Real Parents

You’re not my real parents.

I said that to them at least once in my life. I followed the comment by running away from home, a slammed door followed by a short jaunt down Lola Drive with my blankee tied up on a yard stick and filled with GI Joe action figures (essential to survival). Five houses down, I realized my mistake and headed back. I pulled up a chair at the dinner table and ate a delicious meal that my parents had provided. They forgave me and loved me through the ordeal, just like “real” parents do.

I’m fairly sure every adopted kid has thought or said the same thing to their parents. It’s still a little confusing, after all, knowing that the people who raised me aren’t the people who made me. By ‘made,’ of course, I mean ‘had sex,’ and then one of them dealt with me explicitly for the next nine months. And both of them (biological mom and dad), after having made me, have probably dealt with the reality of their flesh and blood out there in the world, far removed from them for important, challenging reasons.

***

Simone Biles and I have at least three things in common – we were/are both gymnasts, we are Catholic, and we are adopted. People tend to understand the gymnast and the Catholic thing – sports and faith. Easy. But the adopted thing? Whose kid is this really?

A few days ago, Al Trautwig made (and, to his credit, later apologized for) an awkward, if not offensive, comment about the Olympic champion gymnast and her parentage.  “They may be mom and dad, but they are NOT her parents,” Al tweeted.

Then, who are they?

***

From what I’ve read, Simone’s biological mother Shannon struggled with a drug addiction that left her unable to care for her four children. Shannon’s father Roland (Simone’s biological grandfather) and his wife Nellie took charge, eventually adopting Simone and her little sister. Simone was four years old.

Now 19, Simone has seen Ronald and Nellie looking on from the stands for the entirety of her gymnastics career, which has just recently produced Olympic gold. Ronald and Nellie have driven Simone to early morning workouts, provided an education, fed her, clothed her, cheered her on in her greatest successes and held her close when she lost, or was injured, or was tired and wanted to quit. They gave her faith. They raised her. They are her parents. 1

Unless we want to think of parents in some other way. But I don’t think we can. Not really. The gift of life that parents provide doesn’t end when the child is just out of the womb. The gift extends well beyond first moments and into the flashes of life that parents provide their children each and every day. Parents who stick around for that are real parents. Who love without concern of being loved. Who step up when the kid needs it. Who fly halfway around the world to cheer their kid on. Who watch their daughter win Olympic gold.

It’s not always easy, and sometimes we end up with parents different from the ones who ‘made’ us. But let’s not think that biological connection is the only thing that makes a parent real.

-//-

(1) Imagine telling Joseph that he wasn’t Jesus’ father. Imagine telling Joseph that after all those years wiping baby Jesus’ butt, holding him during bouts with the stomach flu, working to put food on the table, teaching him to pray, to work hard, to pick up after himself, to be a good man and a good Jew, he wasn’t really Jesus’ father. The Christian tradition holds that Joseph is the foster father to Jesus, but I don’t think a qualifier is necessary. Joseph did just what real fathers do: he was there for everything until he couldn’t be there anymore.

This article by Eric Immel, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


Solidarity and Voting: Vote Your Conscience, Not Your Privilege

Donald Trump continues his scorched earth campaigning, this time by sinking to new lows: he attacked the father of a fallen US soldier who was killed in Iraq, along with the Gold Star mother of that very same soldier.  The repudiation of his attacks by other Republicans was swift and harsh, but, this is just latest in a slew of examples that demonstrate that Donald Trump does not have the temperament, empathy, or disposition to be President of the United States.

The #NeverTrump movement continues to gain steam, but the #NeverTrump movement is also joined by a robust #NeverHillary movement as well.  The “never” camps primarily consist of voters who feel left out of both major political parties—these voters feel they must vote for a third party as a way to “vote their conscience” or in order to lodge a “protest vote” against what they view as unsatisfactory options. This type of strategic voting, however, is a privilege that many Americans cannot afford.

