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Archive for the ‘Michael Dubruiel’ Category

When I awoke Wednesday morning, looked at my phone, which read 6:54, then realized that meant it was actually 7:54 (eastern – because I didn’t have service down there in the ravine, so the time hadn’t changed) – and breakfast was served at 8 – well, then I was doubly and triply relieved we’d forged ahead and done that second hike on Tuesday and not waited until 6 am …that morning. That would have been crazy.

I jostled the kid awake and we got ourselves out to the dining room for another great meal – that tomato/egg/sausage pie and some perfect biscuits – checked out and yes…hiked back up a mile to the car. Which was still there, still started, and didn’t have a flat.

Next stop: Prison.

I’d happened upon this place a couple of weeks ago and my first reaction was, “Surely this is tacky.” But then I read reviews which indicated…it’s not. So down we went to the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

And no, it wasn’t tacky at all. It was haunting and thought-provoking. About sin and redemption, crime and punishment, about the possibility of change and how criminal justice might or usually doesn’t contribute to that, about exploitation and all kinds of fear.

Brushy Mountain was a maximum security penitentiary that closed in 2009. It’s most well-known for housing James Earl Ray, who actually escaped and remained at large for a couple of days. Here’s a history.

Now the penitentiary grounds are open for tours and is the site of a distillery, periodic concerts and, in the area, and apparently inspired by Ray’s escape attempt, the insane Barclay Marathons.

First, the site. It’s quite striking. You can see from the photo below – which I did not take – why it was situated there. Not only so the prisoners could work in the mines, but because nestled deep in that valley, escape was clearly even more challenging.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Petros, Tennessee

It’s like Helm’s Deep one of us remarked.

We didn’t do a guided tour, but simply watched the introductory film, looked at the exhibits, and then walked the grounds – various floors of the penitentiary with placards on the walls (Ray’s cell noted – 28), the visitation rooms, the laundry, the cafeteria (walls painted in murals by inmates), the notorious “Hole” – and you can imagine what that was about – and then D Block, which replaced the Hole as the section for the most dangerous prisoners – and some of them in most danger, themselves (pedophiles, for instance).

Here’s my comment. As I mentioned, there’s an introductory film, and I was a little surprised – but perhaps I shouldn’t have been – by the approach. The perspective is all from corrections officers – which is fair – but the central theme is the impact of the prison’s closing on the local community (called Petros, interestingly enough.) Which, as you can imagine, was devastating. And yes, interesting.

But it’s not what I expected. I was expecting some perspective from former inmates – and if you think that’s crazy, well just know that former Brush inmates do make their appearance on the grounds, even participating in tours. I was hoping for a broader view of what this place was all about, what it was like to be incarcerated there, and what was the impact – but that wasn’t the intent of the film.

Anyway – well worth the stop.

Next was a bit of a detour as the kid realized, studying the map, “Oh! Windrock is on our way!” – And what is that, pray tell? Among other things, a well-known mountain biking course. And it was, indeed, on the way, in Oliver Springs, between the prison and Oak Ridge – so we just shot up there and got the lay of the land for future reference, in case he and his biking friends get it together and make it up there some day.

Next: Oak Ridge. Someone was hungry, so I said, “Look and see if there’s a Buddy’s BarBQ” – and yes, of course there was. Not that it’s anything great or stupendous, but it’s the East Tennessee barbecue chain, and going there made me nostalgic, as I could hear my dad saying, “Anyone want Buddy’s tonight?” and him laboriously noting everyone’s preference, cig in one hand, martini in the other, and then heading out to pick it all up.

I had been pretty much totally confused about the state of public tours of Oak Ridge facilities and museums. I hadn’t been since I was in school myself, and I knew things had changed, partly because times just change and more recently because of Covid – these are museums, but many are also federal facilities. I could not sort out what was open and closed, and I had just about resigned myself to thinking that this would be another Rugby and we’d just drive through, when a volunteer at the children’s museum told me, no – this and that were indeed open.

So what should we do?

By that time, it was around 2 – which is, indeed 1 our time, but still. We were wanting to be home sooner than later. And at 16 and a veteran of countless science museums and having aged out of almost all of them, we went for the history – which was my intentions, such as they were, for this trip anyway. So we headed to the K25 plant facility, which is, indeed, a nice little museum and also free – and open, masks required, naturally.

It was just what I hoped for. Small, not overwhelming, and very focused on what the K25 facility was all about – uranium enrichment – with enough context about the Manhattan Project in general to make it understandable.

It’s just astonishing, really – bringing thousands of folks in, building these facilities, building this town, with hardly anyone knowing what it was for. I never understood how that could have been before I listened to one former employee of the era, in a recording at the museum, recount that well…they thought it was just…power. But didn’t know what for. Ships? Planes? Manufacturing power? No one knew. But. “I never would have thought about a…bomb.”

Most striking artifact? Below – an anatomical model, embedded with human bones, to see what impact uranium exposure might have on the human body……

So there you have it….three days, essentially, packed full. See what can happen in just three days?

