Monday, October 13, 2014

Synod's First Document: We Must Meet and Lead the Wounded to the Fullness of Christian Living

After a long week of speculation and, among more conservative Catholics, some trepidation, the first "official" document from this year's Extraordinary Synod on the Family  is finally here.  Suffice it to say, there is a lot of reaction and analysis already out there, and we'll continue to get more daily for the foreseeable future.

In general, the document is encouraging.  There is a lot of good in it.  While we will see a lot of point by point analysis over the coming days, the most important thing to take from it is that the bishops want to encourage a gradual approach to leading those in difficult family situations into the faith.  This has been somewhat expected, as what little information the public was getting out of the synod during the first week was that gradualism had become a very popular topic of conversation among the bishops.  Not unjustly, concerns were raised that this may signal the return of a somewhat dissident idea, condemned by Pope St. John Paul II in the encyclical Familiaris Consortio (34), that God's law could be applied at different levels to different people because of their circumstances.  Fortunately for those so concerned, the document actually references John Paul's very condemnation of the idea and seems instead to suggest the view of gradualism promoted by the sainted pope.

In fact, this "law of gradualism" is ultimately the very theme of the entire document, finding its expression in virtually every paragraph.  The synod fathers are saying this: when a person is living a lifestyle that has fallen short of the teachings of Christ and the Church, it does no good to point out his sin and move on.  On a human level it makes the person suffer and feel excluded, and on a divine level it does nothing to lead the person closer to Christ and to living a moral lifestyle.  Rather, we must go out to meet the person where he is at (like the father in the parable of the prodigal son) and from that standpoint try to lead him away from sin and into the fullness of living Christ's teaching.  

Some may be concerned that this would be an implicit softening of the Church's stance against sin, but this concern is unfounded.  It's very foundation is the very Catholic and very traditional idea that sin darkens the mind and enslaves us, along with the also deeply Catholic notion that the concrete human circumstances of our lives have a profound impact on our spiritual lives.  A couple cohabiting stably for 3 years with a daughter very likely do not have any ability to meaningfully understand the Church's reasons for rejecting this lifestyle as moral, and their basic needs of paying the bills, putting food on the table, and caring for a young child make it very difficult for them to see a way to make radical moral changes even if they can begin to really grasp the importance of Christ's teaching on the matter.  Instead of telling such people that they are in sin and acting as though our job is done, we must accompany them along what is often a very long path towards Christ, meeting them where they are at and helping to move them to the fullness of Christian morals.

This idea is not new.  It's the very essence of evangelization.  The Jesuits who first brought the gospel to Central America in the 16 and 1700s did not make landfall and immediately begin pointing out the problems with the natives' marriages.  They began by introducing these new peoples to Jesus and gradually inviting them to conform their lives to him.  St. Paul did not preach to the Greeks an all or nothing Gospel; he began by presenting Christ in the context of their own experience and inviting them to see in him the fulfillment of their own spiritual beliefs.  The author to the Hebrews clearly took a similar approach, providing for his audience first "milk" before expecting them to be capable of taking "solid food."  Indeed, it's how even very traditional and conservative Catholic commentators and clerics encourage the laity to evangelize today: invite friends to Mass, be open to answering their questions, preach by example, don't push too hard, etc.

While the concept is certainly an old one, I do think its an area that many very faithful Catholics have as a bit of a blind spot today.  We see such sin and disregard for Christ and the faith of the Church all around us that we tend to lock down very hard against it - sometimes at the expense of being willing to allow Christ to lead lost souls to him in his own time.  Put another way, in a world which lives so little of the Lord's teachings we're so concerned with making sure everybody knows and follows what he has taught that we often forget that we need to help a great many people even care what he has taught in the first place - not to mention helping them realize that he cares about them.  Ultimately, that's what the synod fathers are calling us to do.

That doesn't mean that any process of building up a Church-wide attitude of leading people gradually will go smoothly.  I suspect that it will be similar to the process of implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council - which may scare many.  Ultimately, the degree to which an approach like this can be faithful has a lot to do with the faithfulness and dedication of the priests and bishops implementing it.  A faithful and tireless priest encouraged to approach things this way will be able to shepherd many souls to Christ.  On the other hand, dissident or more poorly formed priests will find it very easy to use such practice as an excuse to teach people that it is OK to live outside of Church teaching.  Fortunately, it is well established that the priesthood seems to be emerging from the crisis of the past, with more and more faithful priests being ordained each year.  As always, pray for our priests!

That said, the only truly concerning part of the document is truly concerning because it seems to suggest a widespread misunderstanding of mercy that I have written about previously.  At the end of the first part of the document, we read this very confused statement: "This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy."  Thoughtful readers will immediately see the problem.  In suggesting that the doctrine of the faith be presented "alongside" mercy, the it is implied that mercy is somehow not a part of the doctrine of the faith.  This is troubling in many ways.  First, the doctrine of the faith is mercy in its essence.  It is rife with mercy.  It is all about mercy.  Each and every teaching of the Church is nothing less than a declaration of mercy.  To riff on St. Paul, it is mercy to teach that divorce and remarriage is wrong because if not for the law, I would not have known it wrong.  It is also mercy because within that declaration of remarriages moral character is the ever-present offer of forgiveness.  More troubling, though, is a clear and glaring gnostic sense: God's traditional teaching is severe, but the Church must express Christ's "new message" of mercy.  

In any case, it's important to realize that this relatio, as its called, is nothing more than a summary of what's been discussed by the bishops.  It doesn't teach anything, it has no decisions, and it has no real binding weight of any kind.  What it does do is relay a general sense of the way that the bishops at the synod are thinking.  How are they thinking?  They are thinking about reaching out to people who have not lived up to Christ's teachings and trying to walk with them along a path back to fully embracing them.  This is good.  The synod, the discussion, and the spiritual battle are not over yet, however.  Continue to pray ever more fervently for the Spirit to Guide the Church into the way of salvation!

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Extraordinary Synod, Justice and Mercy

As the extraordinary synod on the family presses forward this week, one theme has emerged as clearly predominant: that of the balancing of justice and mercy. From the writing of bloggers, journalists, and priests to comments given by numerous bishops who are actually participating in the synod, it has taken center stage as the great conundrum of the gathering.

God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful at one and the same time, so it is repeated again and again, but we are only human and so have a much more difficult time trying to uphold the teachings of Christ on marriage while being merciful to those who have failed to live up to them.  Because the Church's current practice of denying Communion to such persons is seen as emphasizing justice, those posing the question suggest we have a good grasp on justice. Incorporating mercy into the picture is said to be a much more difficult task because it seems to oppose justice.