The choice to vote for a third party candidate as an exercise of principle entails an inherent risk that your more-preferred major party candidate may lose the election. For many of the most vulnerable, the outcome of this election will carry very tangible and potentially catastrophic results that would make taking such a risk unacceptable. Read More


Tim Kaine Talks ‘Faith, Family, and Work’ in Outstanding First Speech

A few days ago, Tim Kaine gave perhaps the best debut speech of any presidential running mate in recent history. He showed that he is a happy warrior who will fight for his deepest convictions while directly challenging his opponents, all without turning to the bile and hateful rhetoric that permeate American politics. In his first big speech, he showed sincerity, optimism, energy, and verve. His optimism and patriotism sharply contrast with the doom and gloom denigration of the United States by Donald Trump during his RNC speech. Kaine’s policy knowledge and seriousness contrast with the utter vapidity of Trump’s campaign, while he explained his positions in a relaxed, genial way that is easy for everyday Americans to understand.

While left-wing culture warriors have pushed a strategy centered on social libertarianism that is designed to win the White House despite being deeply damaging to many Democrats running for Congress and at the state level, Kaine offered an alternative: a complete and total focus on issues facing working class and middle class Americans. He talked about building bridges and having a “kids and family first president.” He highlighted Hillary Clinton’s communitarian impulses, the most admirable elements of her political vision and drive, while showing that he too sincerely believes we are “stronger together.” It is an important message at a time when radical individualism is poisoning both parties through the disproportionate power of self-centered economic elites.

What was really remarkable was how fluidly and authentically he talked about his faith and how it drives his life and commitment to social justice. Given the rising number of ‘nones’ in the Democratic coalition, it is remarkable how religiously devout the Clinton-Kaine ticket is. Kaine said, “I’m a Catholic and Hillary is a Methodist, but I tell ya, her creed is the same as mine: do all the good you can.” One may disagree with their application of Christian ethical principles or how they blend their faith and political life (as I’ll discuss below), but it is clear that both are driven by a deep, sincere Christian faith (unless you are blinded by the beam in your eye, as you busily search for apostates while intentionally or unwittingly propping up plutocracy, a fairly common ailment on social media). Read More


Sports, Solidarity, and #BlackLivesMatter

gdfgEarlier this week, ESPN hosted its annual award show, the ESPYS.  This year’s show—usually a lighthearted celebration of sports’ greatest athletes and accomplishments from over the previous year—got off to a poignant and powerful start.  Four of the NBA’s top stars, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, Dwyane Wade (who recently joined the Chicago Bulls after 13 years playing for the Miami Heat), the NY Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, and LA Clippers’ Chris Paul, joined together in a call to action in the face of escalating racial tensions and heartbreaking violence, including the tragic shootings that killed 49 and wounded dozens of others at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile by police officers, and the sniper attack in Dallas that gunned down five police officers and wounded seven others.  In this three-and-a-half minute moving speech, these world-class athletes told their peers and fans that we need to join together to “educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence and, most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”

In making this claim, these four men communicated their desire to pick up the mantle of other activist-athletes like Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe – and especially the recently deceased Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most courageous activist among all those in the pantheon of sports heroes. Anthony and Paul are less known for their social views, although Carmelo did share some mighty words on this summer’s violence just last week.  Wade and James made headlines for their demonstrations after the deaths of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin a few years ago, but James was criticized for his silence in the wake of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.  Read More


Revitalizing Catholic Culture: An Interview with Anna Keating

dsfafdsfdAnna Keating is a blogger, writer, small business owner, and mother of two. She’s the co-author, along with Melissa Musick, of The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide To the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life. You can read an excerpt from the book here and Millennial’s review of the book here. The following is an interview with Anna Keating by Millennial editor Robert Christian:

Robert Christian (RC): The idea of a field guide to the daily acts of a Catholic life seems premised on the need for instruction or guidance in the absence of a robust Catholic culture where such traditions would be passed down orally or in another more organic way. What do you think has been lost with the collapse of this culture in certain areas or simply its absence in other areas?

