Sorry, I couldn’t resist the title. No need to avert your eyes, I’m talking about the other V-word, VIRTUE. While it’s not nearly as provocative as the first word that readily comes to mind, maybe it should be. When I was growing up way back in the… rhymes with shmeventies and shmeighties, I heard absolutely nothing about virtue or virtuous living. It was as if the word had fallen out of favor among prevailing Catholic thought, and yet our own doctor of the church, St. Thomas Aquinas, has owned the discussion since the time of the Greek philosophers. Maybe it was too closely associated with those scary images of nuns whacking kids with rulers. Who knows? But I was blissfully unaware.
When my own kids started being introduced to virtuous living in their Catholic schooling and from the “Book of Virtues” by William Bennett, some ten years ago, one of them asked me directly what virtue meant. I couldn’t answer clearly. All I could muster was, “er… uh… I’m pretty sure honesty is a virtue.” I remember looking up the v-word and thinking, “How do I not know this?”Since then, I can’t get enough of the topic!
Somehow, it is both shocking and no big surprise that the term “adulting” has worked its way into our cultural lexicon. We collectively commend someone when he dutifully takes on the responsibility assigned to his stage in life. “Yay for you, Gary! You’re paying off your college loans on time.” Yet, as creatures accustomed to so much comfort and ease we will often do whatever it takes to avoid facing difficult but necessary challenges of growth. “But I don’t want to have kids until I’ve lived a full life and visited every major league ballpark in the U.S.”
I recently watched a documentary, “American Factory” which details a Chinese company’s take-over of a shuttered Ohio factory. The Chinese employees who are sent to oversee the transition cannot even conceive how to manage the entitled Americans. In a meeting to discuss the major problem of motivating their reluctant employees, they learn that from a young age Americans are coddled. They are rewarded and propped up even when it is undeserving. The aghast Chinese managers are warned to never criticize American employees.
This sobering account of American society got me thinking about how our Christian faith offers the perfect antidote to this cultural sickness. And it’s completely contrary to the relentless Communist Chinese work ethic which diminishes and risks individual lives for the supposed sake of the whole. Rather, Jesus Christ by his incarnation teaches of us what it truly means to be fully human. To be a real adult. Throughout his life on Earth and especially on the cross, he exemplified the pouring out of his self as an act of sacrifice for others, for me. If Christ offers us the grace and example to be fully human, then Lent offers us an opportunity to grow as fully Catholic. This is a time to enter into our humanity while delving deeper into the mysteries of our faith. It’s a time to discern our motivations. Are we driven to do good because of pride, or fear, or because we know it’s right? Do we attend Mass out of duty or a sincere sense of piety? Are we able to eschew comfort for the sake of spiritual maturity and to help a neighbor? In becoming more fully Christian, we naturally become more adult. Living as a spiritual adult is a noble goal, but how does one practically get there? I’m sharing some simple personal Lenten guidelines to help me “adult” through this Lent.
I’m about to write something extremely controversial and provocative. Proceed with the pitchforks and torches if you must. It will not change my opinion. Here goes. I’m glad—no, downright gleeful that my kids’ Catholic school does not celebrate Valentine’s Day. There. It’s officially out there. I’m truly happy there will be no shoebox “mailboxes” wrapped in red and pink paper and plastered with colorful stickers and foam heart decorations. No cutesy purple cupcakes heaped with gobs of frosting and sprinkles. No party with pastel streamers, balloons, Pinterest-inspired crafts, sugary drinks paired with adorable polka-dotted straws, and candy galore. Some of these things I look back on fondly from my own youth. I did really love those candy hearts with the pithy little sayings… miss you, be mine, kiss me. And taking my stuffed mailbox back to my desk where I opened each valentine with eager anticipation—I’ll admit—it was fun. And yet, I don’t want that same pleasurable memory for my own kids? There’s a reason I’ve taken such a counter-cultural stance against the feast of February 14th. In one sentence, we’ve lost our minds, folks. We took a turn towards Cuckoo-Ville, accelerated, and haven’t looked back.
I’ve been on the receiving end of countless awkward comments. Unfortunately, I’ve uttered plenty of them too. Navigating social situations is a bit like dodging roadside IED’s while blindfolded. The obstacle course often gets more treacherous at family gatherings during the holidays. Christmas get-togethers are already rife with turmoil and stress. Merely sharing surnames and relatives doesn’t mean anyone will agree on anything: faith, politics, diet, fashion, or even what’s funny. Why would anyone want to pile on and make an already difficult situation more strained? “Pass the green bean casserole, Uncle Ned, you pony-tail wearing, commie-loving hippie!” Obviously, not appropriate. But what about the more veiled remarks delivered with the best of intentions? These little conversational nuggets are the dirty bombs of small talk. The gift that keeps giving—like my father-in-law’s homemade sugar-free cranberry sauce which packs a bitter wallop upon first taste, but the memory of that punishing, mouth-puckering sharpness lingers a lifetime.
