A Short Reflection on Pain

All of us ponder why God permits suffering. By faith we acknowledge that God never permits it except that a greater good may come from it. Perhaps He permits that we suffer loss in order to bestow some new gift in its place. Even beautiful relationships may hinder some new growth that God wants to bestow. For example, the death of a loved ones creates a space for the new and different while not canceling the gifts of the one who passed.

Suffering brings sobriety by reminding us that this world is not Heaven and its joys can neither last nor ultimately satisfy.

In addition, in the crucible of suffering we are tested and our faith can be strengthened and purified.

Suffering brings wisdom, which differs from mere human knowledge or experience in that it is from God. Wisdom sees past the apparent and is as much a “sense” or “disposition” as it is a body of knowledge. There is something about wisdom, so often acquired in pain, that enables us to embrace the paradoxes and riddles of life in this perplexing world, a long way from our eternal home. In wisdom we cling to God and grow more silent; we avoid simple explanations and do not demand exact answers. It is enough that God knows and that He will reveal to us only as much as we can endure now.

Yes, suffering is painful; it is a fearsome grace of God but it is a grace.

For now, the Spirit tells me that I’ve said enough, except to indicate what drew forth this meditation: an ancient maxim, an utterance of truth from ancient Greece.

He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep, pain that cannot
forget falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God

– Aeschylus, c.a. 500 B.C.

A Meditation on Eternal Life

We are concluding our reading of the First Letter of John during daily Mass. Many struggle to understand this letter because they miss the experiential aspects of the faith to which he refers. Consider just a few brief lines from the end of the letter:

[God] has testified on behalf of his Son.
Whoever believes in the Son of God
has this testimony within himself ….
And this is the testimony:
God gave us eternal life,
and this life is in his Son.
I write these things to you so that you may know
that you have eternal life
(1 John 5:11-13).

To a typical modern reader, the argument seems to say that the proof (or testimony) of who Jesus is, is that we will (one day) have eternal life. To many, eternal life is something that happens only in the future, something we cannot know until we die. With that perspective the argument makes little sense because proof is something in the here and now, not after death. In fact, eternal life is something that can be seen, known, and experienced now.

A key in understanding a passage like this one is to consider that the word eternal (aion or aionios in Greek) does not simply refer to the length of life but to its fullness. Aiṓnios does not focus on the future so much as on the quality of life. As such, aiṓn relates to the life of a believer right now, as a growing experience of God’s life. It is a present possession not just a hope for the future.

Thus, John is saying that the testimony of the Father, the proof that Jesus is Savior and Lord, is the fact that you are currently experiencing, in increasing quantity, the fullness of life that He died to give you and rose to show you. That Jesus is Lord is proven by the fact that your life is getting fuller and richer, that you are seeing sins be put to death and graces coming alive, that you are less fearful and more courageous, less angry and more forgiving, less resentful and more grateful; that you are delighting in the truth, walking more closely with God, and seeing your life change for the better.

Even as a person ages physically, his or her spiritual life can become more full, confident, joyful, vibrant, and energetic. This is eternal life: to be fully alive with God forever. And while this gift will be complete for us in Heaven, it began at our baptism and, if we are faithful, will continue to grow throughout our life’s journey and become ever richer.

Some Qualities of True Love in an Age of Distortion

We live in times in which love is presented in a distorted, even manipulative way. Some use a vague and all-encompassing notion of love to justify almost any behavior. They declare that if we do not approve of what they do, not only are we unloving, we are haters. In this way love is equated with kindness, affirmation, and approval.

This, of course, is an inaccurate, diminished understanding of love. Love wills the good, the best, for another. Love speaks the truth even if it is challenging or painful.

If my doctor lied to me about my health, hiding serious problems from me merely so that I would not be upset, he would be guilty of malpractice. Similarly, lying to someone by making light of sin is not love, it is “malpractice” for us who would be the Lord’s prophets and agents of saving love.

For those who have watered down love to mere kindness, “malpractice” is not only preferred it is often required. “Safe zones” and an ever-expanding definition of discrimination can demand a kind of lying. If you don’t go along you may be called a hater or even find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

But distorted love isn’t love at all. Those who insist on this distorted definition of love show their true colors when someone dares defy the demand for affirmation: suddenly vicious accusations fly and social isolation is imposed.

