Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Keeping the Peace This Christmas: Overcoming Holiday Temptations with St. Jerome

Mothers are rightly known as being the heart of the family. As a deeply introverted melancholic with frequent temptations to anger and despair, however, my God-given place within my family seems ill-advised at best. Nevertheless it’s up to me to make sure that the Christmas spirit is burning brightly in my home this holiday season—God help us all.

My dad used to say that if the mother isn’t happy, no one’s happy, and I think he’s right. I know all-too-well how quickly my bad mood can affect my husband, my children, and a whole room of relatives if I’m not careful. Even if I don’t say what’s on my mind, my foul mood is usually written all over my face, and I feel peace and joy seep away from me and those around me who can’t help but notice my body language.

So just what is it that can blacken my mood, make me totally forget about the beauty of the day of celebration over the birth of Our Lord and Savior faster than stuffing can burn to the bottom of the pan? Burnt stuffing, anxiety over an unexpected guest and a dirty bathroom, different parenting styles, my own overstimulated, out-of-sorts children, jokes given or received in the wrong spirit, a snide comment made by myself or others, and plain old jealousy over a sister’s many recent accomplishments can all quickly stoke the fires of pride, envy, anger, and despair in me, hollowing me out from the inside even as I try to do my best to be festive. If I could see myself I know that I would look a little like someone had stuck a knife in my back on the way to the buffet. And if the offending thoughts have been entertained long enough, it’ll take me weeks after the event to sort out the garbage of my thoughts to figure out where I went wrong and why.

So, what to do about the myriad offending thoughts that are sure to come this holiday season as we’re reunited with family and friends? I think we would do well to look to St. Jerome, a master of self-mastery, for help.

In a letter he wrote to his friend Eustochium many years after the experience, St. Jerome details the kind of intense temptation that he faced during a voluntary stay in the desert—a challenge that he’d pursued in order to better submit his faculties to Christ—and how he ultimately overcame the temptation:

In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the sun, so scorching that it frightens even the monks who live there, I seemed to myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome.... In this exile and prison to which through fear of Hell I had voluntarily condemned myself, with no other company but scorpions and wild beasts, I many times imagined myself watching the dancing of Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. My face was pallid with fasting, yet my will felt the assaults of desire. In my cold body and my parched flesh, which seemed dead before its death, passion was still able to live. Alone with the enemy, I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks.

So what would this look like at Christmas dinner? Let’s imagine that your cousin Julie, a staunch supporter of the opposing political party, makes a snarky comment while in the buffet line. The familiar surge of anger begins to swirl within. What do you do?

First, call a spade a spade. That irresistible urge to retaliate? Could it really be the voice of God encouraging you to put your cousin in her place once and for all? No. It’s just a big temptation.

Second, now that you’ve labeled that urge, what do you do with it? As you watch your cousin reach for the mashed potatoes and all kinds of devastating condemnations swirl in your mind, you grab St. Jerome by his tunic and beg him to pray with you to Our Lord to help you hold your tongue. You say a genuine prayer for your cousin, too, and not just that she come to her senses and change political parties.

It’ll be intense, that’s undeniable. But it is our duty as Christians, especially as moms, to be the sowers of peace, especially during this season. We are tasked with being the heart of our families and it’s our job to remain focused on making sure that everyone under our care feels God’s love. So let’s stay united in the good fight, in the struggle to keep our thoughts holy and pure, so that we might enjoy over our New Year’s coffee the fruits of our labor, most notably the peace of God’s love in our homes, and also a holy pride. Because while St. Jerome might’ve fasted for weeks in the desert, even he didn’t host Christmas dinner.

“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” Mt. 11:12

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It’s All About Who You Talk To: Being That Lady at the Local Movie Store

We have a movie store less than half a block away from us. It has really big selection of children’s movies that you can “rent” for free, so long as you return them within five days. We have four little people ages six and under. Very few reasons on God’s green earth would’ve kept me from this mecca of free entertainment, and yet I’d avoided the store for over a year. Because it also rents out “adult” movies.

I’d staged my own little boycott, stubbornly refusing to take advantage of the free kids’ movies, because, yuck, they were from that place. I’ll take my business of renting a stack of kids’ movies for free some other store, thank you very much.

And then a particularly difficult weekend fell upon me, one where my husband had to work extra hours in the office, something I’d forgotten about until I saw him getting ready to leave. What were we going to do without him? Suddenly the store came to mind with its promise of free movies that my kids hadn’t seen or tired of yet. 30 seconds away. The usual objection came to mind: but what about the “adults only” section? That day, however, I promised myself that yes, I would go into the store, but if I did, I’d have to request that that section be removed, as unlikely as that might be. I promised my husband I’d be right back.

I nervously drove the four seconds to the store and walked in. Before I could check out the movies I had to sign up for a membership which included a tour of the store. The young guy at the desk led me around the store, pointing out the different sections. I smiled to see a Jim Gaffigan dvd in the comedy aisle and averted my eyes from the horrifying and yet so boring horror row. We approached the “adult” section—a corner of the building sectioned off tastefully by false saloon doors—and passed it quickly, my guide skillfully showing me the new release aisle instead.

Back at the counter, I signed the paperwork, increasingly nervous as the time for me to speak came. He scanned the videos and was just about to hand them to me past the sensor when I stammered, “Could you please pass a message along to the manager for me?” He flushed and so did I, but I continued, “Could you please ask him to remove the pornography section?” My ears were on fire but I felt triumphant. I’d done it! And I used the word, too!

He fumbled for words and formed a faux-perplexed face . “You mean, the, uh,” and his eyes darted to the saloon doors.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Oh, um, sure,” he trailed off.

I thanked him and flew out of the door, desperate not to catch the eyes of those around us. I sped home and relayed the conversation to my husband. And we both laughed. Because I had been that lady.

I did this a couple more times, each time being just as embarrassing. The young guys at the counter, between their snickers and their strained explanations of having to serve a “diverse” customer base, always ultimately said the same thing: that their store was part of a chain and that decision was left up to the higher-ups. I was even given that number but never got a return call.

Occasionally as I drive past the store I wonder if my antics had done any good. Or if the whole thing had just been a totally embarrassing endeavor for all involved. What good could’ve come from asking the same guys the same question about something over which they had no control?

Last night, though, as I was driving home I glanced up at the sign outside the store and it read, “Manager Promoted, Apply Now.” I grinned. Maybe I had been talking to the right guys after all.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Loving Our Beloved Departed

It’s really hard to believe that she’s gone. My mother-in-law, in her fifties and full of energy—she had far more than I ever will—died suddenly last Christmas.

A special-needs preschool teacher, daily communicant, regular adorer, enthusiastic wife, mom, and grandmother, she lived life to the full and had made it a point to help as many as she could. Her love for Jesus and the sacraments, her family, and the occasional caramel kept her going.

If I were her, I’d be pretty pleased with myself. However, this exemplary woman had no misconceptions about what would happen to her after death. I remember her, just a year or two ago, standing in her kitchen, pointing her finger at us. “When I die,” she said, “you’d better be passing out my funeral cards to people on the street.” She’d wanted the whole city to pray for her—and they did; her funeral Mass was over-flowing with people—because she knew what was to come: particular judgment.

Our Catholic faith teaches us that after death, each one of us will have to give an account of his life to God. Paragraph 1022 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately,--or immediate and ever-lasting damnation.”

Those perfect souls who ascend immediately to heaven after death and who are enveloped in the Beatific Vision, of course, need no prayers. And those who rejected Our Lord’s love for them on this earth, casting themselves out of His presence upon death simply cannot be helped in hell, Lord have mercy on us. Our loved ones in Purgatory, however, those who died in a state of sanctifying grace but who are still in need of purification before entering the perfection of heaven can happily be the recipients of our prayers and sacrifices. And thus our faith brings to us a real opportunity to continue loving our deceased loved ones, a way to truly bring them comfort even though we cannot, distressingly, still sense their presence.

