Monday, October 22, 2012

my terrible parents

When I was a kid, I sometimes thought I had terrible parents. We kids walked to school, most days carrying sandwiches we'd made earlier that morning. (Mom didn't make our lunch. She also never bought us Lunchables. And we could only get hot lunch twice a week.) We had to come home right after school, unless we had basketball practice, and we weren't allowed to stop and play in the park. My mom taught us piano lessons and made us practice, and we had to dress up for Mass every Sunday. We didn't play on soccer teams, didn't watch much TV, didn't swear, and didn't buy the cool toys the other kids had...

Read more at Maple Footprints.

Friday, September 28, 2012


Hey... I had thought about moving for a long time, but did some serious angsting over what the title of my new blog should be. Candidates were "First Obligation" (as in, "a journalist's first obligation is to the truth" from the elements of journalism) and "Five Rubles Forgotten" (a reference to Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the king of angst) and finally decided to go back to my old blog. Because that's, really, where I want to be.

I'm going to be taking my favorite posts from here and moving them over there. And, at some point, I'll start writing!

Find me at Maple Footprints.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

on condoms and confession

a version of this was posted on Ignitum Today.

Many of the pro-abstinence, anti-contraception types (mostly Catholics) will say that the “Don’t have sex, but if you do, use contraception” approach to reducing teen pregnancy is inherently flawed. They’ll say that the approach sets expectations low, and that it effectively says “Don’t have sex – but if you do, it’s okay.”

Of course, many of those same people march right into the confessional once a month or so. They’ll tell the priest about their spousal spats, their laziness, pride, envy, and lust.  “Don’t sin,” they say, and then they’ll add that “The Church, in her wisdom, knew we were going to sin anyway, so she gave us the sacrament of reconciliation.”

That translates: “Don’t sin, but if you do, go to confession” – so, realistically, confession isn’t all that different from condoms.

If that’s how we’re treating confession, we’re doing it wrong. The purpose of condoms is to reduce the risk of consequences; the purpose of confession is to change behavior and reform hearts. They’re different.

Note: Like anything sacramental, or anything Catholic, the reality of it is incredibly deep and rich, so to all you protesters out there – yes, there is more to it than that. But let’s stick with that much for now.

If we’re not truly willing to change our behavior and allow our hearts to be reformed, we are missing out on what God offers us through the sacrament. Condoms give in to the belief that teenagers won’t be responsible. Confession is a refusal to give up on greatness. And the world needs greatness, needs saints, needs to see holy lives. And why not our lives?
“The ways of the Lord are not comfortable. But we were not created for comfort, but for greatness.” – Pope Benedict XVI
How to Live a Good Confession
Before confessing, make a good examination of conscience. After examining, think seriously about your situation. Are you really sorry for what you did? Consider how your life would be different now if you had done the right thing then. Do you really wish you’d acted differently? Or are you just intellectually aware that it was sinful?

Then, do you want to stop doing this? Are you willing to work at it? To stay on alert for temptation, and when it comes, to look it straight in the eye and say No, I will not! And I don’t mean just now, but next week, too. Thursday. And again on Sunday.

Ultimately, Catholicism is not about correct answers to “What did you say?” or “What did you do?” but rather about “Where is your heart, really?” Your words, actions, and attitudes reveal where your heart is; a willful change in words, actions, and attitudes can move your heart.

Like any sacrament, confession takes place at a particular moment in time but carries forward; it’s a line in the sand after which things are different. The important thing is the “after which” part, not the line. Apologizing to your coach for skipping practice is a start, but getting back on track, or back on the court, will actually make you a better player.

In the words of Bl. John XXIII…
“This must stop, once and for all … from now onwards, I will really be good!” (Journal of a Soul, 28 March 1898 entry.)
That’s the spirit! Don’t assume you’ll do the same thing again, commit the same sins again. Raise the bar, and set your expectations high. The line has been drawn. Things are different now. Confession is not a condom; it is a refusal to give up. I will not be a slave of sin!

At the same time, be realistic. You know your weaknesses, so make a plan. Sometimes priests give penances that directly combat the weaknesses you’ve revealed to them. A priest I know told me he once confessed impatience, and his confessor instructed him to find the longest line at the grocery store, and when he got to the front, to get out of line and find the next longest line – then he could pay for his groceries. For a month. He hated it at first, but after a while learned patience and actually enjoyed chatting with the people in line.

If you aren’t this lucky, make your own plan. Learning patience at the grocery store will make you more patient with your family; learning discipline with your stomach’s appetite will make you more disciplined with your other appetites.

St. Francis de Sales recommends nipping temptation in the bud during morning prayer. Think ahead to your plans for the day. What temptations are you likely to face? How can you prepare yourself ahead of time to be ready to face them? I have a meeting with so-and-so today, and we disagree about something, and I’m probably going to get angry over it. Before the meeting, I will think of five things I honestly respect about her, and consider how much God loves her.