But there is in fact absolutely no difficulty or challenge to this question.  None whatsoever.

In fact, the question suggests that many do not seem to understand justice as well as they think. In justice, God recognizes sin and holds people accountable for it.  What he does not do is unwaveringly hold a sin against a person who has turned from it.  Unfortunately, this is most often our human approach. A person who kills another is forever known as a "murderer," even if he should regret his crime and never commit the evil again. During the priestly sex abuse scandals, some priests confessed to years' old sins, declared that they had repented and not perpetrated in decades, and resigned as active ministers to go live alone in a spirit of penance. Protesters followed them to their new homes to ensure that they would never be free of hearing condemnation. Countless other examples, both as serious and less important, could easily be pulled from the life of any one of us.  Fortunately, his ways are not our ways, and so in God justice means that while sin is indeed addressed, it is not held stubbornly against a person without end - even in the tiniest of ways.

In mercy, God forgives those who have recognized sin and decided to turn from it freely and without exception. He requires no atonement before he will forgive (Jesus has already made the atonement in any case), he does not wait for the sinner to be perfect, and he even reaches out to those in sin to offer them forgiveness before they ask for it or even realize that they need it. However, he does not ignore or neglect ongoing sin.  On the contrary, he does everything that he can to lead us out of that sin and away from the darkness that it brings.  

So we see that just because God holds people accountable for sin, it doesn't mean he eternally and unwaveringly does so to those who try to sin no more. In fact, virtually nobody involved with the synod would question this fact - even the most left wing bishop or even a Unitarian would readily agree with the notion.  That question so ubiquitous in discussion of this synod is concerned with squaring this truth with mercy.  However, in exactly the same way that God's justice is concerned with whether a person ceases to sin, just because God forgives sins it doesn't mean that he doesn't hold people accountable for ongoing and persistent sin.  The concept is precisely the same: both God's mercy and his justice by their very nature take into account what a person is doing now regardless of what a person may have done in the past.

When we look at it from his perspective,  we begin to see that justice and mercy are in no way opposed, but complement and, if we may put it as such, have an a symbiotic relationship to one another. They make one another possible. Because in justice God holds us accountable for sin, his mercy can meaningfully pardon that sin.  Because in mercy God moves on from past sins of the repentant, his justice can be concerned with the reality of a person's present state rather than a past which does not define the person.  This is precisely why many of the saints and great theologians declared that in God justice and mercy are not separate;  they have often been described as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, in Aquinas' theology God is perfectly simple, meaning he has no "parts" but all of his characteristics are identifiable with one another. His love IS his truth, his truth IS his mercy, his mercy IS his justice. It fits pretty well with the Scripture's teaching that God is love and that God is truth and that God is life, etc, doesn't it?

To bring this down to that great attention-grabbing issue of the synod, what does this mean for divorced and remarried Catholics?  It means that the Church can very easily know how to be both just and merciful in these tragic situations. Invite those in marriages which contradict Jesus' teachings to try to live by those teachings. Do not allow a person's past sins to define him but look to his ongoing choice to sin or to strive after Christ. Indeed, one of the most common complaints from married and divorced Catholics has been that they feel as though they are defined by one mistake in the past.  Calling these people to live in continence with "second spouses" would, if done with a good explanation, help them to feel and understand that the Church does not care what they did then and that an effort to reject grave sin now is what matters. This would be perfectly just and merciful, as God is.  Of course, other than what truly is a dire need for more outreach and education for those in irregular marriages, this is largely how the Church currently practices.

I would suggest, then, that the real question is not how to balance justice with mercy - or even doctrine with pastoral care when we realize that in these conversations "pastoral" usually means "merciful" and "doctrine" is usually what people have meant when they have said "justice." Rather, the question is that age old question of how to bear the Cross that discipleship in Christ brings. To live in accord with Christ's teachings on marriage will bring suffering to the divorced and remarried - great suffering.  On a human level, this is something none of us wants to put on another person.  It is also true that telling remarried couples that their marriages are invalid makes them feel excluded and hurt. These cases even tug on the heartstrings of those who minister to these people, as not a few bishops have explicitly lamented over this past week of the synod.  The reason we find this all so difficult is not that the question of mercy and justice is complicated.  No, it is because the question is so simple that we know our answer to it must be to lay crosses onto the shoulders of our brothers and sisters whom we love.

There is great suffering here, and helping to shepherd and support and accompany people through it must be a key topic - the key topic - of discussion at the synod. I hope and pray that the bishops realize this and can improve the Church's efforts in this. We must all become Simon of Cyrenes in helping to bear the crosses of our once fallen brothers and sisters - but crosses which they must bear and which lead to redemption.  It would be the most important thing they could hope to do these few weeks!

Yet the profound difficulty of this question must not be confused with the very simple question of how mercy and justice relate. The great preacher and likely eventual blessed and saint Fulton Sheen famously said that any theology which attempts to skip Good Friday to get to the Resurrection, that is, any theology which rejects suffering in favor of an easier resolution, is a sign of Satan's work.  Let us pray that the synod fathers may realize that they must not step a foot down that road.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Insidious Trap of "Casual Dating"

Of the many communities and movements making up what is a very exciting contemporary landscape for young adult Catholics, the promotion of marriage and, of course, that whole dating process by which two people actually arrive at marriage is one of the most important and the most discussed.  Over the past decade or so, two particular approaches to the topic of dating have come to dominate the blogosphere and whatever might constitute the "watercooler" for devout 20-somethings (the perpetual adoration lobby?): Courtship and so-called "casual dating."  The emergence of both as a common topic of conversation seems to be predicated on the concern that young Catholics just don't date - however that might be defined - enough.

Casual-dating has been - at least in every circle I have been exposed to - by far the more popular of the two as far as ideas go.  In a recent post on the FOCUS blog, Therese Aaker adroitly lays out the argument in favor of the approach, hitting on all of the points that are commonly made by proponents.  I won't spend time reviewing them here; if you are unfamiliar with the idea then I highly encourage you to read her piece.  What I will do is explain why I could not possibly be more opposed to the idea and why indeed I think it is a bad one.

A very bad one.

First, casual dating greatly devalues the uniqueness and unrepeatable beauty of each human person. In his Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility, the indisputably most important theology of human relationships, Pope St. John Paul II describes how the mystery of a particular woman in a sense "calls" to a man, inviting him to delve into that mystery.  The importance of this mystery is a theme that he returns to often, and the identity of each person as an unrepeatable manifestation of God's love a key to the whole picture of man and woman.  From the standpoint of St. John Paul II's theology, a man chooses to pursue a woman because something about her has reached out and pulled him into her mystery.  From the standpoint of casual dating, a man chooses to pursue a woman because she has the right biology and happens to be Catholic. Not quite the same, is it?

