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.