Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Part 1: Zelie’s Youth

A whole salted caramel mocha later, and my neck and shoulders were still stiff, having become increasingly rigid as the day at home with the little ones unfolded ever so slowly.  The crease, too, between my eyebrows was still very deep, I knew, because it had actually managed to pull my mouth into a small, puckered frown.  I looked very much like how I felt—slowly curling up on myself, a grumpy troll in the corner of Starbucks.
I hardly felt qualified to begin a several-week reflection on the life of Blessed Zelie Martin, mother of St. Therese, and yet, here I was.  With some much-needed humility, I opened The Mother of the Little Flower by Celine Martin, TAN Books, and re-read the first section on Zelie’s youth in which Celine helpfully details her mother’s origins and highlights some of her mother’s many attributes.
Zelie Martin was born on December 23, 1831 near Alencon, France and was baptised the following day as Marie Azelia.  According to Celine, Zelie’s mother was “a woman of strong faith, but rather too austere”, noting that Zelie’s mother never let her have even the smallest of dolls, though Zelie would’ve given anything for one.  This sometimes harsh treatment from her mother, as well as having suffered from frequent headaches, made for a “painful” childhood, which the sensitive Zelie described as having been “as sad as a winding-sheet”.
Wait, what’s a winding sheet, I thought.  I checked with A sheet in which a corpse is wrapped for burial; a shroud”.  Oh, sad.  I thought about the day and how stern I had been with the little guys, growing increasingly so as I tried to get them to be more obedient and loving.  How crazy.  Are my kids going to think that about me?   I felt my eyebrow crease—still there.  I decided it was a definite possibility, and yet, I was heartened by how well Zelie turned out and was encouraged to keep reading.
Zelie and her sister, who later became a Visitation nun, were day students at a boarding school taught by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Picpus.  Here, Zelie developed a “tender and solid piety”, and like her sister, desired to dedicate herself to God.  Dissuaded from joining the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul in Alencon, perhaps due to poor health, Zelie made the following request of God:  “My God, since I am not worthy to be Your Spouse like my sister, I shall enter the married state to accomplish Your holy will.  I beg You then, let me have many children, and may they all be consecrated to You, my God.”
Zelie later “begged” Our Lady to show her how she could provide for her future family’s material needs, and she felt a voice distinctly say, “Undertake the making of Point d’Alencon lace.  After attending a lace-making course, Zelie started her own lace-making business just two years later.  Her sharp intellect and “extraordinary” energy lent itself to quick success in the field, even prompting an influential lady of the town to offer to bring her to Paris, perhaps to help her find a wealthy husband, but Zelie declined.  Celine writes, “She used to tell of the incident smilingly; the world had absolutely no attraction for her.”  The good Lord, though, would soon show her His plan for her.
One day as she was crossing a bridge in Alencon, Zelie heard a voice similar to the one that had prompted her to begin her lace work.  As she passed a young man on the bridge, she heard, “This is he whom I have prepared for you.”
On July 13, 1858, Louis Martin, 36, son of a retired army captain and new owner of a jewelry and watchmaking store, married Zelie, almost 27 at the time.  Zelie moved into Louis’s house at rue Pont Neuf in Alencon, and there they began their happy life together.
I put down the book and tilted my Starbucks cup, most disappointed to find it still empty.  I sighed, settled back into the leather chair, my neck and shoulders finally loosening up, and held the small book in my lap.  My new friend looked out at me from the cover in her wise and lovely way.  I smiled back and knew that this was the start of a beautiful friendship.  I knew with her help and God’s grace I could become a better mom and less troll-like.  I prayed for her and Therese’s help to do so much better tomorrow, for Christ to heal what I had harmed and give me the grace to truly go after sanctity as Zelie had.  And I looked forward to the day when, God-willing, Zelie and I could meet in person for coffee and talk about our kids. 
I stood up, threw my cup away, and left with a purposeful stride.  I was ready for holiness and had my eye on the prize: heaven for my kids and a salted caramel mocha with Zelie.       

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Zelie: A Call to Bear Roses

I was in Starbucks, drinking a medium iced coffee—a small would have sufficed—completely engrossed in The Mother of the Little Flower by Celine Martin, St. Therese’s sister, TAN Books, distracted only by my occasional annoyance at the super-efficient air conditioning.

