Tuesday, March 25, 2014

To the Woman Who Knows Her Husband Will Never Cheat on Her

Don't ever imagine that infidelity can't happen to you.

The Internet is abuzz with a duel of sorts between Patheos blogger Simcha Fisher and young, engaged-to-be-married Emma Smith, who wrote on Catholic Exchange that she knows for a fact that she and her husband will never have to face the issue of infidelity.

"God is faithful, but we're not marrying God," proclaimed Fisher. "What do we know about human beings? They sin. They sin, and they sin, and they sin. Sometimes they enter into a valid marriage and then they cheat. Sometimes they understand fully what they are supposed to do, and they just don’t feel like doing it," she explained.

I'm inclined to agree with Fisher. Because the issue in Catholic marriage is not whether anything will go wrong, but how will you handle it when it does. In pre-Cana marriage prep classes, many engaged couples fill out the FOCCUS questionnaire, which asks if you "could not under any condition remain married" to your spouse "if he/she were ever unfaithful." If you agree with that statement, then there's a big problem. You can't annul a Catholic marriage for infidelity. Marriage is for life, remember? So no matter how much it hurts, a betrayed spouse has to search deep inside themselves and find a way to forgive and trust and rebuild a relationship that seems irrevocably shattered.

Infidelity can be overcome. My husband has seen it in his psychiatric practice. When both spouses want badly enough to save a marriage even from repeated sexual infidelity, it can happen. There needs to be absolute honesty, a commitment to avoid temptation, and a system of accountability. Therapy helps, spiritual direction helps, and Sexaholics Anonymous can help. It's not easy, but a marriage can make it through that firestorm.

My husband's courtship of me gave me complete confidence that he would be faithful to me. We were young, wildly attracted to each other, and yet managed to stay chaste until the wedding. I figured I would never have to worry about his self-control. But as we get older and our bodies bulge and sag in funny places, I wonder what he sees in me sometimes. And I thank God that my husband has never strayed.

"There but for the grace of God go I" expresses perfectly the awareness that we and the ones we love, when pushed to our limits, are capable of the direst deeds. Temptation strikes the young and the old, the weak and the strong, and it never rests. As one story goes, a priest leaned over a man on his deathbed to give him last rites. The man reached up to touch the cross hanging over the priests' vestments, greedily whispered "gold," and then died.

That's why we're invited to spiritual combat. Growth in holiness doesn't proceed along a smooth incline from base to summit until we step easily through the doors of heaven. Holy marriages aren't formed that way either. They're formed by perseverance in good times and bad, through periods of infatuation and anger, and sometimes through forgiveness in the face of infidelity. Infidelity is horrible, but it's not unforgivable, and doesn't have to be the end.

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Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

Friday, March 21, 2014

Betraying with a Kiss

If you've ever been betrayed by a best friend or by someone you loved deeply, remember that Jesus was, too. Judas was a part of Jesus' inner circle. Jesus called him, chose him, spent every day in his company as they traveled together preaching the good news. At the Last Supper when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he ordained his apostles as priests. Assuming Judas was there at the moment of that first Eucharist, then he was also ordained a priest mere hours before he betrayed Our Lord unto death.

My heart breaks for Our Lord and the suffering he experienced by this most intimate betrayal. We could theorize about what drove Judas to betray Christ. It could have been greed and the lure of silver. It could have been disappointment that Jesus rejected the role of an earthly or political Messiah. It could have been political ambition and a desire to ally himself with the powers-that-be. But all those reasons seem so petty.

Jesus understood the blackness of the human heart. He told the story of his betrayal in parables before he died. In the parable of the owner of the vineyard, Jesus tells a tale of how the tenants of the vineyard killed all the stewards rather than give the owner his due. Finally, the owner sent his son to them, thinking "They will respect my son." But the tenants killed the son to steal his inheritance and brought condemnation upon themselves. Whatever goal Judas wanted to obtain by betraying Jesus, Judas did not obtain it. Whatever inheritance the tenants wanted to keep did not remain theirs. Betrayal never accomplishes its goal....

