The myth of “interiority”

26 10 2009

india cross

I read the other day a post on the Lonely Goth’s blog concerning the Khrist Bhaktas or Indian devotees of Christ who are not baptized into the Church. Apparently, according to an article linked to on this site, a great number of people who make pilgrimages to Christian shrines and fills the pews on Sunday are not technically “Christians” as we would call them. They are devotees of Christ who do not seek baptism, since “receiving baptism is perceived as relinquishing one’s entire social and cultural patrimony and becoming assimilated to an alien culture”. Some Catholic priests even encourage this type of devotion to Christ, saying that they are there not to baptize people, but to “preach the Gospel”.

“Syncretic, cowardly compromise”, you might be thinking. The funny thing is, however, that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, that bête noire of integrist Catholicism, when he was working in the Lord’s vineyard in French-speaking west Africa, almost did the exact same thing with many of the Muslim and animist populations. Realizing that many people due to tribal or marital circumstances (polygamy was common in many places) could not seek baptism, he created a class of “believer”, a sort of perpetual catechumenate, for those not quite ready to take the plunge of becoming an “official Christian”. His aim of course was to convert everybody, but he was realistic about what that really meant in practice. By creating a “third way”, he and other missionaries felt that some people were at least leaving the door partially open to the Church, and that such a committment should at the least be acknowledged by the hierarchy.

Since I am less than one generation removed from a culture where one is Catholic by default, all of this made me start to think of the issue in different if parallel terms. Many would accuse my ancestors of “Christo-paganism”, of having distorted the pure, Christian message with superstitious, “cultural accretions” not sufficiently rooted out by the clergy. At least on my Internet browsing, there seem to be a lot of converts and denatured suburban Catholics out there who are proud of their lack of Catholic heritage. Apparently, such things get in the way of “real committment to Christ” and a “real assent” to the party line of the hierarchy. “Cultural Catholicism” for them is worse than no Catholicism at all. Indeed, it would seem that in their line of thinking, a “Catholic” offering incense at the shrine of the Guatemalan folk saint, Maximon, is much lower on the totem pole than the eloquent Protestant writer for First Things or Touchstone.

Such sentiments have always been there, but they have become more pronounced in the context of modernity. Perhaps one of the first people to formulate this type of position, one who contemplated seriously the problem of “cultural Catholicism” in the modern context, was the arch-convert and problematic intellectual, John Henry Cardinal Newman. In an essay entitled, “Newman and Otto on Religious Experience”, the theologian Jules van Schaijk outlines Newman’s distinction between “nominal” and “vital” religion, which is the difference between assent by default and knowing “whether or not one is certain of the the truth of one’s religion and its creed”. He writes:

In chapter six of the Grammar, Newman observes that many of our beliefs and opinions are nothing but the result of our personal proclivities and tastes, or of the surrounding culture. This observation applies to our religious beliefs, too… Being Catholic, for instance, is just part of the culture and upbringing of many who grew up in “Catholic countries.” The state of affairs is hardly desirable from the point of view of religion. And, in fact, Newman wrote the Grammar precisely to find out how it could be remedied…We better realize the voice of the living God in and through the voice of conscience… The problem that Newman faces is how one transforms a merely cultural, passive, and ineffectual religious belief into an active faith which has been personally appropriated.

Having passed through the culturally cathartic period of the Second Vatican Council, all of this seems to us old hat now. All parties within Catholic ideology seem to find the concept of “cultural Catholicism” quite distasteful, even those of a traditionalist bent. Assent is an all or nothing deal. One must put away the cultural trinkets of yesteryear’s Catholicism to embrace the “committed Catholicism” of our postmodern, secularist world. One must have a deep “adult faith” instead of shallow “childish” belief. It is no wonder that the hierarchy saw the aggiornamento in the Church’s look and practice as essential to making the laity in the pews “grow up”.

