From the bookshelf: Laudato Si’

Having recently begun a journey of exploring already-trod paths contained within the multitudinous leaves of paper and ink resting on my bookshelf, I have so far read through several short books but this will be only my second report. I just finished rereading Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’ and don’t know how exactly to begin. Much like the ecology he describes, this encyclical is encompassing and interwoven such that one cannot isolate individual aspects without doing violence to the whole. Nevertheless, with all respect to His Holiness I will limit my focus, hopefully not inflicting too much violence on the text along the way.

The first thing I’ll say about this encyclical is that it’s challenging. Not in the way of readability; no, its style and content are quite accessible whether you’re erudite or simple or something in between. Laudato Si’ confronts us with the situation of global ecological degradation approaching a tipping point, largely caused or exacerbated by human activity impelled by ignorance and greed. It’s a call to conversion, plain and simple. Some of the pope’s diagnoses of our social and environmental conditions are bleak, albeit not entirely hopeless. As for accepting our portion of guilt in the systemic sins the pope astutely discusses, well, there’s some camels trying to squeeze their well-fed arses through a few non recyclable needles (Matt. 19:24).

What interested me the most is the pope’s discussion of what he calls “the technocratic paradigm.” It’s an epistemological paradigm wherein logical, rational man assumes a confrontational relationship with the rest of creation, using science and technology to overcome and mold everything according to his desires. This worldview, “which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society”, underlies many of the problems we currently face. Because we’re enslaved to this way of thinking, we foolishly go on believing our salvation lies around the corner with greater scientific discovery and technological advancement.

Technology itself, while neither good or bad per se, is also not morally neutral. Technological products “create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” Under the technocratic paradigm there are two unavoidable realities: First, technological development as an impersonal force has its own inertial movement toward the absorption and domination of everything else. Second, technological development is inevitably coupled with lust for wealth and power.

Put simply, mankind develops technology which in turn creates course deviations in society’s developmental path, bringing forth possibilities and conditions which influence the development of future technology and so on. Inseparable from the development and deployment of new technology is the reality that there will always be ambitious, shrewd people clawing their way to the top and profiting from society’s demand for better technology. The inevitable laws of supply and demand enable the vicious and ambitious among us to exert their dominance by influencing the moods and trajectory of society through the manipulation of products, market forces, and flow of information.

Art by Steve Cutts, used without permission.

Given that technological development as an impersonal force always alters the flow of history in unpredictable ways, and is coupled with the inexorable element of human ambition and greed, it should be amazing that we could so delude ourselves into expecting humanity’s (and the planet’s) salvation to come through a proper application of science and economics. Yet, whether we’re conscious of it or not, such notions are deeply embedded in our thinking.

Compulsive consumerism and the illusion that we’re “free” so long as we’re able to consume as we wish, are results of the technological paradigm. But this is merely socially sanctioned enslavement to our passions, guided by advertisers who create and fulfill supposed “needs” and “desires” which drive the market for the myriad gadgets and doodads with which we distract ourselves. A way of life whereby consumption is assumed as the “common good” breeds selfishness and engenders a widespread sense of anxiety. Selfishness and greed potentiate one another, the eventual result being violence and societal instability. In such an environment lacking “a genuine and profound humanism to serve as the basis of a noble and generous society”, no political institution or cultural movement can hold things together and protect us from mutual destruction.

Trying to resist the technological paradigm is futile without first calling into question the beliefs and practices assumed to be foundational to our society. For example, peoples’ attempts at encouraging ecological responsibility at the grassroots level were merely organized and absorbed into the capitalistic market as a “going green” advertising campaign, because there wasn’t a radical rethinking of how our economy should operate. Marketers successfully used environmentalism as a ploy to placate customers while making token (read: ineffective) changes in their companies’ practices. Another example of tragic absurdity is Nike’s campaign to associate its brand with human equality, even as it continues to use sweat shops in its supply chains.

Of course, this all goes much deeper than simple advertising. Pope Francis insists the technocratic paradigm, which distorts nearly every aspect of our lives, must be resisted not just with a radical rethinking of society’s structures and worldviews, but with a subversive spirituality. But that is for the next post. I will conclude with an excerpt from the encyclical.

Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true, and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts.

Pope Francis. “Laudato Si’.” The Holy See, 24 May 2015. paragraph 205.

What Is a Smartphone?: A Thomistic Analysis

You understand almost nothing about your smartphone. I can prove it by asking a simple question: what is a smartphone? I suspect you will find difficulty articulating a definition which avoids either tautology or obvious error. But another simple question will illuminate the same point: can you name a single feature, which, when added to…

What Is a Smartphone?: A Thomistic Analysis

From the bookshelf: Studying the Psalms

I’m currently on a self-imposed moratorium from buying new books, even if most of my ‘new books’ are bought on the cheap from used bookstores. Aside from food, buying books is probably my most obvious materialistic vice. What can I say? I like to eat and I like to read. Anyway, I’m using this as an opportunity to revisit previously read books or tackle unread books I’ve ignored or forgotten about. I thought it’d be a fun exercise to write an occasional post about some books I’m rereading, so this is the first of what might become a series.

My focus this week has been Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann. It’s a small book with much to say; I had to read and reread it so as to make sure I was understanding the gist of what the author is saying. I’m considering rereading it yet again. The artwork on the cover also looks pretty cool, like something you’d see on a deathcore album cover.

Spirituality of the Psalms is a theological analysis wherein the author proposes a tripartite organizational scheme we can use to deepen our understanding of the Psalms within the context of an active life of faith, both communally and individualistically. Although the book remains strictly within the realm of technical theological discussion, this does not compromise its accessibility or diminish its value as a devotional adjunct. According to Brueggemann,

“What seems to be needed (and is here attempted) is a postcritical interpretation that lets the devotional and scholarly traditions support, inform, and correct each other, so that the formal gains of scholarly methods may enhance and strengthen, as well as criticize, the substance of genuine piety in its handling of the Psalms.”

Brueggemann, Walter. Spirituality of the Psalms. Augsburg Fortress, 2002. p. 3.

