Notes from a Divorced Catholic

This could have just as easily been titled “Notes from a Mid-30s Mother” or “Notes from a Melancholic-Choleric Grad Student”. Or any other combination of personality ticks that could be labeled and hyper-linked on a social media profile. The difference and danger of identifying myself as a divorced Catholic is that somehow, the impression is given that I am the self-nominated voice of this particular demographic. And I reject that. Emphatically and with fervor. Every person on the face of this planet has his or her own story. We each have to put a signature at the end of our own life and despite trends and statistics, none of us are interchangeable with any other in whatever minorities or groups or demographics we happen to belong. Are you a homeschooling mother of four? You’re not like any other. Are you a faithful, stay-at-home father of two children? You’re not like any other. Are you a single, early twenties, same-sex attracted woman? You’re not like any other. Each of us is unrepeatable. Each of us is not the sum of society’s definitions about our character…

With that disclaimer, I offer some simple notes on a life that is a bit… different. It is my own random bits, in no particular order, from my own scattershot brain and not meant to speak for any others.

According the the NY Times there were about 5,000 households like mine in 2011: a single woman with seven biological children. That is 5,000 out of about 122 million households. Catholics make up about 22% of Americans. Less than 1/10 of Catholic households have more than three children in it. If I calculate my rough numbers correctly, this means there are about 100 households like mine across the United States. If we are generous— given population breakdowns— there might be two in my entire state?

-^ That?! That… is an incredibly sobering and isolating statistic. I’m a demographic unicorn. And I never wanted to be one.

-I have learned so much about my own judgemental attitudes. Because of how the social aftershocks have continued to play upon my life, I can see echoes of who I used to be in many of my friends… and in the social distancing that has happened in my life. Here’s the thing about the word “judgemental” though. Most people don’t know any better. We’re the product of our upbringing and our catechesis, which is so often lacking in any comprehensive “how to” lessons on integrating separated and divorced families into the normal, healthy parish life. Good, practicing Catholics simply don’t know how to “do” this. And I don’t hold this against anyone. I was the same. I can think of some single mother families I used to know and I was kind and charitable and “let me know if you need anything” just like everyone else. But I simply didn’t know *how* to integrate these women or their kids into my wholesome, stay-at-home, homeschooling mother life. So I kept them at an arm’s length. Just to be safe. Being on the other side of the arm now, I feel that pain and that isolation. But I understand it… and try not to take it personally.  The Church Militant has some hard, serious work to do on coexisting in this hospital of sinners.

-Yes, I’ve heard of Retrouvaille. Yes, I’ve read (and would recommend)  Primal Loss. Yes, I’ve seen that one Fulton Sheen video about how marriage is hard work. Yes, I know the Church’s teachings about separation and divorce. Yes I know about annulments. Thank you for the prayers for my family. That’s all. Some very well meant comments can sting… partially because folks can be insensitive. And partially because my heart is still defensive.

-It is a difficult thing to balance authenticity and discretion. Airing out the truth and protecting my family. I am doing the best I can. And this is my discernment to do. Not anyone else’s.

-The hard thing is that my world has to become, by necessity, very small anyway. I don’t usually have *time* for mommy’s groups or nature outings or Rosary Makers or whathaveyou. I barely have time for the small handful of friends I somehow have retained. When I am with my children— 63.3% of the the time— I am with them. And it is hard. Grueling. There are seven of them. There is one of me. There are three different schools. And two toddlers. And extra-curriculars. And doctor appointments. And potty training. And driving lessons. And teeth to brush and breakfast to make and stories to read and laundry to fold and bills to pay. And, and, and… all the demands of large family life with the exception of there being only one adult at the helm. Very little time or breath to answer phone calls or make room for the social life I need.

-What about the other 36.7% of my life? When I am not with the children? Do I get to live it up, wild and free in a sick sort of quasi-bachelorette way? No. The first thing I do is drink. Silence, that is. I drink the silence deep into this parched soul. (Maybe followed by a good, red wine…) The noise of large family life is utterly overwhelming for my introverted, abstract thinking brain. And so, when I wave goodbye and blow kisses to my babies when they go to their dad’s house… I return to my home and shut the door and pause. And listen. And begin the act of self-restoration. Books. Poetry. Music (I live somewhere between Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and Brother Isaiah’s “Jacob’s Song”). Saltwater. Fresh air. Meandering in my mind and neighborhood.

-But it can’t be too long-lived. I have to have a future for these children after all. And there are seven of them. Being out of the workforce for 15 years means that I have very few options. As such, I study for a professional career in counseling. The 36.7% of my life is my book time. Reading. Writing papers. Studying. Being willfully distracted by anything other than studying. Then drinking more silence. This time neat. Running to the waterside if I feel overly emotional. Running to a friend if I feel isolated. Guarding and cultivating my need for laughter. A reminder that life is short and Calvary is actually lined with fragrant roses if only we stop to smell them along the way. Trying to not take myself too seriously… but to take myself measurably.

-The glorious thing the past two years have taught me is gratitude. Is a man ever able to appreciate a piece of bread more than when he is starving? Have ever the simple joys in life meant so much as when that is all there is in which to delight? There is something about being utterly crushed and weighed down by the monstrosity that is your life at the moment… that gives you such an acute awareness of and appreciation for the most primitive or nondescript sensations. A child’s smile. Hot water. The smell after a fresh rain. A pillow. Suddenly, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. And what a gift it is to be enlivened by the ordinary. Not everyone has that.

