Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pick Grain and Die

One of my part time jobs is evaluating transcripts at a local community college. Every now and then I will get a transcript for an engineering or computer science student who has taken and passed calculus. But for the most part it is a slew of D's and F's in courses as fundamental as beginning algebra or "math concepts." Most people hate math because most people suck at it. Math is hard.

Does this mean that schools like M.I.T., Princeton, etc. should 'lower the bar' to accommodate students who are not able to cut it in such rigorous, top-notch programs--to be more inclusive? No, because this would not be fair to those students who are looking to be challenged and excel in such programs. These top schools keep the bar high as a matter of academic integrity. If you can't make the cut...look elsewhere for your college experience.

After Jesus told his followers they must eat his flesh and drink his blood if they would have life, many grumbled against him and called the teaching hard, asking who could accept it. And it is written, "from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." The acceptance of the reality of the Eucharist was a non-negotiable for Jesus.

Then again, Jesus re-examined the "rules" of the religious institution against people's actual lives--like picking grain on the Sabbath, or stoning someone caught in adultery, and made adjustments accordingly. Jesus was compassionate towards people who could not 'make the cut,' but he did not water down his teaching to accommodate any standard lower than God's standard. The expectation was that people would change their lives to conform to God's teaching, not the other way around. And yet he made accommodations for the human experience which fell outside the bounds of the religious jurisdiction (ie, picking grain on the Sabbath).

In the same way that most people hate math because it is hard and does not come naturally, most people find distasteful rules and discipline designed to make us people of exemplary holiness. In this way the Church is criticized as being too strict, holding the bar too high, as to what kind of life each member is expected to live.

Yet despite my moral failings and my embarrassingly low threshold for suffering, I would not want the Church to change Her teachings to accommodate my lifestyle--or anyone else's lifestyle--assuming the Church's teachings are sanctioned by the Holy Spirit. I want the Church to continue to hold the bar high and continue to condemn fornication (homo and hetero alike), adultery, pre-marital sex, masturbation, abortion, murder (state sanctioned or otherwise), theft, idolatry, pride, etc., and uphhold Truth. I have no problem calling a sin a sin when it is, in fact, a sin.

If my future wife and I practice artificial contraception when we are married, I pray God will have mercy on us, and that the Church will reconsider Her teaching on this matter, what feels to me like a matter of "tieing up heavy burdens and laying them on men's shoulders." Is artificial contraception a sin in the eyes of the Church? Yes. Do I believe it is a sin? This is besides the point. Is it a sin in the eyes of God? I don't know, but I know that God looks at the heart, and when I die I know I will be judged by God alone, not the Church, and so all I can ask is mercy.

And so when the Church teaches about the sinfulness of using artificial contraception, I find myself on that other side of the line, with those disciples who were complaining, "this is a hard teaching...who can accept it?" But did this teaching come from Jesus himself? No, it did not. Am I a bad Catholic....well, I don't seem to qualify as a good Catholic, a title I doubt I will ever earn. Is this then the alternative title? Should it matter? I have no good way to end this post, and so I'll just sign off with these questions unanswered, a reflection of my moral life as a whole, I suppose. Comments welcome.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

DIY: You can make a Japanese "floating" platform bed for under $50


(2) 4'x8' sheets 3/4" Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) ($25 each @ Lowes)
1 1/2" wood or drywall screws

Step 1: Make the cuts: 12" off the bottom, 12" off the side, another 6" off the side of the 4'x8' sheets of MDF. This will leave you with a 2.5'x7' piece remaining. I have this cut in half so it can fit in my car, but you don't have to (this piece will be one half of the platform). This will leave you with two 48"x12" pieces, two 84"x12" pieces, two 84"x6" pieces, and two 84"x30" pieces (or four 42"x30" pieces, if you cut them in half).

Step 2: Cut two 3/4"x6" notches with a jigsaw in each of the 48"x12" pieces, and do the same for the 84"x12" pieces, as illustrated. The goal is to have these four pieces fit together to form what looks like a three-dimensional tic-tac-toe board. This is what the platform will rest on.

Step 3: Take one of the 84"x 6" pieces and cut it into four equal 12"x6" pieces. Screw these together as illustrated. This will act as a brace for the middle of the bed. Place this in the middle of the tic-tac-toe board when it is placed on the ground.

Step 4: Lay the platform so that one corner of each of the four 42"x30" pieces rest in the middle of the tic-tac-toe support. Drill holes and screw platform into the tic-tac-toe board as shown (where red dots are).

Step 5: Lay the remaining three boards and screw to the middle brace and tic-tac-toe board. Paint around the edges where the mattress will not cover the platform.

You're done! Enjoy.

