Saturday, March 15, 2014

Documentary!

Since last fall two pilgrimage groups from my parish have been preparing for pilgrimages across Spain's Way of Saint James (or Road of Jim, as I call it. Well, not really, but I should).

Last week the Pastor announced that they were now planning a large-scale professional documentary filming the men's pilgrimage group, IF they can get the funding. Yawn. In my typical manner, I thought, "whatever, I'll probably have to watch it eventually if it comes out."


But my sister (as I call her) is in the women's pilgrimage group, and is totally excited about the project, so she urged me to take a closer look. I begrudgingly agreed (she SO owes me... and not just for this). And...


It turns out she was right (this time...). Reading the Press Kit on the website was actually pretty interesting. Then I started watching Grassroots Films' other documentary, The Human Experience, and it's great.


The film will show the Catholic roots of the Way of St. James, which has been increasingly taken over by a secular tourist market. And more importantly, it will show how we can gain something great by leaving behind the comforts of our ordinary life in pursuit of God.


St. James the Greater was one of the three Apostles closest to Jesus, and was the first Apostle martyred for the faith. The facts are somewhat contested, but legend holds that St. James spent time evangelizing Spain, but returned to Jerusalem to be martyred. This pilgrimage ends at his Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are kept. But whether or not St. James truly walked the land of Spain in his life, the pilgrims are still following his way, for the true way of St. James is that of abandoning your life to follow Christ into the unknown.


It's hard for me to care about a documentary, but this will be something great. But for it to be made, they need a lot of support in the next few weeks, so please head over to wayofstjamesmovie.com to help out.


Update 4/15/14
The documentary's Kickstarter is coming to a close soon. If you haven't checked out out yet, at least go watch the video. And keep an eye out for the Kickstarter 's relaunch in coming weeks. It should get abetter start, and be a more exciting ride.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Step Toward Community

There was a time my wife and I dreamed of living in a lay Catholic community. We strongly believe that people are too isolated these days, too individualistic, trying to do everything on their own. There is so much we can do better together. And my wife and I feel a greater need for something like this, being separated from our families by a 7 hour drive. But some time ago we lost most of our hope in the matter.

The lay Catholic communities we have looked into seem too strict, not in terms of the necessary moral requirements, but more along the lines of a religious order, with required prayer times and other requirements that go beyond ordinary Catholic moral standards. 

Also, the two of us are very shy. We have difficulty connecting with others, especially in a deeper way. Just speaking for myself, when I let down my walls it exposes raw nerves, and I become hyper-sensitive, and I just end up hiding behind a dumpster.

So, our difficulty with connections limits our ability to sell the idea of a community, and our desire to try fitting in with an existing community.

But we do have a bit of a vision, and perhaps it will do some good for someone who actually gets along well with people.

I can see various possibilities, but I generally see a two-tiered structure with a more loosely tied large group, and more tightly bound small groups.

I think two (possibly three) families would be enough to form a small group. These two families would form a sort of partnership, doing things like cooking, cleaning, praying, and sharing much of life together. I could see this working in one shared house with a large common area, as well as separate areas belonging to one family or the other. Or, perhaps more likely, two separate homes next to, or very close to each other. These units would generally get together with the larger neighborhood community maybe once a week, perhaps a few times. Or to simplify things, they could just gather for ordinary parish functions, which are generally fine for a broad sense of community, just not so much the daily interdependence that would be the strength of the small groups.

One possible problem with the small group structure could be an issue of exclusiveness, but I think that would fade with a bit of time. The two small families would become like one large family, and wouldn't need be any more exclusive than any large family.

I don't think God intended this American spirit of self-reliance. He meant us to rely on each other. As brothers in a shared faith, we should be able to truly be part of each others' lives: helping each other with the difficult task of raising children, with the mundane tasks of keeping house, shopping, living, and most of all, with growth in our faith.

And the truth is, while such dreams of community may be beyond my reach, there are small steps I can take in that direction. Even if we don't live in walking distance, I can offer to help one or two of my close friends with ordinary tasks, whether accomplished together or apart. And if my gift is reciprocated, and it becomes regular, it will make life easier and happier for all our families. And I think we will live a little more like God intended.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Romancing the Rocks

For the longest time, I misunderstood romantic love to be the love between a man and a woman. The love properly ordered toward marriage. But I am beginning to understand that there is romance in everything.

Also, along the same lines, romantic love is often tied in with sex, as if the two went hand-in-hand. It's not that the two are entirely unrelated, but properly ordered, most romance is not sexual in nature (or perhaps, as taught in John Paul II's Theology of the Body, it might be better to say that not all our sexuality is ordered toward sexual activity).

Romance starts with our experience of the beautiful, whether something looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, smells beautiful, and so on. But it is not only from the experience of the senses directly, but also the mind. We can experience a beautiful idea or a beautiful personality.

