Happy January! So glad to be back at the dials to kick off a fresh year of Mocking-activity and deeply grateful to our many supporters who came through, big time, this past month to make that possible. Stay tuned early next week for details about our upcoming NYC Conference (4/25-27), earlybird registration for which expires on Feb 1st. Here’s your first–legit–peek:

1. Okay, onto an extraordinary crop of articles. First, it took every fiber of self-restraint not to interrupt the holidaze and post the last couple paragraphs of Peter Wehner’s NY Times column on “The Uncommon Power of Grace.” An irenic yet double-take-inspiring meditation on our favorite subject, what struck me most was the fresh definition Wehner solicited from his friend and fellow journalist Jonathan Rauch. Felt like the perfect note on which to inaugurate 2019:

When I recently asked Jonathan [Rauch] how, as a nonbeliever, he understood grace and why it inspires us when we see it in others, he told me that grace is “some combination of generosity and magnanimity, kindness and forgiveness, and empathy — all above the ordinary call of duty, and bestowed even (or especially?) when not particularly earned.” We see it demonstrated in heroic ways and in small, everyday contexts, he said. “But I guess, regardless of the context, it’s always at least a little unexpected and out of the ordinary.” A lot like if the incarnate deity, veiled in flesh, were born in a manger in Bethlehem.

2. Speaking of self-restraint, it’s going to be enormously difficult to prevent these columns from morphing into roundups of “This Week in #Seculosity” so I’ve, er, resolved to not even try. Not when softballs like Juliana Piskorz’s “Me and My Quarter Life Crisis” keep bombarding my inbox. The zeitgeist, it would appear, no longer needs any help in the animation department (ht SJ), and it’s a little nerve-wracking! Writing in The Guardian, the 25-year-old Piskorz confesses:

I’m in the throes of a quarter-life crisis. A very different animal to its middle-aged cousin, mostly because no one aged 26 can afford a vintage Jag and is unlikely to have progressed far enough in their career to have a secretary to shag. The quarter-life crisis, or my experience of it, manifests itself in me wanting to run away; to start again; or bury myself in anything that will distract me from my own reality. Clinical psychologist Alex Fowke defines it as “a period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation” in your 20s. Check, check, check.

I appear to have it all. I’m healthy, with a good job, close friends and a loving, if dysfunctional, family – and yet I feel lost. As do the people around me. Almost all the people who replied to me had pursued some form of higher education and had gone on to live and search for work in urban areas. These young people are ambitious, educated and seemingly well adjusted – all the ingredients for a life of privilege…

As I struggle to articulate to [London psychiatrist James] Arkell the sense of disconnect I feel between where I thought I would be and where my life actually is, he suggests that the importance of religion, or the lack of it, has a large part to play. “One feature of religious belief is that your value is intrinsic rather than based upon performance or image,” he explains, “and as we move away from a religion-based society, young people are looking towards their careers to validate their sense of self.”

Although I rarely think about religion these days, I grew up being forced to go to church by my grandmother. She spent her childhood during the Second World War in a labour camp in Siberia, and for the rest of her life she credited God and her Catholic faith for saving her and her family. As my sisters and I fidgeted and complained, she would hang on the priest’s every word, taking comfort from the rambling sermons that we tried but failed to understand. We were children of peacetime, consumerism and Tony Blair – there was no impetus for faith, no urgent need for salvation. When she died in Charing Cross hospital in 2012, she requested a priest be present to conduct the last rites. Unwavering confidence in God had given her a lifelong purpose and with her last breath, all those Sundays, all her whispered prayers, were neatly fulfilled.

For my generation, work not prayer has become the personal project. The struggle for meaningful employment is something I read about time and time again in my Instagram inbox… For the first time ever the pressure to find a career that could define you for the next 50 years feels as important as finding a life partner. So when you have neither it’s easy to feel as if you’ve failed.