And probably our last jaunt for a while. I had been thinking next week maybe, but it’s already filling up, so…no, except for a day here or there.

Sunday: Up I-59 to… Fall Creek Falls, Jordan Motel in Jamestown, TN

Monday: Rugby, Northrup Falls, Sgt. York Historic Site, Simply Fresh restaurant, Charit Creek Lodge

Tuesday: Charit Creek Lodge, Slave Creek Falls Trail, Twin Arches Trail.

Wednesday: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Windrock, Oak Ridge K25 History Center….back down I-59…home

Good deal.

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Yeah, yeah, I’ve used it before – here – on a post about the hardest hike I’ve ever done (not that I have a lot to sort through) – up one of the highest peaks in Honduras, in this national park.

So this was not as hard as that. But it was still…challenging. But it’s also why we were there, it was good for me, so up and down and up we went.

First, though:

Monday and Tuesday night, we stayed at the marvelous Charit Creek Lodge. It’s a hike-in lodge, which means that you have to, well, hike, bike or ride horseback in and out to get there. There’s no vehicular traffic, except what’s necessary for staff. The lodge (which contains two of the oldest structures in the national park system) is in a ravine. There are several cabins of different capacities, a few attached to stables. There’s no electricity, no wi-fi – it really is off the grid.

We stayed in the Corn Crib – one queen bed and one twin. Meals (which are included if you wish) were of quite high quality – pork tenderloin, interesting vegetable casseroles, a wonderful tomato/egg/sausage pie for breakfast – you get the drift. I’m told there is a cookbook coming soon, so I’ll be sure to mention that in this space when it appears.

There’s a small cemetery in which, among others, is buried a Hatfield – related to the feuding family, but apparently, according to this, not killed in relation to the feud.

And a refreshing creek and a polite dog named Booger.

There are a couple of major trails you can tackle from the lodge. We did both. In one day. I was assured it was doable – and oh yes, it was, even for me, but not easy-doable. More I-might-not-die-but-it-will-be-close doable. Like that.

To the point at which we finished the first major trail – Slave Falls – and got the junction with a choice – do we do the other – the Twin Arches – or save it for the morning? As in – get up super early and tackle it? After some consideration, we went for the former, and forged on. I was pretty wiped out by that point, but I am also not a fan of living in dread of an approaching hard thing. I’d rather take the medicine now and sleep soundly.

Believe me, that is a lesson learned from years of procrastinating, not only grading papers, but writing jobs. It’s better to just get it done than let it sit, taunting you.

And it turned out to be absolutely worth it. The first trail was enjoyable (sort of) – especially in the destination, and we did have a couple of adventures, but this Twin Arches trail had quite spectacular, surprising features, and it was good to end the day – a hard day – with that payoff. Plus it was all downhill back to the lodge.

I don’t have a lot of photographs because my phone was at a low level, we didn’t have electricity, and my portable charger had already been sucked dry (I guess I should get a new one).

Here’s a map of the trail. You can learn more about it at Alltrails.com or some such.

Slave Falls and Twin Arches Loop - Tennessee | AllTrails

The lodge is just north of where the “i” is on the map. We went up, then left, then to Slave Falls (not labeled on the map, but it’s at the point of the squiggle far the left. Another trail continues on that path that goes to the half green/half black circle – the Sawmill trailhead), a bit beyond the falls to see the Needle Arch, then back on the same trail, then up to the Twin Arches and back around.

Let’s see if I have any photos at all. Hah. Actually none at all of Slave Falls. When we were there, we were doing a bit of scrambling and went off trail (honestly) behind the falls to get across, so we wouldn’t have to go back and around. I wasn’t carrying my camera or phone and didn’t want to keep saying, “Wait a minute, let me get my camera out.” Well, you can see photos of it here. And plenty at the Alltrails site – just look it up!

Well here’s a giant toppled-over tree root system. There’s that.

Now, the Twin Arches was something else – and the paucity of photos there is just because although I had recovered from the first part of the hike and was feeling okay and back to carrying the camera, the rock formations were so huge, I couldn’t capture them very well. Let’s put it this way – say you are driving by mountains in this part of the world and you see, at the very top, great walls of bare rock? That’s where we were. I tried to get the kid in the photos for a sense of scale.

He said, “It’s like the mountain has a giant stone mohawk.”

The Twin Arches? Hopeless – just too big, with not enough space to back up and capture them, at least with my cameras. But again – just look them up!

So, a hard, but good day. Back to a cool creek, an excellent meal, and a friendly dog.

Why do these things? How do I figure out to do them?

Well, it’s all about going places we’ve never been. And there’s a lot, even within a few hours of here. And having different experiences – like a hike-in lodge. Not too different though. I mean, he can camp all he wants and has but I’ve been camping once in my life, it wasn’t horrible, and I suppose I would do it again, but it would not be my first or even tenth choice of how to get out and see the world.

So one thing leads to another – I want to go somewhere. The Smokies are probably crazy right now. North Georgia, maybe. Mississippi blues trail? Maybe wait until it’s cooler, wait until football season is over – because we’d want to stop in Oxford and see Faulkner things on the way. Okay, well, here’s this are – Big South Fork? Never even heard of it. Oh, and I’ve wanted to take him to Oak Ridge since forever. Oh, and Rugby! We could do that, too.

