Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Motherhood: a glaring reminder of the greatness of God’s mercy

You know when your toddler falls off the couch the exact way you warned her about forty-three times. And you say, “I told you not to do that. That’s what happens when you dont listen.” But they have barely stopped crying, clutching their rug-burned knee, before they attempt to do it again?

Its like looking into a mirror, having children. And not a dimly lit one, but a highly polished mirror surrounded by garish, buzzing, neon lights.

Children delight in things that are bad for them—eating bugs, assaulting their friends, escaping the horror of apologizing. Sometimes they only learn when they get exactly what they want. And even then, more times than not, they dust themselves off and get right back to it.

Im exactly like that.

In disciplining my three-year-old, these words come out of my mouth: “How many times have I told you? That is not how we treat your brother.” And within the hour, Ive said something unkind to their father because I was frustrated and didn’t get my way. When they get upset because their sibling has something they want I tell them, “Don’t worry about them, just worry about yourself,” and then find myself coveting my neighbor’s home. Its hard being this on top of my spiritual game.

And its not just the gaping inconsistencies on a daily basis, the “do what I say, not what I do,” that I find myself tripping over. I also find myself thinking about my confessions.

Whenever I’m pointing out that my daughter has done this exact thing one thousand times, and every single time it is wrong, it has been wrong, it will be wrong, it is not acceptable—I realize that Im usually confessing recurring sins, beating a horse that should be long dead.

I know they are children, and I’m an adult, and were at different stages in our spiritual development. But “let the little children come to me” feels more personal since having my own children.

I see myself in them—the willful, wrong, and stubborn child of God that I am. There’s a reason God is our Father, and the Virgin Mary is our Mother. Adults still need authority, discipline, and guidance.

My children are not yet at the age of reason, so they arent as culpable as I am. But my inward reaction to the Cross is eerily similar to their outward reaction. I just have enough awareness of social cues to avoid jumping up and down, flapping my arms, shouting, “I don't want to!” before thrashing about on the floor when faced with some unpleasantness. But on the inside that pretty much sums up my reaction. Maybe thats why toddler tantrums are so appalling—we see what open rebellion looks like, and it’s not pretty.

I’m told its beneficial to have a regular confessor who knows your struggles, and has walked a ways down the spiritual road with you. But then you find yourself saying, “Here I am, with the same tired list of sins, the same faults, here for yet another confession.” And that is extremely humbling. To be there once again, asking for forgiveness, and yet again, promising to do better. Is it really so different, my own gluttony and my daughter saying, “Mama, bugs taste icky, don’t they?”

Yet no priest has ever heard my confession and said, “Are you serious? Ive told you one thousand times not to do that!” Despite the fact that he has repeatedly talked to me about this exact issue. And that I have actually heard the same admonition in homilies and scripture readings throughout my life. The reality is that I have, in fact, been told a thousand times. Yet Im still forgiven and given another chance to choose the good: to be happy for my neighbor and kind to my husband—to choose not to eat another bug.

For His mercy endures forever.

Image: Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

More than just a bedtime story: great literature for children

I have always loved books. The way they smell, the whisper of a page turned in the early morning, settling in with a book in the quiet moments before bed. There is nothing better to me than a good book. When I traveled with just a backpack I always made room for a novel. Those stories read on the road are now magically connected to the countries where they were read: Moby Dick reminds me of aggressive monkeys and spiced tea in India; The Brothers Karamazov recalls the stifling heat and juicy mangoes in Guatemala.

Growing up, my mother read to us before bed, everything from children’s books to The Call of the Wild and Anne of Green Gables. Every day ended this way, and we always begged for one more chapter. Now that I’m reading to my children, I’m delighted to see that they love The Pokey Little Puppy, just like I did. And surprised to find that Gideon placing his wool on the ground and asking God for a sign resonates with my three-year-old.

