Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Pulling the Wool Over... My Head?

This afternoon I called my sister Kathy to see if she had survived the flooding (she lives in the NorthEast), and she said to me, "Say, you remember a year ago or so you asked me what I thought about covering my head in church? At the time I didn't see the point . .. but I'm thinking about it now." Turns out, she went to a women's conference in which the speaker told a story that made Kathy think twice:

One day a farmer went out to the field and discovered that his flock was in trouble. One of the newborn lambs had died, and another had been rejected by its mother (different animal). The farmer tried to get the rejected lamb to go to the ewe that had lost hers, but she would have none of it. The lamb was dying, and the farmer had to do some fast thinking.

Quickly, he skinned the dead lamb, and wrapped the wool around the rejected one, smearing the living lamb with blood from the dead one. Miraculously, the mother sniffed the lamb, and allowed it to nurse. The covering made the lamb acceptable to its mother.

"I've been thinking that wearing a covering on my head might be symbolic of the spiritual covering [in baptism] of Christ," Kathy said to me.

I think she's right. Just as the priest (a man) represents Christ, victim and priest, so we as women represent the Bride. Our true glory, then, is not our hair... but the covering that restores us to eternal life.

Just a thought. Thanks, Kathy.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

My "Kid" the Border Collie

The last few posts have been particularly heavy, so I'd like to turn to something a little lighter. A reader recently criticized the fact that I refer to my border collie, Missy, as one of my "children." She writes, "I realize the author knows the difference between owning a dog and loving a child... It just bothers me."

Of course she is right to suppose that I know the difference between owning a dog and raising a human child. His Holiness the late, great John Paul II urged pet owners not to ascribe to pets the treatment and dignity due only to other people. And yet, he also acknowledged the unique and privileged bond that can exist between humans and other creatures. (Go to

Missy (my border collie) has been with me since I was single, and -- believe it or not -- helped me to acquire many useful parenting skills. For one thing, since I didn't become a real parent until I was well into my thirties, she kept me flexible -- inside and out!

I'll never forget the night when she was a puppy refusing to come in for the night (we lived on a farm, and she spent the day chasing cows with the owner). She wouldn't come in for supper -- and if we went inside she sat outside my bedroom window and whined. This went on for hours (making it impossible for me to go to bed because of the noise), until Craig and I figured a way to outwit her: We sat with a bedspread pulled over our heads on the front porch, until her curiosity got the better of her -- then we tossed the blanket over the indignant dog and pulled her inside. Then Craig went home -- and I went to sleep. A short time later, I discovered that a pocket laser pen freaked Missy out so that she would bolt inside the moment she saw the little red light. No more runaways.

The Dog Gets the Man

Missy is also at least partly responsible for my husband and I getting together. For our first official date, Craig invited me and my little "blind spot" on a picnic at a local park. Gallup Park is divided in two by the Huron River, which is spanned by arched Japanese-style bridges at either end of the park. When we arrived, we picked out a spot near the edge of the river, and Craig proceded to toss Missy's favorite pink ball into the river for her to retrieve. Missy was only about nine months old at the time, and would wade in only as far as her undercarriage.

After a couple of throws, Craig got one in a little too deep, and Missy waded in then turned back and looked at him as her precious ball floated down the river. The message was clear: "YOU got me in this mess. YOU get the ball!"

Obligingly, Craig took off his socks and shoes and waded into the mucky river to retrieve the dog's favorite toy, dropping his beeper in the process. Dripping wet, he clambered on the bank and presented the ball to Missy -- then suggested that we go somewhere so he could dry off. As we made our way back to the car we crossed the archway. Missy -- who apparently had not finished "testing" this interloper for her master's affections -- waited till we reached the highest point on the bridge... and spit her ball back into the water. She then turned and looked at him again, with an unmistakeable expression. "There. You gonna get THAT one, too?"

To his credit, Craig did not toss Missy over the rail to fish the ball out for herself. "Sorry Missy," he said mildly. "I'm not going to be able to retrieve THAT one."

The very next time he showed up for a date, he had a new pink ball for my "problem child."

So you'll forgive my blind spot, won't you? Missy has been with me longer than my husband and children, and so it is hard to think of her as "just" a dog.