3. From one target of seculosity to the next (chapter five to chapter three, to be exact…!), last week Claire Cain Miller profiled “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting” for The NY Times. You don’t have to be shepherding offspring yourself to guess that the picture she paints is neither pretty nor confined to the upper-middle class. As with the careerism above, the stakes of modern parenting now extend well beyond the emotional or circumstantial into the existential–and transparently so. Meaning, childrearing has begun to serve a religious function for more and more people today, and not always by choice. By (small-r) “religious,” I mean as a justifying story from which pieties, rituals, and communities emerge. Sadly, to the extent that parenting has become a religion, it’s not of the gracious variety:

The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most. Today, mothers spend nearly five hours a week on that, compared with 1 hour 45 minutes hours in 1975 — and they worry it’s not enough. Parents’ leisure time, like exercising or socializing, is much more likely to be spent with their children than it used to be…

The new trappings of intensive parenting are largely fixtures of white, upper-middle-class American culture, but researchers say the expectations have permeated all corners of society, whether or not parents can achieve them. It starts in utero, when mothers are told to avoid cold cuts and coffee, lest they harm the baby. Then: video baby monitors. Homemade baby food. Sugar-free birthday cake. Toddler music classes. Breast-feeding exclusively. Spraying children’s hands with sanitizer and covering them in “natural” sunscreen. Throwing Pinterest-perfect birthday parties. Eating lunch in their children’s school cafeterias. Calling employers after their adult children interview for jobs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics promotes the idea that parents should be constantly monitoring and teaching children, even when the science doesn’t give a clear answer about what’s best. It now recommends that babies sleep in parents’ rooms for a year. Children’s television — instead of giving parents the chance to cook dinner or have an adult conversation — is to be “co-viewed” for maximum learning.

Parents, particularly mothers, feel stress, exhaustion and guilt at the demands of parenting this way, especially while holding a job… “On the one hand, I love my work,”[Renée Sentilles, mother of a 12 year old] said. “But the way it’s structured in this country, where there’s not really child care and there’s this sense that something is wrong with you if you aren’t with your children every second when you’re not at work? It isn’t what I think feminists thought they were signing up for.”

4. Author Clay Routledge tied these strands together last week in a brief but trenchant essay for Quillette, “From Astrology to Cult Politics—the Many Ways We Try (and Fail) to Replace Religion”:

When people turn away from one source of meaning, such as religion, they don’t abandon the search for meaning altogether. They simply look for it in different forms… Americans are increasingly fascinated by astrology, “spiritual” healing practices, and fringe media sources that purport to describe the powers of the supernatural realm. The number of claimed “haunted houses” in the United States is growing. And paranormal tourism centered on such allegedly haunted locales has become a booming business, now accounting for over half a billion dollars in revenue annually… These numbers are going up, not down, as more people seek something to fill the religion-shaped hole in their lives…

The more people abandon religious spaces to meet existential needs, the more likely they are to turn to extreme political tribalism, and to blur the lines between spiritual and secular pursuits. Indeed, studies find that it is people who score low on commitment to a religious faith who are most likely to invest in political ideologies to counter threats to meaning in life.

5. If, like me, that leaves you gasping/grasping for grace, here comes Alan Jacobs with an appreciation of “Thomas Merton, The Monk Who Became a Prophet,” written for The New Yorker on the 50th anniversary of the renowned mystic’s death. The whole article is very much worth your time, but those already familiar with Merton’s biography might fast forward to the glaringly Panopticon-ish tidbits gleaned by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who wrote at some length about the Seven Storey Mountaineer back in the 1970s:

Williams focusses his inquiry on something Merton wrote in “The Sign of Jonas,” one of the first books he worked on after entering Gethsemani: “I have to be a person that nobody knows. They can have Thomas Merton. He’s dead.” Williams says, “Truth can only be spoken by a man nobody knows, because only in the unknown person is there no obstruction to reality: the ego of self-oriented desire . . . seeking to dominate and organize the world, is absent.” Williams believes that it is this distinctive absence that helps us to understand how Merton “could give almost equal veneration to Catholic and Buddhist traditions.” But it must be emphasized that Merton did not say, “I am a person that nobody knows”; he said that he had to be such a person. Absence was his aspiration, not his achievement…

