Libraries I Have Known

This is a talk I gave online at the Catholic Library Association's Online Conference. It's about libraries, good and bad, and my young journey with them. 
I am honored to be the recipient of this year’s St. Katherine Drexel Award. As a native of the Philadelphia diocese, one of the oldest dioceses in America, St. Katherine was part of the home team, so to speak, along with my patron saint, St. John Neuman, both great contributors to the Catholic Church in America and Catholic education. My parish church growing up, Visitation BVM, one of the largest in the diocese, had shrines to both.
Catholic Library AssociationToday I am joined by my junior English class at the school where I teach, Padre Pio Academy. Having grown up in Philadelphia and New Jersey, some of the oldest Catholic areas in America, my current home is strikingly different. I live in a diocese founded less that fifty years ago, in an area where Catholics were historically scattered, so although it’s now booming, little Catholic infrastructure exists in the Shenandoah Valley.  We are a fledgling school based on hybrid model that brings together a parish setting with the new blood offered by the homeschooling movement. Our three-day-a-week model employs lay teachers who work part time and keeps tuition costs affordable for families. Uniforms for grade school, dress codes for high school, period bells, and school lunches remind me of the Catholic schools I grew up in, but we are pleased to be able to serve students whose families can’t afford private school tuition. It’s a new model suited to the needs of the laity, and provides accreditation and curriculum through our relationship with a nationally-accredited home study program, along with socialization and a parish connection for homeschooling families. We’re working on the kinks, but it’s been fun so far.
As an eager and precocious reader at a young age, libraries were intensely important part of my imaginative and spiritual life as a Catholic school student. In this talk, I’m going to tell you about the libraries I have known and browsed through, and how each one met or failed to meet my needs and the needs of students of that age level.  Here's a handout of my summary of the three stages of development, which I created for my fellow teachers to use.

My first library was located in the grade school attached to Visitation BVM Catholic school where I attended school from Kindergarten through fifth grade. It had floors of waxed linoleum, a small rectangle of carpet for kindergarten story time, and maple wood furniture, with inviting picture books displayed everywhere. Although it was in the basement, my memory recalls it as a perpetually bright, sunny place, well-lined with shelves delightfully packed with books of all sorts and shapes.  When I returned for fond visits years later, I was repeatedly shocked by what a small room it actually was. From the viewpoint of my childhood imagination, it was immense.  There I read the books of Carol Brinkman and Beverly Cleary, sped through the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys, and read books on cats, movie monsters, and unsolved mysteries. Much to my mother’s dismay, I had become obsessed with the rather dark and violent musical Man of La Mancha, and it was in fifth grade that I there read a translation of Don Quixote and discovered Shakespeare through the book The Enchanted Island by Ian Serralier. The librarian was a cheerful woman who loved children, and not only helped me find good books (I was easy to please) but allowed me to come in and stock shelves and catch up with my reading and research during recess.
Here I want to point out some characteristics of the first stage of learning, what that great Catholic educator Maria Montessori called the first plane of development or the sensorial plane. In this plane, children primarily encounter reality with their sense: touching, tasting, smelling, feeling, hearing. They learn focus and visual tracking, they seek whole-body experiences where every part of their being is learning. They love repetition, kinetic and auditory, and naming. They delight in names. As with other ages, their mind sorts bits of information and arranges them into narratives, personalized. The abstract concepts of big, medium and small are transliterated into “the daddy one, the mommy one, the baby one,” as the child fits the abstract to his or her personal narrative. Children need to be taught to trust that their senses are communicating reality to them. This will be the foundation for future learning. It is sad to reflect how the whole-body experience of a library—easing books off shelves, the crinkle of the inevitable plastic cover protectors as pages are turned and eyes track words, library voices are attempted, focus begins – that experience is in danger of being supplanted by a sterile virtual reality that absorbs the visual sense only while locking the rest into passive dormancy. I want to thank all of you librarians who continue to give that whole-body experience to our youngest students.
Children ages 0-6 experience everything—including good and evil—sensually. In other words, they identify the good not by the nudges of conscience but by the colors the good guys wear, the sound of their voices, their theme songs, or the feeling of goodness inside. Beauty is what communicates goodness. It is critical that libraries in Catholic schools – and everything used to teach young children – be beautiful so that it can most effectively teach goodness sensually. For properly understood, beauty is the incarnation of goodness: it is what goodness feels like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, looks like.
I have an intense hatred of ugly children’s books, of shoddy storytelling and skimpy artwork, particularly in materials intended to present the faith. Our market-driven world seldom bothers to give well-crafted stories or fine artwork to children, with notable exceptions. Instead, children are left at the mercy of the marketplace of merchandised characters and their endless banal stories, with girls’ stories doused in pink paraphernalia, and boys’ bristling with weaponized black-leather-clad redundancies. The realities of female and male, feminine and masculine, need to be respected, but they shouldn’t be caricatured, in fact or fiction. Catholics realize this, but when Bible stories are revamped as awkwardly animated cartoons, when Christ is reduced to a Simpsons caricature, the child’s sensual experience of the sacred suffers. We adults might be pleased by sparse lines and knobby primitive artwork, but children are dismayed when the Blessed Mother isn’t as radiant as a princess. That is why Catholic environments were historically laden with bright stained-glass windows, textures of stone, wood, and linen, the sight of exquisite statues and flickering candles, the sound of bells and human voices, and smells of beeswax and incense. Our worship is meant to be sensorial.  It is the catechesis for the youngest among us, and a reminder to the rest of us that Christ became sensorial, became flesh and dwelt among us.
Make your library for young children a beautiful place, full of activities that quietly engage all the senses. Help our children to strengthen that connection between goodness and beauty, and curate carefully to leave out anything ugly, even if it purports to be teaching morality.
Now, let me speak for a moment of Catholic communal culture, and a word about hothouses and greenhouses.

