Rod Dreher

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Who Are the Enemies of Religious Liberty?

Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput (Angela Cave/Flickr)
Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput (Angela Cave/Flickr)

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, in a speech he recently gave about religious liberty:

And what about the United States? Compared to almost anywhere else in the world, our religious freedom situation is good. Religious believers played a very big role in founding and building the country. Until recently, our laws have reflected that. In many ways they still do. A large majority of Americans still believe in God and still identify as Christian. Religious practice remains high. But that’s changing. And the pace will quicken. More young people are disaffiliated from religion now than at any time in our country’s past. More stay away as they age. And many have no sense of the role that religious freedom has played in our nation’s life and culture.

The current White House may be the least friendly to religious concerns in our history. But we’ll see more of the same in the future – pressure in favor of things like gay rights, contraception and abortion services, and against public religious witness. We’ll see it in the courts and in so-called “anti-discrimination” laws. We’ll see it in “anti-bullying” policies that turn public schools into indoctrination centers on matters of human sexuality; centers that teach that there’s no permanent truth involved in words like “male” and “female.” And we’ll see it in restrictions on public funding, revocation of tax exemptions and expanding government regulations. We too easily forget that every good service the government provides comes with a growth in its regulatory power. And that power can be used in ways nobody imagined in the past.

We also forget Tocqueville’s warning that democracy can become tyrannical precisely because it’s so sensitive to public opinion. If anyone needs proof, consider what a phrase like “marriage equality” has done to our public discourse in less than a decade. It’s dishonest. But it works.

That leads to the key point I want to make here. The biggest problem we face as a culture isn’t gay marriage or global warming. It’s not abortion funding or the federal debt. These are vital issues, clearly. But the deeper problem, the one that’s crippling us, is that we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning to their content. We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing.

Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power. Words like “justice” have emotional throw-weight, so people use them as weapons. And it can’t be otherwise, because the religious vision and convictions that once animated American life are no longer welcome at the table.

I quoted most of this in a post the other day, but I wanted to do so again in light of a deeply troubling report from the Catholic News Agency revealing how deep-pocketed private foundations are working hard to fight religious liberty for those who dissent from the progressive agenda. Check this out:

Questions are being raised over two U.S. foundations that have poured more than three million dollars into abortion rights, LGBT activist, and legal groups to push the message that exemptions based on religious beliefs are “un-American” and an abuse of liberty.

The Arcus Foundation and the Ford Foundation have spent over $3 million in combined spending against religious liberty exemptions since 2013, according to a CNA review of tax forms and grant listings.

John Lomperis of the Institute for Religion and Democracy – a D.C.-based ecumenical Christian think tank – warned that the grants appear to understand the important role of “rhetorical message and framing” on religious liberty issues.

“The agenda of such groups in opposing basic conscience protections could hardly be more diametrically opposed to our nation’s great traditions of freedom of conscience and of religion,” Lomperis, who serves as United Methodist Director for the institute, told CNA Feb. 10.

He contended that the pattern of grants “serves a fundamentally totalitarian vision these foundations and their allied politicians have of ‘religious liberty.’” This vision is especially opposed to those who value traditional sexual morality and respect for unborn human life, he noted.

“Our society is now facing serious questions about to what extent Christians (as well as, to a lesser extent, followers of other faiths) will be allowed to have the same degree to live in accordance with our values without facing new and powerful coercions,” Lomperis said.

For example:

The Arcus Foundation is a major funder of LGBT advocacy, including “gay marriage” advocacy. The foundation had almost $170 million in assets in 2013 and gave out $17 million to organizations it considers to be working for social justice.

As part of this effort, the foundation joined with the titanic wealth of the Ford Foundation to back Columbia Law School’s “Public Rights / Private Conscience Project,” run by the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. The Arcus Foundation gave $250,000 to Columbia University’s Board of Trustees to support the project, which the foundation says will “mobilize scholars, attorneys and advocates in order to develop and distribute new methods of framing perceived conflicts between sexual rights and religious liberty.”

And:

The Ford Foundation’s 2013 tax forms and website indicate it has committed $650,000 to the same project, which the foundation says will “counteract religious exemption and conscience-based carve-outs to laws securing sexual and reproductive rights.” The grant money also supports “a symposia series on LGBT rights.”

There’s more; read the whole thing. 

Remember a few years back when people asked the naive question, “What does my gay neighbors’ marriage have to do with my marriage?” — meaning, in effect, “If they want to get married, so what?” Well, this is so what: powerful elites not happy with having won on nearly every front, spending lots of money to crush religious dissenters.

The Law of Merited Impossibility: It’s not going to happen, and when it does, you people will deserve it. 

It’s coming. The scope of the SCOTUS gay marriage ruling this summer may set the boundaries for religious liberty in the new arrangement. If not, then with Justice Ginsberg in frail health, the 2016 presidential election will be enormously important on the religious liberty front, given that it surely won’t be long before SCOTUS has to deal with religious liberty claims in light of its gay rights jurisprudence.

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First You Change the Language…

The nature writer Robert Macfarlane observes a change in our language:

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

The English poet Malcolm Guite composed a poem about this phenomenon; listen to him read it here.

The frequent commenter Thursday, who sent in the item, says to compare this with what Henrich et al. (authors of the WEIRD paper) have to say:

The WEIRD mind also appears to be unique in terms of how it comes to understand and interact with the natural world. Studies show that Western urban children grow up so closed off in man-made environments that their brains never form a deep or complex connection to the natural world. While studying children from the U.S., researchers have suggested a developmental timeline for what is called “folkbiological reasoning.” These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many. Compared to Yucatec Maya communities in Mexico, however, Western urban children appear to be developmentally delayed in this regard. Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood.

