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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: Charlie Charlie…I don’t care if you’re there

Charlie     I am currently standing in my dining room, staring at two pencils in the vague shape of a cross (or an X depending on where you are standing) waiting to see if something creepy happens. It’s been 10 minutes…and nothing.

I’m slightly surprised by this. After all, it took a while to get them to balance in the first place, which is interesting considering they are exactly the same length and octagonal. I assumed the flat sides would make this a dab easier, but with the metal and the eraser, there is a definite weight distribution issue and scientific principles being what they are I expected gravity to do its thing and cause something to topple fairly quickly. Yeah, not so much.

My son theorizes that the problem with this experiment may be in the fact that neither pencil is sharpened. He’s also pointed out that they are not sitting atop a piece of loose leaf paper festooned with a lot of yes or no options. However, perhaps the real problem is the fact that I have not called out The Question, guaranteed to get things moving. After all, I’m not that crazy!

For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, I am referring to the “Charlie Charlie Challenge” the latest craze to set social media abuzz since the infamous “dress” debacle a few months ago. “Charlie Charlie” is a game in which participants invoke the name of a supposed ancient Mexican demon and ask him yes or no questions. Rumor has it, if you manage to get him to answer your call, or um…pencils…you may not be able to get rid of him, could become possessed and may have to suffer an unpleasant Catholic ritual known as an exorcism. Lest you think this game is is nothing more than harmless teenage fun, real live exorcists have gone on the record (and gained a dab of publicity for themselves) warning kids not to play it. Naturally this means every kid in America is going to be staring at a couple of pencils this weekend and arguing with their friends over whether or not anyone accidentally jostled the table, blew on it or if that minuscule movement denoted a demonic presence or if it was merely coincidental.

Needless to say that as a professional cynic, I have all kinds of problems with this game starting with its name. How many ancient Mexican demons are named “Charlie” in the first place? I might believe Carlos or some derivation thereof but Charlie? That sounds like a cab driver, someone’s uncle or a lovable bald kid with a really cool dog. I have to say if I were going to come up with a bogus demon, I’m pretty sure I could come up with a better name than Charlie. Still, it’s nice and lyrical, everyone can pronounce it and I seem to be the only person questioning it, so…there ya go. I’m also stymied by his choice of communication tools. Pencils? Seriously? Outside of math, no one uses pencils anymore,  and if he insists on writing instruments, shouldn’t we get to see what a demon’s handwriting looks like? Yeah, I think so too.

Another point of contention is why he is only capable of answering a “yes” or “no” question? I suspect this has something to do with the fact that he can’t write, but come on Chuck, work with me here! If you are a representative of the underworld, I think we are entitled to a bit more, don’t you? If I can’t hear your manifesto on why you think evil trumps good, I really don’t want  you to tell me if I am a girl (yes) or if it is going to rain today (no).

I’m also unsure as to why kids think dialing up a demon is a great use of their time. Wouldn’t praying be more effective? We have about a gazillion patron saints to chat with (and they have proven track records to boot) but I guess good and holy people such as St. Francis, St. Theodora Guerin or even Saint Pope John Paul II lack the seedy forbidden fruit draw of satanic stooges such as…Charlie. Here’s a tip: give as much fervor to your prayers as you do balancing these pencils and staring at them and then let me know which one works out in your favor. I guarantee that in one of those scenarios, if you actually get an answer, you aren’t going to be calling a priest begging him to make it go away!

Look, I am not perfect. I played “Bloody Mary” with my friends when I was little (I never really understood the point of that game either, one of my friends swore that her aunt made contact with Janis Joplin so I was willing to give it a whirl) and at one point I had an Ouija board, but deep down inside, I really don’t believe in a lot of that stuff. No offense to demons, ghosts, spirits or the things that go bump in the night, but I don’t. If they don’t want to believe in me, that’s fine. In fact, I think it’s a fair trade off. However, I also don’t see the big whoop-dee-do about kids gathering around the table to argue about whether or not they made contact with the other side. I’m amazed that in this high tech world, kids will still gather around the most rudimentary of materials in order to give themselves a bit of a fright and oddly enough – it gives me a warm glow to know that the more kids change, the more they stay the same.

Of course if you are going to call on someone from the hereafter, why not Jimi Hendrix, Elvis or Freddie Mercury? My guess is that reaching them will have the same success rate as “Charlie” and your parents won’t freak out as much.


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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: That Certain Undefinable “Something”

Cathbook    I knew I was in trouble the minute that I had to define “faith.” I knew the definition I had learned when I was 11 watching Miracle on 34th Street, “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” but somehow I knew that wouldn’t fly as it pertained to the Catholic Church.

Two days ago my latest book, The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism was published and as I celebrate this accomplishment, I have had several people ask me some of my thoughts on the writing of it now that some time has passed. As I have said before – and will repeat time and time again – the fact that I was even asked to do this is proof positive that God has a sense of humor. After all, I was the one with all the questions…who was I to start offering answers?

One of the things that surprised me the most in writing this book was how little I felt I DID know…even the definitions that I had memorized fell apart under scrutiny leading me to wonder more that I care to admit if some of the things I professed to believe were nothing more than a game with words. Think I am kidding? Try defining “sacrament.” Go ahead…I’ll wait…

Chances are, you learned some variation of the same definition that I did: “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inner grace.” Wonderful, but what does it mean and how do you explain it to someone brand new to the Church if you aren’t even sure you understand it yourself? I don’t mind telling you that I  spent hours trying to pick that one apart until I felt like a dog chasing its own tail and finally called a former religion teacher to try and get her to explain it to me in plain and simple terms. “If you know of a way to do that, you tell me!” She retorted. (Somehow I wasn’t comforted.)