The author proposes that reading the Psalms according to a paradigm of “orientation-disorientation-new orientation” can help the collective church and individual believers develop a richer psalmic spirituality. His organizational scheme corresponds with the natural flow of human experience, setting us up to identify ourselves individually and corporately with the Psalms. Because the Psalms give expression and validation to the various seasons of our lives (often in quite raw language), they can help us discover our authentic voice with God (think the Psalms of lament or Job’s bold complaints against God), something we tend to self-censor and avoid because this is what we’re usually taught in church and in broader society.

“Orientation” refers to those seasons of our lives where things seem to be more or less in equilibrium. The world by and large makes sense, our needs are consistently met, and it’s not hard to trust God. We feel secure and confident. A few examples of such Psalms would be 8, 33, 104, 131, 133, and 145.

“Disorientation” refers to those periods where our lives are punctuated by chaos, darkness, loss, or overall disequilibrium. God seems coldly distant, altogether absent, or wrathfully set against us. God’s justice is called into question or defiantly challenged. Psalms of disorientation are plentiful; a few examples include 13, 35, 74, 79, 86, and 137.

“New orientation” is the season of resurrection, when God unexpectedly fill our worlds with grace and new life after the previous seasons of death and decay. Thanksgiving and “re-enthronement” of God in our lives are the predominant attitudinal states here. The new orientation is not and cannot be a return to the previous orientation, but eventually the new orientation will become the future old orientation. A few Psalms of new orientation include 29, 30, 34, 40, 47, 65, 66, 99, and 124.

I rather like this paradigm, as it does in fact organize the Psalms into the basic rhythm and flow of human experience. Of course, this is not the only paradigm or the best paradigm, but it makes more sense than the limited other treatments of the Psalms I’ve seen. The author acknowledges his proposal cannot and should not be understood as all-encompassing or as a final word on the inexhaustible subject of the Psalms.

“I intend this principle of organization only to help us see things we might not have seen otherwise. The test of a good paradigm is whether it serves in a heuristic way for future study. Most specifically I have used this device as a way of showing how the ‘psalms of negativity’ may be understood in the life of faith.”

Brueggemann, Walter. Spirituality of the Psalms. Augsburg Fortress, 2002. p. viii.

My favorite aspect of this book is the author’s treatment of the Psalms of disorientation. The author spends much of his time exploring these, due to his conviction that “much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness” (p. xii). He believes the modern church has compromised its authenticity in the face of our present disorienting times in part by partaking in the dominant culture’s facile optimism driven by consumerism. Between the church’s inordinate liturgical use of positive hymnody and psalmnody, and a general attitude of insisting on going “from strength to strength” at the expense of authentic expressions of confusion and darkness, the author believes the church is offering a shallow spirituality, one that is far from biblical.

It’s also the case that many Christians are uncomfortable with the Psalms of disorientation. For example, how do we pray the imprecatory psalms while remaining faithful to Christ’s command to love our enemies and pray for them? There appears at first glance to be cognitive dissonance between Christ’s command and adopting as our own prayer the psalms calling for the destruction of one’s enemies and the death of their children.

Some traditional interpretations have treated the Psalms of disorientation as obsolete remnants of pre-Christian morality (eye for an eye, etc.). Others have abstracted these psalms as the corporate church’s prayer for God to righteously judge his enemies, thereby insulating believers from allowing these Psalms to give expression to their own inner darkness. Needless to say, none of these interpretive dodges impress the author. By Brueggemann’s account, contemporary Christian use of the Psalms is largely disconnected from the Israelite spirituality that gave birth to the Psalms.

The Psalms portray a people unafraid to complain to God, to accuse God of injustice when things fall apart, to question God’s goodness, to bitterly call curses down upon the heads of their enemies, to try and bargain with God, to confess their sins in repentance, to praise God with effusive language. The Psalms portray a people in genuine relationship with God, who as part of that relationship know how to be authentic rather than always putting forth their best “church faces” and holding back their deepest longings and fears from God.

“The Jewish reality of exile, the Christian confession of crucifixion and cross, the honest recognition that there is an untamed darkness in our life that muse be embraced—all of that is fundamental to the gift of new life.”

Brueggemann, Walter. Spirituality of the Psalms. Augsburg Fortress, 2002. p. xii.

My thought on the matter is that when we’re in a dark place, we must give expression to that darkness before we can experience deep healing. Insofar as we try to dress ourselves up before God and hide our sinfulness from God and from ourselves, we alienate ourselves from God and remain fragmented beings. The Psalms of disorientation can teach us to let go of our superficial “I’m okay, everything’s fine” attitude and and come before God as we truly are. A personal story to illustrate:

A couple of years back when I was struggling with mood instability, I had an encounter that left me absolutely enraged with somebody. An encounter that would justifiably anger a level-headed person, left me irate the more I ruminated on it for the remaining work shift. I came home from work in a very dark place, wishing some evil things upon this person. While taking a shower I prayed to God repeatedly that this individual would die a slow, agonizing death from bone cancer. It was one of the worst things I could think of to happen to somebody. It was probably one of the more honest prayers I prayed in a long time. The funny thing is that vocally bringing this unholy request before God’s throne in all sincerity, I became convicted at my own foolishness and was more easily able to mellow out. Before long I was able to sincerely pray for this person’s well being and to ask forgiveness for allowing rage to conquer me.

This, I think, is the gist of the imprecatory psalms, and more generally the psalms of disorientation. We can only come to God as we are in any given moment, and it’s not up to us to change ourselves before we approach God. Overcome with rage and hatred as I was, I could appear before God in no other way, yet avoiding God would have been the worst thing I could have done. We certainly live in times of disorientation and inauthenticity; even much-touted attempts at personal authenticity often end up being little more than conformity to slick advertising campaigns. The Psalms are God’s word given to us which we can and should repeat back to God as our own prayers. This, I think is true medicine for the shallowness and inauthenticity within the church and broader society, and to which we ourselves often incline by nature.

