Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pregnancies, prayer intentions & Spanish water

Catholic pregnancy tip: well water from the Abbey of Santo Domingo in Spain where Blessed Jane of Aza prayed for another child—a prayer heard and answered in the person of Saint Dominic. I was told that someone in the parish usually had some, but warned to drink only a small amount. Had I noticed the number of twins running around after Mass?

Just a few short years ago, this advice would have struck me as insane.

Water from a well in Spain? A 12th-century woman desperate for another baby, dreaming about a dog with a torch in its mouth? The most ridiculous thing ever. 

I remember reading infertility forums and, in addition to suggestions ranging from sweet potatoes to ovulation predictor kits to giving up coffee, some (crazy loony) Catholic suggested a novena to Saint Gerard. I read that and thought, “How on earth is that going to accomplish anything?”

But, in my post-conversion world, I was nothing short of thrilled to realize that I knew someone on pilgrimage in Spain. Not only did she promise to bring back water from the well, but she had a Dominican priest take pictures of her getting the water.

Just days after receiving the Spanish water, a writer embarking on an Italian pilgrimage asked readers for prayer intentions. I jumped on that too. Another baby. She responded, It would be an honor. She was going to haul my prayer on international flights, over rough Italian roads, and in and out of hotels to be presented to God at grottoes, cathedrals, and tombs. And that's how my intention ended up before Padre Pio and Pope St. John Paul II.

Another friend was praying the Novena to St. Therese of Lisieux for me.

Yet another friend gave us relics from St. Gerard. 

So with the small glass bottle of Spanish well water on our mantle, and prayer intentions storming heaven from Oregon to the Vatican, what else could have happened? A positive pregnancy test, in all its double-lined glory. I might have looked at it a dozen times a day, just to assure myself this was actually happening.

But then it was suddenly not happening anymore.

Despite the water, the prayers, the special feast days corresponding with discovering we were expecting again, there it was—an abrupt ending. Even though there were a dozen incredible things about this baby coming into being at this precise moment.

The shocking thing isn’t that this happened, because miscarriages happen all the time. Or that the intentions, blessings, and prayers didn't “work” well enough. Because God alone can bring forth new life.

But that all was not lost—that this effort was not for nothing. Prayers are never wasted; they are always fruitful. In reaching out to brothers and sisters on earth and saints across time and place, it is nothing short of astounding to consider those who hear and witness our prayers. What a privilege it is to be Catholic, to have this communion to call upon. 

My little children, your hearts are small, but prayer stretches them and makes them capable of loving God. Through prayer we receive a foretaste of heaven and something of paradise comes down upon us. Prayer never leaves us without sweetness. It is honey that flows into the soul and makes all things sweet. When we pray properly, sorrows disappear like snow before the sun. —St. John Vianney

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, Fra Angelico, 1423-1424.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

It might not look like much, but the interior life is everything

I thought life was too short not to do it all, so I was willing to try anything once. I was always up to something new: apartments, jobs, travel plans, degrees, beliefs. I had long lists of things I wanted to try and places I wanted to visit. But then I converted to the Catholic Faith, had my first baby, and became a stay-at-home mom. I dont really do a whole lot anymore.

No one calls my parents to say, “You’ll never guess what she did now!” about the soup I made for dinner. No one cheers from the sidelines: “Do it now, while you still can!” when I seize some free time to read. And I dont send postcards from my adventures in the Land of Croup. 

There is still movement aplenty in the form of toddler mischief, blocks flying past my head, and children standing on things they shouldnt be standing on.

But for the most part, any changes, any “movement,” comes not from doing something exciting in the greater world but from an interior movement of the heart, mind, and will. Im not crossing borders, but experiencing the slow and often painful movement of the soul toward God.

Our culture is all about the externals. We cultivate bodies and bucket lists as if there will be a crown in heaven for those who looked the best while trekking at Machu Picchu. But in heaven, joy will be found in those quiet fruits of practicing the faith: contemplation, prayer, and adoration.