-Last year I woke up one day on a murphy bed at a friend’s house and had no idea where I was for a solid three minutes. I cried out in a half-awake state, as if crucified: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me!” I had been in and out of temporary, residential schedules, bouncing around friends’ homes, sitting on the floor pumping breastmilk and storing in friends’ freezers, working at a restaurant, begging for free childcare, writing court declarations, and being sucker punched by the horror of what I read in return. I wept whenever I had to leave my baby. I lost a lot of weight. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t make a decision. I was skittish and dissociated from what I was experiencing. I was in the throes of trauma. And I was held up by my community and by my family at a distance and by strangers and by those very dear to me who became forever grafted to my heart.

-^That was about 14 months ago. It feels like 14 years ago.

-Answering the question “How are you?” has never been more challenging. Are we grading on a relative curve to how I *have been*?  Then, fabulous!  But are we prepared to hear how I really am sometimes?  Because folks generally tire of hearing about the same “Busy. Overwhelmed. Guarded. Dealing with nonsense you’d rather not hear about. Busy.” hamster wheel that is my answer more often than not. However: in a brilliant sort of irony… when the complexities are SO overwhelming in my world… I actually am able to access a tiny bit of interior freedom that is imperturbable.  There is so much that I can’t control that I very often just live 15 minutes at a time and can marvel at the quivering birch leaves behind my house or savor my cup of coffee or check out to a lengthy scroll through Pinterest… and I’m fine.  Very often full of joy. Happiness is from without. Joy is from within. I turn within a lot to be able to say “Fine” and mean it, when others ask.

-The grace of the sacraments is real.

-The experience of having my entire life utterly ripped out from underneath me has been a gift.  A most painful, beyond-the-pale gift that I would never wish on anyone. But I am grateful. So grateful for the ways I have grown to know myself. I’ve never really gotten to know this woman in depth… she has been a shell for a long time. And I am able now to see me for who I am, weak and flawed and desperately in need of grace… but also a beloved, chosen-before-all-time daughter of an incredible Father. He had to hit me pretty hard in order for me to wake up to all the goodness and beauty He has in store for me. And I am grateful.

-I live on quotes. And books. And poetry. And beauty. And delightful pockets of random joy.

-Being an adult is hard! I don’t know anything! I am 36 years old and still don’t know some very basic life skills! I just learned how to change a drill bit and identify a breaker box last year. This year, my goal is to figure out how to check my oil and try to understand what the stock market means. Thank the good Lord for YouTube tutorials.

-I don’t like attention. And I don’t want to be a poster-child for “divorced, Catholic, veiling, INTJ  mothers of seven who’d rather be homeschooling”. I don’t see myself as one. If I had my way, I’d be living happily under a rock somewhere in the woods, reading books and listening to birds and marveling at the moon. Yet, I am here. In this world. On Facebook. And Instagram. And responding to the call to use the gifts He has given me. I don’t know what God is asking of me yet. I only hope to always be obedient to the promptings He puts on my heart. And those promptings nearly always whisper: Write! I am a poor co-author of this story that He is weaving in me and through me. But I still have an obligation to tell it.  

-Having some very nearly libertarian leanings… I am thankful for public assistance. And I think shame is fascinating. And I am thankful for feeling genuine, accurate empathy for so many people in this world now that I never felt before. And I think the human heart is fascinating. And I’m thankful to be growing one.

That’s all I really have to say tonight… peace to you and yours.

 

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In honor of something real

There are many things I will not be able to pass on to my children. There are many flaws I have. I can’t give them horseback riding lessons. I don’t have an inheritance set up for them, much less a college fund. They also don’t have a mother who knows how to knit, or throw specially themed birthday parties, or who can teach them about which fork is the right one to use at a dinner party.

They will learn other things from me of course; I do have some gifts and skills to pass on to them that are unique to me, because I am not their mother by accident and I know God has allowed me to raise them for a reason and for them to raise me for a reason.

And given the context of who we are and what we can offer them, I think mothers generally want to capture or honor our children’s childhood and experiences in some sort of way. We are cognizant of how precious and short the time is that we are allowed to raise our children so we each sort of find our own ways to memorialize that. I am not a scrapbooker. I tried for a few months once with my first born but quickly abandoned it. I admire those women who do have the patience and skill and organization to devote to scrapbooking but that is not me.

I am however, a writer. And I write to my children. I began before they were even born. And want to encourage others to do so as well. I fully believe that the permanence of ink on paper is different than the old family blogs we all used to keep. I love media and I love my computer. But my flesh and blood child needs to know that I intentionally turned off the glowing lights every now and then, and that this woman placed herself in silence and thought of nothing but communing with him, whether he was in the next room sleeping or in a whole different state at the moment. My thoughts were with him. And the paper was touched by me. And the ink stained my fingers and sometimes smudged the page. And I breathed on my words. Occasionally there is even the stain of a teardrop on the paper.

