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Family Ministry Office (Diocese of Lexington) at 1310 West Main Street, Lexington, KY 40508-2048 US - Recent Crossroads Columns

Recent Crossroads Columns

 Years of parenthood can wear down the will. My wife and I discovered this firsthand when, after having four daughters, we had two sons less than fourteen months apart. The arrival of young sons merged with our decreased energy to form a perfect storm of domestic chaos.      Thus, when our boys reached toddler-hood, exchanges like these became common:

Daughter: “Dad, Bruce is chasing us with a knife!….Dad, did you hear me? A knife!”

Me (reclining with a glazed expression): “A knife, huh? How sharp is it?”

    Before you call the Department of Social Services, rest assured that I’m exaggerating (at least a little). Things haven’t gotten that bad for me yet. But I can certainly see in myself the stereotypical tendency to become less strict with each successive child.

    That’s not always a bad thing, mind you, since first-time parents often practice obsessive oversight, only to look back later and laugh. I remember, for example, the three pages of instructions we left for my wife’s aunt in leaving our first-born toddler with her for a week, despite the fact that she’d already raised two children of her own.

    There’s a difference, though, between a parental shift based on experience and a parental shift based on exhaustion. Avoiding the latter mistake requires the virtue of fortitude, the strength to stand fast through each of the following sources of weariness.

    The first source of fatigue is the steady drip of whining regarding some social restriction your children find oppressive, like an early curfew or a specific movie you don’t want them to see. If you’re a parent, you’ve heard these pleas almost verbatim: “But Mom, all my friends get to stay out later than that,” or “It’s only rated R because of the language.”
    My kids know that I hate whining, and I’ve been known to dole out discipline just for that. But I’ve also made the mistake of yielding to quiet them, which only emboldens them to use the tactic again. Usually the times I relent are when I realize that my initial “no” was more knee-jerk than reasoned, part of the protective parental instinct. I’m learning that it’s better to say “yes” at the beginning—if it’s a reasonable request—since changing course only heightens the whine-factor. However, if you’re confident your “no” is appropriate, dig in and trust your instincts.    

    Another source of weariness is the looks or comments that protective parents sometimes get from those outside the family. I recently saw a bumper sticker on a van that read: “Warning: Unsocialized home-schoolers inside.” As a parent of homeschooled children (except for our oldest two), I had to laugh, because that’s a jab at the most common question we have heard—“What about socialization?” (To which I usually reply, “I’m against it.”)

    Don’t misunderstand—our primary purpose in homeschooling is not so much to protect our children as it is to extend our influence in forming them. And while homeschooling isn’t God’s call for everyone, a crucial role we all have as parents, regardless of our situation, is to shield our children from the potential harm they cannot see. That’s why I don’t find the adjective “sheltered” insulting when it applies to one of my children. Since when is a shelter a bad thing?

    A third threat to parental fortitude is the energy and skill required to monitor the multiple avenues of influence in the lives of our children. TV, the internet (including Facebook and instant messaging), Ipods, and cell-phones (with cameras) are technological privileges that also have potential for harm. What shows are my children watching, what music are they listening to, who are they texting, and what’s on their Facebook page?—these are all relevant questions. While answering them requires time and energy, to ignore them is to neglect our parental duty.  

 

   Remember, fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues that form the foundation of mature character. And as an inner disposition, parental fortitude will only grow as we practice it. But when our resolve is shaky—and it will be—let us ask God to fill us with the supreme virtue of love, so that we stand firm for our children’s sake, even when they (or others) don’t understand. (from 8/3/08 Crossroads)

 
  Recently I laughed out loud at something I was reading. It wasn’t the comic strip Dilbert—one of my favorites—but a book by G. K. Chesterton entitled The Catholic Church and Conversion. If that doesn’t sound funny, you’ve never read Chesterton.

