Lessons from the Farmyard: Are You a Pig?

Having grown up in a small town in the countryside, not on a farm myself but surrounded by them, I was fortunate enough to have a sense not only of where our food comes from, but of what it takes to go from barn to supermarket to dinner table.  I can spot the difference between soybeans, alfalfa, and corn beginning to emerge from the ground.  I know that some of the animals I might see standing about in the pasture today, will not be there in a few months’ time.  I can also discern the difference – at a distance – between the odors of cow, pig, and sheep manure fertilizer.

And because I know it when I smell it, I think it’s time for us to take a step back, and take a big whiff of what society is telling us about the Church: because quite frankly, it’s a load of…droppings.

Christianity is increasingly presented as an obstacle to personal fulfillment, however one chooses to define that term this week.  Many Catholics around the country seem to be agreeing with that assessment, if you saw the recent map showing the distribution of the major religions of the United States.  Although Catholics are now the largest religious group in this country, many of the states where Catholics are the majority have Mass attendance levels which barely keep the parishes open, causing one to wonder what exactly these Catholics actually believe.

What is the root cause of this blight?  The fault, we are often told, lies in the rigid history of the Church, the negative aspects of which are repeated over and over again by uneducated entertainers, bitter academics, and the chat show hosts who fawn over them both.  The alternative, or rather the only acceptable option now available to us, is a Christianity that conforms, rather than divides.  We are all to be pigs together, not sheep and goats.

Under this scenario, one can snarf up from the communal trough whatever one likes, provided that no one else is offended by it.  If only we agree to eat the same garbage that everyone else is eating, we are told, we would be much happier, and the world would be a better place.  We would have things like fatter wallets, bigger muscles, and newer gadgets, making us into prize specimens, little gods of the domestic barnyard.  And as we roll long our merry way, contentedly stuffing ourselves until we glisten in the summer sunshine, we forget what ultimately happens to farm animals.

If the line of reasoning presently being foisted upon us by the media and commentariat seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because it’s been tried before – and worked.  For this is a shadow that has dogged our steps since the days of our first parents in Eden, despite those who try to dismiss their story as little more than a fairy tale.  “If only” you do this, we’re told, as they were, you’ll be gods.  The delivery may be different, since we don’t see many talking snakes these days, but if the formula works, why change it?  Call it individualism, or self-actualization, or what you will, but the idea that abandoning the cross in order to embrace material things will keep us from suffering and death is the real fairy tale.

In fact, the only difference between Eden and today, is that the Tempter’s message has gone mainstream.  Now it comes from people like self-help gurus, investment professionals, motivational speakers, and even supposed “Christian” evangelists.  They come onto our televisions and into our inboxes, telling us how we can avoid the fate of all human beings for only 3 easy payments of $19,95.  It comes from magazines and films that demand we pursue our own pleasure, whatever it might be, because it “feels” right, never having to consider why something as transient as a mere feeling is rarely going to serve us well.  And in the end, those who promise us that they can turn us into prize pigs end up losing everything themselves, sooner or later.

It isn’t easy to resist the urge to join in the feeding frenzy at the trough, particularly when you’re constantly being told that you need to accept the garbage you’re being fed in order for your life to be a success.  However, we will not cheat suffering, or keep death from the gate, by turning ourselves into creatures driven by our appetites.  Our eyes need to be fixed on our church steeples, not on the various screens filled with garbage that, like pig troughs, so often remain the intent focus of the human gaze.

Let’s make a point this summer, just as the crops themselves are growing in anticipation of the harvest this autumn, to try in grow in the courage and steadfastness which will remind us that we follow a Good Shepherd, not a Cool Swineherd.

Detail of "The Church at Mont-roig del Camp" by joan Miró (1919) Private Collection, Spain

Detail of “The Church at Mont-roig del Camp” by joan Miró (1919)
Private Collection, Spain


Tonight in Old Town: Colleen Carroll Campbell, “My Sisters the Saints”

When the first chapter of a memoir contains a passage such as the following, the reader is put on immediate notice that they are in for something rather different from the usual self-promotional autobiography:

I lingered there for fifteen minutes, allowing myself to feel the full force of that hollowness I had been trying to paper over and outrun for more than a year.  So this is it, I thought, as the tears ran down my cheeks.  This is a life without God.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is someone whose name and face are probably familiar to you.  A journalist, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, news commentator, talk show host, public speaker, and author, her latest book “My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir” features endorsements from people like New York’s Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan, best-selling novelist Mary Higgins Clark, and Harvard Law professor Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon.  With passages such as the above giving a hint of what this book contains, it’s not hard to understand why.