New page, reading list

I added a new page to this blog entitled The Catholic Cave reading list. It’s a compilation of publications I’ve found to be most influential on my spiritual formation in some way or another. It was a great pleasure to put this list together, but it was also difficult because there are so many books I appreciate or even love that ultimately didn’t make the cut. Everything we experience, no matter how small, somehow exerts influence on us that cumulatively results in an alteration on the direction of our lives. It’s impossible to measure the quantity and quality of these influences, but we’ve all had moments we can identify as exerting noticeable impact on us. These moments are likely the visible tipping point atop an invisible precipice, the result of a great many preceding influences we hardly noticed. Yet these few special events are what gain the credit in our minds because they stand in the spotlight. So it is with books and articles.

Although it’s impossible that these publications I share will impact you the same as they did me, since our life experiences are all quite different, I nonetheless feel compelled to share these my “treasures” with whoever wishes to have them. Perhaps you or somebody else will sort through this list and find something edifying. If nothing else, this reading list may reveal a little about what makes me “tick”.

I’m also thinking about doing a periodic book review or recommendation of other books on my shelf. I’m on a self-imposed book buying moratorium, so lately I’ve been revisiting previously read books on my shelf and enjoying anew forgotten treasures or previously overlooked insights. That is of course, if I actually follow through with it. I’ve mentioned a great many intended blogging projects that never materialized, but occasionally I follow through with one. If my book review ideas pans out, sharing what I’m reading might be a fun exercise.

My search for the God who loves (part 14)

Home from active duty.

My return home to North Carolina from active duty in the Marine Corps initially felt reminiscent of going on leave just after boot camp. I moved back into my old bedroom at my parents’ house, now cluttered with the personal belongings I brought home. The move from a regimented environment to what felt like a never-ending Saturday with nothing to do felt kind of weird, especially because I knew I wouldn’t be going back to Camp Pendleton. Because I was discharged a few weeks early on terminal leave, I still received paychecks every two weeks for almost a month. When I stopped receiving deposits in my account from the DOD, it became very real to me that I was on my own, no longer obligated to the military but also no longer protected by its benefits.

Transition from military to civilian life turned out to me much harder than I expected. We were warned about potential difficulties in our transition readiness classes before I left, but I didn’t take it too seriously. I had enlisted when I was 23 years old and had some civilian life experience under my belt, unlike a lot of these other guys who went in straight out of high school. I expected rejoining the civilian world would be like picking up a bicycle after a few years of not riding. Plus I didn’t think my combat deployments were all that bad, so I wasn’t anticipating having any emotional fallout from them. Early on though, I started noticing things like a hair trigger temper and exaggerated anxiety-driven reactions to relatively minor events, all of which seemed out of character for me.

The first I remember noticing this was when I went to the local post office and had something of an angry meltdown on a postal clerk who didn’t seem to comprehend what I was trying to request. I didn’t realize I had been progressively raising my voice and becoming more animated and visibly agitated until he left the desk and returned with a supervisor, no longer behind the counter but standing a couple of feet in front of me to ask what the problem was. I noticed the clerk had a rather concerned look on his face as he stood slightly behind his supervisor, and the supervisor looked like he was weighing options in his mind. It occurred to me that I had probably made a bigger scene than I realized and I might’ve been in danger of having the police called on me if I continued the path I was on. With that, I apologized and promptly left.

I also had at least a couple of spats with my mom, where the end result was me angrily yelling and throwing things across my room, then storming out of the house for a few hours. One of these episodes resulted in the destruction of a fairly new laptop and blood spatter all over my room, after I lacerated my hand on a shattered jar and proceeded to ransack my room before leaving the house. Many days I would feel just fine, but one of these episodes might unexpectedly rear its ugly head with the right provocation. Occasionally I’d wake up with a mood dark as tar, and on these days it seemed like the entire universe conspired to poke at me until I snapped back.

During my early transition period, Season and I began dating. We nominally knew each other from Sunday school at First Baptist, and we’d had a few deep conversations about spirituality over Facebook while I was on active duty. I’d had a bit of a crush on Season from the Sunday school days, and apparently after our spirituality conversations on Facebook she developed an interest in me. When she found out I was home from the military and no longer in a relationship, she invited me to go on a dog walk with her. She was a first time dog owner and heard (rather inaccurately) through the grapevine that I was some kind of dog trainer. We met up and took her puppy Daisy for a walk on some trails in the Uwharrie National Forest, followed by pizza in downtown.


We had good conversation on the trails with surprisingly no awkward pauses. At the restaurant, Season was amused with how I examined the picture of an Italian man on the pizza box and immediately conjured up some bizarre story about him. Apparently she realized she was in for it when I revealed that I enjoy going to Staples and looking at office supplies. As for me, well, I conveniently absolved myself from the resolution I made a couple months earlier that I wouldn’t get romantically involved for the next year, and instead focus intensively on prayer. We still laugh about that.

Our relationship kept me sane through a difficult period of my life and also challenged me. When we began dating I had just begun RCIA, and it was clear between the two of us that I intended to become Catholic and Season was a committed Baptist. She didn’t hold the odd prejudice common among Baptists and other evangelicals that Catholics aren’t Christians. As she put it, “I prayed God would send me a Christian man, and I didn’t specify he had to be from a certain denomination.”

Of course, there were friction points from time to time in regards to beliefs. I think these points of friction had less to do with the actual divergent beliefs than they had to do with our inadequate approaches, and with the underlying anxiety about what effect religious belief might have on the direction of our relationship as we got more serious. Through the course of our relationship, Season discovered an underlying dogmatism she had previously been unaware of. And I was an excessively enthusiastic, dogmatic convert who needed to learn to chill out.

