Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Stretched to the Size of the Cross

My daughter, who’s four-and-a-half, can’t eat dairy. Or wheat. Or eggs. Or fish. Or tree nuts. Or soy and most legumes. Or sugar.

She’s currently subsisting on certain meats, vegetables—which make her break out in a rash—a tiny bit of fruit, vitamins, and sugar-free Jello.  (Her mother, at this point, is consuming almost exclusively coffee and sugar, in secret.)  My daughter spends most of the day either hungry or sick, while I spend it thinking about what to feed her or wondering when she’ll start feeling better.

I love to cook, and there’s not much I can cook for her.  I love to go grocery shopping, but now when I go I feel like I’m surrounded by an ocean of food that my daughter can’t eat.  And during the bleakest times, when she’s still hungry after the allotted meat, vegetables, and carbohydrates, it feels like she’s starving in a world of plenty, and I have a new ache for those parents who truly have nothing for their children’s swollen tummies.

I try to encourage her, telling her that she’s doing a good job with her tummy, that Jesus is so proud of her, that He can use her suffering for great good, that it’ll all be for her crown in heaven, that she just has to wait a little longer than everyone else for her bowl of ice cream, and then she can eat it with Jesus.  But sometimes it’s hard when you’re four-and-a-half…or twenty-eight.

Just recently, I came across this passage from Caryll Houselander’s The Way of the Cross in this month’s Magnificat that felt as deeply true as my family’s struggle with food allergies is deeply challenging:

“Because Christ is to be stretched to the size of the cross, those who love him will grow to the size of it, not only to the size of man’s suffering, which is bigger than man, but to the size of Christ’s love that is bigger than all suffering.”

Having been stretched far further than I otherwise would have chosen for myself, I can attest that this is true: Christ has broadened my family’s hearts through this particular trial, which is indeed larger than any of us. He has given us the love to devote countless hours to researching her allergies, visiting doctors, planning menus, and going shopping all with the intent of making her more comfortable.  Her younger siblings empathize with her and her sacrifices—even the baby tries to give her toast when she notices she didn’t get any—and I think, at least, that my daughter notices how very hard we try for and how often we think about her. 

I pray that Our Lady and Jesus remain with us as we travel this road and that they stay particularly close to the little shoulders that are bearing this most burdensome cross.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Lenten Redo

Deciding that the most efficient way for me to grow in holiness this Lent was to become more obedient to the sparse rule that I’ve been trying to flesh out over the past few months, I decided to completely devote myself to it.  What could be harder or better, I thought, than sticking to my daily routine no matter how hard it seemed at the moment?  I made up my mind on Fat Tuesday, and on Ash Wednesday made the impassioned prayer that I always do, “Take me out into the desert, Jesus!

I winced as the first two weeks of Lent came, waiting for the wilderness to come.  I assumed He would show me how terribly selfish and lazy I am when it comes to how I spend my time.  I thought I would struggle through the middle weeks of Lent, imagining myself fiercely battling temptation after temptation to stop my work and do foolish things and emerge this Easter as a true homemaker, wife and mother extraordinaire.  I’d have a rule the Carmelites in Wyoming would be proud of, and maybe I’d have one for the children, too.  Perhaps we would work together in our own community, laboring and praying together.

And then the wilderness came.  Did the Good Lord show me the very worst part of me—the part that prefers to sit instead of scrub the bathtub?  Well, we went there but we kept going, and it got so much worse than I ever could have expected.  He took me to the place in my heart where love simply cannot dwell.  He showed me how I hate having to stop what I’m doing to help my little children, the rudeness with which I speak to them sometimes, the rigid insistence I have on them showing me respect when I sometimes show them little, how seldom I look on them with love during the day, how seldom they see me delight in them.   And this was no quick detour.  We stayed here together for a full two weeks, as each day crawled by, and my mood soured further until my good days were ones that I endured with a sad, pained expression belying my constant annoyance at the souls God had placed in my care and the worst were, well, just plain awful. 

