Category Archives: Culture

5 Things I Wish Every Engaged Couple Knew

This past weekend, my wife and I had the privilege of teaching a “Pre-Cana” marriage preparation class to a group of 20 engaged couples. We use a version of the Evenings for the Engaged program, which has been converted from a six evening program to one all-day session, due to the large distances our couples often must travel to attend.

I pray that we have some small influence on the future course of these marriages, helping to prepare them for all of the challenges ahead. I know that my wife and I feel closer than ever each time we present.

There is so much to know and learn about marriage, that we can barely scratch the surface in one 8 hour session, but if I had to summarize five key things every engaged couple should know, they would be:

1. Every Marriage Goes Through Hard Times
Those hard times can come from external sources (like finances) or they can be bred within (like a deterioration of communication). But I can pretty much promise you that there will be a moment where you wonder if you made a mistake, where you question whether you should go on. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce because when those times come, couples too often give up.

2. Marriage Can Withstand the Worst
Adultery, addiction, physical or emotional abuse, the loss of a child,financial ruin. I personally know strong marriages that have withstood all of these painful experiences. Even in the wake of utmost betrayal, it is possible to rebuild a marriage. And it is very worthwhile. The more adversity you face, the sweeter the victory.

3. Nothing Strengthens a Marriage Like Faith
The statistics vary depending on the study, but the results are consistent: marriages in which both couples are dedicated to their faith are much more likely to survive the test of time, with the divorce rate dropping to as low as 98%. Couples who are serious about their faith understand that a marriage is a sacred institution created by God and not just another kind of human relationship. And as Christ said, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”

4. Contraception is Poison to a Marriage
It is no coincidence that the huge rise in divorce rate, abortion, single parent homes, and pornography use has followed the broad cultural acceptance of contraception. Contraception fundamentally alters the sex act, turning it from a self-giving act that nourishes a marriage and brings it closer to God, to a selfish pleasure-seeking act that turns spouses into sexual objects. Everyone I have talked to who has stopped using contraception and kept that commitment has found that it improved their marital and spiritual lives.

5. Love is a Decision
This is a catch-phrase for many marriage-oriented organizations including, I believe, Worldwide Marriage Encounter. What this means is that the feelings you have, no matter how strong, are not love. Feelings go as quickly as they come. Instead, love is a decision you make, actions you take. When those warm and fuzzy feelings go (and they will), all you will have left is your ability to say, “I will contine to take take the actions. I need to take to keep this marriage together.” If you keep making that decision, the warm fuzzy feelings will come back.

Understanding these five simple truths isn’t a guarantee of a successful marriage, but it can save a couple from the most common pitfalls, and I do wish everyone entering into marriage could have that basic understanding.

16 Ways To Be a Radical Catholic Family, Because Pope Francis Wants us to be an Apostolic Nuisance!

Today in his Thursday Mass homily, Pope Francis called on each and every one of us to make ourselves a nuisance. To be annoying Catholics!
No, I am not kidding. He was talking about St. Paul:

“Paul is a nuisance: he is a man who, with his preaching, his work, his attitude irritates others, because testifying to Jesus Christ and the proclamation of Jesus Christ makes us uncomfortable, it threatens our comfort zones – even Christian comfort zones, right? It irritates us.”

But our pews today are not full of St. Pauls. They are full of St. “Bland”s who annoy no one:

“There are backseat Christians, right? Those who are well mannered, who do everything well, but are unable to bring people to the Church through proclamation and Apostolic zeal.”

Our Holy Father is praying for something else, something far grander for us:

“So let us ask the Holy Spirit for this grace of Apostolic zeal, let’s be Christians with apostolic zeal. And if we annoy people, blessed be the Lord. Onwards, as the Lord says to Paul, ‘take courage!'”

So how can we as Catholic families, become “nuisances” like St. Paul? I am far from where I need to be, but here are sixteen ideas to get us on the path:

1. Be annoying to your kids and get the smut out of your home. Cancel cable TV or satellite TV or whatever you have. Get all TVs out of bedrooms, leaving only one TV in a family area. Police movie rentals and keep away anything with negative morals. Now go tell everybody at work.

