Category Archives: Faith

An Open Letter To Vestibule Mothers

*** originally published in Soul Gardening Journal in 2013 ***

Dear Vestibule Mothers,

IMG_4050     Your arms are tired, your blood sugar is getting low and poor baby Oswald just can’t stop squirming/screaming. So there you are in the vestibule at Mass. As usual. You’d invite others to your self-pity party but frankly, everyone is rather relieved you left with your whining child so besides a couple other long-suffering parents, you’re on your own. You sigh with the resignation of a reluctant saint, “Well, at least I’m here, right.”  And you wonder just how far away is the day of a peaceful Mass in your life. You can just imagine how wonderful it will be; you can hear the bells of Consecration; you can even smell the incense if you’re lucky. But for now, you wait in the vestibule, gritting your teeth in disbelief or shame at just how naughty your child is acting.

     Don’t lose heart! Those peaceful days of quiet worship will come before we know it. But in the meantime, the attitude of “at least I showed up” can be so much greater. In truth, the sacrifices given to us that we accept lovingly, are worth a thousand times more than any self-imposed sacrifices. So don’t squander this Cross! The graces of Mass are real and vibrant and present even in the narthex or cry room of the building. We may not “feel” them but thank God our religion isn’t one based on subjective feelings anyway! Jesus promised our lives would be hard; the sweet glory of a peaceful Mass would really be just an extra consolation. The vestibule is like Purgatory fellow sojourners. Devote your time there for those forgotten souls in Purgatory. Every time you walk to the back of the church with an unruly one, think of it as a gift and smile on the inside for the offering you get to present to Jesus on behalf of these poor souls. For they are like you: waiting and suffering just outside the doors of the Heavenly Banquet.  

Yours Truly,

Ellie

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Misericordia

(Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Soul Gardening Journal)

In reflecting on my own wretched pitifulness the other day, I was disgusted to think of the squalor I had to offer God. Just broken promises, half-hearted prayers and a controlling greed in trying to manage my own life. People like to remark about how St. Thérèse was so humble and sweet in just wanting to be a tiny, insignificant flower in the garden of Our Lord. In a jaded huff, I wondered if God loved the weeds in His garden too.

     What do I have? Nothing.

besides-gods-mercy-there-is-no-other-source-pope-john-paul-ii  And then my three year old crashed my pity party by tromping in, pants torn, runny nose, face and body covered in various shades of filth from robust play in the muddy section of our yard… tears on his cheeks over some infraction from a rowdy sibling. He looked remarkably like an orphan from a Dickens novel. My heart melted. My thoughts went from my egotistical musings to my child. I scooped him up and held him on my lap, rocking him and smoothing back his hair and letting him wipe the nose on my shirt. It was gross. But it was precisely this grossness that tugged at what mercy I have in my selfish heart. Had he been clean as a whistle, carefully groomed and composed in coming to me, my love would not have overflowed in such a powerful way.

     Mercy in Latin is misericordia… or literally having a pain in your heart. In so many revelations to saints, especially to St. Faustina, Christ discusses how His divine heart is actually attracted to misery. I was perplexed when I first heard that, but I think we mothers can get it. When are we at our most merciful and nurturing?! When a child is hurt or sad. All the great spiritual masters warn us not to dwell on our failings lest the evil one start to manipulate our minds. We are to shake ourselves off and try again with new resolve, even if we have to do this dozens of times every day. If God comes running when we are in our most pathetic state, I can’t think of anything more consoling. We can be His ugly, broken children, but we are not orphans. Just as my son in his pathetic moment was not just a disheveled, distasteful boy, we are not the sum of our ugliness and sin. Our disorders do not define us. And just how I managed to look past his grime to see his innocent little heart— wanting nothing more than to restore him to peace and make him feel loved,   our Father desires to do the same with us. He is not repulsed by our miserable natures; His greatest desire is to heal us and and show us His love. He is not the angry schoolmarm in the sky tsk’ing our every bad move. God is love and “Love’s middle name is Mercy.”

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Advent on the mind…

The art of waiting.  It’s a tough thing but so incredibly essential for spiritual progress.  This does not bode well for impatient types with choleric blood in them like me… but God is slowly refining my spirit to recognize the beauty in letting things be and not chasing down answers, consolations or resolutions.  It is such a good cleansing fire for my soul!

