admit—really seemed to notice.

Then, last week, I got a text message from Anna—she sent it to both our priest and me. She asked us if we would please come pick up the materials we used all those many moons ago to make the cassocks for the altar servers, which I had left in her care when I went to Oklahoma. We replied that we of course would, and we set up a time.

When we walked in her door, my heart nearly stopped when I saw her. This woman, who had always been small but robust in that stereotypically Eastern European way, had wasted away to a skeletal shadow of her former self. Her plump cheeks were now hollow, her once-bright eyes sunken, her lips thin.

I tried to fight back my tears while our priest loaded up the heavy boxes, but it was no use. I wanted to ask her, “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you tell me it was so bad? Why didn’t you ask for my help?”

But deep down what I was really thinking was, “Why didn’t I call her? Why didn’t I try to find out what was going on? Why didn’t I offer my help?”

So I tried to offer it right then and there. She claimed she didn’t need any help, didn’t need any food brought, didn’t need help getting to her doctor’s appointments, didn’t need anything, anything at all.

Before I left, I once more threw my arms around her, without bothering to ask if it was okay. And I felt her body, nothing more than a sack of bones at this point, soften in my embrace. And once more, she whispered in my ear.

This time, she said, “Don’t cry.”

And once more, I defied her. I cried like a baby. I cried until she stiffened in my arms, shrugged me off, and showed me to the door. I cried until she closed it behind me, possibly for the last time.

 

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On Resurrection and Renovation: The Agony and Ecstasy of Being Made New By Christ

Those eyes wherewith men see the dead in heart rise again, all men have not, save those who have risen already in heart themselves.”

St. Augustine

“And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

—Revelation 21:5

 

 

When I was first coming into the Church, I was listening to a lot of Catholic radio. One of my favorite shows was Mother Angelica Live. One show in particular I will never forget.

Mother Angelica was talking about how new converts often initially approach their conversions with a nonchalance that betrays total ignorance of the true magnitude of the process. They think to themselves, “This is no big deal, I can just stop doing this bad thing here, and start doing that good thing there, and voila! My life will conform to Church teachings, and I’ll be a good Catholic.”

That, she said, was like thinking that allowing Christ into our lives would only require a smidge of redecorating within the houses of our hearts. Mother Angelica chuckled in her signature way and said that Jesus doesn’t want to remodel our current houses—he wants to tear them down and build new ones.

Well, that scared me a little.

But I optimistically reassured myself that I was prepared for, and willing to accept, whatever God might wish to do with me.

And besides, I thought, how bad could it possibly be?

*             *             *

When I began catechesis in 2013, the shooting of a short film I’d co-written with my boyfriend of six years had just wrapped. I’d been an aspiring writer for ages—in fact, I had gone to college and graduated with honors with a degree in that discipline. My boyfriend and I had already written two screenplays prior to the short, and the fact that we’d successfully filmed our third effort seemed like a major victory. It felt like we were quite possibly on the precipice of something big, career-wise.

My boyfriend and I had seen each other through some very dark times. He stood by me through some intense, painful trials, and he’d shown me unqualified forgiveness for some downright rotten things I’m deeply ashamed to have done to him. We were battle-tested, and he was, without question, the proverbial “love of my life.”

We were so much alike in worldview that I could not understand why he seemed to have no interest in joining me as I entered the Church. This was an institution that had formalized in doctrine virtually everything we already believed, and added to it the structure of indescribably beautiful ritual. What’s not to love about that? I couldn’t fathom his apathetic disinterest.

And I can’t overstate how arduously, intricately, and often I tried to explain to him why coming into the Church was the logical next step for people like him and me. How it was the missing ink that would connect the dots between the whats and wherefores of our lives. How it could cure what ailed us on an existential level, and provide meaning to the seemingly mundane.

But for the very first time since the day we met, talking to him was like talking to a brick wall. He admitted that he “liked me better” since I’d decided to become Catholic, that he felt it had made me a better person. But as for him?

He couldn’t be bothered.

