Monday, January 27, 2014

Letters to John Paul: A Lesson in Love and Suffering

I was given a gift of inestimable value the other day. I received in the mail Letters to JohnPaul: A Mother Discovers God’s Love in Her Suffering Child by Elena Kilner, and it made me laugh, cry, and reassess the kind of love that I’m giving to my family. And having read the bulk of it on the 41st anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, it re-confirmed in me the infinite value of each human soul.

Letters to John Paul is based on a series of posts from Elena’s CaringBridge journal, started to keep their family and friends informed of the their son John Paul’s journey with the disease Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), as well as letters Elena wrote to her son in order to better reflect on the experience and to share with him just how valuable he was to her and the family. Over the course of the book, Elena invites the reader to share in the many joys and sorrows of tenderly caring for John Paul. 

The cover of the book shows Elena’s handsome, bright-eyed son smiling past the camera, as the sun shines on his sweet face and trach tube. SMA, among other things, rendered John Paul incapable of breathing or feeding on his own. In Letters the reader journeys with Elena and her loving husband Pat and their close-knit family and friends as they work out round-the-clock care for John Paul in their home, carefully monitoring his breathing and lovingly doing therapy in order to help his growing body and mind develop the best they could.
The care, as you could imagine, was rife with difficulties, from emergency trips to the hospital when John Paul’s breathing took a turn for the worse, to balancing John Paul’s needs with those of their other four young children, and finding a qualified and dedicated nursing team to fill in at night so that Pat and Elena could get some much-needed rest. Throughout it all, Elena’s faith in God’s loving care and her devotion to her son and his invaluable life never waver.

After some encouraging signs in John Paul’s development, at nine months the Kilners received devastating news: that cerebral fluid was gradually replacing John Paul’s brain matter and that his brain was beginning to look like an adult’s with dementia. In one of her early morning letters to John Paul Elena wrote, “You make it clearer that the true value of human life is not in the outer displays of human ability, but rather in the God-given power of the immortal soul to love and inspire love.” (105)

And how the Kilners and their community of family and friends loved little John Paul. They relished every moment they had at home with him. His sister and brothers were delighted to have a part in helping care for John Paul and missed no opportunity to play with him on the floor, read to him, and give him cuddles. Elena and Pat spared no effort to make his time at home as comfortable as possible, and always were thinking of ways to improve the experience for him, from dinners out on the patio to a fish tank in his room. The Kilners embraced every opportunity to shower John Paul with love.

On the CaringBridge site when John Paul was about four months old Elena wrote, 

Pat and I have to save John Paul’s life multiple times a day; we live one minute to the next. I will not lie…it is stressful. But I savor that stress because each moment we have with John Paul is an opportunity to make a memory for our other children, to impact their lives and appreciation for life in one of its most vulnerable manifestations. Each time we have to rescue him, we have another chance at introducing a new life experience, at showing him love, at teaching him about family. And we pray as he grows, that we are teaching him all the things we are teaching our other children—the most important of which is teaching him about the God who loves him so much and preparing his little soul to join Him again, whether it be tomorrow or in twenty years.(54)

I loved Elena and her vibrant faith and perseverance, her loving and dedicated husband, their family and friends, and beautiful little John Paul, who cheerfully bore the suffering of being unable to take a breath or eat on his own. It was heartbreaking to reach the end of the book. At fourteen months, God took John Paul home to Him.

During the homily at John Paul’s funeral, Fr. Andrew Royals remarked to Pat and Elena:

You saw so clearly that John Paul’s life possessed a dignity that was radically equal to that of everybody else. His medical condition was simply the battlefield upon which this young warrior-prince would carry out his campaign. You saw in your son a reflection of God’s great plan for him and for you and for all of us. (133)
It’d be difficult to exaggerate the strength of message in Letters to John Paul. I would heartily recommend this to anyone, especially to parents of children with terminal illnesses or special needs. I am greatly indebted to the Kilners for sharing their extraordinary witness of our call to love, and, of course, to John Paul.

“I love being able to do any little thing I can to help you. Good night, ‘Bright Eyes!’ 
Love you so, Mom.” (71)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Meddling In Politics Through Prayer and Correspondence

It’s a familiar feeling, isn’t it? You pull the newspaper out of its plastic bag and the headlines pummel you like a sock to the gut. You keep reading and the feeling of disbelief, disgust, or despair wash over you. The news online impels you to keep clicking on one bad story after another, maybe prompting a Facebook post or maybe just settling into a feeling of sadness in your chest. The nightly news has you answering back to the anchors and pundits. You feel informed and you feel sick.

So what’s a mom supposed to do?

First, of course, we have a duty to pray for our country and our leaders, that they respect the laws that God’s given us and for true humility and clarity of mind. In a homily given at morning Mass at Santa Maria on September 16th of this past year, Pope Francis said:

“A good Catholic doesn’t meddle in politics.” That’s not true. That is not a good path. A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern. But what is the best that we can offer to those who govern? Prayer! That’s what Paul says: “Pray for all people, and for the king and for all in authority.”

In the face of bad news it’s easy to forget to pray for our leaders or to feel tempted that our prayers won’t do any good anyway. We can help stave off that temptation, though, by taking our Holy Father’s lead and joining him in prayer for the leaders of this world.

So we pray. But ought we to do anything else? According to Pope Francis: if we can.

At that same Mass he also said:

None of us can say, “I have nothing to do with this, they govern. . . .” No, no, I am responsible for their governance, and I have to do the best so that they govern well, and I have to do my best by participating in politics according to my ability. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something!

