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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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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