"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

There's No Balance, Just Conflict.

Now that I'm on the happy and relieved side of dissertation defense, friends and family have been asking about my plans to attend my commencement ceremony. Initially I hadn't thought of it, simply because attending would require Maia to miss school, not to mention the 22 hours in a car with four kids for a mere three-day trip. But it became increasingly apparent to me that it would be a good idea to attend in order to acknowledge my graduation as important, especially for the kids, as well as for my parents that have been so supportive.

I had two commencement options: December 2013 or May 2014. After consulting my parents, I started to make plans to delay my graduation until May 2014, which was more convenient for them (and probably for us). It also seemed best for me professionally, as I'm not going on the market quite yet.

Then, suddenly I had a thought, a vague notion that something else might be happening that same day... what could it be?

No, it couldn't, could it? Could it possibly be the date of Maia's first communion?

Yes, indeed. May commencement and Maia's first communion are scheduled for the same date, less than two hours apart, in entirely different states.

Ugh! Just when I had started to make plans and informed everyone of my decision to delay until May! I had just finally started to get excited about it all, helping all the people who supported me to celebrate the completion of their fine work (and my sufficient work). What was I going to do?

When I told Jeff about the conflict, he said, "Well, we know which of those two events is more important."

It took a few minutes for me to process his comment, and to assent to it rationally (or supernaturally). Then I resigned myself to not being able to mark the occasion of earning my Ph.D. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how absolutely fitting it was for this conflict to occur.

I started this blog so many years ago as a sort of an apologia of my decision to undertake a doctoral program and parenthood at roughly the same time. And I still hold true to my dear friend Sue Sack's words that being a theologian makes me a better mother, and being a mother makes me a better theologian. I don't regret my choice, so to speak.

But at the same time, I also remember my dear friend Sharon Perkins' words that "When the going gets tough, just remember you're living your dream." The dream has been way harder than it appeared in the abstract. Surely, theology and motherhood are mutually enriching. But they are also conflicting; there's no denying it. My daughter's first communion on the same day as my intended commencement was just a sort of obvious example.

I have to admit that I've been somewhat negative in the past to women that have questioned me regarding undertaking a doctoral program and motherhood simultaneously. It's an invitation to conflict...and sleep deprivation. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, and I generally advise women to avoid the doctoral program part unless they can't imagine not doing it.

Being a theologian mom means taking on a commitment to conflict. Here's a summary:

1. Theology NEEDS the voices of women. The Church is enriched by female perspectives, which further the theological discussion.
2. The women most able to contribute to the theological discussion are those who lack family commitments, especially to the burden (and joy!) of raising children.
3. The Church benefits uniquely from the perspective of women theologians who are living out the marriage vocation and raising children; the way to complement the childless female perspective is by adding this other one.
4. Marriage and raising children (especially a large family) take time and effort.
5. Time and effort spent on homemaking and child-rearing conflicts with time spent contributing to the theological discussion, whether in classes as a student or teacher, or researching and writing, or even just having casual theological discussions with colleagues.
-The more time and effort spent on homemaking and child-rearing, the lesser the time available to contribute to academia.
-The more time and effort spent on academic pursuits, the less time spent on homemaking and child-rearing.

Conclusion: Conflict. And likely an accompanying feeling of inadequacy, knowing that I could do more academically if it weren't for the kids, and knowing that I could do more as a mom if it weren't for the academics. There is no balance, just decisions about how to manage the conflict and how to hang onto academia in the midst of busy family life, so as to make a unique contribution to the Church using the voice of a married woman, who is "out in the field" doing the kind of theological research that involves cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, kissing bruises, reading Winnie the Pooh, doing school drop-offs, etc.

It's the conviction that the theologian mom perspective truly does benefit the Church that has kept me going through the past seven years as I strove to "keep my chapters ahead of my children" (and I did - five chapters, four children!). That, and the knowledge that conflict is not always bad for us. It challenges us to recognize our priorities, to admit our limitations, to have confidence in our strengths, to accept the situation with generosity and joy. Being a theologian mom is always a gift from God, whether the particular moment entails attending a child's first communion or being hooded and receiving a diploma. Yes, even conflict is sanctifiable.

And in case you're wondering, I'm hoping now to graduate in December instead. That has a lesser conflict - Eva will have to spend ten hours in the car on her fifth birthday!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Parenting Mortification

I decided it was time to make a whole blog out of it...
Parenting Mortification
This way there won't have to be quite so much mention of vomit and potty-training on this blog.
Check it out!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Giving Birth vs. Defending a Dissertation

During the first year of my doctoral program, one of my male classmates (married, but childless at the time), asked me what I thought about the analogy of birthing for writing a term paper. He was observing that many people will casually make such a comparison, that all the effort and work that goes into writing a paper, and then the final result of turning it in as a complete project for evaluation is not unlike the effort and work that goes into pregnancy, labor, and delivery.

It seems funny to me now reflecting on this because in many ways, my dissertation was a bit like a pregnancy. I wanted to know that I was making progress, getting closer to the end. I was highly invested in it. And though I had a lot of help, the completion of it depended upon myself, much as pregnancy, labor, and delivery depended upon me.

