Leaving Afghan (3)
Leaving Afghanistan with 3rd Plt, C Co, 70th En Bn, June 2008.

Recently I have been reading and mulling over two excellent articles over at The Public Discourse. The first is a piece by Anthony Esolen. While I cannot agree with all of his thoughts (most notably his historical nostalgia and his one-sided view of the Middle Ages in some of his books) he is always an impressive scholar, an intriguing thinker, and an awe-inspiring writer. His article focuses on the inadequacy of the maternal approach alone to raising boys up to become men, maintaining that mothers cannot teach manhood, only men can do that. Part of the current crisis in our culture, he maintains, is a crisis of boys who are not growing into men because their fathers are not teaching them.

 

The second piece, linked in the first, is a piece by Glenn Stanton, whom I had not heard of before. It is even better than Esolen’s piece, focusing on the anthropological origins, or more precisely the ubiquity, of the understanding of the necessity of teaching manhood to the next generation. This is not simply because society cannot do without manhood (which may loosely be defined as “prosocial masculinity”) but because the alternative is either asocial maleness, or antisocial maleness.

Both pieces concur on two crucial points:

  1. Manhood is a learned behavior that must be taught to boys by men. It is a social shaping of male drives into a form that is useful to society rather than a drain on society, or a threat to society, and as such is ultimately at the service of female aims and ends (i.e. ordered to the stability and security of family life and the wider social environment). Nevertheless, it cannot be taught by women. It can only be taught by men. This is because…
  2. Manhood is also an identity that is conferred only by peers, i.e. by older men, or at least by other men. A boy will not accept a definition of manhood that does not carry with it the authority of a man that he respects.

It is the second point that I want to take a closer look at, and where I go beyond both Esolen and Stanton. Both posited that untrained maleness is profoundly asocial, and must be trained to be useful to society by other men, because a boy will only accept the lessons and the designation from another man. They did not get into the weeds about why a boy needs to hear this from a man.

I think the answer lies partially in an understanding of what teaching and learning manhood entails. At its core there is an element of competition. Competition is the heart and soul of the school of manhood. There are many explanations for this, ranging from the theological to the evolutionary, but the observed reality is that (most) boys will engage in competitive activity when left to themselves. This runs the gamut from cooperative competition (sports team vs. sports team) to competitive cooperation (competing for position within a team) to outright competition and warfare (bullying, gang violence, etc.). Regardless of the venue (farming, logging, fishing, hunting, sports, military, business, finance, politics) males will compete with each other. Healthy males will compete in healthy ways, while unhealthy males will compete in unhealthy ways. I define “healthy” competition as competition which leaves the team (family, company, platoon, etc.) stronger. That is, competition which is ordered to the strengthening of the individual members and the overall social body is what Michael Gurian calls, “Competitive nurturing.”

This calls for a re-evaluation of our original proposition, i.e. that untrained maleness is profoundly antisocial. I would argue that in the strict sense, that is not exactly true. Maleness is not oriented toward a stable, peaceful, family-oriented society ordered around the raising and protecting of children. In that sense (what we usually mean by “social”) it is antisocial. Nevertheless, maleness is social, in that it naturally tends towards the formation of what may be called the primordial male social model, the gang.

In reality, the true loner is a very rare bird. Most unattached males throughout human history tend to congregate in gangs, small groups of half a dozen to a few hundred, depending on circumstances. They establish hierarchies by competition or outright violence. They define themselves vis a vis outsiders, they adopt a gang culture which may be simple or elaborate. After that they operate toward the outside world, not as a conglomeration of male individuals, but as a unit, i.e. a gang.

It is here that trouble begins, because it is in aggregate that untrained maleness is most definitely antisocial. In fact, because of the “us vs. them” mentality, coupled with unattached male energy, the natural tendency of a gang, any gang, is towards protecting our own, and pillaging everyone else’s. All warfare, organized crime, genocide, social violence, and tyranny in human history have been perpetrated by gangs, or by gangs of gangs. Very, very little of it is done by women. Probably even less is done by lone males.

In pre-modern settings, the most stable male relationships are not male-female, but rather male-male. I believe (without having conducted an exhaustive study) that male-female friendship or comradeship were rather an exception than the rule in pre-modern society. Sexual relationships (for men) do not bring with them any intrinsic requirement for stability, fidelity or even longevity. We run into the fundamental biological sexual cross-purposes, namely that the woman is intrinsically invested in the act of procreation, while the male is not. What is to her a commitment of her entire life, and a risk of her entire life, is to him no more than a fleeting pleasure, over in moments and soon forgotten unless actively recalled.