Tolstoy said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” The Bible is great literature. It is the story of God become man one night in Bethlehem, and of his dying and rising and promising to come once again. And it is also about all of us, about the journey each man makes toward an eternal home.

I have probably read the story of Moses to my daughter hundreds of times, and she doesn’t tire of it. It doesn’t rhyme. There are no furry animals, chocolate chip cookies, or flaps revealing cute pictures. But there is a princess, a baby, a journey. It is a phenomenal story.

It is remarkable that any book intrigues and satisfies scholars and toddlers alike. That these little bodies with so much energy will sit perfectly still to hear Bible stories. But sit they do—asking to read about Benjamin and the silver cup one more time. Wanting to hear about the Annunciation again and again. Wondering why mean people are mean, and understanding perfectly why the Egyptian princess adopted the baby. 

These words and stories have captured my toddler’s imagination. She plays “Mary Time,” during which she journeys with Joseph to Bethlehem atop a stuffed animal and gives birth to Jesus. She begs her father to be Zachariah during “Elizabeth Time,” and rejoices when John (depicted by her lion beanie baby) is born into the world. She wears the fitted sheet from the bed to look like the Blessed Virgin and wants to change her brother’s name to “John-Baby” in honor of John the Baptist.

Seeing her reenact these stories and connect them to her life reminds me of a project I did in high school called “Literature to Life.” For a whole year we filled a binder with things encountered outside the classroom that related to, reminded us of, or mentioned, literature we read in class. That year I painted my bedroom a shade called “Walden Pond.” I still find myself drawing parallels between great books and real life.

My hope is that my children will do the same with the Bible stories we read morning, noon, and night. That their journey through childhood will bring back memories of the parting of the Red Sea and the visit from the Magi. That they will maintain their delight in new life, and remember that God works all things for His good. Because the book they are obsessed with is literally the literature of life—a lamp for their feet, a light on their path—to help them navigate this world and the next.

It has the power to transform their lives.

Painting: The Bedtime Story (1910) Felix Schlesinger

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mass on vacation—you never know what you’re going to get

We recently took a family vacation to a small Midwest town with only one Catholic church. We would be there for two weekends, so we knew we would be hearing Mass—and that non-Catholic family might be coming with us.

That first Sunday morning we pulled into a packed parking lot. There was a statue of the Blessed Virgin on the pathway to the church and a sign pointing to the Adoration Chapel. Entering the church, the sanctuary was filled with stained glass windows depicting saints, and there was a large crucifix above the altar. There were also statues flanked by candles, holy water fonts, well-worn kneelers in the pews—in short, all the Catholic stuff. And the church building itself wasn’t half bad to look at, either.

But things took a decided turn as soon as the liturgy began.

The music was trite at best, with a random flutist piping up occasionally from the balcony. I found myself distracted by the Eucharistic minister wearing a strapless sundress, and the deacon who popped the consecrated Host into his mouth and chomped on it like a tortilla chip while he shared a chuckle with the priest. There was a lot of clapping, hands in the air, and a mass exodus following communion. Our Protestant guest described it well: “That was...noisy.”

Indeed it was. And nothing like our parish back home, which family has also visited.

One parish feels like church camp for ten-year-olds, complete with guitars, clapping, and catchy pop songs. Another is imbued with solemnity, silence, and a line out the door for confession.

It’s hard to reconcile as a Catholic, and even more challenging to explain to a Protestant.

Put simply, it's frustrating. It’s always nice to have some idea what you’re in for. You return to a restaurant because the food is great. You are loyal to a brand because of the quality of their products. You pull out your great-grandmother’s apple pie recipe every Thanksgiving because it’s familiar, fantastic, and reminds you of holidays growing up. There are no surprises: there is comfort in a lack of surprise, in tradition.

Like that passed-down family recipe, I find myself craving some continuity between parishes. Because while parishes might look different, and Mass might be said in a different language, the solemnity and reverence for the divine should remain. Instead one is left with the odd feeling that maybe he or she has entered the wrong building. It did say “Catholic” on the sign outside, right?