But even at that time when Michael asked, I remember telling him that, no, those two things are pretty different. I pointed out that you don't really "do anything" during pregnancy...the baby just kind of grows on her own, whereas the term paper writing is very active. And a term paper is a creation of sorts that shares in the creative work of God, but not in the sense that bringing another human being into the world shares in the creative work of God. Really, finishing a term paper pales in comparison to the significance of giving birth because that does involve some labor as well as physical sacrifice and recovery.

And yet, during the drive to Dayton on the day of my defense, I said to my husband that in a sense I felt that having given birth four times had prepared me to defend my dissertation. The scenario at the time, in fact, was somewhat similar; with the baby sleeping, I felt like it was just the two of us on the way to the hospital for a really important event, where we were uncertain as to the upcoming details of the little things that might pop up and complicate the situation, though ultimately we were confident that everything would work out.

Yet actually, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much less scary defending a dissertation is than giving birth. Most of my work was already done, and now I just got to talk about it! I was fairly sure my committee wasn't going to burn me, so it was just a matter of how idiotic I could possibly appear. Given that my topic is penance, however, even that possibility didn't seem so bad; it would have been appropriate - a good opportunity to offer it up as mortification. And I knew being post-defense would not be nearly as challenging as the physical and emotional changes of being postpartum.

Perhaps some of these thoughts explain why in fact I was so calm and relaxed by the time my defense finally started. A dissertation defense is important, sure, but not like giving birth. It's a momentous occasion, but not so significant when compared to having a child.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Falling, and Getting Up Again

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for first-time parents to do is not to overreact when they witness their little one's first falls. Especially with that first child, the tendency is to hover and try to prevent as many of the little bumps and bruises as possible. Early on in my parenting I decided that I was not going to hover or overreact. Now that I am raising my fourth toddler, I think I can say that I have actually improved on this front, and it struck me the other day when I was in the back yard watching the three youngest at play.
 Robert happened to trip and fall, which is pretty common for someone who has only been walking for four months. I didn't even get up from my seat on the deck steps, but instead waited to see how he would react and if some mama comforting would be needed. To my surprise, he got up, turned to look at me, and clapped delightedly. I almost felt that I could translate his eager clapping into words - the words I often use when my kids fall - "Great fall! And you got right back up! Way to go!" He seemed to know that some cheering was in order after his great fall and quick rising. It struck me in a sort of profound way that this child, barely one year old, already had learned the joy in getting up after a fall.
Nor is Robert the only kid who has been falling lately. For Patrick's third birthday, he got his very own Micro Kick Mini Scooter, just like Eva's. I had been hoping she would outgrow hers and pass it on to Patrick, but since she was still using it daily, Patrick asked for his own (blue!!!) scooter. He learned how to use it remarkably well in an astonishingly short amount of time. But one thing he hasn't quite mastered is the rear foot brake. When we were taking Maia to school one morning, he decided (following Eva's cue) to scoot up and then down the little hill that the school is on. As he began rolling down the decline, it hit me that he wouldn't know how to brake, and could run into the on-duty police officer, the fire hydrant or even go into the street. I wasn't sure how Patrick would solve this problem, but I soon found out when he attempted to dismount doing a jump stop and ended up doing a knee-skid on the asphalt. When he looked up at me with tears in his eyes and I looked down at the scraped knee, I said, "Wow! That was great! And look, you finally will get a Superman band-aid!" That was all I needed to say for Pax to hop back on his scooter and roll the rest of the way home. What's a little blood, when a Superman band-aid is on the way?
Meanwhile, after a month or two of using the balance bicycle (which Eva came to late because of her love for her scooter), Eva (not yet five!) began riding a regular two-wheel bicycle, without training wheels, in the past week. It's been really fun to see her take off and do so well at bicycling. But of course, she's also had her share of falls, given the normal difficulties of learning how to steer, as well as stop and go. Even though I've gotten more relaxed when it comes to these things, I don't like to see her on the ground with the bike on top. Today when it happened, she waited for me to catch up and help get her straightened out, and then she looked at me and asked, "Was that a good fall?"
 "Yes," I said, "that was a good fall," as she climbed back on her bicycle and pushed off once again. It couldn't have been comfortable, the way she fell and with the bike on top, but all she needed was a little affirmation and a smile to get her going.

It seems  pretty clear that whether learning to walk, ride a scooter or ride a bicycle, that falls are going to happen. Bumps, bruises, scrapes, and of course, dirty faces, are all part of the lesson of childhood. Kids need to know that they can fail and still try again. They need to expect mistakes and learn that they can deal with them. They need reassurance that these little failures are all just a part of learning. And it won't be long before walking, scooting, and bicycling are a sort of second-nature where accidents are rare.