2. Let your faith show in public. Wear prolife tshirts, crucifixes outside your clothes, crucifix rings. Put Catholic bumper stickers on your car. Hang a crucifix in your cubicle.

3. Write letters to the editor defending religious freedom or prolife values.

4. Say grace before meals at restaurants just as loudly as you do at home.

5. If someone is telling you about their divorce, be sensitive to them, but don’t pretend as if it is a good thing. Show sadness and ask if there is anything you can do to help them get back together. (Three times this has resulted in us being asked to help them, and divorces have been averted.)

6. If you have a big family, take it places and let people see the joy that choosing life brings.

7. If someone asks you to donate to a charity that funds abortion, population control or other immoral causes, refuse and tell them why.

8. Learn your faith so that you can share and defend it under any circumstances.

9. Be the person at work who always has something nice to say, always a good deed to do, and never complains about his work.

10. When people ask you how you succeed (at anything) give the credit to God.

11. Make regular use of the sign of the cross, no matter where you are.

12. Say “God bless you” not only when people sneeze but even as a way of saying goodbye.

13. If someone shares a misfortune with you, don’t just say “I’m sorry”. And definitely don’t say “I’ll be thinking off you”. Tell them you will keep them in your prayers. Better yet, tell them you’ll add them to your nightly prayers.

14. Be the person at work around whom people aren’t comfortable using 4-letter-words. Show them you don’t like their dirty jokes.

15. If someone trash-talks the Church, stand up for her. If someone blasphemes the Lord, defend him.

16. Love your spouse, and let everybody know it.

I know, simple stuff, and stuff that won’t make us popular. But if we want to be saints, we have to get started! Because some people will look at all this and go, “Huh? What’s motivating him, anyway?”

A Message for Our Holy Father, Pope Francis

Dear Holy Father,

I didn’t know who it would be or how I would feel, but now I know. I am so grateful to have you as our Pope!

Everything I have heard about you during this short time since the white smoke fills me with hope for the future and passion for Our Lord. Your humility, simplicity, and firmness of virtue already inspire, and I am sure there are more wonderful stories to come.

All we have heard about in the last weeks are the problems you will face, as if you are just another political candidate trying to address all the concerns of a divided electorate. But now the smoke has cleared. You have one and only one problem to face: how to evangelize a world that has turned in on itself.

But seeing the people in Saint Peter’s square, hearing professional journalists break down in tears at your address, reading the jubilation of millions online; these things show the truth, that there is a planet full of people out there who love Christ and who love his Vicar.

God bless you Pope Francis! And thanks be to God. I can’t wait to see what you do next!

One of the Good Guys

I am taking a musical theater class with my daughter. (I find that participating in my kids’ activities – as coach, helper, or fellow student – brings us closer in a way that’s hard to get otherwise.) My daughter’s vocal teacher, who is leading the class, picked out a song for me: One of the Good Guys from the music revue Closer Than Ever. It is a remarkable song about temptation, mid-life crisis, and the truth about marriage.

Temptation

The song is sung by a self-professed good guy, who dotes on his wife and kids. It quickly becomes a confessional:

But there was a night in Hawaii
On a business trip,
That my mind has suffused with a mystic glow.
She was someone’s friend, and she had this smile…

They become close, but in the end he resists the temptation to cheat on his wife. (Though he should never have been on that beach in the first place!)  And in his reflection it gets interesting:

…one of the good guys
Who trades a flash of heat
To build a warmer fire;
Denies himself a treat
To shoot for something higher
And that’s the part that’s sweet
That only the good guys know.

What is the “something higher”? Of course it is marriage, but it isn’t just any marriage. There are plenty of loveless and miserable marriages out there. It is a marriage that has realized something important. A marriage in which self-sacrifice is recognized as the highest virtue. A marriage built according to this guideline:


Husbands,love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.”

Ephesians 5: 25-31

This is a call to self-sacrifice, a call to the husband to give over his very life for his wife, just as Christ gave up his, a concept out of fashion in our no-fault divorce world. This sort of self-sacrifice, however, which is the definitive sign of real love, is what we were built for, what we are called to, and when we reach it, we have reached something higher. We have reached something holy.

