Friday, December 21, 2012


I offered you your life in full, unmixed.
I poured it out in torrents across your sheltering
Umbrella. And you hid beneath your overhung
Prophylactic, plastic, umbrella. With fears pulled up high,
Snugly around your chin, and your comfort zone
Pulled low around your ears. Blessings all around
Fell and splashed in puddles on the ground.
Even there, frustrated, for you have grown
Old and enamored of galoshes. Demurely you try
To trudge through puddles of unseen, unsung
Inconvenient grace with never a splash. Sweltering,
Overhot inside the coat of broken things that you have fixed.

Silly child!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Death in Children's Stories

*Note, this post was first written, but not published, well over a week before the events in Newton, CT. Bear that in mind when reading it, but I am already beginning to think about how it applies to that event and especially to the children affected by knowledge of that event.
At Bible Study on Monday night, or rather in the pre-Bible study man talk (the ladies having either not arrived or gone off to procure refreshments) one of the guys mentioned a comic book inspired cartoon he had seen as a kid, and mentioned an episode in which Superman had had his dreams invaded by his arch-nemesis, and in the ensuing nightmare had accidentally killed his friend. The guy reminiscing about this episode pointed out, "You know, some of those cartoons were pretty dark. I mean those were kid shows, but they were really dark for kids."

I mused that I didn't particularly see a problem with death and violence in kid's stories or movies, necessarily, as long as it was done right. Some of the guys agreed, some disagreed, but we didn't really get into a conversation about it.

A couple of things went through my mind when I heard that comment. The first was all the parents I know who try so hard to keep their children from seeing certain movies because they are afraid they will scare them or give them nightmares (and by parents I mean mothers. I don't think I have ever seen a father censor a movie on that argument.) Parents who won't let their children watch "Lord of the Rings" because they think the orcs are too scary, or who won't let their children read the Chronicles of Narnia because of all the fighting. (This is a much smaller subset.)

There were a couple of movies that my parents wouldn't let us see when we were kids because they were afraid we would have nightmares. I don't remember any of them, but I think my parents, on the whole, were pretty sensible about it. They did their best but predicting what would or would not frighten each of us was an impossible task. I remember being frightened out of my wits by the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz; crying at the dressed up White Rabbit in a live action version of Alice in Wonderland; having nightmares about the ghosts in Tevye's dream in Fiddler on the Roof; and lying awake for what felt like years, mulling over the haunted wood scene in Anne of Green Gables. The things my Mom expected to scare me, (Star Wars, for instance) were not scary at all. In fact, Star Wars was hands down my favorite movie for most of my childhood.

What this indicates to me is that it is impossible to predict with certainty what will or will not frighten any given child. The child himself decides, subconsciously and without understanding the reasons, what he will be afraid of and how he will be afraid of it.

On a deeper level, the whole idea that children must be protected at all costs from frightening ideas and images is counter-intuitive to me. (You will note that 1: I am a man and 2: I have no children of my own.) I do not think that movies that are frightening simply for the sake of being frightening, (i.e. horror movies) are good for children. On the other hand, I think that violence, fear and death are absolutely necessary in children’s literature and movies.

Grownups who do not want these elements in children’s stories do not understand the purpose of stories in a child’s life. Grownups think of stories as merely entertainment, but this is a stunted two-dimensional way of looking at it. Children know better. To a child a story is another life, no different in perceived reality or importance from the child’s own real life. Stories are a way of learning, perhaps the most powerful way in which children learn. Grownups worry sometimes about children entering so completely into their imaginary worlds. I know a lot of grownups were disturbed by how seriously I took my imaginary world as a kid but that is precisely how we learn. By investing the imaginary world with such depth, the lessons we learn there stick deep. To this day I still learn things in the same way. I imagine things and live them in my mind before they happen and learn prudence. I listen to other peoples’ experiences and try to enter into them, and I learn empathy. I live various possible solutions to problems and anticipate complications. None of this would be possible without that early childhood training in allowing my imagination full rein.