But the falls and failures of life continue long past the adventures of childhood.What a blessing it is to get back up after a fall, to hop back on with determination, to realize that the little setback does not eliminate the possibility of achieving a goal. That getting back up, not giving up, trying again, and rejoicing in the new attempt is itself a skill. It is not just a natural virtue of perseverance, but rather a testament to how we see the world. To paraphrase John Howard Yoder, the Christian world is not so much about cause and effect as it is about crucifixion and resurrection. As much as we would like to think that hard work equals success or commitment assures our achieving our goals, the world just doesn't always function like that. We can't always anticipate the bumps in the sidewalk, the people who step into our way, or the ruts in the ground. We cannot guarantee our own achievements. But we can get back up again, with a smile, and when we do that, we witness to the supernatural perspective of crucifixion and resurrection. The victory has already been won for us, and it is in uniting our sufferings to Christ that we come to share in his glory.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Defending the Dissertation and Keeping it Real

So, the big day finally happened. I defended my dissertation. Everything aligned so that my parents were visiting when my husband had a two-day fall "break," and off we went to Ohio. The drive out went well; we drove part way to Cleveland where we stayed overnight with my in-laws and woke up on Monday morning early and were out the door by about 7:30. We had some time on campus, since the defense was scheduled for 5-8 p.m. And everything went just fine. I was pretty relaxed and calm, and my committee members were very congenial. Some good friends made it to the defense, and I was really happy that at least Jeff and baby Robert were there with me. Afterwards, we went to Graeter's for some ice cream. By that time I was a little tired and talked out, so I wouldn't say I was great company...and of course Robert woke up and was running around trying to destroy all the shop's displays.

I think Jeff and I were both feeling grateful and relieved by the time we got Robert back to sleep at the hotel and fell into bed ourselves. It was a little surreal, actually, knowing that my defense...long awaited (four years of dissertating!)...had finally passed.

It was also a little surreal when at 4:00 a.m. Robert vomited all over me and the hotel bed. Well, no, actually it wasn't so much surreal as very real, in a smelly, sticky sort of way. By the time I had showered, and we cleaned Robert up, we had to make a decision: lay in a vomitous bed trying to keep a completely awake baby quiet while he crawled all over us, or get an early start to the day. We had hoped to catch the 7:00 a.m. Marianist community Mass, breakfast at Panera and head out around 8:00. Instead, we opted for the 4:30 a.m. departure. Anyway, we were excited at the prospect of making it home in time to see Patrick on his third birthday. 

(Above, Prince Patrick Sir Superhero in his UD shirt with sword)

And, in fact, we did make it home by about 3:00... after about 11 hours driving and nine baby vomits. Robert being sick meant that he slept much of the journey, except when he woke up to vomit some more (fortunately my parents keep a handy towel in their Prius that we were driving).

We walked in the front door a bit tired, but enjoyed watching Patrick open his gifts. After a pizza dinner and some cake, we put the kids to bed and the tired parents both fell asleep around 8:30 p.m.

Then, at midnight...surprise! Robert vomited on me again! After taking twelve hours off of vomiting, he was back at it..think garlic bread and pizza. So I had to wake up Jeff so we could change the king sized bed and hose down Robert, and I had to take a shower again too. Jeff rocked Robert to sleep and put him in his crib this time. I went back to bed. Then, at 2:00 a.m., Jeff woke me up: "Patrick just vomited all over the bed!" And of course Eva was in the same bed, having given hers up for my parents. So I transferred Eva to our bed and got to work changing Patrick's set of sheets while this time Jeff took a shower and cleaned up Patrick.

And at 6:00 a.m. all four kids were awake for the day, and I was back to my usual duties of making breakfast, packing lunch, changing diapers (I could give details to add drama to the story but I won't), etc.

So if you want to know how I celebrated defending my dissertation, that's the story. It's good having kids. They keep you grounded and prevent you from taking yourself too seriously. They provide a larger perspective than an isolated academic world might imply. They make theology so practical. It's not just about reading, writing, and debating, but also about living...with people... and sometimes those people vomit on you in the middle of the night.

Monday, September 9, 2013

St. Joseph

Aside from campus being about twice the size it was when we left the University of Dayton, there were also some new statues, like this one of St. Joseph, which made for a good photo opp.

St. Joseph the Worker is the patron saint of my dissertation, and I trust in his intercession for it!


I love this picture of my baby joining his uncle John Mark at the piano. Kids love hearing people make music. They can't resist adding their own input.


It's been a couple of months since I last posted. Since then, a lot has happened. More significantly, a lot didn't happen, but that will no doubt be the subject for numerous posts in the future...after things have happened. In the meantime, people often wonder how we can stay so entertained with the kids in Iowa. When we were there this past summer for a couple of weeks, one of the kids' favorite activities was frogging. Grandma Kathy bought a net for Eva after we heard from friends of hers how much fun frogging was, and knowing that Daddy loves catching animals. Maia was the first to use Eva's net, since the frogging was done past Eva's bedtime. My parents live on a golf course that has awesome ponds with awesome frogs, but unfortunately frogging has to be done once the golfers have left the course.

 Maia and Daddy were successful on their first frogging attempt, catching the above-pictured healthy Iowan frog. Due to strenuous protests from Eva, we allowed her to stay up late to go frogging the next night. And boy did she love it. Below you see another gorgeous, and quite large, frog caught with the help of that awesome net.

 Maia tried to kiss it just in case it might be a prince in disguise. Nope. Pure frog. That particular frogging outing was a bit scary for the crew as some golfers were apparently playing in the dark and a ball landed in the pond where they were frogging. Daddy was surprised that people golf by flashlight. But the next day we had another idea...why not go frogging in the wee hours of the morning before the course is hopping (with golfers, that is, not just frogs). The key was to go to a pond on one of the later holes. Daddy wasn't available, but Grandma Kathy obliged, despite having absolutely no interest in catching frogs. The pond on this particular hole had lots and lots of little bitty frogs, and the girls caught a bunch, both with net and hands and no adult help. When they returned, they let Patrick play with them, and boy did it make that kid happy.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Summer "Emergencies"

I thought I was really on top of things, despite "things" including finishing  my dissertation, planning a bathroom addition/kitchen remodel for when we're gone, taking care of the kids and house. But then the deadlines started approaching too rapidly, and it's been a little sprint to the finish here (with the sprinting still going on!).