Of course, only God knows the particular state of our dearly departed’s souls. In His design He’s kept that knowledge from us, only having given us certainty with regard to the canonized saints, whom the Church has declared officially has having reached heaven. Therefore, we can hope heartily for our loved ones’ salvation, never cease to pray for them, and take full advantage of the treasury of grace the Church retains for the holy souls in purgatory. Even if our loved ones are in heaven, please God, we mustn’t worry that our prayers are in vain because God will surely put them to good use for someone else.

The Catechism explains the basis for our belief in praying for the dead:

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.

The Catechism quotes St. John Chrysostom’s Homily on 1st Corinthians, “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”

What a joy our faith brings to us in keeping us truly united to our loved ones who have died. We have the ultimate prayer that we can offer for them: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We can offer an indulgence for them (click here to learn more about indulgences, courtesy of my favorite canonist). Two in particular are coming up soon: visiting a cemetery to pray for the departed between November 1 and 8 and visiting a church or oratory to pray for the dead on All Souls’ Day. We can donate to their favorite charities in their honor. And we can offer works of penance for them in a very real way. If my Uncle Arthur had a famous case of road rage, I can make the sacrifice to drive patiently and courteously for the repose of his soul. If my cousin Ann was a darling but her house was always a wreck, I can spend some time replaying cherished memories of her while cleaning up my own house on her behalf.

I think of my mighty pint-sized mother-in-law. What could I offer up for her today? Immediately I remember the first time I’d met her. I was astonished by how petite she was, feeling myself an ogre in comparison. I remember wanting to approach her as she stood on the other side of the kitchen table slowly, so as not to frighten her. I really liked her son but what would she think of me? The boys in her house were big, but maybe did she think that their companions ought to be small? I flushed, felt supremely self-conscious, and tried to muster a smile. It’ll be fine, I thought, I’m sure we’re really not so different after all. She smiled warmly back at me and it was then that I saw what she’d been doing: cutting peppermint patties in quarters before eating them. She offered me a slice and I felt sick. We’re never going to have anything in common…

I smile at the memory, and then it comes to me--I’ll eat a fistful of candy today, properly, and offer it up for her. And then my husband and I can get down to work on those indulgences. 

 “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” –St. John of the Cross, Dichos, 64.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Starving at McDonald’s: St. Margaret Mary’s Message for Today

It’s my patroness’s feast day today. So when I began researching this column, I turned to my trusty Butler’s Lives of the Saints October volume to be refreshed on the details of her life. I had read all about her when I was little but had gradually drifted away from her as she seemed far too perfect, a friendship with her feeling unimaginable to sinful, weak me. What would we talk about or connect over? Surely she’d quickly become impatient with my glacial spiritual “progress.” I’d quickly dismissed her as an almost non-human because of her spiritual accomplishments, visions, and unreal love of suffering.

Lately, though, as my husband and I have worked to help our children learn to reach out in prayer to their patron saints I’ve felt the desire to do the same myself. Even now I feel embarrassed that I’ve neglected my own patroness for so long, though I suspect that she may not have returned the favor.

Back at my comfy spot in McDonald’s two weeks ago after a cheeseburger and fries…and then a coffee and not, by the grace of God, seven pumpkin pies, I push aside my tray and open up the blue Butler’s book. I am reminded that Margaret Alacoque was born in Janots, Burgundy in 1647, the fifth of seven children. After her father died when she was eight, Margaret was sent away to a school run by the Poor Clares. There she became attracted by the religious life, her piety catching the attention of the nuns at the school. At the age of nine she became ill with a rheumatic illness—I stop to look that up. I thought that maybe that was a respiratory problem but smile to see that rheumatism is, of course, the swelling of joints and muscles, the beginning of which I have…okay, perhaps a whisper of which I have, but it was a start. Would there be more to bond over?

I continue reading-- that would render her bedridden for six years. Despite her father’s family’s wishes to see her married Margaret decided to enter the religious life, joining a Visitation order in 1671 and taking the name of Mary. I smile when I remember my delight as a little girl to find that another saint—a really “good” one, too—had the very same name as me. I glance up for a moment and find myself staring right at the poster for pumpkin pies and pumpkin shakes. My stomach pretends to growl and I grit my teeth, trying to focus. A nightly news show plays overhead. I don’t have to watch to know it isn’t good news.

I find my spot on the page. In the order St. Margaret Mary faced many challenges. She was unable to use the methods of meditation taught to the novices because she was already so advanced in prayer. Margaret Mary was aware of Jesus sensibly, often crowned with thorns, and was directed by Him to ask for “humiliations and mortifications,” which manifested themselves in her manual work in the convent. I close my eyes for a moment to imagine what it would be like spending the day with Jesus crowned with thorns always in view. How would I live my day differently? I stare at the pumpkin pie poster. Obviously it would be harder to forget Him during the day. I keep reading. Margaret Mary was slow, absent-minded, and clumsy which resulted in her being scorned and denigrated.

Alongside of these struggles St. Margaret Mary soon after joining the convent began receiving visions from Jesus that would last for a year and a half. “She was to be the instrument, she was told, for spreading the love of Jesus’ Sacred Heart and making it known throughout the world. Then it was as though he took her heart and put it within his own before returning it “burning with divine love.” (106)

St. Margaret Mary was charged with spreading the message of the Sacred Heart to the world.
Over the next eighteen months she received further revelations amplifying this basic message. The Sacred Heart was to be depicted as a heart of flesh; she and others should make reparation for the coldness and insults Our Lord received in return for his love; a special feast should be established on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi; faithful Catholics should receive Communion on the first Friday of each month and should spend an hour in prayer every Thursday evening in remembrance of his sufferings in Gethsemane. (p. 106)

I look up again, this time at a family in a booth who all seemed a little on edge. The parents looked a little run down and the kids keyed up. I knew the feeling intimately. I looked down on the page and re-read the main points of devotion to the Sacred Heart, grateful to Butler’s for its concise summary of the devotion. I really wanted to make the first Friday devotion happen but felt intimidated by the effort it would require of me as I imagined attending those Masses with my sleepy baby and wild lady in tow. I perked up anticipating our re-enthronement to the Sacred Heart the evening of the feast day. Our priest friend was coming and he’d do the whole rite. We’d placed the image of the Sacred Heart in our home last year and had another priest friend say the prayers, but we hadn’t known that there was more to it than just putting the image out. I was grateful for another chance to get it right. Our friend suggested that we have baked Alaska that night.

I move on to the next page, and it was this commentary that struck a nerve: “France at the time was, perhaps, ready for a message that stressed the love of God as expressed most obviously in the suffering human heart of Jesus; this was an antidote to the rigorism and coldness of the Jansenist tendencies that were becoming so prevalent.” (107)

I do a little research to read about Jansenism. Yes, I thought, that did sound bad, but I look up for a moment and glance around the room, at the single man on his computer, at the staff behind the counter, at the tired family, at the t.v.’s. Yes, perhaps seventeenth century France was bleak, but how about today? We are overwhelmed with everything that could give us pleasure, and our feeling of need to reach out to God has become so weakened that we seek Him out so infrequently. We are all starving for love. How much more, then, are we entitled to that divine love—how much He must long to give it to us. And how very much He must love us, His hungry children.

Before I put the book in my bag and close up my laptop, passing by the pumpkin pie poster one last time, I read that Margaret Mary “suffered from strong temptations to despair, vanity, and self-indulgence” and I laugh. Perhaps we could be friends after all. 

“This divine heart is an ocean full of all good things, wherein poor souls can cast all their needs; it is an ocean full of joy to drown all our sadness, an ocean of humility to drown our folly, an ocean of mercy for those in distress, an ocean of love in which to submerge our poverty.” (107)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Teaching a Little Heart How to Keep Warm: A Mom's Great Privilege

I remember when my oldest had just turned three. We’d just moved to Ottawa so that my husband could study canon law. It was fall and the leaves were turning. They seemed to me more special and colorful because they were Canadian leaves. The maple leaves seemed somehow more authentic.

