Every thing hath ende.
~ Geoffrey Chaucer

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I Don’t Want to Brag, But…

It was Boasting Paul the end of last week at Mass. “Since many boast according to the flesh,” Paul wrote the Corinthians in Friday’s first reading, “I too will boast.” He’s all apologetic about it, excusing himself for “speaking in foolishness” like an “insane person,” but he goes at it with relish. Beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonments, and persecutions of every kind. Sure, as we heard on Saturday, he could also boast of spiritual highs, but they were tempered by a “thorn in the flesh” that Paul received to keep him from becoming “too elated.”

All those hardships and suffering were for the “sake of Christ,” Paul assures us, and “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Sure, sure, I get that. But it was the boasting that was rattling around my head when I stopped by the bank Saturday morning. In the course of my exchange with the bank teller, I casually mentioned that I don’t text.

“No?” she asked.

“Nope,” I happily boasted. “No texting, no i-gizmo. I have a flip phone, but it’s in my glove compartment.”

Then I waited for the payoff. “That’s great. You’re lucky.”

That’s pretty much the response I get every time I brag about my self-imposed digital deprivation, and I have to confess that I love it every time. To top it off, as I was leaving the bank’s parking lot on Saturday morning, I caught Kai Ryssdal on NPR’s “Marketplace” saying something about downloading podcasts or some such, and I sighed with great satisfaction. I’ve never downloaded a podcast in my life – or an app, or anything else on one of those pocket-sized computers. I’m blissfully unaware of how that whole portable cyber-realm operates, and I’ve no interest in getting up to speed.

The reason relates to Paul’s boasts of weakness. “According to a 2017 study from the Pew Research Center,” writes former app addict Liz Zarka, “46 percent of smartphone owners said they couldn’t live without their phones, and research centers report that the average cell phone user touches their device about 2,617 times a day.” I have addiction problems in my family tree, and I saw red flags waving all over the place when cell phones and their smart descendants started appearing everywhere. Total abstinence seemed the safest route for me, and I’ve not seen any evidence that I erred in that assessment.

So, yes, I’ll happily boast to you about my freedom from cellular serfdom, but it’s a boast with no judgment, no self-righteous edge. It’s a confession, really: I’m weak. Going without a smart device is a link to some kind of strength.

My Brush with Socialism

Every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven.
~ G.K. Chesterton

A friend of mine posted a NYT op-ed by David Bentley Hart that caught my eye: “Can We Please Relax About ‘Socialism’?” Yes! My thoughts exactly! I’m so tired of hearing that word bandied about on the left and the right, as if a couple of grade-schoolers with identical plastic light sabers were whacking each other into submission. I’m with Hart: Let’s give socialism a rest already!

But that wasn’t Hart’s point. Instead, he was opining that only here in America “is the word ‘socialism’ freighted with so much perceived menace.” That is, he was coming to socialism’s defense against conservative scaremongers like Ben Stein – whack! – and Republicans in general – whack, whack!

Too bad, for I think some “give it a rest” is in order these days, especially since nobody is in a hurry to define what socialism actually is (and isn’t). And, let’s face it, there’s no real incentive to do so as long as the word’s ambiguity continues to prove so effective in stirring up supporters (and donors).

Yet defining socialism is less important than seeing it in action. “Successful socialism has been created in only one place on earth, the kibbutzim of Israel,” Joshua Muravchik wrote in a different op-ed, this time in the WSJ. “But once the Jewish state was securely on its feet, kibbutzniks chose to switch to private enterprise. Socialism, they learned to their surprise, was not a happy way to live.”

I had a taste of happy socialism among the Hutterites, and it’s worth a look.

The Hutterites and their communitarian ways came to my attention decades ago when I was hanging around the Catholic Worker and reading Dorothy Day. “Before families come, they literally sell what they have and come and lay it at the feet of those members in the group who are in charge,” Day wrote of the Hutterite (at the time) Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. “It is truly a Christian communism.”

I had to check it out for myself, so I wrote ahead and made plans to visit Woodcrest for a couple days. In the meantime, I read up on the Hutterites, their history and values. Founded in Tyrol, Austria, by Jakob Hutter in 1528, the Hutterites were an Anabaptist movement that took very seriously the example set by the early church. “All who believed were together and had all things in common,” we read in Acts 2.44, and the Hutterites decided it was a practice that couldn’t be improved upon. “Communalism is the distinguishing principle by which all Hutterites have lived for nearly 475 years,” writes Laura Wilson. What’s more, “Hutterites are resisters. What they resist most are those influences inimical to their beliefs.” And yet, I also found that they are very open to outsiders and welcoming to all those who are curious about their way of life.