Because if it is a Catholic church, then there is the sacrifice of the Mass: and there is the Real Presence. The Curé of Ars said, “All the good works in the world are not equal to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men; but the Mass is the work of God. Martyrdom is nothing in comparison for it is but the sacrifice
of man to God; but the Mass is the sacrifice of God for man.”

If we believe this awesome reality, there should be a corresponding gravitas to the Mass—any Mass, no matter where we are. We should not be forced to explain striking dissimilarities between parishes that are different in every respect—indeed, in their degree of respect. Because the noise, the immodesty, the smartphones, the banter at the altar, are all a diversion and distraction from the glory due to God. And they proclaim loud and clear that we don't actually believe in the Real Presence.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “In a world where there is so much noise, so much bewilderment, there is a need for silent adoration of Jesus concealed in the Host. Be assiduous in the prayer of adoration and teach it to the faithful. It is a source of comfort and light, particularly to those who are suffering.”

And which of us is not suffering in the midst of noise, in need of comfort and light?

The Mass of St. Gregory by Adriaen Isenbrandt (first half of 16th century)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Frustration, vocation, and family life

I’m kneeling in the confessional, admitting my failure to accept certain trying family relationships. I’m frustrated, resentful, and fed-up. I’m having a hard time—an ongoing hard time. But the priest reminds me that marriage is a vocation. And vocations are meant to make us more holy. In other words, we can expect to be tested.

Had I chosen the consecrated life, my Mother Superior might have given me work I was unsuited for and didn’t enjoy. Then, in addition to struggling with my assigned task, I would have to watch someone botch the job I could have done well. She would purposely frustrate me.

A light bulb blinked on above my head.

Deep down, I’d held onto the idea that only consecrated religious “signed up” for holiness. That in choosing the married life and children, I got a bit of a pass. Sure, it might be hard, but the bad parts just required some discipline and diligence. Besides, my husband would be right there with me. But married life is more than a choice; it is a vocation—and it is also chock-full of difficulties.

My confessor told me that nothing confounds the devil as much as embracing our Crosses. That I should be thanking God, truly and genuinely, for my Crosses, with all there dashed hopes and failed expectations. It sounded impossible in the confessional, and it still does.

Because no one longs for difficult relationships. My husband and I share our faith, goals, and vision for our family. Conflicts are usually small, petty, and quickly resolved. The same is true of my friendships. We share beliefs, dreams, and struggles; our interactions are encouraging.

But not all relationships are chosen, and they do not all come easily, or make us happy. Everyone we are in contact with is not going to be a positive role model who inspires us. It’s tempting to think that all our relationships should build us up—that the good priest, confessor, spouse, friends, and family will make us both happier and holier.

After all, Church history is filled with pairs of saints: St. Clare and St. Francis, St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. The Blessed Virgin Mary had St. Joseph, Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin. It’s easy to assume that camaraderie made their holiness more attainable, the same way we believe finding the one will guarantee that we live happily ever after.

But that’s not necessarily true.

In God’s plan beauty is born of hardship, faith is tested by frustration, and all things work for the good of those who love him. In other words, it can be just these difficult relationships that sanctify us. Saint Monica’s husband Patritius was pagan, violent, and short-tempered. But her dedication to this unhappy marriage resulted in conversion for Patritius and sainthood for Monica and their son, Augustine—the fruits of frustration born in love.

Yet we all desire the less rocky path to holiness. Maybe that’s why more young people don’t get married, have kids, or want more than one or two children. Because relationships are tough, and it’s tempting to avoid difficulty. But I’m told we should do the opposite: consider the gnashing and weeping three-year-old our spiritual director; the holiday gathering a spiritual exercise in humility and sacrifice.