In the midst of these emergencies, I started to realize another emergency, namely, that we hadn't done any of the fun summer activities we like to do with our kids here in Jersey. With only a few weeks before we leave for the marathon midwestern trip, it seemed like a now or never situation. The kids had been SOOOO looking forward to these things; we just couldn't put them off anymore, even with a pressing dissertation deadline and the need to order cabinets or whatever.

First, the zoo. We go to Turtleback Zoo all the time since we're members there, but we hadn't been there since the kids got their $5 each in the mail from Grandpa and Nana. And the girls were DYING to get their faces painted. (Jeff and I don't normally pay for face-painting...seems like a waste of money to us!) As you can see below, the boys opted out of the face-painting.

 On the 4th, my grandkids Bernice and Benjamin (below) and Sally and Sebastian (not pictured) got dressed up in special patriotic clothes.
 We decided to go fossil hunting - yeah!!! We haven't been since last summer, and we've been longing to go.
 Here's the crew walking down to the Big Brook Creek.
 The water was a little deeper than usual because of all the recent rain.
 Robert did NOT like the experience because he was relegated to Dad's back (and then Mom's front), unable to play in the water (the creek bed has some broken glass - not a good place for a baby).
The girls got stuck in the mud once or twice.
 Patrick, who had fallen asleep on the way (despite it only being 9:30 a.m.!!!), threw a huge tantrum and insisted on Dad holding him.
Maia found a squid fossil almost immediately. But alas, it was not a great fossil hunting day. The boys made it most impracticable to be digging in the dirt. And there was a lot of silt from all the recent rain. So our stay lasted less than an hour - a record low. And only a few fossils, alas!

Jeff had been promising the kids a meal at the Rainforest Cafe, so after getting cleaned up from all the mud, and having a little downtime at the house, we headed out to eat. And the kids had a great time.

 The next day (Friday the 5th), we went to the shore. It was our first time of the year for beach season.
 It was Robert's first time there. He seemed to enjoy the sand.
 Jeff and I managed to find some awesome shark teeth fossils in the sand right at the water line. Jeff found the one on the right; it's the largest specimen that we've found here in New Jersey. I found the one at bottom left in the first scoop of the sieve. It was right on top! Our better fossil hunting success at the beach begs the question as to whether we should bother going to the creek... the beach is a better spot for the boys, it's not so muddy, fossils are aplenty (perhaps because of Hurricane Sandy and the sand turn-over), and - since it's not an official fossil-hunting site - there's no limit to how many you can keep!
 There is, however, a rule that sandcrabs have to stay at the beach. So I was a little surprised that the two in the shell above hitched a ride home with us. I knew they were in the cupholder of the beach chair, but I thought I had dumped all that sand out. I guess I hadn't. Unfortunately, despite the kids enthusiasm for having "pet sandcrabs," they died within a few hours of being removed from their natural habitat.

 Sunday brought an expedition to Princeton University, and an attempt at tiger-riding.

 The large cement cone was a great place for the kids to act out Narnia. In the above photo Patrick is Azlan, lying dead on the stone table, with Maia playing the wicked witch having just killed him.
 Last stop before getting ice cream at Halo Pub was the Wilson Center fountain.

And now, at least those fun summer emergencies have been resolved.

Friday, July 5, 2013

On Overdetermined Selfishness and the Sanctity of the Youth

When I was looking through primary sources from the 1950s for my dissertation research, I came across the above ad, which was advertising a "Special School for Delayed Vocations." I had to chuckle that this was specified as "12th Graders and Over, 17-25." Just imagine that, age 17 was considered a "delayed vocation" to the priesthood. DH teaches seminarians, and, well, suffice to say that ages 17-25 are no longer considered delayed vocations.

At this time of the year, I'm often drawn to reflections on the sanctity of the youth. St. Anthony of Pauda, whose feast is June 13, died at age 35. St. Aloysius Gonzaga, whose feast is June 21, died at age 23. St. Elizabeth of Portugal, whose feast is July 4, was engaged in marriage at age 10 and married by age 17. St. Maria Goretti, whose feast is July 6, died at age 11. And of course, there's the nativity of St. John the Baptist, celebrated on June 24.

Our Catholic tradition affirms that even the youth can be holy; even children are chosen by God to do his work. Though the Church also celebrates the lives of saints such as Augustine and Paul, there is no requirement for a profound conversion as an adult, nor is it necessarily normative. Those exemplars give us hope that even the great sinner can become a great saint. But on the other hand, we also see that even at a young age, it is possible to make great sacrifices for God. Sanctity is not relegated to old age. And the dramatic conversion of Augustine is not superior to the constant contrition of Therese Lisieux. Both are sources of hope for us - that no one is too old to be lost, and that no one is too young to be found.

In our culture today, however, selfishness, rather than sanctity, is overdetermined. By overdetermination, I simply mean that there are so many contributing factors to selfishness that it is impossible to identify just one factor as causing selfishness. In fact, even if one cause were removed, the resulting selfishness would likely still remain. We Americans are teaching our children to see themselves as their first priority and to prize their perceived needs above the needs and desires of others.