And so a trip takes shape. One element that was in this at the beginning was the Cumberland Gap – but ultimately I decided that took us too far afield, and it’s a good thing. We would have been quite rushed if we’d kept that in.

So basically? I want us to see new things, learn history and be outdoors, and not have to fly or drive too far.

So there we were – with one more day to go, featuring a prison and uranium…..

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Continuing on our journey…

(Part one here)

It seemed to be a day about ideals. Ideals adjusted, brought briefly to life then withered, ideals bearing fruit in quiet places.

As I mentioned, we began in Jamestown, Tennessee. Our day would end at the Charit Creek Lodge, but check-in there wasn’t until 3, and even though we’d need to build a mile-long hike into the place into that timetable, we still had time to See Things. Always my goal. Just to See Some Things. Learn a little bit. Encounter a little bit more of the world, past and present. Build up your world of experience, expand your vision.

Even talking to your neighbors does that. Trust me. Try it.

Anyway, beginning in Jamestown and figuring the least back-tracking, this is what we did.

First, Rugby. I’ve always wanted to see Rugby, especially having grown up (from my teens) in East Tennessee – but we were not a traveling family (I never went to the Smokies except on school trips) except to see family elsewhere, so it just never happened.

Turns out – and I knew this – that if it’s not a weekend, there’s not a lot to see, for nothing’s open. And neither of us had phone service, I hadn’t thought to download any information, so all that was left for us to do was to wander around, look at some exteriors, observe all the British flags on display, and me to offer my vaguely remembered accounts of the utopian colonies’ foundation and brief existence. In case you are wondering:

The village was founded back in 1880 by Thomas Hughes, a well-known social reformer in England and author of the popular book, Tom Brown’s School Days. Inspired by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hughes envisioned a utopia for England’s ‘second sons,’ men who’d grown up in wealthy British families but were doomed to inherit nothing because of their birth order. Hughes hoped Rugby could offer these men a chance to leave British class distinctions behind by creating a cooperative agrarian community in a particularly scenic area of rural Tennessee. Rugby colonists were promised an opportunity to live off the land as gentleman farmers while still enjoying the culture and comforts to which their class was accustomed, and it was an offer some found irresistible. Within the first year, a number of new families arrived and a large hotel, three boarding houses, a commissary and several private homes were constructed, along with tennis and croquet courts and a walkway to a popular picnic spot by the river.

Typhoid struck the community in 1881, they bounced back, but…

The magnificent Tabard Inn burned to the ground. Lawsuits and land disputes prevented colonists from owning the land they’d come to claim. A series of unusually severe winters disheartened Rugby’s new residents. Beyond circumstantial problems, it turned out the colonists were ill-suited for the pioneer life and either unwilling or unable to sustain their agrarian utopia. A cannery failed. A dairy failed. A sheep-raising endeavor failed. Pottery and brick-making efforts failed. Finally, in 1887, Thomas Hughes’s mother, a central figure of Rugby life, died, and by then, most of the colonists decided they’d had enough. Many returned to England or moved elsewhere in the states. Thomas Hughes, who’d never managed to convince his family to move permanently to Rugby and only spent a couple of months there each year, left for the last time in 1887, never to return.

The buildings are maintained, though, even the 7000-volume public library, said to be one of the first free libraries in the Southeast. Photos at this link. It probably would be quite worthwhile to visit when the buildings are actually open. It wasn’t a total loss though – it was good to see it, see the landscape, and knowing the general history of the place, the challenges these folks faced…and why they even attempted it.

My one photo – the school house.

Time to head back towards Jamestown, with a stop at the quite nice Colditz Cove State Natural Area – the preservation and maintenance of which might just be the fruit of ideals, stubbornly maintained despite varied opposition, since most natural areas don’t stay natural without a fight. A short hike takes you to a coursing waterfall. Not at Fall Creek Falls level, but still quite enough, even for a quick dip. He was brought up short by a snake sighting – not unusual considering the rocks.

(Speaking of snakes – I had forgotten about our encounter at Fall Creek Falls when I posted last night. Updated now. Go here unless it will trigger you.)

Next, up past Jamestown to Pall Mall, the site of the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park. Of course, son knew nothing about York, and most of what I knew I did from just living in Tennessee and the movie, seen decades ago. It’s an interesting little spot, with a visitor’s center that offers the basics, quite a few artifacts, and then the homeplace, a mill and a mock WWI trench where I assume they bring school children and have commemorative events.

I’m still startled that York didn’t actually look like Gary Cooper. And it’s certainly interesting to follow York’s transformation from pacifist to war hero to outspoken supporter of intervention and even the draft. His support for and commitment to his local community is a model, though – but intriguing that his efforts to help modernize the area and bring education in actually did meet resistance.

