Friday, May 25, 2018

Do Legends detract from the Faith?

For we have not by following artificial fables, made known to you the power, and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ; but we were eyewitnesses of his greatness.” (2 Peter 1:16)
We received an icon of Saint Catherine of Alexandria as a gift a couple years ago. She hung in our son’s bedroom, out of sight and out of mind, until we moved and I placed her in our kitchen. Having her as a constant companion throughout my day made me curious to know more about her. And her story is extraordinary.

As a young Christian girl in Egypt during the 4th century, she confronted the Roman Emperor Maximinus II because of his violent persecution of Christians. Debating and ultimately converting some of his scholars only served to further anger the emperor, who sentenced the insolent and eloquent Catherine to death. But at her touch, the wheel she was condemned to die on was destroyed. She was ultimately beheaded, and her body was transported to Mount Sinai by angels—a Catholic saint if ever there was one. 

But then I read the boiler plate.

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Santa Caterina di Alessandria, Barbara Longhi

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How can the Church, founded by a celibate God-Man, be an expert on marriage and motherhood?

As a Protestant, I thought it was funny and slightly idiotic that unmarried men were supposed to have anything worthwhile to say about motherhood, marriage, and family life. What could a priest possibly say to a struggling married couple? To an exhausted mother? How could he ever relate?

But the vocation of marriage and motherhood—especially for those of us from broken homes—brings out a deep desire for wisdom and encouragement, for others who can relate to the sacrifices demanded of such blessings. As a convert, this need becomes an imperative: there is little support for lifelong marriage and openness to life outside the Faith. And so we turn to the Church for these goods things—and the Church, as it happens, is lead by men.

How is it that a universal religion founded by an unmarried Man and governed by popes and priests who are neither married nor have have any children of their own can speak directly to the heart of a wife and mother? How can a homily from a 69-year-old cardinal resonate so much with a woman in her last trimester? Likewise, there are many female religious whose wisdom applies to mothers—even though they have never experienced the aches of pregnancy, the sleepless nights, the endless bickering.

This is one of those divine paradoxes which point to the truth of the Catholic Faith.

After all, even the Blessed Virgin Mary had only one child (who was perfect), and Jesus Himself was never a husband or father in his earthly life.

Yet these are the sources of our inspiration in the midst of dirty pots and pans. And they do inspire, they do speak to wives and mothers in all circumstances: those desiring children, those who are pregnant, those overwhelmed by the demands of children, etc. Perhaps that is because, despite all our suffering, we share a common bond of fidelity and utter dependence upon God and the teachings of Jesus. All of us both young and old, male and female, priest and religious, clergy and laity, pope and pauper—all of us have crosses, and expect them, in our different vocations. No matter how varied the challenges are, and how different they look from the outside, we share the commonness of the Cross.

That’s how it’s possible for a pregnant mother in the year 2017 to glean parenting tidbits from the Rule of Saint Benedict, written for monks in the sixth century. And why we can relate to saints who lived and died a millennium ago and never experienced the challenges of modern life. It explains how people all over the world, from all walks of life and from every culture, can kneel before a crucifix and know that the Lord intimately understands their struggles.

As for me, this pregnancy has come with a larger than normal dose of pain. On an especially difficult day, a friend lent me a book of letters written by the first married couple ever to be canonized: Louis and Zelie Martin. The latters words on motherhood and marriage offered much that I could relate with; and her graceful endurance of pregnancy, loss, and cancer, much to aspire to. But this saintly wife and mother has not resonated with me as much as another saint—a man who was neither husband nor father: Pope Saint John Paul II.

I had not desired conversion until well after he died, so I never grew up with this Pope like so many other people my age. Before I ever considered converting, however, my husband gave me his Letter to Families. At the time it seemed to me the only redeeming thing about the Catholic Church—namely, the unparalleled appreciation and support of family life, which was lacking in the church I grew up in. So it is fitting that I find myself drawn to this saint as I await the birth of my third child. 

There are many images of him, but the picture that always comes to mind is of him in his eighties, suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Despite the obvious pain, he is on his knees before God. So I find myself, as a stay-at-home married mother now pregnant with her third child, feeling a connection to this Polish man who never had his own children. But when my body doesn’t seem to work, when I am feeling sorry for myself, frustrated, and impatient, when it feels too hard—I think of him on his knees.