Because both encouraging relationships and difficult ones are beneficial to our spiritual growth. Indeed, what need would there be for the guidance and wisdom of saints, priests, and confessors if our God-given vocations were free of conflict?

God expressed this in The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Sienna:
You cannot arrive at virtue except through knowing yourself and knowing me. And this knowledge is more perfectly gained in time of temptation, because then you know that your are nothing, since you have no power to relieve yourself of the sufferings and troubles you would like to escape....for the devil is weak and can do nothing of himself, but only as I permit him. And I give him leave not through hatred but through love, not so that you may be conquered but that you may conquer and come to perfect knowledge of yourself and of me, and to prove your virtue—for virtue can only be tested by its opposite.
Photo: Large family group portrait at Cairns, 1886. Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Even the small struggles serve the Kingdom of God

As a child I remember being told, “You're just going through a phase,” about some tragedy that was happening in my life. Probably some elementary-school drama that involved passing notes, or the embarrassment of being six inches taller than everyone in my class. Im not sure what the issue was, but the response stuck with me.

At the time, I was struggling to cope, and dismissing the event as “just a phase” didnt help settle my swirling emotions. Instead, it made me feel like my struggle wasnt valid, that it didnt actually matter in the big picture. But it did—and they all do—because in each phase we are shaped by God through events occurring at a particular point in our lives.

Some phases stop and start abruptly: a lost job, a cancer diagnosis, a death. Other transitions happen without much notice: moving from newlyweds in the honeymoon phase to a married couple celebrating their fourth, fifth, and sixth wedding anniversary.

In motherhood you record these shifts in a baby book: the move from nursing to solid foods, from crawling to walking, from diapers to potty-training. There is an actual pain in your chest when the toddler pronounces a certain word correctly for the first time. One day your daughter’s face looks different and you can almost see the woman she will be behind the round face and sticky cheeks. There is always movement away from one phase toward something else.

And it is often in hindsight that problematic phases appear sweet. As an exhausted first-time mom with a fussy baby, I remember thinking it was a joke when older women said, “Enjoy every minute.” I think of them now on those evenings when the children are crying, dinner is getting cold, and I find myself thinking, “I just want to eat a meal in peace.” Because soon it will be quiet, the table (and floor, and highchair, and clothes) will be clean, and an uninterrupted meal will be had—during which there will be time to reminisce about scraping beans off the walls.

My current phase with the tiny cement patio we refer to optimistically as “the yard,” with the toddler shouting “I am his mother” regarding her little brother, and one car old enough to drive itself, is in fact a magical phase. Because whatever awaits us in our next phase—the homestead with land, the roomy minivan, the less assertive toddler—will have complications, too. The house will have bad plumbing, the van will have transmission trouble, the toddler will exhibit new behaviors, as will her brother. Hopefully another baby will be thrown into the mix. Each phase presents a whole host of challenges that make past moments seem simple, sweet, and idyllic.

So while being a middle-schooler who is a head taller than everyone else or a willful three-year-old “mother” are indeed phases, they are everything to the one going through them. Its their life, its where they are right now. Just like the apartment and cold dinners are the phase Im in right now, these moments are all part of Gods plan for our lives, our growth, our holiness, and our good—however trivial the trials may seem, they do all point to Him.

In the words of St. Josemaría Escrivá from “Conversations,” Chapter 8:
Either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find Him. That is why I can tell you that our age needs to give back to matter and to the most trivial occurrences and situations their noble and original meaning. It needs to restore them to the service of the Kingdom of God, to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus Christ.
Painting: Harold Copping, The Dunce (1886)

Monday, July 11, 2016

Finding peace in the midst of sorrow: The Virgin Mary is our model

There is a statue of the Virgin Mary in my kitchen, where I spend the majority of my day. Washing little hands, scrubbing dirty faces, making meals, doing dishes. Because our family spends so much time there, this is also where the kids fight over Tupperware, spend agonizing minutes in timeout, and where I most often find myself frustrated, something boiling over on the stove while the toddler shrieks for another cookie and her brother chews on a tennis shoe. And the Virgin Mary is there through it all.