Back down to Jamestown for lunch at the shockingly excellent, definitely-a-cut-above place called Simply Fresh. Kid had a burger that he said was clearly made from high-quality, fresh meat, and I had an interesting chicken-goat-cheese-pesto-quesadilla thing that was very well made and flavorful.

Back to the ideals: Someone clearly has ideals about what good food is and what’s possible, even in small-town America, well outside the urban foodie centers – and is working it out, for the benefit of a lot of folks.

Now……time to cross back over to the Eastern time zone (we’d been back and forth all day) for a journey into the Big South Fork Natural Area and a hike to…the Charit Creek Lodge.

I’ll have more about it in the next post – this is long enough already – but let’s get started with the basics. It’s a hike-in facility – that is, you can’t drive your vehicle there, and must hike – a little less than a mile from the parking lot. There are a couple of other similar places in the Southeast, but with longer hikes – LeConte Lodge in the Smokies being the most well-known and hardest to get reservations for – and then the Hike Inn in north Georgia. I’m interested in doing the others – well, at least, the Georgia place – so I thought I’d start with this one.

And so…we start!

(Talk about ideals….)

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We just returned from a few days up north. That is all the way up north to Tennessee. Just a few days, but, as per usual, much food for thought provided.

I’m pretty tired right now, and just finished downloading and resizing my photos, so I’m going to start slowly and in smaller doses, rather than offering a single megapost.

And what I’m doing here is encouraging, I hope – in case anyone needs it, which I doubt – folks to get out and be about. Outdoors, if that’s where you’re most comfortable, and heaven knows, we’ve got plenty of that in the U.S. of A, don’t we?

To recap – these last couple of weeks of August are our last chance to travel at all until mid-November. Between the kid’s church job, which occupies him on Sundays, his co-op classes, tutoring, music lessons as well as his social and workout life…this was it. I had hoped, vaguely, to even get to Mexico or Guatemala, but decided it was just too much hassle and too much risk of tumbling into a quarantine situation on that end. So, yes, here we are…

As I mentioned earlier in the week – before I was in a place with no wi-fi (on purpose) for two days – we began early afternoon on Sunday, after Church Music had been played. Headed straight up I-59 – one of my least favorite stretches of road, mostly because I associate it with trudging back and forth to Knoxville during my father’s last days and subsequent year or so of dealing with his estate. But let’s not live in the past – in that way, at least.

So, yes, up I-59, a short jog on I-24, then over and up to Fall Creek Falls State Park. It is, I believe, the most popular of Tennessee’s state park – and well deserved – but given this was a Sunday late afternoon with school in session in most of the region – not busy at all.

We walked the trail from the cascades parking lot over to the actual Fall Creek Falls, then hiked down to the bottom of those falls – the tallest, they say, this side of the Rockies. It was a rocky climb up and down, but hey, there was a young woman there doing a pregnancy shoot with the falls in the background, so if she made it, I guess we could, too.

Oh, and this guy was encountered. Don’t worry. There was a standoff and he was pushed off the trail with a very long stick.

I had a hotel I’d spotted online that I wanted to stay in, but I wasn’t sure if we’d feel up to the drive all the way there after Fall Creek Falls. So I waited until we got up to Crossville, then called the place to see if they had rooms – they did, and said they were about 30 minutes from where we were. Okay, no problem. We’re in! And after finding an open restaurant – the only ones open on a Sunday night being either chains or Mexican (we went for the latter) – we headed up to Jamestown and the Jordan Motel.

What a treat. Old school motel, beautifully maintained with gorgeous, classic stone exteriors, absolutely spotless rooms and just the nicest people running the place. I think they get a lot of cyclists on those roads (deducing this not only from the decor, but also from the reviews online) as well as a heap of business around the time of the World’s Longest Yard Sale, which runs right down 127, the road on which the motel sits.

It’s always worth it to look beyond the chains if it’s at all possible for you. This was less expensive, cleaner and more pleasant than most chains – certainly any at a similar price point.

Well, that’s done. Monday? On to dabble in some history, another waterfall, and hike (yes) to the next stay….

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Okay, so we did.

Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee. Spectacular waterfall, very light crowds – it being a late Sunday afternoon when school is in session for most folks now.

A late start because someone is employed as a church organist. Then up to Tennessee, then dinner in the only kind of place that’s open in mid-sized Tennessee towns on a Sunday night: Mexican. And the night in the cutest, cleanest non-chain, family-owned motel in the state, I’m thinking. Although the kid persists in muttering things about a guy wearing a dress carrying a knife.

More on that when we move on.

Look for posts tomorrow on St. Rose of Lima and a decent digest – including what I thought of PIG, starring Nicholas Cage….

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Okay, okay, maybe it’s partly the reverence. But hear me out.

In all of these endless conversations about the Mass in the current day, “reverence” would probably win the Word Cloud competition.

They just want a reverent Mass!

Celebrated properly, the Mass of Paul VI can be plenty reverent!

Give us reverence!

Well, I think “reverence” as an interpretive lens falls short. I don’t think it quite gets to the core of the problem.

It’s not the reverence.

It’s the ego.