I have four small people under the age of 7. My ability to participate in politics is limited, to say the least. I can, though, contact my representatives to let them know what issues are deeply important to my family and me.  

This weekend my parish will be participating in the USCCB Project Life and Liberty postcard campaign. Parishioners will have the opportunity to fill out postcards to their U.S. senators and representative that request that they not promote or fund abortion policies and that they uphold the rights to conscience protection. Read more about the campaign here and how your parish can get involved.

So I will meddle. I am a mom, after all. That’s what I’m good at.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Holiness is Not a Joke"

In Where There Is Love, There Is God, a collection of writings and talks given by Mother Teresa and edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., Mother Teresa says to her sisters:

Jesus wants us to be holy. Holiness is nothing extraordinary…never, never, never joke about holiness. Holiness is not a joke. I read in a book, “Jesus’ love was not a joke.” His dying on the Cross was not a joke. He loved me and delivered Himself for me. I love Him, I deliver myself to Him. So let us never make fun of holiness. It is foolishness for us to say, “I am not meant to be holy.” I belong to Him, I have consecrated my life to Him, then I must be holy. Examine yourself whether there is that desire burning in your heart. Do I really want to be holy?...Ask Our Lady to help you understand how to receive Jesus and take Him to others as she took Him. (p. 231)

Mother Teresa here was addressing her sisters, but she so easily could’ve said this to me.

I joke about my unholiness nearly daily because, come on, there’s just so much material. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that while the great saints never took themselves too seriously, they did take the call to be holy as a sacred missive not to be fooled around with. They took Jesus at His word that He could make them and their families holy.

I think of St. Monica. As she cared for her ill-tempered husband and his ill-tempered mother, she so easily could’ve given in to mediocrity and abandoned hope of ever becoming holy. Who would’ve faulted her for making snide comments about her husband’s awful antics and those of the mother-in-law, or for answering back to them, or for finding escape in a vice? But she didn’t. Instead of making excuses and seeing her situation as one inconducive to holiness, she resolutely went to work and served with determined patience and kindness that eventually won them both over.

And Augustine. What a lost cause he was. Surely some of St. Monica’s friends from church wrote him off in their minds as an impossible case. But not St. Monica, his mom. St. Monica prayed, fasted, wept, prayed some more, badgered St. Ambrose—“Go now, I beg you; it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish."—until she was finally rewarded with the most remarkable conversion of her son, now a doctor of the Church.

I think about my own family. St. Monica’s example of goodness has given me new energy to keep trying my best and to keep working and hoping for my and my family’s holiness. As moms, we have the daunting but oh-so-beautiful task of loving our family into holiness, no matter how unlikely it looks like from the outside. We have the sacraments and the help of Our Lady and the saints, too, whenever we need them.

We can rest in the example of St. Monica that if we allow ourselves to be emptied for the sake of guiding our families to sanctity, we will become saints and will be the mothers and wives of saints. And that’s no joke.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Outsourcing New Year’s Resolutions

I recently read Erika Marie’s enlightening post about resolutions here: In it she writes, “The word ‘resolution’ comes from the Latin resolutio-/resolution, from resolvere, meaning ‘to loosen or dissolve again…’”

That beautiful explanation helped me to better understand the desire to create New Year’s resolutions in the first place. I now see that what I’m trying to do is to break away from something instead of doing something new. By emphasizing the bond that needs breaking instead of the new activity that needs to be started, the actor becomes God and not me. Only God can break the chains of sin. And He doesn’t do it through a new organization app, paper system, or exercise. He does it in the confessional.

I perk up at this realization. Instead of working on a list of initiatives for the New Year and ignoring the gnawing of doubt that I’m, again, not going to live up to my expectations for myself, I can now instead examine what has imprisoned me and go to our omnipotent and merciful Brother in confession for help.   I can outsource the hard work of New Year’s resolutions to Jesus.

Feeling more confident already in my plans for the New Year, I take a look at what the catechism says about the sacrament:

The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship…Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God. (1468)

“Of which the most precious is friendship with God.” How often I fall into thinking that if I could only lose five more pounds, or keep the bathrooms clean, or be better on top of my paperwork, I’d be happy. While those aren’t in contradiction with a friendship with God, they can only be the means, not the end. God wants so much more for me than smaller jeans and a clean bathtub. He wants me to be His close friend.

I read on:

This sacrament reconciles us with the Church. Sin damages or even breaks fraternal communion. The sacrament of Penance repairs or restores it. In this sense it does not simply heal the one restored to ecclesial communion, but has also a revitalizing effect on the life of the Church which suffered from the sin of one of her members. (1469)

This last part is new to me. I’d learned growing up that there is no isolated sin—that a sin committed in secret also harms the body of Christ, the Church, through the communion of saints. But I never considered the positive side of this: that the sacrament of reconciliation heals not only me but also the entire Church! How beautiful! We can truly be instruments of peace on earth simply by making good confessions. The thought cheers me as I recall the gloomy headlines of the morning’s paper.

I get out a piece of paper and write Things that Need Breaking, making a note of the areas in which lack of trust in God, fear, anger, and plain temptation wreak havoc in my life. It’s a coward’s list, not a super mom’s, and certainly not an occasion for pride. Resolutions in hand, I now know where to take them: to the confessional, where Jesus can do the heavy-lifting.

Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" (Jn 11:40)