Anna Keating (AK): I grew up a few blocks from my maternal grandmother. She was born in 1918 in Tulia, Texas. She called people “good ole boys” in her Southern accent, and said things like “She took to him like a sick kitten to a hot brick.” My grandmother died a few years ago, and I’m already starting to forget her sayings. If you don’t use the language, or record it, it’s lost. It happens very fast. That’s what’s happening with our faith. We don’t know the words or the works. We don’t remember how our grandmother used to braid those palms on Palm Sunday, or what braiding them was all about, or why our aunt was always making sick people casseroles. It’s vanishing.

Many of us didn’t grow up with these customs, with this way of seeing the world, even if we grew up Catholic. Stumbling upon this ancient way of life in this book, or elsewhere, is almost like discovering a foreign country.

Of course, we don’t want to idealize the past. Part of why American Catholic culture was more robust in the early and mid 20th century was because of Nativism. The KKK burned a cross in my great grandfather’s front yard because he was Catholic immigrant. We held onto our beliefs, in part, because of persecution and ghettoization.

Now we face the opposite problem of being mainstreamed. The faith gets boiled down. Reduced to a couple of bullet points. We live in an increasingly homogenized world. I’m intrigued by these ancient Christian habits, but often have no idea where to begin.

fsadfsdaThat’s why my coauthor, Melissa Musick, and I, wanted to write a resource that met people where they were (spiritual but not religious, Catholic, ex-Catholic, Protestant, agnostic). We wanted the book to be a field guide, an open window, a way in. Just pick one thing that resonates with you and try it. And then one thing leads to another, and another, and so on.

RC: Do you think there are particular challenges and/or opportunities when it comes to millennials and the revival of Catholic cultural practices? 

AK: As a generation, we’re uncomfortable with truth claims and mysteries. There aren’t many grand narratives anymore, except the ones that are so ubiquitous as to be invisible to us (e.g. utilitarianism).

We pick and choose from various moralities and symbol systems, but we tend not to put down roots. It’s an awful burden, in a way, to have an endless number of choices, especially when you don’t have any formative experiences with any of them and aren’t well informed about what it is you’re accepting or rejecting.

Sometimes we choose not to choose, out of the fear that picking a path and walking it will limit us in some way.

But I also think Millennials want to dive in, to taste and see, to feel alive, even if that means making sacrifices.

We’ve gone so far in the opposite direction (individualism, consumerism, nihilistic tendencies) that we’re ripe for a renewal. Millennials want more than nice stuff and endless distractions. They want love, meaning and purpose.

And they’re interested in rediscovering beautiful practices. Growing real food. Walkable neighborhoods. Religious life. Working with their hands. Buying local. Sacred art and architecture. Chant. Contemplation and meditation. Marian devotions. Jesus. Helping the poor and the environment. Social action. Building community. Nonviolence.

ewrqrOf course, being different can be unappealing. It’s natural to want to be accepted and well liked. And to love anything is to risk being misunderstood or mocked, or put in a box. Wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd”?

People have told me my shoes were cool, or that owning a small business was cool, or that my kids were great, but no one has ever told me that being a Catholic is cool. They’ve seen certain practices and found them compelling, but they could do without the label. But even that can be liberating. If you’re someone like me who suffers from the disease of caring too much about what other people think, it’s good to cultivate a healthy detachment, to, humbly and with a sense of humor, walk your path.

RC: Do you have a favorite chapter? Is there a particular ritual or activity that is among your favorite from the book?

AK: Catholicism is often an excuse to celebrate and drink, but I also need its quiet and meditative aspects. The ritual gestures. The deep sacred wisdom of the liturgy. Letting the words of the Scriptures wash over me and compel me to act.

kjjjjjMy favorite chapter is Holy Water and the Sign of the Cross. I’m fascinated by how these ritual gestures (bowing, bending, touching, tasting,) turn us into brothers and sisters, make us one in Jesus.