*             *             *

Augustine, in addressing the three resurrections performed by Jesus recorded in scripture, points out that there are two types of death—visible and invisible. The former concerns the body, the latter the soul. He notes that, while we are all capable of perceiving physical death, “death invisible [i]s neither enquired into nor perceived.” Analogously, Augustine asserts that only those who “have risen already in heart themselves” are capable of perceiving the resurrection of heart which Christ can perform upon the spiritually dead.

In opening my eyes to the truth of Catholicism, God had resurrected my heart and soul, which had indubitably been dead for a protracted period as a result of my uncommonly un-virtuous life. And, although my boyfriend could perceive changes in my outward disposition and behavior consequent to that spiritual rebirth, he, not having “already risen in heart,” could not perceive the true scope of my transformation, and no amount of eloquence or explanatory elocution on my part could awaken his heart.

Only God can resurrect the dead.

So I was forced to accept phase one in the great renovation project Christ had in store for me by walking away from a man I still loved with my whole being, with whom I’d planned to spend the rest of my life.

It hurt like hell, and it was just the beginning.

*             *             *

Next, my health went straight down the toilet.

I have rheumatoid arthritis and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in faulty collagen, which, of course, is found all over the body, and, consequently, causes a wide range of symptoms.

Over the course of that year, I dwindled down to 106 pounds. I’d lose large clumps of hair virtually every time I took a shower. I vomited, or came darn close to doing so, between bites one and three of pretty much every meal. I experienced fatigue so oppressive that I felt like I was constantly swimming upstream against a river of murky molasses—indeed, it was so bad that I couldn’t drive longer than half an hour without having to pull over for a 15-minute roadside nap. And I sat helplessly by as my arthritis spread from my knees and spine, where it had been more or less confined for years, into my hands, fingers, hips, feet, and toes. I was in pain every moment of every day.

After about a year of this, I had a phone conversation with my maternal grandmother. She lived in Oklahoma—the place in which I’d spent most of my childhood, but hadn’t revisited in over a decade. My grandmother and I talked on a regular basis, but this conversation was different: she asked me to come home.

My grandma’s house had been my refuge growing up—when life with my alcoholic, drug-addicted mother and her violent, psychotic boyfriend had become unbearable, my grandma had taken me in.

So when she asked me to come back, I packed up the accumulated trappings of my 15 years in the San Francisco area, and headed quite unwittingly into the next phase of my spiritual renovation.

Once I arrived in Oklahoma, the heavy demolition began.

*             *             *

I didn’t realize how good I’d really had it in California—how spiritually spoiled I’d been—until I returned to the site of the worst years of my life.

In California, I was accustomed to having a close-knit, socially active Latin Mass parish and my spiritual director nearby. I had countless Catholic friends a phone call away to whom I could reach out for moral support, companionship, or help with just about anything under the sun. For crying out loud, my parish’s altar servers packed up and prepared my boxes for my cross-country relocation—and I think that was the third time they’d helped me move. I was incredibly well cared-for.

When I got to Oklahoma, the nearest Latin Mass parish was over an hour away by car, and spiritual direction was not available. There seemed to be no real parish community life to speak of—probably because virtually everyone who attended Mass there had to drive a significant distance to do so. Long story short, I couldn’t seem to find a place there for myself. Even as the weeks and months wore on, I felt like a perpetual outsider.

Daily life was a PTSD nightmare punctuated by a sequence of catastrophes.

When I’d lived there as a child with my mother, we had moved at least 2-3 times a year. I can’t count the number of times she busted into my bedroom long after everyone else in their right mind had gone to bed holding a plastic garbage bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “Fill it up with whatever you care about the most,” she’d say, handing me the garbage bag, “because we’re moving.” And she meant right then and there, at 1, or 2, or even 3 in the morning—and everything that didn’t fit in that garbage bag, became garbage. We simply left it behind.

In each and every one of those places we lived, things better left unsaid took place on a daily basis. And because we had moved up and down and all around the greater Oklahoma City metro area, the entire landscape for me as an adult was tattooed with tragedy, the memories of which I had buried deep in the vaults of my mind, unrecollected for years.