I believe it is this fundamental biological fact that underlies the need of male-male relationship. In essence, evolution has engrained in men the default position that women come and women go, but the battle buddy, the blood brother, the comrade-in-arms, he stays forever.

This is frightening but important. The flip side to this is that there is one observable, hardwired social tendency in the unattached male, which is his need to achieve the respect of his peers, to be identified by them as “one of the gang.” The gang instinct is a real and powerful need in men, often understated, nearly always misunderstood. (For the record, this is not the only social tendency in men, it just happens to be one of the strongest, one of the most underrated by our society, and the one most relevant to this discussion).

Leaving Afghan (2)
I did not begin to be a man until I was a man among these men.

 

That is why the teenage boy needs to know himself a man in the eyes of men for it to mean anything. It’s nice when a mother praises him, or a sister admires him, or a girlfriend flatters him, or a wife affirms him. It is nice, but not sufficient, because it does not come from a man, and does not come in a manly way.

Male approbation is always earned, never given. Another way of putting it is that I love you as I choose, but I respect you as you choose. It is usually based on four characteristics: courage, strength, technical know-how, and dependability. These are the virtues of struggle and combat, the virtues of a gang of men battling for their lives and their families against whatever odds, which is why they must be tested by competition with other men, or with some outside element (nature, wild animals, rock-climbing, etc.) under the judgment of other men for the verdict to be valid. When a woman admires a man’s courage, she might be making an informed decision, or an intuitive judgment, or she might just be being nice, or she might be flattering him for some ulterior motive. The one thing she is not doing is testing him against a worthy opponent because she is not a worthy opponent. She may be worthy, but she is not an opponent. Human males are almost universally hardwired to shun competition with women (violence against women is something else entirely).

These are the virtues that male brains are hardwired to admire, to look for in other men, and to demand of their peers. A healthy society of men will hold themselves accountable to these standards one way or another.

It is important to note that these are “amoral virtues” meaning they have no necessary connection to any higher moral code. They are as much the virtues required of a missionary or pioneer as they are the virtues required of a gestapo officer or cartel hitman.

To summarize, as this has been long and somewhat wandering:

  1. Manhood is a learned behavior that must be grafted onto basic asocial maleness in order for society to survive and thrive.
  2. Untrained maleness will spontaneously form into gangs because that is how males define themselves, vs. other men.
  3. Manhood must be taught to boys by men because of the fundamental drive of men to define themselves vs. other men.
  4. It is only by building masculinity onto this foundation, the gang instinct, that it will be brought into service of women, and thus the family, and then of society at large.

Last Thursday on our anniversary, Ryan was trying out a new move on the rings. He had tried it once before a couple of days earlier and been unsuccessful. So this time he tried harder. Here is what Happened:

This resulted in our anniversary being spent mostly at the hospital.

Fortunately they were able to get Ryan in for surgery to repair the injury the very next day. So now he is walking around the house with a sling, And will likely be in the sling for the next two weeks. Overall recovery time will probably be about three months.

No word yet on whether this will nix the deployment or not. We probably won’t know that until his post surgery follow-up appointment at the end of the month.

Oh well, that’s the price you pay for trying to be a badass. Just means I’m going to need to take a little bit longer to nail that move. Certain people have suggested that this injury is a symptom of some strange condition known as “getting older.” However, I don’t think that’s accurate. As a matter of fact since we’ve been married, the average age in our household has been going down, not up. So I can’t be getting older! Because Math!

Recently I had the terrible duty of attending the funeral of a fellow Special Forces solder. He was an acquaintance of mine, we had gone to Thailand together once and done a few drills together, but other than that I didn’t know him very well.

IMG_0814
Funerals like this are the only reason I keep my Army Service Uniform ready at all times.

This is the third time in the last two years I have attended a funeral for a Special Forces soldier. Each time it gets harder. It also seems like each time the soldier is a little bit closer to me.

This one was especially hard because of his family. When I went to pay my respects at the coffin, there he was lying there in his service uniform with all his tabs and ribbons, and amidst all the regalia was a folded piece of paper with childish scrawl on it that said, “I love you Daddy.”

I could barely keep it together the rest of the day.

When I was in the Q-course I naively looked forward to the day when I would graduate and life would be easier. No more forced marches, never-ending testing, constant scrutiny. I looked forward to the time when I would have, in some sense, “made it.” As C. S. Lewis would say, I had not yet learned that usually the reward for doing one good deed is to be given the opportunity to do another, even harder one.