And… perfectly suited for this upcoming time, where the prize of Christmas means so much more if you let the waiting and hoping fully apex during the season of Advent.

Thankfully there are books to help us. Here are some of my favorite choices…

 Come, Lord Jesus.  Superb. Timely. Excellent for Advent. (Why in the world is it so overpriced right now?!)  This one is worth hunting down or checking your parish library.  Mother Mary Francis is thoughtful and witty and profound; she wrote these little reflections for the cloistered sisters in her order but they are all so applicable to the layperson’s life too!  This abbess also has a few other titles like Anima Christi, A Time of Renewal (I’m picking this one up for Lent next year!), and most famously A Right to Be Merry (which I just realized that I have on my bookshelf… lucky me! I need to look at my books more often apparently!)

advent Waiting Stories for Advent, one of Michael O’Brien’s lesser known titles.  Just good, thoughtful little tales for adults. This is a small book but worth revisiting each year. The first story in the book nearly brings me to tears each time…

 

 

The Passion of the Infant Christ by the one and only Caryll Houselander. This is a hard to find title but it is slightly more common under its newer name (if I have my facts correct) of Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross: The Little Way of the Infant Jesus.  Houselander always has spiritual soul food to offer and this book is chalk full of wisdom to chew on as we wait to experience the divine love of the Prince of Peace.

 

 Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings. I really think humans of North America need to spend more time reading about and reflecting on horrible things that happened in Eastern Europe. Whether it’s the Holocaust, or Siberian prison camps or Communist evils… it is so good to get perspective on our lives related to the grander scheme of human experience.  Start with something like He Leadeth Me. But be sure not to overlook titles by Solzhenitsyn like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch or The Gulag Archipelago.  Anyway, why not cultivate just a bit of perspective and gratitude by reading Fr. Delp’s thoughts before our big celebrations?!  This is one I’m going to read this year…

 Advent and Christmas with Fulton Sheen.  I mean… it’s The Bishop.  Need I say more?!  Except that it’s barely over 100 pages and very, very simple reflections for even the busiest of people.  So there’s no excuse really!  (But you might get more bang for your buck by opting for the whole year with The Bishop a la Through the Year with Fulton Sheen.)  There’s a whole series of booklets in this vein that pull excellent reflections for Advent from holy people  like: St. Thérèse, Pope St. John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi (was always a bit of a Christmas saint…) St. Pio and more…

“Advent is the season of the seed …the seed of the world’s life, was hidden in Our Lady. Like the wheat seed in the earth, the seed of the Bread of Life was in her. Like the golden harvest in the darkness of the earth, the Glory of God was shrined in her darkness. Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence.”  

—Caryll Houselander

 

 

 

 

 

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How to Hurt

Pain, like laughter, is one of the few universal human experiences shared across cultures and socio-economic statuses all over the world. Sometimes public, sometimes hidden. But the experience of pain… rather the response to it… is one of the most powerful gifts we can offer each other in the Body of Christ. Have you ever overcome a deep moment of temptation?  Or been consoled through a tremendous loss? Or seen the unexpected conversion of a loved one? Perhaps it was through the offering of pain by another sister or brother in Christ that effected this grace… only in Heaven will we be made aware of how interconnected the Body is.

And so there is only one way to hurt actually. And it’s, as many might suspect, the way of surrender. The more we resist pain and try to course correct things beyond our control, the more agony we drink into our own soul.  But there comes a point in most people’s lives… and especially in all Christian lives, when we will be faced with our own limitations. We can give direction to building our lives and exercising our freedom, but one day, helplessness will walk right up and come into the house of your soul without knocking and make himself at home. And this powerlessness hurts and is a feeling in our human nature to resist. But by laying the table and offering the finest bed to this guest, we become masters of an extraordinary gift…

There’s nothing to be done except peacefully accept this suffering. We abandon ourselves to the mercy of God knowing that He can draw good from everything.