Ours is a fragmented secular culture, whirled about in the eddies of new technology, constantly in danger of discarding even the vestiges of human rights and democracy, doubting human value and human choice.  The tendency of American Catholics has been to wait for the secular culture to act, and then ride the wave, or barricade themselves against the wave with a barrage of criticism.
This engagement with secular culture is very “Catholic,” in some ways, like the Church of the Dark Ages baptizing the barbarians even as they stormed the gates, but in these days, it tends to become either lukewarm and lost, or bitter and apocalyptic. In both cases, it’s reactionary, whether praising or pontificating against each new cultural storm.
My personal sympathy as an artist is neither to conform or to criticize, but to create. So, I agree with those who say we ourselves need to be active, not reactive or passive, when it comes to creating culture. I believe we should do something new and Catholic, inspired by the Gospel. In this way I am perhaps siding with St. Benedict, creating intentional Catholic culture, a haven from the storms outside. If you try to create intentional Catholic culture, you will cause problems. You will challenge existing norms, start revolutions in thinking and acting, and possibly create more problems than you solve, at least initially. But you could argue, from a certain point of view, that any Catholic initiative, from Nicaea to Vatican II, created more problems and made existing problems worse, at least to contemporaries. 
And Catholic education and the Catholic school system were similarly criticized in the beginning, as you might recall, for pulling Catholic children out of the mainstream, sequestering them in a hothouse of feverish zeal, in the same way that Catholic homeschooling and Catholic lay movements are criticized today. There are those who will attack or mock any attempt at intentionally creating a Catholic environment as striving for an unattainable perfection or cowardice in the face of a worldly challenge.
I want to remind you that there is a difference between a hothouse and a greenhouse, however similar the structures themselves may look.
Both are “artificial environments” where malevolent or detrimental outside influences are consciously excluded. Both are run by gatekeepers who choose what can enter and what must stay outside. Both have walls that let in light and keep out the rest.
But one, the hothouse, is designed as a lifelong support system: the other is a training ground. One tries to cultivate dependency: the other to foster independence. But they look nearly the same, except for the intention.
In the same way, a Catholic environment that shelters souls considered too weak or exotic to face the outside world and a Catholic environment designed to allow the young to grow strong and healthy, ready to go out into the world and preach the Good News, might have similar rules, criteria, and practices.  But the intention is entirely different. And being accused of sharing characteristics with a hothouse does not invalidate or do away with the necessity of greenhouses.  And we need Catholic greenhouses, more that ever: for the young, for the broken, for those resting after battle. And I believe that the Catholic library is a vital kind of greenhouse, no matter how old their patrons.
As a Catholic educator and author, I am also a greenhouse worker. Together with Catholic librarians, we help create Catholic culture by carefully collating collections and curriculum, weeding through sources, giving guidance, judiciously challenging, protecting, but also equipping.
I think your job is harder than mind. I work with a set curriculum in education, with my imagination in the other. You have to face an expanding cloud of material in a world where technology and other revolutions are splintering categories and shattering institutions.
You are creating gardens of literature and lore, properly scaled to the size of your students and patrons, where they can play and learn. Of course, research now tells us that playing and learning are remarkably similar.

