A Letter to Caregivers

This is the first piece I wrote and had published on the internet. It was spring of 2018, I was living in Tulsa, and had entirely lost myself in religious community and the 10 hours of teaching I was doing every day and as such, felt like I had lost my ability to envision myself in the Church. I’m feeling pretty similarly, today.

I found so much solace in the letters being compiled at The Catholic Woman, a then-new online space for women to write letters to women who had had similar life experiences, encouraging them that there is space in the Church for their unique experiences and wisdom.

When considering the spaces I felt were lacking then, in 2018, and what I might contribute to this library of letters, I reflected back on the previous times in which I didn’t feel there was space for me in the Church, that doing so might enlighten where I could discover space amidst my then-present wanderings. I’m doing similarly, today.

I wrote my letter on disability. Specifically, disability caregiving. I had yet to go to graduate school. I hadn’t even decided where I would go! I hadn’t encountered secular Queer and Crip Theories about the body. I hadn’t jumped head-first into Christian disability theology. All I knew was my own experience as a caregiver of a sibling with profound cognitive and physical disabilities, and I was emboldened by the sliver of theology I had learned in undergrad. To be frank, I was at the peak of that pesky Dunning-Kruger bell curve (which I write about here.)

When I was growing up, not-belonging in Church (and in many other social spaces, like in stores and barbecues and friend groups) was almost entirely contingent upon Matthew not belonging. I didn’t feel comfortable at Mass because Matthew would be loud, people would stare, and he would potentially kick the paten out of the priest’s hands at Communion time, scattering Jesus across the floor to a chorus of gasps. When we moved, not belonging at Mass looked like not being able to fit his wheelchair into the old Church and down the aisle. There was no place for him to sit without taking him out of his wheelchair and wrestling him into the pew (which, with his behavioral difficulties, is not realistic.) At that early age of not-belonging, my youngest brother Michael was also young and impatient. At first he was a baby, crying and pooping and screaming and needing my mother’s comfort. At the later stages, he was whiny and insatiable and tantrum-ridden.

My perspective on all of this not-belonging was a place of young shame. Of immense responsibility as my mom’s primary caregiving support. Of anger that my dad was deployed or working or not wanting to come to Mass with us (though, he eventually came around and even ended up converting.) It was also my fledgling notice that disability was not welcomed in the Church, despite being present in so many Gospel messages of Christ healing the blind, deaf, and paralyzed. It was the beginnings of the fire that would be ignited about the hypocrisy of loving those on the margins while scoffing at them when they laughed loudly during the consecration because they found the tinkling of the bells enjoyable. It was the beginning of my questions about welcoming all to the table while not looking Matthew in the eye.

These were my first tastes of not-belonging at Church, and it was these moments that brought me solace in 2018 as I sat to write my letter. It was that not-belonging that I wanted to speak to.

As such, the title of my original Letter to Women was “Making Space for the Disabled.” It was meant as a riff on the lack of physical space made for Matthew and others like him, in so many situations, some of which I spoke to in the letter.

And it worked! I found a space for myself in writing and studying disability and Catholicism, a belonging I continue to lean into today. I went on to study it in graduate school. I pursued volunteer opportunities that would foster relationships with disabled persons. I wrote more about it on the internet. I combatted my not-belonging by writing about not-belonging.

But now, as I look back on the letter, as I attempt to house the sum total of my writing these last 3 years for various publications on this blog in some form or another, with the experience I’ve gained in my study and work and friendships, I can see that in some ways I was conflating the experience of the disabled person with the one giving them care. These experiences are not the same.

However, the experiences of giving care to a disabled family member are some of the most intimate you can get when not disabled yourself. You feel the stares, you recognize the inaccessibility of a space, you field the ignorant questions if your loved one is nonverbal, and you advocate on their behalf if their cognition limits their self-determination. This was, and in some ways still is, my experience.

I also recognize that some may bristle at the idea that I, as a sibling, would in some ways equate myself with other kinds of caregivers, whether they be parents or teachers or nurses or aides. I recognize that the ways my parents have given care supersede some of the ways I was required to give care (but it was a requirement, because of the relationship I had with my parents and siblings, even if others might view it as my choice to serve my family.) But as I learn more about being a sibling to disability, and as more and more siblings share their own stories online, I invite the patient consideration from both outside and internal voices that I did experience a comparable pressure and responsibility to give care that many don’t experience until they are the parents of their own children. That I did experience a comparable responsibility for another individual’s safety, health, nutrition, and happiness that draws me into conversation with similar responsibilities from various walks of life.

My experience of responsibility was then and remains today valid.