I learned when I got to the team that I had not made it. I was still doing forced marches (this time on skis, not what I expected, but not that bad. In fact, it became kind of fun). The worse problem was that I was still under scrutiny, I was still being tested until I had earned my place on the team. Even that was not a permanent thing. As they say, “You’re only as good as your last f— up.” Whatever reputation I had was not a made thing, but something I had to live up to every day until, eventually, living it became part of my persona, and then my personality. Even then, the job wasn’t easier, it was harder, because more was riding on my performance than ever before. In the Q course if I failed it affected no one but myself. On the team my failure could cost the life of a teammate or an innocent civilian. This was why team life was so much harder than the Q course.

I left active duty because I did not want to be gone nine months out of every year any more. I stayed in the guard because we were starting a family and needed the insurance. These days I live at home with my family and go to school, most of the time. I workout and train continuously because I still need to maintain some readiness, but it is not my full time job anymore, until I get called up. Then it all becomes real again.

The physical hardship is no harder to deal with than it has ever been, even if I don’t recover from injuries as quickly as I used to. Even so, the job is costlier now. I never worried too much about getting killed in combat because that was the job I had set out to do and there was no one who depended on me. Therefore, I never prayed for physical protection for myself in combat or training. I never prayed that my life would be spared, because there was no one relying on me to live. Now there is. I don’t want my daughters to grow up without me, and I don’t want Kathleen to have to try to fill my place and do the job I promised her I would do.

This means that continuing to be Special Forces now calls for real courage and trust. It takes no courage to face IEDs when you don’t particularly care whether you live or die. It takes very little trust to continue doing a job when the consequences for failure only affect yourself.

Now my family rides on my success or failure, my life or death.

There is no way to face that except by trusting in God. I must fix firmly in my mind that He loves Kathleen and Evie and Ellie far more than I ever could. I do not rely on Him to help me take care of them. I accept that I am one part of His providential care for them that spans eternity. I will live to care for them as long as He chooses to use me for that purpose, but even when I am no longer the instrument He wishes to use, that purpose will still hold. He will never abandon them or forsake them.

Again to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “Whether He means us to live or to die, Jesus will be our good Lord.”

I pray that this upcoming deployment remains peaceful and that diplomatic solutions can be found for our differences. If there is war, however, I am even willing to pray that I make it out alive, for my family’s sake.

Every morning I get up and pray. It is a struggle. Almost every day I have to force myself to

st-francis-de-sales-quote-on-a-wandering-heart
Borrowed from https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/9-tips-focus-mass/

get out of bed, make coffee, kneel in front of the crucifix and begin my prayers. I have to force myself to keep my mind on the words, on the presence of Jesus, on what I am doing and who I am doing it with. It isn’t even a matter of keeping my mind there, so much as continually bringing it back.

Over and over again I bring it back, usually with a sigh, to the task at hand, which is usually simply to trust in the Presence of God in the midst of a staticky sort of emptiness.

If this sounds discouraging, it isn’t. I am describing what my prayer life is like at this time in my life, but I am not complaining about it. After all, I have a prayer life. That is a gift. I didn’t always have a prayer life. Millions of people around the world do not have a prayer life. The mere fact that I do pray is a blessing and I am grateful for it.

In fact, that is the big danger, that I will become pleased with myself. I can easily become complacent and lose what intensity I do have. Prayer and training are much the same, in that regard. The hard part is remembering what they are all about, remembering that we are at war.

I saw it all the time in the Army, even when I was on active duty. I even saw it in Special Forces, from time to time. When you are in garrison in peace time, or only pulling occasional easy missions to Thailand or Nepal or Europe, where all you really have to do is train and party with our allies for a few weeks, it is easy to feel like the training doesn’t really matter. Everyone laughs at the crusty old team sergeant who always insists on that one extra run through the shoot house, or dragging out the tourniquets and running some trauma training. Sometimes it takes a funeral to bring it home to you.

We are at war. Training matters because training saves lives. And it isn’t the big, flashy, sexy training events with people jumping out of airplanes into the water and swimming up onto the beach with SCUBA gear. That is good for movies and recruiting videos and making generals feel good about their career choices. The real business of saving lives is the continuous, repetitive daily practice of the same old thing: drawing and firing the pistol; firing the rifle; putting on a tourniquet; whipping together a pressure dressing; running, rucking or lifting; managing vital signs; talking to people who want to kill you, or who just don’t like you; building common ground with ideologues from either side of the fence. These skills are basic, lifesaving, and necessary, and they save lives.

They are also boring.