To all those outside the one Church of Christ, it may seem odd to seek and find wisdom and encouragement from people who really shouldn’t “get it.” How could they? But this is one of the great surprises and blessings of the Faith: that the goodness and truth professed and witnessed by the Church are powerful enough to bring together the most unlikely sources of comfort, joy, and camaraderie—to unite even the childless Polish saint and the struggling pregnant mother—through the Cross of Christ.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

The reality of spiritual adoption

At the African orphanage where I worked, children received photo albums from their new families early in the process. They got a snapshot of what their life would be like when the adoption was finalized, a first glimpse of adoptive parents, siblings, homes, and bedrooms. And while it might seem that an orphan growing up in Ethiopia would be thrilled by your average American home with central heating, consistent electricity, and clean, running water, the children often had a different opinion.

After all, the United States represented a promised land for them. They had lots of ideas about what such a mythical place would be like, and what their new life would look like. 

I remember one eight-year-old boy flipping through his photo album with a look of confusion on his face. He looked up at me and asked, “They dont have a pool? Wheres the pool?” Another child was shocked to realize that he would be sharing a room with a new sibling, thinking his orphanage bunk bed would be a thing of the past. 

Somehow I doubt this was the reaction the adoptive parents were expecting. 

As a convert, I remember all too well that feeling of falling in love with the Church, crossing the Tiber, coming home to Rome, and all of that. Saint Peters seemed that much more grand, as did the music and art and writings that came from the Catholic tradition—all now part of my inheritance. Though I had been baptized as an infant in the Lutheran church, conversion was a true homecoming. 

I had all the expectations of those adopted children. In many ways I felt like an orphan for some time, longing for and needing instruction, guidance, and boundaries, and Holy Mother Church provided all those things. But just like those children lamenting the absence of the in-ground swimming pool, there was a sense of disillusionment.

Being a faithful Catholic is hard. Being a convert is hard. 

The other day my own children, ages two and four, were marching around the living room, holding pretend swords in the shape of a cross, and chanting, “Its a Cross, its a Cross.” And that applies to so much of life. Whatever “it” might be—adoption, conversion—it is a blessing, certainly, but it also comes with a Cross. 

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:15-17).

Conversion was an incredible blessing, the greatest blessing, for my husband, myself, and our family. But it demands much of us, and the challenges are different than those we imagined during the conversion process. I remember how nervous I was to admit to family and friends that I was converting. I agonized over it. But that was over in a day, and the spiritual work, the hard road, was just beginning.

For all truly spiritual things are produced by the grace of the Holy Spirit; and this grace descends only on those, who have crucified themselves in sufferings and voluntary privations, without any self-pity, and have thus become united with our Lord and Savior, crucified for their sakes. —Lorenzo Scupoli, Unseen Warfare: The Spiritual Combat
Not quite the vision I had of my new life in the Church—one which involved meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary in flickering candlelight with a side of Gregorian chant.

I, too, had expected a swimming pool.

Adoptive parents are often surprised to find their children less grateful and thankful than they had expected. Yet our heavenly Father, who knows all our faults and weaknesses, still desires us to be His sons and daughters through spiritual adoption—despite our lack of faith, trust, and love. He sacrificed his only and perfect Son for the likes of us, and promises us joy beyond compare if only we pick up our Cross and follow Him. Only then will we receive our reward and find our true home, entering into the room prepared for us in our Fathers heavenly mansion.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter (1481-82), Pietro Perugino

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Monday, July 3, 2017

Longing for the freedom found inside the home

I was 38 weeks pregnant and our entire department was being forced to watch a comedy sketch involving Twinkies. Suddenly actual Twinkies were being thrown at us, bouncing off cubicle walls, and I longed for the home, the baby, and the domestic realm—enough of team-building exercises and staff pep talks. That freedom G.K. Chesterton wrote about sounded like a promised land to me:

I would give a woman not more rights, but more privileges. Instead of sending her to seek such freedom as notoriously prevails in banks and factories, I would design specially a house in which she can be free. — G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong World
The very next day, I went into labor.

