Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In the Wake of the Storm: Poverty and St. Therese

In these days leading up to the election, I’ve really wanted to be in high gear: praying, fasting, sacrificing for the future of our country.  And I haven’t been.  It seems like my own Hurricane Sandy has mixed up my personal life just enough to throw everything out of whack at this most critical time.  I overeat when I want to fast.  I sleep when I want to pray.  I soothe myself instead of offering it up.  The winds of my fallen nature whip up the moment weariness sets in, and I feel as powerful as a toddler on a gusty day. 

Even now, considering my goals for tomorrow, I feel defeated.  If tomorrow is anything like the many, many days before, I will not be successful.  I will not pray and fast and offer things up as I would like. 

I wonder if any of our saint friends can relate.  St. Therese comes to mind, and I come across a passage from one of her letters where she writes, “If you can bear in peace the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you offer a sweet shelter to Jesus. It is true that it hurts you to find yourself thrust outside the door of your own self, so to speak, but fear not; the poorer you become, the more Jesus will love you.”

I will try again tomorrow because I believe He wants me to, out of love.  But when the winds come and my efforts are scattered like debris on the beach, I hope I have the courage to throw myself in the arms of our Lord, like Therese, like a baby, and trust that He loves me.  Even though I have nothing.  Perhaps because I have nothing.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dignity and Downton Abbey

I search the pantry, looking for the perfect snack.  The babies are in bed, so I take my time.  What I really want is a Canadian maple cookie, imported personally by my husband back from his stay in Ontario.  I stare at the orange Mr. Maple box…no, it’s probably sinful at this point to have any more sugar. An image of the Sacred Heart comes to mind, as well as a story I had read a month or two ago about some babies after birth needing an insulin drip after experiencing sugar withdrawal symptoms, and I close the door.   My husband prepares a cheese platter and finds a bottle of wine.

Satisfied with our treats, we race to the couch, my husband’s laptop open in front of us.  He right-clicks and the beautifully dramatic and intense music starts.  A gorgeous estate appears on screen, and it begins—Downton Abbey.

I watch as the beautifully dressed, perfectly-coifed head family tends to their daily business.  I get distracted trying to decide what the ladies’ dresses are made of.  I envy the gorgeous fabric and tailoring and matching jewels and gloves and hats, glancing down at my own now mannish-looking “outfit” of jeans and maxed-out maternity top.  Too depressing to behold, my eyes return to the screen and I wonder how they get their hair to curl and stay up like that.

I smile as the mother refers to her husband as “his lordship”, who is every bit a lord, inside and out.  Gallant and handsome, virtuous and principled, he runs the estate with great care, aware that his inheritance is the fruit of the labor of generations ahead of him, determined to  preserve this great gift to the best of his ability.

And then the camera cuts to the also beautifully-dressed staff moving quickly about the house, deftly completing their chores with equal care and concern.  I fantasize about them coming to my house, fluffing the pillows, making the beds with clean linens, creasing the sheets, leaving a jar of biscuits next to our beds.  Mr. Carson, the head of staff, doles out reminders to the staff that they and their work must always reflect the dignity of the family of whom they serve.  I am immediately struck by both the truth of his words, how we as Christians would do well to remember the same as we daily strive to serve our Lordship, and with what a foreign ring they resonate in my modern ears.

All verbal exchanges—pleasant or not– in the house between the family, the servants, or between the two are marked with extraordinary politeness and decorum and the whole scene unfolds with great dignity. 

At the end of the episode, my husband closes his laptop, if a little reluctantly and we head upstairs to bed.  I kick my daughter’s pink nightie to the side of the hallway with my toe, and I watch as my lordship brushes his teeth.  My life feels so casual compared to what we’ve been watching the past forty-five minutes.  I wonder if a wait staff, gorgeous dresses, and a clearer cultural code of decorum would help.  Maybe, I think.  But I suppose I already have a Lord, and those extra things simply point to the reality that I already ought to know—that our serving Him, Infinite Love, is the most dignified work there is.  I simply need faith to remember that.  Not maids…but faith and maids would be awesome.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Walking with St. Ignatius of Antioch: A Man for Our Times

I sit at my favorite table in McDonalds, the only one with an outlet underneath it, uncomfortably positioned underneath a tv.  The decaf coffee, apple pie, and seven-month-old baby in my tummy make me feel as though my insides are on fire.  And my feet are even hotter, stuffed in sweat socks inside of fur-lined boots.  I might as well be sitting in the fire that I’m sitting beside.  I glance at the neatly bound course notes on my table, an extra copy from a class on the history of the Church that my husband had taught at our local Newman center a few years ago.  It’s open to the section on St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of our favorite saints.  I check to make sure the apple pie box is empty.  It is.  My coffee’s gone, too, and I begin to read about our courageous Early Church Father.

I learn that he’s a direct disciple of St. John the Apostle and the bishop of Antioch after St. Peter, serving as a crucial link between the Apostles and the Early Church.  Not much is known about his life, except that around 107 AD he was arrested in Antioch and taken by foot to the Coliseum in Rome to be fed to the lions.  At least they didn’t make him wear sweat socks and fuzzy boots.  And as he traveled through Asia Minor, he wrote seven letters to some of the Churches in that area (Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and Polycarp).

I am already so impressed that he is writing all these letters on his way to death and destruction.  I would be getting sick in the bushes and would be so cranky from the heat.

Ignatius, though, filled with the Holy Spirit, pours his heart out in these missives, highlighting three main themes: unity among believers, the importance of the bishop, and the reality of the True Presence.  Awesome.  I imagine him with his captors and wonder who was giving him the paper and pens.

To the Ephesians, Ignatius writes, “Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks [eucharistian] and glory to God.  For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith.” (Eph 13.1)

The election and our nation immediately come to mind, and I for an instant imagine all Catholics united in the practice of the faith, at Mass, praying for peace and for a return to natural law in our country.  Images of the U.S. embassy in Libya in flames flicker on the screen to my right.

On the importance of the bishop Ignatius writes, “For Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the mind of the Father, just as the bishops appointed throughout the world are in the mind of Christ.  Thus, it is proper for you to act together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing.  For your presbytery, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre…Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God.” (Eph 4.1, 5.3)

Woowee—Ignatius just said that we ought to be as in communion with our bishop as Jesus is with His Father.  I imagine the reactions that would get in a Sunday homily.  I shift uncomfortably in my chair.

Next, on the Eucharist, written as early as 107 AD, Ignatius states in no uncertain terms the reality of the True Presence.  “I take no pleasure in corruptible food or the pleasures of this life,” Ignatius writes.  “I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood, which is incorruptible love.” (Rom 7.3)  

He wrote this in 107 AD!  He died for this in 107 AD!  I am again blown away by the great witness to faith that martyrdom is and I let my eyes fall on the door to the parking lot.  Could I ever be a martyr?

I am interrupted again by the burning sensation from my feet and a sudden desire for the Twix bar that my husband had purchased for me for my saint’s day (the feast of St. Margaret Mary).  Unlike Margaret Mary and Ignatius, I immediately give in to temptation, running out of McDonald’s to eat the candy bar in the dark, returning quickly to my laptop still open on the table.  I sit and read some more on Ignatius’s desire for martyrdom.

He writes, “May I have the pleasure of the wild beasts that have been prepared for me; and I pray that they prove to be prompt with me.  I will even coax them to devour me promptly…Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ!” (Rom 5)

I first think of my day at home with my three beloved but demanding little people and then decide that I’m being melodramatic.  I try for an instant to imagine what being eaten by a lion would feel like.  I picture huge teeth piercing my flesh and that’s enough.  I am humbled by his example and wonder what it would feel like to be so desperately in love with Jesus to willingly suffer that kind of cruelty.  I am suddenly aware of the table next to me and I look down quickly to hide my changing expressions.  I also want to cut off my feet, they’re so hot.

Giving Polycarp, his friend and fellow bishop, advice on how to persevere amidst the persecution, Ignatius writes, “Devote yourself to unceasing prayers; ask for greater understanding than you have.  Keep on alert with an unresting spirit.” (Polycarp 1)  I gaze into the McDonald’s fireplace and consider this savvy advice for us in our day, as confusion in the public sphere seems to grow daily.

I’m distracted for a moment by an interview on CNN with Mitt Romney’s sons—goodness, they look so much like him.  I want to watch but it’s too awkward to peer up at the screen right above my head.  I turn to the other screen and there’s a man under there, too, with his laptop, and it’s too awkward to watch his screen while he’s watching mine.  I turn again to the course reader.  I want to pull Ignatius off the page and stand him next to me.  I want to see what he’d do.  I hope he’d ask me to come along.  And maybe he’d even share his sandals with me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


My husband is part machine.  If he puts his mind to something, there really is little that will prevent him from reaching his goal.  Handcuffs, maybe.  A Star Wars special, perhaps.  But certainly not bodily trifles such as hunger.  If he has enough work to do, he’ll happily work from sunrise to sunset without eating, without even noticing that he hasn’t eaten until a headache sets in in the evening.

His poor wife, on the other hands, gets panicky at the mere thought of hunger.  I will overeat at the thought of having to go without—it’s very common for me to overeat the day before I hope to complete some tiny little fast or start a reasonable “diet” (limiting desserts to two, not five).  If it’s time for the children’s snack, I often will count myself in even if I’m not hungry because I fear being hungry later in the day even though I spend my day four feet from the pantry.  I am so aware of impending hunger that vanquishing it has become a specialty of mine.

Being so delicately aware of my own physical hunger, it’d follow that I’d be equally as in tune with my spiritual hunger.  But lately, I’ve been blown away at the vast abyss of my need for prayer.  I’ve been starving (for God), and I’ve never noticed!

I thought I had a decent prayer and sacrament schedule, so I never felt bothered to change it.  But recently as duties at home have bordered on overwhelming and my performance of them have been astonishingly underwhelming, I wondered if I simply needed to pray more.  I’ve been trying to.  And nothing has changed.  I still have to put the toothpaste on the toothbrush because my kids can’t do it fast enough.  I still respond with impatience if a little person addresses me with impatience because I’m two years old on the inside.  I still leave dishes in the sink for an eternity so that they’ll “soak” properly.  But one thing has changed: my awareness of how much more God I need in my day.  

More God, not Facebook:  I will not feel loved and connected by spending huge amounts of time browsing and commenting and liking.  More God, not the news:  I will not be truly enlightened and grow interiorly by reading enormous amounts of news.  More God, not sugar:  No amount of post-little person bedtime cookies or treats will fill me with His sweetness.  Only He can.  And there’s so much that needs to be filled—who knew?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Heavenly Air Down There

Yesterday was the feast of the guardian angels.  In yesterday’s gospel, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”

As a mom, this stings a little.  It’s our very cute, but extremely messy, noisy, infinitely needy children whose angels always enjoy the beatific vision.  Not mine, whose charge is one of the important ones in the household, who keeps things running smoothly, who cooks, cleans, and tends to others, who’s in charge, who gets stressed occasionally from all her responsibilities, who often has to sacrifice her little hopes in the day for the good of the household, who’s been tasked with keeping the little ones alive.  No, it’s not my guardian angel who gets to gaze at God.  It’s mine who can’t see Him for having his nose pressed to the dirt continually on my behalf.

I get it.  I do.  I’ve spent the day with myself, and I know how I am when I am in charge.  It’s my way or the highway.  The chores are a strain on my freedom.  The children are obstacles to my holiness and tending to their needs makes me sad because I can’t tend to my own.  God is a relentless task master and I get sad that I can’t put the day on pause so that I can pursue what I really want to do: like nothing, and eating dessert, and drinking coffee alone, and spending time with a friend who doesn’t know me very well and thinks I’m wonderful.  I get why my angel has bent his magnificent frame in supplication on my part.  

As a remedy to the situation, Jesus earlier says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.”  We celebrated St. Therese’s feast day on Monday, and she clearly got the hang of it.  She was not concerned that the events of the day pleased her.  She merely wanted to do what made Jesus happy.  She wrote, “For some time past I had offered myself to the Child Jesus to be His little Plaything. I told Him not to treat me like a precious toy such as children only look at and dare not touch, but like a little ball of no value that He could throw on the ground, kick, pierce, leave in a corner or press to His , just as He pleased. In a word, I wished to amuse the little Jesus and abandon myself to His childish whims.”  

Oh man, if I could just lower myself a bit, sit next to my kids who I love so much and think about how much more He loves me, if I could content myself with letting Him use me for His pleasure, my only happiness knowing that my love makes Him happy, if I could just let the huge burden of false pride make me stoop a little so that I could enjoy the refreshment that comes from littleness, I think I’d find myself in the company of spiritual giants way down there.