More importantly, stories change who we are. They allow us to grow up.

One of my young second cousins is 4 ½ years old. His parents have been showing him the animated Redwall series (based on the truly outstanding books by British author Brian Jacques.) Now, in the Redwall series there are many bad guys. In the first season there is the vicious rat Cluny the Scourge, and his vast horde of bloodthirsty vermin, weasels, stoats, ferrets and such. However, more sinister still is the serpent, Asmodeus. The brave warrior mouse Matthias has to fight with this serpent who is a hundred times his size and overcome it in order to achieve the sword of Martin the Warrior and fulfill his destiny. (Ha Ha! Just remembering the story is getting me pumped. I loved that series and read dozens of those books out loud to younger kids when I was a teenager. Good times!)

My cousin’s mom told me that the little boy was so scared of the snake that he was standing up on the couch as he watched it, ready to run away at a moment’s notice. But then his dad showed him how Matthias killed the snake, and now it is the little boy’s favorite part of the movie. He role-plays “Matthias and the Snake” over and over again with his dad, or whoever else will play it with him. Sometimes he is Matthias and sometimes he is the snake, and both are deeply significant from a psychological point of view, but the main point is that that he has looked the snake in the eye, and slain it.

G. K. Chesterton said, “Fairy stories are important, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.” There should be a sign over the entrance to this world to warn us, “Here there be dragons!” Like it or not, dragons roam the byways of this earth and sooner or later every child will meet his dragon. When he does he should do so already knowing that dragons can be slain.

I am not talking about head knowledge either. I memorized my Baltimore Catechism with the best of them when I was a fuzzy headed altar-boy. I could quote from memory about the theological virtue of hope, God’s promise to grant me the “salvation of my soul and the means necessary to obtain it,” but I was fully twenty-five years old before that formula meant anything to me more than the words that made it up. I had long since encountered dragons aplenty and had long since had need of the hope in my heart that would give me the courage to fight them without rest or quarter, certain that in the end victory would be mine. The rational understanding of that hope came from my formal education, the training in writing, logic, philosophy, catechism and other such arts of the mind, but the habit of hope had been formed at a much earlier age by much humbler influences. Long before I knew how to read about serpents I already knew that they ought to be defeated, and that they could be defeated, and that I was born to fight them.

The grownups who refuse to allow anything frightening in the stories their children hear, watch and read, may be providing them with better entertainment, (or maybe not. After all, what is a story without a conflict?) However, they deprive them of so much more. They assume that all fear comes from outside of the child, but this is not the case. This is a fallen world. The shadow of Original Sin is cast from within and the fears are already there. Frightening things frighten because they echo in the dark places of our own souls. In depriving the child of an imaginary bad guy to be afraid of, you deprive him of any way of focusing on the internal fears. In depriving him of imaginary heroes you deprive him of any way to face his fears and defeat them.

Children’s stories, therefore, should be realistic. This is not to suggest that dragons, hobbits, elves and dwarves are to be eschewed. The fairy stories are more realistic than the tamer stories could ever be, because the fairy stories get to the real root of the world, to goodness, truth and beauty; to evil, lies and ugliness; to the courage to stand up for the right and resist the wrong. In the end, fairy tales tell us the only things that really matter.

They tell us there is hope.


Monday, December 17, 2012

What to Say?

I feel like I ought to say something about the tragic killings in Newton, CT. Every other blogger in the world worth his salt has taken a break from their regular schedules to talk about it, offer some consolation which will not be read by the ones who most need it, or a prayer, or an invitation to prayer. I don't even have a regular shcedule to take a break from. But what is there to say? What do I know about it? Nothing.

I know that a young man went into an elementary school with a gun and killed children and teachers. That is it. I don't know any more, I don't want to know any more. I wish I didn't know that much.