For these reasons, if I could go back, I think I’d change the title of my letter to what I’ve named it here: A Letter to Caregivers. Nowadays, I could write a different and better letter on what it would take to make space for disability for disability’s sake, and it would start by passing the mic to a disabled person and going from there. I still think my letter speaks to the heart of making space for disability, for the caregiver’s sake. For that reason I’m still proud to host my letter here. And it continues to prod me to write more here about what it was really like being a sibling to Matthew. (So more on that is coming soon.)

Here’s the opening of the letter, and I invite you to read the rest of it at The Catholic Woman:

Dear Family,

This ones for the caretakers. For the people who don’t buy white clothing because it’s just going to get dirty. 

My younger brother Matthew was born with Cri du Chat and DiGeorge Syndromes. Combined, these chromosomal mutations look a little like Cerebral Palsy, and a lot like cognitive delay, a compromised immune system, a pacemaker, a lack of consistent toilet use, and a love of crackers, cereal, and a good restaurant. 

I have always been involved with Matthew’s care. I have confronted the stares, the lack of a wheelchair ramp, and the soiled bedsheets alongside my parents and other younger brother Michael.

Lesson: Taking someone in a wheelchair to the movies requires two spaces. A space for the wheelchair, and a seat beside them…” To read the rest of the letter about how I LEARNED this lesson, click here.

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Our Planetary Body: Series Introduction

It’s Earth Day.

You probably know this already from the 37 emails you got advertising Earth Day sales.

In recent years, the attractiveness of an eco-friendly, “all-natural,” low-waste lifestyle has skyrocketed. By contrast, the states of our waterways, forests, soil, weather, ocean levels, atmosphere, biodiversity, and more are still rapidly worsening.

Perhaps less commonly-known is that this worsening is not a result of individual failings. The biggest contributors to environmental degradation are corporations and governments. Through the burning of fossil fuels, air travel, factory production, deforestation, destruction of land and waterways, and more, the biggest culprits are the exact people who want us to think it’s all our individual faults. We used too much aerosol hairspray, we didn’t recycle enough.

The “all-natural,” “go green,” and “reduce, reuse, recycle” movements we were raised with were developed in part to place the onus of responsibility on the individual. This is not entirely inappropriate–we do each have an individual responsibility to protect our common home–but nevertheless we were taught these things in part to distract from the real culprits: commercial enterprise.

What do macro-responsibilities and micro-responsibilities have in common? Gluttony. Consumption. Stuff.

Whether the stuff is clothing, plastic, packaging, dairy, crude oil, hunting, fishing, driving and traveling… we have too much stuff.

This is where we see the rise in popularity of “minimalism.” Sparsely decorated walls, capsule wardrobes, plant-based diets, wooden toys… We have made “having less” extremely attractive. The number of white, Christian influencers peddling celery juice in repurposed mason jars while wearing yesterday’s thrifted all-white ensemble they dried using woolen balls is too many to count. And yet it’s true! If we all had less stuff, the planet would be healthier.

The issue is this: The problem does not go away simply by yelling at people to have less stuff. Why? Because having less stuff requires having access to higher quality stuff that will last longer as well as package-free options that reduce waste. All of these things cost $$$$. All-natural alternatives often cost significantly more than the cheap, plastic, packaged, single-use, or fast-fashion alternatives.

This is not actually bad, because it often means companies are paying their workers a living wage in order to produce their items (Now, this is certainly not always the case. Many brands will hike up their prices simply because they know people will pay for the prestige of a minimalist life, still underpaying and overworking their employees.) But the difference in cost of living as eco-friendly of a life as possible is enormous, and ignores the very real problems that make environmental protection a clear issue of justice: Food deserts in rural and under-resourced communities, the racially-motivated locations of hazardous and pollutant factories, lack of nutritional education, monopolies on consumerism by big-box stores like Amazon and Walmart, just to name a few.

And even then, even if you have the money to invest in a minimalist lifestyle, 9 times out of 10 this requires a transition from a maximalist lifestyle through downsizing. Where does all the stuff you already have go if it doesn’t match your minimalist aesthetic? Well, if we’re not careful, to the landfill. See, by glamorizing eco-friendly minimalism, every brand on Earth is jumping onto the bandwagon and coming out with products labeled “green,” “clean,” “organic,” “natural,” “vegan,” etc. Their ads look just like that influencer’s home. If it’s a big company, their options are probably significantly cheaper than the small business they’re competing with. And yet it still all hinges on the temptation to have more stuff. This is “green-washing.”

It’s Earth Day.