The most memorable of our church arguments came just after Confirmation at Easter Vigil. During the Mass, even though I couldn’t sit with Season, I caught glimpses of her and noticed her body language and facial expressions loudly broadcasting emotional discomfort. When the Mass was over, we went to Walmart for some reason. While we were standing in line, some discussion or another blew up into a full-blown theological argument. It was less an argument than it was an immature spat wherein we uncharitably took theological pop shots at each other. Arguing about Communion (ironically), I denigrated Season’s belief in the sacrament as “mere symbolism”. She told me she did not want to raise her children to be cannibals. Other customers in line eyeballed us with expressions betraying their bemusement at the spectacle of a Catholic and a Protestant couple arguing theology, below the belt at times, in Walmart after midnight on Easter morning.

Divergent views regarding sacraments and church authority were not the only differences between our theological outlooks. Nor were they the most significant. The most significant differences were in how the two of us viewed God. For me, God had always been and still was, a stern judge thundering burdensome requirements from on high. I believed to my bones that God was easily offended, that his mercy was always subservient to his pristine justice, a justice from which nobody was ever safe until they arrived safely in heaven. With my conversion to Catholicism, the terrifying God of my childhood had merely changed out of a Baptist facade into a fancier Roman Catholic outfit.

Believing strongly as I did in the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church, in its authority to absolve people of their sins and make pronouncements that would be honored in heaven as though Jesus himself had made them, my unhealthy relationship to God diverged onto a different path from my Protestant years. I began to view myself as hiding from this angry God behind the mantle of the Catholic Church. So long as I went to confession and the Catholic Church declared me absolved of whatever I felt that I had done wrong, God could not hold it against me. The underlying assumption here was that God was less loving, less merciful than the Church. My image of God morphed into this idea of a God who gave us the Church to protect us from his blazing anger, a Church that would shield us from his righteous judgments long enough to get at least a few souls into heaven. In my mind, the Church was the gospel. During RCIA, reading a little about the stringent moral requirements and harsh penitential rules the early church wielded, I once said with a sense of relief that it’s easier to be saved nowadays because the Church is so much more lenient with our failings than it used to be.

By sharp contrast, Season’s view of God was that of a loving father who tenderly listens to and cares for his children. Season’s God was approachable, personable and accessible in a one-on-one relationship. She didn’t feel the need to cower in fear every time she committed sin, nor did she feel that her sin would separate her from God. She knew nothing of the torturous struggle over whether or not she was “truly saved” or merely self-deceived, as I had when I was younger. For Season, church was vitally important—indispensable—but it was not the mediator and protector from Divine justice as it was in my mind.

The God who loves seemed nowhere to be found at this point in my life, but up to this point I only knew the stern lawgiver God whose mercy seemed begrudging and limited. I would learn rather quickly that trying to serve this God would burn me out, no matter that I had converted to a Catholic context. I had assumed that converting to Catholicism and gaining access to the sacraments would suddenly make me holier, make it easier to follow Christ. These notions would have to be knocked out of me before I could begin to know the God of love.

My search for the God who loves (part 13)

In the late summer of 2012 I returned to Camp Pendleton from a miserable post-deployment leave a liberated man. I finally ended a toxic waste dump of a relationship that should have been put out of its misery long ago, had only a month left of active duty, and I was excited about joining the Roman Catholic Church. Although weighed with emotional baggage from Afghanistan, the breakup, and anxiety about reentering the civilian world without a plan, I nonetheless felt joyfully free, like my future was once again wide-open and mine to command.

During my final month at Camp Pendleton, though I was unable to yet attend the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) on account of my transient state of affairs, I wasted no time looking for some type of religious instruction to hold me over until I returned home. My motivation was a mix of healthy excitement to begin a new journey and an unhealthy fear that I would be grievously sinning if I sat on my laurels for a month and didn’t make some concrete steps to make entry into the one true Church.

St. Margaret Parish in Oceanside, CA. Photo taken from

I attended St. Margaret Parish, an aesthetically striking traditionalist parish. Their priest, a stout Irishman named Fr. Wallace, was a friendly man with an impressive memory. He made it a point to mix with the laity after Mass and greet newcomers before they could slink away. His demeanor made me feel right at home in a parish where I could otherwise have gone unnoticed amidst the numerous churchgoers and the pious quietude inside the building.

Fr. Wallace enthusiastically agreed to have me instructed during my remaining stay in Oceanside, and so he set me up with an elderly parishioner whom I met every Sunday before Mass to discuss Catholicism. We used a book called The Privilege of Being Catholic as the foundation for our discussions. My short time at St. Margaret’s was an edifying experience that stayed with me up to even now.

Another thing I did during my final month in Oceanside was to visit the locally situated Prince of Peace Abbey for vespers services as many evenings as I could. One night after vespers I engaged in prolonged conversation with a retreatant who introduced me to the Jesus Prayer. Our conversation was engrossing, but after we parted ways I discovered the gate by the abbey’s entrance had been locked for the night! I had to track down the night watchman and explain to him that I was a Marine who accidentally stayed too late and needed to get back to base. Shortly thereafter I purchased bolt cutters that remained in my trunk for years to come.

Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside, CA. Photo taken from

With the arrival of September came the much anticipated and slightly dreaded Day. The previous two weeks had been spent driving around base during work hours to obtain the all-important signatures required by various offices and shops to be eligible for discharge. There was the infamous multiple trips to and from CIF issue to clean and reclean my issued field gear before they accepted its return. Having your gear repeatedly rejected for return by CIF was a well-known rite of passage in the Corps. It rarely made sense which pieces of gear they told you to reclean, but I figured it was the Corps’ way of screwing with you just a bit more before you leave. Then there was the final medical evaluation with its highly suspect conclusion that my hearing was better than when I first enlisted. And who could forget the multiple trips to battalion headquarters, where lower enlisted Marines brave the many corridors and corners where 1st sergeants, sergeants major, and all manner of officers lurk like predators in murky water, ready to stare you down and harass you for not greeting them according to their rank and time of day quickly enough?

Everything converged to its humorously bureaucratic climax at the admin office, where after receiving an unnecessary lecture about the merits of the Marine Corps from a random staff sergeant, I went through the transformation from Marine to veteran one printout at a time.