When we write with pen on paper; it is real, and tangible and permanent. And the very medium is part of the message. I keep a journal for each child and write whenever I make time to… (sometimes it’s even months or years in between entries!) The journals evoke the sense of sight, touch, and smell. They are more real than the pictures I post online gushing about my children. I sometimes paperclip a real photo in the book. I sometimes keep the little scribbles they’ve made on the church envelopes and tuck those into the books.  This is effortless scrapbooking. When each child turns 18, I will surrender their journals to them. So far, they don’t even know of their existence. And they can look back and know the inner parts of me at certain points of their life. The mystery in the question “What was my mother thinking?!” will be partially answered… not exactly with abandon (I am mindful that they are still my children… not the keepers of my every heartache), but at least with authenticity.

Write to your babies. It doesn’t have to be a long, multi-paged ballad singing their praises. It can be a simple note that you were praying for them that day or a funny thing they said or something you appreciated. The point is to do it. To make incarnate the fact that you were thinking of them.

I imagine our grown up children being delighted and grateful to be given something real in a world where real seems increasingly difficult to find. 

 

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Worthy

One of the more painful parts of mothering alone is the fact that no one is there to help you sweep out your head trash.  And this happens to all of us. All mothers at some point or another snap occasionally; we lose our tempers. We say regrettable things. We stomp our feet, slam down dishes, yank arms too hard or yell at the children. Even typing this out causes feelings of shame to resurface. It’s awful.

The good mothers recover well. They’ll cry it off. They’ll apologize to their children and beg forgiveness and smother them in hugs and kisses. And all will be well. We are human. We are weak. We are breakable.

(Sometimes pride stands in the way of this necessary contrition and reconciliation. But that is a topic for another time…)

What needs to be addressed loud and clear is the moral MANDATE we have to not let our failures define us. Yes, this is a moral mandate. This isn’t about feelings of self-esteem. This is about taking Jesus Christ at His word when He says that we have been chosen, we have been redeemed, we are His beloved children, and that nothing in this or any other world can ever separate us from the love of Christ. This is not an optional belief. This is a creed given to us by Scripture and to dismiss it, as we wallow in shame and self-pity, is to dismiss Jesus.

When we are confronted with our own weaknesses and failures, we have to remember our identity. For mothers who are going it alone (and alone can be emotional as well as legal…), it’s an extraordinary challenge. In a healthy marriage, where two become one, a husband can reassure his woman of all the good things about her. He can remind her who she is. And that she is not “the sum of her weaknesses and failures” and that he too, accepts her and loves her; today was just a bad day.

But when we are by ourselves, women have a taller hill to climb. We are left to brood alone about all our shortcomings and we’re tempted to allow lies to creep in that undermine our vocation… our self worth. No one dispels them for us when it’s 11 pm and we are crying in our rooms alone.

Yet there is a beautiful irony in this… a silver lining.

Being on your own forces you to cling to your Divine Lover in a much more profound way than many happily married women do. I have never been more certain of my identity and of His love for me than I am now. I spent 15 years of married life looking for affirmation in all the wrong ways, while Jesus waited patiently for me to turn to Him. He was always there with open, blood stained arms ready to hold and affirm and cherish me in all the mess that I am. I just needed my life to fall completely and utterly apart in order for me to internalize this (I’m a slow learner…)

Today, I am still weak. I am still breakable. I am still prone to failures. That hasn’t changed.  What has changed is the deep, searing conviction that I am a daughter of a good, good Father. I have family. I have a home. I am worthy by His blood. He said so.

I scribbled these verses that were singing in my head this morning… if I were to clean it up and try to be official, I’d probably title it “Be a Smart Consumer of Media.” I hope there is a woman somewhere in cyberspace who sees this, who needs this and who knows that she is not alone…

 

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2018 Booklist (÷ 2)

If you read this website, there’s a fair chance you have similar tastes in literature as I do. And if that’s the case, it’s probably also true that you like booklists curated by likeminded zealots.  So I’ll give you one. I have enjoyed doing Year in Review booklists before but this year is different (and we’ll all just collectively erase 2017 from our memories, thankyouverymuch) because I had an excellent amount of reading time during the first part of the year and will have very little free reading time during the rest of it. It’s also different in that there is a disproportionate amount of spiritual books and non-fiction listed here; I usually prefer to have a more well-rounded biblio-meal than this. Be that as it may, here are the books upon which I feasted these past few months, and my commentary about whether or not you NEED to read each particular one.

 Night by Elie Wiesel. This was not a pleasant read. But it was important. Sometimes books are like that. They force us to squirm and wince and confront the horrors of humanity. I believe this book should be mandated reading for all high school students before graduating. And it should be mandated reading for all adults who have any interest whatsoever in being fully human.

 

The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah. This is the most important spiritual reading I’ve done in years. I would go so far as to say it’s in my top 5 books that every Catholic/Christian/Thinker needs to read. There’s simply no way to overstate its impression that was made on me… and in such timely and relevant times within our culture. I urge you, if there is only one book on this list begging to be read, it’s this one. You won’t regret it.

 

Thirsting for Prayer by Jacques Philippe. “Misnomer” is when something is named wrong… what is the word for when a book is published with the wrong cover image? This is my lament will all of Father Philippe’s books; they look like 1990s self-help, woo-woo stuff. But they are absolute gold. Every one of them. No other contemporary writer has had such a massive influence on my spirituality than this author and he has been a fundamental part of my spiritual growth especially these past couple years when I’ve faced tremendous hardship. This book, like all of his is profound, concise and easy to read.

