All posts by Megan Twomey

Megan Twomey studied English and History at Hillsdale College. While she was there, she converted to Catholicism and also bumped into a friend's big brother, who just happened to be her perfect match. She now spends her time as a stay-at-home mama to a superhero preschooler and his toddler sidekick, with baby number three on the way.

Missing Christ

While visiting another parish for mass a few weeks ago, the priest spoke on this Sunday gospel:

Hence, he went into his own country; and his disciples followed him. [2]And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were in admiration at his doctrine, saying: How came this man by all these things? and what wisdom is this that is given to him, and such mighty works as are wrought by his hands? [3] Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joseph, and Jude, and Simon? are not also his sisters here with us? And they were scandalized in regard of him. [4]And Jesus said to them: A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and in his own house, and among his own kindred. [5] And he could not do any miracles there, only that he cured a few that were sick, laying his hands upon them.  [6] And he wondered because of their unbelief, and he went through the villages round about teaching. Mark 6:1-6

He reminded his congregation that we are all called to be prophets and evangelize to those around us and that we are not to be surprised when those around us reject us.  As I listened to the priest, however, I found that I often identify not with Christ, but with the incredulous people of Nazareth. I began to wonder how often I had rejected a message from God or shut myself off from His miracles, because I was too snobbish to believe that God could work through the people around me.

The people of Nazareth were incredibly blessed among the towns of history, for they had the sole privilege of witnessing God grow up. In their simple town, the Blessed Mother and her spouse, the ever-steadfast St. Joseph, raised the Son of God. Nazareth sheltered the family from whom the Savior of the world came, and yet, they did not recognize Him. They saw only what they wanted to see: a local boy, someone “just like us”; they missed their opportunity for Christ to do what could have been His greatest miracles.  They refused to believe that God could be fulfilling His promise of salvation through, in their minds, an ordinary man.

There are dozens of reasons they could have felt that way. Perhaps they did not like Christ”s message of repentance. They could have thought themselves too humble to be noticed by God, or, conversely, too proud to need help from a neighbor.  It must have been hard to wrap their heads around the fact that the Messiah best online casino had been under their noses the whole time. Whether they had imagined a charismatic stranger, a solider, or a wealthy king, I doubt they saw the Anointed One as a young man with whom they had shared a village, a synagogue, and maybe a family tree.

Yet no matter the reason, be it prejudice or pride, self-abasement or self-righteousness, the people of Nazareth heard the truth and were unable to believe it. They witnessed the Son of God in their midst and saw only the son of a local carpenter. Their clouded vision cost them the chance for great miracles, miracles Jesus clearly wanted to perform. They had the opportunity to fall down at the feet of Christ, and claim, along with their unworthiness, their gratitude for what God was working in front of their very eyes. Instead, they watched the chosen one of Israel walk away and shake His head at their unbelief.

How many times have I unknowingly caused the Savior of the world to shake His head at my own doubt? I can be so blind to what the Holy Spirit is working in my life because I only see what I want to see. I must miss miracles all the time because I cannot believe I am worthy of them or that they could happen here.  My ears are so often closed to the truth because of the person who has spoken it.  We are so familiar with those around us that we can miss how God uses them as agents of change and messengers of repentance.

As the village of Nazareth demonstrated, the people of Israel had a habit of missing out on the prophecies of God and mistreating his prophets.  God reached out to them again and again, but their hearts were hard, their ears were deaf, and their eyes were blind. And still we continue not to learn from their stories. The Holy Spirit still speaks to us: through the Church, through the Scriptures, and through the people around us. We must not let our ideas of what we want God to say and of what His messengers ought to look like cost us our ability to hear.

We walk in a landscape of prophets, angels, and miracles, if our eyes and ears will only be open.  As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said: ““Earth”s crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God, /But only he who sees takes off his shoes; /The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” God has not stopped speaking and He has not stopped working miracles. Let us not stop listening and looking. If we allow those around us to scandalize us when they speak truth and when we see our town and our time and ourselves as unworthy of miracles, we miss more than a message, we miss Christ.