It was a frosty morning as we headed out to one of the neighborhood parks with the stroller. My daughter was complaining about having cold hands—I’m usually a few weeks behind in getting out appropriate seasonal clothing—and since I had nothing to put on them, not even stray socks from the bottom of the stroller, I told her to put them in her pockets.

She turned her sweet little face to me, astonished. “You mean, I can put my hands in there?” she said, thinking that pockets were only good for toys and tissues. Her surprise made me want to laugh, but the sensitive, cold little soul in the front seat of the stroller would’ve bristled at my amusement, so I said very seriously, “Absolutely. I do it all the time. Why don’t you try it and see if it works?”

She knit her brows and tried to push her baby hands in the pockets but her ring and pinky fingers kept getting caught on the material of the pocket. “Can I help?” I asked cautiously. “Yeah,” she said and I bent down and tucked all the fingers inside and waited.

She sat still for a moment. She straightened up. “Mom! It works!” she said and giggled with glee. “Good,” I said and pushed the stroller again, smiling. I watched as she practiced putting her hands in and turning her fists inside the pocket. She giggled again.

I walked to the park with a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I’d just taught someone how to put her hands in her pockets. I’d gotten plenty of things wrong that day, but I had gotten that right. My daughter would now know how to warm up her hands in the event of being without mittens. I exhaled--my goodness, what if I’d never taught her how to do that? She could’ve gone for who knows how long without knowing that pockets are good for cold hands.

Over the next year she’d also learn that prayer is good for a cold heart. Her three’s seemed to bring with them steady bad dreams at night. A new routine began: her little voice would ring out at night for me to come. I’d stumble into her room—the sight of me and my bed hair and mismatched pajamas probably more frightening than her dream—and I’d kneel by her bed. She’d recount the dream in awful detail, down to the last scary witch and unwelcome cat, and I’d trace a little sign of the cross on her forehead. We’d say a little prayer to Our Lady, asking for sweet dreams for the rest of the night, and I’d leave her as she’d snuggle again under her covers clutching her rosary. In the morning I’d come back into her room and she’d smile as she realized that the bad dreams had indeed gone away for the night. Our Lady would quickly win over my daughter, just like she had me when I was little.

My daughter learned to turn to Our Lady and Our Lord in good times: at meals, parties, fun adventures; in sad times: during bouts of sickness and through deaths in the family; in emergencies: help us find Mom’s car keys!; and for no particular reason at all: thank you, God, for our neighbor’s sunflower that’s grown taller than their roof, and please help my mom learn how to garden.

She’s now six and Jesus and Mary have faithfully remained by her little side, their friendship helping keep her warm inside during the ups and downs of growing up. She knows that she can turn to them in prayer at any moment of the day and to have been able to have taught her that as her mom has been a great privilege indeed, warming my even my own soul.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Four Teresas: Love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves by Gina Loehr

It can get a little intense around here some days. Like when the baby’s crying and bites through my jeans just as the three-year-old suddenly cries out, “I hafta go to the baffroom!” just as it’s time for my husband to leave for work with the preschooler and first grader who are wandering around trying to look for school socks…or was it a backpack?...ummm...oh, look! Our missing toys! Yes! Hey, do you want to make a fort?...

Moms’ days are intense no matter what your situation. No one can combat that kind of crazy alone. Thankfully Gina Loehr has carefully prepared a guidebook to help you enlist some spiritual giants as friends for the good fight: the four Teresas. She’s distilled the rich lives and lessons of St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Liseux, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta into a beautifully written, thought-provoking, easy-to-read yet carefully researched reference guide.

Just like Real Women, Real Saints Gina Loehr has presented these beloved saints in a fresh, thoroughly human and inspiring way. Almost every page in my book is highlighted, either by a saint’s direct quote that I’d never heard of before or by Loehr’s own insightful, encouraging commentary.

The four chapters are divided into detailed biographies of the saints, lessons the saints have given to us, and ways that we ourselves can model their good example in our own lives. Loehr encourages to learn from the Teresas how to “ask, prepare, open, and encounter” Jesus in our lives.

Therese of Liseux

Loehr shows us that St. Therese was the queen of asking Jesus for things. The youngest daughter of blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin who would eventually join the Carmelites became universally loved after her death for her “Little Way” of loving Jesus with every action. Loehr writes, “As she said, ‘[T]here’s only one thing to do here below—strew before Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices, and win Him with caresses.’” (19)

However, Therese knew that if she wanted to love Jesus with all her heart, she needed to ask Him for His to do it. While praying to Jesus St. Therese said, “To love You and You love me, I would have to borrow Your own Love, and then only would I be at rest.” (16)

St. Therese has given me the courage to ask for Jesus’s heart throughout my own crazy days. It’s a bold request, but motherhood, too, is a bold request of us from God. Only His Heart could contain the love that my family members so very much need.

Loehr encourages us to ask for His Love so that we can give it to others, especially those to whom the giving can be difficult.  Loehr offers this for our consideration, “She approached her relationships, especially the trying ones, as opportunities to express her love for God…what difficult relationships in my life give me opportunities to offer loving sacrifices to God?” (23)

Teresa of Avila

Gina Loehr looks to Teresa of Avila, the “big Teresa,” for guidance on loving God with our whole soul, something Teresa was given the grace to do as she matured in the spiritual life. It should be reassuring to us that the author of the spiritual masterpiece Interior Castle had humble beginnings in the spiritual life, even well into her life with the Carmelites. It wasn’t until a special statue of Jesus depicting the wounds from His Passion arrived at their convent when Teresa’s heart was forever changed. From then on she would grow in the spiritual life until arriving at perfect union with Christ in prayer.

Loehr encourages the reader by pointing out, “Anyone can be a recipient of this grace in the soul. Teresa knew this because she knew the tremendous dignity of every human soul.” (34) And lest we despair of reaching this type of sanctity Loehr tells us, “Saint Teresa once told her sisters, ‘God deliver us, sisters, from saying ‘We are not angels,’ or ‘We are not saints,’ whenever we commit some imperfection. We may not be; be what a good thing it is for us to reflect that we can be if we will only try and if God gives us His hand!’” (43)

I was enchanted by Loehr’s beautiful but simple explanation of the St. Teresa’s Interior Castle. I had read it myself years ago but was really moved by Loehr’s notes on the work. I felt a pang of envy at Teresa’s experiences in prayer but was again encouraged by Loehr’ s point that we are all called to be saints. Anyone who wants to can grow closer to God in prayer!

Loehr concludes, “Loving God was more than religious rhetoric for Saint Teresa. She backed her words with her actions. When she wrote about the importance of the virtues of humility and detachment, she knew from her own experience that developing these virtues helped her love God with her whole soul. Consider: How can I consciously try to cultivate humility and detachment?” (45)

Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Gina Loehr naturally chooses Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as our model of how to love God with one’s whole mind. Teresa was born into Jewish family at the end of the nineteenth century. Gifted with an exquisite intellect, she flourished in school and naturally gravitated toward intellectual pursuits. In her mid-teens, however, Teresa made the decision to stop praying and thus began a period of atheism in her life. She did, however, remain committed to seeking the truth and became very interested in psychology, which led her to the study of phenomenology and to a community that assisted her in her eventual conversion to the faith. She would later enter the Carmelite order.

A crucial event in Teresa’s conversion was an encounter with her friend’s widow who had such a calm about her that she had helped Teresa in her sorrow. Teresa then saw clearly the power of faith. “It was my first encounter with the cross and the divine strength it gives those who bear it…It was the moment in which my atheism collapsed…and Christ shone brightly: Christ is the mystery of the cross.” (53) Loehr writes, “It was the mysterious power of the cross, not an intellectual theory, that brought this philosopher to her knees.” (63)

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross encourages us to see the contradiction in our earthly life as proper to our call as Christians. She writes, “To suffer and to be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels—this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.” (67)

Loehr encourages us to consider: “How do I respond to Christ’s call to take up the cross in my life?” And  “how much does belief in heaven console me during times of trial?” (71)

Teresa of Calcutta

In Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Loehr finds the ideal model of how to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The little nun who became world renowned for her great acts of charity knew that the only way she could see each encounter with another, especially the poor, as an encounter with Christ was through prayer. Blessed Mother Teresa said, “My secret is very simple: I pray.” (84) She knew that do try to do anything on her own would be folly. “Recognizing our dependence on prayer is liberating,” she said.  “It frees us from the futile pressure to do difficult things on our own.” (85)

Once Mother Teresa had encountered Jesus in prayer, she was ready to encounter and love Him in the other. “He satisfied her deepest longings,” writes Loehr, “and then she did her best to satisfy his.” (91)  This made a deep impression on me. Motherhood is simply exhausting in every sense of the word. I was grateful for the reminder that Mother Teresa wasn’t super-human. But she was able to give of herself supernaturally because she had filled up on Him first. And I would be wise to do the same.