My stay with the Bruderhof, a modern Hutterite-like community, was a full one. I stayed with a family, ate and played and prayed with them, and then I also had a chance to work in their manufacturing business – Community Playthings which specializes in wholesome play equipment and solid youth furniture. I helped assemble a large tricycle, as I remember, and felt pretty good about making a contribution – both to the community hosting me as well as the child who’d benefit from the trike.

And that’s my recollection of this successful, even joyful form of limited socialist utopia: There was freedom within the collective unity. “While we share all we have with each other, we reject any attempts to make people uniform,” reads the Bruderhof’s statement on Community of Goods. “We practice our gifts through our work within the community, but there is also plenty of time to explore and nurture individual pursuits.”

The key here is that Bruderhof and Hutterite communitarianism is structured, but voluntary. There are lines of authority – in the community, in the manufacturing business, within each member family – and yet there is security and solidarity in the group’s commitment to mutual support and service. It’s not perfect – can any society be perfect this side of heaven? – but the folks who join and stay can see that it works, and they’re free to leave if they decide it doesn’t.

I think that highlights an important principle that’s too often overlooked in today’s socialism debates. Authentic socialism – or a fair distribution of goods among those in a society – is surely something to be commended as laudatory and even virtuous, especially for Christians, but it’s hard to accomplish well (or at all) through coercion. Yet, as the Bruderhof demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be coerced.

At least, that’s the lesson I took away from my visit there, and it’s one which has stayed with me ever since. I’m much less interested in questions of how much the state should be spreading wealth around than how I can better spread my own wealth around.

And that’s something I can do, God willing, without a whole bunch of debate.

Depressed and Desperate: The Day I Called Dr. White

Many people…find it hard to analyse, and even more difficult to express in words, what appears to be destroying them from inside.
~ J.B. Phillips

It’s awkward to be a depressed Christian. Awkward and discomfiting.

You love Jesus, pray and read your Bible, and get to Mass and Sunday services. You dedicate yourself to service, strive to live a virtuous life, and keep your eyes fixed on heaven best you can. You may even have a decent handle on the marginal value of transient emotional satisfaction in the life of faith – and yet you’re suddenly afflicted with oppressive despondency anyway. It’s utterly out of kilter, a wrenching interior disruption, but you can’t shake it. It’s not just a spiritual dry spell, not simply a devotional dip, but a full-on collapse, and you’re frightened by the dark direction of your thoughts.

What to do?

I’ll tell you what I did. I called a shrink.

But it wasn’t just any shrink. I decided that my particular depression (and, if I’m not mistaken, I probably wasn’t the first to think his own case of depressive illness was somehow extraordinarily, uniquely severe) required the best that pastoral psychology could come up with. Yet, at the time, I was still a pretty new Catholic, so my frame of reference was limited to my prior exposure to evangelical authors and leaders. I think I turned to Minirth and Meier’s Happiness is a Choice (1978), and I know I gobbled up The Price of Success (1984), by Bible translator J.B. Phillips, a hero of mine who himself suffered a debilitating depression.

But the text that gave me the most solace, the most hope was Dr. John White’s The Masks of Melancholy (1982). It was the right book at the right time.

White was not only a practicing psychiatrist and professor, but also a prolific evangelical author and popular speaker. His many books published by InterVarsity Press had come to my attention during the years in the Christian bookstore business, but I’d never gotten around to reading Masks – why should I? It was about mental illness, suicide, and depression, and I surely wasn’t going to be subject to those kinds of problems.

When my own depression hit like a Looney Tunes anvil, I flailed and faltered and grasped at anything that might give me relief. I went to co-dependency workshops and group therapy. I started using tobacco again and probably drank a bit more than usual. I prayed extra novenas and rosaries, and went to movies, by myself, a lot. And I read books – books about depression, mainly, especially from a Christian angle – and there was something about Dr. White’s kindly prose, medical realism, and illuminating narratives that really hit home.

He explained the science and physiology of depressive illness in a way I could understand, and he wasn’t afraid to tackle the tough questions – particularly the delicate, at times tense relationship between religion and mental health. White’s approach was both rational and eminently pastoral, and I recall reading through Masks twice – like back-to-back twice, as in finishing the last page (sitting in a study carrel in DePaul University’s library, I remember it well) and then immediately turning back to page one to start again.

But I didn’t stop there. In the fog of my depressive state, I made a snap decision to track down Dr. White himself to give me a leg up. It seemed reasonable at the time, so when I got home, I grabbed the phone and called directory assistance. The operator gave me the number for InterVarsity Press, and, if memory serves, when I asked the secretary there for Dr. White’s number, she…just gave it to me.