I go to Mass with people from different backgrounds, races, classes, political parties, sexual orientations, abilities, and parts of town. People I would never otherwise cross paths with, exchange the Sign of Peace with me at church. It’s the only place where I really feel that we are all lost, all found, all one in Christ.

RC: There is still a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement over Pope Francis. But it seems to me that the “Francis Revolution” can only really come when Christians live authentic lives of Christian witness in a way that is essentially countercultural without retreating entirely from the broader culture. It seems to me that the Catholic Catalogue offers a lot of advice on what that witness might look like. Do you see the book as aligning with key themes of Francis’ papacy? Can the book help people who are inspired by Francis to live out the things he talks about in their everyday lives?

AK: Absolutely. When the Pope is on the cover of Rolling Stone, a lot of people are taking a second look at a Church and a religion they thought they knew.  The word pontiff means bridge and Francis is a bridge figure. He reminds people that the Church welcomes sinners. He goes out to the peripheries. He meets people where they are. He tries to get us to put aside our differences and come together to serve others and carry Christ into the world.

So many spiritual books are marketed to camps within Christianity. This book isn’t like that. You want to end capital punishment with Sant’ Egidio?  Awesome. You’re interested in consecrated virginity?  Great. There’s something in this book for everyone.

The question in the Acts of the Apostles isn’t “How do you feel? Or, What’s your opinion? It’s: “How then shall we live?” Francis is asking that of the Church and we’re trying to help people who want to make it a practice.

RC: Along those same lines, one theme that I think is present in the book is that there can and should be holiness in everyday life. What are some challenges of living a Catholic life in our contemporary culture with our often frenetic daily lives? And how can we go about living religiously, not just one day or one hour a week, but in our daily lives?

AK: My favorite part of my house is the upstairs balcony, because there’s nothing to accomplish out there. No WIFI. No sink full of dirty dishes. No weeds to pull. No laundry to fold. It’s just a place for sitting with old friends. For hugging my babies. For looking at the sky. For lectio divina. For rest.

Wiping children’s noses and bottoms is holy. Going to work is holy. Scrubbing pots and pans is holy. God is present in all of it, but it is easier to find him, if our manner of living isn’t just one damn thing after another. If we make room for the Sacrament of the Present moment. For being present to our lives.

kkkkkThat’s also why I wrote about sacred art and church architecture in the book. Beauty is healing. We need places we can go (nature, a home altar, a church) where it’s easier to open our hearts.  Everyone needs a place.

RC: A second key theme seems to be the importance of the body. Do you think there is often a disconnect between our spiritual and physical lives as we live them now? If so, how can that divide be bridged?

AK: What we do with our bodies we do with our souls. Think about the popularity of yoga. There’s clearly a need to get out of our heads and into our embodied hearts. This book focuses on activities that engage all five senses: holy oils, incense, blessing your home, feeding the poor, making and praying with candles, baking bread with kids, taking a Catholic road trip or pilgrimage. Come and see the wonder in a child’s eyes when candles are lit on a dark winter’s night? Or when sweet rolls appear on St. Lucy’s day.

trtrRC: A third theme that I thought was present in the book was the importance of community. You are constantly encouraging people to include others, to build community, to have shared experiences. We seem to be living in an increasingly atomized society with more transient friendships, people frequently moving, and higher levels of loneliness. What are the challenges of building in community in this type of culture? And how can some of what you mention in the Catholic Catalogue counteract these forces that are fostering individualism and even isolation?

AK: Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I among them.” God didn’t come to a person. He came to a people. He chose to be born into a Jewish family.

We all need a place where we can go when we have nothing to offer, where everyone says welcome, and come back soon. It’s no good to go alone. Of course, being in relationships with other people is hard because it means putting up with their flaws, but it also means knowing others who are willing to put up with yours.