Blessed Mother Teresa was also known for her smile. The spiritual darkness she’d experienced for so much of her life, however, remained a secret to all.  “My smile is a great mantle which covers a multitude of sufferings,” she once said. (94)  Loehr writes, “She shows us that even in the midst of our miseries and struggles we can act with love.” (93) This, too, struck a nerve. I didn’t need to wait for everything to be perfect to start smiling. And what courage that would take.

“What would our life be if the Sisters were unhappy?” Mother Teresa once asked. “Slavery and nothing else. We would do the work but we would attract nobody. This moodiness, heaviness, sadness, is a very easy way to tepidity, the mother of all evil.” (95)

Game on, Mother Teresa. It’ll take your intercession, but I’m going to start smiling more. Starting now.
The Teresas are a loyal and ever-so-helpful group of friends to have at the ready when the day’s work feels overwhelming and the call to love too heavy to bear. For so much more wisdom, insight, and beautiful quotes from these tremendous ladies, read Gina Loehr’s The Four Teresas.

“The more united I am to Him, the more also do I love my Sisters.” –St. Therese (114)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Real Women, Real Saints: Friends for Your Spiritual Journey by Gina Loehr

Gina Loehr’s Real Women, Real Saints is really, really good.

Categorized according to the virtues, the lives of the women highlighted in the book truly show that sanctity can live in any soul determined to work for it.

Gina Loehr writes:

Every story in this book tells of a relationship between the Savior of the universe and a woman who loved him enough to live in harmony with his will. This harmony-in-action we call virtue, “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it (CCC , 1803). These women lovingly made a habit of doing God’s will—that is, “the good”—though they had to work and pray hard to form that holy habit. The canonization process recognizes this extraordinary effort with a formal declaration that a person lived a life of heroic virtue. (p.2)

Much like Lisa Hendey, Gina Loehr helped me see already-beloved saints in a fresh light thanks to countless direct quotes. From St. Monica, “Guard your tongue when your husband is angry.” (154) And St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, before her conversion to Catholicism, writing to her sister about her Catholic friends, “How happy would we be if we believed what these dear souls believe: that they possess God in the Sacrament.” (15)

Loehr also introduced me to new saints, like Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, who sanctified her chaotic household by her good example and who firmly believed that “laziness is the mother of all the vices.” (76)

Practical advice abounds in the book from women who have been there. Gina Loehr writes, “Difficult decisions didn’t scare Mary MacKillop. Instead of getting nervous about what to do, she put matters in God’s hands by praying before she made decisions. This peaceful surrender to God’s divine wisdom is a fruit of the virtue of prudence.” (88)

And then there’s my husband’s favorite story about a wise lady named Saint Catherine of Bologna:

Catherine was a perfect fit for the role of the abbess because she was a prudent woman. She ruled simply and practically, helping the women under her care thrive by insisting on three things: positive speech, the pursuit of humility and not meddling in others’ affairs. Catherine had crafted these three rules carefully to help women overcome tendencies toward gossip, vanity and nit-picking. Her devotion to the rule of prudence sets a good example for any woman who desires to shape her femininity in accord with virtue. (78)

In these strange days of modern isolation, it is such a gift to have this collection of female saints at hand when you’re in need of advice, friendship, and understanding. What trustworthy friends we find in these pages.

Mass in the Bride's Room

I was in the bride’s room with my toddler, a non-flower girl as she had angrily discovered fifteen minutes earlier at the beginning of my brother-in-law’s nuptial Mass. She sat in my lap, her heavy lashes still wet with tears. I rubbed her back. The ring bearer was with us, too, sunk deep in the corner of the worn velvet couch, too tired from the rehearsal dinner to stand in the pews and hot in his vest. We were there for the long haul as I dared not bring the tired-eyed toddler back into the church past her cousins beautifully arrayed in their matching dresses. In the little corner of the cathedral, a room tucked away in a gathering area, I felt a thousand miles away from the ceremony. I sighed and sunk back into the couch and stared at the blank wall ahead.

Time passed and I could hear the vows over the loud speaker. I imagined my brother-in-law and his lovely fiancĂ© exchanging consent. I thought sadly of my mother-in-law who had died suddenly this past Christmas. I considered the enormity of Jesus soon becoming present in the Eucharist and knowing that I’d miss Him. And then I thought of a book my mother had given me recently.

The book, 7 Secrets of the Eucharist by Vinny Flynn, had been a beautiful, simple, yet profound reminder that our participation in Mass is truly a participation in the Divine Liturgy eternally unfolding in Heaven. I could hear the Sanctus over the speakers and recalled Flynn’s writing about our union with all of heaven at that very moment.
Flynn writes:
So, in reality there is only one Mass, one eternal Liturgy of the Eucharist, and it’s taking place in heaven all the time. Christ, the One Great High Priest, is celebrating it, perpetually offering His once-for-all sacrifice to the Father in the heavenly court, surrounded by Mary and the saints, and by the angels, who sing His praise in endless adoration…
As the Catechism explains it…by our celebration of the Mass in our little parish church, anytime, and anywhere, ‘we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life’(# 1326). (44-45)

Flynn adds, “The Mass is the most complete experience of unity possible for us on earth, for we are praying together with the whole Church—all over the world and in heaven.” (46) He includes a quote from Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper, “We go to heaven when we go to Mass.” I suddenly didn’t feel so far away from everyone in our little room.

The prayer of consecration would come next and my mind turned to the Eucharist. What had really drawn my mom to the book was the chapter entitled “Christ is Not Alone.” In it Flynn writes about the reality of all of heaven being present with Jesus in the Eucharist. He writes, “When He becomes present for us in the Eucharist, Christ is not alone.” (19) Flynn reminds us:

As the Son of God and the Son of Man, the King of Kings, glorified now in body and soul and seated at the right hand of the Father, He is surrounded by the whole heavenly court of angels and saints, and eternally reunited with His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary who, having been assumed into heaven, body and soul, now reigns with Him as Queen of heaven and earth.
Christ is never alone. When He becomes present in the Eucharist as He is in heaven, without leaving heaven, that means that all of heaven is present with Him. (26)

I imagined not only the bride and groom and our family gathered with the priest around the altar, but all of heaven, praying and praising God at the same Mass. I hoped very much that my mother-in-law wasn’t merely present in our memories and love for each other but really and truly there with us, as real as Jesus in the Eucharist.

I could hear the scuffle of people getting up from their spots to head up for communion. With the little energy left I tried to make a spiritual communion, a practice encouraged in Flynn’s book. Vinny Flynn references St. Thomas in the Summa when he writes, “Sacramental eating is when I receive with at least some understanding of the sacrament and some intent to receive it. Spiritual eating is when my sacramental eating is accompanied by a real longing for union with Christ. I thus receive not only the sacrament itself but also the sacramental effect whereby I am spiritually joined to Christ in faith and love.” (83)

He elaborates, “Kolbe stressed what we’ve already seen from St. Thomas Aquinas, that the graces of the Eucharist are received in proportion to our spiritual condition, our desire to be united with God. And, since God always honors our desire for union with Him, these graces are not limited to sacramental Communion. ‘At times, Kolbe explained, ‘spiritual communion brings the same graces as sacramental.’” (86)

Even though I could not carry my fragile daughter and sleepy son up to communion, I felt solace knowing that I could unite my heart spiritually with Christ’s until I could receive Him again. I tried to think on this and offer a little token of love to the Sacred Heart.

