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.

Being infertile 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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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Reformation Sunday comes back to haunt me

We’ve been hearing a lot about Martin Luther lately. Earlier this year, Lutherans received communion at St. Peter’s Basilica. Then there was the chocolate Luther on display at the Vatican, part of a Lutheran pilgrimage leading up to the Reformation celebration in Lund, Sweden, which Pope Francis is attending.

As a former Lutheran myself, this is all very unexpected.

I was under the distinct impression that Martin Luther was not regarded favorably by the Church. (“The Pope is the Antichrist” thing; the excommunication bit.) When my husband wanted to become Catholic and I (emphatically) did not, I dreaded Reformation Sunday. I even asked him to put aside his opinions about this historic event for one day, so we could enjoy the festivities. Can’t we just celebrate the reformers breaking free from the horrors of Catholicism? The priests, nuns, saints, confession, male chauvinists, etc.?

So it’s odd, after so much effort and struggle on my husband’s part, all the prayers, research, hours logged on New Advent, and listening to Catholic Answers—that now were having a joint party. Had the pope crashed our Reformation service I would have questioned the pope’s convictions, not my own.

But that didn’t happen. I enjoyed my Reformation Sunday, and another one after that, before the blinders came off. As I devoured Catholic books, the Church became not just compelling but irresistible. So I jumped in, heart and soul and mind, desiring conversion.

In one sense, life switched courses completely at that moment. There was a clear division between the “old self” and the “new self.” Many of my beliefs changed, and so did many of my actions and intentions. My thinking could be classified as “before” and “after.” If both religions are basically the same, that wouldn’t have been the case.

There is another severing I’m intimately acquainted with: divorce.

When a mother and father divorce, the children are the ones who long for unity to be restored, even long after childhood has ended. They remember what it was like to have the family together, to feel happy, secure, and part of something larger than themselves: the product of love.

By contrast, in the dissolution ushered in by the Reformation, it is our parents—God our Father and Mary our Mother—who hold dear the memory of a united Christendom, a reality which no modern Catholic has ever known, of a time when there weren’t a thousand splinter religions.

Now Protestantism finds itself in the same boat as modern families: made up of tenuous links, attachments made and broken, just like the flotsam and jetsam left behind in the wreckage wrought by divorce.

And just like the child of divorce, we are asked to look at the Reformation and see only the good that came of it, the good work done by various churches and the renewal within the Church in response to the 95 theses.

Luther posting his 95 theses in 1517, By Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872.

But isn’t this like parents asking their children to gloss over the redefinition of “family” in favor of the very polygamy which Christ abolished? They are also asked to validate the changes in mom and dad’s new and “reformed” lives, to be happy for them—to see only the good. But the fact remains: there can never be a just substitute for the loss of fidelity, unity, and continuity between husband and wife, parents and children.

When we dare to celebrate the occasion of the Protestant Revolution, we are saying exactly what proponents of divorce say: “Do what makes you happy,” and “Keep searching until you find it.” Whether the goal is a better spouse or a better religion with just the right mix of teachings, or the right number of sacraments.

It is not wrong to want others to have the graces offered only within the Catholic Church. My husband continued to want that for me even when I rejected it and held fast to Lutheranism—and what a blessing his perseverance has been to our lives. There was ample reason to celebrate my departure from Reformation Sunday festivities and subsequent entrance into the Church of Christ. For She alone possesses the sacraments and priests, dogmas and doctrines, martyrs and saints, which unite us in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” to God our Father and Mary our Mother.

Normally we celebrate anniversaries we wish to see repeated: birthdays, weddings, sobriety. Do we want another Reformation? That depends on who you ask.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The “good news” comes with a large dose of suffering

Praying the mysteries of the Rosary means that each week, after meditating on joy, glory, and light, we wake up to sorrow. Just another day but suddenly there is the agony, scourging, and death. Gone is the warm glow of the nativity, the presentation in the temple, the coronation of the Virgin.