In the book we talk about inviting people over to decorate your Christmas tree, or being St. Nicholas to a family in need, or celebrating Carnival with friends.

When you know your neighbors, even when they’re simply acquaintances, life is better.

RC: A final recurring theme that I thought was important was the book’s focus on the value of beauty. Our society seems to value what it considers to be beautiful, but often the focus seems to be on the superficial and ephemeral, and this misunderstanding of beauty seems connected to consumerism and the objectification of others. How should Christians understand beauty, and why should we value it? What is the relationship of beauty to the divine? 

AK: Like all people we value what is aesthetically pleasing: a sunset, a beautiful face, a rose window. All beauty points to its Author.

And yet, if Beauty is an attribute of God, then in order for something to be truly beautiful it must also be good and true. You see this in ancient Greek thought as well.

If Beauty points to the universal law, which is Christ, then it must also reflect human suffering. That’s why even a birth or death could be described as beautiful.

The Protestant theologian Karl Barth writes about the Isenheim altarpiece as an example of this kind of challenging beauty. It was painted by Matthias Grunewald for the monastery of St. Anthony, where the monks were known to care for people with the plague and other diseases of the skin. In the painting Christ’s body is covered with sores. This too is beautiful, because it speaks to the true and the good. God shares in our sufferings. It speaks to the vocation of the monks, to see the image of God in every person they serve.

Having a handcrafted crafted cross or an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe might seem like mere ornamentation. But as Doestoevsky writes in The Idiot of Christ on the cross, “Beauty will save the world.”

So yes, beauty is essential, but we need a more robust understanding of it that incorporates all of these elements.

All illustrations in this article are by Chau Nguyen and featured in the The Catholic Catalogue.


Renewing Gratitude: Work

I am lucky to have a job, and, boy, do I know it.

Being an academic can be a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing insofar as I am able to earn my livelihood doing something I love, namely, studying and teaching theology. It is a curse insofar as I am only able to earn a living this way if someone is willing to hire me to do it, and that is a big “if” these days. Due to the economic downturn and a generation of professors who have forestalled retirement longer than expected, hundreds of PhDs are often competing for a single position. I was fortunate to find a job after only two years on the market. However, many of my peers, including some brilliant people from the country’s best programs, have been looking for jobs for three or four years.

How you react to this last sentence likely depends on your own work history. If you have been blessed with steady employment all your life, you may read these lines and think benignly, “Yes, what a pity.” If you have ever endured a period of unemployment, however, you are likely to have a very different, much more visceral reaction. You may experience a resurgence of anxiety because for you “unemployment” is not just a sterile economic term typically followed by some percentage that doesn’t mean much to you. Rather the word is packed with terrible meaning and memories—long hours working on resumes and applications, the stress of being constantly scrutinized, the frustration of being turned down or ignored, the constant worry of whether you would be able to pay the next month’s bills.

Obviously academics are not the only ones who endure the tribulations of unemployment. Today roughly one in 20 Americans (4.9%) is unemployed. At the peak of the Great Recession in 2009 it was one in ten. And we are the lucky ones. American unemployment rates are typically lower than rates of unemployment worldwide and much lower than many other countries. France has an unemployment rate of 9.9%. Ireland’s unemployment is currently at 11.6%. Spain’s is 24.7%.

Sobering as these statistics are, they give those of us with jobs ample reason to be grateful for steady employment. However, just because jobs are at a premium does not mean that workers should have to compromise their human dignity in order to hold on to a job. Sadly, this is sometimes the case. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, there are service industry professionals like waiters who have to put up with demeaning treatment from customers and managers because standing up for themselves might mean losing their job. On the other end of the spectrum are the thousands of Syrian child refugees in Turkey who are currently being exploited for cheap labor because they do not enjoy the same legal protections as citizens and adults. Although the degree of grievousness varies, both cases represent a violation of the dignity of human labor.