 Belles on Their Toes by the Gilbreths. This is the fantastic sequel to Cheaper by the Dozen and it’s just as much fun! I was looking for something light and comical before heading into Lent and this book delivered exactly what I needed. If you’ve not read any of these original, TRUE stories, do yourself a favor and start now.

 

 In the School of the Holy Spirit. (*Sigh* Scepter Publishing… please… stop.) I read this book to refresh on the concepts before I gave a presentation of Fr. Philippe’s teachings last March. It is wonderful for those who feel kind of “stuck” in their lives or paralyzed with indecision on making choices.  He is always full of wisdom and common sense.

 

  A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell. This was definitely my most challenging read of the year. So, just as a disclaimer, Thomas Sowell is my socioeconomic man-crush; he can write no wrong. The man is genius in how lucid and wise he is in explaining our culture. I’ve been a longtime follower of his syndicated newspaper column before he retired but never actually read one of his books. Basic Economics is sitting in my Audible library waiting patiently for me to get around to it, but someone recommended this book in particular as being an ESSENTIAL title that all Americans should read. So I made this my first Sowell book and I now can emphatically agree. It’s difficult to focus on the writing if you’ve been living primarily on memes and HuffPo , but with some effort you’ll see why the academic language is necessary to explain the polarity in our country. I don’t think it’s possible to find any other writer who can explain both political positions with as much unbiased clarity as Sowell does. He is an absolute gift to all of us.

 The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich. I started this two years ago and decided to pick it up again and finally finish it. I’m so glad I did. The book is chalk full of fascinating trivia first of all, but the real reason why it’s so wonderful to read is that it gives a real, meaningful picture, EXPERIENCE, of Jesus in His humanity!  If you have any interest in Lectio Divina or contemplation, this book can be a powerful aid to that.  So good.

 Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown.  I read this out of sheer curiosity about the Brené Brown cult that seems to be growing. And it was good. What I like about this author is that she’s not just a self-help guru, she is a trained researcher and I appreciated her balance between brain and heart in this book. I’ve since listened to a couple talks she’s given and find her very compelling in nearly everything she says. I can’t quite say I’m looking for backstage passes, but I definitely think what I read in this book was worth my investment and I’ll be making time for some of her other titles as well.

 Arise from Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn’t Make Sense by Benedict Groeschel. If there is a title that epitomizes my life this year, it is this one. I have always loved this priest and his no nonsense delivery of profound spiritual guidance. I think what makes him especially compelling is that Fr. Groeschel was trained in psychology and understands human behavior so well. He is witty and thought provoking and I am glad to have picked up this book last month.

 Forty Reasons I am a Catholic by Peter Kreeft. I felt so strongly about this book that I wrote a review about it on Amazon. Read it. Also read the description of the book on that site and tell me it doesn’t sound absolutely riveting. This is the kind of book you need to have sitting out on your bookshelf or coffee table to spark the interest of any visitors. Because even just a flip through the pages is extremely compelling and forces you to pause and read. Excellent.

 Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak by Leila Miller. I hated this book. It made me cry. It hurt like hell. And I never want to see it again. That said, you should read it.  Every person should. This is the untold perspective.  I am not seeking a divorce in my situation, nor do I think divorce to be healthy for children in most cases, so I was angry and bitter when a friend challenged me to read this book. I don’t need to be convicted on how traumatizing divorce is for children! Leave me alone! But, wanting to face the full, ugly truth of my defense mechanism and to go into whatever my future holds for me as prepared as I can be, I read the book. And I am thankful that I did. I don’t think people realize how important it is not just for couples who are divorcing or on the brink of it, but for everyone to read. Marriage is not a private institution; the stake in it is communal. So don’t just recommend this book to some struggling couple that you know, read it yourself also.

 Strong Mothers, Strong Sons by Meg Meeker. I read this when it first came out a few years ago, but since my situation changed so drastically, and teenagers suddenly sprouted into my existence, I thought it was time for a revisit so I’m working on finishing this one up. I really like Meg Meeker a lot. You’re not going to find any gimmicks or profound truths with her necessarily, but just well written, thoughtfully researched stuff on childraising.

 

And that is the end of it! I expect to be fully consumed with textbook reading in my “free time” this year so I will just be very happy if I finish the current fiction titles I have already started: The Brothers Karamazov and there’s about 6 hours left of The Count of Monte Cristo (ahem, Bill Homewood narrating ONLY please… his voice is like delicious French butter…) which I began on audio last year when I was spending more hours in my car than I am now. I’ll toss in some spiritual reading for the morning time, fairy tales in between semesters, and call the year well spent!

 

 

 

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Protecting Young Minds

I’m writing a full article on this rather than a Facebook status or just a book review on Amazon, because this is Important. Like, capital “I” Important.

No one likes to talk about pornography. Least of all with children. We shouldn’t have to! But if we don’t tackle this difficult subject head-on, we are leaving our children unarmed and vulnerable in a world that is out to destroy their innocence.

I’m somebody who struggles to find the right words to discuss delicate things with children. It’s taken me a long time to overcome blushing at even naming anatomically correct body parts with my kids. Much of this is due to how I was raised and what happened when I was a child. While I was growing up, body development and sexual issues weren’t talked about.  At all. I had to figure it out on my own and everything I thought I needed to know was learned by sneaking peeks at our medical encyclopedias at home (feeling SOOO ashamed trying to understand the “V” section) and seeing pornography in 6th grade.  11 years old.  I would stay the night at a friend’s house and she’d sneak her dad’s VHS tapes and put porn on for our entertainment. I was disgusted and morbidly fascinated all at once… I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know what to say to defend myself.  25 years later… those images are still burned into my brain.  Add in some other awful bits of harassment and exploitation from strangers as a child and you can bet that it took a long time for me to come to a healthy and proper understanding of sexuality. The trauma has left lifelong scars.