To be fair, proponents of casual dating would argue that it's purpose is to allow men and women to get to know one another in a low pressure environment and so facilitate a connection that runs deeper than biology.  But this is not the point.  Just as the Church opposes many forms of fertility treatments such as IVF because every person has the dignity of deserving to come from the loving union of mother and father, every woman (or man) has the dignity of deserving to be pursued - even at the outset! - because of an attraction to the unique, unrepeatable person that they are.  No matter how we might try to look at it, being asked on a date because you meet the bare minimum requirements is demeaning.

Second, casual dating does not provide nearly the opportunity to get to know a person that normal dating after a period of acquaintanceship does.  I went on the first date with my now fiancee after having known her for about two and a half months.  In that time, I got to know some of her personality, her history and her interests just as any two friends or acquaintances do.  In short, I got to know her.  Having done so, something of her mystery called me to pursue her and now 10 months later, we are set to be married.  If I had asked her out without getting to know her at least a little bit first, I doubt things would have taken us to this point.

For one thing, the settings and course of discussion that two people can have over the course of a few dates - casual or not - are incredibly limited compared to just getting to know a person naturally.  There's only so much time, and short of going through a mechanical list of topics you are simply never going to be exposed to as much of a person in this way. Moreover, dating is awkward, no matter how much a person tries to think of it as "just a date."  At the end of the day, whether a person is seeing one individual for the next month or has dates with 3 different people over the course of a fortnight, the ultimate purpose is to find a spouse, and that is going to affect people.  Even having known Natalie for nearly 3 months before our first date, it was still awkward and a bit intimidating because even though we knew one date didn't mean we were committed to even "going steady" let alone marrying, marriage was still the ultimate purpose of that date.

Third, one of the central claims in support of casual dating, that it is lower pressure because its "just a date" is simply false.  As I mentioned above, marriage is the ultimate goal in dating, whether casual, "standard," or through courtship.  The knowledge that one has no commitment to a date on Tuesday and an upcoming evening with somebody else on Friday does nothing to change the fact that the purpose of the date on Tuesday is to help find a spouse.  Aaker puts it this way: "our attitude from the beginning should be, “Let’s just get to know each other and have fun..." but you're getting to know each other because you're looking for a spouse, not because you are looking for a new friend!  Put another way, casual dating proponents insist that it is lower pressure because people are not thinking specifically of marriage but only whether or not they wish to "pursue a relationship" with somebody.  Ahh, of course.  In regular dating, there's a lot of pressure because you're discerning marriage, but in casual dating, you're only discerning whether or not you want to discern marriage.  Much different!

To be frank, this argument reminds me a great deal of the kinds that scientific materialists make in asserting that astrophysics or some other such thing has eliminated the need for belief in God.  First its, "The big bag theory explains the origin of the universe, and so we have no more need for God."  When its pointed out that the big bang theory has only pushed the question back a step to what caused the big bang, they may cite string theory.  When it's pointed out that they have just pushed the question back a step again to what caused certain movements on the level of strings to occur, they may cite M-theory, pushing the question back again.  Ultimately, casual dating does the same thing.  The claim that a casual date has less pressure than a "regular" date is really just pushing the "question" of marriage back a step; the question is still there, it's just covered under another layer of pretense.  The important thing is that anyone on a casual date knows that the question is still there - and so the pressure remains the same.

In fact, it might even be worse in many cases.  On a "normal" date there's some established interest between the two parties and there is normally some previous knowledge of one another.  The boy already knows that the girl has some interest in him, and vice versa.  The girl already knows a bit about the boy, and vice versa.  When I went on my first date with Natalie, I had some idea that she was interested in me and I wasn't concerned with laying out who I was - and so I was able to, largely, just be myself.  On a casual date each person knows that they may only have that one meeting to get to know another person or, perhaps more importantly, to show the other person who they are.  As I have seen from the firsthand experience of friends, the experience of going on dates with anyone who seems eligible can also lead to an incredible amount of pressure over time.  No matter how much one tries to tell oneself that it's "no big deal" if a casual date doesn't work out, those "no big deals" begin to pile up quickly into one very big deal of a sense of self-doubt, frustration, or even despairing of one's desirability or lovability.  This brings us to the incredibly important fourth point.

Fourth, casual dating is extremely dangerous to those seeking to guard their hearts.  Some years ago I learned an incredibly important lesson.  I had a female friend - a strong proponent of casual dating, though it's not particularly relevant to this point - who was incredibly rational, preeminently concerned with ceding to the Holy Spirit's guidance about all things in life, patient, and very committed to viewing dating as "no big deal."  Everything about her proclaimed that she was a woman who viewed the world objectively, and so I carelessly offered a thought about her romantic life which I believed would be taken well.  The reaction was immediate, and a deep pain showed itself forth in her eyes.  I realized at that moment in a very close to home and visceral way something which I had seen in St. John Paul II's theology and heard in some Catholic discussion of relationships: for all that made her seem different, she was still a woman, with the heart of a woman.  She still desired to be loved, accepted, respected, and treated tenderly  It is a lesson that I took to heart and have applied well since I met my fiancee, who, though it is in many ways entirely hidden from the world's view, has a  heart seeking love and tenderness.

Women are women, and have the hearts of women.  Men are men, and have the hearts of men.  This is true no matter how much we might try to tell ourselves "this is no big deal," or, "it's just a date," or, "it's casual!"  A young man who takes a woman out on a casual date, only to have it not work out will still feel rejected - a great fear and weakness in men's hearts.  A young woman's experience of casual dating will go similarly.  We can tell ourselves "its no big deal" all we want, but when things do not go well it is a big deal.

This is especially true if both parties are not on the same page.  Consider a man who has developed an interest in a particular woman over the course of a month and asks her out.  As a "casual dater," she may agree even though she has no particular interest.  After "a date or two," as Ms. Aaker puts it, she tells him she is no longer interested and moves on with no trouble.  He will not.  Consider a woman who has been waiting for a particular man to invite her out for two months.  After reading an article like the one I linked above, her decides he should ask her out because, even though he has never felt too much interest, "it might go somewhere," She will be excited, and then wounded - perhaps deeply - when his initial lack of interest proves to be accurate.  This is why I think that it is strongly advisable that we date those that we know at least to some degree and have interest in at least to some degree.  It fits much more properly into the spirit of guarding the heart.

In fact, I dare say in what may be the most controversial thing in my post that the danger to our hearts from the emotional side of casual dating may be just as large as the danger to our hearts posed by the physical side of hooking up.

