Monday, July 3, 2017

Longing for the freedom found inside the home

I was 38 weeks pregnant and our entire department was being forced to watch a comedy sketch involving Twinkies. Suddenly actual Twinkies were being thrown at us, bouncing off cubicle walls, and I longed for the home, the baby, and the domestic realm—enough of team-building exercises and staff pep talks. That freedom G.K. Chesterton wrote about sounded like a promised land to me:

I would give a woman not more rights, but more privileges. Instead of sending her to seek such freedom as notoriously prevails in banks and factories, I would design specially a house in which she can be free. — G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong World
The very next day, I went into labor.

I became a mother and quit my job. And somewhere between the elation of giving birth and the first weeks at home with a newborn, I thought of Chesterton’s words again. Only this time I was pretty sure prisoners had more freedom than mothers. They got more sleep. They didn’t have to cook meals one-handed, and they had the privilege of eating their food warm. They had time to read.

I have now been “free” for four years. Would it be more freeing to catch a bus downtown and work in an office all day? In many ways it would. There wouldn’t be the unrelenting questions, the diapers, the discipline that begins when I am woken up by a child and ends when they finally fall asleep. I could leave at the end of the day—just walk right out the door. I could even quit. There would be weekends.

I have worked jobs that I thoroughly enjoyed, jobs where I felt I was making a difference. But motherhood has changed me.

When I worked in an Ethiopian orphanage, that choice was lauded by strangers, friends, and coworkers as an incredible sacrifice. But nothing could have made me happier than boarding a plane to Africa with a one-way ticket. To me that was freedom.

I am not always thrilled with the freedom inside the home. There’s always running water and electricity, but patience and fortitude run out regularly. Expectations are high, failure happens on a daily basis, and some days real freedom comes only with the end of the day, a prayer that tomorrow will be better, and falling asleep.

Mother and child, Emil Österman, 1910.

As a mother, I’m no longer pelted with Twinkies, but regularly deflect blocks and stuffed animals. Pep talks are more nuanced, even brilliant, as they occur, not under the fluorescent lights of an office building, but during Mass and concern the soul and the love of God—not the almighty dollar. The stakes are higher, for they have an eternal dimension for myself, my husband, and our children. This is not a job; it is a vocation.

I am free—to love in abundance and sacrifice for the least of these: the unborn child in the womb and the crying ones in my arms. On any given day (sometimes hourly), there is another opportunity to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, counsel the doubtful, and admonish the sinner—days, nights, and years spent practicing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the means of grace. There is certainly abundant freedom, but it is less freedom from something and more freedom to do something and to become some one who is willing to serve and sacrifice, joyfully and abundantly, for another.

Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me. —Saint Ignatius of Loyola

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The ministry in matrimony and the destruction of divorce

Our culture tends to take one of two opposing views on marriage. One is that “happily ever after” is yours so long as you find the right person. The other is that once you say the words “I do” your freedom is gone forever and your life is over (at least until a judge determines otherwise).

But the sacrament of marriage, rightly understood, is a ministry, a service, the lifelong advancement of two souls striving to sanctify themselves, one another, and the children that may come of their union. With the ceremony comes a vocation in mission, as well as a cross.

Jesus’ ministry began similarly: it was at the wedding feast that he performed his first miracle, turning water into wine. And so his earthly ministry began, as did his path to the Cross.

Saint Bernard Church, Burkettsville, OH — Wedding at Cana, detail

Marriage is hard, but the sacred institution is meant for our good and the good of our children, the Church, and society.

There is a saying, “blood is thicker than water,” and yet the closest, most intimate relationship on earth is that between a man and a woman who share not an ounce of the same blood, but are sacramentally united. And from this union God brings forth new life, with all the joys and responsibilities and burdens that come with raising children.

It is the sacred duty of parents to provide not only for their children’s physical needs, but their spiritual and emotional growth as well. And children are very willing to be tiny disciples, looking to their parents with trust and love, asking endless questions, and studying their every word and deed, what is “caught” and what is taught.

As adopted sons and daughters of God, we are told to be like children in the faith, trusting that our Father knows what we need (Matt. 6:8). We are to rely on God and place our trust in Him. The Gospel of Luke asks us: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-13). Like a good earthly father, our Heavenly Father always desires our good and acts accordingly.

Yet how many children and adults have had that faith, trust, and reliance in their earthly father and mother shattered through divorce?

It was the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage that brought my husband to the Catholic faith. And it was his conviction that ultimately brought me to the Church years later. It’s a common draw for children of divorce: the Church as Mother, God as Father, the emphasis on the priest as “Father” and the Blessed Virgin Mary as mother to us all. For me, this was an unexpected gift received with conversion: the restoration of family and the importance of family.