It's no wonder then, that the youth tend to shy away from great commitments. If their whole world is about them, and they make a mistake in an important choice, their whole world will fall down around them. Adults sometimes feed the fear of commitment by suggesting that a wide variety of experiences and choices is necessary in order for youth to make the right decision in regard to the future. How can you know you are called to the priesthood if you've never dated a girl? How can you know you're called to marriage with that man, if he's the only one you've ever dated? How can you choose to stay in a convent or a monastery if you haven't traveled the world?

In the case of saints like Elizabeth of Portugal, Maria Goretti, Anthony of Padua, Aloysius Gonzaga, and John the Baptist, they knew that their lives didn't really revolve around them and that's what gave them the freedom to make big choices in accord with the will of God. Take Aloysius Gonzaga, for example. He was an Italian aristocrat, the eldest of seven children, destined to inherit his father's title as Marquis. Instead, he gave up the rights to his inheritance and left his life in royal courts to become a Jesuit. When the plague hit Rome, he cared for those afflicted and then himself died of the plague at the age of 23. Elizabeth of Portugal, meanwhile, was a princess engaged at an early age, and then married to a king. Even in her childhood she went to Mass daily and regularly practiced penance. Her husband, it turned out, did not share her morals, but she stuck to her pious practices and continued in kindness toward him, as well as constant ministry to the poor and the sick. We could say that she had very little "choice" about her marriage vocation, but on the other hand, she exercised her freedom in Christ by continuing to do God's will, even at an early age, and despite difficult circumstances.

We do our children a disservice if we make them think that their lives are simply about themselves and their choices. They will not be able to make and be faithful to big vocational commitments such as priesthood, the religious life, and marriage if we haven't been encouraging them to discern God's will at every moment, to live virtuous and holy lives. And we have to emphasize that the important thing is not having lots of choices , but rather doing God's will with the choice they've made or the situation in which they find themselves. That's fidelity, and it's a sign of our faith in God. We know that our lives are about us only to the extent that they are about God and our role in his kingdom.

Ideas for raising kids with a goal of sanctity, not selfishness:
1. Models - let the saints be models for your kids, especially young saints. Make sure that you and your spouse are models for the kids and that they recognize that sanctity is more important to you than the natural pleasures of life. Talk to them about it and let them witness your own struggles.
2. Family - teach them to think of others first of all in the context of the family. Help them to recognize that, as I'm always saying, "We're all on the same team, here!" It's good to make sacrifices for others and to contribute to the good of the family as a whole.
3. Encourage piety - give them good access to the sacraments, and let them see you making use of them, as well as other prayer practices, such as the Rosary or Scripture reading. Teach them the faith so these aren't uneducated beliefs.
4. Independence - let them make decisions and learn from them. Don't spare them the logical consequences of their actions. But also don't let them stress those consequences; don't needlessly exaggerate. Be positive about the opportunity that failure provides. Don't overwhelm them with restrictions that will foster rebellion.
5. Don't indulge them - you just can't let them have everything they want and request. If you can't say no to them they won't be able to say no to themselves either.
6. Delayed gratification - let them work for things so they see that the good things in life take time and effort. In many ways, sanctity is all about delayed gratification, seeking heavenly reward rather than earthly.
7. Commitment - encourage them to stay faithful to their commitments and responsibilities, whether chores, homework, or extracurricular activities.

Any other good ideas out there?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Generosity of Fatherhood

The above editorial cartoon "A Job With No Benefits" from the Onion (Issue 49:4, June 10, 2013) once again illustrates how satire can be so revealing about cultural perspectives. As you can see, this cartoon depicts a hospital room where a woman has just given birth. The mother, representing "Scheming Trollops" is seen handing the baby, labeled "Selfish, Demanding Babies" to the father "Innocent Young Men." The father pictures a grave marking the passing of his good years. The Statue of Liberty's torch goes up in flames as a tear falls from her eye, imitating the tear from the father's eye. And a man with a notepad describes the scene as "The Miracle of Strife," rather than "the miracle of life."

While this cartoon poses the opportunity for reflection on a variety of topics, such as naming women who want to have babies as "scheming trollops," I was most caught by the labels on the baby and on the father. It seemed to me that it would make sense to swap the labels between father and child (of course, then it would largely cease to be satirical). That's right, I think that babies are innocent. And I think that many men are selfish and demanding, especially when it comes to enjoying their "good years" by avoiding fatherhood.

But of course, it would be unfair simply to apply this label only to men. The fact is that many young people - men and women - are stuck in a sort of prolonged adolescence, an indeterminate stretching of the college years. And this is not a criticism of singlehood (as I know many singles would like to be married) since it is perfectly possible to live selfishly whether single or married, with children or without.

It would be easy to name common examples of this prolonged adolescence, such as staying out late on the weekends drinking and then sleeping off a hangover. But rather than target those examples, I'd like to make this more personal by giving examples from my own singlehood and childlessness. Recently I've been reflecting on those years I lived in So Cal in the desert, teaching public school, and filling my free time with...