In sixth grade, I switched to a public school, and a new library. This library was ample and generous, with satisfying rows of bookshelves just the right height, endless mazes of fiction and nonfiction, biography and reference. I loved them all. By this time, I was a researcher as well as a reader, and although I missed my old school, I rejoiced in looking up and learning more about my new passions: Shakespeare, theater, puppets, movie making, animation. But the library periods in public school were painfully short for my imagination and interests. I was by this time the awkward adolescent, the problem child in class, slow maturing, oddly dressed, quiet, and too opinionated for my own good. My homeroom English teacher targeted me for special education, advising me to read the latest edgy teen fiction and trendy teen magazines. I have no idea why: I am guessing she deduced my parents were strict religious nuts and wanted to liberate me. But I stolidly ignored her, following my own internal compass, with only a vague awareness of outside pressure. Naturally, I was a target for bullies during lunch, so I began escaping to the library to read my problems away. I read Wuthering Heights and was transported in bliss. I read Jane Eyre and was relieved my school was nowhere as bad as Lowood Institution. I researched Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, read about student filmmakers and dreamed of owning my own still-frame movie camera. The librarian was a nice, cheerful soul, and tried to accommodate me, but in a vast school of thousands of students, I was not where I was supposed to be, and that was a problem. One day my English teacher charged into the library and confronted me, demanding to know why I wasn’t in the cafeteria. My sanctuary days were over.
Fortunately, that year I met my best friend in that school. She was not Catholic, but Christian, and we bonded over books, spending lunch periods throughout sixth and seventh grade comparing notes on the best reads. She listened avidly to my own stories and became my first fan. We also found common ground in Christianity, as my faith was becoming more vital to me, and I was on the verge of my high school commitment to Christ, as was she.  Years later, I would finish what became my first published novel at the request of her younger sisters.  She would remain a close friend and kindred spirit, who shared my passion for C.S. Lewis and introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings (which I admired but would not read since it had no girl main characters.). This past spring, she shocked me by announcing that she and her husband were planning on joining the Catholic Church. Our Lord is full of surprises.
My time in Catholic and public school coincided with what Montessori called the second plane of development and Dorothy Sayers the dialectic stage. It is characterized by working together bits of information to fit into a system and bits of experience and accumulated knowledge into a story, and a fixation on moral categories, the meaning of the story.
 Traditional Catholic education calls it attaining the age of reason, with the budding of the moral sense. It is the discerning of the universal story, the conflict between good and evil, asking the question to which the Old Testament and the Gospel are the answer. The child in this stage feels a need to separate light from darkness, right from wrong, and most overtly, fair from unfair. They seek stories with heroes and heroines, come up with complicated schemes to deal with evil: dealing with the possibility of being orphaned, laying plans for defeating death and escaping slavery or kidnapping or quicksand. If they are presented with the Ten Commandments at this time, they will usually memorize them easily, as well as endless catechism questions and the basics of moral theology. Rules and systems for clubs and codes, secret languages and trivia, all of these are categorized happily and codified. This stage is marked by an intense thirst for justice and fairness. As an example, my grade-school children are still debating whether, during last year’s end-of-school picnic games, the opposing team cheated, and whether the moral failure of the parental judges and the moral depravity of the other team should be forgiven or held against them for all eternity. I am forced again and again to be the lawyer for the defense, arguing “before the awful eyes of innocence,” for forgiveness, understanding, and mercy. As Chesterton notes, “children, being innocent, want justice, whereas we adults, being guilty, want mercy.”
So, my best friend and I, questing over the gamut of grade school and high school, were quickly learning that the most alluring story could “slime” us by forcing us to read depictions of sex or bodily grossness that we, at age 12 and 13, found appalling. The Age of Blume—Judy Blume—was upon young adult fiction, and my persistent English teacher seemed determined that I should read it all. We secretly agreed she was weird and strange. We both rebelled with the passion of Puritans and developed a personal code as strict as that of any PTA guidelines. I would skim the back pages of any romance book for bedroom scenes, rejecting the book if it contained them. We deduced accurately that books that used swear words, particularly the F-word, usually contained slimy sexual content. This was sheer survival for our imaginations: our peers were reading V.C. Andrews, horror, and fiction full of drugs and suicide, of which our teachers apparently fully approved, and we decided we had to start judging books by covers, despite the aphorism. In these pre-Columbine days, teen fiction and music seemed to revel in horror and gore, and I began to struggle, not surprisingly, with depression. The required seating in public school which meant I had to stare a skull with teeth dripping blood on the back of the shirt of the classmate in front, probably didn’t help matters. The more I read of secular fiction, the more I hated it, and hated the culture which promoted it. In terms of socialization, the free-for-all and lack of guidance was making me more derisive than the most hardline culture warrior could have hoped. It was clear to my best friend and I that right was being mocked and wrong was being tolerated approvingly, and we were in a moral wilderness.