The priest gave the final blessing and a few minutes later I could hear the bride and groom’s joyful chatter from behind the door. We straightened up the room and I slowly opened up the door and peeked out. The whole wedding party and family and friends were all gathered together.

I felt the stress and fatigue melt away as we joined up with the happy faces of our family. No one had noticed the outburst, and my littlest girl was now standing next to one of the other two-year-olds, posing for pictures as she held a pink rose that a lovely flower girl had plucked from her bouquet. I looked around the room, saw the beautiful bride and her handsome groom. The dashing groomsmen looked for their families. The bridesmaids chatted happily and my father-in-law greeted the well-wishers with a brave smile. And I hoped very much that my mother-in-law had truly been there with us.

“It was beyond them that all the joy of heaven had entered one small, exiled heart, and that it was too weak to bear it without tears. As if the absence of my mother could make me unhappy on the day of my first Communion! As all heaven entered my soul when I received Jesus, my mother came to me as well.”  –St. Therese of Liseux (35)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On Becoming Babywise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep

My first-born will be turning six in about a week, a fact most people in our corner of the state have become privy to. I think back to her newborn days, to her beautiful long lashes and her ferocious cry.

The first weeks after her birth couldn’t have been more different than what I was expecting. Everything was infinitely more difficult, emotions impossibly high, than I had previously thought possible for human existence. My daughter slept at all the wrong times, nursed erratically, and cried every evening well into the night.

Six weeks after she had been born, with no improvement among anyone in the house, my sister-in-law gave me a book that truly saved my sanity. It ordered our days and gave us goals to shoot for. Within days our daughter was in a lovely routine, and my husband and I were overjoyed and so very relieved. With the basics down, we were able to take better care of her and ourselves, and we’ve followed the same structured day with the rest of our children. God blessed us with three more little ones, and I know that I would not have been able to open myself up to them so quickly if we hadn’t found this manual on how to create a peaceful day at home.

So, I wanted to introduce to you On Becoming Babywise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nightime Sleep. Written by Gary Ezzo and Dr. Robert Buckman, it offers solid advice and guidelines to parents on how to structure their baby’s days to help facilitate nighttime sleeping, promising that the little one will be able to sleep through the night by eight weeks. As the infant grows, the schedule changes to adapt to his needs until the child naturally transitions into a typical day with three meals, normal naps, and continuous sleep at night.

As a new mom with approximately zero experience with babies, this book was a God-send. It helped me anticipate my daughter’s needs, care for her with confidence, and help me incorporate her little life peacefully into my husband’s and mine. And, of course, it brought blissful sleep to us all. If you’re struggling with an infant, I recommend this with my whole heart.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Jim Gaffigan, Catholic

I fell in love with Jim Gaffigan when I first heard his joke, “What’s it like to have a fourth child? Imagine that you’re drowning and then someone hands you a baby.”

I laughed harder than I had in a long time. Here, here was something true. And funny. What a novelty.

My husband and I watched more of his stand-up, and it eventually became clear that he was Catholic. We were almost startled when he mentioned it in one of his acts. I was waiting for him to nuance it, distance himself from it. But he didn’t. And he didn’t get booed off the stage, either. People love him, even talk show hosts. Seeing him go on the major networks and honestly portray life as a practicing Catholic in a really funny and attractive way has been an inspiration.

Two weeks ago, I picked up his book Dad is Fat (named after the first sentence written by his “former son”). It was such a delight. It details his life in New York City with his lovely wife and five little children. They live in a less-than-perfect part of Manhattan in a two bedroom fifth floor walk-up, and the book gives a heroically funny look at the challenges inherent in that life, from getting the kids outside to play (down the five stories’ worth of stairs with scooters and strollers) to putting them down for the night (he provides a diagram on how they put five little bodies to bed in two bedrooms).

There was a laugh in every paragraph, and my husband and I passed the book back and forth, rolling with laughter from his descriptions of family vacations (“Remember when you went on vacation as a kid and you’d think to yourself, ‘Why is Dad always in a bad mood?’ Well, now I understand.”), family photos (“I have more photos of my children than times my father ever looked at me.”), and on the reaction of his friends and family to his growing family (“I knew that to them we had become that disappointing friend on yet another trip to rehab. They weren’t even rooting for us anymore.”)

In his chapter “Six Kids, Catholic,” Jim Gaffigan writes about growing up in a family of eight. “I remember saying that as a teenager to people when they asked how many children were in my family. There would always be a beat after I said, ‘Six kids,’ for the person to silently speculate about the size of our family; then I would give the explanation, ‘Catholic.’” He writes that big families are like waterbed stores. They used to be everywhere. But now when you see one, it just seems weird. And he vents his frustration over the intrusive questions strangers ask about family size. “People would never even ask a friend, let alone a stranger, when they plan to get their hair cut, for fear of offending, yet for some reason the ‘How many children are you going to have’ question is fair game. This also goes for people without children. We are close with a couple who has struggled with infertility for years, and I have witnessed strangers asking how long they’d been married immediately followed by ‘Why don’t you have any children?’ Total disregard for what they might be going through. Why is this? I don’t mean to get up on a diaper box, but individual liberties are all-important in this country…except when it comes to the number of kids you have or don’t have.”

Growing up in a big family, though, didn’t make becoming a parent any easier for Jim Gaffigan. While the book is replete with the challenges of parenthood, he wouldn’t have it any other way.   He writes, “I guess the reasons against having more children always seem uninspiring and superficial. What exactly am I missing out on? Money? A few more hours of sleep? A more peaceful meal? More hair? These are nothing compared to what I get from these five monsters who rule my life. I believe each of my five children has made me a better man. So I figure I only need another thirty-four kids to be a pretty decent guy. Each one of them has been a pump of light into my shriveled black heart.”

A book for anyone who needs to laugh or who feels nudged outside the realm of “normalcy” because of faith or family size. Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan, Catholic.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Alter Christus and Me: A Tale of Victory, Friendship, and God’s Great Goodness

Halfway through a game of Trivial Pursuit the other night I was struck by the infinite goodness of God, which was a most uncommon feeling for me given the circumstances. I didn’t attribute the feeling to my unlikely domination of the competition thanks to a delicate mix of heat stroke and exhaustion in my husband and brother-in-law. No, that feeling was a euphoric wave of glory, unholy pride, and disbelief at my good luck. No, this sensation was different, a deep peace and unspeakable joy that rested deep in my soul. It wasn’t related to the game but had everything to do with my teammate, our dear friend who also happens to be a holy priest of God.

As we mulled over which country had been home to the world’s first brewery, agreed immediately upon the name that had come from the Polynesian word owhyhee, and exchanged glances as one of our opponents, red and brown from the sun and sunk deep in our couch with sore feet on the coffee table, answered “the Great Wall” in response to a question about a nineteenth century building project, I was overcome with gratitude for the mercy of God.

My teammate was an alter Christus. That morning he had spoken the words of consecration and now he was laughing with us about geography. He had held the precious body of Christ in his hands and now he was reading from our Trivial Pursuit cards. His soul carries on it a unique priestly mark that identifies him as another Christ and he is our friend!

Because not only did Christ give Himself to us in the sacraments, His Body to feed us, His grace to wash away our sins, baptize souls, and heal the sick, but He gave Himself to us through His beloved priests. 

In the papal encyclical Mediator Dei Pope Pius XII writes, “For they alone, in answer to an inward supernatural call, have entered the august ministry, where they are assigned to service in the sanctuary and become, as it were, the instruments God uses to communicate supernatural life from on high to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Add to this, as We have noted above, the fact that they alone have been marked with the indelible sign ‘conforming’ them to Christ the Priest, and that their hands alone have been consecrated ‘in order that whatever they bless may be blessed, whatever they consecrate may become sacred and holy, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Let all, then, who would live in Christ flock to their priests. By them they will be supplied with the comforts and food of the spiritual life. From them they will procure the medicine of salvation assuring their cure and happy recovery from the fatal sickness of their sins. The priest, finally, will bless their homes, consecrate their families and help them, as they breathe their last, across the threshold of eternal happiness.”