And my circumstances are not unique.

My 5th grade son says kids watch porn on their phones on the school bus. My 8 year old daughter has been startled by images from seemingly benign Google searches. Today the vast majority of children will be exposed to pornography LONG before they hit adulthood. It’s not a matter of if… it’s when. 30% of the Internet industry is pornography!  30%.  We live in an age where kids don’t have to sneak their dad’s VHS tapes anymore… they don’t have to go looking for it. The porn will find them, online.  If we are not proactive in handling this, we are doing a disservice to our children… and one that will have major consequences as they get older. Internet filters aren’t enough. Not by a long shot. Even with a great filter and a publicly, supervised computer situation; they are still vulnerable. If children don’t see porn at home, it’ll be at the park on other kids’ phones, or from neighbor kids who want to show the newest, cool game on their tablets… or it’ll even come up driving down the street on billboards!

There is hope. There are organizations out there providing excellent resources for educating the public.  Like Enough is Enough. I am so proud, particularly, of that organization for standing behind things like the National Sex Ed Sit-Out Day on April 23rd. The research and statistics this organization provides are sobering… please take the time to educate yourself.

One tool that has been absolutely critical in our household is the use of two books:

 Good Pictures Bad Pictures is where we started. What drew me to the book was that it contained a SCRIPT for someone like me who is awkward at finding the right words for sticky subjects.  Secondly, it has the right KIND of illustrations—ones that offer a visual for a concept with soft, appealing artwork but are not cartoon-ish or trite in any way. Third, this book is EVIDENCE DRIVEN. It is not religious, making it a universally powerful tool.  I love how the science of addiction is discussed and how it gives kids proactive action plans for what to do when they encounter pornography. I use this book with my children as young as 6-7. And even my teenagers have reviewed it with us upon repeat readings.

Last year the same authors came out with Good Pictures, Bad Pictures Jr. which is ideal for ages 3-6 ish.  It is also an excellent tool for beginning to dialogue on this issue with very young children. Our children need to know from a very young age that they can always talk to us about things like this and that it’s important to not keep secrets from parents.  This book also has an easy-to-remember action plan for young children and also tips for parents on how to help children who can’t get bad images out of their head.

The situation isn’t perfect. But these two books have helped me to feel some major peace of mind that my children know what is what… and what to do about it. I can’t save my kids from all the evil in this world that will come across their paths. But I can stay educated on the issue. I can keep open communication with my kids. I can practice healthy habits with them. And I can equip them with tools on how to fight this beast that threatens to ravage their mental health for years to come.

The world is blessed by a child’s innocence. It is our duty to safeguard it.

“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.” 

-Maria Montessori
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Plan B: Chapter 2

I’m beginning a new chapter of life. One that developed as a sort of plot-twist to the plan I had written out for myself. And it is filled with goblins and shadows. 900 different reasons to be afraid, to doubt and to run away. Starting in early May, I will begin full-time studies in a grad program working towards my Master’s degree and licensure in professional counseling. There has been well over a year of discernment on what exactly I ought to do with my life since it hasn’t gone how I anticipated. So I had to adjust. Per court orders, I had to get a job, wean my baby and find somewhere else to live. I have worked hard at the bottom of the ladder as a restaurant host for a year. It was humble work but I have been thankful for that paycheck… and getting paid to greet people and invoke in them a genuine smile is something kind of on the spectrum of wonderful. I learned a lot about the real world outside my stay-at-home, homeschooling mommy bubble and developed a genuine love for my coworkers. I am grateful it provided the stop-gap for me to make ends meet for my children.

During this time, I have been blessed in astonishing ways by countless people. Childcare that I couldn’t have otherwise afforded. Helping hands in repairing one home and setting up another while living with friends in the meantime. Anonymous monetary gifts that appeared at just the right time.  A three hour road-trip to bring my children to me for my father’s funeral. Homemade soup and a bottle of wine left on my front porch, a safe place to call home with generously reduced rent… the list of blessings goes on despite the continual onslaught of challenges during this time of transition. I have never known such kindness. And it hurts in the most painful, beautiful way. Turns out that people can be rather extraordinary…

And now, I am quitting my job and taking a massive leap of faith in God (and in the federal, student loan program), to devote myself full-time to these classes. The demands of solo-mothering seven incredible children and working part-time are already very challenging for me. Adding in a full academic load would make for an unsustainable lifestyle.

So I’m all in.