And, of course, constantly pray for God’s grace. Never stop. When we empty ourselves of sin, we must fill up with His grace until we overflow onto the world.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

chicken parm

I've been talking to several friends about cooking for one or two - a lot of us are just out of college, either living on our own or newly married and living with just a husband. And most of us grew up with moms who cooked great meals for us and a healthy handful of siblings. How do you cook for one or two? How do you grocery shop for one or two? It's a whole different ballgame, and at times very frustrating. (What do you do with the bottom half of the can of pinto beans? How do you eat a decent meal at dinner time, not three hours after, when you come home hungry from work at 5?)

So I'll share my experiences and invite all of you to share yours.

Here's what I did this evening:

1. Thaw a chicken breast.
2. Put the chicken breast in a container (bag, pyrex, etc.) and add bread crumbs; shake till the chicken is covered.
3. Add a gollop of spaghetti sauce.
4. Spice it up! I usually get store-brand, boring spaghetti sauce and spice it how I like. This time I used pepper, garlic, basil, and rosemary.
5. Bake at 350, covered, for 45 minutes.
6. Pull it out and add cheese - I used grated mozzarella and parmesan.
7. Bake for another 15 minutes.

Here are some more things to try:
1.  Cut the chicken into smaller pieces. A whole breast was a little much for me. (Luke is working late tonight and wasn't home for dinner.)
2. Throw the chicken on top of spaghetti.
3. Spice it differently?

How would you alter this recipe? If you've tried it, what worked? What didn't?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


What is beauty?

The philosophers say “id quod visum placet” – that which, when seen, pleases. Beauty is complete, proportional, and radiant, they say.

It’s easy to see what completion and proportionality are. If my left eye is missing or swollen out of proportion, I’m less beautiful.

But what is radiance?

My mother knew. Not so many years ago when I was a child, she read me the story of Cinderella from a picture book. She pointed to a drawing of Cinderella in her rags helping the stepsisters, dressed in their finery, on their way out the door to the ball. Cinderella, of course, was much more beautiful than the stepsisters.

“Do you know why?” my mother asked her melancholy daughter. “It’s because she has a smile on her face.”

I looked, and of course it was true.

Maybe that’s what philosophers mean by “radiance,” that elusive and undefinable characteristic of beauty – maybe they mean joy.