True love is a many-splendored thing. It is kind and encouraging to be sure, but it is also willing to correct—even rebuke and punish—for the sake of the beloved. There are certain paradoxes of love that must be rediscovered. Let’s examine some of these using Scripture as our guide.

Love perfects the law; it does not oppose it. Many today set love and the law in opposition to each other. They often assert that love, God’s love in particular, means that whatever I want to do is approved of by God. The premise is that love never sets limits; it merely approves of what the beloved wants to do. Scripture says,

If you love me, you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15). Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me (Jn 14:21). If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love (Jn 15:10). For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. (1 Jn 5:3). And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments (2 John 1:6).

Love and God’s law go hand in hand. Love does not give blanket permission to do as one pleases.

Love makes demands. Love does not mean simply accepting the other as he is, not asking him to change or repent if necessary.

Jesus, who loves us, made many demands. Consider His encounter with the rich young man: And Jesus, having looked upon him, loved him and said to him, “One thing to you is lacking: Go, sell as much as you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Mk 10:21).

St. Paul insisted on his apostolic authority and his capacity to preach the hard things of the cross, saying, As the truth of Christ is in me, this bold proclamation of mine will not be silenced …. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! (2 Cor 11:10-11)

Love requires making choices. A common refrain of many is this: “Jesus understands.” Or “God is love.” Weaknesses, sinful acts, and duplicity are brushed aside by a vague notion that God, who is love, doesn’t care about such things.

But the real Jesus of Scripture does care. Jesus says, If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26). Jesus says to Peter: Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? (i.e., the fish, and by extension, his career) (see Jn 21:15).

The love of God is exclusive and is superior to every other love. The Book of James makes this clear: You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4). Jesus says plainly, No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).

Love demands that we make a clear choice; it will not tolerate a half-committed heart or indulgence in sin. There are demands of discipleship. Love does not permit adulterous liaisons with the world, the flesh, or the devil.

Love punishes. The modern notion is that love is permissive, merciful, and kind at all times.

But Scripture says of God’s love, The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined … then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all (Heb 12:6-8). And Jesus says, Those I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore, be earnest and repent (Rev 3:19).

Love warns. Many set love-based arguments in opposition to fear-based arguments. It is true that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18), but most of us don’t have perfect love. That is why Jesus often used fear-based arguments, warning us of what awaits us if we do not repent.

No one loves us more than Jesus, yet no one warned us more of Hell and the coming judgment than He did. Most of the teaching on Hell and the Day of Judgment come right from His mouth. Twenty-one of the thirty-eight parables are about judgment and possible exclusion from Heaven. There are the sheep and the goats, those on the right and those on the left; the wise virgins and the foolish ones; those that enter the wedding feast and those who reject the invitation; those who hear, Come, blessed of my Father and those who hear, Depart from me you accursed, I know you not.

Jesus loved the people of Jerusalem, yet He warned of a coming destruction if they did not repent. Indeed, he wept over Jerusalem when he saw it for the last time: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you” (Lk 19:41-44).

Jesus did not cease warning those whom he loved. Love warns that there are consequences to sin and infidelity.

Love is not always kind; sometimes it challenges and rebukes. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so are rebuke and punishment.

True love cannot bear that another carries sin or error. Love will at times exhibit anger and strong words to dissuade the beloved from sin and harm. Scripture says,

You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall instead rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him (Lev 19:17). If your brother sins against you, go and confront him privately. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over (Matt 18:15). Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him (Lk 17:3). Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it (Ps 141:5).

The list could go on and on. Love is truly a many-splendored thing. It does exhibit kindness, tenderness, affection, and affirmation, but it wants what is truly best for the beloved, not what is apparently best or simply pleasant in the moment. True love wants salvation and perfection for the beloved, not merely their comfort and self-esteem. True love can say no. True love can insist upon even difficult and challenging things. True love has greater blessings in mind than passing pleasures and flattery.

Love is one of the most distorted, overused words in our culture. How about some true love?