Regarding the counseling profession: many people go into counseling because they have a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy for others. That wasn’t my story at the outset. I have always found the human mind and heart intriguing… where people come from, why they think the way they do and how their experiences have shaped them. I used to pore over psychology textbooks in my early teens just to feed my curiosity. It’s been a fascinating study for my intellect. But a shift happened when my passion for understanding morphed from a purely scientific interest into a truly more genuine love for others. I have benefitted so much from my own counselor and the healthy thinking that has been offered to me through the past couple years of upheaval, that it has awakened in me a desire for helping others be restored to wholeness also.  Not that I have all the answers now (I don’t) or that I’m the perfect specimen of emotional-cognitive balance (Who is?).  But Peter Kreeft once said something to the effect of “I’m just one bum pointing out to another where there’s free food.”  And I like that thought. I don’t know exactly in what capacity I’ll practice this profession, but somehow, I want to point out bridges to wellness and authenticity for those struggling in their own minds or in their relationships too. There’s a part of me that is able to see and connect and love others through their own trials in a way I wasn’t able to before. I guess counseling for me is a career choice that began in my mind and perhaps only after taking a scenic route through the backwoods of trauma… did it find its way to my heart.

To be honest, what I choose to do to provide for my family is almost beside the point. Because above all else, I simply want to be as available and present as possible to my children. They deserve the best of me, not just me scraping by for the next 20 years trying to hold it together. I can do more for them. And through God’s grace, I will.

There have been many lessons for me over the past couple years… new understandings of what humility, love, mothering and friendship actually mean (and don’t mean) in practice. I know I still have so much to learn. Everything must be held with an open hand… all I can do is the next right thing—which is always providing what is best for my children. If I get the honor of helping others along the way, all the better. And so, this is the door that has opened in front of me that will provide a means to care for them the best way I can. 900 goblins being on the prowl and all…

So, yes; there are fears. Absolutely. But I can’t be a slave to those fears. There is an extremely questionable amount of “certainty” in front of me. Everything may not be okay for some time. However, I know that I’ve survived “not okay” before.  And I don’t expect my Jesus will abandon me now. I’m a great excuse for Him to show off His goodness to an unworthy woman who happens to be in very difficult circumstances. So to be courageous, for me—in this case— is an act of the will. I.e., there are so very many things that could go wrong, it is laughable in fact! But I’m choosing to not let that stop me. I am casting my net out into the deep and committing my will to my God, Whose ways are mysterious and Who can bring good out of even terrible situations. Because He is Love.

I know there is much unseen and perhaps misunderstood in all this. That’s okay. It’s not right to bare all the mysteries of the soul. And I don’t have time to agonize over that in the way I used to anyway. I am simply thankful for coffee, rain, juncos chirping in my yard and being Christ’s littlest idiot. May He do with me what He will.

Thank you all for your love and support.

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An Open Letter To Overthinkers

I know it’s a not a matter of being hard headed. Actually, you probably have an incredibly sharp intellect that wants to believe everything you read in the Gospels so you dedicate yourself to the path of understanding. Brilliant. A hunger for truth puts you in the good company with the likes of Augustine and Aquinas. So why can’t you just get on board with the idea of how simple faith is?  If you could only believe the wonderful promises of Jesus Christ… this would not be a difficult task. I’m sure you’d willingly walk through fire laden down with the cross. Because Jesus said we would not be overcome. Jesus said this was the way to truly follow Him. Jesus said there is merit in this. And Jesus said He was going ahead of us to prepare a place in His Father’s house.

So rise up and go.

Oh, you can’t?  It’s not that easy, you say? I know, because I’ve said the same things. The good intention is there but so is the doubting and the analyzing. “What if it’s all a lie?”  “How can I make sense of a benevolent God in face of all the suffering in this world?” “What if Christianity is a masterful delusion and becoming worm food is the end of my story?”

“Just have faith!  Keep praying! One foot in front of the other!”  These are usually the answers from devout Christians. (As if we don’t want to have faith or move forward in the hope that they seem to have.) But what they don’t understand is that you’re stuck wondering if these characters are part of the fairy tale chasing a fantasy castle or credible, rational, tried beings who simply haven’t thought this issue out as thoroughly as you.

Pascal and Peter have already offered some guidance for those of us plagued with second-guessing. Pascal in reasoning that it doesn’t matter if it’s a worm-destined fairy tale or not… we’ve got nothing to lose by buying in.  And Peter by reasoning “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  Peter was no philosopher. So he hadn’t weighed out the nihilism of Nietzsche or the atheism of Dawkins. But this fisherman did have some business savvy. He knew hope when He saw it. He knew which path offered life and which one didn’t. So he picked his investment accordingly, and unto death, by the way.

Well there’s a third route to faith for non-simpletons, that isn’t as famous. It’s a second-hand, rabbit trail through the woods of your intellect.  And it is good.

If you can’t buy into faith because it’s a smart gamble, and you can’t buy into faith because it is the most attractive narrative explaining human existence (relativism being patently irrational and worm food being patently depressing), perhaps the proper marketing technique is celebrity endorsement.  And I’m not just talking about “Oh look how awesome Mother Teresa was! I want to be in her club.”  There are hundreds of extraordinary examples of saints.  But before going on, I want to preemptively address the devil’s advocate in you that wants to retort “So what? Gandhi was awesome and he wasn’t Christian. Buddhism produces nice people. And my atheistic neighbor is one of the most generous people I know!”