Read more here on CatholicLane, where this post appears as part of the Lenten Reflection series.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Woof!: British Divorcee Marries her Loyal Dog

Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, woman marries dog as 200 people look on.

47-year-old British divorcee Amanda Rodgers married her female Jack Russell terrier, Sheba, in a ceremony in Croatia, and the couple are now making rounds on the British talk show circuit. Two hundred people attended the overseas ceremony, reported the New York Daily News. It is unclear whether the well-wishers were merely curiosity-seekers or whether they truly believed that Ms. Rodgers (and the dog) had found their respective soulmates.

In proposing marriage to Sheba, Ms. Rodgers followed the traditional custom of going down on one knee. "I could tell by her tail wagging that she said 'yes,'" explained Ms. Rodgers. (For more on how to ascertain the consent of non-humans to marriage proposals, see my earlier article on the subject here.)

Ms. Rodgers married a man 20 years ago, but the marriage only lasted a few months. Although Sheba and Ms. Rodgers shared a kiss on their wedding day, men still have a limited role to play in Ms. Rodgers' life as long as Sheba gives her consent. "Men don't come anywhere near the bedroom unless she [Sheba] agrees... One time I made a man sleep in the dog bed for a whole week," remarked Ms. Rodgers. Some might say that takes the saying "sleeping in the doghouse" a bit far. But by and large, Ms. Rodgers is "fed up of men."

What can we say to all this? As popular Catholic theologian Chris West commented several years ago under similar circumstances when a woman married a dolphin:
Our pornified world has turned a large number of men into beasts — wolves with one-track minds, and women are the prey. If I was a woman and I had a choice between a wolf and a dolphin, I’d choose the dolphin, too.
But according to the Bible, continued West, out of all the animals in the Garden of Eden, there was no helper fit for man. And so woman was created. "It’s impossible to speak, even analogously, of the inner life of animals. ...It’s because of our inner life that we have the capacity to marry," postulated West.

Few comments on the current situation of woman-marries-dog rise to the intellectual level of West's analysis. Most people have reacted with horror or shock, but some thought we should just let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak. One person commenting on the March 11 article in the Mirror stated:
"As long as she is happy and the dog is looked after who gives a tiny rats [sic] behind!! With all the dog attacks and animal cruelty in the news it's good to know there are people out there who care and look after their pets even if it is in a wacky way."
This commenter's attitude was not shared by the Humane Society of Fairfax County, North Carolina, which last year tipped off the police after discovering that a man had filmed his wife having sex with a pet German Shepherd and posted the video on the Internet. The couple was charged with bestiality and disseminating obscene materials, and the police seized the pets, taking them to an animal shelter.

Some saw the wedding ceremony between Ms. Rodgers and Sheba as a natural extension of allowing same-sex marriage. From comments on the New York Daily News website:
"Well, guess those anti-gay marriage folks were right after all."
"Hey, they love each other, who are we to say that they shouldn't be married ... where have I heard that argument before? ....hmmmm" 
But perhaps the most poignant reaction was from YouTube video artist Ravishing Rick Rude, whose videos are dedicated to the principle of MGTOW, or Men Going Their Own Way. According to the Urban Dictionary of slang, the MGTOW movement asserts that: "as a man I will not surrender my will to the social expectations of women and society, because both have become hostile against masculinity." For Rick, Ms. Rodgers' marriage to Sheba is "a Victory that proves marriage is completely pathetic and not worth men's time." If this is what the future holds in store, "you're going to see a lot of marriages not happening," opined Rick. "This is its own hell."

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Forgive One Another

If you can't make it to Mass today, take a few minutes to reflect on the daily readings, which remind us of our urgent need to forgive one another as God has forgiven us. Catholic Lane has a whole series of posts offering short meditations on the readings. Here is Can We Cana's contribution, up on Catholic Lane today.

The readings for today stress God’s powerful gift of forgiveness and his demand that we share this forgiveness with others. Even the wicked can be saved, the reading from Ezekiel reminds us, because “if the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, … he shall surely live, he shall not die.” And no matter how we might wish otherwise, we all have a touch of wickedness in us, an inclination to choose the wrong over the right, to put ourselves first, and to harbor small resentments and petty grievances. As the Psalm for the day laments, “If you, O LORD, mark iniquities, LORD, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered.”