     In the book, the late British author—an adult convert himself—describes the most common steps one takes in becoming Catholic. Being a fairly new Catholic myself, he had my attention.
     The first step toward conversion, he wrote, is in being fair to the Catholic Church. Persons in this stage realize that their perceptions of the Catholic Church have not always been accurate. For the first time, they are willing to approach Catholicism reasonably.
     The second step is in discovering the Catholic Church, as persons learn that there is far more truth and beauty in Catholicism then they expected. This stage is like “discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable.”
     The third step, surprisingly, is in running away from the Church. This is when a person is petrified by the realization that what they’ve discovered to be true calls for their full assent.
     Reading that last step is what made me laugh, because it was precisely my experience. As a United Methodist pastor, it was somewhat easy to be fair and reasonable toward Catholicism. Moreover, it was exciting to discover the multi-faceted beauty of the Catholic faith. But when I realized that I might have to actually become Catholic, I was scared to death.
     Interestingly, I believe the same three-step process is present in almost all conversions to the truth, even the ongoing conversion that should be part of every Catholic’s journey. 
     Let me explain. We know that there are certain Catholic ideas that some Catholics find difficult to accept. Perhaps most obvious are those teachings related to marriage and sexual morality. Some otherwise devoted Catholics are reluctant to affirm, for example, that sexual union by its very nature is a marital act, and that every marital embrace should be open to life.
     Thank God for John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which reveals in new language the integrity of the Church’s constant teaching. Reflecting on the truth stamped on our bodies as male and female, made in God’s image as a loving communion of persons, liberates us to see Christian morality not as a prohibition, but as God’s affirmation, his great “yes” to humanity.
     Yet as we find our hearts converted to the truth, we experience Chesterton’s three stages. First we find ourselves being fair to the Church’s teaching. We realize our false perceptions, such as believing that the Church requires couples to have as many children as is physically possible. To the contrary, we realize that the Church advocates responsible parenthood through fertility awareness and periodic abstinence (also known as Natural Family Planning)
      Secondly, we discover the beautiful truth that the sexual union between a husband and wife is the embodiment and renewal of their marriage vows, and a sacramental sign of Christ’s complete self-donating love—given without reservation—for the Church. We see that in the sexual embrace, we reflect the unity of the Trinity, and in the gift of parenthood we image the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
      We may then be faced with fear—a palpable, visceral fear—because we realize that the truth and beauty of this teaching calls for our assent. Entrusting our sexuality, and our family planning, to God forces us to consider how trustworthy we really believe God is. “What if we trust him,” we ask ourselves, “and we are given more children than we can support?”
      Thus, as with other conversions, we are called to faith, not as the appreciation of an idea, but faith as dangerous surrender. Yet we will only come to know God’s faithfulness to the same extent that we trust him. For when we trust him, even with a faith saddled with weakness, God honors that trust with his goodness. He may stretch us, even painfully at times, but we can know that in the end, he will not fail us, and we will know the truth of the words, “be not afraid.” (from 5/25/08 Crossroads)

 

      Do you know who said the following?