Jesus gently told me through a few different voices, most especially my husband, that it was time for a Lenten redo.  Instead of trying to be obedient to all the tasks I had to accomplish for the day, I was now to forget all that and instead focus on being joyful.  That’s it.  No giving up anything.  No restrictions.  Just  joy.  I had to get the basics down.  I was excited to start—after all, I wanted  to be joyful—and I was grateful to have a reason to do my best.

Since I find myself grumpiest when I’ve been crabby with my family, I decided the best way to fulfill my Lenten goal was to treat everyone as gently and sweetly as I could, trying not to get annoyed by the manifold inconveniences of being a mom.  I didn’t know what would happen, but the next morning, I woke everyone up with big smiles.  I hugged them, sat with them, didn’t rush around, tried to think of things to make them smile, and listened carefully to their funny little stories.  I noticed that I often felt happier with how I treated other children rather than my own.  So, in trying to be joyful, I tried to treat them as carefully and gently as I did other kids.  I tried to say yes to them as often as I could, unless their requests were truly unreasonable.  I tried to ignore how my tasks at home took a little longer by not brushing them off continually.

This whole experiment in joy has blown the lid off a lie I’ve been harboring for years: that if I’m hard enough on my kids I can make them into saints;  if I push them hard enough, I can make them perfect.  But I’d been feeling such frustration because they certainly weren’t turning into little saints but definitely were feeling pushed.  God has ever so gently reminded me there’s a lot I as a mom can do to make the soil of their little hearts fertile and ready to listen to Him, but I can’t push down the seeds and yank up the flowers.  Instead of my usual methods, I’ve tried to hold on to the ideals that I have for them—kindness, patience, politeness, a love for God—and direct them gently, with hugs and jokes and by playing their games.  (Quick, Superman, to the crocodiles in the living room!)  

I have never been so joyful, which for me is no small miracle.  And just the other day, my three-year-old son said that he wanted to marry me when he gets big.  Everyone is speaking more kindly to each other.  I don’t feel like my forehead is going to cave in from the force of my eyebrows knitting together.  I feel like I have better color in my face.  My features don’t look like they’ve been etched into my face with an Exact-o knife.  I am trying to let go of the harshness, of the insistence of order at the expense of kindness.   And my children?  They’ve been kinder, gentler, more patient, happier, polite, and I think still in love with God.  And I didn’t even have to force them.

                There’s still enough time left in Lent for everything to go south again, for me to fall back into my old ways, to slide back into the bad habit of simply demanding that my children be good.  But I don’t think I will.  Jesus showed me the wasteland in my heart, but now He’s staying to sow the seeds of love there.    

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"I Am a Christian": A Summary of the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity

Tomorrow, March 7th, we'll celebrate the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, third century Carthaginian martyrs who resisted impossibly intense pressure to renounce their faith, choosing rather to be thrown to wild animals than turn their backs on their beloved Lord.  (For a full account of the events, visit New Advent.)

Perpetua and Felicity were part of a group of five catechumens apprehended in Carthage in 203 A.D. for the practice of the faith.  Perpetua was a well-educated twenty-two-year-old married mother with a nursing infant, and Felicity was her servant, herself seven months pregnant.  Together they and their companions were imprisoned and roughly treated by the soldiers as they awaited their martyrdom. 
The group was baptized in those early days of their arrest, but for Perpetua, the joy of the sacrament was clouded by anxiety over her family.  Perpetua did not have the support of her father, who visited her often and pleaded with her to denounce her faith for his sake and for her infant son.  Her mother and brothers were believers, but they, too, were suffering on her account.  Perpetua by this time was in great pain from not having nursed her baby for several days, and she was greatly distressed over her son’s lack of nourishment.  She endured these trials until it was arranged that the baby be allowed to stay with her in the prison, where they both quickly regained strength.  And there, Perpetua writes, “the dungeon became to me as it were a palace, so that I preferred being there to being elsewhere.”  