I have an A-type silhouette on the wall in my garage and a training pistol that fires a laser instead of a bullet when you pull the trigger. Most days, before I leave for school (after morning prayer) I dry fire that or my rifle a few times, practicing my basic stance, presentation, sight picture, and movement, with and without body armor. It takes a couple of minutes to get in a few dozen good quality repetitions. Sometimes I feel like it’s a few minutes I could do without.

I do it because I am a husband and father, and also a soldier, and someday the muscle memory I build a little bit every day may be the difference between me coming home to my family or not. When I find that I am forgetting that, and starting to get lazy with my shooting or at the gym, or in my medical training, I deliberately remind myself.

We are at war.

Prayer is similar, but even more serious. I train for combat a little every day, but when I pray it is not just training. It is the real deal. That is actual spiritual warfare. In the air all around us, all the time, demonic and angelic forces are continuously locked in an epic struggle. The devils and all the powers of darkness and hate are ranged against us humans. All of us. Even our human enemies are less our enemies than our fellow casualties in this cosmic struggle.

Prayer is an act of war, an act of renewing our commitment to being on the side of Jesus and all the Saints and Angels. It is my daily call for orders, and taking my station, asking for protection for my family and friends, and making sure that my supplies and commo and gear are set before I go out into the day. It is also an offensive weapon, a direct strike against the devil.

There is no more important thing I do in any day than my first hour of prayer.

It is life and death.

The only hard part is remembering that.

Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above,   like gentle rain let the skies drop it down.

Let the earth open and salvation bud forth;

let justice also spring up!

Isaiah 45:8

I had an interesting insight this morning during morning prayer as I read this passage. One of the occupational hazards of being human, I suppose, is being distracted in prayer. One of the occupational hazards of being a military man is being distracted by a preoccupation with combat. So I had to pull myself back from mentally designing a rifle and pistol training event that I want to set up, to get back to the Divine Office. And when I came back in to read it, it was this passage from Isaiah.

When I read that, I had the image of myself standing outside of a very large burning building. I had a tin can full of water in my hand and I wanted to put the fire out but all I had was a tiny little tin cup of water. I was ready to throw that little bit of water on the fire solely as a gesture knowing that it wouldn’t accomplish anything. And then water came down from the sky, as a dew, or is a gentle drizzle, and slowly begin soaking the burning timbers until eventually, after a couple of hours the fire was extinguished.

It is an image, and like all images it is a way of suggesting the truth too complex to be apprehended logically, but graspable intuitively.

world_in_fire
Source http://parody.wikia.com/wiki/File:World_in_fire.jpg

Sometimes it seems to me that the world is on fire. Recent events in Berlin, Turkey, and Syria have reminded me, as if I needed any reminding, but the world is a dangerous place, full of hatred and violence. My response to the reality of violence has always been on the one hand to seek peace in my own life, but on the other hand to pursue what I call the Way of Training. By this I mean disciplined, consistent, long-term pursuit of the skills and abilities necessary to confront violence directly. These include, of course, combat skills, but also medical skills. In the simplest terms, not much is changed since I was a little boy and all of my games revolved around stopping the bad guys and healing the good guys. Life is not that simple, but that’s not a bad place to start.

The problem is that it’s so overwhelming sometimes, and we risk being like the me in the image, roaming around burning building, or even a burning city with my little cup of water, unwilling to keep that water to myself and not do my bit, but also not knowing how to spend that water in a way that will actually do some good, and not just be a waste of gesture.

I suppose my tin cup of water is my history of, and familiarity with, the use of force. Perhaps in a broader sense that represents all of the decent, honest, hard-working warriors in the world: military folks and police officers mainly, but a few private citizens in their own right. We all want to stop the burning, and just make the world a safe place for the innocent people, but no matter how many times and how many places we put the bad guys down, more just pop up somewhere else.

It’s important to remember that the use of force, and in fact all human effort but most especially effort centered around military options in the force of arms, are not and never can be final solutions. They are stopgaps. Only and ever stopgaps.

I am not sure that I want to call The grace of God a “final solution,” since that phrase tends to reduce complexity of the fallen world to some sort of Advanced math problem. However, the image of dew, or gentle rain fall, is a hopeful one. The water forms in the air in a million tiny little droplets. Unlike water splashed on from the outside, the rain forms within the heart of the fire. At first it seems like it has no effect because the heat just vaporizers it as it falls. But even the vaporized water goes back up into the clouds, cools again, and falls again. Each time the waterfalls and his vaporized it absorbs a little bit of the heat from the fire, and it burns that much cooler. Eventually, slowly and after an agonizingly long time, The fire is reduced to smoldering ruins. Then eventually even the smoldering embers are reduced to ashes, and the ashes become fertile soil, and something new grows in their place.

