Two Husbands Begin Studying the Writings of G.K. Chesterton: A Letter to a Dear Friend

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A dear friend recently emailed me and the opening sentence read as follows:

This may seem like a trick question to you, but would you like to read Chesterton with me?

He asks in this fashion because I have a bad habit in our men’s group of rather incessantly quoting the great Gilbert. My response was, of course, quite positive and in fact I was so invigorated and inspired by his request, that my resulting letter to him ended up being a bit of a tome. Through the urging of my wife, I decided to post it, in case it inspires any other men out there to begin a similar study.
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What a delightful email to have received, for a number of reasons:

First, it is a continuing testament to the importance of Catholic men supporting each other in the faith. I appreciate so heartily that in our group we have fellowship with other guys who take the their vocations to holiness and family life so seriously.

Of course the real test of such seriousness is that when it becomes clear that some new action is needed, we respond to the call. Our men’s group has shown that seriousness by challenging each other to greater accountability and weekly resolutions. And now, this suggestion of yours I do think is yet another important step.

Second, a few years ago the thought of having a “Chesterton” group seemed a little narrowly focused to me. Though even then I had read some of Gilbert’s writings and knew generally of their importance, he as yet seemed to be simply an important figure to be read and learned from among others.

But in the last few years I have steeped myself in his writings, particularly those that pertain to the vocation of the family, and have only just finished reading the long and definitive biography by Maisie Ward. I have lived and breathed Chesterton.

I can truly say now that I understand why there is a push to open a cause for his canonization.

Like one of the great saints or doctors of the Church, he really is one that you could steep yourself in, learn from and imitate. In fact I have taken to asking for He and his wife’s intercession, for in them I find a wonderful model of marital fidelity and love, and in his writings one of the most compelling visions of the full richness and glory prepared for us, even this side of Heaven, in the family.

It is hard to put fully into words, but though I hitherto identified Chesterton more with philosophy and politics, his writings more important “out there” on the level of the culture wars, I have discovered more and more that his greatest triumph, the most distinct and transcendent threads of thought that run through his writings, all lead back to the family – the wonder of the basic human experience of this gifted universe, the glorious call to holiness of every man and woman, and the pre-eminence of the family as both the pillar and peak of human society and the primary place – there in the domestic Church – that God comes to meet man.
 
Thirdly, to reiterate the first point and your own sentiment: a test of seriousness is whether we take action. However, in the spirit of Chesterton here, in a time of history in which everyone is perpetually tempted to the futility of focusing on that which is beyond their sphere of influence and should be beyond their sphere of the better part of their concern – national politics, the culture wars, the economy, etc – how glorious, how radical, how chivalrous is it for a few, or even two, good men to reject this siren call and to rise to the far greater and ultimately more efficacious challenge of simply sanctifying themselves and their own families? What our world needs is, simply, saints, and saints come properly and primarily from Holy Families, and those striving for Holy Families, methinks, will find no better patron than G.K. (and Frances!) Chesterton.

So, thanks again for this email, and a hearty “yes!” is my answer. Early morning would be best, I’d be happy to host and provide fine and fresh (local!) coffee for discussion. The three books I’d recommend we begin our study with would be “Orthodoxy”, “Heretics”, and “ What is Wrong with the World”, the last of which, as you’ll see, is Chesterton’s great guidebook for the modern family (and upon which I am writing a book about). There are also a couple short fictional works we might read too, particularly “Manalive”.

And lest ye think I have, in my Chestertonian revelry, lost sight of the point and purpose of this study: It is to seek out and carry back to our homes (and to the other men in our group!) whatever will sanctify and enliven our families, for the Glory of God. In a sense one can rarely if ever discover anything new in this regard, and yet in an important way Catholic families must break new ground, for we have few models for how to fully live the Gospel in the family in this overwhelming and distressing age. Like Innocent Smith, the protagonist in Chesterton’s  “Manalive”, we set out as husbands on pilgrimage around the world, in our case into Chesterton’s writings, our only purpose being to end up back where we started and there to see our wives, children, and homes anew, in all their glory and wonder.

God be with you brother!

