Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Fulfilling a Mother’s Deepest Need: The Miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Happy Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to you!  Nuestra Senora has been such a dear part of my husband and my lives since we first started praying the rosary by her image at our diocesan center when we were dating (…after hours…using the key pad code my husband had learned when he was discerning the priesthood…which was romantic and exciting and Eucharistic—as the tabernacle at that time was off to the side right below her picture—and I’m sure Our Lady wanted to come down from that wall and have a few words with us).  But like a good mom, she kept her eyes on the big picture and was there for us when my husband proposed at the same spot…two months later--again, probably wanting to sit us down for a chat—but she stuck with us, beautifully caring for us and tending to smoothing out the details of our early marriage and guiding us through the joys and challenges of the births of our children in an unmistakably gentle way.

Different aspects of the apparitions to St. Juan Diego have fascinated me over the years: the miracle of the image itself on his tilma, the microscopic images in Our Lady’s eyes capturing the moment Juan Diego revealed the image in his tilma to a small group including the local bishop, and the intricacy and deep meaning behind Our Lady’s posture and mantle in the image.  

However, this very early morning, perhaps just a tiny bit more experienced in love than when I had just gotten engaged, what strikes me as most miraculous and awe-inspiring is Our Lady’s words to Juan Diego and the message of her tender motherhood that God desired the world to know.  During one of their exchanges, Our Lady tells Juan Diego, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief.  Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother?  Are you not under my shadow and protection?  Am I not your fountain of life?  Are you not in the folds of my mantle?  In the crossing of my arms?  Is there anything else you need?” 
How human!  And divine!  With what love Our Father in Heaven allowed for His little children to be reminded in such a remarkable way of the very real loving presence of their mother who will carry them back to the Father in her own arms if they’d only let her, guaranteeing a safe return to Him.  And further, with what love God has bestowed on motherhood to imbue it with such dignity.  To think—it seems outrageous for me to even say it—but that Mary and I are the same noun: we are mothers.

God, in His infinite generosity, mercy, and goodness has entrusted to me little creatures to take care of the same way that Mary cares for us.  In my calling to care for them in their littleness, in their fear of the dark, their suspicion of pants, their difficulty with letters and butter knives, their joy over things like snow and treats and animals and the novelty of having a real live decorated tree in our living room, in showing my love and concern, by being their mom, I am sharing in a small but by no means insignificant—thanks to the Passion—part of Mary’s life.  I am a mother.  Just like Mary.

I think of the image and of the purple sash that Mary is wearing, signifying pregnancy.  At the center of it all, Mary has come to bring us Jesus and to bring us to Him.  Our Heavenly Father has given us mothers a gift in this feast day, a beautiful opportunity to remember our specialness as His beloved daughters and to ask in a powerful way for His help in our calling, for the grace to pick our children up (and everyone else in our care) and to bring them safely to Him.  And isn’t that all that we want?  For me, this morning, this is the miracle at the heart of this Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

If you should find yourself in Wisconsin, please be sure to visit the gorgeous shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in my home diocese of LaCrosse.  Visit to learn more.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Welcoming Santa with G. K. Chesterton

Tomorrow’s the Feast of St. Nicholas.  When our oldest was born, we were unsure what to do about Santa.  Afraid he’d usurp the meaning of the season, we toyed with the idea of banishing him, sending him back to the North Pole for good.  We thought that maybe we’d instead like to invite the Three Kings over and really play up the Epiphany.  We knew, though, that our house might be one of their few cold weather stops and in time it might be a tough sell for our children who would inevitably lack friends who could share in their excitement and help along the story line.  In short, they just weren’t part of our culture.  We waffled for as long as we could, and then when our daughter was approaching her second Christmas my husband came across “The Other Stocking” by G.K. Chesterton who so beautifully makes the case for Santa that he’s been warmly welcomed in our house ever since:

What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way. 

     As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good–far from it. 