I couldn’t put down the biography of Blessed Zelie Martin, mother of St. Therese, which was full of vignettes from the saint’s mother’s life.  Every section of the book drew me further into the heart of Zelie, a most beautiful woman inside and out; a kind, devoted wife and mother who wanted nothing else except sainthood for her family; a mother I so wanted to become.  As I sped through the pages, I felt in turns both deeply inspired to multiply my efforts of guiding my family back to its heavenly home, as well as completely depressed as my life began to stand in stark contrast to Zelie’s with each page.  And yet, as I read, I felt Zelie and Therese’s encouragement, as if they were right next to me in Starbucks—what would they order, I wonder—insisting that holiness was within my reach as well, if I only gave myself to Christ as they had.       
And I wanted to.  I wanted their holiness.  I wanted a heart like Zelie’s.  I wanted the kind of interior freedom that she had—the space she had to do good all hours of the day, her constant attachment to the Eucharist, the energy God gave her, her single-mindedness, her conviction of God’s constant care and attention, and the loving guidance she had given to all her children.  So apparent to me was that Zelie had the room to bring so many into her heart because she had emptied her own desires from it.  Also apparent was that her fuel to do so came from her daily attendance of 5:30 a.m. Mass and her unshakable confidence in the goodness and providence of God.
My original plan for this post was to give one broad overview of the biography, but upon finishing it, I found my notes were too numerous to do justice to it in just one post.  Perhaps St. Therese herself suggested that I spend more time on it, knowing how shining an example her own beloved mother is to us moms.  Therefore, I will devote one week to each chapter of this incredible woman’s life, to better honor the brilliant example of motherhood that God’s given us in her.  Next week I will start at the beginning, with Zelie’s youth.
In the meantime, I will with God’s grace begin the very painful process of removing my own selfish desires from my heart so that I might be able to more clearly hear my beloved God in it and give Him the space to love others in it.  A first step: leaving Starbucks, as I hear the siren’s call of lemon poppy seed pound cake grow louder.
“Who shall find a valiant woman?  Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.  The heart of her husband trusteth in her, and he shall have no need of spoils…Her children rose up, and called her blessed…” (Proverbs 31:10, 28-30)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Abortion, Mercy, and Joys Unimaginable

“I aborted my unborn child.”

What is left for a woman who’s thought or said these words?  Last week, my friend Fr. Matthew, who’s worked for many years in the pro-life field, shared with us his experience of how deeply abortion wounds women and men physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  His testimony corresponds with the findings of a recent meta-analysis of abortion and mental health research, which reveals overwhelmingly the negative effects abortion has on women’s mental health and well-being.  

This week, however, he will share with us the bountiful grace and healing he’s witnessed in those who’ve been touched by God’s mercy and forgiveness and the ways in which they’ve been “resurrected” to lead new, heroic, hopeful lives.

The most effective healing Fr. Matthew has seen comes from programs based on Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, such as Rachel’s Vineyard, a post-abortion retreat program and from the sacrament of confession.  This mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection is one that the post-abortive who’ve received profound healing have come to know and cherish deeply, as they themselves have endured their own passion and death from the pain and suffering of abortion and now have been raised to new life through God’s mercy and forgiveness.  The sacrament of confession, too, plays a crucial role in this healing, says Fr. Matthew, as this is where women and men receive total forgiveness from God, though unmerited, which leaves them free to “accept it with a heart full of gratitude and sincere hope for a brighter future, rejoicing in the mercy of God, ever ready to point others to the same Fountain of Blessings.”    

This brighter future for those who’ve experienced God’s mercy includes a new life with their lost child.  The mother and father can reclaim a relationship with the aborted baby, often by naming the child and writing a letter to him or her, “hoping with eager anticipation for their reunion in Heaven.” 

“Finally, one of the greatest blessings,” writes Fr. Matthew, “for those who go on to receive healing after an abortion, is that they have faced their demons, which so many others deny and thus will not face until their deathbed, and they have slain them with the Sword of Christ, which is His Cross and His Blood, His Love and His Mercy.”  Fr. Matthew notes that Our Lady, “with her heart pierced by seven swords, brings such gentleness, tenderness, humility, ease, and love to the process” of healing.

Men and women who have received such healing become what Fr. Matthew refers to as “the cream of the crop” in pro-life work. “One of the most amazing things I've seen is how ‘on fire’ the men and women become once they have been immersed in the healing process.  In many cases, they become the strongest and most effective witnesses to life in the pro-life movement, because they know the pain, they know it's wrong, and they want to prevent others from going through what they have suffered.” These “healed warriors” are often marked by deep love and compassion for others, which includes spreading the truth of abortion with love.