During this time, Perpetua’s brother asked her to ask God in prayer if they would be released or if the imprisonment would result in death.  Perpetua was given a vision of a golden ladder laden with iron weapons leading to heaven with a dragon crouching at the bottom.  The two ascend successfully in the vision, and after Perpetua related this to her brother, they decided that it meant that this imprisonment would lead to their martyrdom and not their release.  Perpetua writes, “We understood that it was to be a passion, and we ceased henceforth to have any hope in this world.”

Perpetua’s father continued to be a source of stress, not understanding her devotion, and later came to her hearing, her son in his arms.  Perpetua writes:

Then they came to me, and my father immediately appeared with my boy, and withdrew me from the step, and said in a supplicating tone, 'Have pity on your babe.' And Hilarianus the procurator, who had just received the power of life and death in the place of the proconsul Minucius Timinianus, who was deceased, said, 'Spare the grey hairs of your father, spare the infancy of your boy, offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors.' And I replied, 'I will not do so.' Hilarianus said, 'Are you a Christian?' And I replied, 'I am a Christian.' And as my father stood there to cast me down from the faith, he was ordered by Hilarianus to be thrown down, and was beaten with rods. And my father's misfortune grieved me as if I myself had been beaten, I so grieved for his wretched old age.

Later in Perpetua’s account, as the day of their martyrdom was fast approaching, Perpetua notes that Felicity was growing anxious that she might not be allowed to die with her companions, as it was illegal to publically chastise pregnant women.  Though in her eighth month, Felicity and her companions prayed that she might deliver early so that she, too, could be martyred.  When they finished their prayer, Felicity went into labor.  A soldier’s servant taunted her, saying that the sorrows she presently felt would be nothing compared to the pain she would later endure from the animals.  Felicity replied, “Now it is I that suffer what I suffer; but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him.”  Felicity gave birth to a girl who was raised by a fellow Christian woman.

When the great day of their martyrdom came, the group emerged triumphant into the circus:

The day of their victory shone forth, and they proceeded from the prison into the amphitheatre, as if to an assembly, joyous and of brilliant countenances; if perchance shrinking, it was with joy, and not with fear. Perpetua followed with placid look, and with step and gait as a matron of Christ, beloved of God; casting down the luster of her eyes from the gaze of all. Moreover, Felicitas, rejoicing that she had safely brought forth, so that she might fight with the wild beasts; from the blood and from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after childbirth with a second baptism.

The Lord arranged that each should die according to their desire.  Earlier, the group had been discussing their martyrdom, and one of their companions mentioned that he wanted to battle all of the beasts so that he might earn a more illustrious crown.  Indeed, he and his servant did just that.  One considered bears “an abomination” but imagined he would die from a single bite from the leopard.  This, too, is what transpired, as the other animals would not come close to him.

For Felicity and Perpetua who had been stripped and bound with nets “a very fierce cow” was let loose on them, adding insult to injury.  The account relates that the crowd “shuddered as they saw one young woman of delicate frame, and another with breasts still dropping from her recent childbirth” meet the beast so they sent them back to be better clad.  On their second time out, Perpetua was flung and landed in such a way that her middle was exposed.  She covered herself up, mindful even of modesty in the heat of the moment.  She was called back out and fixed her hair “for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”

She and Felicity were ultimately mortally wounded by the cow, yet Perpetua was in such a state of ecstasy that she had felt nothing of it.  Their companion, too, had felt uninjured, though gouged.  In the midst of their bloody trial, the martyrs encouraged other catechumens who were looking on not to be troubled but rather confirmed in the faith.  

When it was time for them to be slaughtered by the sword, the martyrs gave each other the kiss of peace and awaited their heavenly reward, with this special note about Perpetua.  “Perpetua, that she might taste some pain, being pierced between the ribs, cried out loudly, and she herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat. Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit.”

Dearest Perpetua and Felicity, we pray for your intercession, that we might face our daily trials with joyful courage, convinced of Jesus’s immense love for us, so that we might join you one day in Our Lord’s heavenly home.