Creaturely Love

When I was in seminary, there were sometimes rousing arguments concerning the nature of pets -- particularly the quality of "animal intelligence" One professor in particular insisted that animals cannot "reason," that they have only instinct -- and that "of course" animals will not be in heaven, since they have no rational soul.

Strictly speaking, animals do have a qualitatively different soul from that of humans, who alone are made in the image of God. Humans are capable of infinitely greater good ... and infinitely greater evil. And yet, many pet owners will also concur with the idea that the loving, loyal companionship of an animal does something very special for our own capacity to love, expands it in a way that few other relationships can.

In his highly recommended book, "A Travel Guide to Heaven," Anthony Destefano observes that it is not unthinkable that God would permit our beloved animals to be in heaven with us, since God does not waste goodness. (I can't find my copy to quote it directly, since it seems every time I get my hands on a copy someone dies and I give it away). But I think he has a point. Love is what makes heaven heavenly. And though it is the greatest and most perfect love -- the love of God -- that cements the streets of gold, it seems only reasonable that in that vast expanse of goodness God would be able to find a tiny corner to celebrate those hints of heavenly goodness we enjoyed while we were on earth. (Christopher plans to ask God to show him the dinosaurs as soon as he gets there. I will ask for my recalcitrant border collie.)

St. Francis, pray for us, that we might learn to love and serve God even more faithfully and gladly than our pets serve us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Is Domestic Violence Grounds for Divorce?

Recently I came across a post from a woman who is contemplating divorce. She writes:

I have struggled with depression, anxiety and stress-related problems since I was a teenager. I was abused as a child by my father (including the most intimate kind of abuse between father and daughter). My mother left when I was little and my stepmom was abusive physically, verbally, emotionally and intimately as well. For the last year I have been in therapy on and off.
I've been learning to set boundaries and learning that I am indeed a person with worth, a person that God created, loves and considers precious. My whole life's paradigm has changed. I deserve to be safe, happy and taken care of. Realizing these things about myself has helped me distance myself from people who abuse me.... I've actually started making friends with people who are kind, who make me feel good about myself. My friends are people I look forward to spending time with. I didn't know that life could be this beautiful.

At face value, this woman's story is bound to cause a rise of sympathy -- what could be more beautiful than a woman who had experienced this kind of lostness to find herself restored to wholeness? If her husband of fifteen years is abusing her (verbally or in any other way), she is right to expect that she need not endure the assault without making any effort to shield herself and her children from the effects. However, the question of divorce is premature at best.

I'm more familiar than I care to be with the dynamics of domestic violence and spousal abuse (though, for the record, my husband is a prince). I wrote to this woman, "My heart goes out to you for all the violence you have experienced in your lifetime, and the ongoing struggle you face to reconciling yourself to your past. Frankly, the road ahead of you may well be as difficult at times as the piece you have already traveled.One of the most difficult challenges for you will be learning the difference between that which is safe and that which is gratifying. While the Church does not expect you to submit to abuse, there is a big difference between securing safety and obtaining a divorce. The first is important -- the second should be sought only after every other course has been tried without success."

In the August issue of Canticle magazine, I wrote an article entitled, "When Abuse Strikes Home: How to Respond to a Victim of Domestic Violence." It lists the three messages every victim of violence needs to hear, and quotes from the USCCB document ( that acknowledges the responsibilities of faith communities to do their part to wipe out this social cancer.

Concentrate on Issues of Safety

The fact remains, however, that the solution to domestic violence is not necessarily divorce, at least not immediately. Especially for women with children, divorce very often produces new problems as often as it resolves old ones. Nevertheless, the victim of domestic violence can and should take steps to create a safety plan for herself and her children that will shield them from the affects of the abuse as much as possible.

Because of the trauma associated with abuse, which can cloud the thinking of the most level-headed woman, she may need help to form a plan that will work for her situation. Yes, she needs sympathy and concern -- but most of all she needs the loving insight of someone who is looking out for her spiritual welfare as much as her physical wellbeing.

If she is being verbally or emotionally abused, for example, encourage her to remove herself and her children from the situation. Leave the room -- and even the house, if necessary. If it is more serious -- including the threat of violence -- help her to create a "safety kit" of clothes, medicines, and important papers that can be stored away in case of emergency. Encourage her to remove herself when she sees the pattern of violence escalating, taking the kids and giving her husband time to cool off.