How is that hopeful? Am I basically saying not this world is lost and there’s nothing we can do but wait for God to come in and magically make everything all right? No.

I think it is about having a realistic, by which I mean humble, understanding of my own place in this fight. Putting out the fire is not my job. My job is to salvage what I can. Perhaps that means just keeping the walls of one little house damp, so that it doesn’t go up in flames. Perhaps it means putting out one little fire in one little back alley so that somebody can escape to safety. It means that I must be active and resisting the fire but not settle myself but the expectation of putting out the whole burning city myself.

There is one other thing that may be drawn from this image, if I’m not stretching the analogy too far. I only have a little bit of water, and if I splash it on the first conflagration  I come across, it will not put it out and I will be left dry. I don’t think that I need to use it sparingly, but I do need to have a good resupply plan. That is I need to maintain contact with the source of that water.

Nietzsche had a quote to the effect that, “He who fights monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster himself. If you stare too long into the abyss the abyss stares back into you.” It is too easy to get sucked into the pattern of the violence that you’re trying to resist, especially if you lose contact with the source of the water. This is why the heart of all apostolate, is contemplation. The temptation for well-meaning Catholics is often to focus on social justice and charitable action so feverishly that we lose, or let go of, the time for prayer. This may achieve some short-term gain but it never last long, because once you stop praying you are cut off from the source of all water. Being too busy for prayer is like a firefighter being too busy to hook the hose up to the fire hydrant.

Anyway, that’s what came to me during prayer this morning.

*To “Wear your red hat” is a slang term in Army planning for the process of viewing a situation from the point of view of an enemy.

A while back, during some Army training, I had the opportunity to participate in a planning exercise. The scenario was that a small team of Special Forces guys (us) was going to be inserted into a country that had recently suffered a violent coup. We were to link up with the remnants of the legitimate government and begin working to enable them to cooperate with conventional U.S. forces in order to retake their country.

It’s a pretty standard scenario for SF, and has been since our legacy days with the OSS in WWII. That was a large part of the “special” warfare, preparing resistance forces to work with the Allies when they arrived. The details of the scenario don’t really matter, except to note that in our fictional Area of Operations (AO) there was an enemy infantry division of 6,000 troops garrisoned in the capital.

Now, part of the planning process involves looking at the entire situation from the enemy’s perspective and planning what they would do so that we can develop contingencies for our own plans. The official term is “war-gaming” but we often call it “wearing the red hat.” Of course the potential range of activities for the enemy is virtually limitless and it is impossible to foresee and plan for every contingency, so instead, by convention, we limit ourselves to two specific courses of action (COAs). These are the most likely (MLCOA) and most dangerous (MDCOA).

Without getting into all the details, we decided that the MLCOA was for the enemy to keep doing what they were doing in their area, continuing to consolidate their hold on the country, register people, disarm, conduct atrocities and war crimes and maybe launch an occasional small scale anti-guerrilla operation. The MDCOA, we decided, would be for them to take that division sized element, mass all 6000 troops in the various small towns throughout the AO, and conduct huge sweeping search maneuvers all through our territory. We reasoned that this was the most dangerous because it would pin us down and cause us to be surrounded by a vastly superior force, and eventually fixed and destroyed by their superior firepower.

I don’t know about you, but certain death usually counts as “most dangerous” in my book.

That was what we came up with, and that was what we briefed to the senior SF officer who was playing the role of our task force commander. After we had finished explaining that, we ended up contradicting ourselves by saying that our plan was deliberately to trigger that MDCOA to divert the enemy’s attention away from the oncoming friendly forces (and hope that our people could get to us before they did). Then we asked him if he had any feedback.

65076032He did.

“So, your MDCOA. If that is what you guys are trying to do to facilitate the war effort, why do you consider it the most dangerous?”

We reiterated the line about enemy troops massing, fixing, battering us with artillery, etc.

“I get that,” he said. “And yeah, I grant you having 6,000 dudes chasing you through the woods is probably pretty dangerous. But is it dangerous to you or to the mission?”

We were silent.