What did I fill all my free time with? I must have had so much free time. I finished my school days at 3:00. I had the summer off. I did not have to feed anyone, buy clothes for anyone, or keep a "self-dirtying" house clean. From what I can recall, I spent a fair amount of time (2-3 hours a day) exercising, that is, training for boxing (this was when I had my amateur boxing license) or going on long bicycle rides through date country. I taught Catechism at my parish, but let's be honest, that only took a couple of hours a week. I talked to family and friends on my phone. I hung out with friends, going to dinner or the movies. Aside from the strictures of my job, I did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I went wherever I wanted to go and ate whatever I fancied (like raspados enchilados, machaca con huevos, and flan con rompope).

In short, it was a selfish kind of lifestyle. Of course, I didn't know it at the time. I probably realized I could put more time and effort into my teaching, but I don't think it ever occurred to me that I was surrounded by people who could have benefited from my self-giving if only I had been more generous with my time for them. In particular, I think of one of my colleagues who had a young family. In all the time I was there, I baby-sat for them once... why didn't I make it a more regular commitment?

I said above that people can be selfish both with children or without. But I think that children can be a major push toward self-giving for people like me, who are sort of unreflective in their selfishness. Awhile back, Holly Taylor Coolman wrote a great blogpost at catholicmoraltheology.com entitled "Parents as Stewards: Rejecting the Commodification of Reproduction." In it she cited Pius XI's Casti Connubii, wherein he uses a biblical parable to compare children to "talents" that the parents have been given; the kids are gifts from God which should be returned with interest. It was great for Dr. Coolman to remind us of this example because too often we see kids only as restrictions of our own freedom and happiness, rather than as something loaned to us to aid in our sanctification and theirs.

In our indulgent society, very few like to embrace the sacrifices that parenting requires, and a contraceptive culture has more or less isolated child-bearing from sex, causing both men and women to think they can indulge in sexual pleasure without responsibility for a child that may follow it. Why would people want to embrace the inconvenience of pregnancy, the sleepless nights, the frustrations in child-rearing, the material cost, etc. Even people who try to be loving and self-giving can feel caught unawares from the sudden realization that - "Hey! I now constantly have to think about this other person!" It's way different than the demands of marriage; you can leave your spouse alone to run to the store, but not your baby. For those who have no larger framework that can make sense of the sacrifices of parenthood, it must be even harder to deal with being a parent. Indeed, the "good years" are gone, if by good years we mean only thinking of ourselves and pleasing ourselves, doing whatever we want whenever we want without reference to "selfish demanding babies."

On this Father's Day weekend, I don't want to end on such a low point. Instead, I want to remind us of the generosity in fatherhood that we see in God, our Father. It plays out in a constant pedagogical framework; giving us free will, letting us choose what's wrong, gently guiding us back, forgiving us, and all the while loving us in our selfishness, our silliness, our foolish rejection of grace and God's love. The generosity of God the Father is patiently to teach us, allowing us to blaspheme and offend him, and in the end, being willing to save us through the offer of his own self-less Son, the answer to our perennial selfishness.

Every father, to the extent that he is good and generous, reflects this self-lessness of God. I think of St. Joseph, being willing to take upon himself a child who was not his biologically, becoming the protector of that child, even though it entailed leaving all he knew and fleeing in poverty to Egypt.
(Really, who wants to be leisurely drinking coffee and reading books in a book store when you could be hunting for fossils with your kids?

And of course, I have to end with a shout-out to my own husband, who has grown immensely in self-lessness since becoming a father. The man who once told me he "needs about 10 hours of sleep to feel really well-rested" now regularly gets less than six, due to the nighttime demands of parenting. He'd like to sleep in, but he's always showered and ready for the day by 7:00 a.m., packing lunch for Maia, making breakfast (including mine), reading Dr. Seuss books. While the bulk of his income in pre-fatherhood years went toward books and pizza, the bulk of it now goes toward providing house, food, and clothing for other people. Though every once in awhile he gets an itch to watch an espionage movie or buy a martial arts knife, in general his day is geared toward helping all the other people in his life, whether changing diapers, doing school drop-offs, or editing my dissertation footnotes. He doesn't ever mourn the "good days" (at least, not out loud!) when his work time was his own and his free time was his own without the constraints of children. And that's because his generosity comes from the sense that his life is not simply about himself, but about living for others. And that brings a satisfaction far beyond the shallow happiness of immediate pleasure. In a sense, it's both the miracle of life, and the miracle of strife. Both life and strife are gifts from God, and generous fatherhood means being willing to accept the strife that comes with life-giving love and finding satisfaction even in the sacrifices. It's definitely not "a job with no benefits."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dancing Alone

Patrick had a great time dancing at his godmother's wedding. He preferred dancing alone: "I don't want to dance with you, Mommy! I want to dance by myself!"

June1 Houston trip 072 from Theologian Mom on Vimeo.

Friday, May 24, 2013

When Charity and Tolerance Converged

My sister recently sent me David Brooks' NY Times article about Google's ngram viewer. This tool involves a massive database of words from 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. It allows the person to type in various words, choose a particular corpus (e.g. "American English" or "English") and then it maps out the word usage. Of course, I set to work in my spare moments searching for words that relate to my work (which was why my sister had sent it to me in the first place). One of my favorite graphs involved the words "authority" (blue) and "freedom" (red) in American English between 1955 and 2000:

Isn't it fascinating that those two words follow an almost identical usage curve? Unfortunately, the ngram viewer doesn't tell us how the words were used although presumably during this time "authority" most likely occurred so frequently because it was a concept under attack, with a negative connotation. It was probably mentioned in the context of questioning authority and not trusting authority and so on. And we could probably surmise that the popularity of freedom was related to this concept of challenging authority, the "contagion of liberty" as Philip Gleason names it in his Contending with Modernity.