Praise God for ecological leadership we’ve seen take precedence in recent years. Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical Laudato Si brought our ecological crisis to the front of Christians’ minds everywhere.

We have an ecological body. We have a planetary body. When we talk about Theology for Every Body, we must include this body, the body we are polluting and abusing. The first body entrusted to Adam’s care, before even that of Eve or their children (Genesis 2).

Maybe it feels a bit uncomfortable to call it a body. But isn’t it? With its veins, its air, its limbs, its water? Its pockets and cracks and bony plates?

From the moment I began Theology for EveryBody, I knew ecological justice would be a key component of its ethos. It must be. The Body of Christ necessarily includes the Earth, because it is from whence we all come and where we all end up. It is what we are made stewards of, a key component of so many miracles.

So, welcome to this series! It’s going to be an exceptionally fun and unique one, because not only am I going to write on ecological justice and theology (handing the metaphorical mic over to BIPOC leaders in these fields whenever I can) but I’m going to have Guy weigh in as well. That’s right folks: STEMforEveryBody crossover series!

Guy is a theoretical space physicist. His research centers on the interaction between the sun’s plasma particles and the Earth’s magnetosphere (did you even know the Earth had such a thing? A magnetic atmosphere? I sure didn’t!) This might not seem to have much to do with our climate crisis, but it does.

Guy is also currently back in night school studying public policy, as he prepares for a job transition into the world of science policy and advocacy. Issues of climate justice are nuanced, and are the responsibility of our federal, state, and local governments to navigate on the behalf of their constituents whose present and future livelihoods are immediately at stake. We’re long past imagining what the world will look like for our children’s children. Things are dire: The next 40 years will be make or break.

What’s more, Guy is passionate about learning about, advocating for, and supporting Indigenous education, leadership, land-management, and history. He has a fair bit of knowledge about and referrals to make to various Indigenous practices, leaders, scholars, traditions, and more. The conversation on ecological preservation and protection cannot occur without deferring to the ancestral knowledge of the people who cared for the land before we forced them off of it. The Church is explicitly culpable.

Guy and I have both committed to living as ecologically conscious of a lifestyle as we can. We’ve made numerous “swaps,” as well as larger dietary and lifestyle choices, that we look forward to sharing with you. Perhaps unsurprisingly: Minimalism is NOT a part of this lifestyle, and I’ll end up arguing that rejecting aesthetic minimalism might be one of the best things you can do.

I’ll also be sure and talk about ecological theologies. How can we see the Earth as God’s body? Is there such a thing as ecological sin? I’m particularly excited to explore “Franciscan Theology with my Non-Catholic Fiance.” Guy more than anyone else has introduced me to the Spirit of the outdoors, the holiness of flora and fauna, the necessity of breathing deep in fresh air, and respecting natural spaces through our own reverent activity.

If you only do one thing today to mark Earth Day: Read THIS book. Get it from your library, order it from your favorite small or used book store. Ashlee Piper’s knowledge is comprehensive, funny, easy to understand, and just might change your life. I’ve met her IRL and consider her one of my wisest and funnest Internet friends (DM me and I’ll show you our fun bathroom mirror selfies!)

Climate Change is not a myth. It isn’t disproven by dangerous, uncharacteristic temperature lows. It isn’t disproven by the saving of a few endangered or thought-to-be-extinct species or fewer plastic straws in the ocean. The only opinion we should have on Climate Change is that it is imminent. The only difference of opinion we should have on Climate Change is how we personally commit to fighting it.

I would say “we can’t wait to walk the path to a safer planet with you,” but it’s too late to walk.

We must run. As fast as we possibly can.

With urgent love — Madison and Guy

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Categories
faith family

Rethinking St. Joseph

St. Joseph is a saint who follows me around. I’ve belonged to more than one St. Joseph parish, and my eyes always well up a little when I happen across a statue or a prayer. To be honest, I’m not happy about St. Joseph’s lingering presence. I have often thought of him as a shadow I didn’t understand (which is, interestingly, one of the ways Pope Francis charactered St. Joseph in his most recent letter, as a saint “in the shadows.”)

So when Pope Francis announced the upcoming year as the Year of St. Joseph, I had that familiar tingly “he showed up again!” excitement, followed by confusion. What does it mean for a year to be St. Joseph’s? Who is he? Why do I gravitate towards him so much?

I let the first months of the new liturgical year roll by and then like a whisper, while kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer at Mass a few weeks ago, after having my first panic attack in years just before the service began, I felt it in my chest: He’s the dad saint.