“I guess what I am saying is, if you can disrupt these guys enough that they feel they have to send in an entire division to hunt you down, some people would consider that a good example of you winning. That is what is going to draw the people to your side. That is what is going to make way for the cavalry to come in guns blazing and clean house. So yeah, you might get killed, but them coming after you isn’t going to damage the overall mission.”

wpaqixhAs we digested that he went on: “You know what would damage the overall mission? If they didn’t come after you, all guns blazing. What if, instead of launching division sized sweep and clear, they started beefing up their secret police? Buying out the local citizens? Sending out propaganda messages that de-legitimize everything you do? Bribe your fighters with offers of power, money and privilege? What if they slowly stripped away your support and then sent in little assassin cells to hunt you down quietly? Or even just capture you and send you out of the country? Do you think that would be more dangerous to your mission?”

All of a sudden it was a paradigm shift. We had been thinking in terms of what was most dangerous to us, and from a purely conventional mindset as well. Now we had to think what was most dangerous to the mission, in an atmosphere where the enemy could use any and every dirty trick in the book to get us.

It got me thinking. Isn’t that kind of how it goes in the Spiritual Warfare? Have you ever had the experience of trying to grow spiritually, maybe during lent, or Holy Week, or maybe you decide to start a novena or a ministry project, or a new morning prayer routine? And did you ever find that plan instantly beset on all sides by temptations, distractions, and even outright spiritual panic?

If you’re like me your first thought when that happens is, “What am I doing wrong?”

However, as a priest said to me in confession once, the question in such situations might well be, “What am I doing right?”

What is it that has caused Satan to ramp up his game against me? Why is he massing troops and conducting counter-guerrilla operations? Unlike in an earthly war where we might want to scale back whatever we are doing that triggered that, in the spiritual warfare, once we figure that out we need to keep doing it. Even when it feels like we are hemmed in on all sides and taking indirect fire every five minutes and about to be wiped out, we need to keep doing what we are doing. That is not his most dangerous COA. It is his most desperate COA. We have superior firepower on our side (that angelic air-force is badass!) and we cannot lose, even if we die.

I will tell you what his real MDCOA is. It’s that slow, steady, creeping discouragement, as prayer-spiritual-warfare-thumbhe slowly and methodically strips away all of our bases of support. Whenever he can convince us to neglect prayer, that’s a supply run that never happened. Avoiding Mass or confession is like not going out to get our resupply bundles.

Worse if he can bribe us with promises of money, power or privilege (or even just comfortableness) to give up Sunday Mass, or to commit a mortal sin. (Can you imagine the damage a Special Forces Team could do to a war effort if while they were inserted behind enemy lines they periodically defected to the enemy? That is what happens every Sunday that we do not go to Mass. That happens every time we commit a mortal sin.)

I guess what I am saying is don’t be discouraged by temptations, or even by sins. Just keep trusting and plugging away (this doesn’t mean be stupid about not avoid occasions of sin). Keep coming back to God, trusting that His mercy and love are enough and even my less than stellar attitude in the armpit end of a losing battle is raw material that He will use to bring about victory.

Absolute trust.

And damn the torpedoes! Full Steam Ahead!

 

Yesterday morning during Holy Hour I received a text message out of the blue from an old friend. It said simply, “Have a super day! I hope its better than ever.”

It got me thinking. The phrase, “Today’s the day,” popped into my head.

The day for what?

Simply THE day. It is the only day. All my life I have been preparing for this day. I bring to it 31 years and 9 days of experiences, successes, failures, thoughts, study and training. God has been shaping me for 31 years and 9 days to meet this day (plus about 39 weeks in utero). Before that He has been guiding the course of history to shape my family line which shaped my genetics, culture and the whole context of my life. He has brought me to this day, and this moment with a purpose that it is up to me to fulfill. This moment is both its own end and at the same time preparation or training for the next. This moment is both the point of my existence to date, and also part of the full weight of being that I will bring to all future moments.

It is an odd way of looking at things. We tend to think of most days as average, run-of-the-mill days and a few days as exceptional. Maybe one day in every ten years really calls forth our full weight of intention, for a wedding, or a funeral, or taking a test for a job. This is partly because we have learned to settle for the boring, the banal and the mediocre. Our lives are quietly bland, and it is our choice that makes them so.

Slide2On the other hand, it is also partly because we do not see the everyday rightly. Everyday is not meaningless. 30 years in Nazareth is too short a time fully to experience the depth and richness that God offers in the everyday. It is not the largeness or the smallness of our sphere of activity or the flashiness of our stunts that determines the meaningfulness of our lives. Rather it is the depth and intensity of our love.