Like many modern day orthodoxies, it is not hard to see how truly shot full of holes such a position really is in three dimensional reality. For how does one know that one’s faith is “active” and has been “personally appropriated”? How does one know that belief is genuine, that it is the result of “real assent” and not merely “personal proclivities”? Who is coming to the St. Anne Shrine off of Ursulines here in New Orleans with a real “incarnational”, “committed” faith, and who is coming out of force of habit with a childish level of belief and assent. “Two men went up to the temple to pray…”

All of this boils down to one of my favorite intellectual piñatas that I like to swing at again and again, and that is the whole role of self-reflection in devotio moderna. To best illustrate this principle, one only need to go to that foundational work of the idea of modern assent, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. While I admire the legacy of the saint in other things, I do believe that parts of this work are dangerous and proto-fascistic. The episode that I am speaking of in particular is the meditation on the two standards in which the person meditating must envision a battlefield with God’s forces on one side, and the devil’s on the other. The person must then contemplate the two armies and “consciously chose” which one he will fight for. I rail against such practices not simply because they proved ineffectual when I had to do them as a seminarian, but because I think its implication of being “absolutely committed or else” is something that was spread into the being of the Church, and Vatican II was the complete triumph of such a mentality. Instead of man himself being a perpetual battlefield, a theatre in which we are perpetually in tug-of-war with the darker impulses of our nature, at some point we make a “conscious decision” to side with the “good guys”, putting us firmly on a side in an “us vs. them” scenario.

“O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. …”

The strange thing is, though, I could not imagine even my grandparents thinking of things in these terms. I once heard that Msg. Escriva de Balaguer once said that that the difference between a Catholic in the Opus Dei and a Catholic outside the Opus is the difference between a candle that is lit and a candle that isn’t. Maybe that is apocryphal, but such a sentiment is echoed over and over again in many sections of modern religiosity. Faith becomes the property of committed experts who know the secrets of “real religion”. If you would have asked my deceased grandmother to pray, she might have prattled off quickly some prayer she memorized as a girl. Ask her to put herself in the “presence of God”, she would grab her mantilla and walk to church. If someone were already in church and you asked him to do this, he might try to stick his head in the tabernacle… The point being that if you were trying to analyze if they had an “adult” sense of assent, or a “vibrant spiritual life”, you are probably going to come up empty handed. And that is because you are asking the wrong question, or you are immersed in the bourgeois spirituality of scrupulous self-reflection. There is a reason that many works of modern spirituality are of well-to-do young women asking ecclesiastics how to pray. When you don’t have to mend the socks, wash the clothes, work in the fields, and prepare dinner, life can get so boring that God is the only one who you can talk to sometimes.

Some would object that the old shallow assent of “cultural Catholicism” is insufficient to aide in the “New Evangelization” that Catholics need to do in places where the Catholic faith is dying out. I would retort that I don’t believe in the “new” anything: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. But once I was done being a reactionary curmudgeon, I would have to further state that such a scheme is not only unrealistic, but also profoundly unhealthy. For if all we can have in the Church is a cadre of experts who have such-and-such a level of assent in order to ride the Catholic train, then I would really like to get off now. For such an institution could not by definition encompass the total reality of human experience, and in this sense it has ceased to be Catholic. We will be left with a group of happy guitar-strumming Papists wearing John Paul II tee-shirts, giggling over how sexy Catholicism is while apotheosizing the heterosexual missionary position as the most profound human image of God. I don’t think I need to say much more on how bizarre that would seem even to most “orthodox” Catholics. And if that is the only way to make Catholicism a “relevant religion” again, then I am all for Catholicism becoming a pristine if outdated museum piece to be gawked at by agnostic tourists.

I am not sure things will happen quite in that way, but perhaps the non-baptized Indian neophytes are the wave of the future, just as such devotees were common in the life of the early Church. Between the clericalization of the laity and the capitulation to secular modernity, people of belief have to walk a perilous tight rope. On the one side, we have an inverted, onanistic fundamentalism in which we tell ourselves that what we know to be completely strange is totally normal. On the other, we have a sentiment that we have to follow the signs of the times no matter what the cost: a secularist version of the famous quip, securus iudicat orbis terrarum (to conjure up the spirit of Newman again). In all of this, I think, it is important to not lose faith. But it is equally important not to lose your sanity. Or your self-respect.