What’s more is that the deepest kind of peace is that which can’t be bought at any old lemonade stand. It’s not a peace that means we’ve achieved a pleasant, problem-free sort of homeostasis. Father Benedict Groeschel (pray for us!) once said that if an angel walked in his room offering a promise of a happy, problem-free life from now on, he’d chase it out as a wicked devil, yelling “No! Never!” Christians have been promised the Cross. It’s our baptismal guarantee and part of our family inheritance. And the most profound kind of peace is the kind that embraces our powerlessness, accepts and even loves our weaknesses to some extent.  This unfathomable kind of peace can only be found when we consent to our true, authentic identity as a child of God. He who was not just our Creator… but He who was and is and ever will be our loving Father.  By our baptisms we were adopted into His family and there is no other family I’d rather identify with. No other Man I’d rather call Papa than He whose love is inexhaustible… whose mercy never fails. I’ll be just His little girl for as long as I live…

Don’t be afraid to hurt. Don’t be afraid to be fragile. His greatest gifts are often only experienced when we are the most poor and the most wounded.

Happy are those who weep, they will be comforted. So many graces and lessons can be learned only through the painful period of waiting. If we don’t spend days, months or years yearning and begging for His consolation (which He does promise)… our Father’s glory will never be fully manifested or abundantly experienced. He does not answer prayers in response to pious manipulation… but in a way that respects our human dignity and with an eye to a future full of hope and goodness that we ourselves can not see when standing in the deep, shadowy valley.

Anybody out there reading this, know that you aren’t alone in your pain. All of us have been given a custom piece of the Cross. Kiss this relic and identify with it. He will see us through. And know that faith in the promises of our Father is a decision, not a feeling…

We can strengthen the entire Body of Christ this way. We can use our pain. And we can trust that God Himself sees us and allows this suffering as a way to purify our own hearts and bring about the glory of His name.

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turning in the stone

Have you ever built your own stone, cold tower in which to live? The construction isn’t nearly as difficult as the maintenance. All you really need to be attentive to is that the elements can’t get in and that you can’t get out. In stone towers, you neither want the storms to break down your walls, nor the sun to beckon you out. Living conditions can otherwise be perfectly tolerable. Not exactly pleasant, but safe. Not exactly sociable, but safe. Not exactly meaningful, but safe. And there’s no point in trying to throw safety to the curb; it is valuable and necessary. But all the attention given to it will only turn into a wolf that you imagine to be lurking outside the tower, growing louder and more menacing by the minute. But is he real?

Oh the mysteries of life! When does taking a leap of folly turn into a leap of faith?! When can we live and love with complete abandon…? Even if it doesn’t go away, will the desire to have no fear be enough to offer Him? Is there hope that even those with agonies and illusions can be lifted up at the end of the Day to feel His mercy fall on us in a torrent of love. And there are no wolves, real or imagined, that could even turn their faces to Him, no stone tower that can keep Him out. Let it be done unto me…

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Holy Week in the Third Trimester

Entering Holy Week has never felt so significant to me. Parents everywhere already know a bit of what it means to be Christ-like. When we drag ourselves out of bed to calm some night-terrors, or offer the last piece of cake to a teen or give up a career to care for our children.  Through these and a million other things, parents intrinsically know what it means to “lay down our life for our children.”

holyPregnant mothers experience this is an especially salient way. Our bodies are not our own. The aches and pains of a heavily pregnant woman echo in the faintest way, the sufferings of Christ on the Cross. But like all crosses, we are tempted to squander this. I feel entitled to a second helping of ice cream because I’m pregnant. We accept the cultural attitude of pity toward us also, waddling in exasperation or audibly groaning whenever we stand up. We especially like to joke or bitterly comment with people around us about how “done” we are.  “This baby is getting an eviction notice!”

After nine long months of nausea, sciatica, poor bladder control, weight gain, food aversions, stretched, painful ligaments, swollen veins, difficulty breathing, standing, walking and sleeping and enough hormonal turmoil to fuel a volcano… of course we are ready for it to be over!  Each pregnancy becomes more difficult than the last and this final month especially is agony. But for some reason, unlike the sufferings that every good soul has to bear privately, even good, pregnant Catholics feel a bit of license to freely complain during a pregnancy.

Yet, what potential these little agonies hold for us! If only we don’t fall temptation to squander them and moan and groan to every sympathetic ear about it. Like Mary, can we find strength to “hold these things in our heart”?!  Can we give witness to life without letting the world know how miserable we are? It’s hard, I know… These past couple weeks I’ve been trying to envision how different the Passion of Our Lord would have been if he whined His way through it: “I just want it to be over!”  or “Ugh, I’m in such pain! Does everybody know how much I’m suffering for them right now?!”