And I say “Good for them!” There will always be exceptions because Truth trickles its way into every human heart, regardless of the straw house resistance we might unwittingly put up around it.  But even you, YOU—the one who prizes science and logic— can’t overlook the data while maintaining intellectual honesty. This isn’t as cursory as “There’s been more admirable Christians than people of other faiths…” because numbers aren’t enough to justify the fairy tale.  However, what you begin to learn… what you begin to experience upon studying the saints of history and by rooting yourself into a life of prayer (even if it’s praying to a God out of a Petrine default, rather than having a zealous belief in Him), is that something changes.  You change. Prayer is always heard. Always answered. But a god of any sort can’t be confined to our finite understanding.  Letting go of the demands we want to make of Him in light of the intricate, stringy mess we are facing, and trusting the Weaver’s Hand to do His work on the other side of the loom will do massive work to you and for you and in you.  It will slough off pride. It will expand the heart. It will inspire true compassion and a beautifully genuine faith.  And you will access that part of your spirit that can’t be counted, classified and filed into your mental hard drive.

And it will be good. You will be good. The kind of good that reverberates through the ages because Love that lives in these changed sorts of people never dies. These are people from every age and from every nation. Universal people. Easter people!  Magdalen. Francis. Kolbe. Bahkita. Miguel Pro. And countless others who’ve lived hidden lives in the shadows of the cross. These are the lives well lived. These are the ones who spilled their blood with a love that lived on far longer than their bodies. These are my people. The ultimate non-conformists who mastered their intellects by subjecting their wills.  When I am skittish about Pascal’s wager… when I lack the devotion and certainty of Peter’s commitment… I think of what kind of person I want to be. How do I want my story to play out? To end?

So I rise up. I pack up my doubts, intellectual hesitations and fears in my rucksack to carry with me through the woods. They are part of my cross as I stumble towards the light. Because who wants a god that can be fully comprehended anyway? Folly or not, the love that the saints had transformed their characters. If they were wrong, I want to be wrong with them— but going down that mental vortex is ultimately a fruitless exercise. Because genuine love doesn’t die and can’t be convincingly imitated. By its very nature, love transcends our mental calculations and understanding. These people were radiant and fully alive. So the idea of believing and living and dying like these saints is enough. And meeting up with them for the greatest after-party we could ever possibly imagine is far too enticing for me to pass up. That’s where I want to be.

How about you?

Very respectfully from my own overthinking, underloving heart-under-construction:

Ellie

 

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Saints Through the Year in Picture Books

While I have a “motherload” list of Catholic picture books, I wanted to update and talk specifically about saint books.

When you find a beautiful picture book about a saint… you have a treasure indeed. And this book will do more to form the heart and mind of your child than dry readings from a text or even a decent saint anthology.  The Church Triumphant is our victory crown—our brothers and sisters in Christ who’ve run the race and attained the prize. Nothing in life matters except getting to Heaven.  So emphasizing the stories of those who’ve gone before us in a lovely and accessible way is of extraordinary importance to a child’s education. Many books exist that are great for read aloud times and don’t need picture illustrations. (I am a big fan of the Once Upon a Time Saints series for example, especially to share more obscure saints with kids) But picture books specifically, offer a unique way for young children to metabolize and begin admiring their faith.

How to Incorporate Saint Stories into Your Day

There is no sense in purchasing saint books if all they do is sit on your shelf making you feel guilty for never using them.  I have three favorite methods of incorporating saint picture books into our lives, for three types of people:  The Ambitious Ones. The Focused Ones. And then The Rest of Us. Many of the picture books on my list focus only on a particular legend or anecdote of a saint’s life or even just illustrate a prayer they composed. I like to follow up these books with a very brief biography from a solid anthology of saints.

-For The Ambitious: The answer is obvious. Read the saint stories on their feast days. In my glory years, I had created a liturgical year booklist complete with all the titles I owned and their corresponding feast days. I would pull out the books each month and have them sitting in our monthly picture book basket along with our other seasonal titles and simply read that saint’s story on his or her feast day.  It worked very well. I still practice this method when I can, although my summer saints suffer from neglect with more outdoor/less scholastic-reading time in general. So I just do a modified version of this and try to read about the saint in the month the feast is celebrated. A goal of mine was to have at least one or two saint picture books in the book basket for each month of the year. This is why I’m listing them in monthly order on my site.

-For the Focused: Save all your saint picture books for November—the month of All Saints. And dedicate that month to getting to know our heavenly family better through the reading of their lives. Consider using All Saints Day as an excuse to gift picture books on saints to your family or godchildren.

-For the Rest of Us: Practice the ancient art of “strewing”… and simply leave saint picture books lying about where children can discover them at their own leisure. On coffee tables, in the bathroom, on nightstands, etc. Making sure the saints are part of our everyday lives is important in demystifying them and living the faith in a holistic way.

Disclaimers, Exclusions, Alternatives

As with all my picture book categories, I don’t list every single book on the market simply because life is too short for the mediocre. You’ll find other St. Francis of Assisi books than the ones I have listed, for example. But I only bother including picture books if they are worth the time and can hold their own on at least some level of beauty.  Children are naturally attracted to the beautiful and the true.  So I avoid the Saturday Morning Cartoon illustrations even if they are saintly themed! This last point is personal preference. You may find a deep enjoyment of titles like this or that. Further, perhaps there is a great place for graphic comics like this for your older children.  That’s fine! Just not the focus of this post. The picture book industry has boomed in recent years with its offerings of faith-themed books. Sadly, most of these are repeats of older stories… that had better illustrations anyway. (How many new St. Patrick books do we need anyway?!  Why can’t someone produce an excellent picture book on St. Kateri or St. Francis Xavier)

I have (with hesitation) decided not to include some beautiful books that have been published regarding saints of the Orthodox Church. If the saint is recognized in the Catholic Church as well, those are included.