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21 responses

8 11 2010
Bill Rogers

This reminds me of thoughts I’ve had recently about exterior holiness and people choosing to align themselves with the pure. I’m not saying that holiness does not exist or that God has not called us to it, but at some point we have to surrender to the action of Grace working it out through us and not camp out on mere will, which is a function of ego. Sure, examine your consciences, but don’t confuse external morality for a change of heart. Thanks again for yet another installment.

14 07 2010
Jared B.

There’s a fairly new parish in my diocese, doesn’t have its own building yet but has done an amazing job with what limited resources it has converting an old driving school classroom into a sanctuary and nave (from outside it still looks like a sheet metal warehouse). Naturally they want a real church for their parish, so their second measure to make this happen is the usual gigantic campaign to raise money.

I said that’s their second line of attack. Their first: their local Legion of Mary chapter has an Our Lady of Fatima spending a novena with successive families in the parish, the goal being to get her to visit every household before the end of next year. My family aren’t members of this new parish (we’re content at our current one) but this one is definitely in my prayers; they’ve got their priorities right! 🙂

11 03 2010
In praise of religious mediocrity « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] the other hand, the whole “religion isn’t interiorized enough” line has been used so much that it has become cliché. If only we were more fervent, if only we “assented” more, if only we had a better […]

4 11 2009
Leah

There were quite a few differences in the blue collar culture of the 1920 and mid-late 1960s. In the 1920s, the huge wave of European immigration to the US had only recently ceased, so there was a very real connection to “the old country” (whatever that might be) that wasn’t there in after WWII, when immigration of all types was drastically limited. For the new immigrant, the Church would have been one of the few familiar institutions that could help you out in a strange country. Since the Catholic Church was also part of the political machine in many northern cities, an immigrant could feel on some level that his bishop had his back in the political realm, like the union was looking out for his job. However, by the 1960s, this political influence declined. This was partially because of the changing nature and demographics of urban politics combined with a re-alignment of what the each party stood for. In either case, the white Catholics no longer felt like they needed the hierarchy to represent them.

By the 1960s, the Irish and the Italians were considered “white,” rather than as the swarthy, crime-prone, aliens they had been just a few decades earlier. The 1920s was actually a period in which radical ideologies, especially labor militancy, were common in urban areas. Italians were particularly demonized for being potential anarchists and/or communists. By the Cold War, this militancy was gone from the working classes, while cropping up among students.

The mid-1960s is also when the Bretton Woods monetary system that enabled the affluence of the 1950s and early 60s began to break down. Western Europe and Japan were becoming economic powers to be reckoned with and imports were becoming affordable, if not cheaper than their American counterparts. The subsequent de-industrialization of the North, combined with white flight caused a mass exodus of white Catholics from the cities and their old parishes were abandoned. In comparison, industrial production and consumer production in the 1920s was such that urban employment was plentiful.

This is not to say that Vatican II had nothing to do with the collapse of urban Catholic culture (I think it did), but the blue collar Catholic of the 1960s was not the same as his 1920s counterpart. This is why I said on a different post that when people usually complain about the Catholic Church, it’s to say that it’s too strict, not that it’s too soft. For me, the issue is that millions of people once lived in this culture, but essentially gave it up voluntarily. When the high altars were ripped out of the wall and replaced by IKEA-style picnics tables, most people don’t seem to have cared (when I was told that the altar rail of a historically important parish was sitting in the boiler room somewhere, I developed a facial tic, while the older people around me chuckled knowingly). Although the clergy and the religious share much of the blame for our current situation, I think that the laity has to be faulted for not giving a crap.

4 11 2009
Tom Smith

“The urban American Catholic culture collapsed, I think due to lack of interest from the participants. Certainly, Vatican II and overly imaginative clergy and religious didn’t help, but if the comments of famous baby boomer Catholics who grew up in that culture are any indication, there seems to be a great deal of anger, for whatever reason, directed towards the American Church in the 1950s and 60s. Consequently, the culture simply withered away.”

But why did it happen in the fifties and sixties, rather than before that (or, for that matter, after)? Here in Pittsburgh, the Church was growing by leaps and bounds until that time, when a great exodus began. There is only one city parish, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Polish Hill, that has anything like its old vitality remaining.

I guess my point is that there wasn’t anything substantially different about urban blue-collar Catholic life in 1920 and in 1965, so why was the exodus then and not before or after? There had to be some sort of flash point, and it is hard to think of a reason as compelling as Vatican II.