What a turn-off!  But this is what I do all the time– vocalize my sufferings, consciously or sub-consciously trying to elicit the pity of others. And I wonder if the redemptive merit of each little pain isn’t lost a little bit when I do this. Holiness is found in the shadows of the cross…

Of course Jesus couldn’t hide his pain all the time. When lashed at the pillar, people knew how painful it was. And at the final moment, he cried out in thirst and a feeling of abandonment. He was fully human. In the same way, I’m not saying pregnant women need to be peppy 24/7 and never utter a word about their aches. But a smile can heal a million hearts and privately enduring some discomfort can be tremendously powerful. Accept a seat if it’s offered to you!  Wince if the baby kicks too hard! Cry a little if you’re feeling hormonal! But through all this, I want to plumb the depths of mystery and redemption that are offered uniquely to us; I want to give everything I am, my very body even, so that this child of mine can have life. The challenge is to choose to give freely and with unconditional love (regardless of our FEELINGS at the time!)… just as He did.

Self Esteem and True Humility

A theme that I’ve been thinking a lot about this year is the concept of disordered martyrdom. It’s the idea that, while motivated with pious intentions, we can deform the concept of good, holy sacrificing to the point where it becomes an unhealthy scar on our human dignity. And then it really subverts the good we are trying to accomplish by ‘shutting up and bearing our cross’. I hope to develop my thoughts on this in time…

But one tangent related to this has to do with self esteem. So many of us, have allowed a weird cancer of an idea grow in us that having a low self esteem is the preferable path to holiness. But thinking that you are a worthless waste of a human being or a complete and hideous failure is not holy… it is not humility. True humility recognizes ones weaknesses as coming from self and one’s gifts as coming from God. To deny the gifts or skills or good that He has given, is in a sense to deny the goodness of God who can change all hearts. More importantly, it’s to deny the imprint of the divine that is innate in every human being who was “created in the image and likeness of God.”

When someone tells you that you are a good singer, don’t scoff and deny it. Smile graciously and say thank you. When someone tells you that you have beautiful eyes, don’t roll them in sarcastic disbelief; thank them and think (or say!) “To God be the glory!” Our disordered sense of humility wants to shirk off compliments or cheapen the words we hear. I think this unfortunate and I see it all the time in my Christian brothers and sisters… and truth be told, self.

earth-mother-teresa-quote1I’m not a big proponent of new age ideas like “self love” and “don’t change for anyone” and “follow your dreams” and “you are perfect as you are.” But there is a disturbing opposite to this extreme also— the one that views self as a heaping pile of dung. In a way, we have to learn to crawl outside of ourselves and view our personal reality objectively, or as if we were looking at a friend of ours: “This person was called by name by the Eternal God of Creation. This person has dignity and is loved and is valuable beyond measure.”  To think anything less than that is in a way, a sort of a stunted, distorted faith… one that has allowed the lies of the world to define who we are.  But we are not of this world. We are children of God and our dignity rests in that alone.

I’ll leave off with this thought, perfectly expressed by Henri Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, which I read in a book by my very favorite, contemporary spiritual writer, Fr. Jacques Philippe Interior Freedom (a must own… like all his titles):

For a very long time I considered low self esteem to be some kind of virtue. I had been warned so often against pride and conceit that I came to consider it a good thing to deprecate myself. But now I realize that the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, to ignore my original goodness. Because without claiming that first love and that original goodness for myself, I lose touch with my true self and embark on the destructive search among the wrong people and the wrong places for what can only be found in the house of my Father.

You are loved. You are valuable. You are worthy.

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Sometimes Everything Isn’t Going to be Okay.

(and that’s okay…)
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St. Stephen… who suffered a second martyrdom in our home.

I’ve written before how God can transform our hardened hearts, how an unwanted pregnancy does not end in an unwanted child. It has been four years since my ‘unwanted pregnancy’ has been born now and I can say with absolute conviction that he is still incredibly special and an unrepeatable part of our family. That child has taught me so, so much and I am thankful for him in a way that is unique to him alone.