I can honestly say, after twenty years of marriage in which we have seen our share of pain and in which we have failed to love more than I would care to admit, that what you get to after those 20 years of perseverance really is something higher, something transcendent. We have, even in a very imperfect way, attempted to imitate Christ’s love, and even imperfectly it is something wonderful.

But that’s not the end. There is more to the story.

Mid-Life

Fast forward and the singer is now 44 with everything laid out in his life as perfectly as he could ask. But…

Sometimes at night, in the stillness,
Lying wide awake
As the wife I still desire sleeps by my side,
I can feel the wash of the perfumed air
As my mind is drowning in billowing hair…

He is tormented by thoughts of what might have been, of what he gave up, and of the possibility that even now he could seize those fantasies and make them real.

Of course, he doesn’t. After all, he’s one of the good guys. And then he passes on the key piece of wisdom from the song:

It’s not which road you take,
Which life you pick to live in,
Whichever choice you make,
The longing is a given.
And that’s what brings the ache
That only the good guys know.

He has come to realize that no matter how happy you are, no matter which spouse or career or life you choose, you will feel the regret, the questions, the uncertainty, and the temptations. It is just a normal part of life. These things we find ourselves desiring – and the people – are mirages. Worse, they are lies. They promise something they can never give, which is completion. Total happiness.

But why? Why are we built that way? Why can’t we achieve that happiness we desire? St. Augustine understood:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

We have an emptiness inside us that only God can fill and that will not be filled in this life. We try to fill that need with pleasure; with sex or alcohol or excitement or food or other indulgences. We try to fill it with our spouse. But it is never enough. We always come back to that empty feeling.

Even our marriage cannot fill that God-sized hole, and if we persist in believing that it should, we may be tempted to throw it away and start over. But if we come to understand what marriage is and what its relation to God is, then we can feel that transcendence that I talked about earlier, even while tormented by the longing that never goes away.

And what is this understanding of marriage? Marriage is no less than a relationship, designed by God, to reflect both Christ’s love for his Church and the Father’s love for the son. It aspires to be the perfect and selfless love that is Christ’s love. Paradoxically, the only way to achieve total happiness is through a total outpouring of oneself for another, for in doing that, we begin fulfill our purpose, which is to be an image of God. Likewise, our marriage an family begins to fulfill its purpose, which is to be an image of the Holy Trinity, that most fundamentl and perfect of all relationships.

And that truly is the part that’s sweet, that only the good guys know.

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church – Part 1: Tilling the Soil

Late at night, in the middle of winter, traveling from town to town through central Italy on a slow-moving train, with precious few Lire in my pocket, God talked to me.

But it didn’t start there.

As the Gospel says, the seeds of faith sprout and grow on fertile soil. For most of my life, though, I was the rocky path, where seeds fall and die. But eventually God, unbeknown to me, began to sweep away those rocks, one by one.

The Young Atheist

In high school, I decided I was an atheist. It wasn’t a momentous decision. It wasn’t a rebellion or a walking away from the youth of my childhood. It was more an acknowledgement of a state of being.

My family was nominally Methodist, but we never went to church. The only vague memories of church I had were of felt banners with pictures of doves and fish and loaves of bread and a few pleasant stories that sounded to me like tall tales. In my mind, Paul Bunyon, Sampson and Delilah, Jesus, and the Lone Ranger all had equivalent claims on historical verisimilitude. I saw the stories of Jesus as moral tales used by certain adults to teach their children how to live. That was pretty much it.

By high school, I was an avid reader of science fiction and I was taking my first physics class. I fell in love with science. Science – and physics in particular – could explain anything, answer any question. My newfound passion for science solidified a vague idea I already had, which was that religion was nothing more than myth. But that didn’t really matter to me either way. The important thing to me was that I had found my passion. I was going to be a physicist. A Newton or an Einstein. The fact that I had “decided” that I was an atheist was, to me, seemingly only a natural consequence of that.