Yes, priests act in persona Christi in the sacraments and not at Trivial Pursuit. But they always carry with them their priestly mark and therefore are always a special reflection of the Lord. I need to receive Jesus in the sacraments to survive and grow in my vocation as wife and mother, and those are unique moments of intimacy on which my soul depends. But sometimes in His infinite goodness God draws near and warms my home in the familiar smiles and beloved laughs of our priest friends. And these special gifts of His presence never fail to manifest to me His breathtaking generosity.

As I waved goodbye to our dear friend as he left, I felt the usual waves of warmth and joy well up inside, gratitude for the beautiful gift of our friend. I turned and gave my beloved husband a giant hug. And I was just so happy. And it had nothing at all to do with my crushing victory. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Best-Sourced: A Foodie Afternoon

My husband and I would be insufferable foodies were it not for our children. 

We really love food.  And wine and beer and cocktails and coffee and pretty much everything else that you can imbibe.  We look forward to the weekend edition of the Sunday paper that has fancy recipes from fancy restaurants.  Some of the fondest memories we have from our time in Rome were meals.  And I read food blogs. 

God in His infinite mercy, though, sent us four children in five-and-a-half years whose cute little tummies have made our grocery bills double from when we were first married, resulting in our extreme gratitude at having a discount grocer down the street from us.  We sip their $2.79 bottles of wine at dinner and pretend that that block of swiss is really Gruyere.  I make near-miss renditions of recipes from my mom’s old issues of Bon Appetit for my husband and those little faces around the table, and we wouldn’t have it any other way...until I see someone with a bag from the beautiful grocery store with carpet and then I have to fight down a mighty wave of envy and bad thoughts.

The Good Lord smiled on us last week, though, and sent us two tickets from a friend to the local brewery’s annual beer and burger celebration.  The nicest restaurants in town would have stations in the brewery’s beer garden and would offer mini versions of their most popular burgers and a mini local beer to go with it.  He also sent us a babysitter and we zoomed out of the driveway and were there in minutes.

It smelled like a summer dream: a thick cloud of grill smoke hung low over the expansive event site.  A very local and very green event, we were given a biodegradable tray and a mini beer glass to keep along with tickets good for a burger and beer from three different stands.  My husband and I glanced at each other: we were in foodie heaven, and we couldn’t believe our good fortune.  We quickly got down to work.

The first burger we tried was called the Beercuzzi and was a patty dipped in an aged cheddar and beer sauce topped with homemade pickles.  It was paired with a pale ale.  We took our burgers and beers and carefully wheeled the stroller around a maze of sandals until we found a nice spot on a bench next to a small group of women.  In true foodie fashion, we took pictures of the burgers and of us eating the burgers and of the description of the burgers to post on Facebook later.
Our next burger was a pork patty topped with barbeque sauce, cheddar, bacon and barbeque aioli, pickled onion, a cider vinegar reduction and what looked like mini pork rinds.  It was delicious and they were served with little glasses of honey ale and oatmeal stout.  The afternoon sun shown pleasantly down on us, and the baby was delighted with his outing, eventually falling asleep in the sweet scent of grilled meat.

As we were deciding what our third choice would be—we were eyeing up the burger topped with pickled garlic beer braised cherries, SarVecchio, and micro-arugula--I remembered that our little guy was due for his own dinner, so I scooped him up and put him on my lap. 

The woman next to me turned and started asking about the baby.  I held my breath, wondering how long into the questions she would become horrified about our life.  Would it be his name?  “How lovely,” she replied graciously.  What number he was?  “He’s our fourth,” I answered, and I think her eyebrows might have shot up a little, but she kept smiling sweetly.  Meanwhile, an endless stream of people passed by, college students, young adults, older couples, all free spirits with their own sense of style.  It wasn’t them, though, who made her gasp. It was us.  “How old are your children?” she asked. 

I told her.

There it was.  She gasped, clamped a hand over her mouth, let out a shocked laugh and said, “Oh my gosh!  That’s like having a day care in your house…ALL THE TIME!”  She laughed again and I did, too, because it is like having our own daycare, except the pay is awful, and like she pointed out, the children never leave.   Then she looked at me gravely and said, “How do you do it?”

I tried not to skip a beat but I was nervous.  I wanted to credit God because I wouldn’t have survived ten minutes of motherhood without Him, but I feel like I never quite get it right in exchanges like this.  I decided to say, “With God’s love and a huge pot of coffee,” and smiled.  She smiled, too, and then graciously turned back to her friends when I started feeding the baby.

My heart was pounding.  I was grateful for the courage to answer honestly, if not a little lamely.  When I came back with our cherry-and-arugula-topped burgers, the lady had left.

After some reflection, though, I think I could’ve given a more appropriate response.  When she asked how I managed, I should’ve said, “It’s because of what I eat...”  (And, no, I wouldn’t have mentioned shopping at the discount grocery store—that would’ve been too upsetting for everyone.)  But maybe after the third mini beer I would’ve had the courage to say, “...the Holy Eucharist.” 

Because only the Best-Sourced will do when it comes to food.  And I think she would’ve agreed.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Entertaining Saints: St. Bernadino of Siena

God has sent me a friend, I think.  He showed up about a week ago, and I’m not sure how long he’s going to stay.

He’s a Franciscan, a preacher, a theologian, and a canonist.  And he lived 600 years ago.

St. Bernadino of Siena arrived on my scene last week through his bio in the Magnificat.  I’ve quickly fallen in love with the Holy Name ever since reading Fr. Paul O’Sullivan’s book The Wonders of the Holy Name some weeks ago, and it was striking to me that the saint featured in this month’s Magnficat would be someone who was so totally devoted to the Holy Name that he carried a staff with the initials IHS on top and who indeed worked many wonders in the Name of Jesus.  The timing caught my attention and my heart and I felt an instant connection with and affection for him, despite the years between us and our many differences.  I’ve felt him in our house ever since, close at hand, in my thoughts, pointing out ways that the Holy Name is glorified, bringing me to today when my husband called from work to wish me a happy Feast of St. Bernadino and my heart inexplicably leapt. 

What I’ve learned about our guest is that in 1417 he began preaching in Milan and Lombardy and later travelled to other parts of Italy, always on foot.  (He had to practice extensively to train his weak voice to become strong enough to be heard in churches and open-air pulpits.)  He preached on the person of Christ and focused on the common sins of his day: witchcraft, usury, gambling, and superstition, advocating for penance and voluntary poverty to help ward off these evils (Butlers Lives of the Saints, May, pg. 107).

St. Bernadino preached that “speech ought to be a holy activity free of salaciousness and vulgarity” and that “malicious gossip…triggered warfare”. 

Of all words he most cherished the Holy Name, saying:
The name of Jesus is the glory of preachers, because the shining splendor of that name causes his word to be proclaimed and heard.  And how do you think such an immense, sudden, and dazzling light of faith came into the world, if not because Jesus was preached?  Was it not through the brilliance and sweet savor of this name that God called us into His marvelous light? (Magnficat, Vol. 15, No.3)

And so this good mendicant friar from the middle ages is with us for the time being.  I’m not quite sure what he wants or why the Lord has sent him in particular.  With a typical house guest (okay, so really only a grandparent or brother has been willing/brave enough to stay with us overnight), I’d be concerned about what to feed him, how to entertain him, and making sure no tiny people were wandering into his room at 5:30 in the morning to see what were in his bags and to find out if maybe he’d like to play stuffed animals right now.  But how to ensure that a saintly visitor is pleased with the hospitality?  I’m not sure.  I suppose I could ask him, but I’m a little nervous about what he’ll say.  Despite his endlessly-good nature, he might prove the most difficult to please. 