Two babies later, I am not feeling the cold detachment or fear that I felt with that pregnancy. But unlike child number six, I’m not feeling over the moon either. I don’t know what it is… a quiet, melancholic resolution I suppose. I do trust that this child will be loved and will be the source of unspeakable joy for my family. But it’s okay to say that everything might not be okay. It’s okay to express non-elation.

As Catholics, we confide in each other about a million different ‘spiritually correct’ fears. We can trade worries over moving or schooling or finances or illnesses or childhood behavior. But we still hide that terrifying piece of our sinful selves that harbors fear over an unwelcome conception. It just seems like such an abortive mentality I suppose! But the truth is begging to be told, to be shown, to be LIVED that unwanted pregnancies do not end in unwanted children! We already have our defenses up because our families are big; I get that. We certainly don’t need to add more fuel to the fire the secular world had against us who would offer no sympathy to our plight: “You made your bed, now you have to lie in it!”  So we shut our mouths and pretend this was all part of our plan. But even in our own faith circles?! Are we afraid of being judged? I am. But I am also able to see the fool in myself who couldn’t pretend to be perfectly pious if she tried.  (And she has. And she failed.) So with no false pretenses weighing me down, I can say honestly: I don’t feel thrilled about having another baby right now.  But something that is different now that I’ve learned… is that I don’t feel fear.

Here’s the thing, everything might be awful for a while. Having a baby next spring doesn’t change the fact that our house needs an immense amount of work, that my husband is still in a highly stressful job, that my children’s behavior needs improvement, that we are still reeling from medical bills, that our vehicle is getting too small, that there is no spare bed in which to home the baby, that I’m a terrible housekeeper, that there are relationships in my life that are delicate and painful.  No. There are still and always will be challenges. “Crosses come custom made.” (right, Helen?!) At the end of the day, I may have nothing to offer but my broken bits of failure to God. I will have mountains left undone. My to-do list will not be conquered.  But it’s okay. He didn’t ask for success, or efficiency or completion or even an organized plan. He asked for faithfulness. Nothing else should trouble us…

Last week I attended the funeral of my friend’s daughter whose life was cut tragically short by a brain aneurysm. The pain and tears were abundant that day for our entire community. But the death of that beautiful girl offered me one sweet consolation— her life was not in vain. She was unrepeatable. Life is a mysterious gift. No matter what. And I went home experiencing for the first time something that I’ve been longing to experience since I found out I was pregnant: gratitude for this life inside of me. There are so many things we do not know or understand or foresee in this world. Be it done unto me…

It’s as if we think there is this magical nirvana place of peace that we keep aiming for and we imagine that a new baby disrupts that nirvana and makes us start the journey over. You know the feeling… you wonder when you can finally get rid of your baby clothes and carseats and when you can book a family vacation and enjoy it rather than just do damage control all weekend. Or when you can hang a family portrait on the wall of what you know to be “the whole family.” Or when you’ll be diaper free and you get your bed to yourself again or you get to finally convert a bedroom to the office you’ve needed for so long… then along comes another baby and oops! Reset. Life starts over again…even if your gray hairs are already growing in.

In truth, there IS a magical place of peace and it’s called Heaven. Happy and content isn’t found here on earth. Joy is… to be sure.  But it is flavored with the salt of beautiful tears. This is our Calvary.  And we won’t ever reach a place of ‘problem free’ so long as we are Christians! If it’s not babies, it’s strained relationships. if it’s not relationships, it’s poverty. If it’s not poverty, it’s poor health. Maybe it’s all of the above! Happy are you whose sufferings are great… souls will be saved if you do not squander your cross!

So no, I do not feel fear with this baby. I can’t possibly see how everything will be “just fine”… when there are physical and mental and spiritual challenges that need to be addressed still. I wasn’t “ready” as far as my finite brain could see. But I do know that I’m not asked to see the big picture. I am simply asked to do the next right thing.  And if we can stop basking in the first world luxury of overthinking and analyzing everything to just break life down into something as simple as that: doing the next right thing… everything WILL be all right,  in the eternal end that is. Life will be hard, for some more than others.  But how great is our love?  I pray you and I deepen our love every single day.  And in my experience, there has been no more proven way to deepen my love than to open my heart to a new, unique child… who was known by the Creator before all ages. Be done unto me…

A Large Family Manifesto

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xjp1This is my firstborn. When we became pregnant, people were worried it was too soon after getting married. They thought we needed time to get used to married life together first. But we were open.  And he was born… forever changing our lives with a lightening bolt of a never before experienced love. He is a boy with a keen sense of justice. He loves to read and play football and is very skilled at making small children feel special. We wonder what great things will be in his future. Maybe he’ll go on to be a sport’s legend or open an excellent children’s hospital.  Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll live a simple life and just be the guy who talks someone off a ledge someday. And that someone goes on to start a scholarship fund for at-risk youth. Maybe...