     “Contraceptive methods are like putting a premium on vice. They make men and women reckless. …If (contraceptive) methods become the order of the day, nothing but moral degradation can be the result. As it is, man has sufficiently degraded woman for his lust, and no matter how well meaning the advocates may be, (contraception) will still further degrade her.”
     Mahatma Ghandi said this, speaking out in 1925 against those advocating the wider acceptance and availability of contraception. Ghandi’s view is ironic in several ways. First of all, the obvious: Ghandi was a Hindu, refuting the myth that moral concerns about contraception are limited to Catholics. In truth, for much of history, public opinion largely agreed that the practice of contraception was immoral and destructive to the family and society.
     Many Christians are unaware that contraception was not viewed as acceptable by any Christian community until the Anglican Church in1930—yielding to the pressure of eugenicists and population control enthusiasts—broke rank at their Lambeth Conference by permitting contraception within marriage for couples in extreme circumstances.
     It’s amazing to read the harsh public reaction to the Anglican ruling, including this 1930 editorial from the Washington Post: “Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee's report, if carried into effect, would sound the death knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be 'careful and restrained' is preposterous.”
     The Post editorial reflects one of the primary concerns articulated by Ghandi, that contraception makes “men and women reckless,” removing the deterrent of pregnancy from non-marital sexual behavior. While adultery and promiscuity are age-old temptations, the natural consequence of sexual intercourse (i.e. children) had previously served to restrain human appetites. Today, it is beyond obvious that the soaring rates of non-marital sexual activity and cohabitation are facilitated by the ready acceptance and availability of contraception.
    Another irony is Ghandi’s view that contraception is degrading to women, as opposed to the modern notion that contraception liberates women. Ghandi’s reasoning that contraception thwarts sexual self-control, and thus fosters a tendency among men, whether as husbands or not, to view women primarily as objects for sexual use.
     A final irony is that Ghandi was from India, a country seen as the epitome of overpopulation. Ghandi was not oblivious to population concerns, nor was he unconcerned about poverty. However, he believed the answer to regulating India’s birthrate was not contraceptives, but self-control and fidelity. Unfortunately, many of today’s elites embrace the condescending, quasi-racist idea that the ignorant poor cannot learn or practice self-control, fidelity, or periodic abstinence, a perspective also held toward the African nations in their fight against AIDS.
     In our own country, even among many Catholics, the unquestioned embrace of contraception continues to yield the bitter fruit of sexual recklessness. Most recently, the movement for the acceptance of homosexual behavior, even in some Christian circles, has clear roots in the contraception movement, since the very meaning of sex has been redefined, severed from the procreative dimension and reduced to the pursuit of pleasure. In other words, if sex is entirely about pleasure, does it really matter who pursues that pleasure with whom, when, or how? 
     Even through the limited lens of natural law, Ghandi had a clearer vision of sexuality than many contemporary Christians, and unfortunately some Catholics. Amid a culture of sexual and marital brokenness, we need the grace to rediscover the meaning of the marital act as more than just the exchange of pleasure, but as the sacramental embodiment of God’s free, total, faithful, and fruitful love. 
(from 5/11/08 Crossroads)

 

 

      Amid our high speed, digital downloading, text messaging culture, researchers now inform us that—surprise!—the infamous “seven year itch” of marriage has been shortened to five. In fact, according to a new study from Germany’s renowned Max Planck Institute, couples are now most likely to divorce just before their fifth wedding anniversary.  
     Why do spouses grow bored so quickly? We can offer many theories, including the larger societal issues of no-fault divorce (an easy way for spouses to walk away from conflict) or pre-marital intercourse and cohabitation (by which sexual intimacy often masks deeper relational problems). Instead, though, I’d like to reflect on a more personal issue that keeps many couples, including many Catholics, from experiencing the full joy of marriage, even if they never divorce.

       The problem is that we have lost sight of the adventure of authentic intimacy. Christian marriage, after all, is more than a contract (an exchange of goods and services) but is instead a covenant, a profound exchange of persons. If this is true, then marriage is a lifelong journey of discovering and embracing the interior mystery of the person with whom we are joined.

       Do you realize that your spouse is a mystery? Every husband is probably nodding his head, and every wife is saying, “What mystery? I can set my watch by his breakfast routine.” Mystery in this sense, however, does not mean “unpredictable and confusing.” I am using the Catholic meaning of mystery, something hidden or unknown that is only accessible through revelation.

      Take for example, the Trinity: one God in three persons, a perfect communion of love. How could we have grasped this sublime truth, which the Catechism calls God’s “innermost secret?” Only by revelation—God revealing his mystery to our finite minds. As married couples, you are not God, of course, but as persons, made in God’s image, you are each a mystery known only through revelation, by each spouse revealing their innermost selves to the other. 

      If we truly understand this, then boredom in marriage can be an indicator that we’ve grown lazy or self-oriented in married life. Think about it this way—why is it that Christmas afternoon often feels anti-climactic for young children? Their boredom stems from the fact that the excitement of a new toy or gadget depreciates very quickly. Once the gift has spent its uniqueness, the child moves on to something new, even playing with the box the gift came in.

      And so it is with modern marriage. When a person views their spouse—and even marriage itself—as an object meant for our own fulfillment, even the most explosive romantic fireworks can cool quickly; say, in less than five years. Thus, we experience an “itch” or restlessness for something or someone new. But if our spouse is not an object but a person, created to be known and loved, we’ll find ourselves more attentive in our listening, and more creative in our asking, seeking to know our beloved more fully.