Thus, we can "fall in love" with things as well as people. We see a beautiful mountain in the distance, and we want to get closer and climb it or touch it. At the least we want to take its picture, so we can preserve a part of our experience with the mountain to bring with us.

One of the things that helped me realize the greater dimensions of romance was having children. You fall in love with the beautiful little faces, the cute voices, the new personalities. You want to hug them and kiss them. You can sit and stare lovingly at them (when they aren't driving you crazy).

Of course, each love, for each person and each thing, is unique, but they are not an entirely different kind of thing. They are different in intensity, they have different components, they are associated with different roles and duties, but they are all loves of the beautiful.

And properly ordered this all points to God. As Plato discovered using pre-Christian philosophy, God is the perfect beauty, and the source of all beauty. And as the the scriptures tell us, Christ came as Lover, to be the bridegroom of the Church, to unite himself with us in a kind of heavenly marriage.

So all that is beautiful, all that we love, should remind us of God. We should be thankful for all the good that he presents to us here on Earth. And when we marvel at the beautiful things he has given us, we should feel even greater awe, wondering how much greater is the source of all beauty and love.

Friday, February 7, 2014

This is Only a Text

A long time ago, in the far away land of California, I was in high school. I hated high school (I still tend to view it as false imprisonment), but there was one good thing about that time: I saw all my favorite people almost every day. I saw my two closest friends at school (and usually one or the other outside of school), and I saw my family back at home.

But there were plenty of times when I was alone, whether completely alone, or in a crowd. And I've always hated to be alone, except when it is by choice. I get lonely fast. I feel like an experience is hardly worthwhile unless it is shared, and then talked about afterward.

Now things are very different. I live in Arizona with my wife and kids. My wife is the best friend I've ever had, and I get to see more of her each day than any friend I had before, and I really can't remember how I survived without her.

But man does not live by wife alone, and my other close friends and family I hardly see. This makes my circle of more meaningful interaction very small. Usually I will see a friend for a few minutes here or there, but not long enough for a real conversation or to do anything together, or I'll get a visit from my family every few months. Strangely, I see my out-of-state family more than my in-state friends.

I have friends at my jobs, but not close friends I really connect with. I still spend a lot of time alone. And, most of the time, I still hate to be alone.

But, text-messaging has offered some help. With texting I've been able to keep in touch with a few of my family members and closest friends almost every day. I feel a bit more connected, and a little less alone. And it seems a few of my friends might hardly remember I existed if I stopped texting.

But, as much of a blessing as it can be, I wonder if it's also a problem. Am I a bit of a texting addict? I don't act like those teenagers you see, interrupting or just avoiding most conversations to send messages, and if I need to check my phone while with company, I try to apologize.

But still, I don't know... am I missing something? Is forced alone time good for me? Am I reducing the amount of time I'd spend in prayer by chatting about nonsense? Am I forgetting the people around me I could be talking to? And if I want to keep in touch with my friends, should I be more willing to take my own advice, and talk on the phone with my voice?

Probably. But like so many other things in life, will I ever be able to truly balance my habit between the extremes of too much and not at all?

Maybe it'll help if I remember the limitations of texting. It's relatively slow, kind of shallow, easy to misinterpret, and it sometimes feels like I'm sending messages into the void, not knowing if they've been read, how they were received, or if they will ever be answered. Texting would work so much better with ESP.

For now I'll just work on developing my ESP.

Monday, February 3, 2014

In the World

A while back I immersed myself in Catholic books (along with Catholic CDs, web sites, and smoke signals). I left behind ordinary television, deciding there wasn't anything good enough to watch to be worth the level of negative influence found in the worldly experience of the shows and their commercials. I also switched to primarily listening to Christian rock instead of popular rock, or whatever I listened to before. I didn't give up movies or other forms of entertainment, but I at least picked things where I might have more control (and by the way, if you can watch five movies, all five should be Man of Steel).

These days this means I'll watch things on Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube, but no broadcast TV. The flexibility and control works better with demanding children ("snack, water, snack!)", and when I'm sensible it allows me to still protect myself from the negative influences I prefer to avoid (except some violence-provoking toddler shows, which I just can't avoid).

I'm mostly happy with the setup, but there are some problems. First, I seem to have burnt out on Catholic media, and to an extent, my interest in the faith in general (though I still try to pray frequently throughout the day). I don't know if this is because the adventure of conversion is gone, and I am bored by the ordinary, or if it's because of disappointments in my experience of Catholic life and with my fellow Catholics, or something else. I do think I need to bring some of that adventure back by engaging in some ministries, maybe evangelization (because the faith is still true, whether I'm interested or not), and hopefully I can change my own heart, and also spend more time with engaging Catholics. Then, perhaps I will find a greater, more lasting, interest in the faith. I don't know.