Living the Lack of Faith

After high school, I moved on to one of the premier science and engineering institutions in the nation, a home to Nobel prize winners and other assorted verified geniuses. Everything there confirmed to me my atheism, as religious faith was found on campus about as frequently as bigfoot sightings. If I knew anyone who went to church weekly, they didn’t talk about it. Drugs, alcohol, and sex were everywhere and dominated the recreational side of student life.

I had been a wallflower, but I embraced the party atmosphere. I grew my hair long, got my ear pierced, stopped wearing shoes, and developed an unhealthy appetite for beer. The partying was soon more important than my classes – which I frequently overslept – but somehow I maintained a ‘B’ average. My mental state, however, didn’t fare so well. I was confused and lonely, and I didn’t know how to be happy without drinking.

Still, my love for physics persisted. I developed a fascination for that most basic of fields, particle physics, and I finished my bachelor’s and moved on to graduate school.

Clearing Stones from the Rocky Path

The first gift God gave to me in graduate school, though I didn’t realize it as such at the time, was to get me to a new school, off campus, and away from the party culture. Being away from campus meant I had nothing to do but focus on my classes and find a Ph.D. topic. I stopped drinking so much and began enjoying life again.

The first two years of graduate school consist of core classes, and that’s where God began to do his work. What I learned in these classes dispelled some of my more naive notions about science in general and physics in particular and opened my mind not so much to the possibility of God but to the understanding that science itself wasn’t a god.

Unanswered Questions

I found that science as wonderful and powerful and amazing as it was, couldn’t answer a handful of difficult and important questions.

– Why is the universe ordered the way it is and not some other way? Why is the universe here at all?
– Why are certain fundamental physical constants of such precise values to allow for a universe capable of sustaining life?
– Why does mathematics describe the universe? If the universe arises because of mathematics, then how does mathematics arise?
– What is this consciousness thing anyway?

Essentially, I came to understand that science explains how the universe works, not why it works in a particular way or why it is there at all. And while I wasn’t thinking too much about the issue of God, his existence having been so thoroughly dismissed from my mind for so long, I did come to the uncomfortable conclusion that my assumption that science could disprove his existence was false.

Science can’t disprove the existence of God because it can’t talk about God. Science, I came to understand, is a part of this universe. God, by definition, is outside of the universe. So science has nothing to say on the subject.

None of these things made me believe in God. They didn’t even make me think of God all that much. But they did prepare me for a later conversion. They made me see that the concept of God, at least in the abstract, was not unreasonable, and they made me see that the universe was more mysterious and complicated and wonderful than I had theretofore imagined.

In Part 2, I will talk more about my graduate research and that fateful moment when God stepped unmistakably into my life.

Baptisms and a Bad Attitude

At Mass this past Sunday there were two baptisms, an unusual occurrence. There were a few good-natured (and not-so-good-natured) groans and sighs as people anticipated Mass running twenty minutes longer. One fellow, however, who entered with his young grand-daughter, was a little more emotional.

“My G_d, this is not what I come to Mass for! Baptisms!”

He was steamed, and those of us around him were more than uncomfortable. I guess his indignation built during the readings, because he left during the homily and did not return.

My initial reaction was to criticize. After all, if all I do on Sunday is make it to Mass, then I have had a successful day. But something else occurred to me. I saw myself in his “righteous indignation”.

How many times have I become impatient when the actions of others threatened to disrupt my carefully planned day?

How many times have I become indignant when people did things to inconvenience me or were inconsiderate of my feelings?

How many times have I walked out of a store or restaurant with an attitude of “they don’t deserve my business if they’re going to do that?”

Now, of course, we should not feel obligated to bring our business to establishments that don’t provide satisfactory service, but how much of those feelings were a result of an attitude of over-inflated self-importance?

That kind of anger, that kind of ego; those are dangerous feelings to nurture. When we cloak our egos in righteous indignation, those egos become stronger, infecting the rest of our life, and they can even raise their ugly faces during the most holy of moments.