The inner life isnt flashy, its not exciting, and no one is going to be jealous of the time spent on your knees in prayer. But its the real stuff, the good stuff. The hard stuff.

More determination is required to subdue the interior man than to mortify the body; and to break one's will than to break one's bones. — St. Ignatius of Loyola

Mother Teaching Daughter Prayers, Jean-Baptiste Jules Trayer
In seizing freedom and making lists there was little bending of the will, little in the way of sacrifice beyond saving money for the next adventure. And very little stillness.

Now I live on a much smaller, more intimate scale. There are no big trips planned, no promotions, nothing exciting—only the day-to-day attempt at joyful sacrifice and surrender of self. This is harder than the worst of flights, bedbugs, and food poisoning all in one. It doesnt sparkle with novelty either: the battle against the flesh is an old one.

But this interior movement is everything, even when I am perfectly still, kneeling—not even “standing on my own two feet.” As the spiritual life has grown, the bucket list has shrunk. Sometimes that feels good and right, other times a backpack and a one-way ticket sound pretty appealing.

And those times I remind myself that the real destination sells no postcards, and no one’s clamoring that you should go now before its discovered. The crown offered there is sought in the smallest of moments, in privacy and prayer, in the constant and quiet pursuit of what is good and holy and true—and in the denial of self.

Lord what wilt Thou have me do? Behold the true sign of a totally perfect soul: when one has reached the point of giving up his will so completely that he no longer seeks, expects or desires to do ought but that which God wills. —St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Waiting on a response to the dubia

If only children asked questions in the form of dubia: well-worded requests for clarification requiring a Yes or No in response. “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” after all. And that’s that. Instead of demanding dissertations on such diverse topics as Why did you forget bread at the grocery store? and Do mama chickens and papa chickens and baby chickens eat gingerbread men?

But even if we went the dubia route, the yes or no response would set off a Thomistic avalanche. While not (quite) worthy of the Angelic Doctor's time, the breadth and depth of their questions and arguments is exhausting, puzzling, and vexing nonetheless. 

Whether ice cream is breakfast food.

Objection 1: Eggs don’t really sound good to me right now. I’m tired of eggs and toast and I don’t like oatmeal anymore. It’s icky.

Objection 2: If we don’t eat it now then it will melt and that’s wasteful. You always say, Waste not, want not.” You say that, mom.

Objection 3: Yesterday you said I could have a sweet treat and I didn’t get any ice cream that time and I want it now. Okay? Okay, mom?

On the contrary, for reasons ranging from diabetes to brain-freezes, you may not have ice cream at 6 a.m.

I answered you already.

But that may be a bad example. Many of their questions have considerable depth. I am asked why men are holding hands, why people die, and when my three-year-old will “finally” be able to give birth to a baby of her own.

I’m glad she’s asking me, and not someone else. She looks to me as someone who loves her and cares for her and is the authority in her life. She’s trying to make sense of things and sometimes things just don’t make sense. A toddler can see that.

It has now been more than 100 days since the dubia were made public. There has been no response.

Children want answers immediately. All parents are familiar with the incessant: Why? Why? Why?” My oldest will say, Mama, look at me. I asked you a question. It sends them into overdrive when they are ignored—especially by their parents. And who can blame them? We should be interested in their questions. Who is responsible for addressing their worries and concerns, if not their mother and father?

The tricky thing about giving them a yes or "no, is that things become very, very clear. There is no ambiguity when I say, No, to a request to visit the park in pouring rain an hour before dinner. But a non-response, or a we'll see,” might buy me some time and peace, and the chance that they will forget.

But when I answer them they know where I stand and can react accordingly, with weeping and gnashing of teeth when their park adventure is denied, or with delight on a feast day when they are eating chocolate coins in their pajamas. They want answers.