Another problem is that by avoiding TV and radio and their commercials, I feel a greater disconnect with people. I'm slow to hear news, or discover the new shows and movies. And I don't have a liking for sports, so that's out too. In short, I don't know what people are talking about half the time (people, come on, what are you talking about??), and I get left out of conversations or I just seem weird and uninteresting (in reality, I'm weird and moderately interesting, come on!). Also, I am perhaps bothered too much by people who talk in a worldly manner, with lots of crudity, swearing, or other kinds of annoying immaturity.

In this respect am I living in the world while not being of the world, as I'm supposed to? Or am I managing, through my failings to just end up being of the world in a less common way, while avoiding my mission out in the world?

Don't answer that.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pain and Darkness

For the first time since her mother died, my wife is spending time alone. And with the alone time comes the sadness. I have no experience with the death of someone close, but I have experienced the pain of loss. A few times my strange ways have lost me friends (thank God, I sometimes got them back). My situation was very different, and not something most people would even recognize as comparable, but I think perhaps the pain, the feeling of loss, was the same.

Think of what it is to lose even a little thing, like in the example our Lord gave about the woman with ten coins who lost one. When we lose something it becomes the most important thing in the world to us. Perhaps this lasts for just a moment when it's something small, but it can last for weeks or years if it is a family member or a friend.

The sadness of a lost loved one is a terribly lonely thing. Other people can help ease the pain, but each person who is important to us fills a unique role, holds a unique place in our heart, and nobody else can fill it entirely. So the pain of waiting for our loved one to come back to us, or waiting until we join them in Heaven, is ultimately between us, God, and the one we lost.

In this lonely time a shadow descends upon our lives. The emotional pain becomes tangible, like a stabbing in the heart. And while we may have prayed all along, now we call out desperately, knowing only God can comfort us. But where is he?

We need to see him. We need to hear him. But when does Jesus come down, and give us a hug? When does he speak up to us, and tell us our loved one is fine? When does he show us we will not be alone, and the hole will be filled?

The miracles of God are so hard to see. How can we find any peace in this life? Where is the joy we are promised? Is there a joy even in our sorrow? Can we find in our sadness the seeds of true love? The loved one we lost reminds us how precious our loved ones are... but can't God show us this truth a different way?

I do not begin to understand God's plan for suffering. I keep hope that he will one day answer me more clearly, and show me a love and a light that is more tangible than the pain and the darkness.

For now, in the shadow of death, I can only cry out in prayer:

Oh Lord, shine your light into this darkness. We know you are there, but we feel so alone. Help us find peace in our sadness. Help us to hear your voice. Help us to feel your invisible arms. Lord, comfort your broken children, and help us to comfort one another.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hidden Bodies

My wife, Stephanie, is currently dealing with the death of her mother, and the subsequent plans of her family to scatter her ashes from a pier. This brings into focus the difference between Catholic and non-Catholic views of the body, and the resultant burial rituals. Following from this Stephanie had some insights on the value people place on a body's appearance.

When a dead body is whole, we treat it with a certain respect. We wouldn't just dump it off a pier or cut it in half to bury in two separate places (unless we were in the Mafia). But a cremated body no longer looks like a body, so we do all kinds of odd things with it.

Likewise, the Eucharist does not have the appearance of a body, which is part of why it is so easily disrespected, mistreated or forgotten. The Eucharist is not something I begin to understand, but it is a wonderful invisible gift.

But I suppose even potentially viewable living bodies are forgotten if they are hard enough to see. People hidden by distance or within the womb are not given the same value as those easier for us to see. Which makes me wonder if I am worth less to people, being so skinny you can't see me when I turn sideways?

I don't know... nor do I know how to rely less on what I see myself, and how to care more for what is invisible.

Let's pray that God might help us to treat lives and the bodies of all people with respect, especially the holy body of our Lord. And that we might focus less on the visible to better see the invisible things we do easily forget.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hearing Voices

Every week I heard Stephanie's phone ring once or twice. It was Stephanie's mother, almost without fail. She has some friends that text top keep in touch, but the one person who called on the phone to hear her voice, the voice God gave us to share with our loved ones, was her mother. Now I hear Stephanie's ringtone, and my first thought is still that Sandy is on the phone. But it will never be her again, and that is sad and strange.

Now, I love my text messages, and I'm not going to stop using them (much to my friends' chagrin), but I wonder if I'm turning to them too quickly. I wonder if I should rediscover the telephone. And when I can manage it, even if I don't have much time to spare, I should go a little out of my way to quickly (or not so quickly) stop by and see my friends and family at work or at home.

I have friends living just a mile or two away that I email or text, but hardly see in person. What great difference might it make if I just stopped by for five minutes here or there? I might find myself at least a little closer to the dream my wife and I have of living in a close-knit Catholic community (something I'll have to go into more later).

