Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Mojarra's Revenge

One sunny Saturday in Veracruz, I got a closer look at my lunch.

What a grimace! What a magnificent scowl bristling with fangs!  And oh, the impunity of the fork that kept digging, digging, digging into his ribs.

"Mojarra al Ajo, I presume?" said I through a mouthful of fish.

"Presume nothing," said his hollow-eyed glare.

"In English your name would be Garlicked Crappie," I offered. "It's really a good thing you're a Mexican fish."

"Can't you see I'm not in the mood for conversation?" said he. And he fell silent, gazing off into the distance with stony resignation.

Not many of us can manage to look dignified even while mute and supine on a plate festooned with orange slices. I was impressed. I was almost starting to love him for more than his body.

And yet, and yet... was that a sneer quivering in his skeletal nostril?  Did I catch the slightest hint of disdain for his superior on the food chain? Did my lunch dare to scorn me?

Why, you uppity little crappie! When I'm done with you, you'll be a head and a tail connected by a ribcage. Take that!  And that!  And--- mmmmm...

So fresh, so hot, such a scrumptious little morsel! He was, most definitely, the fish with the taste to match his 'tude, the Mojarra with the Mojo-- al Ajo, no less!

And oh! He stayed with me all... day... long...

By the end of the day, after half a tube of toothpaste, I had to admit: in this round of lunch wars, that scrappy little Crappie had won.

My advice to future lunchers: steer clear of the fangs. Go for the grilled huachinango instead.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Initial Reactions to The Rite

Here it comes: a week of nightmares!

Pea soup, anyone?
Today JC and I went to see The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins. I was interested enough to overcome my usual aversion to horror flicks only because I had interviewed the author of the book, Matt Baglio, for the National Catholic Register.

Apart from the deeply disturbing spectacle of seeing a possessed pregnant woman, what stood out for me the most were the mind games that the demon(s) played on the exorcist and the seminarian. It's one thing if an orc-like monster with bulging eyes and blackened, clawlike nails jumps out of the shadows and seizes the good guy by the neck. But it's another to see the subtle ways he infects his victims with self-doubt, fear, remorse, guilt, and the whole gamut of debilitating, paralyzing emotions. It's another form of warfare altogether.

And it makes sense. The devil is a spiritual being, not just a lumbering oaf with horns and hooves. He is subtle and astute, a clever deceiver who has turned his immense gifts to the service of himself, excluding God, love, and all things good and beautiful. He is a corrupt genius who delights in his own perversions, exulting in the harm he can do to others. And the deepest harm he can do is not to the body: it's to the soul, to the mind, to that part of us that seeks truth and love with blind longing, like a vulnerable shoot seeking the sun. With words like acid, he can sear and wound the heart, darken the mind with despair, make lies swarm in like... well, like flies.

Depression is so common these days. There are so many young people with dysfunctions of various kinds. It would be facile to say the devil is involved in every case. But what about that inner monologue that some people experience, that constant running commentary in the mind that blames, recriminates, paralyzes...?  What about young women with eating disorders who starve themselves into skeletons and still hear a voice saying, "How fat and ugly you are. No one will love you"?  How much of that interior damage was caused by a whispered suggestion here or there, like the invisible hand that sets a ball rolling down a hill and then lets it fall by its own momentum?

It made me wonder. If we could strip away the veil of materiality that stands between us and a purely spiritual vision of things, how many shadowy actors would we see on the margins of our lives, or in the midst of the lives of our loved ones?  How much sway does the devil really have in our communities and neighborhoods? 

So much is hidden from us now. One day we'll see everything as God sees it. For now, it's a quiet but urgent reminder to stay rooted in grace, to make prayer my best defense for myself and my loved ones, and to stay close to the One whose victory defeated sin, death, and evil forever.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Jalapeño Way

On my wedding day, my Dad's toast was short and sweet, like a miniature Italian dessert.
Blowing out the roses.

"It's been an unpredictable road," he said. And then he added a brief word of congratulations before we all lifted our champagne glasses and continued savoring the authentic Roman millefoglie cake on our plates.


I liked that. Not just because it was true (who thought I'd be consecrated in Regnum Christi for ten years and then marry a Mexican and move to Xalapa?) but because one of my secret hopes for my life has always been that it will surprise me. I don't want to control everything in my life, and I think that those who try to are missing out and stressing themselves unnecessarily. Surprise is the spice of life; it's the kick, like a Jalapeño pepper.

Of course, one of the ironies of my life is that with this thirst to travel, this desire for adventure and the unpredictable and uncontrolled, I ended up living ten years of my life mostly in Rhode Island, under the watchful eye of control freaks. Well... shucks. I suppose I learned some things that were helpful.

But I also learned something that never worked for me. It's this whole idea of planning and measuring your spiritual progress: making a "program of life," checking off resolutions in a leatherbound agenda (can't live without that agenda!), analyzing your progress in biweekly spiritual direction, lamenting your lack of progress in confession, resolving to do better in morning meditation, being prodded and exhorted and pushed toward further progress in Sunday talks, homilies, directives, classes, Encounters with Christ, and even song practice. (Pant, pant...)

The problem with planning and analyzing spiritual progress is that you end up living your spiritual life as a self-perfection program. It's all about me. My progress. My failures. My spiritual "physiognomy" (Do I look good yet?  How about now?). Me, me, me.

Who needs it?

I know Socrates said the unexamined life isn't worth living, and St. Paul himself said that the fool looks at himself in the mirror and forgets what he looks like. Self-awareness is good. Okay. But the man who looks incessantly at himself in the mirror is a fool of another kind. And when all that talking and measuring and analyzing and examining outweighs the art of living-- as it did for me during those 10 years-- it becomes counterproductive.

So here's my new philosophy of the spiritual life:

Live. Just live the surprises of each day like a batter poised on home base, waiting for that next pitch so he can rocket it out into the stadium and tear up the dirt on his way around the diamond. Each day has its toil, Jesus said. So true! But it isn't a bitter drudgery. It's a sweet, surprising kind of toil. It's just love in action; it's like planting seeds that you know will bear wonderful fruits.

I have a husband and a baby daughter. I don't know what tomorrow will bring, but I know that today's mission is to love both of them with all my heart and to give the best of myself to both of them every day. It's a simple mandate, and I just try to respond to each day as it comes. I don't plan out a strategy every day or measure how I did at night. I just live, and when inspirations or ideas come about things to do for them or ways to respond or initiate, I try to follow them. I'm not following a plan on paper; I'm listening to my heart. The marching orders are hidden within the shape of events as they unfold.

Pouring my love and my heart into these two people is what I sense God is asking of me right now. I have the certainty that the love I give them is helping to build something great: a strong marriage, a happy family, a little girl who is secure in the knowledge that her mommy and daddy love each other and love her with all their hearts.

In one of his books, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that the fruits that endure are souls. For me, this is my vocation and mission: to create something greater than my own self-perfection: to create a society of love, a refuge of harmony and joy, a place of peace, a family modeled after the Holy Family.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph certainly didn't try to plan and control their own spiritual progress. They just lived each moment that Providence sent them, giving their best and responding with faith and love. There was no five-year plan. There was just today. And today. And today. There were days when "today" was dark and excruciatingly painful. But they were ready for those days because they gave their all today.

That's how I want to live, too. Not controlling, just surrendering.