Frans Francken the Elder, Jesus Among the Doctors, 1587

Each of us had a father and mother, and were once questioning children. Some parents answered more questions than others, some better than others. Some were Catholic, others weren’t. A big part of conversion, and an issue for many (self included) is that of authority, and the papacy. Why do we need a man in Rome telling us what to think and do? But once that starts to make sense (thank you, Devin Rose), it’s obvious that we desperately need authority. No matter our age, as children of God we still seek guidance from those who represent Christ and His Church on earth.

I remember it like it was yesterday. Having desired conversion days before Benedict XVI renounced the papal throne, I was couch-bound with a newborn, following the conclave. The entire process fascinated me. I didn’t know what any of the words meant, who anyone was, or how the process worked. 

But I was riveted as I watched that smoke, trying to guess its color with the aid of the helpful rhyme white smoke, pope; black smoke, nope. Eventually the smoke was white. There was a new pope. We had a new pope. For the first time in my life, I had a pope.

After what seemed an interminable wait, the Cardinal Protodeacon appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s and announced to the enormous crowd gathered there, and those watching and listening all over the world, Habemus Papam!

We have a Father!

And some of his children have questions.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Longing for the silent night

I’m not sure what my thoughts were on the subject of sleep before having children. I do remember setting my alarm a little bit early so I could hit snooze a few times before getting up. I remember complaining about being so tired due to jet lag, exams, or a late night with friends. But since becoming a mother, there is a gravity to sleep that was never there before.

I now spend a considerable amount of time talking about sleep. How are your kids sleeping? Are they still napping? Do they go to bed on their own? There is research; there are tactics employed. I have read books on the subject of sleep, and they were page turners.

I’m now leery of anything that threatens sleep: teething, colds, construction, fireworks, barking dogs, other children who are not sleeping (see also painting of the Blessed Virgin shushing John the Baptist). I happily embrace anything that might help sleep: humidifiers, sound machines, singing “Silent Night,” reading thirty-four books before bed (or the same book thirty-four times), and sleeping in contorted positions.

Annibale Carracci, The Madonna and Sleeping Child with Saint John the Baptist ('Il Silenzio'), 1599-1600

In the relative calm of our current sleep situation, I’m able to wake up on my own, roll over, and go back to sleep—and it’s amazing. After all, sleep is just as necessary as water, air, and food. And that was part of God’s design. Ours is the God who “maketh me to lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:2). He also instituted the Sabbath, making rest mandatory: “Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 31:15).

Our Lord is the Prince of Peace, and what could be more peaceful than rest, relaxation, and sleep? St. Angela Merici said, “Remember that the Devil doesn’t sleep, but seeks our ruin in a thousand ways.” It is the restless spirit that cannot sleep; it is anxiety that keeps us up at night. But after the “dark night of the soul there is the promise of dawn. God gives us rest that we might be restored: “When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet” (Prov. 3:24).

Before becoming a mother, I took sleep for granted, the same way I would give thanks before each meal without appreciating the food. It was through fasting that I realized how truly pleasurable food is, and how necessary and nourishing it is.

Likewise, my nocturnal newborn made sleep something I would have been willing to pay for. Now I savor the quiet time before sleep, to pray, to read, to anticipate the dawn of a new day and another chance to do better. And to appreciate the words of Our Lord: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

The bedtime song most requested by my children is Silent Night.”  It was written by a priest and put to music hours before midnight Mass one snowy Christmas Eve in an Austrian village. It speaks to every weary mother, fussy baby, and all of us longing for a moments rest.

Silent Night,
Holy Night,
All is calm,
All is bright,
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child,
Holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Suffering infertility and miscarriage during Advent

Being pregnant is so fitting during Advent. This is the season of waiting, preparation, and expectation. The word advent comes from the Latin “adventus,” which means “coming.” And we spend this time looking forward to the birth of a child. The year I was eight months pregnant with my daughter I still remember how glorious it was to hear “Mary, being great with child,” as she kicked inside me.