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Just Shy

"Hello, my name is Nathan, and I'm shy," I mumble at the support group. Except I don't go to a support group, because we shy people prefer to stay inside.

When I have close friends, sure, I'll go out with them pretty easily, but alone, or with most people, even most of my friends, it's more comfortable to just not put too much effort into being out in the world.

Shy people are difficult. I'm difficult. I have a hard time starting conversations. I have a hard time finding points of common interest. I have a hard time even responding in the optimal manner to simple questions like, "How are you doing?"

Of course I'm not just shy, I'm also a bit of an oddball. When I come out of my shell a little I'm full of silliness, odd expressions, exaggerations, and other nonsense. I don't like the normal way the world works. I make my own rules sometimes, so long as they are in keeping with morality. Very rarely I've "adopted" my very best friends as extra siblings, which I take pretty seriously, but I don't think even these great friends understand. I guess it would help if they were coming from the same place (but my home planet exploded, so...), oh well.

But it's not just me. Most shy people are kind of difficult. We're hard to get to talk, we don't reveal things about ourselves easily. Even having the experience of being shy myself I often can't figure out other shy people, or get much out of them.

There are surely many reasons for people to be shy. In any particular person some or all of these may be major factors: A simple introverted personality (focusing more in the mind than out on the world), a fear of rejection, caring too much what others think, a perfectionism that wants each word to be understood exactly as intended, a social awkwardness that tends to cause difficulties in communication, etc. I've got at least some amount of all these myself.

In the worst case it could be an actual dislike or disregard for other people and a complete inability to relate to them. That's why we hear, "Look out, it's always the quiet ones." But it's usually nothing so terrible, and we self-conscious shy people hardly need people suggesting that we're all serial killers. Thanks a lot (you're going on the list).

What can be done then? Well, Christ didn't just call us to love the easy people, so let's put in some effort to reach shy people.

First, try to make time for them one-on-one or when they are with someone else they are already comfortable with.

Ask questions, but be careful about putting them on the spot, especially if you're in a group.

Conversely, try not to let them feel left out of the group entirely. It's easy for that to happen. I usually avoid groups for that reason.

When you find a common interest, remember it, and use it to build common ground. Or even if they bring up an interest that could prove to be interesting with a further look, consider exploring it with them. But don't necessarily limit yourself to that one topic, especially if they are opening up.

Take a little care. Shy people often worry too much about what other people think, so they can be a little sensitive, even if they don't show it.

But if you do get a shy person to open up, and you become good friends, they could be very loving and loyal. They usually don't make friends so easily, so they care a lot about the few they have, and they can be a great gift from God.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Best in People

While it does go against my belief that the joy of complaining is why God lets us suffer in life, I've been engaged in an interesting thought experiment.

What if we could look at our family and friends, and only see the good memories, and let go of all the bad?

I pick good family and close friends, so it's not like there's anything huge ruining our relationships, but it seems most every relationship has little annoyances or dark spots.

Yeah, I said I pick good family. "That makes no sense," you say? Well you're just saying that because you picked such a lame family.

Anyway, to clarify this idea about forgetting the problems, I'm not saying that if your lunatic brother threatens to kill you the next time he sees you, you should forget it, and invite yourself over for tea. I'm talking a bit more about issues that are clearly in the past or more minor issues in the present, like if someone forgot your birthday, they complain about your cooking (can you blame them?), they don't answer your emails, they don't show interest in some of your favorite things, or things like that.

If something is solidly in the past it could be a big issue, and you can still forget it, like the time your brother lit your hamster on fire (how could he do that?!?). Let it go. Also you can forget things on your own side. Forget the worries about being misunderstood, forget the embarrassing moments of the past, and don't worry about how much they like you.

Doing this, focusing on the kindness, the fun, the beauty of the person and your relationship with them, and removing the dark spots from the picture, I think you can find a greater happiness in your relationships, and love your friends and family more fully.

I even wonder if we might discover some hidden treasures this way. Maybe we'll see the people who might not have been the easiest or most exciting friends, and realize how much love they showed us while we weren't paying attention.

As for my actual experience, so far my results are mixed. I kind of do this by default with my wife. Next, I find it easier with my family and close friends, where there are lots of good memories and displays of love to draw upon. I've had moments of realization that friends were not just good friends, but great and wonderful friends. Other friends and acquaintances I'm finding that the kindness-to-difficulty ratio is still a more major factor.

But even if we still have difficulty loving, it doesn't hurt to prayerfully work with God to look at people with greater love. Remember, just as our love for God helps us love people, our love for people also helps us to love God.

This is part of why most of us are not called to be hermits. Most of us are supposed to be spending time enjoying the company of our family and friends, as well as touching the lives of others beyond our circle.

And if we are doing this with greater focus on what is right with the person, perhaps we'll love them a bit more, and we will all grow a little closer to God just being near each other.