4 11 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think what is at play in many of the ideas behind recent comments is a cultural theory of relativity. In this world of ours, it seems that the thing that changes the least is the one that appears to be standing still. The Catholic Church, because it refuses to change certain things, seems like the defender of all things reactionary, when in reality the operative principles at work within it are really the same as everywhere else. Thus, you can keep external forms, like a thing called a “Mass”, the Spiritual Exercises, and so forth, and that can make one in the Church who is not up to speed on history think that she or he dwells in the same church as St. John Bosco or Catherine of Siena, when in reality, these saints would barely recognize the Church as it exists in most places. Because of our now acclimatized attitude toward the regime of novelty, this does not seem to faze us very much. And there is not a whole lot we could do about it anyway. But it should at the very least spark reflection, and make us think twice about asserting the complete continuity of the Catholic Church in the last fifty to two hundred years.

3 11 2009
AG

“The urban American Catholic culture collapsed, I think due to lack of interest from the participants. Certainly, Vatican II and overly imaginative clergy and religious didn’t help, but if the comments of famous baby boomer Catholics who grew up in that culture are any indication, there seems to be a great deal of anger, for whatever reason, directed towards the American Church in the 1950s and 60s. Consequently, the culture simply withered away.”

I think this is a comment that deserves more reflection than it tends to get in some circles. At the time I was in high school, when I first became aware that there was a faction of Catholics who believed everything had gone wrong since Vatican 2, I was around Catholic classmates who did not know basic Catholic prayers: the Hail Holy Queen, the Apostles’ Creed, an Act of Contrition. More surprisingly, their baby boomer parents didn’t know the prayers either. Catholic devotions had been on the periphery for them, too. So that shifts blame back to the so-called “greatest generation,” who, I suspect, in their movement out of the urban Catholic ghettoes threw off most of Catholic culture.

Two weekends ago, Arturo and I visited my parents and I asked them if they had bought a new statue of Our Lady of Fatima. My dad told me that that was the parish’s Pilgrim statue, and they have had her in their house for over a month because no one else seems to want her. My mom, shaking her head, blamed that on the fact that most families don’t want to have to pray a rosary before her every day. (I thought about being snarky and saying that in their new church building, the statue of Mary is near the back of the church, and they don’t even say the Hail Mary at Mass, as many parishes in this area do, so you reap what you sow, etc., but didn’t.) It stuck me then how antiquated such behavior would seem to most in their parish and most American Catholics. As mentioned above, most of my confirmation class didn’t even know how to say the rosary. (And I’ll also say that intermarriage seems to prevent religious faith in children better than anything.)

And yet… at my parents’ house, we also saw a booklet written by a laywoman titled something like, “The Scriptural Way to pray the Rosary,” approved by Francis Cardinal George. Now I know my mom, who leads the rosary in our family, would never actually read this book – she just collects free prayer books, novenas, and holy cards the way other people collect refrigerator magnets or shot glasses. But the very title of the book, sounding so horribly Protestant, and as though the “old way” of praying the rosary was somehow defective – it reminded me how self-conscious most Catholics have become. This self-consciousness is what I think weighs heavily on us in our readings of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and other older devotional material. It became a brief fad in one of my previous parishes to read the Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales, because, so the saying goes, it shows laity a path to holiness in their lives

In our post-Christian world, it’s hard not to pat ourselves on the back for even bothering to pick up these works, but then we read our own world into the conflicts (external and internal) they describe, while forgetting that both saints wrote these works in a very religious world, where the state and the Church typically existed in harmony, where forcible conversion was still practiced. (There’s a passage in Devout Life where St. Francis advises Philothea – actually a lady in the court – to assist at the public Offices of the Church as much as possible and says that public communion is much greater than private devotion. And yet a Catholic in this era who took such advice to heart, assuming that for most it would require going considerably out of their way to do so, would I think entirely miss the point.) That’s quite different from a world where most know of Christianity, and have rejected it. So there is of course a self-congratulation to reading/performing exercises like these for most. As Arturo knows, my father just came back from a retreat where they read the Spiritual Exercises. My father says that he thinks many of the men who go there do so just for the great cooking and to spend some time at a beautiful retreat center. Now I’m not saying that it’s not important to be nourished physically and visually, but that I don’t think that’s what St. Ignatius had in mind. In other words, I don’t think we can shed our self-consciousness that easily, especially because so much of the modern world is about making a conscious choice to do this or that – the words themselves are politicized.