     And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me.  What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. 

     I have merely extended the idea. 

     Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void. 
     Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now, I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. 

     Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.

I understand the reasons that a mother and father might not welcome Santa at Christmastime, as it is all too easy for him to overshadow the holiness of the day and season.  For us, though, it was enough to see a great thinker and faith-filled man not hampered in his spirituality but actually assisted in it through his belief in Santa.  It resonated with me, a lifelong Catholic who believed in Santa well up to seventh grade and who was eager to pass along such fun memories to her children.  Game’s on, thought my husband and me, as we happily began to incorporate all the fun associated with the jolly spirit into the season.

He is, though, very definitely St. Nicholas, who our children, accustomed to praying to saints, naturally welcome on his feast day.   CCC’s made a great video about St. Nicholas and how he became Santa Claus.  That seems to be a natural progression for a saint in my children’s eyes, going from being wonderful on earth to being wonderful in eternity, which manifests itself in gifts for them—that is, after all, how their mother approaches the communion of saints.     

This year, however, my daughter learned from the Macy’s Day Parade about Mrs. Claus, who muddies the waters a bit.  My daughter was very curious about her and asked what her maiden name was.  I told her I didn’t know and pondered how to work Mrs. Claus into it all.  I held my breath, wondering if this new element would push my daughter’s belief to the edge, but it didn’t.  In fact, she and her little brother seemed happy for Santa that he had some company.  I think having befriended Ukrainian Catholic friends during our stay in Canada, dear companions who would eventually become Fr. and Mrs., really helped things along on that account.

So, in our house, Santa is St. Nicholas, the bishop, married to Mrs. Claus of a rather somewhat mysterious background.  He will be filling stockings and dropping off a special gift for each child; the rest will be from Mom and Dad.  Our children are looking forward to the birth of Baby Jesus, enjoying the anticipation with their chocolate Advent calendars, praying and singing around the Advent wreath at night, and helped along in their excitement by the intercession and special presence of St. Nicholas.  Whether or not we got Santa right at our house probably won’t be clear until the children are grown, if even then.  But for now anyway it seems like all is well.  Except that, as my Ukrainian friends tell me, Eastern rite bishops can’t be married.  But here’s hoping that St. Nick doesn’t put the Eastern Code in my daughter’s shoe tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

At 29

It’s 3:30 in the morning, and I’m sitting next to our Christmas tree eating Aldi’s brand Cheerios and waiting impatiently for my coffee to brew.  

I think of my birthday.  Tomorrow I’ll be 29.  

I take stock of my situation:  I am married to my best friend and we have three small children with one due Christmas Eve.  I get to stay at home and write.  We bought a house this summer, and my husband works for the Church.  God is so good.

I try to remember where I thought I’d be by 29 when I was 19.  I close my eyes and picture me ten years ago, wrinkleless, rested, and with better-maintained eyebrows.  By 19, I’d abandoned my dream of becoming the Queen of England and converting the UK (getting myself to London to meet Prince William just wasn’t happening) or a famous actress who’d evangelize Hollywood (my leading roles in high school simply and astonishingly didn’t immediately result in my being discovered and transported to California) and by 19, I felt drawn to the religious life, partly to escape the reality of lost hopes of fame, as outrageous as they were, and very much to extract myself from the moral quicksand of life at the nation’s number two party school.  Having a penchant for enormous hoop earrings and adventure, I set my sights on becoming a Sister of Life in New York, imagining myself in a real-life version of Sister Act on a track that would inevitably result in my undeniable holiness, evangelizing the rough-but-lovable girls of the Bronx in my beautiful habit and hoop earrings.  