Monday, August 20, 2012

On Weddings and Elopements

Luke and I considered eloping.
Planning a wedding is hard work, we found. Our decorations were relatively simple; my mom planned the reception almost entirely; I gave the green light to my bridesmaids’ dresses and let them decide on their own jewelry, shoes, and hair. Even so, Luke and I were fighting for time to just hang out and be friends together, like we used to when we were dating. What do we want for music? Readings? Have we sufficiently included family members? Where can I find shoes?
On top of the work and stress, I became increasingly frustrated with the wedding culture. I didn’t know why I was supposed to be the star and center of attention that day. I didn’t think everything needed to be perfect. I didn’t see why it was important to register for four different types of wineglasses. I couldn’t figure out what was up with this constant word “bliss” – wedded bliss, marital bliss, happily ever after bliss. In most marriages I’ve seen, the living room is sometimes messy, dinner requires work, lightbulbs burn out, cars need maintenance, and children are born without great control over their own bodily fluids. I wouldn’t attach the word “bliss” to any part of earthly reality, and marriage is part of earthly reality. Wedding culture didn’t seem to have a great handle on reality.
Eloping was a way to escape all that, maybe start our marriage off a little closer to reality. But I’m glad we didn’t.
First, I am not advocating large, grand celebrations that break the bank and leave young couples with first-year salaries and student loans in ridiculous amounts of debt. We were fortunate to have parents who were able and happy to fund the ceremony and celebration, and we let them. For those who have tighter budgets or unhappy family members, it’s possible to work something else out. I’ve heard of couples marrying during a regular Saturday vigil Mass, the way you might see a baptism at a Sunday Mass. I’ve heard of couples skipping the reception entirely, or having a small cake reception in the parish hall. I am all for people spending within their means and having a celebration that is reasonable, given what they have available.
Second, I am not advocating unnecessary worry about silly details. I was fortunate enough to have a mother, sister, and cousins who delighted in making things look nice, so I mostly let them. Shortly after Luke proposed, however, someone told me of a bride who was in tears over what kind of plates would be used at her reception. Some things just don’t matter very much, and I think a bride in tears over plates probably did not have the right focus.
The wedding, my dad told me, is a prelude to the marriage. It should be beautiful and joyful and holy, but grounded in reality. In real life, not everything is perfect and not everything runs smoothly, and we’ll be much happier if we can accept that. The wedding should be that way, too.
And we’re glad we chose to invite a crowd to the church.
Wedding planning provided a helpful transition from dating to marriage. I noticed this first when we tried to register for kitchen knives. Kitchen knives may not seem like a big deal, but our moms had different kitchen knife practices (drawer vs block, differing acceptable levels of sharpness, etc.) and we had to decide how we would do things in our kitchen. The same was true through much of the wedding planning – we can only pick one entrance hymn, one gospel reading, one way of processing down the aisle.
When we were dating, we made a point of not making any decisions of consequence together (“Should I take this job or that job?” Or even, “Should I put the couch against this wall or that wall in my apartment?”) because our lives were separate and it wasn’t healthy to think of them as together. Now that we’re married, we barge into each other’s lives and make almost all our decisions together.  (“That coffee table is free and exactly the right height for my art projects.” “But our living room feels crammed already, and we don’t have room for a coffee table.”)  Planning the wedding helped us figure out how to make those decisions together before they really mattered.
Also, my mom wanted to celebrate. I complained frequently during our preparation that “this isn’t that big of a deal; I don’t see what all the fuss is about.” My poor mother. Her daughter was reaching a milestone in growing up. She was welcoming a wonderful man into the family as her new son. We were opening for her another avenue toward grandchildren. She wanted to tell all her friends, and all my dad’s friends, and everyone she knew. I remember, when my second brother married, my mom (who has two daughters besides me) looked at me and said “I have five daughters.” She was thrilled. “Weddings are the easiest way to get new daughters,” she said.
And it’s only natural to gather family to celebrate such an occasion.
Most importantly, however, marriage isn’t just for us. It isn’t even just for us and our children, if God so blesses us. It’s also for the world. At our wedding, we stood in front of about 150 people, many of whom I didn’t know, and vowed to love and honor each other all the days of our lives.
If I pack up and leave, I’m breaking a promise not just to Luke and to God, but to the rest of the world. I’m failing in my life’s mission and harming society.
If I neglect our kids and do a terrible job raising them through my own fault, it’s not just bad for the kids – it’s bad for the rest of society. If my kids become thieves, they might steal your GPS. Or, worse, they might hang out with your kids and encourage them in bad behavior.
If I stay married to Luke but treat him poorly and refuse to honor him, our children will grow up in a terrible household. They will have a hard time learning what love is. Our sons won’t see a need to treat women with respect, and our daughters won’t see a need to hold out for good men.
If family is the fundamental building block of society, our wedding vows are a promise to that society that by the grace of God we’ll hold up what we’re building; that we’ll keep this building block strong and not let it collapse.
Making our vows publicly reminded us that our marriage isn’t just a life together, but a mission.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mission: Perspective

A version of this article was published at Ignitum Today.

It’s interesting how different reality looks when it’s on paper, in neat paragraphs, all in the right order. There, I am a powerhouse. I am strong; I am adventurous; I am embarking on a mission with eternal consequences and not looking back.

But for all my talk of heroism and mission, I’m often tempted to throw in the towel, despair, and give up.

I wrote earlier about how marriage is a mission, and how Christian married couples, if they shine as beacons of virtue, can take the world by storm and save the world from its sexual dysfunction.

But right now I don’t feel like taking the world by storm, or shining as a beacon of virtue. I feel kind of sullen and selfish. I’m mad at my husband (of just over a month) for asking me to leave the dishes for him when he gets home from work. I’m mad at him for buying a stick shift (the former bachelor thought it was manly) instead of an automatic. I’m mad at him for owning four coffee makers when I don’t drink coffee and our counter and cupboard space is cramped.

And, after spending much of our engagement preaching loudly about how stupid it is to expect a flawless wedding day, I’m still trying to compose the perfect toast for the occasion, and trying to make myself have given it.

When I start writing, I start trying to take the world by storm again. I start thinking I’m better than everyone else, as if putting heroism and virtue into paragraphs was the same as living it. (I am virtuous. You can tell because I’m happy. Admit it – I’m just oozing with irresistible joy, and you’re about to convert because of it.)

It isn’t enough to say these things. We must live them. And yes, marriage is a mission, and it requires hard work and discipline, just like marathons and Amazon explorations. But I’m on duty even when I’m not feeling strong and adventurous.

Some days I’m ready for a fistfight or wrestling match with whatever power of evil would tempt me to love my dear husband less. Some days I’m ready to climb mountains and soar. But some days I’m just tired.

Some days I have a bad cold, or a stressful afternoon, or not enough sleep last night. I’m a woman, and some days my hormones do weird things. Some days I don’t feel like cooking, and some days we don’t have leftovers. Sometimes my sense of adventure just has to wait.

But I have to love anyway. My mission doesn’t change, even on days when I’m just not feeling it. I don’t have to feel strong and powerful in order to love deeply and steadily.