In any case, I got the number somehow and dialed. There I was, pacing in my flat in Chicago, frantic, phone in hand (ringing, ringing), and then, *click* “Hello?” It was Dr. John White himself on the other end!

I can’t remember if I even identified myself before I poured out my story and my travails. I assured him that I would do anything and everything to regain some equilibrium in my mental state, that I’d try medication, whatever it took. His response after a short pause was – not unreasonably by any means – a simple, “How did you get my number?”

Like a flash, my depression evaporated in favor of a wave of embarrassment and chagrin. The impropriety of my impetuous phone call, however innocent, swamped my sensibilities, and I hemmed and hawed through the rest of the conversation. White was more than generous (probably more generous with me than he would be with that secretary), and he offered some gentle encouragement (at least I assume he did – I don’t remember that part of our chat), but it was all over pretty quick. After hanging up, and before the crushing weight of my depressive illness settled in again, I had an epiphany that I can only attribute to God’s grace: I really was a mess, and, my faith notwithstanding, I needed to do something more than dabble in group therapy and books – or phone calls for that matter.

It took yet another crisis before I made the radical changes necessary to begin climbing out of my depressive sinkhole, but that phone call with Dr. White was a marker of sorts. I’m still embarrassed about it, I suppose, but I’m so grateful he was home and took the call, for it helped me recognize that my recovery would require allowing living, breathing people to care for me. Depression might be something we suffer in intense loneliness, but it is only shed when we share it with others.

Months later, after moving back home to my family in Colorado and beginning therapy, I read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (1978), and it, too, had a profound impact on me. By then, however, I’d found enough human support – from my parents, my friends, others with depression, my shrink in Boulder – that I didn’t even consider reaching out to Dr. Peck.

Good thing. I imagine he’d have been tougher to track down.

Dr. John White died in 2002. Rest in peace, and thanks.

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Our Stairwell Gallery: A Familial Experiment in Art Appreciation

Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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The Importance of Taking Risks and Making Mistakes

We all fail when we are learning something new — it’s the key to our success.

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What 36 Hours on the Streets of Chicago Taught Me

The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own self-hood.
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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The Gift of Listening: Of Cursors, Nurses, and Amazon A.I.

“The driver is delivering a package, and it’s an elderly lady. And they, you know, talk a little bit.”
~ Cem Sibay

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Getting Un-Tilted this Advent

We have ancient, high-mileage, “decaying-when-we-bought-‘em” cars and vans. We also have a inclined driveway – about 10, maybe 15 degrees. One winter, our behemoth Chevy Express slid down that iced-over driveway and into the street overnight. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, and the Express now stays curbside every winter.

The other problem associated with our vehicle/driveway combo has to do with gas gauges. At street level, the Chevy and the Toyotas will show a quarter-tank full, but put them up on the inclined driveway, and the needles will drop to empty. Late-model vehicles don’t have this problem because the sensors are located lower down in the tanks. Older vehicles, like ours, are prone to angle-sensitive gauge fluctuations.

It tricks me every time – especially if I’m late to something. “Seriously?” I’ll say to myself as I’m pulling out into the cul-de-sac. “I don’t have time to stop for gas!” Yet, by the time I’m turning into the Speedway, the needle has popped up to the actual fuel level. For whatever reason, I can’t seem to remember that I must be off the incline and flat on the ground to get an accurate reading.

There’s a parallel here with the spiritual life. When our day-to-day lives are tilted or off center, we’ll tend to feel empty and anxious, regardless of the actual state of our souls. That’s one of the benefits of our purple seasons of preparation – Lent especially, but now Advent as well. They’re times to get un-tilted and level, which then allows us to take honest account of our interior resources and replenish accordingly.

We even had readings last Sunday toward that end – in Baruch for example: “For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground” (Bar 5.7). Then, in the Gospel, John the Baptist quotes Isaiah and calls for the same: “Prepare the way of the Lord…. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Lk 3.4-5).

When we catch our spiritual breath during this Advent season of waiting, and we find rest on an even interior plane, we can better hear St. Paul’s insistence that “the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1.6). We’re living the Faith; we’re receiving the sacraments and turning our hearts toward Jesus. We have more gas in our tanks than we think.

Take time this Advent to pause on the season’s liturgical level ground and give thanks. We’ve got a ways to go, and the Lord will provide all the sustenance we need to get there.

A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Monkey on My Back: A Chronic Illness Tutorial

To the extent that Christ’s suffering becomes my suffering,
my suffering becomes a prayer.
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

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