I decided that this whisper was enough for me to finally pay some attention to the liturgical year’s designation. I remembered seeing the Consecration to St. Joseph by Donald Calloway being advertised last year and felt like a deep dive and commitment to getting to know St. Joseph was the right move for me to make.

Now, I hate “consecration” language. Not because I don’t think the notion of being consecrated is a beautiful or good thing: it is. But most commonly in the circles young Catholic Madison swam in, “consecrated” has always been paired with “virgin” (and I don’t really like the history and use of that word either.) I hate that so often, discussions of consecration and women’s sexuality revolve around the most interesting thing about a woman being her virginity. It’s the least interesting thing about Mary, it’s the least interesting thing about the single people you know, and it’s the least interesting thing about vowed religious too. Even with St. Joseph, his liturgical designation is “most chaste spouse.” I bet there are a million things more interesting about St. Joseph than his sex life. Consecration is a commitment, and it’s a commitment to more than virginity. It’s a commitment to the vocation you’ve chosen, that God has set on your heart.

So what would it mean to be “consecrated” to St. Joseph? There was (and is) still a little part of me that says, “Is it not better to just talk straight to Christ instead?” I haven’t felt a single nudge towards a Marian consecration, despite its greater popularity. But St. Joseph has followed me around. And after that teary Mass, there’s a not-so-small part of me that yearns to rewrite the feelings that arise when considering the phrase “you’ll have to tell your dad.”

For my non-Catholic friends who still aren’t sure what it means to be consecrated to a saint (or maybe you’re still confused about what the Catholic relationship to Saints is in the first place): Saints are really cool holy dead people who did something awesome on Earth and now hang out in Heaven with Jesus. If you were friends with a famous person who had a lot of money to spend on causes you care about, you would tell them often about that cause to drum up support banking on your mutual respect. If something comes up in your life that you want someone to be your prayer wingman on, you can pray to the Saint who cares about that something and they put in a good word for you with the Big Man Himself.

For example: If you’re a Wiedenfeld-Chastain grandchild who lost their favorite baseball hat, you pray to St. Anthony, the patron Saint of lost things, and you find it two months later in your parents’ vacation Yahtzee bag.

That was maybe one too many family jokes for one blog post, but hopefully you get the picture. You have a need, you pray to the Saint who cares about the subject matter of that need, they advocate for you to God.

Now consecration is a commitment on your end to give special consideration to a Saint that means a lot to you. So in doing a consecration to St. Joseph, I’m committing to praying to St. Joseph regularly, and entrusting to him ALL the things, with the understanding that he is real and present and cares for me.

Having a better understanding of this definition of consecration, I bought the Consecration to St. Joseph book, and was pleased that I hadn’t missed the most common start date: Today (as I write this), February 15th. I will complete the 33 day of prayers and meditation on St. Joseph’s life on his feast day.

But I also plan on spending the next 33 days (and then some: Hallow has dedicated their whole Lent challenge to St. Joseph!) offering up my commitment to a relationship with St. Joseph for the sake of some unusual intentions that have risen in my heart as I’ve begun my preliminary preparation for the consecration. I read Pope Francis’ letter on St. Joseph, “Patris Corde,” and found myself reflecting on who and what St. Joseph seems, to me, to have a soft spot for. And many of these things seem, to me, to not have many other places to call home in the Church.

St. Joseph is the patron of the UNIVERSAL Church. Like I write about in Theology for EveryBody’s “Why” Statement, Catholic might literally mean universal, but what we think of as universal—equal consideration, equal participation, and diverse and fair treatment—are not actually reflected in our church spaces or in our society. To that degree, St. Joseph is the defender of those for whom a universal church home is most desperately needed.

St. Joseph is entrusted the Holy Family, and thereby entrusted with our notions of family writ large. Family looks different than it did back then. And while many Catholics, the author of the St. Joseph consecration book included, like to use language of “war on family” or “family being under attack,” I vehemently disagree that this is what is happening.

Let’s be extremely plain: When Christians, especially Catholics, speak about “losing family values” or “war on family,” they’re talking about gay folx. End of story. I mean, maybe they’re also talking about families with children resulting from sex outside of marriage, but for the Church, these sins are the same.

Perhaps no one has ever laid it out explicitly, but I am happy to do so: The core reason homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of the Church stems from the Church’s beliefs about the components of sexual intimacy. For a Catholic, sex must be both 1.) unitive and 2.) procreative. Gay sex can’t naturally be both. That’s it. That’s the problem.