The Wonder of Life

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington delivers the keynote address before a panel discussion titled “Lives Worthy of Respect” held at Georgetown University in Washington on Oct. 2. The event was held to kick off the month of October as Respect Life Month.

Read Cardinal Wuerl’s prepared remarks for the Lives Worthy of Respect Panel Discussion at Georgetown University on October 2, 2017.

Some years ago, I visited a mother who had given birth to sextuplets – six tiny bundles of life. As I gave a blessing to them, with pride in her voice and joy in her eyes, she described each child’s own identifiable personality even though they were so young and tiny that I could practically hold each of them in the palm of my hand.

How precious were each of those infants, as all babies are, not simply upon their birth, but beginning with their conception in the womb, made in the image of God and thus demanding of respect and protection from that very first moment.

But this is not always the message of our society. It certainly is not what is being heard by at least two generations of our fellow citizens.

Many years ago, I attended a meeting of representatives of civil government, police, education, philanthropy, social services, law enforcement, judiciary and faith communities. The topic was how to reduce youth crime and the violence associated with it.

At one point, a political leader addressed a question to one of the young people described as “at risk” who were already in detention or correction facilities. He asked a fourteen year old young man why at his young age he felt so comfortable with being violent to other people? I shall always remember the young man’s reply, “How come you get to draw the line?”

When the politician interjected, “What do you mean?” the young man continued, “How come you get to draw the line? You say it is all right for anybody to kill someone until they are born. How come you get to draw the line?” Another version of that question is: “Who put you in charge of who lives and dies?”

Today many accept the premise – advanced in the media, public schools and even civil law – that the value of human life is relative, and that people have the power to choose which lives are worth living and which are not.

What is the fruit of this culture’s “choice” mentality? Human life is increasingly held cheap as violence stalks our communities, suicide is on the increase nationwide, and in some states, instead of saving lives, there are physicians who help to end lives. The elderly and disabled, in addition to the unborn, are especially vulnerable in this climate.

Once you accept the thesis that it is all right to kill human life before it is born, or as it nears its end, or for some other reason, at almost any time you accept two premises: that we, human beings, have the ultimate say over all life and who gets to live, and that such a decision is ultimately arbitrary.

What we are witnessing today is a concerted effort to convince people that the sick and dying constitute a burden to their families and society, and therefore to regard those lives as not worth living. Such a view is of course antagonistic to the God-given dignity of all human life from conception to natural death.

At this point we need to examine the starting point of two diverse views of life that lead to these startlingly diverse conclusions about taking human life.

One view that for the most part was long recognized as the context for any life/death decisions saw all life as a gift from God. In this understanding, we spoke of “procreation.” Life was not something we could maintain indefinitely. At some point, all science, all medicine fails and life comes, in the natural course of events, to its natural end. So, too, with its beginning. Human life came to be through the marital act. It is not produced on a conveyor belt or in a technician’s lab. In this worldview, a child was not killed or “exposed to the elements” at birth if he or she demonstrated some defect.

What was accepted – grounded in God’s Revelation found in the Book of Genesis – was that God’s glory is manifest in all creation. Thus, children and adults with a wide range of capabilities and special needs are welcomed as God’s creation. Our annual White Mass at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral recognizes, as its foundational “given,” the Revelation that God, not we, determine the worth of each human life. Life. Life, as all creation, in its rich diversity is God’s gift.

Another view is far more directed by arbitrary decisions. The determination about the worth, value and quality of human life is made according to criteria established as politically correct and acceptable to a majority of voters. For example, in ancient Sparta, the martial Greek city-state, a male child deemed unfit for growth and training for military service was simply disposed of. Today an unborn child can be killed – aborted – because it is the “wrong” sex, or might possibly be less than what someone else determines as perfect.

The choice offered by assisted suicide, for example, is presented as kindness to avoid suffering and possible pain which many times is a euphemism for inconvenience for caregivers. It is a false compassion lacking true care and concern for the dying, as Pope Francis has noted. Instead of regarding suffering people as disposable and eliminating them, as one view asserts, we should accompany them with love and support them with access to better palliative care.