Because the ego lies at the heart of the “irreverence” – no matter what form that “irreverence” takes – and we obliged to note that a full-on Latin Mass in whatever form can be “irreverent,” too – although the potential for irreverence there has built in boundaries: Latin, strict rubrics.

But let’s look at the Mass of Paul VI – the Ordinary Form, the Mass most of us attend.

I’m going to suggest that the core of what drives people crazy (in a bad way) about the celebration of this Mass is the always-present-fear that when you open the door and sit down in that pew, you are never quite sure if what’s about to happen might involve you being subject to surprise attacks and being held hostage by someone’s ego.

You go to Mass with your hopes, joys and fears. You’re there carrying sadness and grief, questions, doubts and gratitude and peace. You’re bringing it all to God in the context of worship, worship that you trust will link you, assuredly to Christ – to Jesus, the Bread of Life, to His redeeming sacrifice. That in this moment, you’ll be joined to the Communion of Saints, you’ll get a taste of the peace that’s promised to the faithful after this strange, frustrating life on earth is over.

And what do you get?

Who knows. From week to week, from place to place, who knows.

Who knows what the personality of the celebrant will impose on the ritual. Will it be jokes? Will it be a 40-minute homily? Will it be meaningful glances and dramatic pauses? Will it be the demand for the congregation to repeat the responses because they weren’t enthusiastic enough?

Who knows what the particular tastes and artistic stylings of the musicians will bring to the moment?

Who knows what the local community, via committee or fiat, will have determined we should focus on this week?

The idea was this:

God is in the here and now, and speaks to us in the here and now. To be responsive to the Spirit in this here and now means not being bound by imposed ritual or words, especially if those rituals come to us from distant times and cultures.

So what needs to happen with liturgy is that it should be seen as a framework – valuable, yes – but only a framework in which the ministers and the community can respond to the Lord freely, letting Him work through the uniqueness of this particular community, this moment in time, the unique gifts of these ministers and perceived needs of this community.

It was supposed to render the ritual far more accessible than any medieval, time-encrusted form ever could for Modern Man.

It seemed to make sense at the time.

And in the best of circumstances, saints at the helm, perhaps it does.

But as I have said time and time again, one of the reasons we say that tradition possesses a sort of wisdom is that tradition has seen the strengths and weaknesses of human nature and evolved to take that – especially the weaknesses and the sinfulness – into consideration, evolving into something that discourages and inhibits those sinful tendencies

So when you have a liturgy, you have ministers. You have people in charge. And it is not shocking at all that in a context of being told that The Spirit will work through your words and actions – trust it you immediately construct a huge, boundless playground for the Ego.

The Ego that at one point might have been constrained by strict rules about obeying rubrics, not to speak of the use of a foreign, non-vernacular language, is unleashed, not only by the fateful “in these or other words” – but by his new role, in constant dialogue with the congregation, who now spend an hour or more gazing on his face, and who has been taught that, in some crucial way, the congregation’s spiritual experience at this liturgy depends on his personality – that his personality and interaction holds a key to a fruitful spiritual moment.

But there’s more.

One of the stated purposes of the conciliar liturgical reforms (growing from the Liturgical Movement) was to help the faithful see the sacredness of the moment – by breaking down the wall between the altar and the pews, that would work to help the faithful bring the sacrality found in worship out into their individual lives and the present moment. Again, how much more impactful on this score is liturgy that reflects the current moment in that community’s life rather than something that reflects the experiences of 16th century hierarchs?

How does this work out in real life?

Well, in real life, this grand theory is put into practice by a small group of people – depending on place and time – celebrants, lay ministers, worship committee, musicians – who are operating out of a set of perceived needs and agendas – theirs. It can be little else. Oh, some people have a more expansive vision, but most don’t.

And of course, these people in charge of liturgies are human beings.

How many times have we seen this, in liturgies and in general church life, when leaders, both lay and clerical, have centered their efforts, words and plans on particular agendas and causes, while in front of them sits a congregation gathered with their broken hearts, fears about life and death and all of it, addictions, disappointments, temptations, frightening diagnoses and exhaustion – wondering why they can’t just pray?

To me, it’s an interesting extension of the post-Enlightenment centering of human experience in the cosmos. In a Catholic context, it took different forms, as theological and spiritual thinkers cycled through various angles and anthropologies over the past two centuries, all of which prioritized human experiences of the present moment as the portal to truth and authenticity.

The trouble is – well, one of the troubles – is that given the opportunity, human beings, especially human beings given positions of power and leadership, and encouraged to let the Spirit speak through the present moment and the uniqueness of their own experience, will do just that – imposing their own understanding of the needs of the present moment on the community as normative and fundamental, using the call to inculturate as an invitation to construct a narrative that serves their own purposes and concretize an agenda when all we really came for was the Creed.

Facing us, speaking our language, trusted by us as the arbiters of the moment in which the Spirit is surely moving – yes, the Egoist, given the chance, will certainly and dutifully embrace the moment and center personal experience as way to authenticity and truth – theirs.


Planning for school or parish faith formation? Check out the resources I’ve written over the years for all ages.