There is so much confusion and heartbreak in our culture today that divorce seems an almost quaint problem. But that is not so for the children of divorce, no matter how much time has passed. Time does not heal all wounds; many of them change and morph over time. This brokenness becomes more apparent with time as parents age, remarry, re-divorce, and grandchildren enter the picture.

There is no easy ministry, no simple mission, and no vocation that comes without crosses. There is no shortcut to that 50th wedding anniversary. Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

But reading the book Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak by Leila Miller, provides ample evidence that despite the circumstances, the effects of divorce on children are remarkably similar. The seventy anonymous authors write of a common and shared pain. As Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted wrote: “Primal Loss records for us the actual pain of those most wounded by divorce—children. This makes it countercultural in the best of ways. Some suffering today is not allowed to be called suffering. It is not politically correct to say that children suffer greatly from the divorce of their parents.”

While the breakdown of the family, and its effects, become more apparent with each passing day, the faithful search for answers. And an intact marriage, with a loving mother and father, is a deep desire of both children and adults—which makes sense, because this union mirrors the love of Christ for the Church. There is great hope in those spouses who have embraced the ministry of marriage and remain committed to raising their children together for the glory of God our Father and Holy Mother Church—despite the crosses that inevitably come their way.

There is no greater force against evil in the world than the love of a man and woman in marriage. —Cardinal Raymond Burke

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Monday, May 22, 2017

A joyful pregnancy announcement in a culture that doesn't approve

I didn’t expect the same level of excitement after announcing this pregnancy. After all, we had an ample dose of the cultural and medical perspective with the birth of our second child: You have a healthy girl and boy, you can be done now. Your family is “complete.”

But we have always been open to new life, have prayed for more children, and are thrilled that God has blessed us with another pregnancy. 

In the paperwork I was given at the doctor’s office, the questions included what my gender identity is and whether the baby’s father has had sex with men in the last six months. I got to choose whether this pregnancy was planned or not, whether I was thinking of ending it, and how happy I was about it. The more I read, the more apparent it became that all our “freedoms” lead to incredibly hard lives.

Several responses from non-Catholic friends and family to my pregnancy indicated a level of concern: pregnancy is hard. Another baby would be difficult for me. Children grow up to become tyrannical teenagers and expensive young adults. How would we pay for braces? Weddings? College?

Certainly getting pregnant, staying pregnant, being pregnant, and raising a child can all be very challenging. But I don’t have to doubt whether this is right. At the moment I can feel exhausted, impatient, and frustrated, wondering if I can make it to that five o’clock hour when my husband comes home. But when I zoom out, and consider the grand eternal perspective—God’s perspective, the Church’s teachings, and the wisdom of the Saints—I see only the gift of new life. 

People are fond of saying, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I spent more time at the office.’” Well, that’s how I feel about having more children. At the moment, there may be pregnancy pains, a botched dinner, and Light Brites all over the floor—but it is just that: a passing moment. I won’t be on my deathbed saying, “I wish the house had been more quiet. And that I’d gotten more sleep. We were all sleeping so well before the third baby came.” 

No matter how hard the days may be, if I stop to imagine three children in their pajamas, jumping on my bed, it’s hard to believe we are being blessed with another child—its that wonderful.

So while my vocation, which consists of pregnancies, child-rearing, and mothering, is seen as a cross (or an ongoing stupid choice) by many, I am concerned for the women in the doctor’s office tackling questions about drug use, sexual habits, previous abortions, and whether the staff can leave messages on their phones.

Motherhood may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I don’t doubt that this is good for me, good for my family, and part of God’s plan for my sanctification.

But people generally don’t like God’s plans, and most, it seems, are in open rebellion against them. Maybe that’s why this third baby has elicited responses ranging from the succinct: Wow, three kids,” to what I call the elephant in the womb, in which we’re just not going to talk about it. But despite the naysayers, whether express or implied, we’re grateful, excited, and so blessed to have God, the Church, and a whole host of Catholic brothers and sisters rejoicing right along with us.

Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God, the angels, and the saints—they are your public. —Saint John Vianney
What we love we shall grow to resemble. —Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. —Jesus Christ (Matthew 18:3)
Sleeping Newborn Infant, By Andrés Nieto Porras

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Monday, May 1, 2017

God gives us the means to protect ourselves

My daughter asked why lions don’t eat giraffes. I explained that giraffes have long, powerful legs and hooves the size of dinner plates to protect them from hungry lions. When she asked the inevitable “Why?” I told her that God gives each animal some way to protect itself.

