Armcharity, Or, Let Not Your Facebook Know What Your Twitter Is Doing.

UPDATE : A rewritten version of this essay appears at Catholic Exchange under the title The Temptations of Armcharity. If you are visiting from CE after reading it, welcome! You’ll find this piece a little deja vu so feel free to look around the place for something new:)

Full disclosure: If I had to declare a side in the Great Refugee Debate it would be pro-refugee.  I believe that the demands of charity in this case outweigh the actual potential threat.  This is because I feel the refugee system as it relates to North America would do a decent job and is not fraught with the complications of countries living on the physical borders of this crisis.  I also think the potential for abused student visas or home grown terrorism far surpasses the refugee risk.

That being said, I’m pretty thoroughly disgusted with much of the language of debate taking place on social media.  One group accuses the other of cowardliness and lack of charity because they dare feel a responsibility to the lives God has particularly placed in their care in their children and neighbors.  This in an age where our government is wholly untrustworthy.  Of course they have legitimate concerns. Meanwhile the other side uses a candy analogy. Would you eat any of these if you knew some had poison.  Suffering people are not M&Ms!  You’re not talking about enjoying them you’re talking about saving them.  Be serious.

In the end though it is all part of the sound and fury, signifying nothing, that has become our culture.  Sounding brass and tinkling symbols.  Do you know what both of these positions hold in common? Stating them loudly on facebook takes absolutely zero actual charity or sacrifice.  Sure it sounds lovely.  “Bring over the refugees!” “Oh I only wish I could help them but I have a higher duty!” Words.  Just words.

This is the new way of things.  We sit in our comfortable homes, connect to our wifi, sip coffee and feel cozily superior while we compete to see who loves more than whom.  From ice bucket challenges, to ash tags, to debates on refugees, to awareness months, to tinting your profile picture.  Watch me live my faith!  Watch me love!  Click like or Baby Jesus will cry.  (Side note, although Jesus’ example is always important and the Gospels teach, using Jesus as an easy gotcha moment in a debate seems to border on blasphemy to me.) All the effort it takes is the ability to operate a smart phone.  Are all these things bad?  Of course not.  Awareness is good.  Inspiration is good.  But we are indulging in a kind of wallowing in easy charity, a pornography of self-righteousness, that makes us feel good as the primary motivation instead of helping others.

Matthew 6: 3-4: But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

We must get back to this ideal of charity.  Advent is a time of preparation.  Let us take this opportunity to cleanse our motivations.  Take as a model that titan of the Christmas season, Saint Nicholas.  Saint Nicholas, whose legend tells of anonymous giving and a spirit of generosity to the less fortunate forever associated with the Christmas season.  His example of secret charity continues to this day, with parents the world over giving to their children while Santa gets the credit.  This year let us give alms, in secret.  Let us quietly volunteer without sounding trumpets.  Let us bow our heads in prayer for the poor wounded world at least as often as we debate what to do about it.

Does this mean never debating on social media?  Not publicly professing your beliefs? No.  It does mean making sure you have the right priorities.  It means when someone asks for prayers you stop what you are doing and actually pray if you click like under their status.  A quick Memorare at the computer screen may do.  It means that when you do a challenge or recommend a charity you do some research and donate yourself if you can and should.  It means keeping some charity as a secret treasure between you, the person you helped, and God.  A quiet experience of love of neighbor in the midst of all the noise.  It means, whatever you think about where the poor displaced people of the Middle East should spend the near future you personally invest something in making their existence there more bearable right now.

So that is my Advent challenge: to get off of the internet and do something, anything, without anybody watching.

(Image: The Dowry For The Three Virgins, Gentile da Fabriano)

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Through a Glass Darkly. A Love Letter On A Strange Anniversary

November eighteenth.  On this day nine years ago I married my husband.  On this day one year ago, separated by half the globe, we lost our fifth child at 21 weeks.  Mike was on a long flight when I called from the car outside the doctor’s office.  So I told an officer at the flight desk.  It was 3am before he called me back.  I sat on the floor in a corner of the dining room in a hushed house full of visitors and we talked for hours.  We cried.  We planned.  We even managed to laugh a few times because that’s how we are.  I don’t recall much about the conversation but I do remember saying “why did it have to be our anniversary? This is what we will remember every year.”