Fifth and last, I put forth what is admittedly the limited value of my experience.  In nearly 8 years of heavy involvement with the Catholic young adult community of Boston, I have known many casual daters, many standard daters, many who tried both, many couples, and and many who indeed found their spouses and got married.  I am not personally aware of any marriages that were borne out of casual dating.  In every case that I am aware of - including my own - two people who had known one another for a few weeks to a few months recognized a mutual interest in one another, began to date, and eventually discerned marriage together.  Some years ago, I asked another Catholic friend heavily involved in both the young adult communities that I was as well as others of her experience, and she was somewhat surprised to find the same was true for her.  It is not scientific, but it is my (our) experience: getting to know people, recognizing their unique mystery, and the choosing to pursue it with all of one's heart produces faithful Christian marriages.

And hey, it's also the teaching of St. John Paul II, a man who will possibly - nay, almost certainly - one day be declared a Doctor of the Church because of his teachings on human relationships and marriage. For what that's worth!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I finally saw the new Star Trek films - and they were worse than I could have ever imagined

I like Star Trek.  A lot.  I'm one of those nerds who can tell you which episode number certain lines or plots are from - or at least which episode title.  I regularly make profoundly awful Star Trek jokes to anyone who might happen to understand them.  I once spent $700 on a Star Trek costume which I am now condemned to wear every year for Halloween without the possibility of reprieve or parole for the rest of my natural life in order to justify.  I even constructed that last sentence as a quote from one of the movies.

Yet I refused to pay for or even watch the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films for five years.  They were changing my Star Trek.  How dare they.  My objections ranged from the superficial and ad hominem (TOO MANY LENS FLARES) to the deep and almost philosophical.  In any case, after my own personal 5 year mission to stay as far away from these films as possible, I finally broke down and finally watched both the new Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.  My conclusion?

These films are worse than I ever expected.

Yes, I was predisposed to hate these things, but hear me out.  After 5 years of refusing to have anything to do with Abrams' Trek, advancing in my life in general, and getting engaged to the most wonderful woman alive, I was able to gain enough perspective on just how important this stuff really is to look at the films objectively.  I resigned myself to the fact that they were going to destroy the second most important planet in all of Trek Lore.  I decided it was OK that they gave everything a different aesthetic (iBridge!).  I accepted that they were going to make a lot of piddly changes to established canon.  Taking all of this as a given, I decided to watch the films expecting nothing more than Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew flying around space and saving the galaxy. In the end, I'm convinced that these films are terrible both as a Star Trek reboot and even simply as films.

First, the characters are simply wrong (this will be the longest point, since its the most important).  Now in one sense, this complaint is one of hanging on to my old beloved Star Trek.  Yes, I am comparing these "new" characters to the old.  Yet at the same time, the identity of the characters is what makes it a Star Trek at all.  Even the filmmakers made this point in explaining why they decided to make this new incarnation of Trek.  The characters were what made Star Trek, they said, but there was too much established canon to be able to tell new and creative stories with them. They wanted to keep the characters - which were the heart of Star Trek - and ditch the reams of established story limiting what they could do with them.  While I disagree that this was a problem, fair enough.

The characters, we were told, had reached such iconic cultural status that they could be rebooted and retold and re-presented.  They were compared to Batman, Superman, and other such characters of such immense and permanent cultural significance that their stories were retold and retold and retold.  Again, fair enough.  Yet this means that the characters are that anchor which keeps Star Trek as, well, Star Trek.  There are many differences between the gritty Batman films of the early 90s, the new Christopher Nolan reboot, and the campy 1960s Adam West version, but the characters are the anchor.  In each, Bruce Wayne is a charming wealthy playboy who lost his parents to a killer at a young age.  He is entrepreneurial, ingenious, and a loner to all but his faithful servant Alfred.  As Batman, he his charm turns to grit.  Even in the goofy 1960s rendition, there is a still a tough, square-jawed attitude that West takes on as Batman - which is what makes the ridiculous lines that he delivers so deliciously campy.  Can anyone imagine a version of Batman in which the Caped Crusader were cowardly, a Wolverine who was patient, or a Captain America who was unjust?  Of course not.  It is the personality of these characters which ties them together through each incarnation and identifies them as who they are.

Yet Abrams' Star Trek and it's follow up Into Darkness get the characters almost universally wrong.  The James T. Kirk of 79 television episodes and 7 films was controlled, pragmatic, and confident.  Christopher Pine's version is wild, impulsive, and portrays a facade of arrogance while harboring nothing short of helplessness under the surface.  The original Kirk was a man of order and command structure, obedient to the chain of command and respecting of the rules and regulations.  He took liberties from time to time, to be sure, but for the new Kirk it is not the liberties but the obedience which happens only from time to time.
Nimoy's Spock was a half-Vulcan you'd never know had any humanity in him until well over 80 hours into his total screen time, logical to a fault, adamant to follow the regulations.  Quinto's Spock is - even before his planet is destroyed - bubbling over with emotions just under the surface and so given to them that he, as an instructor at Starfleet academy, has apparently been having a clandestine relationship with a cadet in Uhura.  The portrayal of Scotty in the new films is nothing short of an insult to the memory of James Doohan.  I don't blame Simon Pegg, who does a brilliant job with the character he was asked to create, but with whoever decided that Scotty should be an utter buffoon, asking for sandwiches in the midst of a blistering assault and bouncing around engineering as he makes repairs more like Batman's Joker than the dignified, proud engineer of the old Trek.

Yet here lies perhaps a clue to just what went so abysmally wrong with these new characters.  The original Scotty certainly had his moments of humor, and he did provide some dignified comic relief from time to time, but, as I said, dignified, and refined - nothing like what Pegg's character offers.  The original Kirk also had his moments of being out of control with emotions, or impulsive, or ignoring a regulation - but these were rare.  Spock's humanity came to the fore on some rare occasion when he was moved by some powerful force.  These behaviors and personality traits were always within the crew of the Enterprise, but they came out only when provoked or pushed.  This is what made them whole and complete characters  - because they had depth and complexities to their personalities, just like real people.  We all have a personality and a manner which is with us most of the time, and deep within flaws, eccentricities, and extremes which come out in specific circumstances.  We all have a family member or friend who is a kind and generous person most of the time, but can become impatient or aggressive when pushed just right.  We have all known a gruff, distant person who on some rare instance shows a tenderness and sense of humanity we did not expect.  This is how real people are, and these complexities are what make great characters.