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Fabulous conversation between Jane Clare Jones, and Helen Joyce, the author of Trans reviewed here.

Jones is the author of a darkly humorous, but essentially accurate mock dialogue I’ve linked to before called The Annals of the TERF Wars.

It seems that I link to “must-reads” regularly, so perhaps the impact has been dissipated, but yeah, this is a must-read – if you want a relatively succinct look at the current conversation on this issue. Of course, you’d want to read the book – or one of several others out there – but if you don’t have time, this is a decent introduction – with the added value of Joyce explaining how she got interested in the issue, which includes the trajectory many of us have traveled – from puzzlement to sputtering rage at the stupidity of it all.

Helen: When I started writing the book, I could imagine that the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ meant something that’s not quite the same as ‘adult human female’ and ‘adult human male.’ But you can’t do that with ‘male’ and ‘female.’ They have really very specific meanings which are by no means just human meanings. When you say that a male person can be female, you can get to literally anything from that, because that’s like ‘zero equals one.’ During the research I was reading philosophy papers, and I remember [in] one paper I got to page 20 or something, and then there was a sentence: “I take it as axiomatic that trans women are women.” I actually shouted out loud, “For fuck’s sake!” How can you do that? That’s just like saying, ‘I take it as axiomatic that zero equals one.’ You’d have to do a lot of work, at the very least, to say that trans women are women. When I started writing the book, I thought that I was going to have to put in an entire appendix on arguments [that] ‘trans women are women’ and why they don’t work. And in the end, I just thought: “You know what, these are so shit.” These people are not debating, they’re not talking about their ideas; they’re just putting it out there. And people aren’t saying anything, because they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong. So unsurprisingly, this is the most pathetically weak, appalling, stupid body of work I’ve ever seen. You know that I’m not an academic philosopher, I’m not a philosopher at all, and I can look at this, and say, “Oh, that’s where you went wrong. That’s where you said zero equals one.”

So the intellectual reason was just how appalling this stuff was. It actually intellectually offended me. And then the personal reason was seeing these girls. That night after the Detransition Advocacy Network, I sat there and I couldn’t sleep and I just thought, “Yeah, I’ve got to write the book.” Suddenly there were no more questions. It was very straightforward: “They are sterilizing gay kids. And if I write this book, they might sterilize fewer gay kids.” So that’s simple.

Jane: My perception is that the trans rights project isn’t being driven primarily by pharmaceutical interests, but rather by the desire for validation. But by this point these interests have very strongly attached themselves to it, because of the money in it.

Helen: Of course; that’s the way they work. The two biggest lobby groups in America are hospitals and pharma companies, so of course they’re lobbying on this now. But that’s opportunistic. They come in afterwards. The first impulse is definitely middle-aged men whose desire for validation as women is greater than anything else; that’s the ‘zero equals one.’ They’re the people who insist that you say that they’re women. And once you say that lie, everything else follows.

Jane: Yeah, everything else is collateral damage. I mean, I think women’s spaces are a prime target, because they serve this validation function … but the kids are collateral damage, because they serve as evidence for the notion that gender identity is an essence.

……

Jane: Maybe this is a good place to end, because I think this is one of the great accomplishments of your book. As you say, one of the ways that this entire thing has been enabled is because what they’re trying to do is so bonkers that it’s taken us a very long time to convince people that they are actually trying to do what we say they are. It’s very easy to just go, ‘Oh, those are crazy women, they’re screaming about nothing. They’re hysterical. They just hate trans people.’ And one of the great achievements of your book is that you’ve managed to document this movement and its objectives, and you’ve done it with such lucidity and grace that it’s very compelling, and convincing, and it doesn’t sound like it’s you being the bonkers one.

Helen: Yeah, and on the other side as well, it’s very hard for a woman to decide, *deep sigh,* ‘I’m now going to dedicate two years of my life to something that’s mad.’ I know you can sympathize because you’ve done it too, but can [the] general [public] sympathize with somebody who has a million better things to be doing with their time and actually has to spend time writing down why we shouldn’t be putting rapists in women’s prisons?

Jane: That’s what makes me so angry, that we have to spend all this energy explaining …

Helen: I. Have. Better. Things. To. Do. With. My. Life.

The maddest bit of the whole book – there were many mad bits, but the maddest bit was saying, ‘Darwin actually worked out why there are two sexes.’ Sexual selection caused there to be two reproductive strategies, two reproductive pathways, bodies shaped by and directed towards two types of reproductive strategies. That’s it. There’s no other definition. It’s the same definition right across the animal and plant kingdom. That’s that. And I think that saved me a lot of time and stupid effort, although, God knows, I had to put a lot of time and stupid effort into this book. I mean, in a way, it’s been intellectually very interesting. But it’s also been ridiculous. And quite a lot of people in journalism have said to me, ‘Look, this is all so stupid, why are you wasting your time on it? Is this what you want to be known for?’ But the thing is, it’s all very well to think that this is so mad that someone will stop it. Well, someone has to be the someone.

There are also interesting observations about how American culture and feminism have contributed to this movement.