And then I realized the same is true of us, only more so: Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? (Matt. 6:26)

My children are obsessed with battling evil. They pretend to put on greaves, use empty toilet paper rolls as oliphants, and shoot string and Styrofoam “rainbows” (bow and arrows) at the bad guys. They prepare themselves for these battles, confident in their ability to defeat the enemy.

I am more inclined to play dead like the possum. The world often feels very hostile. It’s easy to forget that God has provided the means to guard our hearts and minds and souls—that we, as Catholics, are uniquely equipped to deal with the cultural onslaught facing us today.

Though I’m sure the giraffe never sees a lurking lion and forgets his powerful legs and hooves, I often lack spiritual instincts. And what could be more simple than calling on the name Jesus?

To pray Jesus is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies. Jesus is the Risen One, and whoever invokes the name of Jesus is welcoming the Son of God who loved him and who gave himself up for him (CCC 2666).

Saint Michael Vanquishing Satan, Raphael, 1518

There are also our Guardian Angels, always present. Even though I say this prayer every day, as part of our bedtime routine, I forget that I have one too. We’re all familiar with the pictures of the angel helping the children cross the bridge, but every one of us (no matter how old) has an angel who can guard us from evils. Otherwise, why would our Heavenly Father have given one to each of us?

From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God (CCC 336).

Then there is the most unlikely of spiritual weapons. Refreshing, cleansing, abundant: holy water. When we had our home blessed by priests, the visit left quite an impression on our children. They eagerly dip their fingers into holy water at our parish and in our home, blessing themselves, each other, and us. The two-year-old will find a cup of water and start “blessing everything from bananas to laundry to the fireplace, singing, A-meeeeen.

I have found by experience that there is nothing from which the devils fly more quickly than from holy water. They also fly from the cross, but they return almost immediately. Certainly, the power of holy water must be great; for my part, my soul feels particular comfort in taking it, and very generally a refreshment and interior delight which I cannot express. —Saint Theresa of Avila

We also have at our disposal, on the family altar, hanging from the rear-view mirror, and in our kitchen, the spiritual sword given by the Queen of Heaven: the Holy Rosary. Again there is the contradiction and beauty of the faith: the meek and humble Virgin, blessing us with the mighty weapon of the rosary. She has promised to those who pray this prayer Her protection and graces, as Our Advocate and Mother. As Pope Blessed Pius IX said: “Give me an army saying the Rosary and I will conquer the world.”

And there is that most Catholic of gestures: the sign of the Cross. I still remember that moment when I first dipped my finger in holy water and made the sign of the Cross, thinking, Now I’m Catholic.” And it is something our children began to do very early because they see us do it everyday, everywhere. We cross ourselves entering a church, after communion, during the liturgy, exiting a church, driving past a church, hearing a siren, and driving past a cemetery. Saint John Vianney wrote, He, who when tempted, makes the sign of the Cross with devotion, makes hell tremble and heaven rejoice.

Mark all your actions with the sign of the life giving Cross. Do not go out from the door of your house till you have signed yourself with the Cross. Do not neglect that sign whether in eating or drinking or going to sleep, or in the home or going on a journey. There is no habit to be compared with it. Let it be a protecting wall round all your conduct, and teach it to your children that they may earnestly learn the custom. —St. Ephrem of Syria

And we have the word of God, which the writer of Hebrews calls alive and active, sharper than a two-edged sword. It is in the Scriptures that we find even more reassurance of God’s protection. In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul assures us of the extent of our divine protection, against which no enemy can possibly triumph, as long as we remain humble:

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:14-18).

While there is ample reason to feel assaulted by the culture, the Enemy makes us forget the overwhelming love of a Father for his Children. Just as the sparrow, the giraffe, and every one of God’s creatures has been given the means to protect themselves from the predator and certain death, we too have been given the means to preserve our souls from the evil surrounding us, to look with hope and joy to the promise of Eternal Life. The battle is ours. The light overcomes the darkness. The gates of hell will not prevail. How could it, when confronted with the supernatural protections offered through the one true Faith?

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The domestic church—where we’re used to not getting what we want

My desire for conversion happened days before my first child was born, so my Catholic journey and motherhood are inextricably linked. Both have taught me a thing or two about delayed gratification, self-control, and discipline—all of which appear to be lacking in the culture at large.