Well, the problem Catholics and Christians generally make of it is that “gay culture” promotes behaviors that lead to non-procreative sexual intimacy. Dating someone of the same sex, expressing any sort of physical affection, having children, etc. The slippery slope actually slides back even further; anyone who behaves “conventionally queer” is considered to be “flaunting a sinful lifestyle.” But that has more to do with conventional notions of gender norms #HarryStylesInADress. For the sake of this article, let’s keep with the sex problems.

What this all ultimately means is that LGBTQ+ people who identify as Catholic but pursue romantic relationships and families have an extremely difficult time being welcomed into the Church. Even though the sins they have technically committed are no greater than a straight couple that has non-procreative sex or who pursues assisted reproductive technologies, because of the stigma against LGBTQ+ folx, their sins are cast back in their faces as far more egregious.

What might our Church look like if the pews were filled with queer folx? With families whose parents were the same sex? Would we be uncomfortable?

As I was reading about St. Joseph, these are the families that came to my mind. These are the families truly under attack. And if I could invite you to think imaginatively with me, not only do I think there is precedent to entrust St. Joseph with these families, but I also don’t think working for this vision of the Church “encourages lewd behavior.” Jesus came to dine with sinners. All of them. The straight ones and the gay ones, amen hallelujah.

This is certainly not the only unusual community, family, or issue I think we might entrust to St. Joseph. St. Joseph’s own life, the precious little we know of it in Scripture, shows a man largely abiding by societal norms, but willing to quietly bend them for the sake of Mary’s well-being. It is through the message of an angel that St. Joseph fully breaks with the societal tradition and welcomes a woman pregnant with a child that is not his into his home as his wife. (Matthew 1:19-25)

St. Joseph is an example of what it looks like to believe what a woman says about her body and her sex life, without shaming her.

St. Joseph is an example of what it looks like to father a child who is not biologically yours (whether via adoption, fostering, or as a stepfather.)

St. Joseph is an example of a spouse whose wife and child are more famous than he is! And he doesn’t seem particularly threatened…

St. Joseph is an example of someone who works quietly, tirelessly, perhaps without adequate recognition, to support an unusual family dynamic. He is someone who perhaps dreamt of a family situation different from the one he was given.

St. Joseph is patron of workers. Of craftsmen, artists, those skilled in some sort of trade. You know, the work that kept us hopeful during this pandemic. Patron of the #RatatouilleMusical, if I may.

St. Joseph is called the “Terror of Demons.” Might I invite us to consider our actual demons? The public shame and oppression of women and their sexuality. Physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual violence against women. Our refusal to accept unconventional families, like those named before, or those who look, vote, or pray differently than we do. Those children who are excluded or rejected from their families, especially those who are LGBTQ+. The rejection of arts and craftsmanship produced by skilled small business owners in favor of soulless, mass-produced items that only make the rich richer and the planet deader.

Might these be the demons St. Joseph cares for? To be certain, they are things Christ cares about, for He is ultimate and perfect love. It is reasonable to believe Christ learned what it meant to be a protector from His father, and so it is reasonable to think that same father might teach us a thing or two as well.

In the Consecration to St. Joseph book, St. Joseph is described as “alert to God’s wonders.” At the very least, I am looking forward to spending these next 33 days praying for greater wonder and awe. I will be praying for an increase of willing tenderness that I might show my partner and my family. I will be offering up my current crossroads of professional discernment, that the patron saint of workers might place my work at the foot of Christ for Him to kick down the road He wants me to set out on. And I will be praying for all unusual families. For families who don’t see themselves reflected in our pews. Who are what our favorite Instagram counselors might identify as dysfunctional. For couples and parents and children.

There’s a part of me that thinks, if I’m misinterpreting what St. Joseph might mean for me and for the church, that he’ll just stop showing up. But that’s not what a loving father does. And so I’m 1 day down and 32 to go, already blessed by the consistency of a commitment between father and daughter.

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Categories
faith relationships

Oh Good, Another Person is Engaged

I’ve reached that age: Every day a new person on my Facebook feed is pregnant or engaged. It can seem, in the rat race of social media, that we are falling ever-more behind our peers. I am keenly aware of how I have now crossed the threshold into participating in this phenomenon: I am recently engaged.

The proposal was, simply put, awesome. Guy put thought into so many details. He said such nice things when he asked. We found $11 on the ground. What more could you want?

People have come out of the woodwork to celebrate with and congratulate us. Sharing the news with loved ones was one of the best parts of our engagement weekend. We have no shortage of support from friends, and I have already received countless offers for wedding-planning assistance. (No. We don’t have a date. We’re in a pandemic. We’re going to ride the waves and see what happens!)