When we learn to live each ordinary day, each load of laundry, each dirty dish or wet diaper with the same fullness of intention with which we live a rock concert or a wedding or a war, then we will have discovered what T. S. Eliot called, “The point of intersection of the timeless / With time…”

as_wx14_td_am1_576Shaun White, Olympic gold medalist, trains his record-breaking moves at an isolated facility in the mountains of Colorado. There, he tests new moves over a giant foam-filled pit, into which he can fall again and again and again until he perfects the move.Only then does he try it out on the unforgiving surface of the half-pipe.

In Norse Mythology warriors who died bravely in battle were taken to Valhalla, where they would train with Odin’s army, which he was building for the day of Ragnorak, the battle at the end of the world. Each day in Valhalla the warriors would awaken and go out to fight each all day long. They would wound and kill and die until the sun set and the field would run red with blood. Then, at sunset, each man would spring up fully alive and well, all wounds healed, to return to the great hall to feast and drink late into the night. They would do this every day until the end of the world, when they would gather for the last time to fight the forces of evil. From this battle, there would be no awakening.

Can you imagine that, though? How badass could you be if you could train all out, 100% intensity every day, to the point of wiping out or getting killed, and then pop back up alive and well to do it all over again? What mistakes would you fear to make if you knew that the discomfort would be minor, or at least temporary, and the experience and glory gained would be permanent?

Welcome to Valhalla. In this life every day, every moment, is a new chance to give it your all. Mistakes are temporary. Imperfections are fleeting. The glory of bringing to your task a mighty heart, is eternal.

Slide1Of course, there is always a deadline. Without it, how could there ever be any adventure? Eventually Shaun White has to take his move onto the real half-pipe. Eventually Ragnorak will arrive, and the dead will remain dead. All day long all of our little actions, all of these infinite number of points at which eternity touches time, are forming the ultimate choice that we make for or against God. That is our adventure, and it occurs in the most mundane of our daily activities.

Learn to see this. Look for it, search it out, and live it. Forget about worthless, passing things like making money or preparing for a secure retirement, and bend yourself to attend to the Eternal love that burns at the heart of every moment.

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The old warrior shuffles along,
Ruck-running south on the right shoulder
Of the Oregon Coast Highway,
And approaches a green, reflective
Road sign saying, “Welcome to Newport,
Population 10,000,” all asleep.
He sees the cast of their headlights
Swinging past as a string of a dozen cars
Flies down the road from behind him.
As they reach him, two-dozen beams of light
From two-dozen headlights,
Throw up two-dozen shadows on the green
“Welcome to Newport” sign.
Two-dozen warriors jog across the sign,
Round heads bobbing in lockstep
Above the bulky green silhouette
Of a 70 Lb rucksack.
The warriors square aching shoulders,
Straighten up against the weight
Of OD green straps digging into
Their shoulder, pick their feet up a little,
Leap a tiny bit forward with each stride
As the road whispers lost echoes
Of boots, sandals, mocassins and bare
Ancient feet, under the whoosh,
Whoosh
Whoosh
Whoosh
Of cars racing by
All asleep.
Snowflakes whirl like dust motes
From a desert far away and long ago,
As the warrior
And the shadows of warriors
Keep the march.

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Ephesians 6:12.

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Tucson Police conduct a Mass Shooting Response exercise.

The truly disturbing thing about mass shootings is how powerfully they fascinate us. We talk about them, blog about them, run news segments on them, act as if they are a growing threat, when in fact they are not actually known to be on the rise, (although they happen a lot more often than we here about on the national news) and only account for about 1% of all murders.

Why do they shock us so much?

By “shock” I do not mean that all too familiar sickening feeling of disgust, pity and discouragement. I mean the feeling “I can’t believe this is happening in (America, the 21st Century, my state, my town, etc.).” Even worse is when something happens to us personally, and we are surprised.

Why? Why do we spend so much time and energy debating about these incidents? We should expect them by now.

We are surprised because we have forgotten that we are at war.

I am not speaking of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are no more than confused scuffles compared to the Great War. The real war is the spiritual war.

When the spiritual warfare gets real, yo!
When the spiritual warfare gets real, yo!

Even acknowledging this does not help most Catholics get it. “Okay, so it’s a spiritual war, you say? I don’t know, those bullets seemed awfully real to me! We aren’t talking about praying and going to confession and arguing with atheists on the internet. Maybe giving up chocolate for lent, if you want to get real crazy about it. But this is too real. Someone is shooting at us!”

Do you see the subtle deception? The spiritual war isn’t real to us, not real in the way a stubbed toe is real, or a caffeine withdrawal headache is real. When we say “real” we mean physical, and we are very much shocked and upset to find that our spiritual (by which we mean imaginary) faith has suddenly started having physical ramifications.