The Gospel of the day teaches us how to make it right this Lent: “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother.” Sometimes we show our worst to the people closest to us, like our brothers and sisters, our spouses and our children. That means we need to say sorry and ask forgiveness over and over again. “Whoever said that ‘love means never having to say I’m sorry’ was an idiot,” according to Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Phil Mango.

Read the rest on Catholic Lane.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to Turn a Webinar into an Online Retreat

Webinars are an increasingly popular tool for spreading the word about a company or product. But are they the right tool for spreading the Word of God? They certainly can be. The key is to turn a webinar into an online retreat by creating a spiritual atmosphere that reminds people that where two or three are gathered together in Christ's name, he is there in the midst of them.

What's a Webinar?

A webinar, for those who don't already know, is a seminar or workshop offered via the computer. People can attend live, in real-time, or they can watch the recorded session later at their convenience. Presenters need web-conferencing software and a webcam, but participants don't need any specialist equipment -- only a computer and a high-speed Internet connection.

In the simplest type of webinars, participants watch PowerPoint slides on the computer screen and listen to an audio-only version of the speaker's talk. (Watch an example here.)  But webinar technology also offers exciting features to enhance the interactive experience, like live video of the speaker throughout the presentation, and interactive polls and chatboxes for question and answer sessions. (Watch how I used these interactive features here.)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Webinars, like any teaching tool, have benefits and drawbacks. The main benefits of hosting a webinar rather than a live, in-person event are:

  • people can attend from the comfort of their homes or offices
  • there are no geographical limitations -- people from other time zones or even countries can attend
  • you don't have to reserve or rent a physical space
  • you don't need to worry about how many people a room can hold -- a webinar can easily accommodate anywhere from five to one hundred people
  • no need to provide refreshments!

Drawbacks of webinars include:

  • not everyone is familiar with webinar technology
  • people expect anything offered on the Internet to be free, and may be less likely to pay an admission fee or goodwill donation
  • people feel more free not to attend at the last minute, since they can watch the recorded session later
  • some people prefer the camaraderie of an in-person event
  • in-person presentations in a chapel or a church take place in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, so they have a much more spiritual atmosphere

How to Create a Spiritual Atmosphere

In using a webinar for religious education, we need to keep the focus on Jesus. Otherwise, it can be a distant, clinical, and downright boring experience. So, without further ado, my top three tips for turning a webinar into an online retreat.

  1. Start and end with a prayer.
Remind people to invite Jesus into their hearts and stay close to him and his inspirations during this time. Even when we are physically apart from Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, we can express our longing for him in a prayer of spiritual communion like the one I used to start my online marriage enrichment retreat:

2.  Illustrate with religious artwork 
Great artists throughout the centuries have turned to the Bible for inspiration. Practically all of Scripture is depicted in painting and sculpture with timeless elegance and nearly universal appeal. Best of all, you can use religious artwork that is more than 100 years old with very little fear of infringing someone's copyright. For one of the illustrations in my online marriage enrichment retreat, I selected this dramatic portrayal of the Return of the Prodigal Son, available from Wikimedia Commons. A notice from Wikimedia explained: "This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. ... Its copyright has expired."

3.   Incorporate time for meditation with sacred music
An in-person retreat usually offers time for meditation and personal prayer to consider deeply the topic of the retreat and to ask what action God might be calling us to take. An online retreat can offer the same. After each PowerPoint presentation in my online retreat, participants were invited to take ten or fifteen minutes to think and pray about the questions for discussion and type their answers into chatboxes online. During the meditation period, we piped in Gregorian chant from youtube. You can find many great clips of sacred music on Youtube. Some clips last for an hour or more, so you don't have to worry about splicing more than one clip together.

Go Forth and Evangelize!

So, go ahead and consider incorporating webinars into your ministry, if you haven't already. This amazing technology is a great tool to advance the New Evangelization and spread the Gospel to the four corners of the earth.