Upon being hired to direct the new Trek, J.J. Abrams said that he didn't much like Star Trek or know about it.  The truth is, it very much feels like someone watched through the original series and films to learn about the characters but came away understanding only the extremes of their characters without taking the time to grasp the core of their personalities.  The result is that the characters in the reboot seem like caricatures of the original, which ruins it from the perspective of a reboot.  It's like watching some surreal version of Batman where the Joker is almost entirely sane, as if someone took those rare moments of sanity that he could be moved to and built the entire character as though it were all he was.  It also means that, leaving aside the identity of these films as a reboot of established characters, they just aren't very good films to stand on their own: the characters have no core, no depth.

Beyond the individual characters, the crew as a whole also seems to have one major problem: they are entirely inept.  I realize that the plot of the first film involves a bunch of cadets being asked to step up and respond to a threat, but even by the second film the entire crew seems like they have no idea what they're doing.  From the standpoint of a film standing on its own, this gets so bad that the suspension of disbelief necessary for any kind of science fiction film is lost simply because I can't imagine any professional ship's crew seeming like they have so little sense of how to do their jobs.  From the standpoint of a film that is supposed to be a version of Star Trek, it also fails because of how little professional decorum the Abrams crew has.  In every series and film, the crew operates within a clear command structure: the captain and first officer give orders, the rest of the crew follows them and speak when asked for input.  Far too often, the new Trek comes across more like a group of friends with no clear leader all trying to figure a situation out together.  The new Trek feels too much like The Goonies in this regard.

Moving onto some issues which have purely to do with these films in and of themselves (and unrelated to any of the "old" Star Trek), I first have to criticize the acting.  I thought that it was awful.  There were some strong performances - I've already mentioned Simon Pegg playing a terrible version of Scotty, but playing it very well.  Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as always in the sequel. Unfortunately, there were also some awful ones.  Christopher Pine's Kirk reminds me a bit too much of Danielle Radcliffe doing his very best to channel angst and grossly overdoing it.  Quinto's portrayal of Spock didn't so much feel emotionless as mechanical and bland.  Very disappointing was Urban's McCoy, especially because of how much praise reviews gave to his performance.  I may be the only one, but I did not think Urban was channeling Deforest Kelley - by any means.  His attempts at the southern doctor struck me as very overplayed.  Frankly, it seemed to me what a mediocre impression artist would do for McCoy.

Shockingly, Leonard Nimoy's acting was also bad - atrocious, even - but for this I blame the writing.  I do this not out of some kind of fanboyism for Nimoy, but only because I have seen him act more than enough to know his ability, and in watching those scenes of his in the new films, the dialogue he is asked to offer is so painfully bad that I sincerely do not believe there was much to be done with it.  As I see it, Nimoy's acting is not so much a mark against the film's acting in general, but against it's writing.  In particular, his monologue in the first film is so poorly written that it rings more of a child playacting with action figures than a script reading in a major motion picture.

From this note, I will segue into my final issue with the films: the plots and writing simply simply do not have the internal consistency or coherence to be rated as anything beyond mediocre.  In what world does a cadet undergoing a hearing for possible expulsion get promoted to first officer - even temporarily?  What's worse, in what circumstances does he then get designated permanent captain, not only of any old ship, but the fleet's new flag ship?  Sorry, Sulu.  Sorry, Chekov, Spock, and every other officer in the fleet: you have to work your way up the chain of command, but not Kirk.  This plot point alone is sufficient to render the film more middle-school fan-fiction than anything to be taken seriously.

There are other problems.  In the first film, Spock maroons the first officer on an entirely frozen planet as an act of discipline - and nobody in the entire crew seem to have a problem with this (remember the point about the entire crew seeming to have no idea what they were supposed to be doing?) Of course they mustn't have very strong feelings about it anyways, seeing that as soon as Kirk returns to the ship and this time it's Spock who is cast off, they all readily accept this once cadet-then suspended-then stowaway-then first officer-then marooned-now captain's full authority.  A "now captain" who had insisted on staying away from the enemy, knowing how overmatched the Enterprise was (think God versus Daddy long legs) whose plan has now changed to attacking headon - for no discernable reason whatsoever.   I won't spend any more time here because I know I am not the first to make many of these points, or many of the others that could be made.  Suffice it to say, the plots of these films are bad - very, very, very bad.

It really is too bad.  I was truly, honestly ready to like these films.  As I said, Star Trek is one of my favorite fictions to get lost in for a little bit, and even if it really is a little different from the way it used to be, a good Star Trek movie might just be a lot of fun.  The problem is that these aren't good Star Trek movies, or even good movies, by any stretch.

I hope the new Star Wars don't follow this example.

No, Matt Walsh was Not Wrong about Suicide

Incomplete, maybe, but not wrong.

Matt Walsh is a prominent Christian blogger whose posts have become fairly ubiquitous as of late.  Virtually everything he writes garners countless shares and likes and otherwise approving internet gestures - that is, until he made a post in the wake of Robin Williams' apparent suicide.  This time, his thoughts were met with a great deal of backlash criticizing him for insensitivity, being dismissive of the reality of mental illness, failing to show compassion, and countless other things.

What did Walsh say?  You can read the link for yourself if you like, but I will give a quick summary here.  Walsh makes 3 main points:

  1. We should be careful about downplaying the negative and speaking so positively about prominent suicides, using words like "freedom" and "peace" because it could encourage others contemplating suicide to see it as a positive choice.
  2. When we talk about depression and mental illness, we should not make it strictly medicinal and clinical but should also address its spiritual components
  3. We need to remember that ultimately, suicide is an action that occurs by choice; someone has to make a decision to take an action to end his or her life.  We need to remember that there is a choice involved.
His first point is, I think, a fairly profound one which had not even occurred to me.  I don't think most people really have a problem with it, but I also don't think they are giving it as much attention as it deserves, because it may be his most important practical bit of thinking on the entire subject.

His second point is also fairly innocuous.  A few people objected to a caricature of this point, as though Walsh was suggesting that a trip to church or 5 minutes with a Bible would cure clinical depression, but most folks are reasonable enough to see that that is not what he meant.

It's really that third point that has stirred up so much dust.  Depression and mental illness are incredibly tragic afflictions which can cause tremendous suffering in a person's life.  Over the centuries, they were very misunderstood - especially depression - and only in the past several decades have we as a society really begun to understand them.  It is a very sensitive subject, because even today it is not uncommon for a person's depression to be dismissed or for a person with depression to live an isolated life, suffering alone in a world that seems not to understand or even care.  