The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary always recalls one thing: peace. She is never angry. She is always serene. This transcendent peace, which extends beyond circumstances and hardships, can be easy to dismiss or to overlook. When someone is peaceful, it's tempting to assume they have an easy life. Obviously. They have a huge support system, make lots of money. They have the house/car/vacation we want/need/dream about. But life is hard. And the more we love, the more we open ourselves to the accompanying loss and grief.

The Virgin Mary did not have an idyllic life by secular standards. As the prophet Simeon said upon seeing her with her infant son: “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Consider the events of her life: the Annunciation, conception by the Holy Spirit, delivering her baby in a stable, exile in Egypt, life in poverty, seeing her only child tortured and killed. Many of us spend our lives in regret and depression over much less.

That’s what I always missed when I saw statues of Our Lady draped in flowers in Italy, ensconced on the manicured lawns of cemeteries, or stuck to the dashboard of someone’s car—I missed her actual life. Not the stylized version on a Christmas card, the stable all aglow, Jesus swaddled in a white sheet, but the realities she faced in her daily life, living out her vocation, her calling, her fiat. 

For she is both Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Peace. Like all believers and followers of Christ, she took up the Cross, and was also promised peace. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matt. 16:24). The Virgin Mary gave her fiat, again and again, yet maintained her peace. 

We tend to view peace as something that occurs in a vacuum, outside the scenes of our everyday life. Vacations are peaceful. Cabins in the mountains without cell-phone reception or internet are peaceful. Death is peaceful. It can’t be expected that we will maintain our calm in a world so fallen, with its daily horrors and nonstop assault on the Faith. There is struggle even in the daily drama of family life and the hardships that come with loving another: sickness, death, suffering.

It’s tempting to think that because she was God’s most perfect creature (or because she had only one child), we can’t achieve her kind of peace—certainly God does not expect that from us? But peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, promised to all in virtue of our Baptism—even the fallible, tired, frustrated mother: “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). 

The Blessed Virgin has known both the unbridled joy and the incredible sorrow of our lives—she relates to our struggles in a most intimate way. She did not live her life removed from the world, floating above the fray, but in the midst of it. And her statue in my kitchen, sunlight illuminating her halo, eyes gazing downward, hands in a position of prayer, is a constant reminder of what God can do in our life, and the peace that only He can give, if we surrender our lives to Him and His Immaculate Mother.

Picture: Virgin in prayer (1640-1650) by Giovanni Battista Salvi

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Liturgical living in the universal Church

My husband wanted to convert to the faith long before I did. One day he said some unflattering things about Martin Luther, questioned my assumptions about the Reformation, and handed me a copy of G.K. Chesterton’s “The Catholic Church and Conversion.” If it hadn’t been a library book, I probably would have burned it and scattered the ashes in the sea, never to be seen again.

I couldn’t imagine not being Lutheran. No more Bach? What about the hymns I’d sung since childhood? I had a sneaking suspicion that Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” wouldn’t be on the rotation at a Catholic church. To say nothing of Reformation Sunday celebrations and singing “Stille Nacht” on Christmas Eve. Leave the Lutheran faith for what? Praying to saints, worshiping Mary, and papacy nonsense?

Fast forward three years, and it’s hard to believe I thought the “real church” began circa 1517, and that Martin Luther was the only person worthy of sainthood (if such a thing even existed). Now the words from Chesterton’s “Why I Am a Catholic” essay echo in my mind: “In short, I would say chiefly of the Catholic Church that it is catholic. I would rather try to suggest that it is not only larger than me, but larger than anything in the world; that it is indeed larger than the world.” Now I know that even a lifetime isn’t long enough to reveal the full riches of the Faith.