But of course, there's a lot of inference and supposition involved in the ngram viewer, and I am not trying to make any strong arguments here, just observe what I found that was interesting in my ngram playtime. So here's the other chart that I found really interesting:
Charity (blue) and tolerance (red) converged in 1968, which was a big year for many ecclesiastical and political events and so it is interesting that the convergence occurred in 1968. Prior to that, charity had greater popular usage in American English. The above chart only represents 1950-1980. Seeing this chart caused me to reflect a little about the difference between charity and tolerance. I was raised in the 80s and 90s, and I recall tolerance being an important concept. I remember having the sense that I didn't have to agree with other people's opinions or preferences, but I was supposed to tolerate them. Tolerance was a word that implied equality; it's fundamentally a non-religious word to apply to situations of difference without appearing judgmental, although it does actually imply judgment. It's a word of non-interference, and in that sense it is individualistic, for the relationship of tolerance is not really a relationship of engagement; it is not personal. Tolerance is not confrontational, but it is sort of a "cold peace" as political scientists might say.

Charity, on the other hand, is a religious word, tied to the greatest of the theological virtues, having God as its object. Because the object of charitable acts is God, charity also often implies difference and judgment, and we see this reflected by our use of "charity" to name an organization that helps people identified as in need of services (people we judge as in need of "charity"). Charity does not imply equality of values or ways of life but it does imply relationship, a personalistic gift of self, that forms a bond among people, aiming toward unity. Charity can be extended to people we judge to be different than us, but it aims at human unity given the supernatural object of God. In that sense, charity can involve more than just hand-outs of needed resources, but also fraternal correction, the noting of others' faults, intellectual argument on moral convictions, and encouragement to improve upon weaknesses that inhibit the path to one's final end in God. Charity calls us beyond our own selfishness to an active and sometimes difficult love of others, rather than a passive tolerance for opinions or preferences that are not our own.

Of course, we are all likely familiar with the gospel point that Jesus welcomed sinners and even ate with them. But this would not be described as tolerance. Jesus extended charity, not tolerance, to sinners. His charitable engagement was one that called people away from their sins to a better and more authentic human life, with God as object and end. He did not "judge" or condemn the woman caught in adultery according to the procedures of human law, but he did judge her to have sinned and instructed her not to do it again: "Then neither do I condemn you: go an sin no more" (Jn 8:11). Charity is not just being nice nor being tolerant of sin, but wanting the best for the other person, although that sometimes means calling the person to a new way of life.

Interestingly, it seems tolerance, after its brief rise in popularity of usage in the American English language, is now on its way down. Charity and tolerance once again converged in 2007. One possible contributing factor is that tolerance has ceased to be a compelling concept, perhaps because, as I noted above, it does imply judgment and difference, the acknowledgment of disagreement and cold peace. Now, perhaps, the emphasis is on acceptance without judgment and a new level of relativism that seeks to normalize most things, hence shirking at distinguishing difference or implying any kind of objective morality. No longer, an I'm OK--You're OK individualistic and tolerant attitude, but rather now an "all-OK" post-individualism attitude that precludes the judgment implied by tolerance and now concludes that there is no real difference, save for unevaluatable preference. The only people to be judged in this schema are those who emphasize difference and believe in objective morality rather than moral relativism. In an "all-OK" mindset, these alone are not OK because they won't accept what the post-tolerant world regards as fact, or, as Gavin D'Costa phrases it, they won't ascribe to the "false gods of modernity." To them, particularly those with supernatural and religious worldviews, will all the remaining identifiable problems of the world be attributed because they stand in the way of a unified acceptance of the post-tolerant all-OK world where sin does not exist and where the biggest mistake is to try to identify sin and fight against it.

The above chart is a snapshot of 1965 to 2008, and you can see here that in 2007, charity (blue) once more rose above tolerance (red) in American English. The current increase in the usage of "charity" in the post-tolerant world must be primarily unrelated to the theological virtue, but rather perhaps should be attributed to the naming of those organizations with virtually any objective. Such "charities" may in some way wish the best for the people they aim to help, but not in the context of a final supernatural end in God, but rather with the end of natural well-being in the context of the "all OK" post-tolerance perspective. As such, the aims of "charities" may be almost anything that its founders regard as worthwhile, so long as they do not challenge the false gods of modernity. Those charities that put into practice the theological virtue of love of God through the assisting of others in the hopes of forming bonds tending toward humanity's common end in God will be judged and found wanting because they do not prescribe to the post-tolerant all-OK mindset. Rather, they truly desire the best for each person, knowing that the best is God and that the path to God involves the imitation of Christ's gift of self, not to judge, not to tolerate, but to love in a way that challenges the person to grow in sanctity.

In case anyone's wondering, "love," (blue) though on an overall decline for several centuries, nonetheless remains much more popular in the English language than either charity (red) or tolerance, and may even be on the way up.

The above chart's time range is 1800-2008.