Instead, like Job waking up one morning to his life falling apart, sorrow comes on suddenly, just as it so often does in our daily lives. Few sudden slides from joy to sorrow are easy to understand. There’s often no ready explanation, or none that “make sense.”  A bad diagnosis, an accident, a miscarriage—these things come out of the blue. And they are an inevitable part of life.

Madonna del Rosario, Ambrogio Oliva, 1580.
That’s why the prosperity gospels, propounding the belief that we are destined for only happiness in this life if God loves us, if we do the right things, if we truly believe, are so wrong.

The mysteries of the Rosary remind us of that each week. That joy turns to sorrow, and sorrow turns to glory, and we don’t always understand why, and we didn’t necessarily do anything to deserve it. We don’t have the sorrowful mysteries coming just because we meditated on joy the day before, and we don’t deserve endless days of glory, joy, and light (this side of heaven) either.

As a culture, we prefer to turn that frown upside down, to take those lemons and make lemonade: to run far and fast from suffering. We would rather focus on what is easy and uplifting. But there’s a lot to be said for a horrible day coinciding with the sorrowful mysteries—remembering that Jesus is intimately acquainted with sorrow, as is his Mother.

The very Queen of Heaven had her soul pierced seven times. If this is the path God’s most perfect creature walked, who are we—in our struggling piety and less-than-perfect devotion—to escape suffering? To skip out on the cross and experience only unbridled joy?

The mysteries of the Rosary consist of more than just the “good news”—they mirror the reality of our earthly lives, which are a jumble of jubilation, frustration, and suffering. When the Virgin Mary gave us the Rosary, she never promised temporal material gain to those who pray it. Rather, she offered devout souls the blessing of her protection, great graces, and eternal life—each of which is of far greater value than “health and wealth” in this world. The choice is ours: escape the cross or meditate upon it as Our Lady’s beloved children.

Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross. —St. John of the Cross

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Your nice parish priest is a soldier in the war against sin, death and the devil

The “Renaissance man,” epitomized by Leonardo da Vinci (who was a painter, scientist, engineer, and mathematician), refers to someone who does many difficult things well. The Hollywood version is called a “Triple Threat,” an entertainer who can sing, dance and act—and commands the corresponding fame and fortune.

But what clever phrase exists to describe the diverse talents and traits which, when found in one person, are that humble servant of God: the parish priest?

One rainy Sunday, I noticed the priest exit the confessional, where he had been hearing confessions for the past hour. Considering the difficulty of that task alone, I watched him enter the sacristy, emerging moments later to pray the Mass. His homily wove together law, politics, history, and the roles of men and women. He then consecrated the host and fed the faithful. When Mass ended, he stood in the Oregon drizzle to greet parishioners before joining us in the church hall for coffee and donuts.

Julian Popielec, Ash Wednesday, 1881.

It struck me just how many hats the priest wears—counselor, comforter, admonisher, spiritual father—and how truly talented he is. He is creative enough to craft homilies and sermons that are delivered daily; introvert enough to pray constantly, be contemplative, and study Scripture; extrovert enough to be in constant demand and eat a powdered donut while conversing about everything from transubstantiation to complaints about the sound system.

This skill set is obviously rare.

Yet it’s often dismissed. The priest is frequently regarded not as a dangerous force in a dark world, but as nothing more than a nice guy who loves God. The reality is much more formidable and complex. The priest merges the skills required for at least a dozen secular jobs to fulfill the sacred duties entrusted to him and guide souls toward Heaven. And he also has to sing in public.

As St. John Vianney said:

If I were to meet a priest and an angel, I should salute the priest before I saluted the angel. The latter is the friend of God; but the priest holds His place. St. Teresa kissed the ground where a priest had passed. When you see a priest, you should say, “There is he who made me a child of God, and opened Heaven to me by holy Baptism; he who purified me after I had sinned; who gives nourishment to my soul.” At the sight of a church tower, you may say, “What is there in that place?” “The Body of Our Lord.” “Why is He there?” “Because a priest has been there, and has said holy Mass.”
But the priest gets short shrift in our culture. Instead we revere men who excel at throwing balls through a basketball hoop, sing rock songs in packed stadiums, or design technological gadgets that “change our life.” None of which actually care for us as individuals, know us by name, or provide wise counsel on the path to eternity.