Most importantly, depression is not something which comes via choice.  Nobody decides that they want to be depressed, and overcoming depression is not as simple as deciding that "life is what you make of it."  Clinical depression is an affliction like a virus or cancer - it comes upon a person uninvited and begins to destroy them from the inside.  It has therefore struck many people as ignorant, uncompassionate, and coldly dismissive for Walsh to say that suicide is a choice.  He even goes so far as to call it a selfish choice - which sounds to many people like a judgment on these people who are struggling with such profound and inescapable pain.

The thing is, Walsh doesn't call depression a choice.  He doesn't call depression selfish.  He says that suicide is ultimately a choice.  If you happen to be a person who took umbrage at Walsh's comments, this may not sound much better.  After all, suicide is something which is an end result of depression.  They're tied so closely that declaring the former a choice might seem to dismiss the impact and debilitating nature of the latter.  Indeed, there is a certain truth to this.  It's one of the reasons that, as mental illness has come to be better understood, the Catholic Church - which still considers suicide to be a grave sin - has taken a significantly softer approach to suicides, declaring that, "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."

At the same time, Walsh's point is an important one.  The truth is that suicide ultimately does involve a choice.  The degree to which someone making that choice is actually himself, actually has full control over his faculties, or actually has full control over his own will is certainly in question in the case of any suicide.  With only a few exceptions, a person has to be very "far gone" to take the incredible step of taking his own life.  Those criticizing Walsh are pointing out that in a sense depression really is like cancer - its a disease which comes in and afflicts a person in a way in which they have no control.  On the other hand, Walsh points out that in another sense, it is unlike cancer: a person with depression ultimately needs to move his arms and hands and legs to take make a noose or take the pills or pull the trigger to end his life.  Cancer kills passively, while ultimately suicide requires some personal action.

The truth is, both sides of the issue are radically incomplete without the other.  Walsh's blog post certainly does not emphasize that aspect of suicide by which it stems from a clinical disease that causes great and incredible suffering.  On the other hand, his critics certainly don't emphasize that ultimate moment of suicide in which a person physically uses some instrument to end his or her life.  They are both inextricably connected, and any view of the issue which does not see both sides of it does a great disservice to those suffering from depression.  

As I come to the end of my own thoughts on this issue, I would ask you to consider the countless suffering souls who have not taken their lives but have considered it.  To them, staying alive is still a choice.  They are choosing every day to fight through their depression and to remain here.  They know that at any moment they could pick up a bottle of pills or find a bridge and end their lives, but - as much as they may at times want to - they have not. For some, this is a choice made out of faith.  They believe that suicide is wrong.  Perhaps they believe in redemptive suffering, and that by persevering their pain has value, like Christ's suffering had value.  They know that they still have a choice to remain alive, and that belief may be the only reason they are still here.

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.  

For others, they may not be people of faith.  They may simply believe that suicide would leave their families and friends suffering, or guilty, or both.  It may be for only that reason that each day they decide to stay alive.

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.

Yes, depression is an incredibly terrible thing.  The pain and suffering that someone who ends their life is going through must be overwhelming and unimaginable.  We should be doing everything we can to reach out to and to help people going through this kind of thing.  Yet without any prejudice to those whose depression has led to their death, we also need to remember that point at which there is ultimately a choice, and in that support those who are making that choice day in and day out.  

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.

It seems to me that in their effort to stand up for those suffering from the horror of depression, that choice is being downplayed.  Don't.  It's the only thing that countless people still have left.

Monday, August 11, 2014

She waited until her wedding night and wished she hadn't

During the past week, this article  by a Samantha Pugsley has appeared twice in my Facebook news feed - once via someone who agrees with the author, and once via someone who does not.  Given my relatively small circle of contacts, this is almost surely a sign that the article has achieved some level of virality.  Reading the piece, I was left saddened - both by the sufferings of the author herself, and by the conclusions she drew from her experience.

I think its important to begin by saying that I do not doubt that Ms. Pugsley's particular religious upbringing was responsible for her negative psycho-sexual experiences later in life.  Certainly it is true that a religious upbringing is better for a person's emotional and psychological well-being; there is sufficient research to make this fairly indisputable.  However, that does not mean that every particular church, religious educator, teaching, or other aspect of every individual's religious formation will always be good or follow this general rule.  Research also demonstrates the benefits of having both one's mother and father during childhood over single parent homes, but this does not mean that there are not some specific cases of fathers or mothers who are abusive, uninvolved, or otherwise detrimental to a child's emotional health.  In the same way, while religious upbringings are in general beneficial, there may be some which are harmful.

Indeed, there is sufficient evidence in Ms. Pugsley's article to suggest that her experience was one such negative case.  We don't know whether this was the standard practice at her particular church or if her involvement was an exception, but we do know that she took a pledge of sexual abstinence at the age of ten.  This is the first troublesome point.  While many churches and religious programs at some point offer teenage boys and girls the opportunity to make a chastity commitment of one kind or another, it usually happens after the kids have entered high school.  Some may even have something of the sort as early as 13 years old, but of course the difference between the average psycho-sexual development of a 10 and 13 year old is so great as to make the thought of such a pledge at the two ages incomparable - and even so those programs offering it at 16 or 17 would constitute the vast majority.  In any case, the point is that for a 10 year old to find herself making such a pledge is troubling, by no means a norm of any sort, and so early in her development that I would be surprised if it did not cause problems.

While this is the most egregious concern, there are others. The article also suggests that this pledge was for girls only, and that boys were to be held to a different standard.  Ms. Pugsley says that she was taught that it was a wife's obligation to fulfill her husband's sexual desires.  Sexual abstinence before marriage was linked almost causally to happiness after marriage.  Very tellingly, she also describes the state of her sexuality as something which seemed an ever-present concern throughout her years at this church, almost as though it were some profoundly important end all to itself which consumed the thoughts and conversation of those around her - almost as though her sexuality encompassed all that was important about her.

None of this is healthy, and none of this is consistent with how most Christian communities view sexuality.  Most notably, human persons are almost universally viewed more holistically.  One's sexuality is important - indeed some Christian theologies see it as touching the deepest core of a person - but it is nevertheless viewed as one part of many which make up a person's identity and value.  It is also a means - a means to communion between spouses - and not an end to itself. Taken together, these reasons are why Christians reject the argument that sex before marriage is important to gauge sexual compatibility between two prospective spouses.  According to most Christian theologies, a person should love his or her spouse wholly and entirely - mind, body, soul, spirit, etc. etc..  Sex is a wonderful means by which that love can and should be expressed between spouses, but it is an expression of a love that goes deeper and touches far more of a person than two bodies ever could.  A person's libido and sexual interests will always change over time, and the love that two spouses have must be rooted so selflessly in the whole of the other than should some perfect sexual chemistry that they at some point possess change, the love will not.  In other words, sex is an expression of a love that encompasses the whole of a person and should be at the service of that love - not the other way around; if a man (or woman) needs to make sure the sex is going to meet some certain standard before making a commitment, then there is a serious question as to whether he (or she) truly loves the whole of the other person.