We eventually figured it out, and the explanation is in the book, but it wasn’t easy. Neither was writing a brief history of God. Although He  has quite an impressive list of accomplishments to his credit, God’s actual biography is more than a  little hard to track down. Don’t even get me started on that kid of His. FOUR men tried to put the life and works of Jesus in to writing  and could only agree on two things: that He was baptized by John the Baptist and was ultimately crucified by Pontius Pilate. (Yes, there are other similarities within the Gospels but I am focusing on what all four attest to.) As for the Holy Spirit…well, I admitted that this part is the hardest to grasp and offered a less-than-helpful anecdote involving St. Patrick and the shamrock. Beyond that, you’re on your own.

Heaven, Hell and all that might be in between were another fun section I battled with. While I understand the concept of Purgatory, I am one of those weird Catholics that is not sure she believes in it. (But I’ll save that saga for another post.) As for the process by which someone enters these various locations…there seem to be a lot of loopholes. I was told as a child that good people, of course, go to Heaven while bad people went to Hell. It seemed pretty cut and dry to me early on but then the questions started. Why do you have to be Baptized to go to Heaven? What if you were a baby who just died suddenly? Well of course God would look out for them. What about a mentally disturbed person who killed someone but didn’t go to confession? Would God have mercy on them? What about all of the countless stupid-but-not-too-awful things I did throughout my life? Did reconciliation really wipe those away or am I going to have to answer to a highlight reel of all my shortcomings on Judgement Day? What about Hitler? What happened to him? (This is the go-to bad guy most of us assume didn’t make the cut for Heaven and who we assume we have a better chance than for admittance.)

My point is that writing this book was HARD! Harder than anything I have ever done in my whole life. Like it or not I was forced to confront all of my cynicism, make peace with it and find a way to take everything I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain and….somehow find a way.

There were subjects I wanted to tackle, like saints and Mary, for example. I never understood what is so hard to grasp about all of that, but it is a sticking spot for some people and I really wanted to try and make sense of it all. After all, my father was Baptist, and while I am sure that he had his reservations about it, he never told me that I was wrong or that I was worshipping false idols. I really tried to step out of my comfort zone on that chapter and look at the whole thing from another point of view. Maybe if I wasn’t Catholic it would look weird to see a guy who was alive only a decade ago canonized on live TV and revered by billions of people as if he were something other than human.

But there were also subjects I wanted to avoid like the plague…one in particular that I kept successfully dodging until I could not sidestep it any longer. For weeks I felt like a slime ball for not facing it head on and at one point I wondered if I might take the cowards way out and eliminate it completely. I don’t mind telling you, if I had…it would have been my biggest regret. However, one morning last spring the perfect opportunity presented itself and thanks to one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen, God showed me how I could be “Both” true to the Church, “And” true to all that I believed in.

That’s the only hint you are getting…read the book and you’ll figure it out.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism is available wherever books are sold including:




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Buy It, Borrow It or Bag It: The Shepherds of Fatima by M. Fernado Silva

The shepherds of Fatima         This is the story of the three shepherd children who were visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary near Fatima, Portugal in 1917. Ever since I was a young girl and had to study this story for religion class, I have been fascinated by it. Imagine, the mother of God coming to talk to you and performing a miracle that 70,000 people witnessed!
Assuming you have never heard of this, the basic version of the story is this: One day while tending the flocks, three children are visited by a beautiful woman who asks them to come back to this spot in the 13th day of each month. She says that if they do this, in October, she will tell them who she is and what she wants from them. Being good children (and suspecting that it is Mary who has made an appearance) the kids tell their family about the experience. They are met with skepticism, but as the months go on, they draw quite a crowd of the curious who ascend the mountains to watch the children go into a trance-like state as they talk to someone who no one else can see. Eventually, the local officials get involved and they lock the children up so that they can’t meet with Mary on the appointed day. When they are released, Mary meets them on the road and promises that in October, she will perform a miracle so that everyone will believe in the kids.
On a rainy October 13, the kids go to the appointed place (along with 70,000 onlookers) and the woman confirms that she is in fact the mother of Jesus…then something strange happened. According to newspaper reports, the clouds parted and the sun “danced” in the sky. People said it looked as though it spun around and then fell to earth before returning to its place in the heavens. The ground was immediately dried and there was no evidence of strange meteorological activity that day anywhere else in the world. Mary also told the children certain prophecies (one of which was kept secret until the pontificate of Pope Saint John Paul II) and made them promise to pray the rosary every day. Two of the children died within a few years of this event.
This book is the story behind the miracles. It uses material from Sr. Lucia’s writings (she was the only shepherd child to survive) and weaves together a novel-like narrative to tell this amazing story, some of which I believe and some of which I find suspicious. Over time, I can’t help wondering if some memories were embellished or if a bishop encouraged such embellishments to add drama and flair, but I really don’t know. I will say that this book was well-written and even though it is more spiritual in nature, I had no trouble reading it and getting a lot out of it. Worth the price. Buy It if you are into this sort of thing. Bag It if you aren’t.

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