At long last, on a bright Thursday afternoon after a DMV-like experience for half the day, I was unceremoniously handed my DD-214 by a bored lower enlisted admin clerk! Just like that I was free to leave. I wasted no time returning to the barracks to change into civvies, my new uniform in the “1st Civ Div” as we nicknamed the post-military civilian life. A bit anticlimactically, I actually stayed on base through the weekend and left on Monday. But come Monday, with a car packed full of everything I owned, I stopped by the kennels for a bittersweet last moment with Kiddy, the faithful military working dog who helped me survive two deployments through a minefield of a country. After this almost tearful farewell, I drove through the Camp Pendleton gates for the last time, meandered around Oceanside a bit, then was off to North Carolina.

It wasn’t long after retuning home to North Carolina that I enrolled in and began RCIA, much to my excitement. I enrolled at Our Lady of Grace, another aesthetically beautiful traditionalist parish in my area. Their RCIA program was nicely organized and flowed smoothly.

While finishing out my enlistment I had applied and was accepted at Appalachian State University (in Boone, NC) and was set to begin class in January.  Come January, I transferred RCIA to St. Elizabeth of the Hill Country, the parish serving Boone. St. Elizabeth’s at the time was not a traditionalist parish, but was an eclectic mix of all kinds of people, a nice microcosm of Boone. At Sunday Mass the music was folksy sounding, performed with acoustic guitars and a few other instruments. It was at the time, what one might hear referred to as a decidedly “Vatican II parish”.

The first time I drove up to the church I noticed an Obama bumper sticker on a car and worried what sort of parish I was stepping into; such judgments were foolish but typical of my thinking at the time. St. Elizabeth’s wasn’t noticeably conservative or progressive. The RCIA program at St. Elizabeth’s was much less organized than at OLG, but I did myself no favors by not showing up to some of the sessions and arrogantly thinking I basically knew all that stuff anyway. At Easter Vigil of 2013 I received Confirmation and conditional baptism, on account of not having a recorded baptismal certificate from my Baptist days. I learned that one’s baptismal certificate is like a passport in the Catholic Church.

At long last, I felt, I had arrived at my ecclesiastical home. Despite its problems (which I was all too eager to minimize or explain away if I was even aware of them), I associated the Catholic Church with stability against the sands of time, erudition, steadfastness amidst whirlwind cultural changes, unchanging truth in an era of confusion, and demonstrable Divine authority over and against the relativistic confusion I saw in Protestantism. Unfortunately, I also carried with me the insufferability commonly associated with enthusiastic converts.

In which an Afghanistan veteran reflects about Afghanistan

I’m sitting in front of my computer in the living room of our 1,500 square foot suburban home, our 11 month old son playing with his toys on the floor beside me. He looks up occasionally to smile or babble loudly. I have the day off from work and my wife is taking a much-deserved daycation from the daily grind of mothering and homemaking. Today it’s just Peter and me. The curtains and shades are pulled back, the front door is open, and sunlight fills the house. I have little toleration for artificial indoor lighting when it’s bright outside. It’s another 90+ degree day with low humidity. I love hot weather, especially dry heat. It reminds me of Texas, Arizona, and Afghanistan. I maintain that the hottest part of the day is the best time to go running.

I decided to write and publish some current thoughts about Afghanistan, however discursive the result may be. Lately I’ve been in a weird mood as the media outlets proclaim non-stop the Taliban takeover and our hasty departure. I’m not here to offer any geopolitical insights on the matter. Just because I was deployed there doesn’t give me special insight into the inner workings of US foreign policy or its broader ramifications. I also have no idea how to withdraw military forces from a hostile environment and effectively evacuate civilians. What I do feel qualified to say is, having worked with various Afghan police and military forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, I knew that if or when we withdrew from Afghanistan these guys wouldn’t stand a chance against a Taliban resurgence.

This opinion was widely shared among fellow lower enlisted personnel I worked with. I did encounter some good dudes in the Afghan army and police forces, but the overwhelming incompetence and ineffectiveness of their defense forces could not be overstated. The rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban therefore wasn’t anything I thought should have been shocking. That so many people were surprised by the swiftness of the Taliban’s victory, tells me there were a lot of pencil whipped reports and steaming loads of bullshit being sent up the chain of command over a long period of time by officers and contractors who were more worried about looking good and advancing their careers than telling the truth about the dire state of affairs on the ground.

I deployed there twice as a 5812 (military working dog handler). Having an explosives detection dog, I was tasked out to various units who requested such capabilities in support of their operations. Basically, I was embedded with multiple Marine and Army infantry units, briefly with special operations units, to look for IEDs or weapons caches when out on patrol or raiding targeted houses. Working with multiple units each deployment meant I got to travel around southern Afghanistan quite a bit, see a decent cross section of the countryside, and interact with different folks from the US Armed Forces. It was a unique job, to say the least. I mean, what other job in the Marine Corps trusts a lance corporal in a non-combat MOS to fly across Afghanistan unsupervised to various units, brief officers on his capabilities, and go on combat patrols and midnight helicopter-borne raids with infantry? Very few.

This description of what I did is completely truthful, but it fails to convey the utter mundanity of what my life was often like in Afghanistan. When on patrol I mostly walked around an uneventful desert with a dog who often was too hot and tired to do much searching. I wore uncomfortable gear that chaffed my sides and I sometimes ran out of water before the patrol was over. I drenched my cammies in sweat and hoped the liberal amounts of medicated body powder I was using would prevent the dreaded swamp-ass. Alternately, in the winter my dog would have a lot of energy for searching and I never ran out of water. But it was cold, and I hate the cold. One nice thing about the summer was that the heat sometimes made packing a sleeping bag for overnight patrols unnecessary. I remember bringing only a pillow for a particular multi-day mission and being quite comfortable sleeping in the dirt at night. If only I could regain that lost ability to pack lightly…

IED attacks, gun battles, and deaths were nonetheless part of my experience. These I will not dwell on. I don’t wish to be thought of as some poor, damaged veteran; I’m doing just fine, thank you very much. Nor do I want to be perceived as a braggart and storyteller. Or as a wannabe who’s inflating his combat experience beyond what it was. Despite the rarity of IED events and direct hostilities with the Taliban, these occurrences validated all the potentialities which kept us vigilant on patrols and justified my role as a forward deployed K9 handler. It was the possibility of hidden IEDs ripping off extremities, rupturing lungs, liquefying testicles, or reducing a man to what we called “pink mist”, that kept me and everybody else in a heightened state of awareness and tension which was so routine we didn’t even realize it until we returned home. And though the Taliban in the areas I worked seemed to have few skilled gunmen, even amateurs can hit someone if they spray enough bullets at a time. To have Marines and soldiers entrust their lives to my ability to direct a K9 in an appropriate search pattern and accurately interpret what she’s telling me was at once bizarre, exhilarating, and terrifying.