DSC_0153This is our second son, born two years later. News of his pregnancy was received pretty well. We had been ‘reasonable’ in our two year spacing and everyone was excited for our child to have a sibling.  And he was born… piercing our hearts with a sword of intensity and love never before experienced. He is passionate and particular. He is a talented musician, an accomplished baker and a quick student. Maybe he’ll grow up to compose award winning pieces to a full, formal music hall. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just grow up with a boring job that he performs faithfully and get married to a decent girl and they live a normal life. Maybe he’ll become the father of three children, one of whom becomes a Supreme Court Judge that enacts major social change and is lauded for her intelligence. Maybe…

DSC_0042This is our third son. Upon announcing his birth, we received congratulations and then the gentle suggestion that it was time to ‘stop.’ Recommendations that my husband ‘get clipped’ were made. Three was enough, they said. And he was born, but even under difficult, imperfect circumstances, we found our hearts made shockingly new once again with a love never before experienced. He is a comedian and creative performer.  He is also unbelievably tender. Maybe he’ll grow up to become a holy and sought-after priest. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll simply live a normal life. Maybe he’ll become a police officer and marry a woman and become a father. And his simple dedication to goodness and selflessness become an inspiration to everyone who knows him. Maybe…

DSC_0606This is our first daughter. According to the commentators, she shouldn’t have happened. She tipped us over the edge of ‘responsible’ parenthood but people soon forgave us because she was a girl. You finally got your girl! Now you can stop. They said. And she was born in a beautiful, loving, peaceful environment. And the stars danced and the world was brand new and we discovered a love never before experienced.  She is an artist. She is sensitive and fierce. Full of a gentleness and a spirit-fire the color of her hair. Maybe she’ll grow up to be an award winning scientist and find new ways of making alternative energies efficient, forever bettering the world. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll get married but remain childless. But through hard work and sacrifice, she and her husband are able to save lots of money and help many others around them, blessing people in life changing ways with their generosity and maybe even foster parenting the child who will go on to develop cost-effective energy solutions. Maybe…

IMG_5962This is our fifth child. People thought we were fools when we announced his pregnancy. They gave my swollen belly scornful looks in the grocery store and told me I was irresponsible. We had too many they said. But I held my head high, proud of my children while still fighting back anger and sadness at their comments. If only they knew how much I loved them. And he was born. And our hearts cracked open and we plumbed new dimensions of love never before experienced. He is generous and loyal and in love with the living world. He teaches us about human dignity in a way none of our other children ever have. Maybe he’ll grow up to write groundbreaking stories and win a Pulitzer Prize. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just grow up and live a normal life and become a biology teacher responsible for igniting a passion for learning in his students and one of his students goes on to develop new life-saving measures for trauma victims. Maybe…

IMG_4917This is our sixth child. The “Congratulations!” were by now either half-hearted or completely nonexistent, to be replaced by concern and pity. One girl saw my children and a pregnant me on the ferry and said in horror, “Eww.” And I cried inside for her. And this daughter was born and time stood still and she opened our eyes and hearts to unparalleled levels of love never before experienced. She is a lover. She is assertive and bossy and adores animals and babies and fashion. Maybe  she’ll grow up and perform critical surgeries internationally with Doctors Without Borders and be renowned for her wisdom and compassion. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll simply plug along in obscurity and become a wife and mom and raise a gaggle of children who test her and challenge her. Maybe someone will see her in the grocery store wearing her sleeping baby and swaying gently while comparing tomato sauce prices.  And this person will feel scales fall off her heart. And she might decide being a mother isn’t such a terrible thing after all and she decides NOT to have an abortion. And that child goes on to become a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor war hero, saving dozens of lives and having the gratitude of their families forever.  Maybe…