Given that people living in WEIRD societies don’t routinely encounter or interact with animals other than humans or pets, it’s not surprising that they end up with a rather cartoonish understanding of the natural world. “Indeed,” the report concluded, “studying the cognitive development of folkbiology in urban children would seem the equivalent of studying ‘normal’ physical growth in malnourished children.”

Thursday adds:

I suspect this has a lot to do with why, as Josef Pieper says, our artists have forgotten how to see. As Pieper says in The Four Cardinal Virtues: “Silence . . . is the absolute prerequisite to all perception of reality” and, because of the way we live now, we have never learned to patiently observe the natural world.

This makes me think that one of the most radical challenges facing traditionalists today — a challenge that will only grow more stark — is remembering, or relearning, how to see. The Benedict Option will be in part about fighting for reality against the Matrix.

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View From Your Table

Sulmona, Italy

Sulmona, Italy

James C. writes:

I know a lot of people on your blog think I’m some sort of wealthy playboy, though in fact I don’t have much money at all. I can afford to splurge only once in a while on my journeys, but one of the wonders of Italy is that it doesn’t cost much to eat wonderfully if you keep things simple (and avoid tourist traps). Wednesday was a perfect illustration of that (though I can’t say these are my best VFYTs).

I had to fly home from Pescara on the east coast of Abruzzo on Wednesday night, so I was looking forward to a long, leisurely couple of train rides from Assisi through a region I’ve never been. I was able to make a couple of stops in this very untouristed, ruggedly mountainous region. I spent most of the day in the old town of Sulmona, and spring has sprung (at least in the lower elevations!), so I had a lovely couple of meals outside.

First meal: a piadina (Italian flatbread sandwich with smokey scamorza cheese and prosciutto) with a  caffè shakerato (fresh espresso with sugar shaken vigorously with ice, like a cocktail, until it gets nice and frothy—a summer thing in Italy). Total cost:  €3.20.

Sulmona, Italy

Sulmona, Italy

Second meal: lasagna abruzzese (a wonderful version! The layers include prosciutto, tiny little veal meatballs, finely chopped poached egg, and scamorza and pecorino cheeses) with a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (I think one of the best reds I’ve ever tasted). I told the owner I was hungry after walking up a hill to the town and she came out with a lovely antipasto for me to eat—free. Total cost, including the bread: €8.

Sulmona, Italy

Sulmona, Italy

Dessert: superb gelato, with three scoops: pistacchio, amarena and tiramisu. Total cost:  €2.50.

So  €13.70 for food that day in Sulmona. And I got some great people watching in as well, especially at the place where I had lasagna—I caught lunch there right before la pausa, the Italian siesta, and I had a ringside seat for the ritual of locals all pouring out of their shops to gather in the street to talk and make animated gestures with their hands and wave at people they knew passing by.

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Kara Tippetts’ Gift to her Family

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That is Jason Tippetts and his children, the day after the mother Kara died after her long battle with cancer. He captions this photo on his Facebook page:

Bike ride at the park, stories about mom, ice cream – the joy and sorrow of life.

Look at those faces. There is nothing but joy. I fell asleep last night praying for Kara, and woke up this morning praying for her, and I swear, I felt nothing but joy and light — and I felt kind of guilty for that, until just now, when I saw the image of this family on Facebook.

This is Kara’s gift to those she loved most. She prepared her little family well.

This is what it means to live. I am in awe. I thought I had seen everything there was to see in Kara’s story, but this is over the top. Let the bright shining faces of the family that lost her only yesterday be the testimony to Kara Tippetts’s life and faith. If you want to know how this, the hardest peace, came to be, buy Kara’s book. Look, once again, at the trailer for the documentary someone is making about her:

UPDATE: When I posted this, I thought most people would see it as a sign of hope, as evidence that the faith and love that Kara showered on her family, and her preparing them for the time when she would no longer be here, had been wise and compassionate. Kara and I corresponded from time to time. I read her work, and I know from those private letters how much she suffered, and how she was anything but a Pollyanna about her pain, and the pain her family was enduring because of her cancer. Kara Tippetts was utterly realistic. I certainly understand people not agreeing, but I have been shocked by some of the vitriol this simple photograph has drawn forth from some commenters. I am going to close comments, because life is hard enough for the Tippetts family now without having to read such harsh judgment visited on them for smiling through the pain.

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There Was No Rape at UVA

The Washington Post reports on the results of the Charlottesville police investigation. Excerpts:

In interviews with The Post, Jackie said that she stood by the account she provided to Rolling Stone.

“I never asked for this” attention, she said in an interview. “What bothers me is that so many people act like it didn’t happen. It’s my life. I have had to live with the fact that it happened — every day for the last two years.”

Jackie also told The Post that she never expected that a police investigation would be fruitful, saying numerous times that she did not expect any charges in her case. She said she knew there was little, if any, forensic evidence that could prove the allegations two years afterward.

A Post investigation into the claims found significant inconsistencies in the account. Phi Psi fraternity members strongly rebutted the allegations, saying they did not have a party on the night in question and did not have a member fitting the description of the alleged attacker; an alleged attacker — who Jackie told friends she was on a date with that night — turned out not to be a U-Va. student, had not been in Charlottesville in years, attends another school in another state, and said he barely knew Jackie; and Jackie’s friends told The Post that her version of events to the magazine did not match what they saw on the night she claims she was assaulted.

Police said they confirmed these same findings. They also said that an alleged physical assault Jackie reported — when she told police that four men followed her and then threw a bottle at her face — had significant inconsistencies. It was at that time — in spring 2014 — that police twice asked Jackie about the alleged sexual assault at the urging of a university officials, and Jackie declined to talk to police about it.