Here we are a year later.  We could not foresee that night what pains lay ahead, that we would lose another child within the same year.  Yet I feel differently about it now than I had expected, in some ways the opposite.  Now it seems apt, even right, to remember these two anniversaries together.  This last year has been a terrible one I would never choose to live.  But it has been an utterly remarkable and amazing year of marriage.  I don’t know that it can be put into words, but here is my attempt:

For the first eight years our marriage was pretty much ideal.  We two walked through lovely grassland.  The air was a little hazy, so you couldn’t see that far ahead; but the grass smelled sweet, the breeze was pleasant, and there were wild flowers everywhere.  We walked on, hand in hand, chatting desultorily, no particular direction in mind, no hurry to be anywhere.  Certainly there were trials.  Sometimes we would grow thirsty long before a stream.  Sometimes our legs would ache or blisters would spring up on our feet and we would have to sit and rest.  There were sharp stones and little gopher holes to watch out for.  Sometimes the sun would beat down too strongly, and sometimes the scenery seemed too monotonous.  Still it was a lovely journey with the pleasantest companion.

And then one day we awoke and inexplicably there was a mountain before us.  Somehow we never saw it coming.  Yet there it was, the top shrouded from view.  The only way was up.  There wasn’t a choice.  So we started to climb.  How disorienting it was at first to find ourselves in this new landscape!  The wind blew icy, cutting to the skin.  We sank up to our waists in snow, slipped and slid backwards.  Rocks bit into our hands as we struggled to pull ourselves from one precarious hold to the next.  We barely spoke; every bit of oxygen in the thin air was needed for the climb.  Our breath billowed out in clouds. Over time it became second nature to communicate instead through gestures and eye contact, anticipating each other’s needs.  Sometimes I became so tired I wanted to sit and rest but this wasn’t like back in the meadow.  You couldn’t stop to rest.  You would freeze where you fell.  You would never get up again.  So Michael would carry me.  When I saw that he couldn’t bear the weight any longer I would climb again, and rearrange the packs to take a heavier share of the load.  Occasionally a plateau would open up and we could breathe more slowly, let our heart rates fall, relax our vigilance a little.  Still the summit was nowhere in sight.  We had to reach it.  We had to.

Then, so slowly it took a long time to notice, the weather began to clear.  Through the thinning cloud we made out what might just be the summit. Best not to mention it at first.  But yes, there it was, definitely a peak.  Our footsteps quickened.  Until one day we clambered up on to the top and looked out at the world beyond.

What a view! For the first time in nine years you can see far, far off to the horizon.  Ahead of us stands a world rich with diversity.  I see deserts, canyons, mountains that dwarf our little peak, cascading rivers, sparkling lakes, beautiful fields and cool forests.  And away in the distance, shimmering faintly, the sea.

Suffering has changed us.  Our legs and lungs are stronger.  We work together with new ease.  Not only that but from our position up here we can see the possibilities, the richness of marriage as never before.  We are more genuinely aware of the potential tribulations of the journey.  It doesn’t look nearly so easy from here.  We don’t even know exactly how hard the way down from this perch will be!  It looks rather precarious I think.  But oh! It is all so breathtakingly, terrifyingly, awesomely, beautiful.  We know the pride of bravery in the face of trouble.  We know the sweet humiliation of being aided through weakness, of being carried.  We know the heart swelling fulfillment of love in bearing the other.  Trial and respite, success and failure, suffering and delight, all of it, all of it is glorious.  All of it lies ahead.  It’s almost time to start moving again.  We just have to remember where the ocean lies, and keep going until we reach the shore, hand in hand.

St. Paul writes:

Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.

I am still very much a child.  I still see only darkly.  But my marriage to this wonderful man has allowed me to catch glimpses I never saw before.   I feel the immeasurable comfort of being really known so that I cannot even imagine the way God knows me, the way He knows my boys and holds them in His mind.  I see love’s breathtaking power  to overcome all else so that I cannot even imagine the love that is to come, a love my two sweet boys already know better than their parents.

And now there remain faith, hope, and love, these three: but the greatest of these is love.

I love you

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