An element in our understanding of the value of human life is the cross. Catholic health care, in all its many manifestations, is an effort to extend the healing ministry of Christ. What we bring, however, is not merely the science of medicine and medical technology today, however good these realities are. We also bring an understanding of the need as members of the community of faith, to be with one another, support one another, particularly in the face of prolonged or even terminal illnesses.

These human realities we are invited to see as reflections of the cross. Jesus asks each of us to take up our cross and follow Him. It is our faith conviction that redemption came through the One on the cross. For this reason, we are asked to see in the cross we bear the signs of salvation and redemption. Clearly, the perspective is a horizon far beyond the limits of this natural life. It is one that opens up on to the glory of eternity.

When asked what does the Church bring to the world of technology, political correctness and satisfied self-assurance, our response must be that we bring what we have always brought. We bring an invitation to faith, a respect for God’s creation and His created plan. We offer an introduction to the Gospel and its values. Most importantly, we present the opportunity for an encounter with Christ and his compassion and mercy.

A beautiful example of this truly merciful response to illness and suffering was offered by Saint Marianne Cope, whose feast day we celebrate today. Following Saint Father Damien of Molokai, she embraced and provided loving care and hope to the wretched patients who had previously been given only despair by society when they were banished to the Hawaiian leper colony on Molokai.

 When we speak of respect for human life, it is easy for us to get caught up in abstractions, and our response can seem somewhat theoretical. But our obligations are quite concrete. Lives depend on us.

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a maternity hospital in Peru that was supported and sustained by the Church in this country. It operated in an impoverished area with a large, struggling population of poor and needy people.

One of my greatest joys is when young parents give me their newborn baby to hold, so I was delighted when the sisters running the maternity ward invited me to hold one of the children under their care. As I gingerly picked up a one-day-old infant, the baby latched onto my finger with all his strength and held tight.

That infant is a parable to me – a representative of countless unborn children reaching out to hold onto you and me, reaching out with all their strength. In their struggle to find a place, a home, a life in this world, the most vulnerable among us depend on us to work for a culture of life.

It is said that silence and ignorance are allies of evil and this is certainly true with respect to abortion. So ingrained and commonplace is the mentality and practice in our society that many have become inured and numb to the violence. Moreover, so staggering and beyond comprehension are the nearly 60 million innocent unborn children taken in abortion since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that they risk becoming just numbers. However, these are not mere statistics on the page. We are talking about real human lives and the loss of each one is an alarming tragedy.

What is even more alarming is the call of some pro-abortion organizations “to celebrate abortion.” Just as we would celebrate a new born child – what we used to refer to as “a blessed event.”

This is why we cannot be silent. This is why we dare not turn our attention away. We pray and march so that these innocents will have someone who will speak for them. We labor in order that unborn children will not be ignored, forgotten, invisible to people’s consciences, to remind the nation that behind the word “abortion” and euphemisms like “choice” and “reproductive health” are real human beings.

We need to ask those who say they are in favor of “choice” to complete the sentence.  Choice of what? Cigarettes in public restaurants, funding for the school for your kids? The list can go on and on!

Our witness must be the voice that awakens our society to the emptiness of telling women that abortion is the answer to their problems. We must work for the right to life and bring hope and healing to those women and men who are or have been in crisis situations. May God give us all the determination to build a culture of life, defending the life and dignity of every human being from conception to natural death.

During Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, one of the most striking images was how the Holy Father’s love radiated whether he was greeting a head of state or a homeless person. His gestures, his words, his actions in every encounter proclaimed the truth that every life is worth living. As a gift from God, every human life from conception to death is sacred. It is this fundamental truth the Pope so convincingly communicates.

October is Respect Life month. During this time, in a special way, people are invited to reflect on the ways they can give witness to the dignity of every human life. “In many places, quality of life is related primarily to economic means, to ‘well-being,’ to the beauty and enjoyment of the physical, forgetting other more profound dimensions of existence – interpersonal, spiritual and religious,” observes Pope Francis. “In fact, in the light of faith and right reason, human life is always sacred and always ‘of quality.’ There is no human life that is more sacred than another – every human life is sacred.” (Address of November 15, 2014).