Fr. Matthew reflects on God’s mercy, which is what fuels this radical healing in the post-abortive.  His new favorite quote is from Fr. Sam Medely, SOLT, who said, "The authentic and eternal love of God can only be revealed when the scandalous gratuitousness of its generosity shames those who undeservedly receive it."  Fr. Matthew comments, “God's mercy and His justice are both among His attributes, but because His nature is love and His will is our salvation, His mercy is the greater of the two, going on when the limits of justice have been reached or simply cannot be fulfilled.  God's love is His mercy in the face of our human misery, which by justice alone would simply be condemned.  Isn't that amazing?  We believe that it is true by our profession of faith, but for how many of us it is so very difficult to let this truth permeate our hardened hearts.” This is especially the case with the post-abortive, but when this truth through grace infiltrates their hearts, their “joys begin to reach proportions previously unthinkable or unimaginable.”  

Writes Fr. Matthew, “It is said in the pro-life movement that there is no greater joy than to help save the life of an unborn baby in danger of abortion, but I would argue that there is another joy that is in competition with this one, and that is the joy of helping someone to find healing after an abortion.”

May God bless you, Fr. Matthew, for sharing your wisdom with us, and may God continue to rain down His mercy upon all His children.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On the Ravages of Abortion

Last week, we had our good friend Fr. Matthew over for dinner.  As we were talking about our summers, Father, who’s long been involved in pro-life work, including counselling women who’ve had abortions, mentioned that he had recently returned from another successful Rachel’s Vineyard retreat weekend, expressing joy in his role of having heard confessions during the retreat.  Later, over email, Father graciously agreed to share his experience of how he’s seen first-hand how abortion traumatizes women. 
The deleterious effects of abortion on women, Fr. Matthew writes, are “deep and very pervasive”, making the healing process a lengthy one, if not life-long.  Emotionally, he begins, a woman who’s had an abortion often no longer experiences “any sense of peace or stability, but a nauseating roller-coaster ride of emotions, usually dark and heavy.”  She feels “deep shame, deep regret, deep humiliation, and even, often enough, deep despair without any glimmer of hope”, which can be intensified if she has had a dark past of broken homes, a lack of faith and morals, or addiction.  Many post-abortive women, writes Father, “have never known true love, and therefore, don't know what it looks like or feels like.”
Psychologically, writes Fr. Matthew, a post-abortive woman typically experiences an “embedded conflict”, where she lives one way publically and another way in private, as she seeks, consciously or not, to drown the pain caused by the abortion.  Sometimes she fails to connect this internal struggle with the abortion and attempts to resolve the tumultuous emotions and behavior through costly and mostly ineffective medical or psychological consultations or by other remedies.  A post-abortive woman often deeply feels the sense that she can no longer do any good after having made such a decision.  She can be imprisoned by lies, feeling that she will be condemned if she shares her secret or feeling as though she can’t ask for help because it either doesn’t exist or she doesn’t deserve it.  Depression and suicidal tendencies are “extremely” common for these women.  And the psychological effects can even be felt by any other children that they might have, as the children can somehow sense that a sibling is missing and feel conflicted about why their lives have been spared.
Physically, Fr. Matthew writes, “there is great pain, physical reactions, nightmares, sweats, and tremors”, especially if her sense of connection to the abortion has been triggered by events such as seeing a child who is the same age as the aborted child, hearing a meaningful song, or even on the anniversary of the date of the abortion or due date.  She often has nightmares about babies dying or about her suffocating which are “very horrific”.
Finally, the most common spiritual effect of abortion is despair.  The post-abortive woman often feels that she has committed the unforgiveable sin or tells herself that she simply doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.  She may avoid church, feeling as though she no longer belongs there, or if she attends Mass, will exclude herself from communion, even if she has confessed the sin of abortion in the sacrament of Penance.  “There is a great sense of unworthiness and even despair for one's soul.”
For more on the effects of abortion, Fr. Matthew recommends viewing the following video from the Silent No More Awareness campaign:  The site also has a very powerful video on its home page.
Interestingly, a new comprehensive study on the ill-effects of abortion on women’s mental health has come out just a few days ago,  The study shows, among other things, that abortion increases the rate of serious mental health problems in women by 81%.
As Catholics, though, we believe in life after death, in the Resurrection after the Passion.  With our hearts firmly rooted in the belief of an all-merciful God, next week’s post will continue with Father’s correspondence on abortion, this time telling of the powerful transformations he’s seen through programs such as Rachel’s Vineyard and through the sacrament of confession. He will conclude with a powerful reflection on the immense mercy of God.
“Our sins are nothing but a grain of sand alongside the great mountain of the mercy of God.” -- St. John Vianney