29 10 2009
The Shepherd

what is interesting is that Culiano names St. Ignatius as the last master in the use of phantasms.

28 10 2009
hidden Identity

You make great points as always, but you seem to be letting this Suburban “conservative” Catholics drive you away. As awesome as this post is syncretism is syncretism, i grew up. I grew up in an environment where everyone was devoutly Catholic, but my grandparent and people in our village would go to a which-doctor, if they had an illness they thought was “super-nature.” More and more you seem to be defining yourself in opposition to online Catholics, who can’t seem to shed the “cultural calvinism.” Everything is not as pretty as the present, but i happen agree with Bonifacius

28 10 2009
The Scylding

I used to obsess endlessly about truth and doctrine. Coming out of “protestant” pelagian sectarianism, that is understandable. But reading this post explained something that I have been wondering about – that of late, the arguments seem, well most of the time, boring…

What does matter is that moment when I kneel to receive the very body and blood of Our Lord. Or when the pastor says “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I now forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen” – while making the sign of the Cross.

Thanks, Arturo.

28 10 2009
Margaret

I read somewhere… and I think Tolstoy tells this story too… of a Russian Orthodox bishop on a sea voyage who had heard of three holy hermits on an island and persuaded the captain to drop anchor there so that he could meet them. He asked them how they served God and they replied they did not know how to serve God so they served each other. He asked them how they prayed, they raised their arms to heaven and said, “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.” The bishop then spent the rest of the day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer and some theology and in the evening he blessed them and left. Later that night the three hermits came running on the waves alongside the ship now far out at sea beseeching the bishop to teach them the Lord’s Prayer again for they had forgotten it. The bishop asked for their blessing this time and sent them back to their island to pray for his soul.

28 10 2009
Manuel

I get that much of moden “conservative” Catholicism is an us vs them religion, especially on the blogs, but I just don’t see how one can arrive at this attitude from self-reflection.

28 10 2009
Emeril

Agostino,
you are RIGHT
eating Taco Bell and saying it’s Mexican is a mortal sin
eating Olive Garden and saying it’s real Italian is a mortal sin

28 10 2009
Bonifacius

Or let me put it this way: “He who, putting his hand to the plow, looks back, is not worthy of Me.” That isn’t St. Ignatius Loyola, that’s Christ. Or how about, “What hath Christ to do with Belial?” That would be St. Paul, under divine inspiration. Or, “All the gods of the Gentiles are devils.” So you are off-base in faulting the two-standard paradigm of St. Ignatius.

28 10 2009
Bonifacius

Blah, blah, blah — paganism is paganism is paganism.

27 10 2009
Tom

Back in the day, there were the Godfearers who stayed around the Temple, but never became Jews.

27 10 2009
Rob

-the American aversion to cultural Catholicism-

I wrote, somewhere, that American Catholics are afraid of real Catholicism, of Mexican grandmothers crawling on their knees to the Virgin of Guadalupe, of medieval knights fighting for Jesus, of crazy people dying for the Faith in ancient Rome. I know I recognized it in myself. Even now, though I am repelled by the bland, watered down modernist Catholicism on sale at the corner, I find myself uneasy, though strangely fascinated (said fascination no doubt a product of the pseudo-marxist cultural anthropology I studied in college), with the abuelas on their knees, the fantastic and gory crucifixes I saw in Latin America and on the border.

All of Arturo’s points leave me to wonder about myself, having only the most tenuous link to Catholicism as a culture, coming as I do from the classic Gen-X home with one nominally Catholic parent, divorce, drugs, etc. Perhaps I am in the same sorry situation many Romans, debauched, dissolute and weary of excess, were when they discovered Christ. It would be easy to glorify my situation that way. It doesn’t feel glorious. It feels like I am starving. Maybe the good in cultural Catholicism is the lack of that feeling, the sense of being spiritually well-fed.