Maybe instead of wielding a sword and forcing myself to be happy, darnit, about the coffee makers, the stick shift, the offer to wash dishes, I should just shrug and look the other way. I’m annoyed about some petty things. Okay. I know that, in the past, I’ve laughed about the coffee makers, felt proud at how far my stick-shift driving has come, and been grateful for his offers to help with housework. Those were emotions, too, and they’ll come back.

I never promised to be passionate; I didn’t vow inexhaustible energy or permanent cheer. When I’m not in the mood to deliver a powerful blow to the enemy’s face, when all I can do is sigh and return to my work – that’s what I must do. That’s my fidelity and commitment. That’s the love and honor I did vow.

And, for the days I don’t feel like doing anything heroic – that’s my job. And I can do that.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

virtue is...

Ah, beauty. We’re tempted to pluck a couple more eyebrow hairs, worry about the color of our shirts, look in the mirror one more time. Or, under the guise of being modest and counter-cultural, we don shapeless denim jumpers, long skirts and tennis shoes, thwarting any glance that might come our way.

Either way, every other woman we see is more beautiful than we are. Oh, I want to be like her, we feel. We pretend we don’t care – beauty is vain and frivolous, and we are mature women, not vain and frivolous women. Our own beauty doesn’t matter, we tell ourselves. We’re above that.

Oh, but it does matter. And it’s impossible to shake this desire because God gave us our beauty to cultivate, not to worry about or smother. The world needs beauty, especially feminine beauty. As women, we have not just permission but a mission to fill the world with beauty.

Beauty invites. Just try to walk past a sunset without noticing, through a forest trail without wondering, into an art gallery without pausing. Beauty beckons: “Come and see, and be at peace.” It lifts our minds and hearts. It humbles us and takes us outside of ourselves.

Doesn’t the world need this? Couldn’t the average American stand to have his mind and heart lifted, to be humbled and taken outside of himself?

A beautiful, virtuous woman unwittingly proclaims “virtue is beautiful.” Her visible beauty attracts beholders to the invisible beauty of virtue. It’s not a matter of “I look great, and you’ll look like me if you do these certain things,” the empty promise of many clothing and jewelry advertisements. It’s not about looking better than other women or about the woman's body but rather Christ. A woman’s beauty invites, and if she is virtuous, her life points to Christ. Sunsets and forest glades, while good, can only vaguely point up. A life lived virtuously points squarely at God. Beauty draws others into that life in Christ.

Not one of us has a perfect body, and not one of us is exempt from the belief that a different color here or different shape there would improve things tremendously. But we have all been endowed undeservedly with feminine beauty. Let’s accept this gift the way we want our own gifts accepted by others – enjoyed and cultivated, not worried over or neglected. Let’s stop fretting about our looks, an attitude that proclaims “virtue is uncertain,” and instead gratefully accept the beauty God has given us. Let’s find clothes that complement our bodies without overemphasizing our sexuality. Let’s get cute haircuts, for pete’s sake. And let’s throw out the shapeless jumpers, the thoughtless clothes that smother this gift of beauty and proclaim that virtue is frumpy.

Then let’s live in such a way that everything we do points to Christ and magnifies him. Let our every action say “He that is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

All you who seek to honor these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and expense but at the
Craftsmanship of the work.
The noble work is bright, but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, allowing them to travel through the lights
To the true light, where Christ is the true door.
The golden door defines how it is imminent in these things.
The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
And is resurrected from its former submersion when the light is seen.
-from the door of the abbey of Saint-Denis

Friday, May 25, 2012

shortcut parenting

Why have we given up on our teenagers?

Over and again, any time an abstinence-only sex education program is proposed for public schools, the response is “but they’re going to have sex anyway, so we might as well teach them how to use condoms. Fewer teens will get STDs and fewer teen girls will get pregnant.”

It’s a ridiculous argument. First of all, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that more than 60% of high schoolstudents are not sexually active. Sex is prevalent, yes, but it’s simply not true to say that “everyone’s doing it.” Not everyone is. And I’m willing to bet a lot of money that the vast majority of high school students who are not sexually active have not been pregnant or responsible for a pregnancy and do not have any STDs.

And kids really do learn from their parents. When kids are young, most parents say things like “no, you can’t have that toy; your sister is playing with it right now” and “you have to wait till after dinner to have a cookie.” (Why not let them? Anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes with children will tell you they’re going to fight anyway.) When the kids get older, many parents make sure their kids do their homework before they watch TV. They make sure their kids do their assigned chores and that they don’t watch certain movies. Kids learn these things.

Not every parent does this, sure, but many parents do – including many parents who say their teenagers “are going to have sex anyway.” The Guttmacher Institute reports that the most common reason teens have for not having sex is that it’s “against religion or morals.” Those morals – not stealing, not lying, doing homework – are almost always instilled by parents. There’s no reason parents should just stop being parents when it comes to teaching their kids about sex. The only thing preventing parents from talking to their kids about sex is the parents.