I don't know any more because I only hear about things like this second hand. I don't watch, listen to or read the news except at work where I cannot avoid it. I can't help but think there is something unhealthy, or at the least a bit disturbing in our national fascination with "The News." It feels a touch voyeuristic. A tragedy like this occurs, and yes, it is tragic. The nation will talk of nothing else for a while, and ratings will go up. The gun/anti-gun debate will intensify, politicians will make speeches. The faces of those who survived and the families of those who did not will be splashed across television screens and printed pages for our sympathetic viewing pleasure. Somewhere in the nation, right at this moment, there are a handful of sad, sick, dead young men who are taking note, wondering whether they could do the same thing, whether they could maybe do it a little more spectacularly.

Whose life is enriched in the slightest by having all the horror and pain of the world paraded in front of their eyes every evening, commented on by talking heads with well-practiced emotions? How many people are going to do anything to live more fully, and how many will merely become more depressed, or more desensitized?

For myself I never want to know about things like these, unless I can do something about it. My first reaction is always a deep, black, nauseating anger. I wish I had been there. am one of a handful of men in this country with the training, skill and will to stop such a tragedy in its tracks. I could have killed the perpetrator, quickly and efficiently, and saved lives. But I wasn't there. It does neither me, nor the victims, nor their families, nor the perpetrator, nor any living person any good for me to be angry like that. Anger without action is poisonous, and I don't want to be poisoned by it, so I don't want to hear about it unless there is some action I can take.

Ever since I can remember I have dreamed about being a protector of lost, abused and neglected children. My reason for joining Special Forces was to get training I could use for that goal. Sometimes the knowledge that I have these abilities now, but not yet the freedom to put them to use, irks me. About three years ago I was venting about that to a friend of mine and she told me to be patient. I will be led to act when I am ready, but only God knows when that is. In the meantime, she said, you should pray. So I have. Everyday since then when I have prayed my rosary I have included a decade for the children of the world who are lost, or neglected, or abused. That is my action for now. I did not want to know, but now I do, and therefore I will pray.

Another action is to continue to train. As I get closer to finishing out my time in the Army I am starting to research the anti-human trafficking fight. Somewhere, sometime, a door is coing to open and when it does I will be ready.

From now on, I will always have a pistol on me whenever I legally can. The odds are I will never be in the right place at the right time to have to use it, but that isn't really the point. The point is that wherever I am there will be a tiny island where violence against the innocent will not be tolerated, and will be met with consequences proportionate to that violence.

This should go for everyone. I am not saying that everyone should carry a pistol (although if you are willing to put in the time and money to learn its use, I highly reccomend it.) I am saying that this tragedy, like all others, was the culmination of millions of tiny allowances. Whatever it was that happened to this young man throughout his life to kill his soul so thoroughly, it happened because people around him allowed it to happen. If it was abuse, he was abused because people who knew about it did not take action. If it was bullying then he was bullied because the students and teachers around him allowed him to be bullied. We reap what we sow.

Defend the innocent around you, and remember that the guilty are guilty because they were not defended when they were innocent.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Time for Questions

I haven't posted here in a bit. I was sent out for a while to do training, but the training was rather poorly planned, so there was an abundance of downtime. I finished four books and read a great deal of T. S. Eliot's and Francis Thomson's poetry.

I wasn't too far from a major city, and I might have enjoyed seeing something of the city, but it wouldn't have worked out. I would have had to go into town with the other guys and what they want to do and what I want to do are generally incompatible. I didn't even want to listen to the stories of their evenings out. I didn't want to listen to the jokes, or be a part of the general atmosphere. There was a certain irony in the fact that, because I was the last one to show up, my cot was right in the middle of the big open bay we were all living in. All around the bay were grown men, running around naked or flashing each other, telling stories about the strippers they hit on the night before, sharing home-made porn clips and x-rated music videos, and acting out some truly sick fantasies with a naked blow-up doll someone bought to put in the Captain's sleeping bag as a joke. Right in the very center of the whole mess, there I was, lying on my cot, reading the Divine Office and saying my rosary. And that was my comment on the whole affair.