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babyThere will be another child next spring. The seventh. Who will this person be? Will he be brilliant at math? Will she be an athlete? Have a love for architecture or social justice? Maybe this child will grow up to found a new, important religious order. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just pick up a stranger’s tab in a restaurant one day and that man has a restored faith in humanity and goes on to serve the poor and pay forward the message of love. Maybe…

Desires to announce this pregnancy have long since been replaced with trepidation. Not because of the child. We know that despite the challenges of large family life, this one was fearfully and wonderfully made. He or she will introduce us to yet another new, never before experienced love that we wouldn’t be able to do without once we know it. We are tired of hearing how irresponsible we are. Tired of the pity, the worry, the disgust. Because they don’t understand. Love is eternal. And new levels and dimensions of love through each and every single one of our children have only proven to better our lives in a million ways. They are our future. They are the jewels in the crown of marriage and we are grateful.

1935034_167437621840_840773_nPeople are worried because we don’t have a ton of money. But our children are always fed and always clothed and always sheltered and always loved. We are immeasurably richer than some of the wealthiest families in the world.

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People wonder if I regret not being able to travel the way my heart has always wanted. Or pursue my personal interests with as much focus as I wish I could. Yes I do. Yes, it hurts. But it is a pain that I know is worth it. I know the journey of love experienced in this new being will far surpass any expedition I could possibly pay for. And no art project or novel or is worth my time, talent and energy as much as raising and teaching these incredibly creative, diverse people who love me back in a way my static creations can not. I have never met a woman who tells me she regrets having the children she did… but I have met many who regret not having more.
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That’s not to say large family life is for everyone. It isn’t! But it is one way to live and it can be a beautiful way. People think there are too many people on this planet. This is not true. The resources are simply inequitably distributed and one of the best ways to solve this problem is to raise compassionate, just, critical thinkers who’ll go on to tackle these issues with clarity and intelligence.

IMG_0208On the other side of the spectrum, mothers of big families often give the impression that it is all perfect peaches and cream. Maybe they are afraid of letting their guard down because the wolves will begin the attack “See! Your life would’ve been so much easier if you just had fewer children!” They gush about how proud they are to have a baker’s dozen and give the impression that they were just born to have babies. Often such women have to consume themselves so much with defending the decision to be open to life that we are afraid of letting people know that it is a struggle. In fact, being open to life does bring heartache and pain and challenges that sometimes seem insurmountable. We don’t have it all figured out. Our bodies have been crucified. Our homes aren’t shiny and sparkly. Our relationships take a lot of effort and a lot of work. We are sometimes weak. We are often tired. But we are always committed to loving them the best we can.  And our trials are paid back a hundred fold with the joys they bring into our lives. This is something most people can’t understand.
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But this is the privilege and honor of motherhood. It is nothing to be defensive about. But it’s also nothing to hide behind and pretend is perfect. We are real and fallen just like you. We aren’t more patient than you, more maternal than you or more pious than you. We simply kiss our Cross and walk up Calvary, not knowing how every step of the way will go or considering how we feel about it all the time. We just do it because we love. We put one faithful step in front of the other because we have committed ourselves to this love. And true love is only found in true freedom. And true freedom is found in the Cross. There will be agony and there will be sorrow. But we are sustained by the promise that the glory of the Resurrection is around the corner.  And that is why we keep saying “Yes” to Love.

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Becoming Like Children

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My youngest child is a bundle of sly giggles and untamed hair.  She responds to each new day in virtually the same way regardless of circumstances. She looks to me for guidance. She gets it. She’s got more figured out about life at 18 months than I do at 33 years. She wakes up. She eats. She plays.  She stacks blocks up and topples them over. She naps. She gets into mischief. She snuggles. She harasses the puppy and puts bowls on her head. When the world gets overwhelming, she totters over to me and lifts her arms up. She wraps her little fingers around my neck and holds me. And she buries her head in my neck to find her center. If I’m wearing a scarf, even better. She’ll lift it over her head—not to be silly or playful, but to seek shelter— and hide from the lights or the noise or the prying hands or the unfamiliar faces. If the opportunity presents itself, I will feel her little body relax and she’ll fall asleep like that, enveloped in Mama’s scarf. Life can get crazy or strange but she is okay as long as she is with me. She has slept with me on couches, on floors, in hospital rooms, in the rain, in the sun, alone and in crowds. Surroundings are unimportant when you enjoy the protection of a loving and capable parent.