Copyright Rob's Fobs. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Light of the World

Someone asked me today at work why we Catholics wear ashes on our forehead. I explained that it was the beginning of the penitential season, that the ashes are taken from palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday, that "we are but ashes and to ashes we shall return," etc.

But that never really answered the question as to why we wear them. Are we being branded like Jews with the star of David during the Holocaust? Or are we flaunting something, looking to be 'set apart,' acknowledged, congratulated for having gone to church or for being good Catholics or whatever. If that is the case, it seems contrary to what Jesus says when he tells people to wash their faces when they are fasting, to do all this in secret, so as not to attract attention to oneself as the hypocrites do. For that reason I was tempted to wash the soot off my forehead. But part of me felt they served a purpose. I just couldn't put my finger on it just yet.

Maybe it is a kind of branding, these ashes. If we claim to be Christian, when we are marked in this way, it holds us visibly accountable to our actions, behavior, and demeanor. It puts us in the spotlight (or under a microscope), not so that we might show off our good deeds, but so that others might see us and either be edified or scandalized, for "nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light."

Jesus said to his apostles, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. " For this reason I think wearing ashes leaves no room for any kind of pride, since it is about giving humble witness, proclaiming through sign that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. At the same time, wearing ashes is a display of confident dignity that we are children of God, fallen, yes, but still followers of Christ, and that we are, indeed, called to light the way for those in darkness by our public be the light of the world.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Poem for the Evening

Pork and a cigarette
before the Great Fast.

The Desert Fathers on Habit

"Believe me, brethren, even if someone has just one passion as a habit, he will be subject to hell. Even if we do ten good deeds and one bad one, the bad one outweighs the good. It is like the eagle that is not captured by the snare, but only his claw is caught. Because of this he is captured and loses all his strength. Even if his whole body is outside the snare except just his claw can we say he has escaped? Anytime he so desires, the person who has placed the trap can take him. It is the same with the soul. If it has one passion hardened into a habit, the enemy can cast it down anytime he wishes because he controls it through that passion. It is for this reason that I will always tell you not to allow any passion to become a habit."

--Saint Dorotheos of Gaza

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Make No Mistake: This is War"

As my friends can attest, I love Mardi Gras. For the past five years, I have thrown a party to celebrate the last day before the start of Lent with drinking, smoking, feasting, and dancing...a gorging of the senses. I will not be hosting Fat Tuesday this year due to various circumstances, so in lieu of the partying I'm approaching this time with a more somber (and sober) state of mind than in the past; that is, with a deep breath and a tightening of the belt, invoking the prayers of the Desert Fathers, feeling like a knight on the eve of battle, an athlete the night before the Olympics.

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of spiritual boot camp. It is not about giving up chocolate or 'getting ashes' or self-improvement; it is about beginning the hard work that must necessarily accompany our pursuit of holiness. When we are marked with the sign of the cross, we are invited to pursue our true vocation: to 'turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.' It is our initiation into battle...with sin, the Devil, our passions, and our very selves. Let the games begin.

Monday, February 8, 2010

"I Used To Be Somebody, Now I Am Somebody Else," pt. 3

Marriage has always seemed like a kind of death to me. I remember my father telling me after a fight with my mom, when I was 9 or 10, cracking open a beer and putting me on his lap saying: "Robbie, don't get married. It's the end of everything." Or something to that effect. I've never forgotten that, whether I want to or not.

When I met Debbie, it became clear--or, at least, more clear--that God might have another destiny lined up for me. It was not a matter of wanting to get married or not; it was, more, "Can I make a life with this person?" and asking myself if God might have opened this door after he had shut the one to the monastery. Because in all truthfulness, I did not really see anyone else but God and God alone in the picture. Who was this woman, and what was I to do with another human being? Would it compromise my spiritual life, or at least, the spiritual life I endeavored towards? Would it be The End?

I reflect on this as my own wedding date approaches in July. Am I seeing this as an end, or a beginning? Maybe its both, like, what is that, Jastrow's "Rabbit-Duck?" Yes, that must be it. The altar is like an operating table where a New Thing is born; it also becomes the chopping block where my autonomy, my fantasy of being 'someone else,' loses its head. This death and new life is incarnational in its sacramental character and happens simultaneously: I am saying no to myself and yes to another; no to 'me' and yes to 'we.' 'Me' still exists, but is subjugated to the 'We.' In essence, a WE is born, a New Thing.

When God took flesh, did he become less God? And when Christ was born, was he not a man, as well as a man-god? The two exist together. And so my solitary life meets its death only to be born again, reincarnated, and joined at the hip to my partner for life to be.