I am also keenly aware that any and all announcements of major relationship news can be eye-roll-worthy, to everyone but especially to women. (I have a post on feminine milestones and why our culture would be better with an expanded idea of family, friends, and vocation coming soon!) I am genuinely sorry if I announced my engagement and you felt a pang of resentment, jealousy, FOMO, etc. What a shitty world we live in when we reach this age and can already hear the holiday conversations with extended family about why we haven’t found a nice boy to marry yet.

If you’re Christian, one response reverberates from all corners of the internet: Pray, and enjoy your time of singleness.

During this New Year’s time, after the holiday marathon of diamond rings and newborn babies flooding your feeds, combined with the resolutions and “wellness goals” many are making in January, it is not uncommon for people, especially in Christian circles, to adopt spiritual commitments that are designed to soothe these pangs of “I’m behind.” I’m also conscious that Lent is right around the corner, during which Catholics will give up certain things as a 40-day offering in reminiscence of Christ’s 40 days in the desert and in preparation for His crucifixion and Resurrection. I anticipate that many women in my faith community may be on the brink of making certain spiritual commitments in order to feel better about wherever they sit in regards to love (and today, I’m going to try and talk you out of the most common ones, just a little bit…)

I learned about the 54-Day Novena from the same Catholic woman’s talk you probably learned about it from. 27 days of asking, something absolutely incredible and unexpected happens (or not) on day 27, and then 27 days of “thank you”s, no matter what God wrought. I don’t doubt that this novena has worked miracles in the lives of many people. I am confident it has also been a wishing well for even more.

I prayed my first 54-Day Novena during my sophomore year of college. After a tumultuous summer of what was, at the time, my brother Matthew’s biggest surgery, coupled with the will we/ won’t we of a new and troublesome boy from my home town, I returned to campus exhausted and ready to just MEET MY HUSBAND ALREADY. This “getting to know a person” and “seeing if they’re the right fit,” was too soul-crushing when the answer was “no they are not at all the right fit.” One YouTube rabbit hole of Catholic women’s talks later, and I was signing myself up for 54 daily rosaries.

In this novena, we are invited to imagine each prayer as a rose being offered to Mary, in exchange for her intercession on behalf of whatever we’re wanting. Rose after rose I offered Mary, asking that I meet my husband-to-be in college, and soon. When the first 54 roses I offered Mary didn’t bear fruit, I offered a second set of 54 later that year.

Meanwhile, I was starting a second on-campus job, leaning into the incredible friendships I formed freshman year, and beginning what would become a two year journey of making my first real, tangible goal possible: Leading a group of my peers on pilgrimage to Poland for World Youth Day 2016. I had all of these magnificent things unfolding in my life. Yet, night after night, I sat in front of my laptop, using my homework break to pray for my future husband. Looking back on it, doesn’t that seem… a little odd?

Around that same time I first heard the phrase “dating fast.” Not fast as in “quick,” fast as in “giving up” or “abstaining.” This practice of setting aside a certain amount of time where one does not date has become increasingly popular as post-graduate volunteer organizations like FOCUS, NET, and more increasingly require abstaining from romantic relationships in order to focus on one’s temporary ministry. Outside of organizations like these, many young Catholic singles adopt a temporary dating fast in order to focus on one’s present season: singleness.

Spoiler alert: I have never once heard a person say that a dating fast lessened their thoughts about dating and romance. I have heard from many people that they kept running into amazing, attractive, funny, faithful, smart potential partners during their fast. That it was torture wrestling with the feelings and not being able to do anything about them. Sometimes the other person was also committed to a dating fast, which made the workplace rife with tension. I have heard from many people that it felt like a deep offering to the Lord to show their commitment to a promise they made to Him, but I have never heard a person say a dating fast made them less interested in dating. It should be a clear sign that most people I have known who have tried dating fasts could not stop talking about the fact that they were on a dating fast. For all these reasons, I myself never tried one. It sounded miserable, and it didn’t seem to actually work.

What’s more, the belief that a romantic relationship impacts your ability to do your job well suggests to me some… concerning things about relationship norms in these programs and our Church, and the role these organizations believe they have to play in guiding young people through the process of dating and discernment. It’s certainly true that, for most people, maturity brings greater ability to balance work and relationships. But there is also something to be said about how experiences in dating help you mature.