Photo Credit for man praying at computer: Anirudh Koul via Compfight cc. This article also appeared at AmazingCatechists.com and at CatholicLane.com.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

New "Definitive" Biography of St. Elizabeth Seton Just Released

Calling itself "the definitive biography of Elizabeth Seton," American Saint, by New York Times best-selling author Joan Barthel, was just released on March 4, 2014. American Saint is the first full-length biography of St. Elizabeth Seton to be written in nearly fifty years. Published by St. Martin's Press, the book includes a foreword by Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet Maya Angelou and has garnered advance praise from well-known novelist Mary Higgins Clark. Drawing heavily from the saint's own collected writings, American Saint traces Elizabeth's life from her childhood as a wealthy Episcopalian to her death as an impoverished Catholic who founded the first order of American nuns and became the first American-born canonized saint.

The book does not shy away from the darkness of Elizabeth's earlier years. Her mother died when Elizabeth was just three years old, and her father remarried one scant year later. Elizabeth's father and stepmother then separated during Elizabeth's teen years, and Elizabeth's father forbade her from seeking reconciliation with her stepmother. At age 18, as the book recounts, Elizabeth even contemplated suicide, writing an anguished note:

Alas alas alas! Tears of blood! ...
a poor creature made of dust driven by misery,
this the wretched reasoning -- Laudanum--
the praise and thanks of excessive joy
not to have done the horrid deed

American Saint deftly weaves the later details of Elizabeth's marriage, motherhood, and widowhood into a fascinating background of American revolutionary history. The book also describes the immense impact of one woman's conversion to Catholicism on the young Church just starting to develop in the former English colonies. Elizabeth's native state of New York did not repeal its penal laws against Catholics until 1784, when Elizabeth was 10 years old. By the time Elizabeth was 30, she had converted to Catholicism, and by the time she was 35 she had founded the Sisters of Charity and the backbone of the parochial school system, while continuing to raise her five children by herself. American Saint sums up St. Elizabeth Seton as "a woman who had been a Protestant, a Catholic, rich, poor, an aristocrat, an outcast, a wife, a mother (a working mother), a widow, a teacher, a social worker, a nurse, and the founder of the first order of active women religious in this country."

The book treats St. Elizabeth more like an historical character than a member of the canon of saints. It rarely delves into Elizabeth's spirituality, although it praises her "unqualified trust in God" and her "inclusive spirituality [which] meant coherent involvement in the world." For the most part, the book takes an even-handed approach to St. Elizabeth's faith and to Catholicism in general. Unfortunately, that even-handed approach is marred by a largely extraneous introduction likening St. Elizabeth Seton to the liberal Catholic pressure group Nuns on the Bus and to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which the Vatican has accused of promoting dissenting views on women's ordination, contraception, and homosexuality. Comments about "the heavy hand of clerical control" and complaints about women's relative position of social inferiority also surface occasionally throughout the book.

In a recent blogpost entitled In Praise of the F Word (F for feminism), the book's author Joan Barthel proclaimed "I was measured for the habit. That's how close I came to becoming a nun." She became a feminist and journalist for Ms. magazine instead. For Barthel, St. Elizabeth Seton seems to represent a prototypical feminist heroine. Thus, Barthel's treatment of her subject differs greatly from a more traditional Catholic perspective. However, her biography is by far the most recent, thorough, and up-to-date account of St. Elizabeth Seton's life.

The previous "definitive" biography, The Soul of Elizabeth Seton, by Fr. Joseph I. Dirvin, was first published in 1962. It was reissued after her canonization in 1975 and is now available through Ignatius Press. Excellent biographies for children exist as part of the Encounter the Saints series (published by Pauline Books) and the Vision Books series (published by Ignatius Press). Other accounts of St. Elizabeth appear as chapters in books chronicling the lives of many saints. But unless and until a Catholic publishing house issues their own 21st century biography of St. Elizabeth Seton, Barthel's book will provide the new standard in scholarship on the life of this great saint.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press for providing a free advance reading copy.