Violating a child’s sense of justice during this stage can have profound consequences. This world does not recognize this stage, and if they do, misunderstands and mocks. Librarians, please respect them. And in the name of the fumbling, shy tween that I was, please don’t try to rush them through this stage.  Innocence is almost more crucial to a person now than earlier. This stage of black-and-white ideals will evaporate naturally during the teenage years, but while it endures, trying to convince a child that something their conscience is screaming is wrong is right or ok – whether that something is their parents’ divorce, their sister’s abortion, or blasphemous artwork – plays havoc with their sensibilities and can crush them, creating anger, alienation, depression, and self-hatred.  The age of understanding moral complexity will come. But for now, they ask for answers: clear answers, uncomfortable answers, courageous answers. Don’t worry, they’ll probably go back and hunt down every loophole and explore every nuance when they are teens.  
Understanding this stage used to be what Catholic education excelled at: giving a coherent and holistic picture of the world, assuring students of meaning and purpose and connection. Many of us have lost confidence in that vision. We need to regain it.
And the children in this stage are right—as children usually are: right and wrong, good and evil DO exist. There will be final choices. Moral choices do matter: in fact, they’re usually the most important aspect of our lives. What is the truth? How can we live the Truth? This is the question the Gospel answers: and the moral law in the form of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, expressed in the Catechism – these are the limbs and branches of the Catholic faith which we as Catholic educators should be outlining for our students. There will be time enough for older students to perceive the fine twigs and shifting patterns of leaves around it.

If your library is a garden, Christ is the tree at the center of that garden, the Tree of Life Who is also our tree of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, whose branches reach out to all the world, whose roots are as ancient as being itself. Bring your students to that tree and let them climb it and eat of its fruit and see how everything else in the universe is ordered in relationship to it. There aren’t differing realities, different truths, different educations: there is one Truth, and He is the Life.  Be confident in that Truth. Don’t be afraid.  
Then there is the third stage of learning: the rhetoric stage, the stage where the child, now approaching adulthood, looks over the system and code of being and says, “That’s all very nice, but how does it apply to me?” Some fear this stage as the questioning stage: I prefer to think of it as the personalization stage. This is where the student decides whether he or she is going to live out the faith, and how. It’s a necessary stage, because the student goes from being a recipient to becoming an active contributor. We would not want to have Catholicism without it, and for years, Catholic educators have been trying to time Confirmation to coincide at the just-right moment so that it can encompass the questions and give the grace to face them.  And courage and strengthening are just what our teens need during this stage, to become who God created them to be and follow the vocation He is offering them.
By now, the student already knows right from wrong.  That, they learn, is fairly easy, the confusions of this society aside. The thorniest question confronting the confirmed Catholic is not the choice between good and evil, but between good and good. Evil, when seen clearly, is not creative, dynamic, or fun: it’s a repetitious and pathetic surrender to the same-old, same-old addictions, a loss of freedom, boring as sin, as one priest said. But good, coming from God, is endlessly creative. While there are no new sins (all the types of sins that can be committed have already been committed, and most of them in Biblical times), in every age the Holy Spirit will raise up new ways of being good, and of doing good. What this means is that people motivated by the good will come up with different solutions to the same problem, and they will disagree. How do you choose among the goods?  Only by God’s gift of wisdom, the hallmark grace we beg for in Confirmation. Wisdom is being able to choose the best good for the right moment. It is entirely possible to make things worse by doing the wrong good at the wrong time.  Being good and stupid is almost as damaging as evil.
So Catholic education at the high school level is education to discern how to choose the best good: among vocations, among tactics, among initiatives. Literature gives an endless depiction of nuance in doing good, and the teen has an appetite now for learning about human beings and understanding them more intimately, so as to better understand himself or herself.