Until, that is, one day I would unwittingly happen upon the site of one of these past calamities while running an innocent errand—and then it would all come flooding back. And I would have to pull over and have a minor meltdown, or get out of the car to vomit. Because, for a few interminably long minutes I would be 5, or 11, or 14 years old again, and trapped in the black cauldron of terror and despair that was my childhood with my mother.

That was happening a couple of times a week. Meanwhile, one major thing after another went horribly awry.

First, the so-called doctor I was seeing decided it would be a good idea to summarily discontinue a medication regimen my previous doctor and I had fine-tuned over the course of over a decade. The results were a disaster. I nosedived into a deep depression. I started to gain weight with shocking speed—2 pounds a week at one point. I had symptoms of both puberty and menopause, simultaneously—at age 37. Everything was completely out of whack. And the pain? The pain was almost unbearable.

Then, my car was destroyed in a flash flood. I happened to be in it at the time, but I, unlike the car, waded to safety.

Then, we got bedbugs. The stress of trying to get rid of them caused me to get shingles.

I’d lie wide-eyed into the wee hours on my air mattress on the living room floor, half-crazy from sleep-deprivation, pain shooting across my back in waves like electric shocks, jumping up at the slightest rustle to check for creeping parasites, terrified to close my eyes, wondering what calamity was coming next.

Something had to give.

*             *             *

After all of the isolation, illness, and infelicitous incidents of my Oklahoman sojourn, I felt almost as though I were spiritually hibernating. I had by no means lost my faith, but what had been a bonfire had dwindled to an ember, and I felt far away from God. I did not sense His presence in my life the way I had on an everyday basis in California.

In California, everywhere one looked, one could see the fingerprints of God. The ocean, the mountains, the green glory of the foothills, the sweetly perfumed flowers in every front yard from ritzy Mill Valley in Marin County to working-class Bushrod in Oakland—my neighborhood—it all sang God’s praises.

Oklahoma seemed to me an endless holocaust of yellow emptiness by comparison. I found nothing that said, “I am God’s creation, and I’m glorious,” like the chorus of natural beauty I’d been spoiled by in California.

And, like the landscape around me, I felt stripped down, parched, uninspired, and uninspiring. I longed for the intimacy with God that I had come to take for granted in California, which seemed to have vanished the moment I crossed the border into this place in which so many demons from my past still roamed free.

So I made up my mind to go back to California. But because of the bedbugs, and my determination not to bring back any parasitic hitchhikers, I decided to abandon my possessions. That 15 years of a life I’d packed up when I moved out there? I had to leave it all behind.

The decision was extremely painful, like a punch in the solar plexus—breathtaking, paralyzing. Like a wrecking ball slamming into a brick wall.

But after all, that is more or less what God was up to. How could I expect it to feel otherwise?

*             *             *

Right around the tail end of my time in Oklahoma, I discovered something that had been right under my nose the entire time: a Maronite parish literally within walking distance of my house. The first time I went there, Bishop Elias Sleman from Syria was visiting and celebrating Mass.

It’s difficult to describe the effect this man had on me. Here was someone who had seen horrors that made those of my life look like Romper Room by comparison—civil war, genocide, the sadistic murder of loved ones—yet he radiated inner peace and love for his fellow man. I could not help but weep at the sight of the wholehearted, reverent adoration with which he raised the host during the Consecration.

He was on-fire with the love of God, and the force of his blaze re-ignited my tiny ember.

I started going to daily Mass at the Maronite parish, and I could hear the echo of the passion and fervor which had drawn me into the Church in the first place.

As my departure date drew nigh, I began to feel a pressing urgency to make a General Confession. I needed to put the events of the past ten months in perspective—I needed closure, and something told me this was the best way to obtain it.

Bishop Sleman left, and the parish received a new pastor. I made an appointment with him for my Confession.

I poured my heart out, and cried my eyes dry. And he listened.