The Church has always proclaimed the dignity of each human person. In our day when we hear so much about renewing the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council, we must also remind ourselves of what it said as it stressed how human life must be honored and upheld, fostered and respect: “whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and willful self-destruction . . . all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed” (Gaudium et Spes, 27).

Thus, there is great need now as much as ever for faithful disciples of the Lord and members of his Church to give ready witness to the dignity of human life at every stage, including our efforts to bring hope and healing to those who are or have been in crisis situations, leading to pain and despair.

For example, for more than 25 years the archdiocese’s Project Rachel Ministry has helped women and men heal spiritually and psychologically from the pain of abortion. Please take a minute to go here to learn more about this blessed work.

The archdiocese has also created a variety of #TransformFear resources that address the questions related to the end of human life due to illness, age or injury. With Pope Francis warning us of the “throwaway culture,” we must remember that human life is a gift from God – there is no such thing as a life not worth living. Our response as family members, as caregivers, and as a Church to those facing the end of life – with all their feelings of isolation, fear, and burdensomeness – is genuine compassion and reciprocal love, which seeks to provide comfort and hope in the face of fear and suffering.

One manifestation of support for life is found in what has become for decades an every year event, which welcomes new generations of participants.

Preceded by the morning Youth Rally and Mass for Life hosted by the Archdiocese of Washington, in the March for Life hundreds of thousands of voices are raised to announce the truth that every human life is sacred. What is so encouraging to me is the huge number of high school and college students who participate. While many of these young people are local, there are also many who have endured long bus rides from destinations all over the East Coast and Midwest, and wherever they are from, they are willing to stand outdoors for many hours in generally less than welcoming weather conditions.

Even more impressive, for many of them, their participation in pro-life advocacy does not begin and end with the Rally and March – it is a year-round commitment to human life, something that is part of the fabric of their lives.

Dear friends, what we bring to our culture, our society, our community today is not just the very significant call to respect all life. What we also offer people is hope – the Good News that God exists and our existence is not random or accidental. We are not at the mercy of arbitrary forces; chaos does not rule the universe. Rather, we exist because God brought us into being and breathed life into us (Genesis 2:7Jeremiah 1:5).

I want to conclude with one last story. Some years ago, when I was on pilgrimage to Lourdes, I watched as the Eucharistic procession wove its way through the huge crowds. At one point, a young woman in a wheelchair struggled to stand, bracing herself by holding on to the arms of the wheelchair. She strained to remain standing until the Blessed Sacrament had passed in front of her. Then, exhausted from the effort, she slumped back into her chair. Some things are worth standing for, even if it takes effort.

My brothers and sisters, let us always be prepared to stand for the gift of life. Let us be ready to stand for those who cannot yet or can no longer stand for their own life. Let us stand in the strength and gift of our own life in order that we can always be a witness to our message: That all life is sacred because it is a gift from God.


God Can Make a Way Out of No Way: A Meditation on the Role of Adversity

St. Paul in Prison, Rembrandt

Adversity comes to every one of us. The word’s Latin roots speak to the way in which things can turn against us; the winds, instead of moving us along, turn toward and against us and our progress seems stalled or even reversed.

But has it? Or does adversity have a hidden, benign, or even good purpose?

Consider the following teach from St. Paul, which arose from his own adversity. He is in prison, yet writes this:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. … Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death (Phil 1:12-14, 19-20).

One can hardly imagine a set of circumstances more adverse for a missionary on the move than to be confined to a prison cell, unable to preach freely. Nevertheless, with the Holy Spirit to teach him, St. Paul can say that what seems adverse has actually served to advance the Gospel. His willingness to suffer for the truth of the faith both gives him credibility and bestows boldness upon others.

By God’s grace, the most adverse and paradoxical of situations can bear fruit. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. Find a place where the Church is being persecuted and you will find a place where she is growing. At the cross, Satan thought he could kill Christ and be done with Him, but instead, he released Christ’s full power. This is a lesson that seems to continually escape Satan and the world: God can make a way out of no way! When Satan does his worst, God releases the best.

