Thursday, September 22, 2016

Loving what God loves: “For unto us a child is born...”

I was never what you might call a “baby person.” When I was working at an orphanage, I gravitated to the older kids, whose thoughts, questions, and stories fascinated me. While acknowledging that there is no greater feeling than a baby sleeping on your chest, I was never one to spend hours holding babies in the nursery.

But then I had my own baby, and from the moment I saw those two lines on the pregnancy test, I became a baby person. Seeing her do back flips during the ultrasound, feeling her hiccups every night while I tried to sleep—it was unexpectedly glorious, better than I imagined.

When she was born, I spent hours staring at her face, fingers, and toes the way parents do, thinking that if I loved this tiny, squishy, baby so much—who couldn’t smile, tell me a funny story, or laugh—how much more would my love grow along with her?

I’ve known several people who decided they would never have kids. Citing everything from cost, inconvenience, sleepless nights, travel, and loyalty to their favorite bar stool, they declared themselves “not a baby person,” or “not a kid person.” They are happy with their significant other, with their life as is. Its “enough.

In an article about the declining fertility rate in the United States, Patti Maguire Armstrong made a list of “Bad Reasons Not to Have More Children.” One of which was: “I don’t like babies.” Her response? “God does. Find out why you don’t like what God likes. That’s a disturbing state of mind.” I had never thought of it that way. Childish, selfish, sad, yes—but I didn’t afford it the gravity of disturbing.

Culturally we tend to shrug away indifference to new life: “Well, it is hard,” and “It’s not for everybody,” and “At least you know what you want.” But God commands otherwise: “Go forth and multiply.” Period. So it’s more than a preference; it’s a sad spiritual state when a couple sits down to discuss whether they want babies.

Not liking babies is incompatible with God and it’s also strangely devoid of imagination, mystery, and excitement—many of the things wilfully childless couples place such a high value on. Because nothing is more unexpected than new life, from a positive pregnancy test to the toddler eating bugs. Nothing will ever go quite according to plan again, once you open yourself up to children. And nothing is more entertaining, hilarious, and mind-boggling than a toddler. This is the adventure. This is the “good time.”

Babies are ample evidence that ours is a God of surprises. After all, the most amazing, unexpected moment in history was the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, who was the Son of God. There is an incredible power and goodness in each baby that we often underestimate. A baby does, indeed, change your life—and can change everyone else’s, too. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given . . . .

The Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The scandal of abundant life in a culture of death

A baby is born into the world: breathing, moving, kicking, delivered into human hands—the miracle of new life. Unless you are a late-term abortionist, in which case this “unsettling” situation requires you to kill the child outside the womb rather than inside.

How can this be happening?

And then I was reminded of Christs promise: “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).

For most of my life as a Protestant, this verse meant simply the reward of eternal life. Now I read with the eyes of a Catholic, and see how the promise of “abundant life” provokes dissension and even hatred in those who reject it. As Pope St John Paul II taught in Evangelium Vitae: “In truth, he is referring to that ‘new and ‘eternal life which consists in communion with the Father, to which every person is freely called in the Son by the power of the Sanctifying Spirit. It is precisely in this life that all the aspects and stages of human life achieve their full significance.” (Emphasis added.)

Indeed, the battle for abundant life has been fought for over 2,000 years. As King Solomon said, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). So while the methods have changed, and the numbers are horrific, abortion and infanticide were happening even during Our Lord's earthly ministry.

The Church Fathers spoke out against the horrors of abortion in their day:

“It is not permissible for us to destroy the seed by means of illicit manslaughter once it has been conceived in the womb, so long as blood remains in the person.” —Tertullian (c. 160 - 240), Apologia, cap 25, line 42
“Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?” —John Chrysostom (347-407), Homily 24 on Romans
While evil men claim the right to destroy the “gift of God,” the Church stands against this culture of death, renouncing Satan and all his works. For God never delights in death: He sent his only begotten Son to conquer it that we might live. And the Church which He established stands—and has always stood—for life. “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (CCC 2258).

But for the Catholic Church, no other institution on the face of the earth recognizes death in all its forms, because only the Church acknowledges life in all its forms. The Church professes that every human life is sacred. Through her sacraments, she unites our lives with the Divine, from Baptism to Last Rites. In the Eucharist the faithful are nourished on the “bread of life”—the very life-giving body of Jesus Christ.