More:

Detectives interviewed numerous Phi Kappa Psi members, including most of those who lived in the house in September 2012, at the time of the alleged attack. Longo said they found photographs of the house the night in question that show it empty and reviewed other records that indicate the house had no party on the night Jackie said she went to a party there, was lured upstairs and was attacked.

Longo also said police interviewed Jackie’s friends who met with her the night she said she left the fraternity bloody and shaken; they told police what they told The Post, that she was not physically injured and met them in a different location than was described in the Rolling Stone account.

Read the whole thing. It is impossible by now to avoid the conclusion that Jackie made it up, and Rolling Stone sensationalized her lies. The McMartin pre-school A fraternity whose members never touched Jackie now no longer exists on campus because of the witch hunt. Why are we still giving her the opportunity to hide behind the deserved privilege given to sexual assault victims, of having their identities shielded? She is not a victim, but rather a victimizer. I would use her name here but I want to see it confirmed first by an official source or mainstream media outlet, not a blogger.

If she had any assets, she should be sued for them. I hope the lawyers for the fraternity brothers take Rolling Stone to the cleaners. But Jackie must be punished in some meaningful way for what she did. What if that were your son or brother falsely accused of gang rape, or facilitating gang rape, and turned into a national pariah?

All credit on this blog to reader Ryan Booth, who smelled a rat from the beginning, even when I and others were giving Jackie the benefit of the doubt, if we doubted her at all (and I don’t think I did, not at first).

Slightly off topic, but I want to point this out before the moment passes, the WaPo‘s Jonathan Capehart deserves credit for owning up to the fact that Michael Brown, the Gentle Giant of Ferguson, was no victim, and that he (Capehart) bought into the narrative that felt right. Excerpt from Capehart’s mea culpa:

In those early hours and early days, there was more unknown than known. But this month, the Justice Department released two must-read investigations connected to the killing of Brown that filled in blanks, corrected the record and brought sunlight to dark places by revealing ugly practices that institutionalized racism and hardship. They have also forced me to deal with two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown.

More:

What DOJ found made me ill. Wilson knew about the theft of the cigarillos from the convenience store and had a description of the suspects. Brown fought with the officer and tried to take his gun. And the popular hands-up storyline, which isn’t corroborated by ballistic and DNA evidence and multiple witness statements, was perpetuated by Witness 101. In fact, just about everything said to the media by Witness 101, whom we all know as Dorian Johnson, the friend with Brown that day, was not supported by the evidence and other witness statements.

Capehart rightly says that though police brutality does happen (as, I hasten to say, does gang rape), we must never allow ourselves to buy into a “false narrative” — and when we do, we must be willing to say that we were wrong.

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Dante: Seeing, Loving, Believing

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I’ve just heard from my publisher that the hard copies of How Dante Can Save Your Life have just arrived. And I’ve been making plans this morning to visit various colleges and universities to talk to students about Dante. One of the country’s top Dantists e-mailed yesterday to thank me for sending him the galleys, and to say he has just begun reading it:

It is exactly the right way to think about Dante, and to approach what he is really doing.   I can’t wait to plunge in fully — in fact, it’s very hard to wrench oneself away from it!  Just your introduction puts in lucid, succinct terms what I try to get across to my students.

Here is a passage from the introduction:

Dante’s tale is a fantasy about a lost man who finds his way back to life after walking through the pits of hell, climbing up the mountain of purgatory, and ascending to the heights of heaven. But it’s really a story about real life and the incredible journey of our lives, yours and mine.

The Commedia is a seven-hundred-year-old poem honored as a pinnacle of Western civilization. But it’s also a practical guide to life, one that promises rescue, restoration, and freedom. This book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, tells the story of how the treasures of wisdom buried in the Commedia’s 14,233 lines gave me a rich new life.

Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and to be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding our own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold on to their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.

This is a book about sin, but not sin in the clichéd, pop-culture sense of rule breaking and naughtiness. In Dante, sin is the kind of thing that keeps us from flourishing and living up to our fullest potential, and it’s also the kind of thing that savages marriages, turns neighbor against neighbor, destroys families, and ruins lives. And sin is not, at heart, a violation of a legalistic code, but rather a distortion of love. In Dante, sinners—and we are all sinners—are those who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way. I had never thought about sin like that. This concept unlocked the door to a prison in which I had been living all my life. The cell opened from the inside, but I had not been able to see it.

This is also, in many ways, a book about exile. What does it mean to know you can never go home? This was Dante’s dilemma—and in a different sense, it was mine. Three years ago, when I returned after nearly three decades to live in my Louisiana hometown, I thought I had ended a restless journey that had taken me all over America, searching for a place where I could be settled and content. To my shock and heartbreak, I was wrong. The most difficult journey lay ahead of me: the journey within myself. Dante showed me the way through. He can do the same for you.

Further, I say:

For the poem to work its magic on the reader, it has to be taken up into the moral imagination in a personal way. You have to engage in dialogue with our Florentine guide along the pilgrim’s path. When I gave myself over to him, I found that Dante is not a remote figure from an alien world but a warm companion with whom I had far more in common than I could have imagined. He is simply a fellow wayfarer who has seen great things, both terrifying and glorious, along life’s way, and wants to tell you all about it.

That last passage came to mind just yesterday, with my reading of the thrilling work by historian Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.  In these passages, Wilken writes of Augustine’s answer to the Manichees, who said that they would believe nothing that couldn’t be demonstrably proven. Augustine says that religious knowledge doesn’t work like that — and in fact, an enormous part of everyday life depends on believing things on authority. Says Augustine, “Nothing would remain stable in human society if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty.”

(For a glimpse at a society in which nothing that has not been witnessed or experienced oneself, or by a living person known to one, can be considered true, check this out.)

As Wilken writes, Augustine said without trust and authority, learning becomes impossible. To learn a foreign language, for example, requires trusting that the teacher knows how to speak it. Learning how to play the violin requires an apprenticeship to one who knows how to play the violin. You cannot think yourself into being a violinist or a speaker of French.