The writings of the New Testament repeatedly tell followers of Jesus that they must die to themselves, but half-dead is the most that Father Louis ever managed. Once, when he was in Louisville, he had a kind of epiphany. He described the experience in “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.” He “was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people,” the people walking the streets of the city. “They were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” This did not make him doubt his monastic vocation, he says—the denial is not wholly convincing—but it did make him realize that the monk’s life lends itself to a powerful and dangerous illusion: “the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, ‘spiritual men,’ men of interior life, what have you.”

[Merton] was his contradictions: the person in motion who seeks stillness; the monk who wants to belong to the world; the famous person who wants to be unknown… He sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that the value of that experience is to send us back into the world that killed us.

6. In humor, not terribly proud to admit that I guffawed at least four times reading “The 9 Worst Kinds of Hilariously Trendy Church Names.” (Relevate!) Another year-end list to make you chuckle would be The Onion’s “6 Telemarketer Scams that Absolutely Owned Grandma in 2018” (four and six got me most). Then, on the resolution front, The Babylon Bee gave us “Local Man Sets More Realistic Goal Of Reading Bible Until He Gets To Leviticus.” Lastly, comedian Jo Firestone offered up the hysterical yet deeply touching “Tell Me One More Time About Grief”:

Tell one of those people who keep saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” that there is something they can do and it’s to bring you more pretzels — the good kind, or really any kind but the ones you bought last time, because those were bad. How can they make a pretzel bad? I don’t know, but they can, and they did and last time you bought them.

When you think about the person who is gone, try to remember everything, not just the good. Remember the fights. Remember the small annoyances. It’ll keep the person whole.

Accept awkward apologies and flowers. Try your best to love other people besides the one you lost. And finally, whatever people tell you, do not start reading that Joan Didion book.

7. To close, I’ll leave you with my single favorite piece of writing from the past month, Emily Flake’s “The Nick Cave Song That Changed My Life”, a story of grace and transcendence that knocked me flat, even three factors removed:

“Jubilee Street” as recorded is a masterpiece, practically a clinic in the art of buildup and release. But the live version is something else entirely. I was unfamiliar with the song when I walked into the Barclays Center with my husband and our friend Tyson this October. I’ve always been what I would describe as an “enthusiastic but casual” fan of Nick Cave; I’ve appreciated his music since college, but it wasn’t written on my heart in the way that other music was, and I had never seen him play live. When he walked out onstage, the air coalesced around him immediately and took on a certain charge—oh, I realized suddenly, deliciously, I am at church

I find myself jonesing for that feeling, watching and rewatching clips… When the song breaks loose, that crowd goes absolutely bonkers—I keep watching, tears in my eyes, as they pogo wildly up and down, moving like a storm. It’s the spiritual apex of a tent revival for a profane and broken people. Cave sounds like a shaman and commands the room like a cult leader. We tend to see music as entertainment. Performances like this pull it firmly back to where it belongs—in the realm of spiritual experience.

Not for nothing, every once in a while art will hit you exactly when and how you need it. I make a living creatively; it is both my job and what I do, in the sense that it is a function of who I am. Throughout my entire life, I have worked under a sense that none of my art was really any good, that I was a fraud, a joke, that I lacked some essential human center, that everything I loved served as an indictment of everything I couldn’t do, that I would never be able to make good and meaningful work. I don’t know how or why, but, a day or so before the show, I found myself in the midst of what I can only describe as a spiritual epiphany—which was that those feelings didn’t matter. That spending time agonizing and feeling awful about myself was just another form of narcissism, that art doesn’t come from you, it comes through you, and that it was time I got out of my own way at long last. I suddenly understood that my feeling of worthlessness wasn’t humility; it was a dark perversion of ego, and I didn’t need it anymore. I abruptly and very much to my surprise felt myself delivered from that lifelong knot in my stomach. It might come back, but for now I will take the reprieve.