What in our life has at the time seemed adverse but has actually turned out to be a blessing? It is important to reflect on this often because adversity takes an initial emotional toll. Discouragement, anger, fear, or depression can result if we do not quickly recall the paradox of the cross and God’s ability to write straight with the crooked lines of this word and to advance through even the strongest of headwinds. Adversity can help to clarify and strengthen. Persecution can purify us. Those who scoff at and challenge our beliefs can help us to clarify the truth even more. The lamp of truth is most precious and shines most gloriously in the deepest darkness.

While irksome, what seems adverse can still advance the cause of the Gospel. We need not desire adversity, but when it comes we should trust that God has permitted it, for a season and for a reason. If the greatest paradox of all, the cross, could release glory and open a way out of no way, so can our sufferings and adversities if we unite them to that cross.

God can make a way out of no way.

A Lament on the Shrinking of Summer

It’s the end of August; not so long ago this was still a lazy time to enjoy the last few days of summer. It used to be that Labor Day marked the unofficial end of summer — not so any more.

The erosion of summer is driven mainly by the start of school. I have watched with sadness as the school year seems to begin earlier and earlier and earlier. In the Washington, D.C. area, some schools have been open for more than a week already. College classes start even earlier, early August in some cases; and new students who need an “orientation” generally arrive on campus even before the general student population.

What’s the big rush? Why are some people in such a big hurry to get back to the grind? Families have so little time to spend time together as it is! I hope that the concerns I express today will be seen as having spiritual components and not just as the complaints of an old curmudgeon.

The purpose of rest, both the Sabbath rest and vacation, is to enjoy the fruit of our labors. We should work to live; many today live to work. What is the point of having a livelihood if we never get the time to enjoy life? God commanded the Sabbath for many reasons, but among them was justice. He set forth a particular day of the week (Saturday) as well as other times (feasts) when work was forbidden so that all could rest. Without the collective agreement and commandment (under pain of sin), the rich get time off but the poor must still work to facilitate the leisure of the rich. God set forth a system that sought to prevent that injustice. All, including slaves and even beasts of burden, were to refrain from all but the most necessary work.

In our culture, Sunday has been the day of rest. Most who have better paying jobs get that day off. Before 1970, even the poor typically had Sundays off because most retail establishments were closed. Today, for our convenience, lower-paid store workers and restaurant staff must work.

It is the same with holidays and holy days. It used to be that days like Christmas, Good Friday, and Thanksgiving were days off for just about everyone. Non-essential operations were generally closed.

Today almost nothing — no day, no time — is sacred. Market demand and the need to get ahead of the competition drive this. Work, work, work; compete and strive to win. It is usually the poorest among us, however, who pay the greatest price for this.

Families also suffer; time together has steadily eroded over the years. The tradition of eating evening and weekend meals is all but gone. Sunday and holiday gatherings seem to be shorter and more perfunctory—if they occur at all. Summer itself is now on the chopping block. Churches are affected because the window in which we have to conduct summer festivals and Vacation Bible school is more limited.

I have been given numerous explanations as to why schools are champing at the bit to begin the year.

School officials (in both secular and Catholic schools) tell me that many parents are delighted that their children are back in school earlier, thus freeing them to do other things rather than minding the children. But what does that tell you about the vision of family life today? Shouldn’t families want extended time to vacation together and to engage in other local activities, Church offerings, and so forth? Shouldn’t parents enjoy spending time with their children? Shouldn’t they want to use the extra time in the summer to form them? Do parents have children merely to send them off to school, happy to be rid of them for a few hours? I hope not. I know that we all get a little tired, but I find it alarming that parents would be as eager for school to start as school officials insist is the case.

I am told that teachers require more days for professional development, thus forcing schools to open earlier in the year and/or close later in order to meet the required minimum number of days of student instruction. But professional days and ongoing certification have always been necessary. My mother was a teacher for over twenty years and teachers had professional days and took certification courses (mainly in the summer) back then. Teachers already have two and a half months away from classes. That’s a lot more vacation than most of the rest of us have. Is there a reason that teachers could not have most of June and July off and then return at the beginning of August for these sorts of things? If schools opened after Labor Day that would still give them more than a month for these activities.