So it is with religious knowledge, Augustine argues. Writes Wilken:

By bringing up these kinds of examples, Augustine wishes to say that the knowledge acquired by faith is not primarily a matter of gaining information. The acquiring of religious knowledge is akin to learning a skill. It involves practices, attitudes, and dispositions and has to do with ordering one’s loves. This kind of knowledge, the knowledge one lives by, is gained gradually over time. Just as one does not learn to play the piano in a day, so one does not learn to love God in an exuberant moment of delight. If joy does not find words, if it does not exercise the affections and stir the will, if it is not confirmed by actions, it will be as fleeting as the last light out of the black west. The knowledge of God sinks into the mind and heart slowly and hence requires apprenticeship. That is why, says Augustine, we must become “servants of wise men.”

Wilken says that the only way to learn from an author is to surrender oneself to him, and to a teacher that knows and loves the work. The Manichees, he says, believed the thing to do was to begin attacking the work before one has loved it or understood it.

But, says Augustine, the only way to understand Virgil is “to love him.” Without sympathy and enthusiasm, without giving of ourselves, without a debt of love, there can be no knowledge of things that matter. Even though at the outset we may be unable to explain what is to be gained from reading Virgil, we expect to profit from reading him, says Augustine, because “our elders have praised him.”

The first question then becomes not “What do I believe?” but “Whom should I believe?,” or “Which persons should I trust?” Therefore, writes Wilken, if you would seek truth in religion, first seek to know and to love those whose lives are formed by the religious teachings. “Augustine is not speaking about blind obedience or leaping into the dark or submitting to someone else’s dictates,” says Wilken. “He is speaking about placing one’s confidence in men and women whose examples invite us to love what they love.”

This is exactly what the pilgrim Dante has to do when the shade of Virgil comes to him in the dark wood. He cannot prove that Virgil is real, and he cannot ask Virgil to lay out for him in advance the full itinerary of their voyage through the underworld. All he can do is say, in effect, “I trust you; I will follow.” That’s what happened to me when Dante came to me in the middle of my own dark wood. I did not know enough about him or the Commedia to give myself over to Dante in full knowledge of what I was doing. It seemed right, but what could I tell after reading only a couple of cantos? I trusted in the poet’s authority, and I did so because so many men and women over the centuries have extolled Dante.

I hope my book gives a credible account of what I saw when I went walking with Dante, and the marvelous things that pilgrimage did for me. I wrote it not as a scholar, but as a witness. And this is something else I’ve learned about the early church from reading Wilken: how much of its authority depends on witness, on things seen. Here is Wilken again:

Nothing in the mind can ever have the solidity of what is seen and touched. By constant immersion in the res liturgicae [liturgical thing] early Christian thinkers came face to face with the living Christ and could say with Thomas the apostle, “My Lord and God.” Here was a truth so tangible, so enduring, so compelling that it trumped every religious idea. Understanding was achieved not by stepping back and viewing things from a distance but by entering into the revealed object itself.

And:

What Augustine is seeking is not a theological concept or an explanation as such, but the living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the “Trinity that is God, the true and supreme and only God.” If one asks, What does it mean to find the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? the answer is not so obvious. Finding means more than simply getting things straight or discovering the most appropriate analogy in human experience for the Triune God. There can be no finding without a change in the seeker. Our minds, he says, must be purified, and we must be made fit and capable of receiving what is sought. We can cleave to God and see the Holy Trinity only when we burn with love.

This is what the Commedia is all about: a progression in seeing, one that can only be made as one progresses in loving. You cannot hope to see God until and unless you order your loves rightly. It is a journey — not one that follows a straight line (it’s no coincidence that the paths into Hell and up to the Earthly Paradise are spiral) — but a journey whose progress depends on the capacity for one to see the world as it truly is. The more purely your heart loves, the more deeply your eyes see.

In Dante, seeing is believing, but believing is also seeing. The problem comes when our loves are disordered, and our hearts direct our eyes to see selectively. From How Dante Can Save Your Life:

For Dante, the power of images is supremely important. Dante shows us like nobody else that good and evil are not abstractions but take particular forms. An image is never just an image; it always points to something else.

In the realm of Dante’s afterlife, images are reality. The pilgrim’s movement toward unity with God is measured by his increasing ability to see things as they really are. Believing is seeing. Not so in the mortal life, when images can serve as a veil hiding the true nature of the evil men do.

The French have a saying: “To understand all is to forgive all.” In one sense it’s an exhortation to empathy: if we truly put ourselves in the shoes of a wrongdoer, we may find it easy to forgive. In another sense it is a warning against too much empathy: our identification with a wrongdoer may blind us to the seriousness of that person’s sin.

Consider one notorious example: In 1996, Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law penned a letter to Father John Geoghan, granting him early retirement. “Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness,” the cardinal wrote. You would never know from the gentle, fatherly tone of the letter that Father Geoghan had spent his priestly career raping and sodomizing children in multiple parishes in the archdiocese, and that Cardinal Law and his predecessors had full knowledge of his actions. They had simply moved the pedophile from parish to parish. This kind of thing happened over and over: bishops seeing sexually abusive priests with sympathy, and regarding victims and their families as abstractions at best and at worst as enemies of the Church.

Do I believe that these bishops wanted to see children abused? No. I think they were so corrupted by the image of the priesthood and the Church as something wholly noble, pure, and good that their will to act was paralyzed in the face of information challenging the truth of that image.

And, as I write about later in the book, it was only through reading Dante, and the revelations about my own heart that Dante showed me, that I came to understand how I had judged the Catholic Church unfairly over the scandal, and what my own disordered loves had to do with it.

I’m telling you, surrendering to Dante is not for the timid. He will take you to places within yourself that are hard to traverse. But he will also take you to places that surprise you, delight you, and raise you up higher than you imagined you could go.

But first, you have to trust him as a witness. If I have done my job as a witness, you will be prepared to give yourself to Dante. My book is not an argument for why you should read Dante. It is a story. It is a kind of testimony. The things I talk about in that book really happened. Writing this book was an act of love, and a gesture of gratitude to the great man of Tuscany whose suffering gave birth to a work of literature through which the light of divinity shone down the centuries and into my heart like a searchlight and a lighthouse. One more passage from How Dante (pre-order it now so you’ll be among the first to get it) about the pilgrimage of thanksgiving I made last fall to Dante’s grave in Ravenna:

I prostrated myself on the floor, then after a moment rose and stepped forward to kiss the tomb. Then for a moment I simply stood still in the presence of the great man whose masterpiece had saved my life.

I thanked him for what he had done for me. And I thanked God for the life and trials of Dante Alighieri, who turned his own suffering to great good and reached across the centuries to rescue me, as he, in his imagination, had been rescued by Virgil and Beatrice.

I asked for his prayers that I would write well of him, and in so doing reflect for the eyes of others the saving love God showed to him and which he passed on to me.

My prayer rope upon Dante's tomb

My prayer rope upon Dante’s tomb

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A Prosecutor Repents

[UPDATE: I removed the video, which played automatically, annoying the world. -- RD]

In Louisiana, a criminal prosecutor who secured a death sentence 30 years ago for a man who was recently exonerated of the crime and released from death row is now speaking out against the death penalty. From his letter to the editor of the Shreveport Times:

Glenn Ford should be completely compensated to every extent possible because of the flaws of a system that effectively destroyed his life. The audacity of the state’s effort to deny Mr. Ford any compensation for the horrors he suffered in the name of Louisiana justice is appalling.

I know of what I speak.

I was at the trial of Glenn Ford from beginning to end. I witnessed the imposition of the death sentence upon him. I believed that justice was done. I had done my job. I was one of the prosecutors and I was proud of what I had done.

The death sentence had illustrated that our community would brook no tolerance for cold-blooded killers. The Old Testament admonishment, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, was alive and well in Caddo Parish. I even received a congratulatory note from one of the state’s witnesses, concluding with the question, “how does it feel to be wearing a black glove?”

Members of the victim’s family profusely thanked the prosecutors and investigators for our efforts. They had received some closure, or so everyone thought. However, due to the hard work and dedication of lawyers working with the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, along with the efforts of the Caddo Parish district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices, the truth was uncovered.

Glenn Ford was an innocent man. He was released from the hell hole he had endured for the last three decades.

The prosecutor, Marty Stroud, says he did not send a man he knew to be innocent to death row, but that he was so sure that Ford was guilty that he (Stroud) was careless in presenting his case. More:

In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie “And Justice for All,” “Winning became everything.”

After the death verdict in the Ford trial, I went out with others and celebrated with a few rounds of drinks. That’s sick. I had been entrusted with the duty to seek the death of a fellow human being, a very solemn task that certainly did not warrant any “celebration.”

In my rebuttal argument during the penalty phase of the trial, I mocked Mr. Ford, stating that this man wanted to stay alive so he could be given the opportunity to prove his innocence. I continued by saying this should be an affront to each of you jurors, for he showed no remorse, only contempt for your verdict.

How totally wrong was I.

Read the whole thing.

This is why a decade and a half ago I concluded that the death penalty was unjust. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of bad men who deserve to die. It’s that I lost faith in the ability of the machinery of justice to deliver it without error — this, after a scandal involving the forensics lab in Oklahoma revealed that an incompetent lab technician gave testimony that helped send men to death row.

I believe that the Catholic Catechism is correct: when bloodless means are sufficient to secure the safety of a society, then the society must satisfy itself with them. It is possible that some societies have no effective means of securing themselves justly without using the death penalty. We are not one of those societies.

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Why America Deserves What It Gets

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Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times:

Katherine Byron, a senior at Brown University and a member of its Sexual Assault Task Force, considers it her duty to make Brown a safe place for rape victims, free from anything that might prompt memories of trauma.

So when she heard last fall that a student group had organized a debate about campus sexual assault between Jessica Valenti, the founder of feministing.com, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian, and that Ms. McElroy was likely to criticize the term “rape culture,” Ms. Byron was alarmed. “Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” she told me. It could be “damaging.”

Ms. Byron and some fellow task force members secured a meeting with administrators. Not long after, Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, announced that the university would hold a simultaneous, competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.

The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.

Unbelievable. Shulevitz thinks, quite rightly, that this is insane. She continues:

The confusion is telling, though. It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?

It is hard for me to find the words strong enough to demonstrate my contempt for these children and their enablers. Their parents must be late Boomers or early Xers — my generation. What happened to us? A reader sent the item to me, commenting:

You know, GIs who landed on Omaha f–king Beach came home, went to college and talked about the war.

Omaha Beach! Kamikazes! Anzio!

Paul Fussell. George HW Bush. No play doh. No bubbles. No puppies.

No cookies.

Wow.

Where are the adults? Why are professors and administrators giving in to this garbage? What kind of men and women do they consider themselves to be forming? Decadence, nothing but decadence.

The reader sent me back to Paul Fussell’s WWII memoir Doing Battlea very fine book that everyone ought to read. Fussell, who fought on the European front, emerged from the Army mad as hell at it, and at the whole business of war. Here is Fussell on the attitude he had on returning home and to college:

One Air Corps flier who’d performed the remarkable feat of surviving fifty bomber missions said when the ordeal was over, “Never did I feel so much alive. Never did the earth and all of the surroundings look so bright and sharp. I had my life.” So did I, and I was so happy I could hardly bear it.

From here on, my life would illustrate a theory of antitheses and compensation. What social institutions are the most dramatically opposite to the army? Colleges and universities. Thus my plunging bak instantly into my final year of study at Pomona, but now in an entirely different spirit than before. This time, no playful boyisms: rather, a serious search for answers to overwhelming questions and deep annoyance with intrusions and diversions that might interrupt that process.

Was there meaning in my inches-wide escape from death on March 15? Was there meaning in Hudson’s death instead of mine? In his memoir of the Vietnam War, In Pharaoh’s Army, Tobias Wolff considers the situation of military survivors of frequent close calls:

In a world where the most consequential things happen by chance, or from unfathomable causes, you don’t look to reason for help. You consort with mysteries. You encourage yourself with charms, omens, rites of propitiation. Without your knowledge or permission the bottom-line caveman belief in blood sacrifice, one life buying another, begins to steal into your bones. How could it not? All around you people are killed … but not you. They have been killed instead of you. This observation is unavoidable. So, in time, in the corollary, implicit in the word instead: in place of. They have been killed in place of you — in your place. You don’t think it out, not at the time, not in those terms, but you can’t help but feel it, and go on feeling it. It’s the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It’s the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice.

Now the question pressed on me, How could I justify my life? The only answer I could supply was to try to make it mean something more than jokes, evanescence, waggish remarks, and Menckenisms, to infuse it somehow with what was serious, formal, persisting.

Fussell was brought up in a well-off Southern California family, but the experience of the war brought out some new convictions that emerged in his postwar college experience. He developed “pity for those who sweat anonymously for the comfort of the privileged, so like the predicament of those forced to win the war by dying for the safe and complacent.” More:

For those of us returning to colleges after strenuous or boring or horrible combat years, English studies leading to careers as professors of English seemed much more attractive than at other times. Former soldiers like John Ciardi, Louis Simpson, James Dickey, Karl Shapiro, and Richard Wilbur, filled the graduate schools, aiming at the teaching of English literature to a generation unbrutalized by war. We all hoped, secretly if not openly, that our efforts would help restore subtlety, civility, and decency after their wartime disappearance. This seemed almost a religious act, demanding from its devotees their complete emotional and spiritual commitment. The world was now to be saved from its folly, brutality, and coarseness of conscience by the techniques of close reading and disciplined explication. And if some wisdom could be gathered on the way, that would be useful too.

The subtitle of Fussell’s book is “The Making of a Skeptic,” and he writes at length about how his entire career, and orientation towards the world, has been marked by anger and an intense desire to fight bullshit. What he saw in the war made him realize that Americans had no real sense of the reality of Evil. He bitterly resented, and resisted, postwar American optimism and conformity. It is a remarkable testimony.

Fussell died a few years ago. One wonders what a man who survived this:

In the morning the attack went forward all around us, and watching from the farmyard, we had our first experience of the most awful thing you can see in combat — your fellow GIs savaged by machine-gun and mortar fire, screaming, bleeding, thrashing about on the ground in agony, calling on Mother.

… would have made of the Special Snowflakes who thrash about on the ground in agony, calling for Play-Doh, because they have heard, or might have heard, an opinion with which they disagree. That World War II veteran could have taught these contemptible brats a thing or two about trigger warnings.

Think of all the working-class men and women, or immigrant children, who would value an education at one of these elite US universities, and who wouldn’t treat it like this. I’m not saying that undergraduates should all have to go to war before college, so they would appreciate it more. I’m saying that it is obscene that these young men and women, and the educators who are responsible for forming their minds, have so little gratitude for what it means to get an education, and are so willing to abuse it. I am reminded of the Misfit’s verdict at the end of O’Connor’s short story A Good Man Is Hard To Find: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Meaning her capacity for goodness and humanity would have had a chance to emerge had there been something in her life to make her humble.

Todd Gitlin, who was one of the leaders of the New Left in the 1960s, rebukes the Snowflakes by telling a story of his own moral education on campus. Excerpt:

In college, I took a sociology-history course that included a segment on Nazi Germany. One day, we were ushered into an auditorium where we sat through Triumph of the Will, probably the greatest Nazi propaganda film ever made. Leni Riefenstahl’s diabolically inspired 1935 paean to Hitler and his Nazi gang of usual subjects is brilliantly shot and edited to hold viewers rapt with wave after wave of spectacles. For almost two hours, the reverent, obedient masses go through the requisite motions at Nuremberg on Party Day, forming vast human battalions, reverberating in a demonic call-and-response with their lionhearted idol. In most of Riefenstahl’s sequences, individual life melts into rituals of submission and the mass worship of power. Equally compelling, and therefore terrifying, were the interspersed images of radiant young blonds frolicking in the sunshine in a summer-camp atmosphere. Weirdly, I remember best, probably for its erotic implications, a sequence in which some young Germans drink, or wash, from the same water spigot. Taken a few at a time or en masse, the Nazis are enraptured by the opportunity to sink into the (to them) transcendent embrace of der Führer. If ever there was a celebration of “Strength through Joy,” this is it. The ideological fusion is complete: eternal life, eternal surrender, eternal mass murder in the making.

Triumph lasts almost two hours. Some in the audience applauded. Then, shockingly, without any break or announcement, the screen came alive again and we segued directly into Alain Resnais’ 1955 Night and Fog, one of the first documentaries ever made about the Holocaust. Night and Fog, named after the Nazi code for some of their deportations, consists of barely more than a half hour of footage, recollections, and evocations from and of Auschwitz and Maidanek. What I recall—all I recall, actually—are long tracking shots of the camp ruins and images of corpses in heaps. Such images were not yet the virtual clichés they were to become. Still photos were around, not moving pictures.

Night and Fog is, as Philip Lopate has written, an “anti-documentary,” an “essay.” It has a voiceover narration in that brooding, insinuating fashion of the French avant-garde, which is, at its worst, arch, but in this case is rightly, breathtakingly, modest. The narrative is a virtual locus classicus of the human need to face up to the limits of representation. “Useless to describe what went on in these cells,” the narrator says. “Words are insufficient.” “No description, no picture can reveal their true dimension.” “Is it in vain that we try to remember?” To say the film broods and gouges and discomfits is to say that the sun warms.Night and Fog is an unbearable apotheosis of desolation that speaks to the necessity of our making a mental effort to grasp what is impossible to grasp—a duty that has been imposed upon us by history.

The juxtaposition of the two films was, of course, no accident. They were programmed in sequence to make unavoidable the sense of a causal vector running from the submissive ecstasies of Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz. You didn’t need a diagram. It was a shattering afternoon. The audience left in dead silence.

I’ve not forgotten the shock and logic of the segue. (Neither has a classmate I checked with, who was there as well.) Those images were engraved into our souls. The cinematic double whammy certainly made me, to use the current euphemism, “uncomfortable.” Oh yes, to put it mildly, it made me very uncomfortable. That was the point. Mission accomplished, Professor Sam Beer of Harvard’s Soc Sci 2. You impressed upon this 19-year-old soul an unbearable, ineradicable warning about mass rallies and mass murder. You didn’t draw me a diagram. You burned into me that more powerful thing: a synapse.

Read the entire Gitlin essay.  Education, real education, requires learning how to see, especially those things that we prefer not to see.

Here’s the thing: the Snowflakes are going to grow up to be our elites. Frank Bruni, who has a new book out about college admissions in America, writes:

And hovering over all of this is the economic pessimism that has afflicted this country for at least a decade now, along with the growing sense of income inequality. There’s a sense that the world is more competitive, that the future is more uncertain and that the gap between haves and the have-nots has widened, raising the stakes of which side of the divide you wind up on.

Alan Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton, told me: “The difference between being in the top one or five or ten percent and not is bigger than ever before, so if people think going to a highly selective school will get you there, they’re going to care more.”

Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar College, added: “The reward of getting into the top X percent of the income distribution now is a multiple of what it was thirty or forty years ago, and people perceive the access to that as coming through these elite schools.”

In other words and in sum, the college admissions mania is a mirror of America: anxious and stratified.

These kids surely know they are not in those elite schools to be educated, but rather to make the connections that will get them good jobs and secure their place in the top economic tier. I wonder what kind of education they will receive outside of the classroom at these universities, tyrannized by the Little Emperors and Empresses who can destroy the meaning of a university by throwing tantrums — tantrums that college administrators facilitate? It’s like that Twilight Zone episode, “It’s A Good Life,” in which a horrible brat with paranormal powers that can destroy the lives of all around him has everyone quaking with terror.

What happens when men and women who have been formed by colleges that indulge the Snowflakes move into positions of power? A friend wrote the other day to talk about the culture in his corporation, one of the biggest in the US. He’s rising in management, and says that it’s remarkable to see from within how corporations are “explicitly and strategically shaping culture, just as Huxley knew they would.” I can’t say more because I have to protect his privacy, but he adds that all the changes that are being made have to do with an idea of the Good that goes unquestioned within the corporate culture. Based on his description, and on past conversations, it seems clear that much (but not all) of this is the Good as defined by the Therapeutic Culture — the kind of culture that provides Play-Doh for Snowflakes, and that characterizes any skepticism of its principles and goals as acts of aggression that cannot be tolerated.

It’s a power play that uses language to disguise its emotivist aggression, in particular its aggression to intellection. There ought to arise on campuses an army of young Paul Fussell’s to challenge and attack this ideological fanaticism at every turn. Because once it gets entrenched in corporate America, there is no fighting it, not if you want to keep your job.

UPDATE: A college professor commenting under the name McKay says:

I’ve been teaching college students for the last five years, and it’s incredible how much they’ve become infantilized. Even in this brief half-decade span, it’s gotten worse. It’s not just a fear of views that offend our own beliefs; it’s an unwillingness to engage in opinionated dialogue of any kind. Sometimes I’ll give them a piece of opinion journalism to evaluate — a Franzen essay on technology, for example — and the most common response is the complaint “It was too opinionated. It should be more balanced.” (Of course, can we really blame them? You can be blacklisted for expressing a position that was mainstream just ten years ago.)

And it’s even worse in class. Virtually every statement, written or spoken, is prefaced with “Personally, I…” or “This is just my opinion, but…” It’s like the very idea of expressing an opinion that might be different from someone else’s, or from orthodoxy, is a radical departure from social norms. There is no engagement with ideas. There is only interest in avoidance of herd-upsetting. Obviously this reflexive stance is incompatible with the very workings of a democracy. Civility doesn’t preclude disagreement.

Sometimes we have faculty collaboration sessions with students, and without fail the most popular professors in these sessions — and indeed throughout campus — are those who used to be elementary school teachers. They know how to talk to children, which is exactly what college students are now. And I don’t make this complaint as an Old Guy; I graduated college just ten years ago. The difference that has emerged in just the last ten years is stunning.

Related, here is a Michelle Goldberg piece from The Nation about this phenomenon. She talks about the witch hunt against the liberal Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, who had the audacity to question what she called the infantilization of feminism, resulting in “sexual paranoia” on campus. I should note as well that Gitlin, Shulevitz, and the late Paul Fussell, as well as Goldberg and Kipnis, are all on the Left. This is not exclusively a left-vs-right debate, nor is it a male-vs-female debate; Fussell was adamantly opposed to the same herd mentality in the Eisenhower years. Here’s Goldberg, talking about trigger warnings and the generational divide on campuses:

Northwestern junior Erik Baker, a member of Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault and one of the organizers of the anti-Kipnis march, naturally disputes the notion that the students are prigs. “She definitely paints this very overtly condescending picture of this new generation that has their feathers ruffled by her pushing the envelope,” Baker told me. In fact, he argues, millennials love satire and political humor. “We’re the Colbert generation. It’s not that we don’t have senses of humor or senses of wanting to push the envelope,” he says. “We just think that publicly belittling sexual assault survivors is in poor taste.”

All the same, Baker can’t quite contain his incredulity at Kipnis’s flippant approach to matters that he considers extremely grave. “She seems to think that it’s very silly,” he says about her attitude towards trigger warnings. “It’s not even like, Oh man, I really want to protect these students and make sure they’re safe, but I think the pedagogical value is…” he trails off. “She doesn’t even perceive how trigger warnings would work to make the classroom more safe, or to help students navigate the material in a way that would be better for them psychologically.” He’s right. She doesn’t. And therein lies a generational chasm.

It is very, very easy to see where “100% Americanism” and all the mass 1950s conformity that we deride today came from. An old professor of mine once said to me that the students in subsequent generations were in general far less interested in asking questions than my generation was. They were better behaved, and certainly less messy as people; they just wanted to know what was going to be on the test, and what they had to do to get an A.

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Kara Tippetts, 1976-2015

kara

It is done. She died today. A mutual friend of ours texted to tell me. I was sitting out with my neighbors when I heard the news. One of the neighbors read Kara’s book, and has been following her story. We talked about what a difference she made in our lives, and in the lives of others. I could not feel sad, no matter how hard I tried. I felt joyful. I — we — have had the opportunity to see a saint meet her death. Every single one of us will walk this same path, but how glorious she made it. It is impossible to believe that she is dead, only changed.

This morning I didn’t make it to liturgy, because I was feeling too sick from mono, but I prayed the liturgy at home, and I read from Robert Louis Wilken’s great book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Nothing I have ever read has excited me as much about the early church. In the passage I read this morning, Wilken writes about Augustine teaching that one learns to be a Christian not by studying doctrine and arguments, but by watching people who love Jesus Christ. Wilken:

The place to begin is not with the truth or falsity of certain teachings, but with the persons whose lives are formed by the teachings. In matters of religions it is reasonable to being by following. Augustine is not speaking about blind obedience or leaping into the dark or submitting to someone else’s dictates: he is speaking about placing one’s confidence in men and women whose examples invite us to love what they love.

This morning when I read that passage, I thought of Kara Tippetts, and her example. How the divine light shone through her so brightly. I want to be like her in so many ways, and I know she will be praying for me and my family. See that image above? That’s our refrigerator. Kara and Jason Tippetts have been staring at us from the fridge every day for a while. They will continue to be present for us as an icon, through which the light of Christ shines. What a privilege to have known of her.

Tonight after I put the kids to bed, I will gather myself before my icon of Christ, and pray the prayers for the departed, for Kara. How strange and wonderful that I’m rejoicing that her pain is over, and that we have all gained a phenomenal intercessor.

I know. Crazy Christian stuff. That’s how we are. Kara, Kara, Kara. Shine on, baby, shine on. Last September, just before her book came out, she wrote me to thank me for the encouragement I gave her as a writer. She said, “One day we will meet — this side of the veil or the next.”

We will. We will!

The family is requesting that in lieu of flowers, folks send donations for the Tippetts children:

Jason Tippetts
P.O. Box 49727
Colorado Springs, CO 80949

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Writing While Sick

Behold, a writer
Behold, a writer

I have mentioned in the past that my chronic mononucleosis went into remission for a year after reading Dante and experiencing a spiritual and physical healing, but that — irony of ironies! — the intense stress of having to write the book late last fall and winter under a radically truncated schedule (from zero to complete in three months, which is all but unheard of) triggered a relapse. I’ve still not been able to get on top of that. It feels like my immune system’s wheels are spinning on ice, and can’t get traction. And I’m not sure why. The certain thing is that I experienced real healing, but I tried to do too much intense writing — I have never before written under that kind of deadline — before my immune system was strong enough. It was like trying to run a marathon on legs that had only recently healed from being broken. No wonder I fell.

On Friday, I took my dad to a regularly scheduled appointment with a doctor, and watched the specialist put him through the paces. Let me tell you, old age is one damn humiliation after another. There was nothing unusual about this visit, but it was hard to see how much pain and suffering my father is enduring as his body breaks down from old age.

I must have taken it hard, because today, I woke up, had my coffee … and went back to bed around noon. I slept until late afternoon, woke up, ate some lunch, and then went back to bed till 7:30 this evening. The whole day, wasted, sleeping, exhausted from mono. Just now I was feeling awfully sorry for myself, for all the writing I couldn’t get done (it’s hard to focus too with this stuff).

And then I read just now this piece by Mindy Belz, talking about the last days of her friend Kara Tippetts. Look:

As Kara talks, she sometimes takes the oxygen tube from her nose then forgets to put it back until her breath comes in short heaves. She drifts off, dozes, mid-conversation. But throughout the day she snatches at good moments to sit up in bed, legs crossed beneath her laptop, and write. This too is the work of her cancer. Once she began to recount with remarkable transparency that battle carried on amid family life, Kara gathered hundreds of thousands of readers to her blog, Mundane Faithfulness. It led to a best-selling book, The Hardest Peace (David C. Cook, 2014). She is working on a second book, a book about making the most of the moments, writing fast in what moments of energy come, wanting to finish. It’s hard to write, she says, as pain medicine gives her double vision, and the cancer may be again at work in her brain.

And yet, she writes. That is what writers do.

Funny how the lives of the saints can make us feel so small, yet so big too.

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