This was a man who had only met me a single time before. Yet, when he counseled me after I’d finished speaking, he referenced things I had not mentioned, things known only to God and me. And he told me something that helped me bookend my time there—something that allowed me to drive away two days later, leaving virtually everything I owned behind, feeling clean, and new, and at peace with what had happened.

He said, “My child, sometimes you have to die to be reborn.”

*             *             *

Unfortunately for me, I tend to be someone who learns the hard way.

Maybe some people could have learned to let go of their attachments without having to lose everything they owned. But not me.

Maybe some people could have learned to count their spiritual blessings without having to lose just about every last one first. But not me.

Maybe some people could have learned that they were not in control of anything, and that they really ought to let go and let God, without having to endure natural disasters, pestilence, and multiple ailments of both mind and body.

But not me … we’re still working on that one.

No, in order to build something new, God has to tear down the twisted, soot-stained, baggage-burdened piece of work that has stood in this spot for far too long, and it has not been fun.

But as each wall comes down, I feel cleaner, more straightened-out, and lighter. And it gets easier and less painful as more and more bricks become loosened, then demolished entirely. And I think—I hope—I can see the new floor-plan starting to take shape.

And that, my friends, is most exhilarating.

 

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On Freedom

And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” –John 8:32

 

 

There was a time not so terribly long ago that I did not believe in God and practiced no religion. I had various reasons that seemed compelling at the time—anyway, they’re not particularly relevant.

I believed my lack of faith gave me an abundance of freedom compared to all the strictured, structured religious people around whom I grew up, with all their rules and behavioral regulations. Indeed, I believed that hedonism was categorically liberating. So I indulged my impulses; if it felt good, I did it.

There was only one problem with my theory: it ruined my life.

At age 30, I found myself without a respectable job, significant family ties, a meaningful romantic partnership, coping skills, or a dime to my name. What I did have was a mile-high pile of debts and bills I couldn’t pay, a string of broken-off affairs with men I never would’ve considered marrying (some of whom were already married), two pregnancies but no children, and a tendency to seek chemical solutions to my problems. I also had a massive supply of prescription painkillers and other heavy-duty medications, so, as was my habit, I turned to them to solve what I came to consider my biggest problem of all—that of being alive.

In sum, I took over 500 pills. The hospital staff tasked with untangling the aftermath of my actions agreed that my survival was nothing shy of miraculous.

 

 

*             *             *

I now look back on that time as my period of enslavement.

I was enslaved to my impulses—it wasn’t a matter of choosing to indulge them, rather, I felt compelled to do so. When one doesn’t believe there is anything bigger, better, or more powerful than oneself, one deifies one’s own desires, and becomes addicted to one’s vices. If life begins and ends with my own experience of it, then my whims are imbued with the gravity of divine decrees; there are no apparent eternal consequences for indulging them, nor is there evidently anything more sublime to pursue in their place. Thereby, in rejecting God, one makes little gods of one’s vices and oneself.

At first, these gods seem benevolent. Take, for example, the tribute paid to lust in the form of a one-night-stand. When you exchange those first few glances with your quarry, everything is mystery, intrigue, and the challenge of the hunt. Your heart beats faster; your brain turns cartwheels scheming up potential plotlines. And when the deal’s been sealed, and you’re on your way to the rendezvous, you feel triumphant, as though you have captured a rare animal for your own private zoo. And your thoughts, still spinning, sound something like this: This time, I’m really going to let go and have fun. This time is going to be the best one yet.

And then, the transformation begins. This rare animal you believe you’ve captured is his own personal god with his own deified desires and his own private zoo. You can “let go” all you want, but you’ll never “have fun” the way you hope to, because you mean just as much to him as he means to you—precisely nothing—and he, like you, is only there to indulge his own impulses.

And when the episode is over and the lights come on, the metamorphosis from enticing intrigue to awkward silence and cold corporeality is complete, and permanent separation is the only thing that can mollify both parties. One-night-stands last only a single night because neither party is interested in seeing the other again after what has transpired. It stands to reason that it must not have been all that spectacular—it definitely falls pitifully short of the fantasy you envisioned after those first exchanged glances.

And that is the god of lust showing its true, very ugly face. Rest assured, those hideous features run in the family—all of its brother and sister gods are equally grotesque.

 

 

*             *             *

People, even non-Christians (especially them, it sometimes seems), are terribly fond of quoting the scripture cited at the outset of this piece. We live in a time wherein truth as a concept has ceased to be defined as something binary, or even a binary thing qualified by degrees. Instead, “truth” has been re-defined as something relative—a thing about which it is perfectly valid to say, “You live your truth and I’ll live mine,” a statement that would have been considered harebrained jibberish not so very long ago.

In a time such as this, “The truth will set you free,” is a very handy quote to bandy about when one is attempting to validate, even glorify, addiction to his/her vices. One example of this is the LGBTQ community’s adoption of the pop song “Truth Will Set U Free” as a “pride” anthem.

The people who use this quote in such a manner are making the same mistake I did—they are defining “freedom” as the ability to act on every impulse, and indulge every whim. But is this the true face of freedom?

Dictionary.com provides five definitions of “freedom” that are relevant to this conversation:

  1. the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint
  2. the power to determine action without restraint.
  3. personal liberty, as opposed to bondage or slavery
  4. the absence of or release from ties, obligations, etc.
  5. exemption from external control, interference, regulation, etc.

None of those definitions apply to the kind of “freedom” pursued by most people in today’s world—the same fraudulent freedom I once followed with a focused, fiery passion that wound up burning not only me, but many unfortunates who crossed my path.

The first and third definitions initially sound fitting but, having once been imprisoned by vice, I can assure you, they aren’t. One who has deified desire may not wear visible shackles, but he/she is nonetheless bound.

When one knows no higher good than the fleeting pleasure provided by the senses, one is enslaved to the wants thereof. When one knows life is short, is convinced nothingness is all that awaits after death, and believes that pleasure is the meaning of the brief one-act play one believes life to be, one feels one must seize every opportunity to appease one’s senses, and experiences a sense of hollow failure at every missed opportunity to do so. Such an existence is certainly one of confinement—confinement within one’s own cycle of wanton vice, followed by empty despair.

 

 

And such an existence fails to match definitions two and four for the same reasons; addiction to vice inhibits one’s decision-making ability and obligates one to serve the vices to which one is addicted. Just as a junkie is essentially a robot programmed with one function—to seek and ingest drugs—one whose sole ambition is the pursuit of sensual pleasure is also a monofunctional entity, constrained by an obligation to gratify one’s impulses. Although that person is theoretically free to choose self-control and self-denial, doing so would be perfectly contrary to that person’s modus vivendi, and would seem absurd to him or her.

Definition number five is disqualified in much the same manner. When one is addicted to vice, that vice and the activities and people involved in the pursuit thereof run the show. For example, if one is addicted to drugs, the drugs, and the endless tail-chasing game of trying to obtain one’s next fix, are in charge. If one is addicted to lust, the tools of that vice—be they pornography and/or other commercialized sex, extramarital or premarital partners, etc.—dictate the parameters of the addict’s choices and actions. For someone addicted to greed, the means of accumulating wealth—a lucrative job, a wealthy potential mate, the ups and downs of the stock market, etc.—direct the movie of that person’s life.

No, the type of “freedom” championed by virtually every facet of contemporary culture is nothing more than a glittering, brightly colored, heavily perfumed, exorbitantly expensive set of handcuffs.

Luckily for us, a key to those handcuffs does exist. And it’s the same key that unlocks the doors to true freedom.

*             *             *

So, what does true freedom look like? Well, all those people so quick to quote the 32nd verse of John 8 would do well to read it in context (quoted from the Douay-Rheims—emphasis added):

 

31 Then Jesus said to those Jews, who believed him: If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed.

32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

33 They answered him: We are the seed of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to any man: how sayest thou: you shall be free?