Know what you believe about what sexual activity is appropriate, and tell your kids exactly what you expect and why. Chances are you’ll do a better job teaching your kids what you want them to learn than will a school funded by taxpayers who disagree on sex education. If you want your kids to know how to use contraceptives, teach them. If you want your kids to save sex for marriage, tell them and teach them why. Help your kid understand the reasons for your expectations. Talk through ways of avoiding risky situations and relationships. Teens who understand that their parents care are likely to listen.

Many of my friends waited till they married or, if they are not married, are currently waiting. Almost all of those (myself included) have very involved parents – not obnoxious, not overbearing, but also not trying to be our best friends or peers. They used their parental authority when we were two and three to teach us not to take toys from our siblings, and while we grew, they helped us grow; they explained, in an age-appropriate way, why they taught us what they did. Their parental authority continued as long as we lived in the house, but it evolved as we grew.

Of course, even the best parents aren’t guaranteed that their children will act as they’ve been taught. But parents, if they are involved and help their teenagers understand their expectations – and if they actually expect those expectations – have much more influence than they might think.

And teenagers are capable of much more than parents might think. Figure 1: that 60%.

Don’t give up.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

marriage and mission

A version of this appeared on Catholic Exchange a few weeks after Luke and I married. Read the article here.

So your old roommate’s in seminary and your sister just made first vows, and you’re feeling a little guilty getting excited for your wedding. Marriage isn’t exactly a straightforward regimen toward holiness (you do get to have sex, after all) and isn’t it the default life plan for the leftover people, the ones who didn’t make the vocational cut?

Not at all. If God has called you to the married life, he’s entrusted you with a serious mission. With one foot in the natural world and one in the supernatural – for Christian marriage is a natural state made supernatural by the grace of the sacrament – Christian married couples have a unique means to evangelization. Today’s world needs marriage – needs good Christian marriage – to stand as a sign of contradiction to the world and show the truth and beauty of the faith.

First, love. Everything is about love. Why did God create the world? Why did Christ die on the cross? Why did the martyrs suffer? What makes people saints? What is the greatest and most fundamental desire of the human heart? What is the whole point of everything? Love. Not the warm, fuzzy “luv” rooted in fickle hormones, but the hardcore, disciplined, self-sacrificing love that God is and asks of us. When people seek love, they naturally look to the opposite sex; often, they snuggle close and are left unfulfilled. Christian married couples give the world a concrete example of what real love looks like in a context where the world expects to find love: a relationship between a man and a woman.

Our world is obsessed with sex, and Christian married couples show that people are happier and more fulfilled with a sexually ordered life. The world says sex is a great means of exchanging pleasure (in which you hope not to exchange diseases). Christian marriage says sex is a great gift from God and has a purpose: to express a love deeper than any pleasure, and, if God wills, to let that love become incarnate in a child. Celibate religious show by their lives that joy doesn’t depend on sexual activity. Christian married couples show by their lives what sexual activity is for. Our world needs to see that, too.

Our world doesn’t like to be constrained by commitments; it considers them impediments to freedom. Christian married couples find freedom in commitment. Christian spouses don’t worry that the back door may still be open; they are free to be themselves entirely and to give themselves completely to each other without worrying that the other might leave. Christian married couples show that commitment is a source of a deeper freedom: a freedom for excellence, a freedom from one’s own whims and inconstancies – and those of one’s spouse. Commitment prohibits sexual flings with the attractive co-worker. Commitment requires that spouses work out their disagreements. The sacrifice required to turn back to one’s spouse in love during times of temptation is tiny compared to the deep pain many spouses know from regret, betrayed trust, and divorce.

Our world assaults motherhood and children. The world speaks of pregnancy as a disease and a hormonally manipulated and malfunctioning reproductive system as a healthy one. Children are burdens and motherhood is a hassle you try to fit around your important work, the world says. Christian families affirm the value of motherhood and children. The Christian ethic that proclaims the sanctity of all human life, from conception till natural death, doesn’t stop at mere existence but proceeds to sanctity. Christian married couples welcome children and refuse contraception and abortion, but they don’t stop there. Christian parents devote their lives to the good of their children, attending to their physical, spiritual, emotional, and psychological needs. Christian parents love. They don’t merely want their children to survive to adulthood and hold a job but to grow to adulthood as whole persons willing to give their whole selves when they find their vocation. Christian parents who are dedicated to their children work to fill the world with loving adults and, eventually, to fill heaven with saints. Christian parents show the world that children are gifts, not burdens.