Where charity and love prevail
There God is ever found
Brought here together by Christ's love
By love are we thus bound.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Body is for Loving

 (Mama with the boys, who get held a lot!)
This Easter season, coincident with the aches and pains of parenting, has given me the occasion to reflect a little on the body. The Catholic teaching of the resurrection may be one of the hardest parts of the faith to understand, but of course, it's also one of the most important.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 997:  "In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection."

That's right, the soul goes to meet God, but this separation of the body and soul is not final. The body and soul will be reunited. But what exactly is a "glorified" body? One thought might be to associate the glorified body with a perfect body. In other words, we might think that a glorified body would reflect our ideals of the human body - perfect symmetry, straight teeth, glossy hair and whatever. That's why I find it so interesting that one important aspect of Jesus' resurrected body is his wounds. Given the scourging at the pillar, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, and the piercing of the lance, we can surmise that Jesus' body laid to rest in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was in pretty bad physical shape, far from the ideal human figures we label as perfect.

And yet, even in his resurrection, Jesus retains the wounds of the cross--maybe not of the scourging  but at least of the nail wounds and the piercing in his side. Doesn't that scriptural detail just turn our conventional notion of the perfect body on its head? I once mused to myself that maybe everyone's glorified bodies will bear the marks of the crucifixion. Imagine that a glorified body would exhibit something like that which seems so obviously to be an imperfection or a blemish.

Well, maybe we won't all bear the marks of the crucifixion in our glorified bodies. But nonetheless, I think it is a good reminder of the purpose of the body while we are here on earth, and that is to love and to serve God. The people who love and serve God on earth may not have the "perfect" bodies according to our current conventional standards. Those bodies may not be thin or attractive. They may not be healthy or free of pain. They may not be strong or sturdy. Rather, those who love and serve God on earth will likely already suffer the physical consequences of this service.

I first thought of this years ago, when I heard of anthropologist Dr. Susan Sheirdan's work analyzing the skeletons of 5th and 6th century Byzantine monks in Jerusalem. In a recent article from Notre Dame Magazine, Sheridan says that “When we pulled the bones out we found the legs were really pathological.” In what way? Biomechanical analysis indicated that the monks had knelt a lot; bones rubbed against bones at the knee, and the big toes fused as a response to repetitive stress. In other words, the monks' constant prayer left actual physical marks on their skeletons. Wow.

One response to this finding is to reflect on why the monks would have sought or endured such suffering, so extreme to the point of leaving marks on their bones still evident a millennium and a half later. But another response is to say - gosh, if their skeletons look like that, what about the beauty of their souls! Because as Christians, we believe that our actions leave marks not just on our bodies, but on our souls. These monks' skeletons can be seen as useful analogical tools to help us meditate on the body-soul connection.

So what would someone find with my skeleton 1500 years later? I can honestly say I would be proud if they found my knees showed evidence of constant kneeling, but I am no monk. A biomechanical analysis of my skeleton would probably show the signs of parenting - all those aches and pains I am feeling right now. Maybe my left hip bone would be slightly lower than my right because of constantly holding a baby there. Likewise, my left wrist and left index finger might show the marks also of having borne continual stress. Maybe my spine would seem to have been a little compressed from wearing a sling or ergo.

 (Baby Maia in sling)

These physical ailments are not to be praised by our society, which sees every imperfection as a problem, and oftentimes, a problem that should be healed or at least have the pain eased by medical treatment. And indeed, there is something praiseworthy in trying to preserve our health if we see it as instrumental in loving and serving God. So we should try to take care of our bodies and aim for health in order to do God's will. But such physical health and the goal of long life for its own sake cannot be seen ends in themselves. And in fact, even injury and illness are wonderful opportunities to love and serve God by offering that pain to God, uniting it with Christ's passion for the good of others in the world. Injury and illness may disfigure and weaken our bodies, but they can also increase the beauty of our souls.

(Dad with baby Eva... and yes, Dad has back problems too)

The body is for loving, and sometimes the love of God and others will leave marks on our body; of course, I think of the minor physical effects of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting because that's where I'm at right now. The demands of busy family life may prevent the perfect health associated with ideal exercise patterns and nutritional eating. Pregnancy's routine of "gain 40 lose 30 pounds" may result in some degree of exasperation.Carrying kids around seven days a week, 52 weeks a year might compress the spinal column or lead to a hip imbalance. We may even have scratches or bruises from kids accidentally hitting us.

(Even an "easy" childbirth, like Patrick's was, is not so easy on the body)

These physical blemishes do not have to be seen negatively. The bodies we have are made for the work we do serving God; they are not made to be passive displays of perfect beauty. And the physical imperfections are positive if they are bringing us closer to God by having us share in the passion of Christ. These wounds are the wounds of Christ, and those wounds remained, not simply on a skeleton as with the monks, but even on Christ's resurrected body.

(And a quick delivery like Robert's can be even worse.)

So too, I do not think our glorified bodies will find us all looking like fashion models, perfect in every conventional earthly way. Though our aches and pains will cease to ache and pain, the physical marks that resulted from our service to God may remain because these very marks are associated with the glorification of our bodies. If we are offering our daily work to God - whether or parenting or praying or teaching or even suffering - then the physical blemishes we incur as a result are spiritually significant. They increase the beauty of our souls and help us move closer to that final glorified body.