JonMarc Grodi

Meekness & Valor: A Letter to My Men’s Group

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Gentleman:

Thank you for the good discussion this morning.  It is precisely the interplay of meekness and valor that we as fathers/husbands need in frustrating moments with our family. More and more as I ponder them they seem to be two sides of the same coin. Here again is that excerpt from the Abba Challenge prayer:

Holy Spirit, help me cultivate the virtue of chivalry in myself and in others through a life of sacrifice with extreme meekness off the “battlefield” and extreme valor on the “battlefield.”10 With my meekness, which is having the power to fight but not using it, help me create safety for women, children, and the vulnerable. And with my valor help me oppose those who are brutal to or dominate others. Jesus, teach me to rid myself of the extremes of domination, brutality, and passivity, and to leave my mother and father11 so that I can lay down my life for my physical and/or spiritual bride.12

What is valor or bravery if it does not involve a certain carelessness about one’s own safety, comfort, or even success in an endeavor? What is meekness if not a willful surrender by someone who could otherwise fight on?  Both valor and meekness involve a death to self, a laying down of one’s life.

In the family setting, especially for we husbands/fathers, meekness is the having of strength and yet letting ourselves be hurt and not fighting back, receiving evil and taking it to the cross, rather than reflecting, transmitting, or compounding it. Think Aslan: immortal, powerful, untamable, but let’s himself be killed for the sake of Edmund. But valor is the balancing factor. It does not mean fighting, per se, but acting rightly and boldly with a disregard for one’s own satisfaction, comfort, safety, or success. It means going out of ourselves to love in active ways – helping, comforting, forgiving, etc – ESPECIALLY when we know full well that we’ll fail, that the response will be negative, that the efforts will be unappreciated, that in many ways our valorous vulnerability will be betrayed. Think Reepicheep: the smallest and most physically vulnerable of the Narnians, yet always the first to leap into battle for the right.

Meekness and valor are the parry and thrust of the spiritual battle for the souls of those around us.

I close with an except of a poem I attempted to write on this subject a while back but never could finish:

How quick the reckless lover vows,
at such that blessed start,
to love and honor and be true,
to never break your heart.
 
But higher, farther, as I strive,
to learn from love divine,
I’ve found no greater love than this,
To let you, love, break mine.

Let us pray for renewed (or simply new) meekness and valor as we love our families this week. If you get discouraged, listen to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGzqbEeVWhs

Have a great week gentlemen.

We Have to Love Our Neighbor Because He is There

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One of my favorite quotes from one of the most explosive chapters of any book of any author I have ever read.

“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation… But we have to love our neighbour because he is there– a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.” – G.K. Chesterton, http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/heretics/ch14.html

You Have Nothing Better To Do

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In my recent post “Discernment and the Hard, Long, Right Road Beneath Your Feet” I pointed out that as we discern what to do with our lives, since God never intends us to reach some good end via evil means, we can rule out options, however attractive, which seem to necessitate blameworthy shortcuts. Either we have been deceived (from within or without) about the actual goodness of the good we have in mind, or it is indeed a good, but not one we are being called to do, or perhaps we are and we just have to be patient. With this in mind, I concluded by talking a bit about this very challenging notion that, thus, in some sense, the road we are on is the road we are meant to be on. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t have something better in mind for us and it doesn’t mean that if we are in dire straits we are meant to stay there, but it does mean that the next step is most likely somewhere within 2-3 feet from where we are standing (give or take a bit, depending on the length of your legs).

With this in mind, here is an interesting question: Is the familiar colloquialism “I have better things to do” ever really true? When we say, merely mutter, or mentally muse “I have better things to do,” we assert that the present frustration or inanity is keeping us from something more important – something “better”. But is this really the case? What does “better” mean here?

Sure, in the general, abstract, objective sense there may be higher goods than are attainable in the long line at the grocery store, or when faced with the third poopy diaper in the span of 10 minutes, or when having to go help with breakfast whilst one’s magnum opus lies unfinished on the computer screen (alas!). However, the good/best (or evil/worst) actions are also contextual:

…the morality of every human act is determined by the object, the circumstances and the intention. If any one of the three is evil, then the human act in question is evil and should be avoided.  – What Makes Human Acts Good or Bad? by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.

As we can only ascertain the “better” in light of the “best,” and since the “best” actions (in a moral sense) must not only be good objectively but also good in relation to our circumstances and the state of our heart, I find the conclusion rather inescapable: There is never a moment in which I really have “better things to do” than those right in front of me, as frustrating, humbling, or inane as they may be.

Whatever situation I am currently in is the one which I am (now) called to embrace with heroic virtue. No matter where we are going, to whatever more exciting or glamorous goods we are impatient to get started on, our next step is right in front of us and it is that step, first (temporally) and foremost (eternally) that we must seek to live out as perfectly as we can.

So, wait patiently in that grocery store line and be sure to give the cashier a smile. Change that poopy diaper whilst singing “Bingo,” and be prepared for a fourth barrage. And go ahead and hit save on that magnum opus because…

*yells* “I’m coming down, sweetheart!”

… you really have nothing better to do.

(Click here to read more of my musings on holiness in the now: One Day Holy)

Storck Brings Great Insight on NFP

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Catholic author Thomas Storck has an excellent article on Natural Family Planning (NFP) over at Crisis Magazine entitled “The Curious Controversy Over Natural Family Planning” . In the article, Storck makes a very strong case for the legitimacy of NFP and shows the problems with much of the suspicion and unnecessary criticism that comes from fellow Catholics.

Is NFP the New “Confessional Argument”?

Near the end of the article, Storck mentioned one of the usual suspicions about NFP:

No doubt someone will point out to me that NFP can be misused.  Truly so, just as any other legitimate human activity can.  But how often is it in fact misused?  NFP users tend to have larger families than the American Catholic norm, even if they do not have families of the size that the critics of NFP think they should have.

I was thinking about the NFP controversy this morning and recalling analogous arguments I have had with Protestants and atheists on the potential abuse of the confessional via the “sin of presumption”. In brief, the accusation is that may Catholics justify any sin, because they are just be able to go to confession afterwards.

What such individuals cannot see, from the outside, is that it is very, very difficult to maintain both the sin of presumption and the practice of baring your soul to a priest (and saying the act of contrition). If you are really set on continuing to sin, you will much more likely end up quitting Confession altogether.

I have found NFP to be similar in my experience (and in the experiences of other couples with whom my wife and I are close). Yes, one could imagine NFP being used with the “contraceptive mindset,” at least by some at the start of their marriage. But it is/would be very difficult to keep up both the contraceptive mindset and the communication, sensitivity, and self-discipline that are necessary for the practice of NFP.

In both cases — Confession and NFP — there is the potential for abuse, but there is also the very real presence of grace always threatening to break through, always challenging us to make a choice between any internal contradictions we might be trying to maintain.

Having seen and experienced this reality, I now fail to get too worried any more about the “contraceptive mindset” in the relationships of NFP couples. The practice is largely self-corrective via the action of God’s grace working through our feeble efforts. I suspect that those who worry about NFP would be surprised how big a breach in our defense against grace this one act of obedience can constitute.

Again, I welcome you to venture over to Crisis Magazine and read Mr. Storck’s article.

State of Family and Marriage Research

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Terri Carrol, a sociology professor at Bowling Green and the co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR), has a lot of interesting information to share in the article “State of the American Family” that was recently published in BGSU Magazine. But what goes unsaid in fact speaks far louder. Behind the litany of sociological observations, one gets the sense that Carrol and the researchers at the NCFMR think that the movement away from the traditional family ideal is a positive and perhaps liberating change.

“Pervasive,” “15 year aberration,” and a “nostalgic myth” are a few of the terms used to describe traditional families as exemplified in the 1950s show Leave it to Beaver. While the Cleaver family in the 1950s sitcom was certainly unique to the time period in many ways, a more traditional family model seems to be guilty by association. Far more “pervasive,” though hardly aberrant, is the primordial model of the human family consisting of a monogamous mother and father and their children — no nostalgia or myth-making necessary. After we read that only 15% of people now belong to such traditional families, Dr. Susan Brown (another BGSU sociology professor) is quoted as saying, “But the era represented by ‘Leave it to Beaver’ is long gone, reflecting rapid social, cultural, and economic changes. We have more options today. There is no longer one, uniform model of family life.” Here again the language carries an amount of implicit interpretation of the data. Changes to the normal structure of the family are called simply “options” and the existence of such options implies, in Brown’s estimation, that any prior model of family is losing its relevance.

The crucial question not being asked is this: Because there is a movement away from the traditional family structure, does that mean there ought to be? Does the fact that many modern families increasingly fail to fit into more traditional models imply that such a failure is in fact a success? We realize of course that these days, any and all “change” is something we are expected be “hopeful” about, but does that hold true for the changes observed by researchers at the NCFMR?

We can and must reflect on where our families are now (as has been done by the NCFMR) but we cannot interpret what that means without some sense of where families should be.  We can say where we are on the map, but we cannot say our location is good or bad unless we know where we are going. In the same way, we cannot begin talking about the “state of the American family” without putting thought to what a family truly is — what it ought and ought not be.

Without any sort of ideal of what the family should be, we cannot say (or imply) with any weight whether or not the current state (or states) of the family is better or worse off. However, this seldom deters us from putting blind faith in “progress.” It is a purely modern prejudice to assume that we are better off now than in the past, simply because the past is the past. We speak so often of “progress” though we have no idea where we are progressing to! Brown has told us that we have many new “options” for what the family might be, but she has not told us whether or not any of these options are good options (at least not explicitly). If we want to be able to make any qualitative statements about the “state of the family,” then we must have some criteria or ideals by which to evaluate.

We surely can agree about some things that make a family healthy and good, but we rarely find it convenient to follow such intuitions to their conclusions. We all intuit the value of commitment. For example, commitment of fathers and mothers to each other and to their children has always clearly been regarded as a good thing. Any first or second-hand experience of divorce or separation can show us that commitment belongs to the ideal family. We like families that last. We also don’t like adultery. Anyone who has been “cheated on” can say that is not a good thing. Such things may be “options,” but are they not options to be avoided?

Families should ensure the welfare of children. In fact ensuring the wellbeing of the next generation is one of the primary purposes of family. Thus we have another easy ideal with which to question the health of the modern family: does it care for children? Does it put their needs, their rights, and their welfare first? What type of family structure or parental arrangement is best for children?

Unless evidence can show that the traditional “option” of a mother and a father in a committed monogamous relationship is not ideal, why do we so hastily dilute the meaning of the word “family” to include any and every new set of circumstances? Brown asserts the validity of these options with no justification other than the fact that they are new, available, and have been  occurring in society.

Certainly, the data paints a picture of fragmentation and flux regarding family structures. We would imagine that even those 15% of families that resemble what is considered “traditional” have more than their fair share of dysfunction. Fathers and mothers have left their children and spouses, most families are divorced or broken in one way or another, and young parents are frequently underprepared for the necessary responsibility and commitment. We heartily affirm the valiant efforts of loving individuals who attempt to pick up the pieces of such unfortunate circumstances, but we do them no good by attempting to re-label their circumstances as merely “new options”.

The fact that there is infidelity in many marriages says nothing against the goodness or possibility of marital fidelity. The fact that many children grow up without a mother or a father does not mean that mothers and fathers are not the ideal parents for a child. The fact that separation, division, irresponsibility, betrayal, and selfishness break up so many families and cheat so many children out of a normal life does not mean that we should throw up our hands and calls such circumstances “options”. In fact, we must realize that the ideals of what a family could and should be are what allow us to affirm our best efforts in imperfect situations. We say such things as “he is like a father to me” or “they were the only family I ever knew” precisely because we recognize the heroic love and sacrifices that often occur in less-than-ideal situations. Either there is such a thing as an ideal family, and loving individuals in less-than-ideal situations strive to provide something like it, or there is no such thing as an ideal family, and all of our judgments, opinions, praise, criticisms, and “family and marriage research” are meaningless.

The data in the “State of the American Family” is interesting and certainly has its place in the public discourse; it tells us where we are currently at and clues us in to how we got here. However, even Dr. Wendy Manning recognizes that there is something of importance intuited in the primordial family relationship:

Everyone has a family. As the primary organizational group in our society, people are aware that healthy families are key to a healthy society. People sense intuitively that families are evolving and, therefore, are interested in our findings. 

Dr. Manning, we couldn’t agree more: everyone has a family, healthy families are key to healthy societies, and the state of the family is drastically changing. The first two observations, if taken seriously, should give us great pause in light of the third.

We are in need of frank, courageous, and honest consideration of the traditional, primordial model of the human family which the researchers at the NCFMR so readily marginalize. Let us think carefully on the nature and purpose of family, not in order to condemn best efforts of loving individuals in tough situations, but in order that we may plot a course of true progress, even if it means retracing our steps.

This article was written by BGSU Alumni, Rob Hohler and JonMarc Grodi in response to “State of the American Family” published in the BGSU Magazine.