In eighth grade, my best friend and I switched to a new public high school, and a new library. I can’t recall exactly what it looked like, but I do remember the caliber of literature. One book I recall which I eagerly started and still regret finishing pretended to be a mystery, but it was a seduction story, whose male adolescent narrator was more intent on getting his girl partner into bed than catching the bad guy. The story was disgusting and should have been demeaning to any girl reader, but it was found in our 8th grade library. I still fault the poor gatekeeping shown by the librarian, which undercut any moral guidance she might have been able to give to students about proper relationships with the opposite sex. She might have included the book because she assumed that teens were “all doing it anyway,” which I have always found the most insulting—and incorrect—assumption adults can make about teens. Moral evil brings with it a moral blindness and lack of self-awareness. If you lie, you assume everyone else lies. If you cheat on your taxes, your conscience might assure you that anyone else would have done the same thing.  I have since learned that when anyone, whether a celebrity or an expert in adolescence, tells you that teens “can’t be chaste,” it tells you more about them than about teens. Most teens are romantics who really do what to save themselves for their future spouse. It would be heartening if teen fiction gave them some encouragement in that ideal, and if librarians had more faith in their patrons.
In eighth grade, every truly interesting book seemed to include sex scenes, and it seemed to us that the modern world wanted to convince us that we should want to sleep with any rock star or alpha male who presented himself. I recall our shared outrage when one of our favorite authors, the purportedly Christian Madeleine L’Engle, had one of her best heroines throw away her virginity on a college guy she barely knew. I wrote her a letter expressing my shock. She startled me by kindly writing back, to explain that at least her heroine’s choice was “not lust.” We were not impressed by her reasoning.  Her answer increased our sense that the modern world wanted to fill our mind with garbage, seduce us, or see us surrender to drugs or depression. It drove us both to choose differently: to choose Christ. And thank God for that.
I knew I wanted a Catholic education. My parents agreed. So I found my next library: a tall narrow room with aqua walls and a bright blue carpet at the top of an industrial-style old Catholic school building. It had huge glass windows, overlooking a depressed section of town where the school was located. I liked the students better: it was a mix of inner-city and suburban students, with a nice variety. The boys held doors open for girls instead of calling them dirty names, and I was grateful there were no more ghastly shirts.  

The library was small, however, and I quickly discovered its limits. I began using the public library as a supplement for recreation and research, both academic and personal, reading about the history of clowns in literature, T. S. Eliot, more Shakespeare, and yes, romance and fantasy.  I was reading adult fiction now but keeping the code. My friend and I discovered Christian fiction, and it was a welcome relief to be assured of not being "slimed," though we agreed some of it was dull and silly, or only surface-Christian. There was no Christian fiction in the Catholic-school library, and the fiction section was so small I quickly gave up on it.
But in the exploration of the nonfiction sections of the school library, I stumbled upon a book written by a priest about Catholic sexuality. I read it and found that when he encountered couples who were sleeping together outside of marriage, he did not tell them it was wrong, he merely asked if it was meaningful. If it was, he let them be. This sounded problematic, but I thought maybe it was a nuance I didn't understand. Then the priest went on, saying sexual encounters outside of marriage were not at all bad, and even incest could be a “meaningful relationship.” In hindsight, after the sex abuse scandal in the American church, these writings are unfortunate, to say the least. I put the book back on the shelf and did not know what to do. I was rather afraid of the librarian, a religious sister. I had already discovered the sister teaching theology at the school barely knew her bible, and another rhapsodized about the rock star Madonna, so I was already skittish about asking any direct moral question.
Years later, after I had graduated from high school, I returned to the school for a visit, and finally worked up the courage to confront the librarian.  When I showed her the book, her smile grew frosty, and she informed me that the people who would read this book were adults, and adults would understand what it meant. I wanted to say, “Sister, this is a HIGH SCHOOL LIBRARY.”
I left that high school junior year for a new kind of high school, not run by religious or by the diocese, but run by parents, though some religious still taught there. It was an outlier in the late 80s, with a sometimes-confrontational relationship with the diocese, a private school which taught the Catholic faith. It promised a more intensely Christian environment, and I wanted that. When I told my English teacher why I wasn’t returning, she told me I wasn’t going to learn anything in a Catholic fishbowl, as she termed it.  It’s easy to mistake a greenhouse for a hothouse.
For me, the private Catholic school was me giving the Catholic Church one last chance to prove to me that it was not the corrupt, unfaithful, lax and useless institution that my public-school history teachers told me it was, an idea which the diocesan high school had ironically only enforced. Influenced by my Christian friend and my diet of Christian fiction, I thought it was just a matter of time before I left the crumbling cultural edifice of Catholicism for a vibrant evangelical Christianity. I knew I wanted to follow Christ: surely this was how He would lead me.