I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't attack the vice more aggressively. I have come a long way from my early days in the Army, when I rather Quixotically took on every single challenge to the faith, my morals, and good manners with reckless abandon. I eventually learned not to be drawn out by every windmill that crossed my path, and consequently got along better with the other guys. I limited my protests to simply walking away from any conversation that turned vile, and answering any questions I was asked. Earning respect as a soldier also helped. I am stronger, smarter and faster than most of my peers, I shoot among the best, and I look like I know what I'm talking about, so they are more likely to tolerate my morals.

But what would I do if I really cared about them? I would be exhausting every effort to warn them of the eternal damage they are doing to their souls. It isn't so much a question of "Am I going to hell for this?" (I get asked this question pretty often.) The fact is, they are busily constructing hell in their own hearts. I know, I've done it. One way or another, every sin shapes my heart a little more into a hell that I carry around with me wherever I go, until God comes in and restores me.


I have been in a questioning mood for some time now, a month, month and a half, something like that. Everyone goes through periods in their life when they question everything. Right now I am questioning every choice I have made, every habit I have formed, every idea I have shaped, all my writing and thinking. There is much that I find to be good. There is much that I find to be wrong-headed, or lazy, or cowardly.

The biggest question I cannot seem to get a handle on is: what do I want to do with my life? At 27 you would think I should have this more or less figured out by now, but I really don't. I recently read an article in which Peter Kreeft writes about discernment with his characteristic penetrating insight and common sense, and it squares with an idea I am slowly formulating.

It's a bit comical how Catholics (and in fact, it cuts across all Christian denominations) seem to have made such careers out of "discernment." It is odd. The concept of "vocation" and "discernment" do not seem to have occupied much of the thought of generations before us. From ages in which young people more or less simply did whatever they had the heart, wits and wherewithal to do, to our present age in which what seems like most of the young people I know spend five to ten years of their late teens and early twenties dithering about between vocational discernment retreats and incessant soul-searching for "God's will."

I am beginning to wonder if it is not a tactic of the enemy, in the current phase of the war. I would be interested to see where the concept of "discerning a vocation" came from and how it has evolved over the last 50 years. I suspect it grew out of the need for priests and religious that plagued the Church in the 70's, 80's and on through the present day. Certainly the idea of asking God to make His will known and to give us wisdom and courage to follow His will is a worthy goal, but, as Peter Kreeft points out, it can be taken to a ridiculous extreme.

What could be more ironic than hundreds of thousands of Christian young people, so afraid of missing "God's Will" that they spend the strongest and most energetic years of their lives doing nothing worthwhile except stressing out about their "vocation."

That is probably what the devil would like to see happen, but fortunately a lot of young adults are more sensible than that. They go out and do things, working in the missions, or in ministries or go to college, and so accomplish good things, but there is a sense of transition to the whole business. I notice a sense of "in the meantime," or "This will do to be going on with until I find my real vocation." I am pretty sure I reject the "in the meantime" approach. It has always seemed to me that there is never a moment that doesn't have its good that can be accomplished, and accomplishing it is my vocation. I used to think the larger decisions flowed out of the smaller decisions, but now I am not so sure.

It is impossible to say precisely what I mean. I don't have an answer for the riddle I am proposing myself. I rather think that vocation is a cooperation between the individual and God. God gives us the gifts and talents that He has given us and says, "Abide in me and bear fruit that will last." The precise method He leaves up to us, apart from the occasional special, extraordinary call. Mother Teresa, for instance, had a definite calling. Who knows, perhaps she was able to hear it simply because she had opened herself enough to hear it, and everyone would hear their own call just as clearly if we would only make ourselves as available as she did. Or more likely not, I think. It would seem more in keeping with God's "style" to leave most people in a little bit of uncertainty. "Abide in me and bear fruit that will last," seems to be all most people are given. Since we are given everything we need, I am forced to conclude that most people don't need any more than that.

In the end the only thing I am sure of is that I want to be a Saint. I want to be completely turned over to God, completely abandoned to Him. I think that is the goal of everyone's life, whether they know it or not. The exact shape that it takes is less important.