But in the domestic church were learning (and teaching) all those hard lessons—that “our way” isnt always Gods way, and that what is hard is often good, and for our good. As a wife, I am called to love a husband, considering his good before my own, and be subject to him as to the Lord. As a mother, I contend with 5 a.m. wake-up calls, vomit, and one million questions a day. The other night I slept for four interrupted hours. 

But children are a blessing beyond compare.

In this vocation, it is readily apparent that hopes are often dashed. Infertility and miscarriage are a reality. Life is tangible, and death is all too real. When prayers, tears, and doctors dont change things, youre reminded (once again) that you dont always get what you want.

And even when we do get what we want in the big things (e.g., a perfectly timed pregnancy, the dream house) or in the small things (7 straight hours of sleep), there is still the constant tension of our battle with sin and the devil. No amount of anger, therapy, or protesting changes the reality that life is hard, especially for those taking up their Cross.

The domestic church teaches parents all kinds of lessons, which we do our best to pass on to our children. Each time we kneel down in prayer or line up for confession, we provide that example again: we can’t do whatever we want; getting our way isn’t paramount.

The Naughty Drummer Boy by Nicolaes Maes, 1655

Its increasingly obvious just how important these basic lessons of childhood are to society. These are the means by which children grow into adults who are capable of handling adversity. 

And every man that strives for self control is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. 1 Corinthians 9:25
As Christians, we have the shield of faith. We remain oriented toward that which is eternal, true, and unchanging: God Himself. “We were by nature the children of wrath,” says St. Paul, but have become the disciples of Christ. And because of this we have an increasingly rare and refreshing perspective, one that is directly opposed to the passions run amok in our world. 

The Church is the sacrament of Gods love... In the same way the family is a community of life and love. It educates and leads its members to their full human maturity and it serves the good of all along the road of life. In its own way it is a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church. The future of the world and of the Church pass by way of the family. —Pope Saint John Paul II's Homily, November 30, 1986

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Monday, April 3, 2017

The model of perfect motherhood—and we know so little about her

When I was working at an evangelical university, there were countless devotions and sermons about the Proverbs 31 woman. She was the source of inspiration for wives and mothers, while Mary was presented (if at all) simply as a woman that let God work through her, just as He does through us all.

Before coming to the faith, that made sense. My husband once suggested that Mary was more worthy of imitation, to which I responded, “But there’s almost nothing about her in the Bible.”

How can you venerate someone about whom you know so little? There’s nothing but the yes, the Magnificat, anxiety over losing Jesus, and do whatever he tells you. But how did she care for her husband? Her son? Did she make things and sell them? Did she rise before dawn? I wanted particulars.

After giving birth to a cantankerous baby, I really wanted particulars. At that point I did desire conversion, and found myself wishing I knew more about Mary. What would Mary do? Was Jesus a good sleeper? He must have been. What was her response to criticism, to people wondering why she didn’t have more children?

But we don’t know those particulars about her. She points always and only to God, to her Son.

Madonna im Rosenhag, Stefan Lochner, (1448)

Her “transparency is probably for our own good, because particulars irritate. Knowing someone has money is different than finding out they buy $375 t-shirts. Just like the Pinterest mom with the made-from-scratch sunflower cupcakes and banners made of bunting: the details annoy us.

And certainly knowing the particulars of how God’s most perfect creature navigated her vocation would inspire nothing short of frustration and irritation in us imperfect, struggling mothers, with our equally imperfect children.

Instead, God has given us the aspects of the Virgin Mary’s life that we need to focus on: her fiat, and her constant obedience to God.

That is all we need, because that is more than enough to grapple with. It outshines anything the internet offers by way of perfectly imagined motherhood. And we know, through the life of her Son, exactly what that yes” entailed. We can read His story, and know the incredible cost of her obedience, and of our own.

And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more. Luke 12:48

Blessings often come with a corresponding sacrifice, a reality we’re all too aware of—which is why it is so irritating when someone seems to have skipped out on the hard stuff of life and still received so much. But with Mary there is no question. Her perfection was necessary for her to accept her blessing—one that came with swords and left her standing at the foot of the Cross.

We are not jealous of her; we do not desire to be her. It’s enough to desire to be like her, in the smallest of ways, in our everyday moments of surrender to God.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is loved and venerated because she accepted all of it, graciously, thankfully—an interior disposition that is elusive at best for most of us. It’s easy to imagine what we might do with money or fame, but nothing short of awe-inspiring to try—in the smallest of ways—to be like Our Lady, to imagine what it was like to be her.

Even while living in the world, the heart of Mary was so filled with motherly tenderness and compassion for men that no-one ever suffered so much for their own pains, as Mary suffered for the pains of her children.  —Saint Jerome

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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.

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