Tonight Colleen will be presenting a talk on her book at the Pauline Sisters’ bookstore on King Street in historic Old Town Alexandria, just outside of Washington DC.  If you happen to be in the area I urge you to attend, even if you’re not Catholic.  Not only is Colleen’s life story something which many of us will be able to relate to, particularly here in career-centered Washington, where so few of us end up having meaningful personal lives outside of work, but also because this is a deeply challenging, brave piece of writing, worthy of a wide readership.

When I began reading this book I must confess, I was concerned that this was going to be a work directed largely at women, something which as a man I would find difficult to relate to.  Yet the more I read, the more I realized that Colleen’s experiences in a number of respects mirror my own.  As a fellow Gen-X’er, Colleen describes her party life as a college student at nominally Catholic Marquette back in the ’90’s, not all that different from what I experienced at nominally Catholic Georgetown at exactly the same time.  Her gradual realization that she needed to challenge the status quo of a culture focused exclusively on the pursuit of materialistic pleasures, the slow development of a more mature faith tempered by suffering and disappointment, and her often frustrating attempts to find some balance between a career and a personal life are things which I suspect will resonate with many of us from the MTV generation.

Growing up in a culture that insisted happiness depends on resume-building and material security, in order to achieve that personal fulfillment which pop-psychology gurus and fluffy magazine articles assure us is the solution to all of life’s troubles – i.e., be your own god –  over the fifteen-year period covered in her book, Colleen’s life changed radically, but not instantaneously.  It took her time to move from half-hearted, practicing but lazy Catholic, thinking only of pleasure and worldly success, to someone who made choices which the outside world would not understand.  She walked away from meaningless relationships; she left a coveted job at the White House, not knowing how things would work out; she took time away from her career to care for an ailing parent; and she went through a very painful, lengthy period of being unable to conceive children, all of which she bravely recounts in her book.

Along the way, and woven into the fabric of the text and indeed her own life, Colleen comes to know and appreciate the lives of several women, the “sister saints” of the book’s title.  Each one, including St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Faustina, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, among others, comes into her life at a point when she needs that sister’s example.  What is particularly well-done in the book is that Colleen pauses in her narrative and treats these women, not merely as historical figures with biographical details, but rather as women she can learn from and emulate.  These are not sweet-faced, plaster images standing on a bookshelf but real women, all very different from one another, whose strength and wisdom can be drawn upon by anyone, regardless of their sex.

In looking back over all of the little pink post-it “flags” I stuck in my copy of “My Sisters the Saints” as I went along, I find that many of these are affixed to passages on Colleen’s relationship with her father.  Early on in the book, Colleen mentions the work of French writer Simone de Beauvoir, and her influence on feminist theory.  However it is also worth noting that de Beauvoir shared a similar experience to Colleen’s, as she cared for her elderly mother, which she recounted in her lesser-known book, “Une mort très douce”.  Although their experiences were not dissimilar, in de Beauvoir’s case the fading of her mother reaffirmed her sense of life having no meaning, whereas Colleen finds meaning even in situations so horrible that at times she would rather have run and hide, instead of having to deal with them.

The gradual deterioration of Colleen’s father from Alzheimer’s, and how she dealt with that slow fall of a man full of energy and health into dementia and helplessness, proves to be both heartbreaking reading and a witness to the awakening of her faith, as well as a respect for all life.  In one passage, Colleen recalls riding on a St. Patrick’s Day float through St. Louis along with her parents.  Like the Mardi Gras tradition in New Orleans, the participants are supposed to be distributing beaded necklaces to the noisiest onlookers – except Colleen suddenly realizes that the marginalized people in attendance are the ones who should be getting her attention.  As she looks back at her ailing father on the parade float, she realizes “Those outsiders and least ones, in all their forms, reminded me of Dad.”

There is much to learn from and appreciate in this book.  It is not the type of work that Colleen herself might have written earlier in her career, when she was, as she describes it, all “fake smiles and feigned peppiness”.  It is the work of a woman who has been to some very dark places, come out the better for it, and bravely chooses to share those experiences with her readers.

Again, I encourage those of you in the DC area to come along tonight to hear Colleen’s presentation on her book, and for those who cannot make it, to get yourself a copy: you will not be disappointed.