Do you have any ideas?  Have you had any saintly visitors lately and how have you cared for them in your home?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Whatever You Do: The Saints and the Holy Name

“Whatever you do in word or work, do all in the name of our Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

Fr. Paul O’Sullivan, O.P. in The Wonders of the Holy Name reminds the reader of the strong relationship between the saints and the Holy Name.  He writes, “All the Saints had an immense love for and trust in the Name of Jesus.  They saw in this name, as in a clear vision, all the love of Our Lord, all His Power, all the beautiful things He said and did when on earth….They did all their wonderful works in the Name of Jesus.  They worked miracles, cast out devils, cured the sick and gave comfort to everyone, using and recommending to all the habit of invoking the Holy Name.  St. Peter and the Apostles converted the world with this all-powerful Name.” (p.19)

Fr. O’Sullivan offers a lengthy list of saints who rose to great heights of sanctity due to their love of the Name of Jesus.  Noting Fr. O’Sullivan’s caveat—that to list all the miracles wrought through the Holy Name would be impossible because, of course, every miracle is performed through it—he cites some exceptional examples of saintly devotion to the Name of Jesus.

We read about “St. Vincent Ferrer, one of the most famous preachers that the world has ever heard” who “converted 80,000 Jews and 70,000 Moors…This great Saint burned with love for the Name of Jesus and with this Divine Name worked extraordinary wonders.” (26)

We learn about St. Frances of Rome who “enjoyed the extraordinary privilege of constantly seeing and speaking to her Angel Guardian.  When she pronounced the Name of Jesus, the Angel was radiant with happiness and bent down in loving adoration.  Sometimes the devil appeared to her, seeking to frighten her and do her harm.  But when she pronounced the Holy Name, he was filled with rage and hatred and fled in terror from her presence.” (28)

And then there’s St. Gemma Galgani:  “Almost in our own day this dear girl Saint also had the privilege of frequent and intimate converse with her Angel Guardian.  Sometimes the Angel and Gemma entered into a holy contest as to which of them could say more lovingly the Name of Jesus. (29)

Or St. Edmund, to whom the Christ Child appeared, instructing him to making the Sign of the Cross before bed while saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” to be delivered from an unprovided-for death” (28).

Or Blessed Catherine of Racconigi, a spiritual daughter of St. Dominic, “who repeated frequently and lovingly the Name of Jesus, so that after her death, the Name of Jesus was found engraved in letters of gold on her heart” (29).

Fr. O’Sullivan encourages us in this devotion, and if we’re faithful to it “the Name of Jesus will be emblazoned on our souls for all Eternity in the sight of the Saints and Angels in Heaven,” which would be pretty awesome.  But it’d be enough to simply be able to do the dishes without descending into a black pit of discouragement.  Or to be able to smile while getting the children off to school.  Or not have such ugly thoughts while checking Facebook.  To be more courageous when everyone at home is being grouchy.  To happily rise above the petty annoyances of the day.  In short, to stop looking like a pickled pepper, like Pope Francis warned against.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Saved by the Holy Name

The children are downstairs dutifully picking up their toys as directed by their father.  I am supposedly clearing the table and putting away the dishes but what I’m really doing is silently lifting the lid off a tub of peanut butter Hershey kiss cookies that had been lovingly dropped off by an aunt.  I am going in for number six for the day when the thought occurs to me that, really, it’d be sinful to eat any more.

I wince and do the math again: am I really full?  Yes.  Could maybe this still count as a dessert because they’re so small?  No.  Darn it!  Maybe I’ll just have another one as I’m thinking about this.  No, it’s certain: if I eat any more, it’ll be sinful.  Oh, what’s the big deal, they’re so small—“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” comes back to mind, as I’ve been trying to pray His Name today.  I consider this: He’s been with me all day today and now confronted with the cookies, am I going to pretend that He’s not actually right beside me?  Cover my eyes like my preschooler?  My heart starts to pound: He is right here with me and I want to have another one.  Who am I going to choose?

I mouth “aargck” and shake my hands in frustration, backing away from the tub praying, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” And it will be one more time that He’ll need to lead me away from that same dark corner of the kitchen—this time as I’m drinking the flavored coffee creamer from the same beloved aunt—to learn more about the strength of the Holy Name.

With my decaf in hand back at McDonald’s it’s the opening paragraph of Chapter 3 of Fr. Paul O’Sullivan’s The Wonders of the Holy Name that catches my attention:

“In the year 1274 great evils threatened the world.  The Church was assailed by fierce enemies from within and without.  So great was the danger that the Pope, Gregory X, who then reigned, called a council of Bishops in Lyons to determine on the best means of saving society from the ruin that menaced it.  Among the many means proposed, the Pope and Bishops chose what they considered the easiest and most efficacious of all, viz., the frequent repetition of the Holy Name of Jesus.” (6)

No history scholar I try to imagine what was plaguing the world at that time without going to the trouble of looking it up.  Plagues, probably, heresy…I imagine living in 1274 and get distracted thinking about what my hair would look like without shampoo and Cost Cutters.  Curiosity sets in and I look up what actually was the problem discussed at the council—the conquest of the Holy Land and union of the Churches, according to New Advent. 

“The Holy Father then begged the Bishops of the world and their priests to call on the Name of Jesus and to urge their peoples to place all their confidence in this all-powerful name, repeating it constantly with boundless trust.  The Pope entrusted the Dominicans especially with the glorious task of preaching the wonders of the Holy Name in every country, a work they accomplished with unbounded zeal…Their efforts were crowned with success so that the enemies of the Church were overthrown, the dangers that threatened society disappeared and peace once more reigned supreme” (7).

I feel the CNN ticker relentlessly crawling across the screen overhead, a veritable stream of bad news that seems to be picking up pace with each week.  Before I can question if my attempts to pray for my house and my nation in the Holy Name would really make any difference, though, I read:

“It is amazing what one person who prays can do to save his country and save society.  We read in Holy Scripture how Moses saved by his prayer the people of Israel from destruction, and how one pious woman, Judith of Betulia, saved her city and her people when the rulers were in despair and about to surrender themselves to their enemies.  Again, we know that the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God destroyed by fire for their sins and crimes, would have been pardoned had there been only ten good men to pray for them!” (8)  Later in the book is a chapter devoted to how the Holy Name drove out the plague in Portugal.

I can do that.  Because I can’t do anything else.  I can’t fly to Paris and take on the water canons.  I can’t drive to Washington and sit down for a heart-to-heart with the President.  I can’t plead with the heads of media.  I can’t even tear myself away from a tub of cookies on my own.  But I can pray the Holy Name.  And I trust that the power of His Name whispered in a kitchen is enough to repel evil of all kinds.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Meaning of the Holy Name

I’m back at my spot in McDonalds.  The baby is being a darling and happily sucking on his pacifier and playing with his hands, dozing off only to wake from the occasional order at the counter.  The TVs overhead are set to CNN and I see for the first time grainy images of the suspected bombers of the Boston blast.  I feel strangely light due to my diet race with my husband coupled with a larger-than-necessary mocha.  I see that they’re selling two steak and egg burritos for three dollars and scattered memories of my less-than-perfect day flash at me: the messy bedrooms, kitchen, downstairs; the rainy week crankiness; the laundry; the hugs I didn’t administer.  I feel the beginnings of a downward spiral of thought, but I don’t despair—I try something new.  I pray silently, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…”  And I let Him pull me toward the Father instead of falling into myself.

Fr. Paul O’Sullivan, O.P. in The Wonders of the Holy Name calls the Name “Jesus” the “all-powerful” prayer because it invokes the graces inherent in the Incarnation and Passion.  When we say His Name devoutly, meaning to thank Him for taking flesh and dying for us, we offer to our Heavenly Father infinite joy, love, and glory because we are offering Him His Son.