I promise you I won’t be listed in the annals of history’s great military dog handlers. Students going through the DOD’s military working dog school at Lackland Air Force Base won’t be learning my name like we did with Sgt. Cann. The fact is that I struggled all the way through the basic handler’s course and subsequent specialized search dog course, was rejected for an Iraq deployment, and caused my superiors concern in our first Afghanistan pre-deployment workup. But I deployed and did my job without any heroics, and everything worked out. If I ever saved any lives, it was through some indirect mechanism of which I remain unaware. Later after the military I found that was briefly mentioned in passing in a national bestseller! Sure, my name was misspelled and you’d miss it if you blinked, but I’ll still proudly count that as my participation in the wave of fame and book publishing so many veterans enjoyed a few years ago.

Getting to the point I originally set out to discuss (if ever there really was one), it’s that Afghanistan has embedded itself deeply in my soul. In Catholic theology we talk about the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders leaving an “indelible character” on the recipient’s soul. My time in Afghanistan, all the individual experiences constituting the whole, was altogether a crucial period of formation which stamped its indelible mark on my soul. I use religious terminology to convey an idea not entirely describable because on a fundamental level, going to Afghanistan as a combatant was deeply religious in its character.

My experience in Afghanistan has in fact left a palpably empty spot within me, a point of loneliness and other feelings I cannot adequately convey here. The emptiness nearly drove me mad in my first year after the military, as it felt overwhelmingly powerful and I didn’t know what to do with it. It will likely be with me for the rest of my life, and I think of it as part of who I am. I become aware of this emptiness from time to time, but I don’t think of it as my enemy or as a handicap or injury. It actually challenges me to reconsider my beliefs from time to time. I’ve written before about pacifism and described myself as such at one point, but am I really? I have much respect for life because of my religious beliefs, and for the same reason I oppose war. But I suppose it would be a stretch to call myself a pacifist. What sort of pacifist carries a gun in his car?

The recent news about Afghanistan obviously has made me deeply aware of the empty spot within me, and this awareness has agitated dormant feelings like clouding up water with river mud. But other things, such as my occasional dreams about combat (not recollections of anything, just crazy dreams generated from previous knowledge and experience), or when a hot day reminds me of Afghanistan, or when I hear a loud noise and think it sounds like gunfire. Actually, a majority of sudden loud noises sound like gunfire to me, even though I know they aren’t. I have from time to time mistaken benign sounds for gunfire and have even called “shots fired in the area” over the radio at work and looked silly. I don’t go into panic attacks or avoid fireworks or anything like that, but it’s a reminder of where I come from.

This next thought is something I’ve struggled with a great deal, but I have to admit that I’m grateful for the times I witnessed death or experienced the sorrow over the deaths of Marines or soldiers I knew. I’m glad I went through such things because they were inescapably part of my overall formation in Afghanistan. Does this mean I’m grateful for the deaths of these Marines and soldiers? I don’t want to affirm as much because I don’t want to declare as ‘good’ the fact that lives were cut short, parents lost their sons, a young woman lost her fiancee, perhaps children were never born that may otherwise have been.

I have over the years tortured myself with considering whether or not I would undo these deaths if I somehow were given the ability to do so. I always come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t because to do so would undo the formation I underwent in Afghanistan and therefore erase my sense of identity. I conclude that who I am today necessarily involved the cutting short of other young men’s lives and the suffering their families endured, and I marvel at the complex interconnectedness of life.

Thinking such things, I’ve always felt obligated to reach a point where I honestly decide I would undo their deaths, but I never get there. I inevitably feel selfish for having these thoughts and feelings because it feels like I’ve somehow become complicit in the deaths of Marines and soldiers I served with and liked. But in the midst of these mental acrobatics I forget that I cannot undo anything, and the fact that these tragedies make up the complex tapestry of who I am today isn’t good or bad. It just is.

While thinking of this today, it occurred to me that this may in fact be a manifestation of survivor’s guilt. I’ve never thought of myself as having it, but this thought process sounds suspiciously like it. Interesting what writing out your thoughts can do.

I’ve also wondered whether the deaths of these soldiers and Marines, not to mention Afghans, was in vain or meaningless. If measuring the value of their lives or deaths according to the metrics of NATO strategic goals outlined in some PowerPoint presentation at the Pentagon, then it would certainly seem like it. But the God who created all these people in His image and saved them by the cross and resurrection of Christ, says otherwise. I also take consolation at the thought that God ultimately is directing our paths toward an end. “He makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them” (Job 12:23).

Neither we, nor the Taliban, are in charge. We, with all our technology and lofty goals and hubris, failed to effect the type of change we assumed the Afghans needed after defeating the first Taliban regime. The current Taliban will rule for a while and then they’ll be swept away and replaced in due time. ISIS in Iraq looked invincible for a good while, but it wasn’t long before we saw them crumble and reduced to a shadow of its former self. The Afghans deserve better than the Taliban, but they also deserve something better than us. I don’t buy into any self-justifying theories that our prolonged presence in Afghanistan was good for anybody, but because I believe that verse from Job, I know somehow there was meaning behind the charlie foxtrot that was Operation Enduring Freedom.