Christian married couples can’t give the witness of wearing a cassock or habit in public. They can’t say Mass or hear confessions. They can’t spend all day feeding the poor, or studying and writing, or praying in a chapel. Priests and religious live another form of that hardcore, disciplined, self-sacrificing love – work essential to the life of the Church and the world, but work married couples can’t do. We need priests and religious to commit their lives to that work. But we need Christian married couples, too. A Christian marriage isn’t the same as everyone else’s marriage. Infused with the grace of the sacrament, Christian married couples can evangelize in a way that priests and religious can’t, giving a powerful example of authentic love exactly where the world expects to see it. In a unique and necessary way, Christian marriage affirms the existence of real love.

And isn’t love exactly what our world needs?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

for the men

Dear Liberal Arts Men,

There are lots of beautiful women on campus. Why aren’t you dating?

Not a whole lot miffs and baffles liberal arts women more than the fact that good men don’t ask them out. In the words of a dear (female) friend of mine, “It’s not fair. They get to pick whoever they want. We can just put out bait and hope.”

These women (and for a few years, I was one of them) befriend off-campus students so they can borrow their kitchens and feed you something better than cafeteria food. They sing while washing the dishes. They laugh at your jokes. As graduation approaches, they tell you that they’re looking at this or that type of job, but that what they’d really like to do is raise kids. They’re practically wearing signs that say “ask me out.” They’re waiting for you, and opening doors won’t cut it forever.

You, liberal arts men, need to do your part. Take them to a dance. Take them to dinner. Start a relationship. Something. Dating is not a lifelong commitment. Asking a woman to a formal dance (and asking her to dance at the formal dance) is not a marriage proposal. An evening of conversation and dance is a fun thing to do with friends; a relationship is discerning marriage. Neither requires an irrevocable vow.

That means you don’t have to finish discerning (and, Catholic men, you don’t have to 115% rule out the priesthood) before you ask her out. If you don’t ask her out because you’re only 80% sure you’d want someone like her helping you raise children, then you’re really not asking her out because you’re scared. Ask her out, then talk about the other 20% (and the 80%) while you’re dating. Share ideas and see if you reach the same conclusions on the important things. That’s what dating is for. That’s not what pre-asking-out-analysis is for. Be discerning before you ask her out, but not scrupulous – there’s way more to her than you’ll find out while “just friends.”

Most liberal arts women want to be stay-at-home-moms and they want men like you to marry them so they can. They want men like you because you’re responsible, because you’re funny, because you’re clean, because you’re trustworthy, because you’re strong. Generally, people discern their vocation to marriage by dating and generally, people don’t marry without dating. Liberal arts women know that after leaving the little bubble of [name of little conservative liberal arts college] and enter the great sea of secularism, they are much less likely to find a man they would trust their future children with, unless they land a job at the pro-life think tank down the street. (And you’re much less likely to find such a woman after you graduate.) You have a responsibility to give these women a chance at marriage to a real man, a good, virtuous man who goes to their church. Ask them out. You’ll find out way more about her than you knew before – and you might find that you want to marry her. Or that you don’t. But if you’re already 80% sure you do want to marry her, it’s time to take the next step in your discernment.

Yes, it’s scary asking them out. You know what else is scary? Childbirth. So we’re even. Ask her out already.

Mary (and Luke, who asked)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hearing God's Voice

Dear M.,

I’m glad you keep asking questions like these. Those are the questions I was asking in high school, and I was really frustrated that nobody would give me answers to them. I imagine more questions like these will come up, and when they do, I want you to remember two things:

1. Learn what the Church teaches on the subject. If you don’t know, look it up: in the Catechism, on, asking someone who knows the faith well. Remember that you’re looking for “what the Church teaches,” not someone’s opinion. Different people have different opinions, and when you’re after truth, you want something consistent and actually true. The Catholic Encyclopedia at is also a good resource, but can be hard to follow sometimes. Anything by Catholic Answers or EWTN is good, and I also recommend the Archdiocese of Washington blog.

2. Know that the Church does have answers. If you haven’t found an answer that satisfies you, that really answers your question, keep looking, and don’t give up.

Now, on to prayer. You asked how to know if you’re hearing God’s voice or just your own voice in your head. I’ll do my best to answer your question – but again, if I don’t answer it well enough, ask.

I remember reading a thing on prayer geared toward teens, and it said that prayer is like IMing God. I was really upset. That’s not helpful at all, and it isn’t really true. I guess prayer and IMing are both communication between two persons, but as far as communication goes, they’re not really very similar. Prayer is lifting up your heart and mind to God.

First off, when you’re praying, don’t expect to hear an actual voice with your ears, and don’t expect to have the right answer pop into your heart or mind in a clear, obvious way. If this happens, especially if you hear an actual voice, talk to a priest. But this doesn’t normally happen.

God does call some great saints to do radical things. St. Francis of Assisi gave up all his worldly possessions and founded a religious order. St. Catherine of Siena wrote letters to the pope telling him to get his act together. St. Joan of Arc left the farm and led the French army to battle. This is really great, but it’s not normal. While God does want us to love Him and obey Him with our whole heart, usually He wants us to do so in our “state of life” – for you, that means as a student, friend, daughter, sister. Later, it may mean as an orthodontist, or as a wife and mother, or whatever. If you do think God is calling you to something like particularly radical, talk to a priest.