There are other inconsistencies.  Whereas Ms. Pugsley seems to have been taught that standards are different for men and women, Christianity all but universally calls both men and women to chastity.  Speaking as someone who works in youth ministry and sees many materials intended for young people, I can assure you that a program which does not challenge men to an equal - or even higher - concern for chastity is a rare and strange thing indeed.  The notion that a woman has some particular obligation to fulfill her husband's sexual needs in marriage is perhaps more common than this, but still rare in Christian thinking.  Indeed, even the Bible itself contains a passage encouraging Christian spouses to be sexually generous with one another - male and female (1 Corinthians 7:5).

The most significant line of Ms. Pugsley's piece reads, "My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn't know who I was without it."  However this came to be, it is the wrong idea and an incredibly damaging one.  To this poor girl, her virginity had become so ingrained in her mind as that which gave her value that she did not know how to handle it when she finally consummated her marriage.  In most Christian communities, children are taught that they are valuable because God made them.  They are taught that God loves them.  They are taught that everybody sins, and that when we do God still loves us.  They are taught that our sexuality is a gift from God that we should cherish and guard and give lovingly to one person in marriage - but that this truth comes second to those mentioned above.  Wait until marriage, and guard your sexuality, not because it is bad, but because it is good.  If you should falter - in sexuality or in anything else - God's forgiveness is there for you.

Of course, there are those Christian communities which make sex into something shameful, and chastity into something defining.  Our author ended up getting this message so strongly all along the line that it was ingrained into her and eventually "blossomed" into an incredibly painful experience of marital sexuality.  The message that I want you to take away here is that it is not the notion of pre-marital abstinence that is bad or harmful - even for religious reasons.  Rather, it is the twisted and perverse approach to pre-marital abstinence that some may teach which can be harmful.

Consider the difference between two messages to pass along to teenagers (and not 10 year olds).  We could teach that remaining sexually abstinent before marriage is a central aspect of our faith, that those who do so are of incredible worth, and that God wants us to guard our virginity.  On the other hand, we could teach that God wants us to guard our sexuality and abstain until marriage because we each have a profound value and deserve all the best that our sexuality can offer in uniting us more closely to our spouses.  Clearly, the two approaches, while advocating the same ultimate decision, do so for radically different reasons which make all the difference in the world.

I am very sorry that Ms. Pugsley got the messages that she did over the course of her childhood and teenage year.  I am very sorry for all of those young women (and men) who do learn such perverse views of sex from their churches.  I'm sorry for what they have been through in the name of Christ, and it's very unfortunate that their experiences are leading to a rejection of the idea of pre-marital abstinence itself.  More importantly, though, I am sorry for the formation that they did not receive.  I'm sorry that they were not taught the Christian view of sexuality as a profound gift from God which is given to us to embrace.  I'm sorry that they were not taught how valuable they are in themselves.  The truth is that for every person who had the awful experience of Ms. Pugsley, there are many more who had a good experience with pre-marital abstinence.  Research shows this fairly clearly.

I would call upon those who are predisposed to reject pre-marital abstinence to look beyond the occasional article like the one under consideration here and investigate more fully the research into pre-marital sex and the greater breadth of more common religious teaching on the subject.  I would encourage those who are predisposed to supposed pre-marital abstinence to look more deeply into articles and cases like Ms. Pugsley's to make certain that you are not encouraging the sort of harmful and even un-Christian approaches which lead to cases like hers.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

On Observing Fasts and Seasons

Each year as Catholics around the world begin the discipline of Lent by fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday, many non-Catholic Christians question the legitimacy of this as a permissible Christian practice, either outwardly or privately.  Citing a few verses from St. Paul., the claim is made that we ought not to participate in such a practice.  Here we will briefly address this concern.

Two passages in particular which are raised in objection to the practice of Lent, of fasting, and of abstaining from meat.  The first is from Colossians 2:16:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.
 The second is similar, from Galatians 4:8 - 11:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!I am afraid I have labored over you in vain.
We see here two primary points of contention.  First, St. Paul would seem to be rejecting the notion that Christians ought to observe (in the Greek, literally, "celebrate") seasons or special days.  Second, he says we should not be concerned about eating in a particular way.  For good measure, we could add in 1 Timothy 4:3, which rejects the teachings of "liars" who "require abstinence from meats."  What are we to make of this?

First, we can eliminate the concern that St. Paul really is rejecting the notion of observing particular days or seasons fairly easily by noting that Jesus Himself and the early Church observed them.  Most notably, he observed the Passover - indeed He turned it into a uniquely Christian celebration, commanding that we "do this in memory" of Him.  He also observed Hanukkah (see John 10:22 - 29).  Once He had ascended into Heaven, the early Church also kept account of particular days.  We see them meeting together for Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, and in Acts 20:6 - 7 we see that the disciples met on the Lord's Day (Sunday) to "break bread" - that is, to fulfill Christ's Passover command to "do this in memory of me."

The question of abstaining from meat and fasting is even clearer.  Jesus Himself teaches that His followers "will fast" (emphasis mine) in Matthew 9:15.  He famously gives instructions about not appearing disheveled "when you fast," indicating that it is not a question of if they should fast, but only of when and how.  He tells us that some demons can only be driven out by fasting (Mark 9:29).  The apostles themselves fasted on and around Pentecost - a "day" and season" - in Acts chapter 2.

As for abstinence, the New Testament authors provide instructions to abstain from meat for one reason or another in several places.  The apostles issue a command to "abstain from meat offered to idols" in Acts 15:29.  St. Paul offers counsel about circumstances in which it is good "not to eat meat" in Romans 14:21.

Of course, the commands about abstinence from meat are not universal, but are related only to particular circumstances, and this is in fact a key point in helping us to understand precisely what St. Paul means in the original passages in question.  Clearly, it is acceptable that the apostles prohibit meat in certain circumstances, but it is never done as a universal rule.  Moreover, there are no circumstances or qualifications attributed to those who St. Paul condemns in our citations above.  What we might suspect here is a case wherein St. Paul's condemnation is of those who would prohibit the eating of meat as a universal rule.