Suffering infertility during this season makes the emptiness more acute. That expectant feeling is all too familiar, a longing that grows stronger but is never fulfilled—a seemingly endless attempt to arrive at Christmas morning. It’s hard to see the glow of the manger scene while experiencing such a barren reality. To be ready with the 
yes, but have arms that remain empty.

The days of Advent are long and dark. Even the birds are quiet. The sun doesn’t come out most days, and if it does break up the bleakness, it still sets early in the afternoon. Each night we eat dinner by the faint light from the Advent candles, the wind whistling outside in the darkness, the heaters constantly running.

The weather and liturgical season seem a perfect companion to grief and loss, to another
Advent marked by emptiness. This time it is marked by loss: a child there and then gone. There will be no kicking baby during the readings at Mass this year, and there will be no ultrasound image stuck on the refrigerator. There is no “expecting” this year.

But there is much waiting.

Each day the Jesse tree gains one new ornament, while the light from the Advent wreath grows incrementally brighter as the weeks pass. There is the slow change, as grief turns to renewed hope.

There is nothing like miscarriage to make you realize the strength of expectation. Especially when you have waited long months just to see two lines on a pregnancy test. You stare at them in wonder, envision the baby, and imagine everything from hearing the heartbeat to holding a newborn again.

So quickly, the expectation sets in. There is so much hope in the spark of new life. Even the shortest of hopes, the briefest glimmer of expectation, are devastating when they come to nothing.

When Jesus was born, he wasn’t in keeping with the vision people had of the Messiah. They expected someone else, a different sort of king—the babe in swaddling clothes was not what they had in mind. And looking at the nativity this year, the same will be true for me. I thought there would be two babies expected this year—this wasn’t how I imagined this season to be. This is not what I would have chosen.

Facing disappointment again during this season, it feels all too easy to lose sight of the baby that did come—and will come again—the reason for the hope that is in us. Our hope is not in vain, and even our wildest expectations will only be exceeded as we welcome this baby into our lives and hearts again this Christmas, after the waiting, hopeful season of Advent.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. —Isaiah 9:6

Josefa de Óbidos, Adoration by the Shepherds, 1669

Monday, November 28, 2016

Seeking help and comfort from the saints

A dark smudge appeared on the living room ceiling. When I wiped it, my finger went through the plaster. The roofing company inspected it, the landlord looked at it, our neighbor even stopped in to peer up at it. The verdict: a plumber would need to come, saw a hole in the ceiling, and find the leak. The kids would be thrilled.

Theres a measure of comfort in knowing that whatever goes wrong, there is someone to call: plumber, mechanic, doctor, insurance company, 911. When I was living in Ethiopia, with its packed churches and orphanages full of God-loving children, a local woman explained it with a shrug. “In America, if your car is broken into you call GEICO. Here, we pray.”

Our culture is certainly full of safeguards. We have medical, dental, home, car, and life insurance. But for the really hard stuff—and a lot of the small stuff—no amount of policies, phone calls, or cash will remedy the situation.

And so we, too, find ourselves on our knees in prayer.

God knows us better than we know ourselves. We are never left on our own, with nothing to do, and all our appeals exhausted. Faced with anything from unemployment to lost car keys, there are avenues of prayer, communion, and comfort. We have the saints.

A Christian people celebrates together in religious solemnity the memorials of the martyrs, both to encourage their being imitated and so that it can share in their merits and be aided by their prayers. —St. Augustine, Against Faustus the Manichean

Communion of Saints fresco in the Baptistry (Padua) by Giusto de' Menabuoi

There is a patron saint for every situation, vocation, and occupation. Searching for a lost family heirloom? The cellphone your toddler absconded with? Call on St. Anthony. Leaky pipe? Call on Saint Vincent Ferrer, patron saint of plumbers. Everything from infertility to candle-making is covered. Not only is there a saint to petition, but they have often experienced just this thing.