Or maybe I am over-analyzing the sh*t out of my life, as is my wont!

27 10 2009
Agostino

An excellent article, indeed. Though it may not have to do with the not-quite-converts in India, I would have to wonder if the American aversion to cultural Catholicism has to do with the fact that it’s contrary to the American cultural mindset. I mean to say, cultural Catholicism (in practically any given culture) is not neat, it’s not tidy, it doesn’t fit into any precise system, and it sure as hell doesn’t focus on “love and light.” Americans, on the other hand, like their religious systems neat and tidy, they like to fit everything into precise little boxes, and they don’t like to do too much thinking about it. If they can’t fit it into their little box, then it’s just plain anathema. Remember your post on things white people don’t like? You can add that to the list.

It’s just like what they’ve done with our food. Every time I’ve gone to a “mexican” restaurant run by white people, it tastes like Taco Bell. Every time I’ve gone to an “italian” restaurant run by white people (a mistake I will never repeat), it tastes like Olive Garden. In both cases, the food is rendered flavorless and reduced only to what the American midwestern palette can handle. By way of analogy, it’s not a far stretch to see how the American Church has intentionally done the same thing to our religion.

26 10 2009
Leah

“[A] “Catholic” offering incense at the shrine of the Guatemalan folk saint, Maximon, is much lower on the totem pole than the eloquent Protestant writer for First Things or Touchstone.”

It seems to me that “cultural Catholicism” in Latin America is an entirely different animal than it is in the United States. In Mexico, it might mean a drug dealer praying to Jesus Malverde as he prepares for his big score. Here, it usually means Nancy Pelosi trying to convince the electorate that she’s a traditional Catholic grandmother even as she accepts money from Planned Parenthood. While both parties are doing wrong, I think the former at least on some level isn’t trying to pretend that he’s operating in a state of grace. The urban American Catholic culture collasped, I think due to lack of interest from the participants. Certainly, Vatican II and overly imaginative clergy and religious didn’t help, but if the comments of famous baby boomer Catholics who grew up in that culture are any indication, there seems to be a great deal of anger, for whatever reason, directed towards the American Church in the 1950s and 60s. Consequently, the culture simply withered away.

As for the rest, I wish I could say that I’m past liturgy, but I still write freakishly long footnoted e-mails to the priest when I notice blatant liturgical abuses. And I like to ambush priests by questioning what the point of Vatican II was. Because I’m just crazy like that.

26 10 2009
Ariston

This was probably the best thing I could have read to help process some experiences of mine over this weekend. Thank you for it.

26 10 2009
Rob

Son of a b****, this blog keeps knocking my socks off. Thanks, Arturo.

-I would retort that I don’t believe in the “new” anything-

I reached a point (I called it despair at the time) some time ago and these words of yours reminded me of it:

I became sick of worrying about the right liturgy and the right method of devotion. I found myself uninterested in a lifeless EWTN approach to the Faith but likewise knew that the ur-Hasidic, born-again-Trad costume I’d been trying to put on wasn’t fitting. Furthermore, I was overwhelmingly aware of my own unworthiness for any liturgy. I finally realized that it was all “new”, all a put-on, that it was all pride. I was just trying to put on “conservative” clothes or “Trad” clothes that weren’t really any more traditional than the “liberal” clothes my pastor or fellow parishioners might wear.

Eventually, I realized that I was simply where God wants me – humbled, desperate and aware of my own illness. I can’t say that I am now a shiny happy Catholic after my umpteenth “cathartic reconversion”. Just aware and too tired to try and put any more clothes on. I suppose I am still too intellectually proud to say something snappy like “I let go and let God”, but that’s probably what I really mean.

Not to say none of it matters to me. Given the opportunity, I go to a TLM. I root for the SSPX and pray for them. I still pray the rosary and light a candle for my Father on his birthday in front of La Virgen de Guadalupe. But now, and hopefully, this time, forever, those things are enough. I don’t want another “new” way of looking at things (I’ve been through the exercises with a Jesuit and have long lamented that I picked the good guys at first but keep waking up in the bad guys’ camp). I am trying to be content now with just a few desperate devotions, some “please God help me” bits while driving my kid to the babysitter, and whatever mass I can make (no matter how painful).

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