Babies don’t have to think about life. They don’t have to entertain abstract theories about the meaning of suffering or the purpose of existence. They live each day with complete abandon and unfailing trust in their parent. There is no worry that lasts long. No fear that can’t be abated. Babies know they’ll get fed and loved and cleaned up… they can ride high in the luxury of a mother or father’s arms and know they’ll be carried safely through their day. That’s the genius of a child.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

—Matthew 18: 1-3

For the first time in my life (I’m a little slow…) I finally understand what it means to have the “child-like faith” that is talked about in the Bible.  It means living with complete abandon to the mercy of God. There is nowhere else to go. There really isn’t. As adults we let our own limited brains and our own damaged hearts trip us up so much.* We get lost in the maze of introspection, putting ourselves in temperament and personality boxes, trying to pinpoint our place in the universe. We analyze the meaning of suffering and try to clamor on top of the heap of trials that rain down on us. We worry and agonize about doing it right and stumble about in the wilderness. Crying. Angry. Depressed. Overstimulated. Wondering how to fix our problems and how to find peace.

And this is ridiculous. Really. I’m allowed to say that because I’ve lived this and I struggle to shake this still, every day. Living this way is ridiculous.

We have to look to our babies to understand what’s really going on here. You are a child and I am a child. We have a Father who loves us and wants the best for us. And a Mother willing to walk us straight over to Him. Mary, I want to crawl under your mantle and hide sometimes! He’s willing to carry us through everything if only we let Him. He sees us wandering miserably in our wretchedness and is simply waiting for us to reach our arms up. It’s almost amusing (if it weren’t so pitiful) to think that we could possibly have anything to worry about when we have a Father like we have. The Alpha and the Omega is our daddy. And we are babies in His arms… whom or what shall we fear?!

Will life be blissful once we surrender to Him? Absolutely, definitively NOT. Like any good parent, our Father lets us get hurt sometimes; he lets us grow up. He wants to teach us something. He wants us to know there is nowhere to go but Him. One day, I watched one of my children closely in a crowd. She was being restless and wouldn’t sit still with me on the blanket. I warned her she would get lost if she didn’t stay close to me but the allure of new sights, sounds and smells was too much for her. She scampered off, unaware that I was watching closely. Eventually, as I suspected, she got confused and couldn’t find me through the movement of all the people around her. And I saw her face tense up in fear and agitation. Now, you may think I’m cruel, but I didn’t rush to her instantly. I waited for just 20 seconds or so… letting her feel what it was like to be alone just until it became unbearable and I saw that she was about to unravel into tears. Then I swooped in and soothed her fears and eased her worry.  She didn’t stray again. At other stages in development, we let our children touch a (not too) hot oven. They only do it once… and they learn their lesson:  Mama knows best. Her admonitions aren’t for nothing. There is wisdom in her warnings but also comfort to be found when the blows of pain are felt.

Exponentially more-so is it with God!  He lets us get hurt. For our own good. For the big picture of sanctification and the knitting of holy souls and the catalyst to conversion that we can not see, so blinded we are to the experience of injustice and sorrows. The darkest chasms of physical and emotional pain are still all around us, but He holds us and nothing can harm us without His nod.

I like to think about what the greatest of saints were like… and even which living people I am attracted to most today. Is it the intellectual academic? The artist who is untouchable? The mysteriously deep entrepreneur?  The enigmatic free-thinker? The polished and articulate world leader? No. All the people I admire most today have a quality that the greatest saints had in their lives— a faith so developed that it’s evolved into a humble simplicity. A child-like authenticity and openness. These people radiate goodness. They draw you in. There is something about them that attracts you and the reason is because they have learned, they are living, the truth that the more we know, the more we don’t know. They are confident in their surrender to their Father. They have become like children. They are people you want to be with and follow because somewhere deep inside ourselves, we recognize that “theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”

 

 

*And really, this is a first-world problem. We have the luxury and the curse of too much introspection because the basic conditions on our hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, water, etc.) have been met. Ironically, the extremely poor and destitute in this world usually aren’t burdened with metaphysical conundrums. In some ways they are more free to achieve happiness in life because their circumstances are— either by choice or corruption— so simple.