I sit in my living room, feeling my much smaller hoops in my ears and watching my pregnancy-swollen fingers type.  The baby in utero wakes up with the coffee and his three older siblings are still asleep in their rooms, their fans humming from behind their doors.  I look around at my cozy little home and at the same clothes I’ve been wearing for two days in a row.  I think of the day to come: of getting the oldest off to kindergarten, waiting to have two windows replaced, trying to persuade the four-year-old to wear pants, the inevitable struggle of wanting to eat everything in the house,  having the pleasure of holding a usually rambunctious but currently gray-faced sick toddler wrapped up in a blanket and kissing her miniature nose as much as I’d like because she’s too tired to swat my face away, cleaning up the oil slick in the kitchen that’s been there since this weekend, remembering to smile and act like a lady and pray and pay attention to our heavenly Father’s tokens of love throughout the day and finish up my Christmas shopping.  And taking a shower sometime.

I consider the life God has given me.  It’s beautiful and perfect and somehow just what I’d always wanted.  And yet so much harder than I could have anticipated.  And messier and more uncertain.  And hidden.  I am a day away from 29 and not a queen or an actress or a religious sister.  I am Mom and that’s all that matters to my kids.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Giving Thanks to Our Father: Tips from His Tiny Ones

I think of my children, as I often do, either because they are sitting in my lap and putting toys down my shirt or fighting or crying or being totally silent or using a toy saw to saw between my toes during the rosary.  Today, though, during this Thanksgiving week, I’m thinking of them and how they receive gifts to see if I can learn anything about how I ought to change my prayers of thanksgiving to God.

Let’s start with the two-year-old:  a while ago, when presented with a gift with her name on it, she’d become so excited she’d visibly tremble.  It was very sweet to see how genuinely surprised she was to be confronted with an item that was just for her.  Her eyes would open wide and her mouth, too, as she looked inside to see what it was.  And no matter what is was, she loved it.  Because it was hers.  And she guarded it fiercely, shrieking, “Mine!” whenever someone so much as came near it.  She didn’t have much in this world, but what she did have she guarded with her life.

Next, my gentle four-year-old son:  last month for his birthday, he carefully unwrapped each present and closely examined the gift, all the while keeping his sisters and cousins within view to make sure that they were all a safe distance away.  Very pleased with the offering, he sat guard by his presents, eager to whisk them away to his room after the party.  There he stayed, sometimes for hours, preferring to enjoy his gifts in the solace and safety of his room rather than have to share with his sisters.  His toys came with lots of little pieces and he’s been remarkably good at keeping track of them all.

Finally, the five-year-old:  with great vigor, she opens gifts for herself and wants to use them immediately, quickly mastering them and inviting others to do the same.  Her mind fills with various uses for each gift and suddenly her month is filled with projects and deadlines.  Her gifts yield great fruit that is generously spread around.

And now me: how do I receive gifts?  How do I thank God for them—and do I?  Bestowed, presented, gifted with the precious, do I guard it with my life, like my darling fierce toddler?  Am I willing to choose solitude over the pleasure of the company of others, like my son, in order to enjoy what I’ve been given and make sure I’m not losing track of anything?  And what have I done with all that I’ve received?  Have I used those gifts to bear fruit for Him to spread around to others, like my energetic, industrious five-year-old?

I think of what Thanksgiving Day will hold for us, as we’re spending it at my parents’ house this year:  the wine-and-butter soaked turkey baking all day, the heat from the kitchen warming the rest of the house, seeing my brothers and their families, liquored sweet potatoes, crescent rolls, pumpkin pie.  The stories, laughs, the Macy’s Day parade and the joyful din of the cousins tearing around.  In the midst of it, I hope to remember to thank God for all that He’s done for me, most especially for the gift of His infinite love: to guard it with my life, to prefer it to all else, and to use it to bear fruit for others.  I hope to remember to thank Him like a little child.  Because I am—His.  As often as I wish, I can climb into His lap and stick toys down His shirt and saw between His toes.  And I give thanks for that, for Him, our loving and tender Father.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Luminescent: Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, a Model for Moms

Blessed Chiara Luce Badano has been on my mind this past week since having read her biography online.  Struck by a rare form of bone cancer at the age of 17, she simply said, “It’s for you, Jesus.  If you want it, I want it, too.”  Thus began the final chapter in the teen’s life of holiness, one that had led her straight to the foot of the cross where she united her mighty physical suffering with His, always eagerly, always with a smile, always confident in His love for her.

