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

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

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