I have read most, but not every single title here. I included books that appeared—from reviews and research— to be worthwhile. Lastly, while you can be sure that despite my passion and diligence in research to create a very thorough and quality list… I may have overlooked some books that rank as treasures in your mind. In all things, to God be the glory.

The Books

Onward now to the list.  I intend to keep this post updated with the best of what’s out there and encourage you to chase down the out-of-print titles listed here as well… they are worth it.

January

Mary

Mary

Mary

St. Anthony the Great

St. Felix

St. John Bosco

February

St. Brigid

St. Pascual

St. Scholastica

St. Modomnoc

St. Valentine

St. Valentine

March

St. Patrick

St. Patrick

St. Patrick

St. Cuthbert

April

St. Bernadette

St. George

St. George

May

St. Brendan

Our Lady of Fatima

St. Joan of Arc

St. Joan of Arc

St. Joan of Arc

June

St. Kevin

St. Boniface

St. Columba

St. Columba

St. Josemaría Escrivá

July

St. Junipero Serra

St. Benedict

St. Benedict

St. Christopher

St. Christopher

August

St. Clare

St. Tekla

September 

St. Teresa of Calcutta

St. Joseph of Cupertino

St. Ciaran

St. Hildegard

St. Sergius

St. Wenceslas

St. Wenceslas

St. Jerome

October

St. Barnaby

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

St. John XXIII

St. John Paul II

November

St. Martin de Porres

St. Martin de Porres

St. Martin de Porres

St. Frances Cabrini

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

St. Catherine of Alexandria

December

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe

St. Lucy

“In every young person, a point of goodness is accessible and it is the primary duty of the educator to discover that sensitive cord of the heart so as to draw out the best in the young person.”

–St. John Bosco 



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2 x 2 = Faith

 

The 2nd grade class of St. James Catholic School in Oregon City, OR was not a particularly bright bunch in 1989. We slouched our socks and picked our noses and jockeyed to be Teacher’s Pet. There was seriously not a lot to write home about this particular group of kids. We were also forced to memorize the multiplication tables through the twelves. Did us puny, distracted 8 year olds really know anything about the grouping of numbers? No. I don’t think we were even taught what it meant to multiply until another year or so. But we drilled those rote, memorized facts every day, until the whole class knew their times tables forward and back. And when we did progress through the years and get tested periodically, we were glad to have those facts at the ready. We plugged those facts into our problems, confident that they were true… even if we didn’t know why they were true.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was knocking my head against the wall in trying to fully comprehend what it means in the Bible where it says “Faith is a free gift…” I used to beg and beg and beg for this free gift and wonder where the heck it was?! Why didn’t I ever feel all warm and fuzzy and start ordering mountains around and such?! I prayed hard for faith all the time! Well, because I am the queen of strange (and sometimes, mildly inappropriate) analogies, my 2nd grade multiplication tables came back to me. Those facts have been a “free gift” to me my whole life. And while I’m no math whiz, I clearly understand the methodology behind the number facts now. But for a very long time, I didn’t. I could just plug in the right answers because I knew they were right… not because I understood them.

This is very often my faith life as an adult now. I’ll be honest. I don’t “get it” more often than not these days. I can not intellectually conquer the theology behind Romans 8:28: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him…”. But the older I get, the more delighted I am to become childlike in ‘not getting it.’ After decades of trying to research and philosophize and “grasp” Catholicism, I have reached a point where I just throw my hands up now and want to leave that to smarter people than me. Plumbing the depths and breadth of our faith is so far beyond what my brain can handle in the context of the life I’ve been given… I am content anymore to simply play in the shallow end of the pool where I just take everything at face value.

Jesus says “Have no fear.” Okay. Jesus says “Eat my body.” Okay. Jesus says “Have faith.” Okay. Trying to master the enormity of what that means is just plain too hard. The Catechism defines faith like this: “[Faith is] both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God who invites his response, and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed.”

There is nothing about warm fuzzies there. Joy! Faith is an act of the will, a choice to be made. A response to a gift we receive from God but don’t necessarily understand or feel! I’m pretty sure Flannery O’Connor is considered on par with the Catechism right?! Well, she is responsible for my very favorite definition of faith of all time: “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” Amen.

So when I’m faced with extraordinary situations that challenge my relationship with God and my identity in Him… I think of Romans 8:28. Then I shrug my shoulders and say “Okay. I choose faith. I choose He who has the words of Eternal Life…”

Because I’ve got no better answer to the question. Thankfully the cheat sheet to the Exam of Life has already been imprinted on my mind. 2 x 2 = 4 whether we understand that fact or not. And God has us in the palm of His hand and is working constantly for our good… whether we understand that or not. What a relief.

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a goodbye blessing

My son, riches I have not to offer you.
But still, I can baptize this departure.
May my whispered prayers continue to ring in your ears,
long after the din of the world has faded away.
May my embrace be a warm foretaste of the One who has called you
and claimed you long before I was ever made your mother.
May I inhale the scent of your innocence with sorrow.
May I exhale only love.
I will annoint you with these tears, my son.
Let their salt nourish you.
And if indeed, it is possible to die of a broken heart,
like it so often feels to be, I will go to meet death with willingness
and kiss him with tender lips,
if it means you will have life.

I love you.

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