From the beginning, God bestowed upon human beings a vocation to work and deemed their work good (see Gen 2:15). Jesus reiterated the sanctity of work by drawing upon examples of human work—fishing, farming, baking, etc.—to teach people about the reign of God. The Church has continued to affirm the goodness and dignity of human work in modern Catholic Social Teaching. Pope John Paul II, for example, wrote in Laborem Exercens that “the fundamental value of work… is bound up with the dignity of the human person” (no. 23).

It is difficult to fully appreciate the inherent dignity of human work and the dignity that work gives to human beings until one is deprived of that dignity. Anyone who has sat idle while peers go off to work, failed to pay bills, or been treated with disdain while collecting unemployment benefits knows the shame and indignity that comes with being unable to work.

In this way Church teaching affirms what we know from lived experience—human work has great dignity and worth. Of course, our work is easy to take for granted when it is secure. It can easily become one of the most routine aspects of our lives and even a source of frustration when annoying tasks or difficulty coworkers are part of the routine. But when we are deprived of work or compassionately consider the lot of others who are unemployed, we are reminded what a gift it is to be able to work. This gratitude can bear fruit in the form of greater enjoyment in the work that we do, and, if we are true to our Christian faith, it should also bear fruit in appreciation for those who serve our food, kindness to our coworkers, and defense of our society’s most vulnerable workers.

 


Renewing Gratitude: Spouses

If one’s home is the most stable object in most of our lives, one’s spouse is surely one of the most stable people. Like one’s home, one’s spouse (or partner or long-time boyfriend or girlfriend) is easy to take for granted on account of this person’s seeming permanence in our lives. Because they are there day after day when we wake up, when we go to bed, and a lot of the time in between, we gradually slip into the unspoken assumption that they will always be there.

We feel this assurance on an emotional level despite knowing on an intellectual level that this assumption is not necessarily well founded. We have all heard the statistics that half of all marriages in this country end in divorce (although some have argued that this stat is misleading)a foreboding reminder that human relationships require constant work if they are to remain healthy. Nonetheless, the truth of human nature is that we live more from the heart than we do from our heads. Our daily routines exert a much stronger force over our perceptions of reality than do statistical analyses. And so we grow accustomed to our spouse’s presence and perhaps lose sight of what made this person so desirable to us in the first place.

It seems to me that this gradual slide into (over)familiarity must be a major contributing factor to infidelity in marriages and other long-term relationships. No matter how funny, interesting, or attractive a person is, these desirable qualities will inevitably lose some of their luster as they become expected aspects of our daily interactions with this person. Conversely, the temptation to take up with someone new and more mysterious is so strong precisely because of that person’s novelty. Scientific experiments have shown that the pursuit and anticipation of a desired object is actually more pleasurable than its acquisition. Such evidence points to the fact that simply seeking a newer, more mysterious mate when we tire of the old one will only lead to a vicious cycle.

You don’t have to fall into infidelity to understand the fading of attraction and excitement in a romantic relationship. It is a virtual inevitability that spontaneous feelings of excitement and attraction will fade as one grows accustomed to the presence of one’s partner. However, that is not to say that infidelity is inevitable. Habit can contribute to the fading of attraction, but it can also contribute to the renewal of mutual appreciation in a relationship.

A few years ago a man shared this heart-wrenching story in a blog post: After an extended period of cheating on his wife, he finally told her one night that he wanted a divorce. He drafted a divorce agreement in which he offered her their house, their car, and a 30% stake in his company. She tore up the agreement and then told him that she had only two conditions—that for their last month together they carry on as normally as possible for the sake of their son and that for that month he carry her from their bedroom to the front door every morning. He thought the latter request odd, but he agreed.

Not having had any real physical contact in some time, it was awkward when he carried her to the doorstep that first morning. However, as they repeated the ritual day after day, it began to feel different. One the second day she relaxed a bit and leaned on his chest. As the month went on and the ritual continued, he felt a sense of intimacy growing.

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