Sharing 9-11 With Our Children

Today we toured the U.S.S. Yorktown with our kids, as a way to commemorate 9-11. On our way, we had a chance to not only teach them about the attack, but also to tell them about what we were doing at the time, and how it affected us.
It occurred to me that, especially for our younger kids, 9-11 is history, no less so than World War II is history to me. What I was doing, was passing down oral history to my children.
Oral history is, I think, important for our children. Knowing where there parents and grandparents were during a particular event gives them a context they can’t get at school. It personalizes history and makes it real. The dividing line between entertainment and reality is getting more and more blurred (see, for instance, “Apollo 18”), so anything that can make that line more clear must be valuable.
We have experienced a wealth of history that we can and should share with our kids. I have seen the end of the cold war, the rise and fall of the space shuttle program, the Iranian hostage crisis, the dawn of the PC age and the internet, Chernobyl, Katrina, and so many other events. How many have I shared with my kids?
9-11 is clearly the “where were you when” event of our generatio

n, but it is not the only bit of history we have been a part of to share with our kids.

It’s Hard to Love Your Neighbor

It’s hard to love your neighbor when he almost runs you over in the parking lot.
It’s hard to love your neighbor when she takes 20 items into the 10 items or less lane–and cuts in front of you to get there.
It’s hard to love your neighbor when she not only talks during the movie but explains to her partner exactly what is going to happen next.
It’s hard to love your neighbor when he tosses an empty beer can out of his car window.
It’s hard to love your neighbor when you have to walk through her cloud of cigarette smoke.
It’s hard to love your neighbor when he lets his dog potty in your yard and doesn’t clean it up.
It’s hard to love your neighbor when the “music” from his car drowns out the conversation in your car.

It’s hard to love your neighbor when he mocks you, spits on you, beats you, pierces your hands and feet and side, and leaves you to die in front of your weeping mother.

Well, ok. Maybe I could try harder to love my neighbor.

Why Aren’t Video Games a No-Brainer for Parents?

Why aren’t video games a no-brainer for parents? My eight-year-old asked the other day why we don’t allow game systems in our home. Apparently he is the only person in his class (at a fairly conservative Catholic school) that doesn’t have an Xbox, Playstation, or Wii.

According to this article, 3 in 5 homes have game consoles. In my experience, the rate for households with children is much higher.

Why don’t parents realize how damaging this is to their children? As I told my son:

  1. Video Games Can Be Addictive
    Video games are designed to suck you in and keep you playing until you beat the game or hit a wall beyond which your natural abilities won’t take you. At that point, to feed the addiction, you’ll need the next game in the series. This addiction is real. In 2009, 8.5% of kids were found to be addicted to video games.
  2. Many of the Most Popular Games are Morally Questionable, at Best
    This is a well-hashed topic. Many games are over-sexualized or packed with violence to appeal to their target demographic: 18 to 30 year old men.
  3. Video Games Set Our Kids up for a Permanent Adolescence
    As just noted, The target market for video games is adult men. As men, it is hard for us to grow up. Part of us wants to stay in adolescence forever. The alcohol industry, the entertainment industry, and the video game industry all have a huge economic incentive to keep us overgrown children. I don’t want to set up my sons with such a handicap.
  4. When the Game is On, the Brain is Off
    Oh sure, there are exceptions. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. Most video games are mind-numbing contests to hone a particular – otherwise useless – reflex to the point where you can tweak the game controller in just the right way to win the game.

Are they fun? Sure. And playing the occasional game online or at the arcade isn’t harmful. But dropping hundreds of dollars on a console that is obsolete in a year, and up to fifty dollars on a game that is mastered in a short time, leads one to feeling that the game must be played, like TV must be watched, for hours on end, every day. With TV, movies, video games, and the internet all demanding our children’s time, where is the time for learning, for exercise, for family, and for God?

Why isn’t this a no-brainer? Why do parents feel they have to buy these things?

The Christian in the World

The second reading from today’s Office of Readings concerns the place of Christians in the world. We are all travelers in this world. We do not belong here, and we should not act like we do.

Reading From a letter to Diognetus
The Christian in the World

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.   And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.   Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonour, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.   To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.   Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.