In the world, however, hostility to life is accepted in varying degrees. Marriage is put to death by the myth of divorce, which in turn causes further casualties for families and children. Many do not appreciate, or even perceive, the lives lost through contraception and sterilization. While some use abortifacients masquerading as birth control, others prefer Plan B. The abnormal and unwanted are killed by abortion, the useless by assisted suicide. Islam promotes the heresy that suicide and murder merit eternal life. And lets not forget the countless lives lost when children are conceived through surrogacy or in vitro fertilization. Even in the desire for life, fallen man acquiesces to the culture of death.

Who would have thought that life itself would be so divisive and provoke such hatred? The Catholic Church is a scandal to the world not because of the “hard teaching” of the Eucharist, the Incarnation, or a man rising from the dead—but because of something so simple, so elementary.

The culture of death seems to ask, “Where, O Life, is your sting?” and, in pursuing its own selfish ends, destroys that which requires sacrifice—marriage, children, the sick, disabled, and elderly. On the contrary, the culture of life glories in the sacrifice. What greater good might come of this time, with its daily horrors, than if the lukewarm, and those who are far from the one, true Church, were to embrace the abundance of life she offers? Only then can we say, with the communion of saints and all the faithful: “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).

Nativity by Giotto (1310s)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Before the feast there must be a slaughter

It was the day before Ethiopian New Year. There was a tangible feeling of excitement at the orphanage where I was volunteering. The children all but dragged me to the back of the property, chattering about the preparations for the party and bonfire happening the next day. And then the meal prep was suddenly before me: blood swirling down the drain, a pile of goat skins, one goat still standing, and two men with a large knife. The children assured me this was “no problem” as I prepared to put my head between my legs.

I had never seen an animal slaughtered before. I watched as they held the goat down and tried to cut its throat several times before conceding that maybe the knife wasnt sharp enough. Blanch.

I lived; the goat did not. The kids fed still-warm chunks of lung tissue to the stray cats. The whole thing was great fun for them, in part because they saw it for what it was: preparation for a party, a feast, a holiday. Not exactly your average American childhood.

Despite the increasing popularity of death in our culture, we are largely removed from its reality. We legislate it, advocate for it, and slap a nice-sounding name on it, but the reality is we dont want to see it. And we try to shelter our children from it.

Some parents consult experts for advice on how to talk to children about death when it emerges from cultural obscurity and becomes a reality. What do we say when Grandpa dies? When the goldfish goes belly-up? When the baby is no longer in mommys tummy? The advice differs depending on your worldview: Christian, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, etc.

But the Catholic family is never removed from death. While being pro-life in every sense, scarcely a day goes by when death isnt mentioned in our home. And not in the ordinary, everyday sense in which we explain dying strawberry plants, flies twitching on the windowsill, and the threat of cars running over willful toddlers. 

But in a very real, intimate way, death—that final division between this world and the next—permeates the domestic church. After dinner we pray for the souls of the faithful departed. We meditate on Jesus crucifixion in the Sorrowful Mysteries. We celebrate saints on the anniversary of their deaths. In our Catholic Bible for children, Cain kills Abel on page sixteen—and the death toll rises from there. Even when we arent talking about death, Christ hangs crucified on our wall, from our rear view mirror, and above the altar at church.

Death is everywhere—and children question everything. 

“What did that priest give you? What are you eating?” The body and blood of Jesus.

“Whats that?” A relic containing the bone of a dead saint.

“Why did Jesus die?” So that we could have life.

But there is nothing morbid in this. As St. Theodore the Studite wrote:

How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: it is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise, but opens the way for our return. 

Those children in Ethiopia perfectly understood something our culture often struggles with—before the feast, there must be a slaughter. Before the heavenly banquet, there is death. Catholics know this to be true. Death is inseparable from the promise of Eternal Life. The same Faith that acknowledges Death makes the brightness of new and abundant life shine ever more brightly. 

Thus we pray to St. Joseph, asking for what sounds absurd—a happy death:

O BLESSED JOSEPH, who yielded up thy last breath in the arms of Jesus and Mary, obtain for me this grace, O holy Joseph, that I may breathe forth my soul in praise, saying in spirit, if I am unable to do so in words: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give Thee my heart and my soul.” Amen.

Christ on the Cross by Gerard David, 1515.

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.