      Boredom, sadly, can also be an indicator of shallowness. One of the qualities I love most in my wife, for example, is that she is a relentless contemplative. In contrast, I sometimes gravitate toward the couch and remote. A little “veg time” is one thing, but if our lives revolve around such shallow pursuits, we will fail to nurture the depth of thought and self-examination that is required for growth in maturity. We must ask, “When my spouse seeks to know me, will there be anything to find, or have I extinguished my own mystery through settling for a superficial life?”

      This Advent is an opportune time to rediscover mystery, for God has unveiled the depth of his love through the gift of his Son. God, who knows and loves us completely, invites us to know and love him in an eternal embrace for which our marriages are a reflection. Why not ponder this profound truth together with your spouse in the coming weeks? Slow down, turn off the TV, put the kids to bed, share a cup of coffee, and talk together about how the mystery of Christmas touches your deepest hopes and fears. In other words, put in the effort of rediscovering your spouse, while together turning to the One who promises to make your joy complete. (11/25/07 Crossroads).

 

 

    In “Tonight I Celebrate My Love for You,” their hit duet from the 80s, Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack sing, “Tonight, there’ll be no distance between us. What I want most to do is to get close to you.” As with many love songs, Bryson and Flack express a fundamental human desire, for to be joined with another is a hunger God has written into every human heart. As the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote in his book, Three to Get Married, “All love craves unity.”

    Recall the scene in Genesis, chapter two, when God addresses Adam’s loneliness—creation’s sole deficiency—by crafting a woman from his side, inspiring Adam’s poetic response, “This one, at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Their union then becomes the prototype of all marriage, and a compelling vision for our deepest longings: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”

    And yet, some couples are frustrated to discover that despite their romantic dreams and spiritual convictions, marriage is not an automatic remedy for loneliness. A couple may recite vows, share a bed, build a home, and raise children, yet then find themselves feeling as isolated as the single person yearning for companionship. They may never walk out on each other, but they endure merely as roommates, parental teammates, and occasional sexual partners.

     Why is unity so elusive? One primary problem is our diminished view of marriage. Many in our culture, including some Catholics, view marriage as a type of contract, in which persons exchange goods and services through mutual agreement. As long as both partners agree to terms, the contract serves its purpose, but if one spouse wants out, the contract may be broken at any time and for any reason. Marriage in this case is seen, from a percentage perspective, as a 50/50 arrangement, a compromised settlement in which each spouse meets the other halfway.

       Marriage from a Catholic perspective is decidedly different. More than a contract, marriage is a covenant. Biblically speaking, covenants are usually ratified with blood, culminating in the sacrificial death of Christ. Covenants are thus more than an exchange of goods and services, but are an exchange of persons. Marriage, therefore, involves our sharing of ourselves in what the Catechism describes as an “intimate communion of life and love.” Percentage-wise, then, Christian marriage is a 100/100/100 arrangement, in which God’s gift of himself is received and reciprocated by each spouse’s gift of themselves to God and one another.

        For marital unity to be realized, therefore, each spouse must give all of themselves to God and to their spouse, a daunting prospect indeed. It is frightening enough sometimes to entrust all of ourselves to God, even knowing the depth of his mercy. How much harder, then, is it to entrust our dreams, fears, insecurities, and inadequacies to our spouses? What if he/she rejects my gift? Ultimately, this gift requires faith, because there are no guarantees. Yet in the day-to- day sharing of life, our intentional self-disclosure is vital to experiencing marital unity.

        Furthermore, true oneness requires each spouse to receive the full gift of the other. Often, couples get married imagining unity as a oneness of strengths, and yet unity of love involves oneness in weakness as well. Thus, for example, his depression becomes their shared depression, and her debt becomes their shared debt. This doesn’t mean that sin is accepted or condoned, but that the path to wholeness and holiness (the same thing, really) is one that couples walk, and sometimes limp, together. That is why listening is such a precious gift. Rather than trying to fix our spouse’s problem, we live with them in it, seeking God’s help together.

       As Pope John Paul II wrote, “The grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life.” We see the Eucharist, then, as both a source and a model of intimate communion. For as Christ freely gives himself, allowing us to reject him or to embrace him (thus sharing his glory and suffering), we give ourselves to Christ and our spouses without fear. May we, as husbands and wives together, find in Jesus the unity or love for which we are made. (11/11/07 Crossroads)

 

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