When I came around to the Church, I didn’t know what being a “practicing Catholic” meant, but I knew it was much more involved than going to church on Sunday. I was eager to figure the whole thing out, and naively imagined that would be a simple matter. But then the questions began. What was the deal with saint days? And holy water? Do Catholics seriously wait until Christmas Eve to decorate the tree and eat cookies? Really?

Searching for more information, one book was recommended over and over again. It was written by Maria Von Trapp—yes, from The Sound of Music. Yes, she’s a real person. And her book Around the Year with the Trapp Family explains how they lived their Catholic faith in Austria and after moving to America.

The book is so powerful my Lutheran mother told me, “Martin Luther did a disservice to the church.” Maria Von Trapp’s descriptions of their liturgical life will make you want to trade in your passport, hop in a time machine, move to Austria, and beg the Von Trapp’s to adopt you—and for God to give you a better singing voice. It’s one of those instances when real life far outshines Hollywood’s version.

It’s a testament to the powerful witness of liturgical living.

Summer is finally beginning in Oregon. That means breaks from the gray days, blooming flowers, and walks to the park. This is enthusiastically endorsed by the children, who high-five when the rain stops. In truth, we all enjoy moving through seasons: the change in weather, clothing, and food. There's even comfort in the cooler temperatures of fall, when we bring out the sweaters, blankets, and hot chocolate. This order appeals to all of us.

The Church, through her liturgical seasons, assimilates our observance of this natural rhythm and wonderfully elevates it in a way I never could have imagined while clutching those Lutheran fragments. The Church observes daily Scripture readings, rosary meditations, she honors saints and martyrs, and alternates periods of feasting and fasting—providing a structure that nourishes physically, spiritually, and intellectually.

As Maria Von Trapp wrote:
Deep down in the human heart, however, is embedded the craving to celebrate, and, in a dumb way, the other craving to abstain, perhaps to atone. In general, these cravings are no longer directed in seasonal channels, as they are for the Catholic, or even for the aborigine who participates in some tribal religious belief. So modern man one day—any day—gets up and says, “Let's celebrate!” And without any warrant, he decrees that his town from now on will have a festival on, let’s say, August 18th; and as he can dance and eat and drink on any day between January 1st and December 31st, the most he will experience is “a good time.” But he will never be able to “celebrate a feast.”
True holy days have faded into oblivion as “Hallmark holidays” have grown, fed on capitalism and increasing secularization. Saint Patrick’s Day is a drinking holiday; Saint Valentine’s Day saw the release of 50 Shades of Gray in 2015 and $18.6 billion in gift sales this year. Spring break was once Easter break—students went to church with their family instead of flying to Cancún with friends. And spring cleaning happened in the three days after Palm Sunday, in preparation of the greatest feast of the year. Now we’re more likely to celebrate Administrative Professionals Day and Father’s Day (made official by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, declared a “Second Christmas” in the male merchandising world) than baptismal birthdays and saint days.

Liturgical living is countercultural in a non-Catholic country. You will be regarded as a wacko if you dont spend the month of December listening to Christmas carols and eating sugar cookies. Tell someone you process in the streets to celebrate Corpus Christi—the body of Christ, not the city in Texas—and your neighbors may have you committed. But in living the liturgical year we foster a sense of wonder in our children, and recapture it in ourselves.

Having given up those Reformation Sunday processions and joined the “largeness” of The Faith, my joy is multiplied exponentially—because celebrations are now reinforced by the truth, beauty, and history found only in the Church. This all-encompassing liturgical life infuses the natural, the supernatural, and the other-worldly. “Again,” wrote Maria Von Trapp, “it is our faithful friend, Holy Mother Church, who leads her children first back to nature in order to make them ready to receive supernatural grace. Gratia supponit naturam.”

Grace builds on nature.

Photo Source: By Trapp Family Singers-Metropolitan Music Bureau, New York. Photo by Larry Gordon. (eBay item [photo front] photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons