Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our Mighty Mom

Last week at the Mass celebrating the assumption of Our Lady, I made another quiet little cry room prayer.  I should know better by now, but I am always tempted to doubt that those prayers reach our heavenly Father, as if they can’t quite pass through those mercifully-thick glass windows.  With my eyes on the kids and my heart on Mary, I reflected on how close I had felt to Mary growing up, how I often first fled to her with my school-age problems.  As I grew a little older, I asked that she help me become closer to her Son.  As a good mother would, she gently stepped back a bit in my life so that I could better focus on her glorious Son. 

The years have passed and she has helped fan the flame of love for Jesus within me.  That previous closeness I’d felt with her, however, had faded considerably, especially after I had had my own children.  She slowly had become the impossible standard to live by with regard to my motherhood.  And though we strove to pray the rosary together nightly as a family, I still felt distant from her and more than a little jealous—Mary, the perfect woman, wife, and mother.  Me, most imperfect troll. 

Absurdly, I sometimes was even jealous that God had asked her to be His son’s mother and not me—as if any woman could’ve been picked for the job and the same outcome would’ve been achieved, as if God had given Mary such an abundance of grace that she was “stuck” on perfect mode and almost didn’t have to try hard to do the right thing and love God.  Mary had become a robot in my mind; and while I knew that this wasn’t quite right and kept praying the rosary anyway, praise to God for Mary became difficult—couldn’t anyone have been appointed to her spot and, given the kind of grace and protection God had lavished on her, become a suitable Queen of the Universe?

I watched absently as the baby busied herself with finding raisins on the cry room carpet.  Delighted by her success, she drifted toward the wastebasket and fell again to her knees to gather up the catch she had found there.  The older two sat quietly on the puffy leather couch.  I thought of saints who had a deep devotion to Our Lady, like St. Maximilian Kolbe, and remembering how my own devotion brought such a warmth, strength, and immediacy to my spiritual life (like the presence of any mom does to a situation), my heart again yearned for that connection.  And practically, I felt keenly that a better love of my spiritual mother would do wonders in my maternal vocation.  I stared at the carpet.  The logistics of getting everyone up the communion line, back for the final prayer, and safely in the car afterward pushed these thoughts to the side for a while, though I did briefly wonder later if God would respond to my prayer.

Predictably yet still remarkably, He did.  While praying the rosary with my family in the car on the way to a weekend at my parents’ house, I was meditating on the suffering and pressure of Our Lady during the Passion.  It was then that a thunderbolt of understanding struck: even in the face of such uncertainty, fear, and perhaps confusion that Our Lady must’ve experienced during that time, she still never sinned.  And she hadn’t all the years before that point.  Although I’ve understood that in the past, this time it really sat in my soul—Mary never sinned.  Immediately after we had finished, I abruptly asked my husband if Mary had ever been tempted to sin. 

“Of course,” he said frowning, surely wondering why I’d ask a question with such an obvious answer.

And that was it, simply enough.  We had six minutes left until we reached my parents’ house, and I let the implications of my husband’s response roll over me as the undulating farm fields whirred past our windows.  Mary, over the course of her lifetime, had experienced a million different temptations and opportunities to do evil, and she never did.  Having an extraordinary clarity of mind to have always known right from wrong and having possessed a completely unwavering will to choose the good, Our Lady never sinned.  And suddenly the glory and grandeur and heavenly honors of her queenship made perfect sense—of course our Father in heaven who’s never outdone in generosity would so handsomely reward such a dedicated, life-long love.  Being made Queen of the Universe seemed very appropriate for a lady who never once complained, never once chose herself instead of God, and never once—like my husband pointed out—simply sat down at the end of the day and didn’t finish her chores because she didn’t feel like it.  This was not a robot—this was the mightiest woman ever to have lived.  And she is my mom.

As we came over the last hill, my parents’ house appeared in the distance and the children cheered.  I considered God’s immense love for me and desire to protect me in not simply just honoring Mary but in giving her to me as my mother.  With great excitement, I wondered just what God wonders God could work through this mighty lady if I truly gave my children to her—through consecrating them to her immaculate heart, by praying frequently for her protection over them, through our nightly rosaries.  I saw my prayers not simply as a means of improving myself as mother, but improving my children’s well-being by putting them squarely in our most perfect mother’s lap.  Relieved that I didn’t have to be the perfect mom for my children because they already had one and also emboldened to aim again for virtue with Our Lady’s very real help, we pulled into my parents’ driveway.  Peace and joy and warmth flowed over my soul as I watched my oldest brother run from the house to greet us.  I was home.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Face Down

I know I wasn’t the only one chuckling in the pew this weekend after hearing the first reading.  For those of you who missed it (due to potty breaks—the five-year-old or pregnant you; screeching—the toddler or you; or crying—the baby or you on the brink of utter disintegration), here’s how the first reading opens:
Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert, until he came to a broom (I think this is symbolic) tree and sat beneath it.  He prayed for death, saying: “This is enough, O Lord!  Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

After a weekend at my saintly in-laws’ home with the children by myself and no husband, I, too, wanted to lie down and call it quits.  This weekend was especially important because I regarded it as a test run for when my husband will leave us this fall to finish his last semester of school in Canada.  And if this weekend was any indication of what this fall will be like, our home will be nothing short of a hell ship.

After the chuckle faded and before the tidal wave of self-pity hit, the lector finished the reading:

“He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree, but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat.  Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water.  After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the Lord came back a second time, touched him, and ordered, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”  He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.”

Now, I knew God wasn’t calling me to more hearth cake because I’ve tried that, and it hasn’t helped…neither have Pop Tarts.  However, I did feel immediately a call to daily Mass and simultaneously an anger that the apparent solution to my problem—daily reception of the Eucharist during my long journey while my husband is away so that I don’t descend beneath my children’s behavior—was cruelly out of my reach.  I have a five-year-old, an almost four-year-old, and a twenty-month-old who spends the whole ride to Mass daydreaming about the naughty things she can do after the opening prayer.  Daily Mass—again, the solution—was simply not an option for me due to my vocation…in which I so desperately need to be fed again and again.  How rotten.  I was mad at everyone.

As the day grew on and I caught myself giving my children dirty looks and talking to them in a way that would most certainly get them in trouble if they had tried the same, I began to wonder if perhaps daily Mass for me personally right now was not optional.  I sensed in my constitution that I was too weak to merely go on a weekly reception of the Eucharist--totally aware also that one well-received Eucharist could make me canonized saint material—and wondered if maybe daily Mass would give me a more Eucharistic appreciation of my life and a greater desire to desire and see Jesus during my day.  I then also remembered that my church has a cry room and a dear friend of mine who has seven girls managed to go every day.  I perked up.  Perhaps there was hope for this fall.  Perhaps it didn’t need to end in my being face down under our pine trees.

We’ll start tomorrow, and I so hope this is more than a passing whim.  So a question for you: have you been able to work out a successful weekday Mass schedule with your family?  Any tips on how to get past that first bad day when everyone is misbehaving?  And what do you do with your toddlers? 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Romeo and Juliet: Lust and the Failure of Adults to Serve as a Moral Compass for the Young

Despite a degree in English, my understanding of Romeo and Juliet hadn’t changed substantially since middle school when I first saw Leonardo di Caprio and Clare Danes in the modern film version of the book.  I understood the play as an extravagant tale of love at first sight that for some horribly twisted reason had been doomed from the beginning.  The whole thing just wasn’t fair.  And then everyone died.    The two had simply languished in Fate’s hands.  What a waste.   Despite my “grasp” of the play, I was forever unsettled by the story because it seemed a bit heavy-handed—why did they have to die that way?  Why did the plot have to unfold at such a breathless pace?  Why was it all so tragic if it was meant to be a love story?  I didn’t like it.  And I felt like I was missing something.

Then my darling husband gave me for Mother’s Day this year the Ignatius Press Critical Editions version of the story, edited by Dr. Joseph Pearce (formerly of Ave Maria, now teaching at Thomas More), a series I have recommended in the past for anyone looking to study Shakespeare through the traditional lenses of faith and history.  I devoured the introductory essay on the way to my in-laws’ house, intermittently letting loose such enlightened expressions of understanding as “yes!”, “no way!”, and “this is awesome!”.

So, how about this:  what if Romeo and Juliet weren’t a story about a fated case of true love after all?  What if, let’s say, the author—who himself had a twelve-year-old daughter at the time—chose to rewrite the story of Arthur Brooke’s Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet which begins “To this ende (good Reader) is this tragicall matter written, to describe unto thee a coople of unfortunate lovers, thrilling themselves to unhonest desire, neglecting the authoritie and advise of parents and frendes, conferring their principall counsels with drunken gossypes, and superstitious friers…abusying the honorable names of lawefull marriage, the cloke of shame of stolyne contracts, finallye, by all means of unhonest lyfe, hastyng to most unhappy deathe”, dropped the age of the heroine to thirteen (to further scandalize Elizabethans who viewed early marriage as a detriment to one’s health--the average marrying age at that time was twenty-six and twenty-four), and surrounded the young lovers with self-interested guardians (Capulet at first seems to want to protect Juliet from too-early marriage though ultimately tries to press her into it), all to hit home the point  that unrestrained passions of youth in the absence of sound parental guidance and example will result in disaster (x-xxiv). 

Dr. Pearce makes an astonishingly simple argument for the above, and I wondered why I had never heard it before.  He notes the selfish interests of the parents and poor judgment of the nurse and friar.  Of course.  He highlights the similarities between Romeo’s lusting after Rosaline (who in her maturity turned down his rather forceful advances) and his almost immediately thereafter fixation on Juliet.  Obviously—how could he have changed substantially into a decent man in a matter of a few hours?  And Dr. Pearce points out that their first kiss is robed in the metaphor of sin, suggesting that Romeo and Juliet’s “love” is something significantly less.  “Sin from my lips?  O trespass sweetly urg’d! / Give me my sin again” (107-8). 

I was blown away—here, a perfectly sound, clear understanding of the play.  It was so simple.  The tale wasn’t a mysterious study of Fate or a glamorous portrayal of total, pure love;  rather, it was about virtue, and what lack of it can do to people.  Why had such a plain explanation eluded my teachers and university professors?

I now knew why the whole story seemed a little off, frenzied, and why they had to die at the end.  That’s what sin and self-interest does to us.  I am so grateful for Dr. Pearce for making Romeo and Juliet more relevant to me now than when I was thirteen.

Dr. Pearce with his usual good sense and clarity writes, “Juliet was ‘too soon marr’d’ by the neglect or manipulation of callous and heartless adults.  At the play’s tragic heart is the broken heart of a child.” (xxi)