Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ask Thugfang: A Tight Spot

His Right Dishonourable Loathsomeness, Master Thugfang, is a demon of great infamy among academic circles. He is a frequent columnist for “Tempter’s Times”, an assistant editor for “Wickedness Weekly” and current chair of Tempter’s Training College’s Department of Defense Against the White Arts, after the sudden disappearance of the most recent head under mysterious circumstances. Now, His Right Dishonourable Loathsomeness takes your questions. Having problems with a particularly troublesome patient? Meddlesome enemy agents stymieing you at every turn? Don’t wait, write immediately to “Ask Thugfang” C/O “Underworld Magazine.”

Dear Master Thugfang, my patient is 10 years old. He is in absolutely the worst home situation you can imagine. His parents are monogamous and even happy. They actively catechize their children. He and his siblings are homeschooled, he is an altar boy, a choir boy, a straight-A student, a natural athlete, he willingly gives his money to the missions, and he even voluntarily goes to Mass on weekdays to serve. I am afraid he might be thinking of the priesthood. The little rat positively makes me wish I had a stomach so I could vomit. I ask you, haven’t I been put in a false position? I have been given the worst possible scenario, and the Lowerarchy keeps denying my requests for transfer. They tell me I had better turn this around or face the consequences. It is not fair.

Yours Truly, Much Put Upon

My Dear Much Put Upon,

You should have signed yourself “Much Melodrama!” I see nothing in your case that would warrant a transfer. I see a good deal that sounds like an appeal to justice, which is heavily frowned upon in these circles. I should curb that if I were you. No, results are what we want, not fairness.

On the whole, I cannot understand what you are carrying on about, as if this were an aberration. From the Enemy’s point of view, this situation is the norm, and it is only our constant work which makes it less common than it otherwise would be.

Even granted his unfortunate situation, the picture is nothing like so black as you paint it. Of course you are not a Master of Defense Against the White Arts, but you have had the sense to ask one for help. Here, then, is the situation as I see it. Your patient has been given advantages. We try to keep these advantages from the humans, but sometimes they slip through. So we have to think what use we can make of them. There are numerous methods for tempting at the foot of the altar, but at present your patient is immune to most of them because he is ten years old. His character is not fully formed. Therefore he hasn’t fully chosen his faith yet. You say he “voluntarily” goes to serve Masses on weekdays? I would bet that a good deal of that is because the grown-ups applaud him when he does. It sounds like there might be a bit of vanity, perhaps the flare for acting holy, a touch? This is not to undermine the seriousness of these habits. Right now, there is certainly much real childlike faith and you can bet the Enemy’s agent is working on that. But also (very likely) there is at least some acting going on. In the natural scheme of things, that is simply how the humans learn, but we make it unnatural. You must subtly encourage the actor. Get him to concentrate more and more on what he thinks his parents want, so that later on, in his teen years, none of his “faith” will be his at all.

And of course, he is ten. Very shortly puberty will be coming to your aid. Let’s get a head start on that, shall we? I assume his parents don’t have any pornography lying around the house, (then again, you might want to check the father’s computer. That would be a gold mine. Your work would be almost done for you.) Still even if you can’t get any porn into his hands from the outside, you can still start him off with those lingerie ads in the back of the Sears catalogs. But just getting him to look at women is not enough. That’s amateur work. He would do that without your input. The real master’s touch is to turn the natural sex drive away from relationship, and in on itself. To that end you want it insulated behind layers and layers of shame, and that begins as early as possible. Get the father’s handler working now to make him so embarrassed about the whole subject that instead of sitting the boy down and talking about it with him, the parents will simply cover his eyes and hustle him away from even the slightest hint of sexuality. No explanation, no moral guidance, and certainly no teaching about the beauty and truth of the Enemy’s plan. Just a hush-hush, “That’s bad! Don’t look.” Their refusal to speak will heighten the “forbidden fruit” feel of it. How we use that depends upon his personality. If he is stubborn and independent, this will guarantee he will find out on his own from outside sources, and we control most of those sources. If he is pliant and sweet natured, he will remain ignorant and fearful. Either way this will ensure that the parents will be the last people he will come to for help when he figures out he needs it. His natural curiosity will be shoved into the shadows just when a little light would be the really healthy thing, and a nasty little habit can grow in the background of our fellow’s otherwise picture perfect life. Don’t expect it to bear fruit right away, but keep harping away at the shame and secrecy. You’ll see results sooner or later.

And keep him away from the damned confessional! No light! Everything must remain in darkness. If he must go, make sure he goes to a priest of your choosing.

As for him “thinking about the priesthood!” What the Heaven do you mean by that? Of course he is thinking about the priesthood. Next week he’ll be thinking about being a doctor. The week after that he’ll want to be a dinosaur. He is ten years old! I suppose you’ve been listening to his dear old Aunt Tilly (why do they always have one?), who thinks her nephew is so saintly looking in his cassock and surplice, and is just certain that The Enemy is going to “call him” to be a priest. Blast those Pia Donna’s with their rosaries and their masses and their blockheaded sweetness. I hate them all.  I want to smash all of them to oblivion.

Incidentally, there you can see an example of the first spiritual maxim. We can turn Aunt Tilly’s voice to serve our ends. She herself may (or may not) be completely lost in The Enemy’s camp, but we can still use her. Again, if the boy is an independent, stubborn soul we teach the adorable young acolyte to hate and despise every flutter of gushing affection, and by extension, hate every vocational hint she throws at him. We can do the same with vocational directors, youth ministers, pre-seminary recruiters (Oh the success stories we’ve had with those!) They may be lost to us (or maybe not) but we can still use them. Raw material, my dear Put Upon. Get it through your dull wits.

On the other claw, if the boy is the sweet, people-pleasing child I guess him to be, we can build up in his pre-adolescent mind the subtle awareness that everyone around him expects him to be a priest. The weight of those expectations can then be used later on, either to force him into the priesthood with three bags full of hidden resentment, or to rebel and run a hundred miles an hour in the opposite direction. It doesn’t matter which. You’ll be able to improvise at that point.

Incidentally, have you contacted the parents’ handlers at all? If I were you, I should have a conference with them and get your strategy well sorted out. You don’t want any humility or forbearance on the parent’s parts making your job any more difficult. Better they be hell-driven by fear of their precious little angel ever making the slightest mistake in his life. They ought to think that his every choice reflects directly upon them as parents, and to seek to direct those choices accordingly. Right now, of course, that is natural, but what you really want their handlers doing is setting up a habit of increasing rather than lessening supervision. Then in the teen years and early twenties you’ll see the fruit of your labors. Exactly when they should be learning detachment, let them be ravenously enforcing attachment. Do not let them simply sit back and watch and pray. Whatever you do, do not let them entrust him to The Enemy’s care. You want them on his back.

No doubt about it, your patient is snugly entrenched within the enemy’s territory. He will be defended. Rescuing him is tricky and dangerous, but worth it in the end. You simply must never rest for a moment. There is no rest in Hell. Did you think you were there for a vacation? Get to it, and if the parents’ handlers are not doing their jobs, send me their numbers and I shall see to them.



Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lesson in the Chinook

"Man's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint--"

Today was a jump day. I had to jump out of a Chinook. This is one of the occupational hazards of my day job, that periodically they require me to parachute from an aircraft while in flight. It is one of my least favorite parts of the job. I hate heights. I'm also bigger than the average guy so I fall faster and I always hit hard. Jump days also suck up a lot of time.

Today for instance, we started at 0800, with rigging our rucksacks. Then the prejump brief, a quick break to get measured for some new gear, and before you know it, it's eleven and we are rushing to the hangar to hurry up and get our chutes on so we can make our hit time. Hurry up and rig, then, Oh, wait, someone forgot to do some paperwork so everyone sit down for an hour in harness and ruck. Then hurry up again to get out to the bird that's spinning up on the tarmac. We take off and start heading to the drop zone, but wait! The pilot and crew have some trainees on board so they are going to do some certification tasks. So we land and sit for thirty minutes. Then we take off and fly nap of the earth, zooming along a river bed, up over the banks and the treeline, down into the clear, banking, turning, diving and climbing like a rollercoaster. Then finally we level off and begin the pass over the drop zone. Everyone goes into the familiar routine, "Standup, hookup, check static line, check equipment, sound off for equipment check." We got all the way to "Standby!" before they called the winds at 15 knots. So we circled and checked again. Still 15 knots. So we circled again. Still 15 knots! So we all sat down while we circled once more, or maybe twice more. Then "Standup, hookup, etc. Again."

This time we jumped. I came screaming down fast as a load of bricks again, but landed in a nice, soft muddy patch so it didn't hurt too much. The winds were high enough that my chute didn't deflate and actually dragged me for a few inches before I popped both of my releases.

Then we jumped back on the bird, they buttoned up the ramp, and we took the scenic roller coaster route back. I had missed lunch because we were sitting in harness all day, so my stomach was already empty and queasy. With the ramp shut it got hot and stuffy, and the stale air smelled like diesel fumes and hot metal. I could feel my stomach bouncing around and my cheeks going pale. The other guys said I looked "even whiter than usual". The whole flight back I was focusing on not throwing up. It's all about breathing, and trying to relax.

It was on the return flight, I think, that the quote at the top of this post came into my head. It is from T.S.Eliot's "The Four Quartets". (The Dry Salvages, lines 199-203. No, I didn't know that from memory. I looked it up when I got home.)

I admit that I was pretty frustrated today. I couldn't help but think about all the other places I wished I was, the other things I wanted to be doing, the other people I would rather be spending time with. The frustration continued on the way home, with every traffic light, speed limit and even the other drivers adding to that sense of loss. I wanted to get home so I could begin doing other things that I actually care about. But T. S. Eliot's line kept returning to my mind. "The point of intersection of the timeless/ with time, is an occupation for the saint."

My mind was in New York, in South Carolina, In Virginia, in Panera Bread or Pho' Tai in Tacoma. What was on my mind was the past (the fun I had last night) and the future (upcoming weekends, get-togethers, leave, even the fact that I'm getting out of the army in a couple of years.) I was not in the present, which is the only point of intersection of the timeless with time. So I was not living as a saint would live.

Over the course of the day this has been my ongoing battle, to be present in this time, because this time alone is real. God is found only in the present, never in the past or the future. Leave time in September, as much as I look forward to it, is not what I have been given. It does not exist. I have been given this moment, with the smells, the heat, the headache, the noise, the nausea. The thick, numb feeling of my whole body from hours of bombardment with rotor noise is the gift I have been given. This is my calling, this moment, right here and now. The infinite presence of God is an intolerable notion sometimes, because it means there is no mistake. If I have been following Him, then here is where He has put me. And He did it on purpose. Dwelling endlessly on phantasms of where I wish I was is a sheer waste of precious time, time given me to become a saint. That time spent in discontented grumbling is time horribly unredeemed, unredeemed because I refuse to surrender it for redemption. Time is the stuff of which my eternity will be formed. Let me think twice before I spend my time grumbling.

Here and now and nowhere else is sanctity to be found. Here there are rosaries to be said, praises to be offered, petitions to be made, and redemption to be shared in. I have been given these inconveniences as a share (infinitesimal, but all I can handle) in the suffering that Jesus undergoes for the redemption of my family and my friends. As my mother used to say, "Offer it up!" Offering it up is nothing more than allowing Jesus to make you a partner in His redemptive suffering, a little co-redeemer if I may use the phrase. But to do that I must be present.

So while on the outside the story of my day went much like the paragraph above, a series of routine delays and inconveniences, interiorly my day was pretty much a volley of my mind, bouncing back and forth between irritation and resentment, and peace and gratitude. Going all in an instant from impatient muttering to prayers of thanksgiving, maledictions upon my fellow-man grudgingly reforged into prayers for my loved ones. A long, constant effort to drag my mind back from where it drifts to the call of God in this moment.

...An occupation for the saint--
But no occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us there is only the unattended

Monday, April 9, 2012

You are what you eat?

One evening I trained with a group of Thai policemen who were Muay Thai practitioners. Muay Thai, for those who don’t know, is the national martial art of Thailand, also referred to as Thai Boxing. It is a kickboxing form that relies on strikes with the fists, feet, knees and elbows, and even with the head. It is the Thai national sport and a large contributor to the repertoire of many Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters. I have been training for years American style kickboxing. Sometimes I have been told that this was Muay Thai, but it turns out to be almost nothing like real Muay Thai, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to train with a former competitive Thai boxer and his friends and in exchange shared some softer style combative and open hand fighting techniques.

After we were done training they invited me to go out to eat with them and about an hour later we ended up across the street at a restaurant that specializes in sumtam and dongnam. Sumtam is a dish of meat, seafood, fruit or vegetables, minced up together and sautéed in a spicy sauce. It is more a kind of dish than a dish in its own right and can be made with almost anything. One of the best sumtam’s I have had here was made with apple, grape, carrot, coconut, peanuts and hot Thai peppers. Dongnam is a soup made with meat and vegetables.

Since I don’t speak Thai, and the wait staff doesn’t speak English I usually do the pointy-talky thing with the menu. This time, however, I was with locals and the one RTP (Royal Thai Police) officer who did speak some English assured me that they had everything under control and proceeded to order all the food for me. When it arrived I quickly discovered two things: first I discovered why the Thai restaurants never seem to be able to split up the bill unless they are used to catering to Westerners. In Thai culture no one orders a separate dish. They all order the dishes which go on the center of the table and everyone serves themselves from them as they please. (That explains why some of the Thai’s thought we were rude for eating off the serving plate when we dined out.)

The second thing I discovered was why the RTP officers insisted on ordering for me. They had ordered the spiciest, rawest and creepiest dishes on the menu, and were all watching me with huge grins to see if I would eat them. We had a roasting hot spicy papaya and blue crab salad. The blue crabs were simply chopped in half raw and tossed in the dish. They ordered super spicy minced pork entrails and were more than happy to explain exactly what organ each piece came from. They had ordered a plate of deep-fried duck mouths (yes, you read that right), and to top it all off they had a plate of spicy raw minced beef with herbs. (They had also thoughtfully ordered some deep fried pork neck with ketchup and placed it within easy reach of me.)

So I started eating. I put some of my sticky rice on my plate and spooned some of the pork entrails onto it and ate that. They laughed at me and showed me how to eat it properly, by rolling the sticky rice up into little balls in my hand and dipping them into the dishes (the dipping is called jom and the popping into the mouth is called but. That’s what they taught me, but they may well have been teaching me dirty words for all I know. I certainly didn’t see any of the classier looking Thai families jomming or butting(the interpreters later explained that this was legit, but it was authentic north-eastern style dining, so not in vogue in my area)).

But I ate everything on that table. I ate the entrails, crunched the crabs and bit the beef and loved every bite of it (except the bite in which I mistook a green pepper for a green bean and ate it. That gave me the hiccups and left my mouth on fire. It was so hot that the snot running down my face was hissing and bubbling like molten lava, and it felt like it was melting my chin. Those green peppers are no joke.) After I had cleaned up all my sticky rice, ordered another basket of it and ate all of that too, and every scrap of food was gone, the guys all looked at each other and shook their heads. One of them said something in Thai and the English speaker translated for me, “They say, if you can eat this, this, this, this, you can marry Thai wife and live anywhere in Thailand.”

To which I laughed and said, “Sweet. Sounds good to me.”

The next day I told the story to one of our interpreters and he looked at me shocked, “What you want a Thai wife for, man, I thought you were the one who really loved your wife.”

I laughed and explained that I’m not married. My reasons for not chasing Thai girls every weekend are mostly religious.

He didn’t say anything for a little bit, and I thought the topic was over. But then I heard him muttering to himself under his breath, “Hmmm. Good job, good face, good personality.” Then he looked up at me and said, “Okay, man, if you want Thai wife you let me know, I hook you up with one.”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dignitas Magazine: For All Catholic Women and the Men who Love Them

Happy Easter Everyone! Just wanted to share my cousins' online magazine. First issue was released today! Check them out! (That's three exclamation point's in four sentences, by the way. Expect a corresponding level of awesomeness.)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Lady at the Beach

The Thai people, as far as I can tell, tend to be conservative dressers at the beach. Despite, (or perhaps because of,) the influence of Western tourists and ex-pats, most of the locals I have seen at the beach don’t seem to follow the gag-inspiringly liberal beach attire of their European guests. In fact, they seem, so far as I can tell, not even to have any idea of specific “bathing attire” at all. They just go down to the beach and have fun, at least the particular beach that I happened to be living on at the moment.

Today I went down and sat on the rocks and read T. S. Elliot’s “Four Quartets” and watched the waves and the wind and the people. There was a small Thai family who stopped by for about half an hour or so, a little further down the beach, a man, woman and their son, and a little dog. The humans all went into the water and tried to get the dog to go in with them, but that poor little quadruped was having none of it. The dad finally chased after the dog and caught him, and they took him out until the water was waste deep to the humans, but even at that depth the waves can swell up to head height or even higher. He was just a little dog, and as soon as they let go of him he headed for shore with a much put upon attitude.

They were all wearing ordinary, everyday street clothes, (except for the dog, who had no clothes). The man and boy were wearing shorts and polo shirts, and the woman was wearing a dress, and there they all were, splashing around up to their necks at times in the warm salt water. There was something achingly beautiful about the woman especially, quite apart from the beauty of wind, water and billowing hair (which is a magic combination in its own right). It was somehow enhanced by her unapologetically feminine attire, and even more so by her obvious enjoyment of time spent with her family. She seemed valuable, infinitely so, possessed of a playful dignity, not only evident in her but also in her husband and her son. The way the little boy ran splashing through the waves to bury his face in her stomach with a flying leap/hug and the way she returned it struck a powerful chord of recognition in me. When she stumbled through the surf and put her hand on her husband’s shoulder to catch her balance, he caught her around the waist with a laugh and spun her round in front of him as if he had half a mind to send her tumbling into the water and dive after her himself. He probably thought about it for a second. I know I would have. But she took it with good humor (I could see her laughing from where I was) and was not the least bit nonplussed. You just don’t dunk someone with that much dignity.

Why did the dress make so much difference? I am not sure. Certainly nothing would have changed within that family’s inner dynamic if she had been wearing shorts and a t-shirt or a bathing suit. But there it is. Somehow it enabled her to recapture a little bit of the unconscious queenliness that Eve had before clothes were ever invented. The fact that she was wearing a dress to the beach was amazing, and the fact that she wore it to go tumbling in the water with the two most important men in her life was even more so.

Blessings upon that family.

Including the dog.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Catholic in a Buddhist Temple, part 4

From the Back of the Beam

Wisdom does not belong, can never be received
In mad dash through the in-stoning of millennia of faith
By the tourist. I try to take it with me, and am all deceived
Blistering my finger, with furious photography
A three hour tour and five hundred costless snapshots
Recording in digits time’s nearest approach to eternity
Is a study in the fatuous. A Buddhist monk in Notre Dame
Would not know what he was seeing, but would see it.
We look in different directions, but we open our eyes.
In this we are much the same.

Wisdom comes to the one who does not try
To take the beauty with him, frozen, shrunk
In two-dimensional flatness, to fit his eye.

Wisdom comes to the one who remains. The monk
Intoxicated by beauty, who stays behind
To search forever for that which first made him drunk.

It comes to him who came, but not to find,
But to leave a bit of himself, a pilgrim’s gift
Of a lifetime of devotion, daily, menial and blind.

It comes to him who, day after day, shift upon shift
Glued countless tiny squares to massive walls
Or carved the hidden gargoyles. All these uplift

Their hearts in glad surrender to….
They know not what.
But He knows.
And loves.