The priest is blessed with abundant gifts, yet seeks no glory for himself. He lacks the fame of the Triple Threat and the acclaim of the Renaissance Man. He sacrifices that we might have Life. Let us not forget, as we shake his hand after Mass and pass him a donut in the church hall, that our nice parish priest is a soldier on the battlefield, the presence of Christ made visible, a Triple Threat to the forces of Sin, Death, and the Devil.

O Jesus, Eternal Priest, keep Your priests within the shelter of Your Most Sacred Heart, where none can touch them. Keep unstained their anointed hands, which daily touch Your Sacred Body. Keep unsullied their lips daily tinged with Your Precious Blood. Keep pure and unworldly their hearts, sealed with the sublime mark of the priesthood. Let Your Holy Love surround and protect them from the world’s contagion. Bless their labors with abundant fruit, and may the souls to whom they minister be their joy and consolation here, and their everlasting crown in the hereafter. Amen.  —St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus

To join the Crusade for Priests and spiritually adopt a priest, bishop, or seminarian, contact Opus Sanctorum Angelorum.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The smallest of evangelists

As a little Lutheran girl raised in the 80s, I once stood on a pew, pointed at our balding, rotund pastor as he processed past us wearing white, and exclaimed, “Look, mom! Its Boss Hog.” So I'm no stranger to the keen religious sensibilities of children.

But as a convert, Im continually surprised by how much the Catholic Faith resonates with my toddler. Maybe its because of all the bells and whistles: the incense, candles, veils, statues, icons, relics, saints, feast days—all of which give her something to capture her attention, senses, and imagination. Maybe its the gestures: dipping her fingers into holy water, genuflecting, making the sign of the cross. But she is enamored with all things Catholic, and happy to share this joy with others.

Group portrait of children at their First Communion, Holyrood School, Swindon, 1949

At the library, she picks up a book with a princess fairy on the cover, bedecked in glittery pink wings, and says, 
Oh look! My guardian angel! and begins to recite the Guardian Angel Prayer. She walks around the neighborhood declaring, And now the Gospel according to Luke, and traces a cross on her forehead, lips, and chest, with an extra couple thrown in around knee-level.

I am both proud and protective of my little Catholic girl. Because in her mind, every good thing is associated with the Church. She tastes banana bread batter and declares it good like the rosary. She describes her Lite Brite as fun and spiritual and so Catholic. And she has invented a patron saint: Boy Saint Maylor of the Lunches. She believes that good things comes from God.

Which is true. but thats not at all the way the world sees it.

This is the beginning of her long, arduous task of living the faith in a culture that rejects it. Were a minority in our area, the only Catholics in our extended families, and we live in a post-Christian culture. So as her parents, were constantly realizing just how different we are. And that makes it both sweet and heart-wrenching to watch a three-year-old who is only aware of how awesome the Church is, and proud of our Faith.

Her enthusiasm reminds me of saints who sustained their sense of wonder and willingness to proclaim the Truth, no matter who was listening. She will talk about Jesus and the Church no matter who is listening—whether that person is our gay neighbor, the pro-choice librarian, or the couple unloading a Buddha head from their Land Rover. The message remains the same, and the zeal with which she delivers it is not diminished in the least.

Watching this little toddler evangelist is a great reminder of the power of Truth. Who knows what good may come of someone hearing me pray the rosary on our walk, or asking about the 20+C+M+B+16 written in chalk on our door frame (its not a notice that our electricity is being shut off). In anticipating the conflict and preparing a defense we sometimes forget our own love for God and His Church instead of being like the toddler evangelist, joyful, smiling, confident in the Truth.

It is better to be the child of God than king of the whole world. —St. Aloysius Gonzaga