I became a mother and quit my job. And somewhere between the elation of giving birth and the first weeks at home with a newborn, I thought of Chesterton’s words again. Only this time I was pretty sure prisoners had more freedom than mothers. They got more sleep. They didn’t have to cook meals one-handed, and they had the privilege of eating their food warm. They had time to read.

I have now been “free” for four years. Would it be more freeing to catch a bus downtown and work in an office all day? In many ways it would. There wouldn’t be the unrelenting questions, the diapers, the discipline that begins when I am woken up by a child and ends when they finally fall asleep. I could leave at the end of the day—just walk right out the door. I could even quit. There would be weekends.

I have worked jobs that I thoroughly enjoyed, jobs where I felt I was making a difference. But motherhood has changed me.

When I worked in an Ethiopian orphanage, that choice was lauded by strangers, friends, and coworkers as an incredible sacrifice. But nothing could have made me happier than boarding a plane to Africa with a one-way ticket. To me that was freedom.

I am not always thrilled with the freedom inside the home. There’s always running water and electricity, but patience and fortitude run out regularly. Expectations are high, failure happens on a daily basis, and some days real freedom comes only with the end of the day, a prayer that tomorrow will be better, and falling asleep.

Mother and child, Emil Österman, 1910.

As a mother, I’m no longer pelted with Twinkies, but regularly deflect blocks and stuffed animals. Pep talks are more nuanced, even brilliant, as they occur, not under the fluorescent lights of an office building, but during Mass and concern the soul and the love of God—not the almighty dollar. The stakes are higher, for they have an eternal dimension for myself, my husband, and our children. This is not a job; it is a vocation.

I am free—to love in abundance and sacrifice for the least of these: the unborn child in the womb and the crying ones in my arms. On any given day (sometimes hourly), there is another opportunity to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, counsel the doubtful, and admonish the sinner—days, nights, and years spent practicing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the means of grace. There is certainly abundant freedom, but it is less freedom from something and more freedom to do something and to become some one who is willing to serve and sacrifice, joyfully and abundantly, for another.

Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me. —Saint Ignatius of Loyola

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The ministry in matrimony and the destruction of divorce

Our culture tends to take one of two opposing views on marriage. One is that “happily ever after” is yours so long as you find the right person. The other is that once you say the words “I do” your freedom is gone forever and your life is over (at least until a judge determines otherwise).

But the sacrament of marriage, rightly understood, is a ministry, a service, the lifelong advancement of two souls striving to sanctify themselves, one another, and the children that may come of their union. With the ceremony comes a vocation in mission, as well as a cross.

Jesus’ ministry began similarly: it was at the wedding feast that he performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. And so his earthly ministry began, as did his path to the Cross.

Saint Bernard Church, Burkettsville, OH — Wedding at Cana, detail

Marriage is hard, but the sacred institution is meant for our good and the good of our children, the Church, and society.

There is a saying, “blood is thicker than water,” and yet the closest, most intimate relationship on earth is that between a man and a woman who share not an ounce of the same blood, but are sacramentally united. And from this union God brings forth new life, with all the joys and responsibilities and burdens that come with raising children.

It is the sacred duty of parents to provide not only for their children’s physical needs, but their spiritual and emotional growth as well. And children are very willing to be tiny disciples, looking to their parents with trust and love, asking endless questions, and studying their every word and deed, what is “caught” and what is taught.

As adopted sons and daughters of God, we are told to be like children in the faith, trusting that our Father knows what we need (Matt. 6:8). We are to rely on God and place our trust in Him. The Gospel of Luke asks us: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-13). Like a good earthly father, our Heavenly Father always desires our good and acts accordingly.

Yet how many children and adults have had that faith, trust, and reliance in their earthly father and mother shattered through divorce?

It was the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage that brought my husband to the Catholic faith. And it was his conviction that ultimately brought me to the Church years later. It’s a common draw for children of divorce: the Church as Mother, God as Father, the emphasis on the priest as “Father” and the Blessed Virgin Mary as mother to us all. For me, this was an unexpected gift received with conversion: the restoration of family and the importance of family.

There is so much confusion and heartbreak in our culture today that divorce seems an almost quaint problem. But that is not so for the children of divorce, no matter how much time has passed. Time does not heal all wounds; many of them change and morph over time. This brokenness becomes more apparent with time as parents age, remarry, re-divorce, and grandchildren enter the picture.