Of course, I don’t agree with every iota of every point, and you know that I’d say there are dots that are not being connected in ways that would clarify a lot – but that’s the case with any discussion of any issue, isn’t it?

More of my posts on this here.

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  • Are you getting ready for school? Catechists, homeschoolers and Catholic school teachers are.  If you are of a mind to, please take a look at all the resources I have available for catechesis and formation.

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  • If you really want to get strange looks, you could toss this out, something I’d forgotten about – that I have the pdf of De-Coding Da Vinci available for free here. Use as you like. All kidding aside, at the time, I thought that taking apart the hugely popular novel was a useful and engaging way to teach people about the origins of the Scriptural canon and some early Church history. Plus, it took me two weeks to write it, so not a bad use of time. Here you go.
  • Are you teaching First Communion children this year? Take a look at Friendship with Jesus and Be Saints. 
  • Are you teaching religion to elementary age students? Friendship with Jesus, Be Saints, Bambinelli Sunday, Adventures in Assisi, The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints, The Loyola Kids’ Book of Heroes. 
  • Can you help catechists, Catholic schools and parish programs?  Consider gifting your parish, school or favorite catechist with copies of these books.  Click on the covers for more information.
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Again – even if catechesis isn’t something you are personally involved in, any catechist, parish school, library or program would welcome a donation as a beginning-of-the-year (no matter when it begins…) gift.

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It’s that time of year again – tomorrow’s Gospel reading.

Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks,
and distributed them to those who were reclining,
and also as much of the fish as they wanted. 

I wrote this column years ago – maybe twenty or more – and it’s on my actual website, but the formatting is wonky, and I don’t feel like reviving my html skills right now to fix it. So I’ll just toss it here. Remember – at least twenty years ago, and also it was a column for newspaper – so I was limited to 700-800 words. So not quite enough room to explore the subtleties of Scriptural interpretation. And I believe this interpretation precedes Barclay and may even go back to Enlightenment-era thinking. So it’s by no means comprehensive or in-depth. It’s just a column, so calm down. I added a bit from a 2008 post I wrote riffing off it, as well.

Also – this used to be a very common way of preaching on this Gospel narrative. I don’t think it’s heard so frequently any more, but in case you do….


An acquaintance of mine recently wrote to share an unpleasant Mass-going experience.

The priest in his small hometown parish was preaching on the Gospel, this week, the account of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes from Matthew. His interpretation of the event was not exactly comforting to this acquaintance, for the priest suggested that perhaps what really happened had nothing to do with miracles as we know them. Perhaps Jesus so moved his listeners that they took out the food they had hidden in their cloaks and shared it with those around them.

The miracle, therefore, is not any magical multiplication, but the miracle of the previously selfish being moved to generosity.

Who knows how the rest of the congregation received this interesting news, but one of them (my correspondent) couldn’t just walk away without questioning the priest. After Mass, he asked him to clarify. The priest explained that no, he wasn’t denying the miracle, but that the miracle was yes the generosity of the people. He said he didn’t have time to go into it further.

The teller of this tale was justifiably appalled by what he’d heard. But, as I wrote back, as disappointing as it was, I couldn’t be surprised.

For I’d heard it myself, a couple of times from different pulpits. I suspected it was a fairly common interpretation, so I checked around and found that I was right.

Numerous folks who contacted me about this said that they’d heard it too in both Catholic and Protestant churches in exactly the same words. I couldn’t help but wonder where all of these preachers were picking this up, and it didn’t take me long to find out.

It’s in one of the most venerable Scripture commentaries out there – those written by Scottish scholar William Barclay in the 1950’s. Most people who’ve studied religion at the college level have been exposed to Barclay, and many own sets of his commentaries. He’s generally very middle-of-the road and moderate in his views. But in his commentary on this story, he offers an interpretation, which he doesn’t says is his own, but is held ‘by “some.”

Picture the scene. There is the crowd; it is late; and they are hungry. But was it really likely that the vast majority of that crowd would set out around the lake without any food at all? Would they not take something with them, however little? Now it was evening and they were hungry. But they were also selfish. And no one would produce what he had, lest he have to share it and leave himself without enough. Then Jesus took the lead. Such as he and his disciples had, he began to share with a blessing and an invitation and a smile. And thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all. If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ.

So there you have it, neatly packaged for the lazy preacher who will use it to sound clever, no matter how many problems the explanation holds:

If everyone brought some food, who, exactly, was left to be hungry?

This interpretation also implies that these first-century Jews were naturally averse to sharing, which is not only offensive, but historically and culturally inaccurate. It may be a miracle for 21st century Americans to share, but sharing and hospitality were sacred obligations for Jesus’ listeners.

Yes, there are layers of meaning to this event. It is of little use as a bare fact as it is as a fabrication. Miracles are offered as complex signs of God’s presence and activity among us, working through and even with us at times, open to rich interpretation in infinite application. Generosity and plenty of course is at the core of the narrative, but it’s God’s generosity which will reach its summit in the Eucharist.