Of course, she couldn’t have accepted this final trial with such trust and patience if the years leading up to such pain had been spent differently.  From a website belonging to Focolare, an ecclesiastical movement stressing unity through love of God that had been founded in 1943 in northern Italy by a young Chiara Lubich and her friends and of which Blessed Chiara Badano would become an active member, I learned that from a tender age, Blessed Chiara was guided by her parents and community to love and trust in Our Lord, offering all things up to Him who is Love.  

According to her mother, Chiara, from a young age, was known to go out of her way for others: giving away some of her new toys when she was only four, making a special effort to pay a visit to a sick classmate, happily agreeing to have another classmate who had recently lost her mother over for Christmas, insisting that they put out the best tablecloth because, according to Chiara, it would be Jesus who would be with them that day.  And it was at the tender age of 9 when Chiara first attended Focolare, whose spirituality would forever shape her and her family.  

Blessed Chiara’s teen years were like any other happy teen’s, spent busy with school, activities, and friends.  But in the midst of these ordinary joys and hardships, Blessed Chiara developed an extraordinary faith and love for Christ, revealed in her quote in the summer of 1988 following the news that she had failed some courses at school.  She wrote, “This is a very important moment for me: it is an encounter with Jesus Forsaken. It hasn’t been easy to embrace this suffering, but this morning Chiara Lubich explained to the children that they have to be the spouse of Jesus Forsaken.”  This interior light was a turning point in Chiara’s spirituality, which would lead to a depth of her love for Christ that she had previously not experienced.  And it came at the right time.

Later that year, she would feel a sharp pain in her shoulder while playing tennis, which she would soon learn was no mere sports injury but instead osteogenic sarcoma, a rare, serious, and most painful cancer of the bones.  Hardly missing a beat, Chiara accepted the illness as a gift from her spouse, as she called Jesus, and spent the last year of her life embracing her heavy cross with such joy and light that many in her community were drawn to her hospital room, uplifted by her deep faith and joy.  Her witness made a profound impact even on one of the doctors assigned to her, Dr. Antonio Delogu, who said, “Through her smile, and through her eyes full of light, she showed us that death doesn’t exist; only life exists.”

Her heroism at the hospital remained firm.  As chemotherapy began and her beloved hair began to fall out, she’d offer each lock to Jesus as a gift of love.  She was known to walk the halls with a depressed young woman with a drug addiction despite the pain it caused her.  When her own pain began to increase and doctors recommended increasing her dose of morphine, she refused, saying, “It reduces my lucidity, and there’s only one thing I can do now: to offer my suffering to Jesus because I want to share as much as possible in his suffering on the cross.”  Cardinal Saldarini once visited her in the hospital and asked her, “The light in your eyes is splendid. Where does it come from?”  Chiara replied, “I try to love Jesus as much as I can.”

After intense physical suffering Chiara died October 7 of 1989 with her parents at her side, her last words being, “Goodbye. Be happy because I’m happy.”  Her funeral was carried out according to her wishes, looking like a wedding with Chiara dressed in a wedding gown, prepared for her Spouse.
During her final sickness, Chiara was known to say things akin to St. Therese’s sentiment, “You have to know how to die through pinpricks in order to die by the sword.”  I consider how a martyr’s life must necessarily be made up with innumerable small, hidden, seemingly insignificant sacrifices and sufferings before his glory can be revealed in a final, glorious death.   I smile.  That’s good news for moms.  With help from the Holy Spirit and from Blessed Chiara, there probably isn’t too much that we’d have to change about our days before we, too, like Chiara, could illumine the world with Christ’s love hidden in us.

Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, pray for us!