There is no easy ministry, no simple mission, and no vocation that comes without crosses. There is no shortcut to that 50th wedding anniversary. Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

But reading the book Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak by Leila Miller, provides ample evidence that despite the circumstances, the effects of divorce on children are remarkably similar. The seventy anonymous authors write of a common and shared pain. As Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted wrote: “Primal Loss records for us the actual pain of those most wounded by divorce—children. This makes it countercultural in the best of ways. Some suffering today is not allowed to be called suffering. It is not politically correct to say that children suffer greatly from the divorce of their parents.”

While the breakdown of the family, and its effects, become more apparent with each passing day, the faithful search for answers. And an intact marriage, with a loving mother and father, is a deep desire of both children and adults—which makes sense, because this union mirrors the love of Christ for the Church. There is great hope in those spouses who have embraced the ministry of marriage and remain committed to raising their children together for the glory of God our Father and Holy Mother Church—despite the crosses that inevitably come their way.

There is no greater force against evil in the world than the love of a man and woman in marriage. —Cardinal Raymond Burke

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Monday, May 22, 2017

A joyful pregnancy announcement in a culture that doesn't approve

I didn’t expect the same level of excitement after announcing this pregnancy. After all, we had an ample dose of the cultural and medical perspective with the birth of our second child: You have a healthy girl and boy, you can be done now. Your family is “complete.”

But we have always been open to new life, have prayed for more children, and are thrilled that God has blessed us with another pregnancy. 

In the paperwork I was given at the doctor’s office, the questions included what my gender identity is and whether the baby’s father has had sex with men in the last six months. I got to choose whether this pregnancy was planned or not, whether I was thinking of ending it, and how happy I was about it. The more I read, the more apparent it became that all our “freedoms” lead to incredibly hard lives.

Several responses from non-Catholic friends and family to my pregnancy indicated a level of concern: pregnancy is hard. Another baby would be difficult for me. Children grow up to become tyrannical teenagers and expensive young adults. How would we pay for braces? Weddings? College?

Certainly getting pregnant, staying pregnant, being pregnant, and raising a child can all be very challenging. But I don’t have to doubt whether this is right. At the moment I can feel exhausted, impatient, and frustrated, wondering if I can make it to that five o’clock hour when my husband comes home. But when I zoom out, and consider the grand eternal perspective—God’s perspective, the Church’s teachings, and the wisdom of the Saints—I see only the gift of new life. 

People are fond of saying, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I spent more time at the office.’” Well, that’s how I feel about having more children. At the moment, there may be pregnancy pains, a botched dinner, and Light Brites all over the floor—but it is just that: a passing moment. I won’t be on my deathbed saying, “I wish the house had been more quiet. And that I’d gotten more sleep. We were all sleeping so well before the third baby came.” 

No matter how hard the days may be, if I stop to imagine three children in their pajamas, jumping on my bed, it’s hard to believe we are being blessed with another child—its that wonderful.

So while my vocation, which consists of pregnancies, child-rearing, and mothering, is seen as a cross (or an ongoing stupid choice) by many, I am concerned for the women in the doctor’s office tackling questions about drug use, sexual habits, previous abortions, and whether the staff can leave messages on their phones.

Motherhood may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I don’t doubt that this is good for me, good for my family, and part of God’s plan for my sanctification.

But people generally don’t like God’s plans, and most, it seems, are in open rebellion against them. Maybe that’s why this third baby has elicited responses ranging from the succinct: Wow, three kids,” to what I call the elephant in the womb, in which we’re just not going to talk about it. But despite the naysayers, whether express or implied, we’re grateful, excited, and so blessed to have God, the Church, and a whole host of Catholic brothers and sisters rejoicing right along with us.

Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God, the angels, and the saints—they are your public. —Saint John Vianney
What we love we shall grow to resemble. —Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. —Jesus Christ (Matthew 18:3)
Sleeping Newborn Infant, By Andrés Nieto Porras

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Monday, May 1, 2017

God gives us the means to protect ourselves

My daughter asked why lions don’t eat giraffes. I explained that giraffes have long, powerful legs and hooves the size of dinner plates to protect them from hungry lions. When she asked the inevitable “Why?” I told her that God gives each animal some way to protect itself.