The Barclayian interpretation is illogical,  and frankly – not surprising given the era and the emphasis of Biblical studies of the late 19th and early 20th century, which, for example, saw the most “authentic” elements of the Jesus story as those that were the least Jewish  – tinged with more than a bit of anti-Semitism. Think about stereotypes. Once I did – I couldn’t not see that in Barclay’s interpretation, perhaps unfairly.

So to presume that the Gospel writers couldn’t have meant what they wrote implies that they were either stupid or dishonest. The Scripture is a collection of diverse works, meant to be understood within the specific literary forms God used to communicate truth. But as the Gospel writers themselves make clear, they are not about anything but historical truth about an historical figure named Jesus. Anything less wouldn’t have been worth their time.

Or their lives.

Or ours, come to think of it, don’t you think?

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“This is a serious, violent incident that goes against ABA’s ends policies, values, and everything we believe and support. It is inexcusable”

Oh, my word, what happened? What did the American Booksellers’ Association do, for heaven’s sake?

Is everyone okay?

They included promotional material for this book in a mailing to independent bookstores.

Oh. Of course. Totally rational response on all sides.

Well, that pushed me over the edge. I’d been meaning to read this book since it was released, and of course, my local library wasn’t carrying it, and also unfortunately, the two local independent bookstores, of course, weren’t carrying it either, so it’s direct from the publisher for me.

Anyway, after taking in Trans over the weekend, I read Irreversible Damage yesterday, and here are my thoughts.

First, if you or anyone you know is beginning to confront these issues personally or in an institution in which they are involved, Trans and Irreversible Damage are good books to share as an introduction. I know there are others out there that I’ve not yet read, but these benefit from being more up-to-date than books even published just two years ago. This Trans Train moves quickly.

First of all, know that Shrier’s focus, as the title makes clear, is on girls and young women. She addresses general issues within transactivism, but it’s within the context of the social contagion of girls and young women seeking to renounce their female identity, embracing non-binary or male identity instead. So that means, for example, that the impact of male-to-female “transitioners” on traditionally female-only spaces in schools and sports is not closely addressed – because that’s not the purpose of the book.

It’s really about – why has there been this explosion in girls and young women seeking to identify out of femaleness in recent years?

Between 2016 and 2017 the number of gender surgeries for natal females in the U.S. quadrupled, with biological women suddenly accounting for—as we have seen—70 percent of all gender surgeries.

In 2007, there was one gender clinic in the United States. Today, there are well over fifty; Planned Parenthood, Kaiser, and Mayo all disburse testosterone, too. Many do so on a first visit, on an ‘informed consent’ basis; no referral or therapy required. The age of medical consent varies by state. In Oregon, it is fifteen.

And let me make clear, in case you’re wondering. Most of those “gender surgeries” are double mastectomies of healthy breasts. Very, very few female-to-male transitioners, especially young women, have what’s euphemistically called “bottom surgery” – construction of an artificial phallus, usually harvested from deep grafts of skin and other tissue (because it has to be living tissue with blood vessels and such or else it would just hang there and, you know…rot…which sometimes happens anyway) from the upper arm or thigh. You can understand why, just from the description.

Shrier is comprehensive. She talks, of course, to the young women themselves and their families, as well as therapists, physicians, plastic surgeons, educators, online influencers (very important), and detransitioners.

Her approach is not as linear as I expected. So, for example, she doesn’t lay out the gender vs. sex issue right at the beginning, or what is entailed in “transition” or the logical nonsense that “transition” embodies  – she approaches it all sideways, via personal stories, which is certainly different than, say, Joyce’s approach, but powerful in its own way.

What was most helpful to me were Shrier’s exploration of the whole notion of social contagion, as well as her chapters on trans online influencers (a new world to me) and gender curricula in schools.

My only critiques are that there are few more generalizations than I think are warranted, and I think the impact of pornography merits much more attention in this issue – as in the impact of pornography on males and their expectations of female appearance, presentation and sexual availability.

But other than those quibbles, it’s an excellent introduction to this corner of the phenomenon.

Shrier’s book might just leave the reader asking a few more questions of their own – most importantly – how have we failed our girls so catastrophically? What kind of world have we built in which girls feel so anxious about their existence as females that they feel that the solution to their problems is to cut off their breasts and fill their bodies with testosterone?

As Sasha Ayad put it to me, ‘A common response I get from female clients is something along these lines: “I don’t know exactly that I want to be a guy. I just know I don’t want to be a girl.””

And the fact – the fact – that mainstream secular feminists don’t see this as a problem – a crisis, even. As I wrote here:

Not like other girls.

So many of us have felt this. In the present moment, it’s a feeling that’s deepened and exacerbated by a culture in which the value of the individual is tied to appearance, and for females, the value of that appearance is linked to implied sexual interest and availability, and all of it – every bit of it – is woven through with pornography.

Who wouldn’t want to check out of that culture and what it demands and expects of females, especially young females?

Who wouldn’t want to say – no, not me. I’m not like that. Not like other girls. Let me the heck out.

Which is really, in this context, a cry from a sea filled with the drowning.

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