If the woman is uncomfortable with his sexual advances (particularly if she has a history of sexual abuse), it may help for her to make an appointment with a Catholic marriage counselor, either on her own or with her husband. She should also seek out the counsel of a faithful Catholic confessor who can help her discern the right course of action.

What Should Friends and Family Do?

Friends -- especially women friends -- can be a source of comfort and support. However, a victim of abuse must ultimately choose her course for herself since she is the one who will have to live with the consequences of those choices. Friends wanting to be supportive need to exercise caution, compassion -- and a measure of detachment, recognizing that the victim needs to be confident in her own ability to care for herself and her family.

For a victim of domestic violence, this can be a scary place. She may instinctively look for someone to "rescue" her because of her lack of confidence in her ability to help herself. She may be particularly vulnerable to inappropriate emotional attachments with men, even married men, looking to them as substitute caregivers for herself or her children. For this reason, if a married couple is helping a victim of abuse, the primary friendship should be with the woman, leaving the husband to interact with the children, who may well be in need of a stable and safe male presence in their troubled lives.

Should She Leave Him for Good?

The time may come when a permanent separation is in order, and even (with the help of a pastor) she may decide to seek an annulment (which of course is preceded by a civil divorce). However, this is an issue that is separate from the issue of safety. Family and friends of a domestic abuse victim do well to encourage the woman to separate the two issues, dealing with the more immediate crisis (the abuse) first.

Perpetrators of domestic violence are creatures of control and entitlement. The woman should be prepared for the fact that whatever abuse she endured within the marriage may well escalate in the event that she decides to divorce her husband. He may seek out retribution financially, familially (suing for custody of the children), and even physically. This is all the more reason that the victim of abuse needs to reach a place where she is confident in her ability to care for herself and her children, first, and plan carefully for whatever may be ahead.

God bless you!

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Vagina Monologues, Domestic Violence, and George Weigel

Today ran George Weigel’s article “An Opportunity Missed” (, criticizing the president of Notre Dame University, Father Jenkins, for allowing a production of "The Vagina Monologues" to run on campus.

While I rarely find myself on the opposite side of the ideological fence with Mr. Weigel, in this case I would suggest that, while I agree it was not a good idea to sponsor this production with university resources, there could be legitimate reasons for the “creative contextualization” of the work in another context. For me, the issues to be considered: Could this work be a useful teaching tool, and is the intended audience ready to receive it?

Out of the Saltshaker

First, an illustration. I attended a production of the V-Monologues here in Ann Arbor, a benefit for Safe House, a local domestic violence shelter. (Went with a girlfriend, as this is not appropriate for young teenagers or husbands because of the anti-male bias). We have incidents of domestic violence in my family, and so this is an issue I feel compelled to support whenever I can. (A full-length feature article on my family story will be published about this in the August issue of Canticle magazine. To get a copy, go to

At the benefit after-glow, I introduced myself to several members of the SafeHouse staff, and told them that I was a Catholic writer. Immediately they assumed I was pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and anti-establishment (the only kind of Catholic, presumably, they encounter in their work).

"Not at all," I told them. "Have you ever read the Catholic Bishop's letter on domestic violence? It sends a very clear message to the world that we need to work together to end it -- and that a woman being abused does not need to subject herself or her children to this kind of treatment. This is the kind of client resource you need at your fingertips ... Can I send you a copy?" (To read this document, go to

Watching the production, I was struck by the fact that nowhere does the beauty of authentic Catholic femininity shine so brightly as when it is placed alongside the darkness of the prevailing culture. Jesus ate and drank with sinners ... I've got to believe that prostitutes and tax collectors were not always diligent about keeping kosher! If we are going to be salt and light, we must get out of the collective saltshaker from time to time and find these "points of connection."

There is a strong anti-Church bias among those who attempt to address the social cancer of domestic abuse, seeing us as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. They will never come to us to seek out the truth; we must go to them. From my point of view, in my situation The Vagina Monologues provided an “opportunity found.”

Ready, Even If You're Not

When I originally posted this response to Mr. Weigel's article on the discussion board of CatholicExchange, several were quick to remind me that the issue was not whether adults should see the production, but whether a college should sponsor it (arguing that it was contrary to the principles of good Catholic education).