It’s that time again when moms and dads across this great land finish checking off a mile-long list of obscure, annoyingly specific school supplies. We scour the internet, traipse through aisle after aisle of every big box store and office supply emporium around, trying to find the correct color, brand, and amount, at the right price. But there’s always one item at the bottom of the page that is nowhere to be found—that elusive pre-sharpened number 2 red Ticonderoga training marking-pencil with a white eraser fashioned out of rare unicorn dust and angel feathers…?
We’ve come a long way from my school days (way back in 19—ahem, never mind!) when the list consisted of at most four or five items—pencil, scissors, crayons, glue, and paper. This gets me thinking about what kids actually need to get across the finish line of school and ultimately life. Here’s a hint: you can’t get it at Walmart. What spiritual tools can I provide my children to help them navigate the more arduous path to heaven? A couple years ago, I compiled my first list: The Top 5 Must-Have School Supply Items for Every Catholic Kid. In the spirit of growing lists, I’ve added to it. For a refresher on what is at the top of my list, check it out here. Now for my 2019 new & improved edition of the essential spiritual school supply list:
I secretly cried after Mass yesterday. My kids told me that one of the new altar boys that they served with had his grandparents in town for Christmas. The enthusiastic Nanna and Papa were so gleefully proud, they couldn’t refrain from snapping photos to memorialize their beloved grandson’s biggest moments. Clearly, their hearts swelled with pride for their daughter’s treasured offspring.
On the drive home, I told my boys that if Grandma Maureen and Grandpa Jerry were living, they would have taken loads of pictures too. How proud they would be. How proud they are. “Maybe they’re taking photos from heaven…” I mused. Then the quiet tears.
It turns out, for most of my life I’ve had Advent all wrong. Caught up in the whirring consumer machine, I often couldn’t wait to kick start the celebration of Christmas. I’d barely make it to the end of the Thanksgiving meal and I was breaking out the decorations, singing the songs and scrounging at the stores. December 1st signaled the beginning of that most magical time of the year known as Christmas, right? Actually…
(Insert record scratch here.)
Advent is not party time. It’s prep time. What helped me to better understand and explain to my kids was this analogy: Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. You wouldn’t plan to party it up during Holy Week. (Those of you thinking, why not?… allow me to direct you to some great agnostic sites.) The minute Lent begins, we don’t start celebrating Christ’s glorious resurrection. We work on our spiritual lives. We train in order to get our souls in shape. Then on Easter, it’s the big reveal, the greatly anticipated end to all that work. He is risen! OFFICIAL party time. Now pass the doughnuts!
(This was posted last October and got a lot of great feedback, so I’m reposting for those of you who would like a refresher on Zombie Catholicism. I added a particular prayer at the end of the post that has helped me personally keep the zombies at bay)
Halloween is just around the corner. And as usual, I expect to see my fair share of kids trick-r-treating in their zombie get-ups: pasty white masks with dark, vacant circles for eyes, torn shirts and pants, occasionally a little flourish of fake blood splattered here or there. It’s usually the teenagers who go all out with the most gruesome costumes, but occasionally a five-year-old will greet me at the doorstep decked out in full zombie face paint and garb. I respond the same way each time. “Oh… wow…quite a costume,” I stutter with my best perma-smile. “My, look at all that blood… here’s your candy,” I murmur, avoiding eye contact while timidly dropping a couple snickers in the outstretched bag. Then I anxiously scan the perimeter to make sure there aren’t any zombie parents lurking nearby.
Don’t chuckle. Zombies exist. They dwell in our midst.
Is it just me or have you noticed how every single reading from Mass over the last couple weeks seems to point to all of the unrest and scandal in the church of late? Not in that oblique, beating around the bush kind of way, but overtly, and in a way that seems to strike you to the core. It’s kind of how I remember feeling after a romantic heartbreak. No matter what station I tuned the radio dial to, I’d hear a song that eerily seemed to be speaking directly to me. But this a lot different. It’s not the voice of Tears for Fears. It’s God who is knocking on our collective foreheads, trying to break through so we might truly hear Him in the midst of such devastation.
Certain iconic sports images of epic underdog wins and poetic last plays witnessed over the course of my life remain imprinted on my brain. Consider Tiger Woods dramatically donning the green Masters’ blazer as the first person of color, Michael Phelps shattering the record for the most gold medals, the Chicago Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series triumph against my beloved Cleveland Indians. I could easily go on, but there’s one memory that is even more enduring. Yet, I suspect many of you probably won’t even recall it.
For me, the moment crystallized not just a legendary sporting achievement, but an encounter with sadness and mourning in the midst of victory. It was Father’s Day, 1996. Michael Jordan had just won his 4th championship for the Chicago Bulls. His win was rendered even more momentous after a brief retirement and triumphant return to the sport that made him a household name. Also notable, this marked Jordan’s first major career win without the support of his father in the stands. Jordan’s dad had been murdered three years earlier.