Finishing this post, it’s now evening. My wife came home feeling refreshed, our bellies are full of good food, and Peter is sound asleep in his crib. It took me all day of off and on typing and revising to write this post, but I think I’ve conveyed decently some of the stuff that’s bugging me. Afghanistan will soon be over for the general public, but for myself and a whole host of OEF veterans, it never really ends. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, in my mind.

Welcoming Jesus

The entrance antiphon for today’s Mass reads, “Jesus entered a village, / where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” I was gripped by the associations and connections my mind made when reading this antiphon today. Part of what flashed through my mind was imagining Jesus walking through our neighborhood and stopping by my house for a visit. What an honor that would be! And if I’m honest, the idea is also rather intimidating. But if we believe what the Scriptures teach us, we know Jesus does this very thing. Thankfully the same Scriptures assure us, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:17).

The Incarnation of the Word of God is our promise that God welcomes all of us into his eternal dwellings. This is sheer gift and promise, free of any hint of transactionalism. It’s extremely difficult for us to actually believe this is the case, deeply poisoned as we are with transactional thinking; therefore the scandalously gracious promise of the Gospel must be preached often and boldly.

When we begin to grasp a hint of the magnitude of God’s radical love for us, it will stir within us desires to reciprocate. How then do we invite Jesus into the inner sanctum of our being, and into our families? We ask! It’s that simple. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13) We often stumble right over the simplicity of it all, scandalized by how uncomplicated Jesus makes everything. Thankfully, the Lord even answers the prayers of those of us who cry out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24)

All Scripture excerpts were cited from the New International Version.

Some meandering thoughts about liturgy

здравствуйте, друзья! Translation: Be healthy, my friends! “Be healthy” is a Russian formal greeting, similar to the English “hello”. I’ve recently taken up a new project of learning some basic Russian and Cyrillic. I’ve long thought Russian is a beautiful language and have been casually interested in Slavic culture, but last week I decided to go ahead and try my hand at learning the language. But my linguistic hobby isn’t what I wanted to write about today, though I suppose the general subject is casually related.

Yesterday Pope Francis ignited a powder keg of controversy within certain Catholic circles when he issued a motu proprio aimed at suppressing the extraordinary form of the Mass, what’s often referred to as the Traditional Latin Mass or Tridentine Mass. It’s the liturgical rubrics approved by Pope Pius V in his 1570 Missale Romanum, occasionally revised by various popes since then. Pope Pius V promulgated this revision of the ancient liturgy and suppressed most alternate liturgies in the West as a means of unifying the Roman Catholic Church during the tumult of the Reformation era. During the Second Vatican Council in the mid 20th century, our liturgy was significantly overhauled as part of the church’s efforts to address the needs of contemporary Catholics. What is now the ordinary form (what you see at the average parish on Sundays), is quite different in many ways from the Traditional Latin Mass but it’s nonetheless based on the old Roman rubrics and is centered on the Eucharistic sacrifice every bit as much as the older liturgy.

I believe people should do their best to research primary sources when forming opinions about important matters. Therefore, here’s the motu proprio in English, the pope’s letter explaining his actions, and a good explainer about the current liturgical controversies within the Latin Rite. Anyone inclined to form strong opinions on this current event ought to at least read the first two documents.

The motu proprio doesn’t actually ban the celebration of Mass according to the extraordinary form, but it does prohibit the situation of having parishes devoted specifically to Tridentine liturgical forms. It seems to give bishops full permission to stop celebration of this particular liturgical form in their diocese as they see fit, yet it requires bishops to obtain permission from the Holy See to allow new priests in their diocese the faculties to celebrate according to the extraordinary form. I suspect in many diocese where the Traditional Latin Mass is offered in regular parishes alongside the ordinary form, life will probably go on with little or no noticeable change. Nonetheless, I don’t doubt there will be many Catholics who prefer to worship according to the extraordinary form, who will be impacted by this.

There’s a beautifully furnished parish church in my county where the Traditional Latin Mass is offered every Sunday afternoon. The large congregation and its clergy lean very traditional, and as such their liturgies are impeccable. If there’s one thing a traditional Catholic can’t stand, it’s sloppy liturgy. I used to periodically make the thirty minute drive to this parish for the sacrament of reconciliation followed by daily Mass, but over the past couple of months the lines for confession have become as slow-moving as they are long. As of late this has been a major deterrent for me, especially since I often bring with me my wiggly and frequently vocal 9 month old. Last time I went, I was informed by a fellow penitent standing in line that their congregation prefers silence.

Nonetheless, it was at this parish that I nearly fell in love with the Traditional Latin Mass a few years ago. At the time I was feeling dissatisfied with the liturgy offered at my home parish. My parish isn’t guilty of liturgical abuse or sloppiness, but the minimalism in the nave’s religious decor combined with the lack of ‘smells and bells’ from incense, pipe organ, or Gregorian chant choir, do much to leave the liturgy feeling rather bare-bones. Setting plays a big role in how the liturgy is perceived and received, even if it’s not directly tied to the actual rubrics. Restless and dissatisfied, I decided to check out what the extraordinary form was all about. If nothing else, I think it’s important as a Catholic to experience the Traditional Latin Mass at least once.

My first experience of the extraordinary form moved me with a great sense of awe and beauty. I felt almost as lost in the rubrics as I imagine a Baptist would in an Eastern Orthodox liturgy, but it nonetheless conveyed to me a sense of holy awe that I hadn’t felt in a while. I attended the Latin liturgy for a time, but after the fascination of witnessing something new and beautiful wore off and the liturgy became more familiar to me, I realized it was spiritually nourishing me no more and no less than the ordinary form. The aesthetics of a well-celebrated Traditional Latin Mass in a beautifully furnished church are hard to beat, but in my case I didn’t sense any particular benefit over a well-celebrated ordinary form of the Mass in a beautifully furnished church. Working night shift at the time, waking up early on Sundays and driving thirty minutes to attend the extraordinary form in the middle of my bedtime wasn’t worth messing up my sleep cycle, and so ended my brief journey through the land of liturgical traditionalism.