Have we forgotten the martyrs? Have we forgotten that a readiness to die for Christ is not just a cool extra, but a positive requirement of the faith?

The truth is that even in the physical realm all violence exists on a single continuum, from that snide remark I made under my breath yesterday to the holocaust. It is all of one piece. This may seem a bit exaggerated, but it is actually easy to see if you do not get hung up on the overt act, and instead look deeper into the motives for violence.

There are two main reasons why people engage in violence. The ordinary reason is as a means to some other end. I want something and I don’t care what I have to do to get it. You are either a means or an obstacle. The other reason is the sheer, nasty desire to hurt someone else, whether for revenge, for power or for fun.

Once you break it down like that, however, it becomes obvious that those motives apply to far more than simply pulling out a gun and shooting someone. Who doesn’t know a person who will not hesitate to make a scene at a family gathering, knowing that everyone else will let them have their way just to “keep the peace?” That is terrorism on a small scale. Even worse, who has not known someone who seemed intent upon insulting and degrading everyone around them, for no other reason that that they seemed to find it fun?

Who has not been that person?

“In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, ‘You shall not kill,’ and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance.” CCC #2262.

A parent verbally abusing a child, a child saying “I hate you!” to its parent, these are acts of violence, just as surely as slapping, punching, stabbing or shooting the other. They are acts of anger directed at causing pain, or misguided attempts to force the other person to change their behavior, which is still violence.

Oh but these are just words. They don’t really mean them, they are just so angry.

That does not matter. When I carry a gun, do you think I can excuse myself from responsibility for every single bullet that leaves the barrel of that gun? Do you think, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that,” is going to make my target any less shot? “I was just so angry!” Well, if you don’t know how to control your anger you have no business carrying a gun. If you cannot control your words in any given situation, then you should not speak at all.

In the legal sense it is useful to make the distinction between physical and other kinds of violence, because the law can only see and punish the physical type. But in the spiritual warfare, there is no difference, and in fact, the physical violence may even be the least damaging type. Words are more damaging than bullets. Bullets destroy tissue, bone and flesh, but a resilient spirit will continue to function and thrive. Words attack the mind, heart and soul. Any attempt to diminish or limit the physical, mental, emotional or spiritual life or health of a person, whether that person is yourself or another self. This includes thoughts, words and deeds.

This is why I say that violence exists on a continuum. The visible acts that make the news, such as mass murders, serial rapes, genocides; and those that don’t make the news, such as abortion and the vast majority of instances of all of the above; all of these are continuations of thoughts, words and deeds of violence. The visible acts catch our attention, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. To focus on guns is to miss the real issue. Even to debate over whether or not Catholics should carry guns is to miss the issue. A gun is a viable response for only the very extreme outer percent of a percent of violent acts, which most of us will never see. A gun may help to end that particular situation if it arises, but it will do nothing to address the culture of violence out of which those acts arise.

In reality, each of us witnesses countless acts of violence every day. We see husbands degrading wives and wives mocking husbands. We see co-workers gossiping and backstabbing each other. We watch parents publicly shame their children, and children disrespecting their parents. What is worse, we engage in all of this ourselves. We snap out sarcastic, hurtful responses to minor inconveniences. We fantasize about all the things we could say to that person if we weren’t afraid of getting fired. We get angry and enjoy it.

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44.

All of this is violence, and all of it contributes to the overall level of hate in the world, which in turn enables mass shootings. This is both a natural consequence of cause and effect (people who are hurt become angry and depressed and are more likely to hurt other people, continuing the cycle). But it also occurs on a spiritual level. When I deliver that really biting, malicious put-down, I am opening up a pocket in the spiritual battlefield to a little bit more demonic influence. That will have consequences, and the consequences may be physical. Or the consequence might be enable someone else to commit a mortal sin.

Which is worse?

But the good news is that if violence exists on a continuum, so does heroism. Every act of standing up for another person, at work, at home, at school, really does shift the balance back the other way. Carry a concealed weapon, if you wish, (and if you are willing to put in the work) but do not think your responsibility as a protector ends there. You have declared your willingness to engage the battle at its most physical. Now put even more time and energy into engaging it at its most mundane, and most critical.

And never forget… (spoiler alert)

Christos Anesti! Alithos Anestis!
Christos Anesti! Alithos Anestis!

Jesus wins.

*This is the sixth and final part of a discussion on guns and violence. You can link to the other parts below, but this conclusion is really a stand-alone piece. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.