Prayer builds our relationship with God, and remember that relationships are built over time. Think of some of your closest friends, and think about how your relationships are different now than they were when you first met. How did that happen? It was time spent together – time spent chatting, playing with each other’s hair, carpooling, studying together, spending the night at each other’s houses, all the stuff of friendship. When you spend time together, your relationship grows, and you don’t always notice it growing.

In the same way, our relationship with God is built during the time we spend with Him – in prayer, especially in front of the Blessed Sacrament. In some ways we have to put more effort into our relationship with Him than our relationship with regular people – we can’t just chat on the phone with Him, or have Him over to commiserate over exams, or paint His toenails. Much of the “stuff of friendship” we can’t really do with Him, because although He is present, He is present in a very different way. This is where prayer comes in. Part of prayer is just spending time with Him to build that relationship.

This may mean reading the Bible, saying the Rosary, or kneeling before Mass and turning over in our minds and hearts what all these things mean. While saying Rosary, we meditate on the various mysteries; maybe while mediating on the Annunciation, we can think about our Lady’s words: “Be it done to me according to Thy will.” Perhaps she understood how great an honor it was to bear the Son of God, but her life wasn’t all easy. She had to figure out how to deal with being pregnant before she married Joseph (“an angel appeared to me and my son is the Son of God” isn’t an explanation that would satisfy my parents if I got pregnant before I married). And after giving birth to her Son and raising Him, she watched Him be condemned to death, beaten, and crucified. That couldn’t have been easy, but she accepted all of that when the angel appeared to her and she said “Be it done unto me according to Thy will.” She knew that she would suffer, and she knew that in the end God would reward her for her faith in Him. And now she is queen of heaven.

In prayer, read a section from the Bible or think on the mysteries of the Rosary, and let your thoughts go further. What does this really mean? What would this have really been like? What does that mean for me? (Is my heart as open to God’s will as our Lady’s heart?)

Part of prayer is asking God for guidance. This is when the “listening” comes in, when we try to hear God’s voice. First, we have to be patient. God doesn’t usually tell us everything all at once. We have to keep coming back, keep praying, keep asking. Second, we have to open our hearts to His will. The answer He gives us might not be the one we want, and it might involve suffering. Are we open to that? Are we willing to accept whatever God asks of us, as our Lady did? This takes practice.

Given that, I’ll give you some ways to help discern whether you’re hearing God’s voice or not. The closer you are to God and the deeper your relationship with Him, the more quickly you’ll recognize His voice. Here are some ways to start:

St. Francis de Sales said “No thoughts which cause us disquiet and agitation come from God who is Prince of Peace; they are, rather, temptations of the enemy, and therefore we must reject them and take no notice of them.” If, on the deepest level, you feel angsty and conflicted about what you think might be God’s will, it probably isn’t God’s will. God may require us to make sacrifices. But on the deepest level, doing His will brings joy and peace.

St. Joan of Arc said “All I know about Christ and His Church is that they’re the same thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” The Church teaches some specific things about morality: lying is wrong, envy is wrong, murder is wrong, etc. In addition, the Church teaches some specific things about virtue: love is good, patience is good, courage is good. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and in a good marriage, both parents are on the same page about what they teach their children. God won’t tell you to do something that the Church teaches is morally wrong. If you think you are hearing God tell you to lie, that’s not God’s voice.

God has already told us the basics. When asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said to love God with your whole self, and, second, to love your neighbor as yourself. We know that God is always calling us to love more deeply, more purely, less selfishly. When you are unsure what to do in a particular situation, think about the most loving thing to do, and ask God to guide your thoughts and lead you closer to Him.

I wish I could give you a clear-cut method so you would always know whether you’re hearing God’s voice or something else. But God isn’t a system or a computer; God is a Person (or rather, three Persons) who love deeply. And he will help, as long as you ask and persevere in your asking.

AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam – for the greater glory of God)


Friday, February 3, 2012

Intro to Contraception

Dear high school students,

I’m sure you’ve all seen on the news about the federal contraception mandate and the Catholic uproar over it. You can read on the news what happened and how Catholics are reacting. I want you to understand why contraception is such a big deal.

We’ve talked before about how doing things God’s way is good for you. That’s true about sex and contraception, too.

God designed sex to be amazing. He designed sex to be a way for spouses to give themselves completely to each other, to strengthen their commitment to each other, and to produce children. When they express their love for each other this way, that love may become a child. And that’s beautiful. Sex allows married couples to participate in God’s love and in his creation.