Fr. O’Sullivan can therefore assure his readers that when they pray His Holy Name, they can:

-Offer to God all the Masses said throughout the world that day 

-Free many souls from the pains of Purgatory so that they become dear friends and passionate intercessors

-Protect themselves from countless evils and from the attacks of the evil one 

-Become filled with a peace and joy previously unknown to them and strengthened so that they can easily bear their burdens

I am often plagued by bad thoughts, envious thoughts, suspicious thoughts, despairing thoughts, pretty much everything St. Paul advocates for not thinking about.  And I’ve made zero progress in trying to figure out why I’m having those thoughts or what I can do to fix them or how they aren’t really that bad or how they are the very worst thoughts anyone’s ever had and how I am doomed.  Because I’ve looked to myself to correct the problem.  But when I remember to say “Jesus” when I first notice them—even better, if I’ve been praying His Name all morning—and when I remember all the graces attached, joy and peace do come. 

If I’m troubled about a child, I try to remember to picture his face while saying Jesus’s name.  And with each “Jesus”, I’ve shared in all the Masses around the world for that child.  With each movement of the intellect our little prayer of “Jesus” can purify the blackest of thoughts to the extent that we have prayed it with love.
I am so grateful to Fr. O’Sullivan for promoting this beautiful devotion.  I am so thankful for his encouragement to frequently thank God for Jesus’s Incarnation and Passion throughout the day because it, sadly, wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise.  And I now have a powerfully beautiful way to respond when confronted with the grainy images from Boston or the gruesome details from the Gosnell trial or seemingly insurmountable challenges from daily life.  I can close my eyes, pray “Jesus” with each heartbeat, and be reminded again that He is with me, with each breath, every second of the day.  I can better understand how I need Him every instant and how He will take me to the Father. 


“All whatsoever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Col. 3:17).


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Wonders of the Holy Name by Fr. Paul O’Sullivan, O.P.

I hold the little book in my hand.  It’s smaller than my hand, actually.  Forty-five pages long, I read it in about half an hour last Thursday sitting in my car in the parking lot of Walmart as my baby slept in his carseat.  After I had finished, a hope and joy and peace bubbled up in my soul that I hadn’t felt in a long time.  The clouds parted and God let down His Light on my little dented Sunfire.

The cause of my joy?  The wonders of saying with love the Name “Jesus.”

In this little book, Fr. Paul O’Sullivan outlines the treasure of graces to be found in this beautiful devotion.  He writes, “This Divine Name is in truth a mine of riches; it is the fount of the highest holiness and the secret of the greatest happiness that a man can hope to enjoy on this earth.”  Indeed, if one only repeats His Name with love, Fr. O’Sullivan continues, “It is so powerful, so certain, that it never fails to produce in our souls the most wonderful results.  It consoles the saddest heart and makes the weakest sinner strong.  It obtains for us all kinds of favors and graces, spiritual and temporal” (p.1).

Saddest heart?  That’s often me, a melancholic, usually, of course, without reason.  Weakest sinner?  Me again.  And my ability to seek spiritual armor in prayer is often limited due to the nature of my vocation--craziness.  I find novenas about eight days too long.  I have managed to remember to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet as it ought to be prayed exactly once during my six years of marriage.  I have a great love for the rosary, but sometimes I can only manage a decade.  I’m trying to pray the Angelus but sometimes the intensity of lunch/pre-nap time is enough to make me forget to say it until the afternoon.  Sometimes it leads me to despair, a temptation, to be sure.  But it brings up the issue: how on earth is someone supposed to grow in holiness and “pray without ceasing” when nose-deep in a vocation that often means feeling maxed out at home with the constant demands of, in my case, four darling little people?

And so God sent me Fr. Paul O’Sullivan and this three dollar book (I owe the people at TAN Books so very much for their precious treasures that they distribute so cheaply).  Fr. O’Sullivan promises that if we understand the meaning and value of the Name of Jesus, and if we “get into the habit of saying it, devoutly, frequently, hundreds and hundreds of times every day,” that it will be “an immense joy and consolation” (2).
If you have three dollars and half an hour to spare—and, trust me, I know sometimes we don’t!—I so recommend this book.  If you are feeling overwhelmed, tired, worn out, despairing or just plain bored, invoke His Holy Name and let the infinite merits and grace of Jesus permeate your day.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Nailing Ourselves to the Cross This Easter

There she was.  Walking down the sidewalk to pick up her sons at the end of the school day.  Some years  older than me, her eyes sparked and her blonde hair blew in the breeze.  She was smiling, like she always is, and her face glowed with joy.  Where did that joy come from?  I frowned as I watched her.

Soon our paths crossed and I overheard her conversation with another mom.  She had been on a silent retreat earlier in Lent.  “The priest basically said,” she began, “‘If you want to rise with Christ—live with him—you need to nail yourself to the Cross.”  She threw her head back and laughed.  “Isn’t that terrible?  But it’s true!  He talked about how we all try to avoid suffering.”  She smiled and her eyes glittered.

The sidewalk glinted in the spring sun, a delicate breeze blew past my nose, and I knew that message by the way it landed in my heart and how it seemed so very true to me, was God’s nota bene to me.  As long as I tried to duck and flinch from trial and pain and suffering, I’d always be less than happy, bound up inside, misshapen, as St. Josemaria said.[i]   If I didn’t nail myself to the Cross with the sweet nails of Love, the world would do it for me, and I’d have very sad eyes, to the detriment to my family and community, and not the glittery ones of my friend.

What, then, do we do with the nails of a baby waking up in the middle of the night, disobedience in our children, disorder in the house, our jealousy and envy of other moms who seem to have it more together than we do, fear for our children in today’s world, lack of appreciation and understanding from our husbands, isolation from being at home, alienation from the neighborhood because of our faith, threats from the government to our beliefs?  Do we lash out at our family, glare, yell, complain to our husbands, or retreat, turn cold, turn to Facebook or t.v. or blogs or food or drink or drugs?  Do we dwell on thoughts of us versus them, me versus her, me not her, as if God’s love becomes diluted with each person needing His care?  What do we do when we feel the inevitable and sometimes constant pains inherent in our days, the nails that come from living in a fallen world?    

Caryll Houselander gives us insight into how Christ loved in the midst of this imperfection:

We know now in what way Christ would live in our humanity.  Not as One who, having proved his love, has gone back to his Father leaving us a sealed tomb, but as One who, having tasted to the full the joys and sorrows of human nature, having embraced the grief of mankind, having drained death to the last bitter dregs, sets his wounded feet in the dust again, takes bread into his wounded hands again, and seizing a doubting friend’s hand, thrusts it into his wounded heart; as though saying by his every act to all who would ever tremble and doubt: “I did not wipe the tears from the face of sorrow to lay sorrow by.  I did not touch pain with a fierce redeeming beauty to have done with it; I cannot give myself into the arms of death to cast death aside!  I made all these things my own that the glory I gave to them should be yours, that while they remain with you, I shall remain with them.” He has taken all those things to himself, and has changed them…having taken the weakness of our nature, he has made it our strength.  Now, if we set out to bear one another’s burdens, we know that however heavy they are, however hard to us, Christ has already borne them, and bears them now in us.

We have in the example of Jesus’s life a template for what it means to love in this world, and it is to pray and hope and love and suffer with one another as if their pain was our own.  Instead of succumbing to the nails of temptation and drawing lines in the sand, wishing the Lord’s justice fall upon them or at best remaining indifferent to our neighbor of different political leanings or that fellow parishioner who is hostile to the Church’s teaching or to the defiant relative, we must instead nail our pride to the Cross and pray for them, wanting his salvation and holiness as much as our own, indeed pull with him and his station in life, seeing in him a cherished member of Christ’s body, a member of our own body.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12-26:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many…God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

If there is to be peace and unity in our world, Church, country, and neighborhood, within ourselves, we must be willing to nail ourselves to the Cross for it, and that will be our Easter joy, to join Jesus in His redemptive love. 

[i] “God himself is the stone­cutter who works on us, chipping off the rough edges, shaping us as he desires, with blows of the hammer and chisel.  Don't let us try to draw aside, don't let us want to escape his will, for in any case we won't be able to avoid the blows. We will suffer all the more, and uselessly— and instead of polished stone, ready for the work of building, we will be a shapeless heap of gravel that people will trample contemptuously under foot.” St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way, 756.