And then I realized the same is true of us, only more so: Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? (Matt. 6:26)

My children are obsessed with battling evil. They pretend to put on greaves, use empty toilet paper rolls as oliphants, and shoot string and Styrofoam “rainbows” (bow and arrows) at the bad guys. They prepare themselves for these battles, confident in their ability to defeat the enemy.

I am more inclined to play dead like the possum. The world often feels very hostile. It’s easy to forget that God has provided the means to guard our hearts and minds and souls—that we, as Catholics, are uniquely equipped to deal with the cultural onslaught facing us today.

Though I’m sure the giraffe never sees a lurking lion and forgets his powerful legs and hooves, I often lack spiritual instincts. And what could be more simple than calling on the name Jesus?

To pray Jesus is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies. Jesus is the Risen One, and whoever invokes the name of Jesus is welcoming the Son of God who loved him and who gave himself up for him (CCC 2666).

Saint Michael Vanquishing Satan, Raphael, 1518

There are also our Guardian Angels, always present. Even though I say this prayer every day, as part of our bedtime routine, I forget that I have one too. We’re all familiar with the pictures of the angel helping the children cross the bridge, but every one of us (no matter how old) has an angel who can guard us from evils. Otherwise, why would our Heavenly Father have given one to each of us?

From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God (CCC 336).

Then there is the most unlikely of spiritual weapons. Refreshing, cleansing, abundant: holy water. When we had our home blessed by priests, the visit left quite an impression on our children. They eagerly dip their fingers into holy water at our parish and in our home, blessing themselves, each other, and us. The two-year-old will find a cup of water and start “blessing everything from bananas to laundry to the fireplace, singing, A-meeeeen.

I have found by experience that there is nothing from which the devils fly more quickly than from holy water. They also fly from the cross, but they return almost immediately. Certainly, the power of holy water must be great; for my part, my soul feels particular comfort in taking it, and very generally a refreshment and interior delight which I cannot express. —Saint Theresa of Avila

We also have at our disposal, on the family altar, hanging from the rear-view mirror, and in our kitchen, the spiritual sword given by the Queen of Heaven: the Holy Rosary. Again there is the contradiction and beauty of the faith: the meek and humble Virgin, blessing us with the mighty weapon of the rosary. She has promised to those who pray this prayer Her protection and graces, as Our Advocate and Mother. As Pope Blessed Pius IX said: “Give me an army saying the Rosary and I will conquer the world.”

And there is that most Catholic of gestures: the sign of the Cross. I still remember that moment when I first dipped my finger in holy water and made the sign of the Cross, thinking, Now I’m Catholic.” And it is something our children began to do very early because they see us do it everyday, everywhere. We cross ourselves entering a church, after communion, during the liturgy, exiting a church, driving past a church, hearing a siren, and driving past a cemetery. Saint John Vianney wrote, He, who when tempted, makes the sign of the Cross with devotion, makes hell tremble and heaven rejoice.

Mark all your actions with the sign of the life giving Cross. Do not go out from the door of your house till you have signed yourself with the Cross. Do not neglect that sign whether in eating or drinking or going to sleep, or in the home or going on a journey. There is no habit to be compared with it. Let it be a protecting wall round all your conduct, and teach it to your children that they may earnestly learn the custom. —St. Ephrem of Syria

And we have the word of God, which the writer of Hebrews calls alive and active, sharper than a two-edged sword. It is in the Scriptures that we find even more reassurance of God’s protection. In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul assures us of the extent of our divine protection, against which no enemy can possibly triumph, as long as we remain humble:

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:14-18).

While there is ample reason to feel assaulted by the culture, the Enemy makes us forget the overwhelming love of a Father for his Children. Just as the sparrow, the giraffe, and every one of God’s creatures has been given the means to protect themselves from the predator and certain death, we too have been given the means to preserve our souls from the evil surrounding us, to look with hope and joy to the promise of Eternal Life. The battle is ours. The light overcomes the darkness. The gates of hell will not prevail. How could it, when confronted with the supernatural protections offered through the one true Faith?

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