The library at my new school was tiny in the extreme: it consisted of the two window-seat-height bookshelves in the English classroom, presided over by another religious sister, Sister Julia. Small pickings indeed. No puppets, theatre history, or film research: I would depend on an assortment of nearby public libraries for that. In her classroom I discovered new loves I went on to research in those libraries: John Keats. The Canterbury Tales. And then, one memorable day, Sister Julia pulled me aside (my English teachers were always targeting me! I was immediately wary) and asked me to read an essay called, “The Paradoxes of Christianity” by a man named G.K. Chesterton. I dutifully began to read it, and as I did, my mind exploded. For in that essay, Chesterton, himself not even yet a Catholic, explained Catholicism to me as a collision of opposites which were made to balance, and in doing so, created orthodoxy.
Chesterton explained Catholicism for me, and for the first time I saw it. He made imaginative sense of the excesses of the saints, the precision of the creeds, the warfare of the councils, even the failures and the sin, the crud of centuries like the weather-beaten stains in the cloak of an adventurer. He made me see why doctrine was important: “it might only be a matter of an inch, but an inch is everything when you are balancing.” I have not been the same since.
Chesterton helped bring my faith into the third stage, where I could see and appreciate the nuances now that I was sure of what was certain. Though the Church might sway in the wind, the tree still stood. I understood that false teaching would dry up and fall away like dead branches, but that clinging to Christ and His Church gives life. In any tree, some branches are growing even as others are dying off: it isn’t obvious, but time reveals it.
And I had discovered Chesterton, and he became my lifeline in the storm. When I researched him further and discovered he had struggled with depression as a student, particularly when his fellow students were seducing girls and dabbling in the occult and he was mocked for his innocence, I felt an immediate kinship with him. The Man Who Was Thursday and the Father Brown stories became some of the most important fiction in my life. Through Chesterton, I learned to find other good guides and good teachers, who could grapple with the mess and the muddle, but had the confidence and good humor of faith, a self-awareness of sin, and a defiance of evil.