However, I'm not willing to concede this point, either.

I can understand the need to carefully form children in truth before expecting them to defend error. And I understand that parents sending their children to a Catholic university would expect that kind of careful faith formation to be reinforced in their learning.

And yet, college-age young adults -- even (and perhaps especially ) those who have been given the benefit of this kind of faith formation at home -- will often explore alternative points of view, including those that offend the sensibilities of their parents. Given the choice -- my daughter sneaking out to see V-Monologues with a group of friends and chatting about it over a pitcher of margueritas, or discussing it in a Catholic educational forum --I'd definitely prefer the latter.

This is very different from saying, "They'll have sex/drink/do drugs anyway, so let's provide a safe environment for it." Criticial thinking is crucial to their long-term spiritual health; the other behaviors are detrimental to it.

When my children reach college age, I will want their education to include learning HOW to dialogue with people who subscribe to these kinds of cultural biases. For example, a teacher might have chosen to show a few brief, carefully-chosen segments as part of a classroom discussion on authentic Catholic womanhood. However, many Catholic parents would object to even this kind of exposure to the messages contained in "The Vagina Monologues". And I'm not sure their children are better off for it.

Critical Context

All this is predicated on the idea that students learn the truth first. One of the other posters indicated that Notre Dame doesn't have a class on the Theology of the Body -- which would be an important prerequisite to discuss intelligently the subject of human sexuality.

In an article for National Review criticizing the Notre Dame president and administration (, Colleen Carroll Campbell hints at a cause to hope for this kind of critical thinking when she reports on student efforts to combat the negative affects of the VM production.
The new feminism is still relatively unknown among Catholics, even those studying at Catholic universities. But some Notre Dame undergraduates are working to change that. Earlier this spring, on the same week that university departments sponsored The Vagina Monologues, three young women organized and hosted a two-day conference on the new feminism. With some help from Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Culture and its Right to Life club, the fledgling effort of "The Edith Stein Project" attracted 21 speakers and 300 students from across America to discuss problems confronting women today and ways to promote the dignity and vocation of women in the modern world. Response was so enthusiastic that the students plan to make the conference an annual affair.

So, Father Jenkins, I believe you have your work cut out for you if you are going to uphold your original intent -- to make Notre Dame a place where Catholics learn to think, and think with the Church. Now that the horse is out of the barn, so to speak, it's time to use the situation as a point of fruitful discussion -- starting with an affirmation of the truth.

Monday, May 08, 2006

"Should I Cover My Hair, God?" Part Deux

Have you ever noticed that even something done for a good and holy reason can have unintended consequences?

Last year I began to cover my hair before going into Mass. The whole thing started as an experiment: I remember discussing my advisor the reasons Catholic women had suddenly stopped covering, after having done so for more than two thousand years. Why, given the teaching of the Apostle Paul, did Catholic women no cover their "glory"?

He was, as usual, unfailingly kind and patient. "If you were to cover your hair at Mass," he observed, "It could be a sign of humility, and a good thing." And so, I decided to start covering, and during that time, I discovered it to be a source of true blessing, as I wrote in a previous article on Catholic Exchange:

Under Cover

For six months I draped my scarf or hat over my head unobtrusively as I stepped into the sanctuary. Of course, doing ANYTHING unobtrusively is next to impossible with my two reambunctious little ones. Three-year-old Sarah was fascinated with my covering, and kept tugging at it to see if she could dislodge the thing. She especially liked playing with it when I was on the kneeler, leaving me in a less-than-prayerful mood.

About five months into my six-month experiment, I took a class on "Women in the Gospels" at seminary, and the priest teaching the class informed us that binding up one's hair was considered by some to be an acceptable alternative to the covering. Still, I decided to stay the course.

The final straw came at the six-month point, when I arrived late at church for a teacher's meeting, and realized that the others had gone in to a special Mass. I had left my purse (with the headcovering) in the car, and had a choice to make: Go in to Mass without my head covered, or sit outside and wait for the others. I knelt down outside the day chapel and followed along... where Father Gordon found me a few minutes later. He looked at me, surprised and puzzled.

"Go on in," he urged me.

"But I'm not prepared," I protested. He shook his head and kept going.