If I seem unsentimental, it's not because I am without sentiment, but rather, that I don't trust sentiment when it comes to taking such a monumental leap of faith; I do not want something so unreliable being my guide in my journey to the altar of forever.

Could I find happiness in this life with someone else besides Debbie? I'm sure I could. But the strength of love comes in the choosing. Just as God chooses us, I choose you. No one else: you. There is something very ordinary in that choosing. And something absolutely extraordinary as well.


Jesus Christ Superman

[Substitute 'Christ' for Superman and 'Jesus of Nazareth' for Clark Kent and you have some pretty interesting Christology to chew over]:

"Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there's the superhero and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.

Clark Kent is how Superman views us. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race."

--Bill in Kill Bill, vol. 2

"I Used To Be Somebody, Now I Am Somebody Else" pt. 2,

One of the few books I kept when I moved out of my apartment was a dog-eared copy of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. In it, Kazantzakis imagines Christ's greatest temptation to be the Ordinary Life--that is, using his superpower to get down from the cross, marry Mary Magdalene, have a family, and settle down. No sacrificial saving the world atonement destiny business...just ordinary living. Christ always had this choice from the beginning, because Jesus the human being, like all human beings, had free will. History tells us Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross; CCD tells us Christ died for our sins. But Kazantzakis dares to imagine another ending, one in which Jesus decides to be "just human," not for our sake, but for his own.

After I realized I wasn't happy living the life of an urban hermit, I donated the bus, moved in with a friend from graduate school while I got my act together, and set out to petition the abbot of Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiqui, NM, to accept me as a postulant. I figured I may not have been able to cut it as an ascetic on my own, but maybe with the support of the community I would be able to fulfill my destiny as a cenobite living for God alone. I was denied. Rather than sit outside the monastery gates for forty days without food or water as a more serious petition, I accepted this as a sign that God was closing a door to a room that was never really mine to enter in the first place. My destiny, it seemed, was not going to work itself out in monastic life after all.

In the ensuing months I could not help but wonder: am I just an ordinary person trying desperately to live an extraordinary life, whatever that might look like? Or was I an extraordinary person being sentenced to an ordinary life? Maybe I was an extraordinary person destined for great, extraordinary things. Or maybe, I feared, I was just an ordinary person destined, like most everyone else, to live an absolutely ordinary life.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

"I Used To Be Somebody, Now I Am Somebody Else" pt. 1

The day I realized I was not extraordinary, that I would lead no extraordinary life, that I was never destined to do extraordinary things, it was raining.

My newly-purchased 6'x12' dwelling, the infamous green school-bus that was to be my 'urban hermitage' for the next year, was parked around the corner from the apartment that I had just moved out of hours before. My possessions were piled high inside, leaving me with little room to do anything but lie in the middle of the floor as I helplessly listened to the sound of the sky crashing against the metal roof above me. I had nowhere to go, because I was already there. What I had planned to do for the next year was quickly coming into question. My Idealized Self and my Real Self were meeting, and it was turning out to be a humiliating rendez-vous.

Since college, I aspired to work out my salvation as a monk; it was my career-goal. I spent a number of years visiting monasteries across the country, trying to find a community of men who would accept me, and in turn give me a place to call home. The year of living the solitary life in the school bus was my idea of a testing period, an internship of sorts (albeit without the careful guidance of a spiritual father to watch over me), to see if I could cut it as an ascetic. I wanted an ordinary life that was, in the eyes of the world, quite extraordinary. And I wanted it on my terms.

Now that I was living the pseudo-life of a pseudo-ascetic, I found myself struggling with the logistics of not having electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing, with doubt, with loneliness, and the embarrassing realization that this life and this solitude did not seem to be fitting me as well as I imaged it would. So far my experiment had siphoned me off from the norm, but the words of Angela Hayes in American Beauty ("I don't think there's anything worse than being ordinary") haunted me like a debt collector. Sitting on the floor of the bus that night, listening to the panging of the rain, I was starting to smell failure. It felt like Ordinary Life was just around the corner, grinning, getting ready to swallow me whole.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Get the Job Done

When it comes to exercising, or being good, or doing anything I don't want to do, I think of the parable Jesus tells of the two sons:

A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go work today in the vineyard.'And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, 'I will, sir'; but he did not go.

"Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.

It doesn't always feel good doing what you don't feel like doing. It makes me grumpy, cursing under my breath. Talk is cheap, though, so it doesn't matter much what you say. Just do what God asks of you. Best to do it joyfully, but even if you can't muster that, just get the job done. If you're talking about quitting smoking, quit. If you're wondering whether to bag the run today, don't. It might hurt, or at least be an inconvenience, but at least you'll have a clear conscience at the end of the day. Make your yes mean yes and your no mean no. But when they don't match up, go Nike and just do it.