Our culture today accepts all sorts of things that violate the sanctity of marriage and sexuality. One of these is contraception. Contraceptive sex is sex on our terms, not on God’s terms. Contraceptive sex says “I want the pleasure right now, but I don’t want the responsibility of raising children.” Contraceptive sex cannot be an act of total self-giving and isn’t an act of love -- remember, God designed sex to be an act of love. Contraceptive sex is using the other person for sexual pleasure.

God designed our bodies to work a certain way, and contraception interferes with that. Our bodies are naturally fertile. It’s healthy to be fertile. Advocates of contraception speak as if fertility (especially women’s fertility) were a defect and as if pregnancy were a disease. It’s not. Having a functioning reproductive system is just as healthy as having a functioning digestive system or a functioning respiratory system. God made our bodies to work a certain way, and it’s good and healthy when our bodies work the way God designed them.

The Catholic Church does not teach that once you’re married, you have to have sex all the time and have as many babies as your body can handle. We all know that sex can naturally result in children. But it doesn’t always. That’s because women’s bodies are designed to have fertile cycles -- there are only a few days per month when it’s possible for a woman to get pregnant. When a couple has sex during a time when the woman is naturally infertile, she can’t get pregnant. It’s possible (and, actually, not that hard) to learn how to tell when a woman is naturally fertile or infertile, and if a couple has a good reason to postpone a pregnancy, they can abstain from having sex when the woman is fertile. God designed women’s bodies to go through these cycles naturally. He also designed our brains so we can learn how to do this. The Catholic Church teaches that couples must be open to having children, but if there are times in their marriage when having a child seems unwise, they are permitted to abstain from sex during fertile times to postpone pregnancy. This is called Natural Family Planning, and you can find more about it at

NFP isn’t just another form of contraception. By having contraceptive sex, the couple abuses the sanctity of marriage and sex. By not having sex during fertile times, a couple is simply not having sex. With contraception, the couple does not want children. With NFP, the couple thinks that, because of their circumstances, it’s unwise to have children right now, but they are open to life. With any method of contraception or with NFP, there can be surprise pregnancies. With contraception, surprise pregnancies are called “mistakes” or “failures.” With NFP, surprise pregnancies are called “children.”

That’s the Church’s teaching in a nutshell. If you have more questions, let me know and I will be happy to answer them.

Here’s a little more information on contraception and NFP:

Many people think that NFP is not effective at preventing pregnancy. That’s not actually true. A 2007 study showed that NFP is 99.6% effective when used properly.

NFP couples have healthier marriages and almost never divorce.

Side-effects of chemical contraceptives (including the birth control pill) include nausea, vomiting, weight gain, and infertility. NFP doesn’t have any side effects, and when you’re ready to have children, you don’t have problems with infertility.

NFP doesn’t cost any money. You need a thermometer, and you need to be able to stick it under your tongue. And you need a pencil, so you can record your information. Birth control pills can cost $15 to $50 a month, according to Planned Parenthood.

NFP is better for the environment. We all know that it’s bad to put chemicals in food and let chemicals drain into our lakes and rivers. Why would we put chemicals in our bodies (and let them drain into our lakes and rivers) if we don’t need to?

When the inventors of the birth control pill were testing the pill on women, three women died. They didn’t bother investigating whether the pill caused their deaths.

Women, don’t let our culture tell you that pregnancy is a disease or that your fertility is a problem. Men don’t take pills or use chemicals to interfere with how their bodies work naturally - why should we? Fertility is good and healthy, and motherhood is a beautiful thing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Save sex for when you’re married, and if you marry, be open to life. Here is a quote from Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty:

“The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral - a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body. The angels have not been blessed with such a grace. They cannot share in God’s creative miracle to bring new saints to heaven. Only a human mother can. Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature. God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation. What on God’s good earth is more glorious than this: to be a mother?”


PS Luke wrote something for the guys:


Contraception is unmanly. I’m not going to tell you it’s bad, because that’s what the rest of this letter is for. I’m going to tell you why it’s unmanly. As men, we have a special duty to take care of women. So if there’s one thing that men (real men, that is) don’t do, it’s take advantage of women.

It takes two to have a baby. And the way God designed things, it takes two not to have a baby. Mary explained how this works in the section about NFP. Both people have to do their part. Basically every kind of contraception (except condoms) works by messing up how women’s bodies work so that they’re not fertile. So instead of it taking two, contraception makes women do all the work.

Again, if there’s one thing that men don't do, it’s take advantage of women. If we’re not willing to abstain for a few days per month so that women don’t have to pump a bunch of chemicals into their bodies, then we’re not taking care of women, we’re taking advantage of them. We’re saying to them “I want to have sex whenever I want, so mess up your body so I don’t have to abstain.” If you're not married, you shouldn't be having sex in the first place. If you are married and there’s a good reason not to have a baby, do things the right way and do your part.

Be a man.


P.S. And ladies, don’t settle for men who don’t live up to this.