It was then I realized things had gotten out of hand. In my effort to do the right thing, I had gotten so caught up in form that it had gotten in the way of my taking my place in the public prayer life of my community. Remembering my advisor's words, I realized that, just as wearing a covering can be a sign of humility, it can also be a source of pride.

Three Indispensable "Body Parts"

As the "body of Christ" on earth, we have members with a variety of personalities, charisms, and gifts. We also each have a different purpose to serve -- even within the prayer life of the Church.

The human body has three layers: The inner core of the abdomen, with its delicate vital organs protected and transported by the skeleton. The brain and heart, the lungs and stomach would not last long if they were outside the body, exposed to the elements. This corresponds to the mystical aspect of Church life: the contemplatives and intercessors and mystics that sustain the life of the Church by the vital connection to the Spirit.

The next layer, the skeleton, provides structure and support. Without this structure, we would not survive, either -- just as, within in the Church, we need the structure that is provided by Tradition and the ongoing teaching authority of the Magisterium. There are also "skeletons" in the pews, members who are diligent in drawing the attention of the community back to the core teachings of the Church contained in the Catechism and Magisterial documents, and ensuring that as a community we do not wander too far afield in the liturgy. These men and women who have often invested their lives in writing, speaking, and teaching in the name of the Church are often walking encyclopedias of canon law and Church history. The American Church in particular is indebted to these brothers and sisters, and their zeal for the New Evangelization.

And yet, the internal organs and skeleton does not comprise the whole body: a third layer is also needed. This fleshy, "huggable" outer layer is comprised of the ordinary Catholics in the pew who live out their faith in daily life through relationship. Through corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and daily perseverance at work and within the faith community, they are lights in a world of darkness. They preach a wordless Gospel of love, sometimes because they know it is the most effective way to convey its message, other times (let's be honest) because they don't know the nuts and bolts of faith as they should. They are like the widow in the Temple, who gave everything she had -- and became a symbol of faith immortalized by Christ in the Scriptures because of her silent witness.

Many Parts, One Body

What do these "layers" have to do with headcoverings? As I talked with other women (both Catholic and Protestants) about their attitudes toward this practice, I found that there was often an interesting correlation between what motivated a woman to cover (or not) and her attitude toward the Church in general and her own faith community in particular.

The "mystics," for example, were generally most appreciative of the spiritual insights I gleaned from the headcovering experiment. At least one I know of -- a third-order Carmelite -- decided to start covering herself after reading my article.

The "structured/apologists" who covered their hair spoke most frequently about upholding Tradition, or belonging to a community in which all the other women did so.

The third group, which represented the vast majority of the faithful Catholic women with whom I spoke, seemed to consider headcoverings a spiritual "non-issue," except for the most pragmatic reasons (such as witnessing to a Muslim or a desire to please her husband).

The other thing that struck me about the experience as I contemplated these groups was the way their faith expressions complemented each other when they supported each other (such as in headcovering discussion groups, or sisters in my own faith community who did not choose to cover their heads but supported me in my own faith journey) -- and how discordant those voices became when one group came to regard another as being less "authentic" or "faithful."

Perhaps more than any other single experience since I joined the Church, the issue of headcovering crystalized for me the reality of the Apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Cor 12 (18-24):
But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.

In the Body of Christ, all three groups -- prayerful mystics, traditional apologists, and relational workers -- are needed to sustain life and health, both in the physical world and the spiritual world: Without the life-giving vitality of the mystical "core," bare bones grow lifeless and cold. Without the structure and protection of the skeleton, vital organs are susceptible to the harsh realities of the elements, and suffer damage and even loss of function. Without a fleshy exterior, the vital organs and skeleton repel rather than attract; it is this outer layer faces the world, that communicates the warmth and life and vitality of its inner workings.

Finally, my haircovering experiment taught me an important lesson about myself: That just as spiritual truth is best expressed by the whole Church, rather than a single voice, so it is acquired over the course of a lifetime rather than grasped in a single moment of revelation. In any given moment, God has certain insights, certain spiritual truths He wants us to receive. When I covered my hair, God in His great mercy and wisdom spoke to my heart about my feminine gifts and place within the Body of Christ. When I stopped, I quickly discovered He had other lessons in store.