34 Jesus answered them: Amen, amen I say unto you: that whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin.

35 Now the servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the son abideth for ever.

36 If therefore the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.

 

Obviously, verse 32 is not some blanket authorization for an anything-goes, I’m-okay-you’re-okay approach to life. Quite the contrary—two verses later we’re warned that sin enslaves. And, far from the free-to-be-you-and-me-style, relativistic, tripe-tinged slogan into which it has been misshapen, verse 32 is an assurance that if we follow the teachings of Christ, we will be made free. Not if we “follow our hearts,” or “live authentically,” or “live our truths.” No, this warranty only covers folks who are trying to sync their heartbeats with that of the Sacred Heart, and are living authentically Christian lives according to His truth—which, after all, is the only Truth.

 

 

I can hear my twenty-something self—someone steeped in the modern mindset and a product of contemporary morality—instantly object to that last statement: “But that’s not freedom! That’s the tyranny of conformity, and repression via behavioral regulation.”

This is what I would say to my former self:

Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of fear and despair. Feeding my vices necessitated a lifestyle that prevented me from building any kind of security—be it financial, emotional, interpersonal, or spiritual. That led to many sleepless nights spent either worrying about how I was going to pay the bills, or crying myself sick over the profound sense of emptiness which lurked around every psychological corner, threatening to engulf me.

All of that changed the very first day I followed through on my desire to go to Mass. That night I slept like a baby. And I have just about every night since. I call that freedom—freedom from worry, freedom from despair.

Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of anger and heartbreak. I was bitter and brokenhearted about all of the injustice and cruelty in the world, and the fact that nothing ever seemed to be done about it. And I felt helpless in the face of it all, which only served to feed those feelings of melancholy and rage. I was trapped in a vicious cycle.

That changed when I learned the reason why injustice and cruelty exist, that they are temporary, and that I can do something about them through offering up my suffering and prayer. This empowered me to break that vicious cycle. I call that freedom.

Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of isolation and alienation. I felt detached from the people around me, as I seemed to have little in common with them, and did not sense any deeper spiritual connection with them. I felt profoundly lonely, but I didn’t know how to change it.

Coming into the Church provided me with an instant spiritual family and a community of people whom I could love and be loved by. Learning about the Communion of Saints showed me I was wrong about feeling disconnected, opening my eyes to the very real spiritual bonds between us all. It showed me I need never feel lonely again, because I never will be, and never have been, alone. I call that freedom—freedom from the oppression of isolation.

Before I became Catholic, I was a prisoner of my vices. I saw no reason not to indulge them—indeed, I felt obliged to do so—because I viewed this life as the main event rather than the opening act, and did not know of anything more meaningful than simple sensual pleasure. The pursuit of that pleasure led me to personal ruin, and caused significant harm to many people caught in the wake of my careening voyage. I was miserable, but I didn’t know any other way to live—I didn’t know the secret of happiness, so I was a slave to sorrow.

The Church explained the true meaning of free will, the existence of a life to come, and the joy that comes from following the path we were created to travel. I learned that free will is not just about being at liberty to do as one pleases; it’s about analyzing the consequences and potential benefits of all options in light of not only one’s personal needs and wants, but those of all involved parties as well, and making informed decisions with those factors in mind. It’s about avoiding mistakes, but having the safety net of God’s mercy to catch us when we stumble, and reinstate us when and if we have the humility to admit fault and the resolve to repent. It’s about choosing the greatest good for the most people rather than selfish fleeting pleasures—not by force, but because, as a person of conscience, that’s actually the choice that provides more lasting satisfaction. It’s about aiming high for the afterlife, rather than below the belt for the present life. And yes, it’s about having the freedom to choose not to do any of those things, but knowing that there will be eternal consequences for that choice.

I call that freedom.

And that is the truth that sets men free. At least, it’s a small part thereof. It’s not about confessing some tawdry misdeed or personal predilection, then using that to justify a life of iniquity. The former, although factually true, is not Truth, and the latter is not freedom, not really.

Having traversed the path from fraudulent freedom into the legitimate liberation only Our Lord can provide, I hope that all my former shipmates successfully make the journey, too. Please join me in praying for them—it’s something they desperately need, and will not do for themselves.

“Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy…”

 

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