In fact, there were two particular groups in the early Church who did just this.  The Judaizers insisted that Christians must, in addition to following Jesus and His teachings, keep to every ceremonial law of the Jews, from circumcision to the prohibition against certain foods.  This is understandable, given how important these practices were to the Jewish identity.  The Lord even had to perform a miracle to finally convince St. Peter that it was acceptable to eat those foods that had previously been forbidden (see Acts 10).  St. Paul spills a fair amount of ink in his epistles arguing against this early heresy, and the passages quoted above are examples of this.  The other group in question is the gnostics, who believed that Jesus came to lead us to the purely spiritual and free us from all matter, which was taught to be evil.  They therefore prohibited eating meat, getting married, and other such practices which they deemed to be too closely connected with matter and perpetuating it.  St. John also argues against the gnostics in his epistles.

Fasting, abstaining from meat, and keeping particular days of celebration or reflection are entirely within the realm of sound Christian practice.  Each of these was either expressly commanded by Jesus or the apostles, or was taught to us by the example of the early Church.  This should be no surprise.  Our human nature demands time of celebration and times of reflection.  We work best as people who sometimes indulge, and other times deny ourselves.  It's how we work, and the One who created us knows this well.  He, through His Church, has given us the call to live in this way because He knows it is good for us.  Thus, we observe Lent and we celebrate Easter.  We set Sundays aside to give extra time to God.  We pray particularly at night, before bed, and in the morning, before our days.  We do these and countless other practices which help to keep us, in our human nature, walking with Christ.  He made us this way, and if anything, we can be thankful that He has given us disciplines and practices which tie our humanity so closely to Him.

God bless!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Don't Give Up Facebook For Lent

For the past few years, I've spent the week or so before Ash Wednesday waging a battle against the rushing tide of Lenten Facebook sacrificing.  This is, of course, because for the past few years this particular sacrifice has become more and more popular.  In years past, I've primarily argued that people should carefully consider whether or not giving up Facebook would really benefit them or if its simply the "easy" or "trendy" decision, much as giving up chocolate or sweets so often is. 

However, this year I am going to come out and assert what I have felt more and more each year that this has gone on: giving up Facebook for Lent is more than simply too easy, it would actually a bad thing for many people - perhaps even for most of those who would be spiritually dedicated enough to consider doing it.  It may even be Satan appearing as an angel of light.

You can look through my previous year's article for the reasoning more in depth, but the main point was that it's an easy sacrifice to make, but its only truly meaningful for some.  The person who truly, literally can't stay away from Facebook for more than 5 minutes might really get something out of it, but the more common person who logs in a few times a day and/or spends most of his "Facebook time" reading articles that he found linked on the site is not only failing to get the same impact, there's a good chance that in giving up Facebook he failed to make some other sacrifice or commitment which would have been more meaningful to him. He's also missing out on all of the good that the social network provides (like those articles).

And good there is!  What do I get out of my daily time on Facebook?  I get inspired but the posts of other spiritual friends to live my faith more fully.  I get challenged by them to stick more closely to Christ than I would otherwise.  I get to see the joy of the Lord in their lives as they do everyday things like go to work, make dinner, or raise children.  I get to learn practical tips from them about how to best do everyday things like go to work, make dinner, and raise children.  I get an embarrassment of riches in dozens of wonderful articles to choose from to deepen my knowledge of the world and, in particular, my faith and spirituality.  

I get to see when friends are asking for prayers.  I get to see when friends need prayers, even when they don't actually go ahead and ask for them.  

I get all of this, and so much more.  Oh, and I get to provide all of this for my friends so that they will have it, too - even those I rarely get to actually see in life.

However, this is not why I would call this particular sacrifice a bad thing, at least not in and of itself.  I call it bad because it's a retreat.  This is ironic, because for many who give Facebook up its intended to be a retreat: a retreat like one spends in a weekend or a week at the monastery to get away from the world and closer to Christ.  Far from this, I'd suggest that giving up Facebook would be, for most, a retreat in the worst sense of the word.  It's a retreat from making Christ a part of our everyday lives in the way we're called to.  

Would anyone, a thousand years ago, have considered avoiding the village square during Lent?  Surely not.  It's there, in the presence of those people the Lord has put into our lives, that our faith is meant to be most on display.  10 years ago, Facebook was a small niche of the internet for a select few college students to goof around.  Today, its a universal forum for business, socialization, fellowship, event planning, outreach, and virtually everything else we do as human beings.  It's the one place where, in our busy world, everyone meets in some way on daily basis.  

It's the village square of our day.  It's a part of everyday life, and we are called at all times, and especially during Lent, to make Christ a part of that everyday life - not to quit parts of our lives because we can't get ourselves to bring Christ into them.  We're called to engage people with the gospel - not stay away from people because we can't get ourselves to engage them.  

If you truly need to get away from Facebook for your spiritual betterment, then by all means, do it.  If you can't help but waste 5 hours a day refreshing your newsfeed, playing Farmville (do people even do that anymore?), getting nothing useful done and ignoring your prayer life, then by all means make the sacrifice.  It would probably be good for you.

But if you're not addicted in this way, and if Facebook is for you, like most, a part of an otherwise healthy everyday life, then don't give up Facebook for Lent - no, work on properly ordering Facebook for Lent!  Do you use it to bring Christ to others?  Do you ever click on any of those spiritual articles that go up?  Do you stop and pray for friends you see having a rough day?  If so, keep at it.  If not, start doing so.  Don't just take my word for it.  Listen to the pope!

In his January 22nd radio address on World Communication Day, Pope Francis spoke about the internet and social media. He cautioned against some of its pitfalls (which are well known to anyone who cares enough to read this post), and then said:

While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement.
As I have frequently observed, if a choice has to be made between a bruised Church which goes out to the streets and a Church suffering from self-absorption, I certainly prefer the first. Those “streets” are the world where people live and where they can be reached, both effectively and affectively. The digital highway is one of them, a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope. By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Keeping the doors of our churches open also means keeping them open in the digital environment so that people, whatever their situation in life, can enter, and so that the Gospel can go out to reach everyone. We are called to show that the Church is the home of all. Are we capable of communicating the image of such a Church? Communication is a means of expressing the missionary vocation of the entire Church; today the social networks are one way to experience this call to discover the beauty of faith, the beauty of encountering Christ. In the area of communications too, we need a Church capable of bringing warmth and of stirring hearts. 

Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website 

I will be quite blunt: Christ calls us to be in the world, to bring Him to it, and to make Him a part - indeed, the center! - of the everyday.  In 2014, Facebook is an incredible outlet to the world, and is certainly a part of the everyday.  Facebook does not need more Christians retreating from it, leaving it a more worldly place for some month and a half each year.  It needs more Christians being Christians for every day of the year.  Instead of making Christ a little bit more absent from the newsfeeds of your friends and family (something the Father or Lies would surely rejoice in), make Him more present this Lent, with the aim that He be more present after that first Alleluia rings out, too.

Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website