When I was a post-grad volunteer, a dating fast was not required, though they did “encourage us” to end our romantic relationships and not pursue new ones for the duration of our volunteer year(s). This was intended to increase our reliance on intentional community and strengthen our focus on our ministries. Guy and I navigated whether or not we were going to pursue long-distance as I began my volunteer year, him in Canada and me in Oklahoma. In the beginning, my accompaniers never missed an opportunity to offer our relationship as the reasons for the hardships I endured. “You’re struggling to feel connected and happy in community. Might it be that you’re spending too much time talking to Guy?” Um. No. It’s that one of my community members just lost her husband to a heart attack and I am accompanying her in grief, and another community member tells me every night at dinner that my brother should be institutionalized so he stops burdening my family, but I can’t punch him in the teeth because he’s an old Christian Brother.

Eventually my accompaniers got on board with the truth of the matter: Guy was my one constant source of support. This is one of the dearest things we are robbing young people of when we require them to fast from dating while they embark on Church ministry: The opportunity for real, true support during what will inevitably be deeply challenging and demanding.

If these programs aren’t interested in accompanying young people as they navigate romantic relationship, then that’s a problem. Shouldn’t they be? Shouldn’t young people feel comfortable approaching Church leaders with all of their challenges? Might this expectation of “just fast and pray for relief from these pangs of attraction” echo the stark lack of resources the Church provides vowed religious, the LGBTQ+ community, and more when it comes to feelings of attraction? Might we be setting all sorts of Catholic people up for failure by not modeling healthy communication about relationship struggles, and by not holding religious leadership accountable to this accompaniment? It is damn near impossible to make a person stop thinking about romantic relationship simply by suggesting they focus on something that in all senses continue to imply it.

As with many things, “singlehood” is a concept that is necessarily defined by the shadow presence of its opposite: romantic relationship.

“Singleness” does not make much sense outside of the context of that opposite. Up until we learn about the idea or the term, we have probably been living in adolescent singleness without much thought to it as an identity. It only becomes visible–and disappointing–when we name it! Only then does it occur to us that we’re living in a time of lacking what singleness is not: Partnership.

Recently, online communities have made a concerted effort to distance the newest generations of Catholics from the emphasis on marriage as the pinnacle of a woman’s vocation. The increased opportunities for women’s involvement in Church organizations, publications, ministries, and other efforts has certainly contributed greatly. And yet, the increased presence of Catholic women, online and in-person, conveying messages to young people implicitly through the filters of how their particular life has gone seems to double down on these untruths: “Marriage is the biggest thing you have to look forward to in life. Then it’s children. Then it’s Heaven.” Who we elevate and what their lives look like inform what we think our goals should be!

Part of the problem stems from desires to universalize personal experiences that do not have their roots in Scripture. When a Catholic woman with clout begins public speaking on how “singleness can be joyful!” young people who have only just begun to consider their interest in romantic partnerships and would have never thought otherwise begin to assume that, without work, singleness will be the opposite. I bet far fewer women would be miserably single if we stopped implicitly telling them every moment of their lives from age 14 onward that singlehood is miserable. The only reason I returned from that difficult summer my sophomore year of college with the thought “meeting my husband will fix my problems” is because all the women I had to look to in my Church were telling stories wherein, implicitly, marriage seemed to fix all of their problems.

This emphasis on normative, temporary singlehood additionally excludes our LGBTQ+ brothers, sisters, and others, for whom a life of singlehood may be an important commitment. Our Queer Catholic family members will receive additionally painful mixed signals if they ever do commit themselves to a forever partnership, as they’re likely to be met with comments about the inappropriateness of their feelings or relationship. We should use this tension to motivate us towards both greater community with and amplification of Queer voices. If we, straight cis Catholics, have established the normative summit of vocation and preach to all young people about not-focusing-on-that-normative-summit while ourselves standing blissfully on the summit shouting down, we are not only neglecting but actively oppressing those who we already know we will never give tools to climb it themselves.

In my humble opinion, the 54-Day, I-Want-My-Spouse-Now Novena and the dating fast are just two ways contemporary Catholic culture continues its stronghold on creative, beautiful, talented, smart, giving, athletic, involved, faithful people’s time. Think of what you could accomplish towards your goals if you spent 30 minutes for 54 consecutive days working on them! Think of what you could learn about yourself and your preferences if you allowed yourself to date when dating felt right!

To be sure, the novena was not intended to become The Future Husband ritual. The baseline purpose of the novena is to commit yourself to praying for a 1). Big intention 2). That could have a clear outcome. If you’re using it as a genuine discernment tool, with defined options, whether about a relationship or not: Righty-o! Keep doing your thing. If you’re using it to offer up a deeply concerning intention–like for someone’s health or for a global circumstance–obviously that is very different. I am writing, today, out of concern for the way this set of prayers has been appropriated into a tool for demanding the acceleration of one’s unique vocational path. Giving somebody a bouquet of roses solely because you expect them to do something massive for you in return is not trust, it’s manipulation.