Sometime afterward I found my way to a small inner city parish near our home, where the beautiful religious aesthetics enhanced the liturgy (ordinary form) in a satisfying way. This church seemed a perfect match for me at the time, and I was quite happy. However, when the pandemic struck and COVID was in full rage mode, I noticed more and more that I was surrounded by unmasked parishioners coughing and hacking around me during morning Mass. Not wanting to infect my family with COVID or give up daily Mass, I fled back to my original parish where the smells and bells were a bit lacking but the clergy and parishioners were all very serious about enforcing masks and social distancing.

At present, I’ve found that my dissatisfaction with my parish’s liturgy had less to do with the church’s furnishings and the way they conducted the Mass, and basically everything to do with my inner state. I fell into the trap of “parish shopping”, the consumer mentality applied to churchgoing where we bounce around until we find a parish community that seems to fit just right with our preferences. In the end, such a parish is mythical and the church shopper is forever unsatisfied, unsettled and unfulfilled. Do I prefer more “traditional” religious aesthetics and chant music? Most definitely. But I’ve grown to appreciate the understated (or perhaps subtle) religious aesthetic of my parish’s nave, and I don’t even mind the folksy music produced by our worship singers. God has blessed our parish with a couple of exceptionally angelic voices in the cantor lineup who can make the responsorial Psalm an experience of true musical frisson. It took me a while to discern it, but I’m strongly convinced now that God led me to this parish community when I returned to the Catholic Church, and partly through my parish hopping experience I’ve discerned that God has told me to be planted and grow roots in this parish community. I do seem to develop better spiritually in this parish than in any of the others I’ve been part of.

I’m not particularly fussy about liturgy and religious decor these days, though if Protestant-style praise & worship ever finds its way in our liturgy I may find that I was more of a traditionalist than I realized. Liturgy is fundamental to religious identity because it’s about how we come together as a people to worship our God. Consistent exposure to the liturgy forms us according to its contents, teaches us who God is and how to pray. How we treat the liturgy is never a matter of indifference or of secondary importance, though there’s a middle ground we should occupy, with room for a great deal of variation of opinions about liturgy, wherein charity abounds and extremes are avoided. This is where I have ambivalent feelings and impressions of the extraordinary form of the Mass.

A funny thing about the extraordinary form is that it tends to be a lightning rod for cranks, conspiracy theorists, and outspoken detractors of the current pontiff and just about anything related to the Second Vatican Council reforms. It’s not even the liturgy’s fault, and I lament that a wonderful liturgy seems to be saddled with such an unfortunate reputation. It should be said that there’s probably a great many people who love the Tridentine Mass who are joyful men and women of peace, exuding Christ wherever they go. Unfortunately though, there is an undeniably strong current of resentful religious populism embedded within Tridentine liturgy subculture. My voyages into the world of so-called traditionalist Catholic blogs and websites have consistently left me with this impression.

In fact, the stated intention of Pope Francis’ motu proprio is to suppress the schismatic spirit residing within the broader Tridentine liturgy communities. The pope is a big proponent of the importance of recognizing the validity of the Second Vatican Council as a non-negotiable aspect of being Catholic, and apparently he is disturbed to find so much anti-Vatican II populism festering within the church like a wound, gathering around the Tridentine Mass as a center of gravity and rally cry. History will tell us the rightness or wrongness of the pope’s decision, but I can understand the desire to make conditions less favorable for the proliferation of a shadow church that runs parallel to the mainstream church.

Concluding this long discursive post, it discourages me that within our church we seem to be just as polarized, just as much at war with each other as the rest of the culture is. It’s not surprising in the least bit, because a wider historical view will show this current controversy is a fairly mild spat in comparison to some of the other controversies which have rocked the church. I’ve always liked the idea of having the option of Tridentine Mass alongside the ordinary form, as it reflects a church that can be united while hosting multiple liturgical sensibilities. Let’s not forget our less common Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters among us and their beautiful liturgies. But if a particular liturgical form becomes an occasion for the sin of schism, as the pope seems to believe is occurring, then we as the People of God should strive to set aside our preferences and examine ourselves to see whether our trust is in Jesus or merely in our religious preferences. In the meantime, perhaps it will do everybody some good for the cranks and conspiracy theorists to worship with the rest of us. After all, God’s family is essentially one big screwed-up family of sinners and kooks brought together by the body and blood of Christ, in the hope of our final resurrection to life. I suspect Jesus would throw us all together and order us to learn how to get along.

The ordinary death-life cycle of discipleship

“A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me.” -John 16:16

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” -John 16:20

These verses made me think of how we go through cycles of feeling the nearness of God’s presence, and also of suffering a sense of God’s absence and a corresponding spiritual dryness. It’s the consolation-desolation cycle. We’re allowed to rest at times in the joy of Christ’s presence in our lives, and it refreshes and invigorates us when we do. But we must, for our own good, also go through periods of dryness when the Lord seems absent to us. When we travel these less well-lit roads of our journey, we easily begin to forget or doubt all our previous experiences of God’s closeness and goodness to us.

In these desolate places we have to drink a feeble share of what Christ drank to the fullness for us at Calvary. During these times the world around us goes on about its business, even seeming joyful and celebratory while we feel sad and devoid of life. But because in Christ resurrection follows death, we will yet again experience a small foretaste of the life Christ promises to give us in full measure, in due time.

How often I act like the disciples when they ran away and abandoned Jesus during his crucifixion! They had to be gathered up and restored by Christ after the resurrection. We should strive to be faithful to Jesus when we’re given our personal shares in his Passion. Despite the disciples’ temporary unfaithfulness, they nonetheless tried to be faithful to Jesus and fell away only because of human weakness.

Even so, this abandoning of our Savior and having to be restored again seems to be a fitting aspect of our lives as disciples of Jesus. Jesus says he is our resurrection and life, the one who will turn all things to good. The disciples’ failures and subsequent restoration played a necessary role in the formation of Apostles who boldly traveled through the world proclaiming the good news that the crucified Son of God lives for us. Therefore let us never lose hope but turn again and again and again to Jesus the Christ who is our life, our light, our goodness.