Further I would argue that the impact of such a system is not a good one. It sets up a “death by a thousand cuts” throughout the school year as half-days, teacher in-service days, and professional days seem to eat into most weeks of the school year. In some school systems nearly every Friday is a half day for one reason or another. Working parents must juggle schedules all year long, not just in the summer when vacations are already common. Schools even collect a lot extra money running “aftercare” programs on those half-days of classes. Parents are not only deprived of time with their children, but they are pressured financially as well.

The school system is supposed to serve children, parents, and families, but it seems instead that the school systems have started ruling our lives and dictating our schedules. Even in Catholic and other private schools, parents who are already struggling just to afford the tuition must now also pay for additional childcare on those days when school is not in session or closes early.

My final concern is that school schedules carving away more and more of the summer from family time means that the formation of children shifts from the families to the schools. Is that really what we want? I would hope that parents would want to play the most significant role in forming their children. Parents should ask themselves if they want to raise their children or increasingly hand that task over to strangers. Sadly, as we all can see, many schools have become less and less places of teaching basic academic skills and more and more places of indoctrination into values that are often inimical to Catholic and biblical teachings. Although there are exceptions, the infiltration of secular and immoral ideologies into the curriculum has made major inroads in public schools.

I recommend we attack this problem by starting simply. Can we at least have the month of August back? How about an agreement not begin school until the Tuesday after Labor Day? It’s just a little thing, but the steady erosion of rest, family time, Church time, and “downtime” has taken a toll on our society in many ways. Here’s to summer … all of it!

On Imperfection, As Seen in an Animation

credit: saku takakusaki

There are different ways to look at life, and two of these are captured in a couple of seemingly contradictory sayings. The more famous aphorism is this one: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” but you’ll also hear its converse: “The good is the enemy of the best.” The second expression cautions that we sometimes settle for something that is merely good enough when we should be aiming higher; excellence is certainly something for which to strive.

In today’s blog, though, I’d like to concentrate on the original: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In striving for the perfect thing, we can miss the good. We live in a fallen world, less than perfect. Likewise, you and I are incomplete, unfinished, imperfect. Yet this does not mean that we lack anything good at all or that this imperfect world has nothing to offer.

Being more than halfway through my expected lifespan, I have moved from the perfectionist world of the second saying to the contented world of the first, though each has its place. I have come to understand that contentedness is a very great gift and that true perfection only exists in Heaven.

There is another, similar, saying: “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” Many, believing that life should be a peachy, are resentful to discover that even peaches have pits. Such an expectation is a sure-fire recipe for resentment, discouragement, and depression.

I think this is one of the problems with marriage today. Despite the modern tendency to be cynical about pretty much everything, many still have very high ideals expectations of marriage: that it will always be romantic, joyful, and fulfilling, that love will magically solve every problem.

This is not realistic. Marriage is like life; it has its ups and downs. There are things we like and things we wish were different. There is no perfect spouse and there is no perfect marriage. There are many good marriages that are far from perfect. There are many spouses who, though basically decent, do not act perfectly all of the time.

When people enter marriage with unrealistically high expectations, they may be tempted to focus on the negative things, to magnify them because they are not perfect as was expected; resentments begin to build. It’s sad, really. The marriage may not actually be that bad; the less-than-ideal spouse may not really be so awful.

But the perfect becomes the enemy of the good; decent things are trampled underfoot in the elusive search for the perfect, the best, the ideal.

Indeed, there is yet another related saying about marriage: “Many people want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal.”

We do a lot of this: discarding the good as we chase in vain after the perfect. There is always a better parish, a better job, a better boss, a better house, a better car, a better neighborhood, a better deal.

There is something freeing and calming about being able to accept the good, the imperfect, and be content with it. The perfect will come, but probably not before Heaven. In the meantime, the good will suffice. Sometimes we don’t recognize or appreciate the good until we accept that the best, the perfect, will have to wait.

All of this occurred to me as I watched this animated short about a “man” who creates a work of art. At first he loves it, but then, noticing an imperfection, he is driven to try to make it perfect, even as everything else around him is being destroyed in the process. Just before it is too late, he realizes his folly. Clinging desperately to his creation, he learns to love it as it is. To some extent this has been my journey; I pray that it is yours, too.