My last school library was at the Catholic college I choose to attend, where at last I could read and research to my heart’s content. This library was a new building, a bit self-important and space-wasting in design but nicer to look at, perched halfway uphill between the dorms and the academic complex. It had soaring shelves, a labyrinth of quiet, marked on the top story with narrow floor-to-ceiling windows with deep sills that were just wide enough to curl up on with a tome or two.
During my classes in theatre, media, theology, and history, fireworks would go off in my head as new ideas collided and connected. And between lectures, I would hurry down the hill to the library where I would bury myself in the topic or tangent I had just heard. I read about the Romanovs and the Gnostics, feminism and French intellectuals, Aquinas and Broadway musicals, fairy tales and Restoration playwrights, Watergate and cable networks, contraception and experimental theater, the Eucharist and the Middle Ages. Now I was not afraid to read secular ideas and novels. I read the Gnostic Gospels and shuddered with relief that they had been rejected from the canon of Scripture. The Christ of those Gospels was unrecognizable, and the apostles were bigots, declaring, “women do not deserve life,” and Christ responding, “Unless a woman become male, she will not enter the kingdom of God.” Striking word. Poetic, even. But wrong. Wrong. Christ, in whom there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, called both men and women to baptism, equal in dignity, effervescent in their complementary gifts. Mother Church cut through the chaos and chose. And what she chose bravely, with Spirit-inspired human choice, has given generations life, and saved ages of endless doubt and division.
The development of doctrine is a terrifying history to contemplate. Doctrine doesn’t drop as a book from the heavens, but it comes about, mostly, through arguments. Messy, serious arguments with enormous consequences.
Mother Church, that disreputable Bride of Christ, is a busy mother, feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and like most overworked loving mothers, she only really pays attention when a fight breaks out. And even then, most times, she’ll say, “Work it out, you all,” and go on working, until the screams become unbearable and maybe there’s even blood. Then she intervenes. And like most mothers, her commands are mainly in the negative. “From now on, no one is allowed to do X.” “To those of you who do X or say X, even if you don’t say it but imply X in a nasty sneering kind of way when you think I’m not looking, let him be anathema!”
Some complain the pronouncements of the Church are mainly negative. Well, of COURSE they’re mainly negative! Just as mothers who love their children and respect their freedom don’t tell the children how to play, only how not to play. What mother says, “You must climb trees, then play in the sandbox making castles out of bark bits, then spend fifteen minutes throwing balls, then play nonviolent games with sticks.” No, when Mom sends her kids out to play, she says, “Don’t leave the yard. Stay off the fence, don’t throw sand, and absolutely no sword fighting with sticks: you nearly poked your brother’s eye out last time.”  Negative, yes, but much more freeing.   And yes, Mom makes weird rules sometimes as a result of fights: “No one in the house is allowed to answer, ‘Chicken Butt’ when asked ‘what?’”
This is just how moms are. They keep us real. They want to see the rubber hit the road, not hear about lofty ideals. Christ says, “Take up my yoke and learn from Me. Take and eat, this is My Body. Go into all the world and tell the good news.”
His Bride says, “That means seven years of Catholic education before receiving confirmation. Okay, six. Ok, we’ll make it five. Stop arguing with me! And I expect you all to show up for dinner once a week? You hear me? No, not whenever you feel like it, once a week! No exceptions! And wash your hands and face first, see?”
Sometimes Mama Church is no fun. But she’s right. Sometimes she’s distracted and confusing. Sometimes she holds family councils and they’re a disaster, and no one follows the rules there anyhow. But she’s patient, and she waits on us, and seldom throws anyone out, just keeps reminding us, waiting for us to get it right.
And she gets no love from the world. They hate her and will say and write the nastiest things about her. They’ll seduce and steal away her children, kill them if they get the chance. And even her own children will criticize her and publish endless catalogs of her mistakes and failings. But being the gutsy and independent woman that she is, she doesn’t care, much. She just keeps on working and singing and cleaning up dirty kids and wiping their noses and putting on Band-Aids and repeating lessons for the thousandth time to stubborn humanity. And giving endless second chances. But she warns us: Daddy’s coming home. And when He does, even the dead will not be able to hide from His judgment.
But until then, we are living in the time of His mercy, and I say thank God for that. And so as Catholic gardeners, our job is to cultivate our garden, so Mama Church’s children can run and play in them and learn.
A last word about technology, which, even in this wonderful age of online conferences and easy research tools, if not tamed, threatens to fragment and make obsolete the very libraries we love. I believe with Neil Postman that it is time to stop figuring out how to use technology to teach our students, and instead switch to teaching our students how to use technology.
There is something subversively private about reading a print book. No marketing software can track how many pages you read, no research company can deduce your values from where you stopped or build your government profile based on what sentences you highlighted. Your soul is still your own.
As a Catholic school student, I struggled through scanty library materials, but now we all suffer from an overabundance of sources, making my students’ research reports a muddle of a different kind. Although information flows from every hyperlink, students need more guidance about sources than ever before, and face-to-face guidance. Walking through the research process with them, is more crucial than ever.
Just as personalized service in stores and online sites becomes rarer, I hope and pray that personalized guidance by librarians who understand and appreciate the planes of learning will become a hallmark of Catholic education. We care more about the soul and more about the person, or we should. And we can let our students and patrons know that a few good authors can be good guides through a maze of sources. Drawing attention to them is more crucial than ever.
Fight against the dopamine-addiction and illusory invulnerability of social media and online technology by reviving face-to-face relationships and a shared love of the printed page and the experience of reading, including the grace-filled power of reading Scripture. Recover and value the power of memory: actively cultivate recitation and internalization of knowledge instead of letting easy access to a database wither away those non-visual synapses in the child's brain. Of course, all these things are under siege—but Catholic education has always been under siege. Maintain a greenhouse of sanity against the virtual assault, using the Theology of Bodily Presence and Locality to counter the denigration of the human and the objectification of the body.

Who would have thought that a half or quarter room full of good books in the basement of a school building could become a launching pad for a new human culture? With a good Catholic library, such things are possible. For the Holy Spirit is never done with the Church, or with us. In fact, He may have just gotten started.  Thank you.


I absolutely love this, have been sending links to friends and even read aloud to family and friends over a dinner party. I have believed the books they give our kids to read is a such a destructive force! And the stories of the libraries of your life-- SO well told!! Thank you, and may I copy it on my blog linking it to your blog?

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