When you perceive that God is chastening you, fly not to his enemies...but to his friends, the martyrs, the saints, and those who were pleasing to him, and who have great power in God—St. John Chrysostom, Orations 8:6 
Our prayer life is limitless because it is communal. We have the saints, whose prayers “ascended up before God from the hand of the angel” (Rev. 8:4). We have our brothers and sisters in Christ—more than willing to bear our burdens with us and storm heaven with prayer. And we are (quite literally) never left wringing our hands: there is the Rosary to hold and pray, our privileged recourse to the Virgin Mary.

As a Protestant, I objected to the idea that God was not “enough.” But it is with a fathers love that He provides such abundant aid, comfort, and help to His children. We are not left alone, but are encouraged to rely on one another, and to pray together, in communion, “Our Father who art in Heaven.”

Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there: If you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that. —St. John Vianney

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Falling in love with the historical Church, waking up to the reality

In the first flush of conversion, I had certain ideas about the Church: how She would look, feel, and even smell. There would be Gothic cathedrals with spires pointed heavenward, incense wafting from one of those things on a chain (they’re called thuribles), and magnificent stained glass windows. Churches would be overflowing with large families praying the rosary, lighting candles, and genuflecting. All this tangible devotion would be reinforced by vestments, choirs, and organ music. We would all do the exact same things because thats just what Catholics did.

I had fallen in love with the Church.

The first time I heard Mass, I fell out of love.

My experience in Catholic churches had consisted of admiring the architecture, escaping from the heat, and checking a travel itinerary box. This would be my very first experience of the Mass.

Walking through the door, I was struck by the sheer numbers. There were people of all ages: children running through the hall, infants soothed in their mothers arms, elderly people in wheelchairs, young families that took up entire pews: it was brimming with life. It was completely different from the quiet, aging Lutheran church we attended.

But then Mass began, with singers and acoustic guitars in front of the altar singing, “Somebodys knocking at your door. Answer Jesus! Somebodys knocking at your door.”

My favorite hymn had a slightly different tone:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Then I remembered Richard John Neuhaus’s conversion story, in which a fellow Lutheran asked how he could give up Bach to become Catholic. I had thought that was odd. Didnt the Church have an unparalleled wealth of music? Hadnt they cornered the market on all things transcendent?

It didnt seem like a strange question anymore. The music didnt get better, and neither did anything else. My expectations were dashed. My husband and I drove home in silence. After that rude awakening, my focus shifted from the historical church to the present reality. With this shift came more questions.

Listening to Catholic Answers one afternoon, I asked my husband. “What's Vatican II?” We werent sure, so we googled it—and descended down the rabbit hole.

And why did people refer to “liberal” and “traditional” Catholics? Wasn't “traditional Catholic” redundant?

My naivety extended to the big names in the Church. Before the desire to convert, Pope Benedict XVI had been just another pope wearing Prada shoes, one more example of the hypocrisy rampant in the Catholic Church. (Come to find out, his shoes were actually made by an Italian cobbler.) I didnt know what the Curia was, had no idea what CDF meant, and didnt have a favorite cardinal.

I just knew I wanted to be part of the Church, because I had come to realize the Truth was found in Her, and only in Her.

It was exhilarating, that moment when it hit me: “I'm going to become Catholic.” But as I experienced more of the modern church, and began RCIA, Patrick Coffins greeting to converts, “Come on in! Its a mess,” started to make sense.

So did the words of Hilaire Belloc, which no longer seemed merely witty:
The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.
But Gods promise remains: the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. It can be hard to believe—amidst the challenges of our time and the ever-present scandals. But there is no other option than absolute fidelity to the Bridegroom and His Bride.

Just like the couple united in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, whose young love is transformed into something more precious with time, so the Church in our day demands more than a feeling, an inner stirring. She requires deep devotion and prayer, and ever greater adherence to the Truth, come what may. Because the reality remains: She is the bride of Christ, and the Truth is found nowhere but in Her. Conversion to the one true faith remains the greatest, most life-altering decision a person can make—even if things are a bit of a mess.

Faith or The Church Triumphant, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1664–1665
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

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