The dating fast is ultimately similar. If you find yourself in a constant cycle of relationships, without giving yourself any space at all to be single, taking a designated time to not date very well may be an opportunity to re-center. And like my Mom always said during Lent when I asked if granola bars with chocolate chips counted as a “sweet” to be given up: There are no fasting police. I certainly am not one of them! If you feel called to fast, either for a certain cause or for your own renewed relationship with the Lord, you go girl. You do that thing. However, fasting for a certain amount of time and expecting that 1). No persons of interest will cross your path and 2). God will bring your soulmate into your life the moment your fast concludes is not actually a sacrifice of goodwill, it’s manipulation.

We are demanding God act without acting ourselves. This is one reason I was so grateful for Kelsey’s takeover of Live Today Well Co. a few months back. In it, she emphasized the importance of going on dates if your goal is to date. We get so wrapped up in sitting in discernment, waiting for God to plop that handsome man right down in front of us while we’re looking *very interesting* at the grocery store, that we forget that the Holy Spirit moves, and so can we.

Often times, we talk about discernment of dating and marriage like we’re handing our relationships over to the Lord, when really we’re just ringing God’s doorbell because we feel He’s forgotten us. If we truly trust God’s timing and intention for our vocation, we don’t need to remind Him that we ordered a handsome, Catholic boyfriend a couple years ago that has still yet to arrive.

We make plans and God laughs. We demand an itinerary for 54 days straight, how do we think God is going to respond?

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine our habits, our health, our traumas, or our goals. Do you want to have the chance to live on your own? Do you want to have a certain amount of money saved? Is there solo travel you want to do? Who would you like to be before you are married?

But we must, must remember that these are not boxes to check before God blesses us. If we are going to slam the coffin lid on the problematic Prosperity Gospel, we have to stop viewing our future spouse as a reward for our good behavior. Especially because that line of thinking neglects to identify that we will still be imperfect and exhibit “bad” behavior when we are married. The patterns and habits you are working on now may very well be things you continue to work on with your spouse. They do not make you less worthy of love, and working on things with a partner doesn’t mean you’ve failed as an “independent woman” either.

These timelines are all BS, so don’t submit yourself to them as a New Year’s Resolution or a Lenten observation. If you’re feeling poorly because every single one of the people you were hoping to flex on at your 10 year high school reunion has more dogs, more money, or more babies than you, please know that it’s all arbitrary.

If you want an idea for a New Year’s Resolution or a Lenten observation that doesn’t implicitly uphold oppressive and sexist timelines and milestones, know that there are a million and one ways to invite the Lord into your present season that aren’t secretly transactional, and that invest in yourself in ways that aren’t self-absorbed. Would a post with a brainstormed list be helpful? Let me know in the comments, and if you have any practices you’ve found helpful and that meet those criteria DM me or comment them too! Let’s crowd-source our way to more authentic relationship with the Lord and more authentic singlehood (maybe even banishing that word from the lexicon all-together.)

Also you may be wondering: Now that I’m engaged, what was my future husband doing while I was praying my 54-Day Novena for him? He was making out with my college roommate.

Yes, my fiancé dated my roommate for a couple of years before he and I started dating. And while I sat in our dorm room eating Captain Crunch without milk, miscounting Hail Mary’s, he was definitely NOT thinking about me…

And that’s completely and utterly normal. We won’t always marry people who have been single before we came along. We won’t always marry people who fasted before dating us. We might marry people who were married before marrying us! We won’t always marry virgins! Maybe you’re not a virgin! We won’t always marry people who prayed for us, and the person we marry may not always believe in prayer.

We won’t always marry people who were anxiously anticipating us as much as we were anxiously anticipating them! And if it feels weird to talk to your partner about how much you anxiously anticipated them, let that be a sign unto you that these practices of constantly orienting ourselves towards a futurity that is not guaranteed is actually kind of weird, and far, far less fun than just living your life.

When it came time for Guy and I to actually fall in love, two and a half years after Day 54 of Novena round 2, the things that fed the flame were our independent experiences and projects. He was working on his senior project and I wanted to know more about the physics of photons and how sometimes light doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. I was working on my senior project and he wanted to know about the Gothic elements of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

I would love to hear what projects are filling you up right now. I would love to hear what life-changing experiences you’ve recently undergone. I would love to know what you’re looking forward to. I would love to swap SMART goals. Those are the building blocks of a vocation. Roses dripping in love potion? Far. Less. Sturdy.

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