Peace for the Covetous Heart

Of all the commandments, “Thou shalt not covet,” never seemed the most difficult. I knew that I could be materialistic, could focus on things over people, and could be envious of another’s success. Yet, I told myself that most times I would never want something bad enough to take it from someone else. Of course, when we think we have something under control that usually means it is an area Satan is winning without a fight.  I was not really aware of my struggle with covetousness until a priest described it as wanting a life other than the one that God has willed for us.  Suddenly, I saw myself in a new light. How often had I wrestled with God, praying through gritted teeth “Thy will be done”?  So many times I found myself calling to God, “This isn’t fair! Don’t I deserve a break?” On rough days, I have even, in my secret heart, wished that I had a different life.  Unconsciously, I was allowing covetousness to fill me with anger, fear, and ingratitude.

In a culture obsessed with wealth, consumption, and worldly success, Christians know that we have to be on our guard against greed – the material side of covetousness.  We need to check ourselves with Christ’s words that it is possible to “gain the whole world but lose your soul” (Matt. 16:26).  When we covet, we put the things we desire over our relationships with others and with God.  We set our hearts on lesser things.  Like most of us who aren’t saints yet, I have not yet mastered my thoughts and desires so that they are focused on heaven. But the tangible things like houses, clothes, cars, and the latest technology aren’t the only things that pull our gaze away from our heavenly goal, and, in many cases, they aren’t the most dangerous.

We are called to trust God to provide for us, just as He does for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. While many times that means waiting on God to provide for our material needs, it also means that we have to trust him with our emotional and spiritual needs as well. We have to trust that we are where we are and who we are for a reason, just as a bird does not wish to be a fish or a flower a tree. That we are created for a purpose and equipped with what we need to fulfill that purpose.

It can be so easy to see someone else and think “there is someone equipped with what they need for a happy life.” Whether we are envying their abilities, their temperament, their vocation, or something else about their situation in life, we are giving into the spirit of covetousness. With social media, it is increasingly easy to covet the lives of others from afar. When we hold our lives up to the filtered, edited, and showcased lives of others, we think, “They have it all together. I am not as happy or as holy or as fulfilled as that person.”  Even without knowing it, we can find ourselves dissatisfied and discontented. We can lose the peace that comes with trusting God.

Our culture encourages us to seize the “life that we deserve,” which often means that we are left floundering when the life we have doesn’t look like the ideal of those around us. There is nothing wrong with working toward a goal or believing that we can improve. But when a sense of entitlement leads to a discontented and covetous heart, we can lash out with anger, doubt our own worth, and lose sight of the life with which God has blessed us.

The antidote for all the kinds of covetous greed that eat away at our soul is simple: contentment. We are to rest peacefully in God’s will for our lives. St. Paul, who throughout his missionary journeys lived in a constant state of dependence on God and waiting on His will, said “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, to be content.” (Phillipians 4:11) Even though it can be difficult to discern God’s will, that does not mean we should cease trying or substitute our own vision.  The life that God has given us, the crosses we have to bear, and the path of vocation which He has set before us are tailor-made for the persons He made us to be.

When we feel ill-at-ease in our own skin, restless at heart, and unready to take up the burdens that seem unfair in our lives, we have to choose not to react with anger and fear. Giving into covetous thoughts will never bring us happiness or peace, because they lead us in the wrong direction – taking from others to fulfill our desires.  We can only learn to be content if we trust our Father no matter how dark the road and how ill-equipped we seem to travel it. Thankfully, St. Paul tells us how he has learned contentment: “I can do all these things in Him who strengthens me.” (Phillipians 4:14)  Christ, who trusted His father and submitted to His Will to the point of death, can give us the ability to destroy the power of covetousness over our hearts and to rest content in the knowledge that His love is guiding us Home.

The Catholic Church and the Inherent Dignity of Women

American culture, through generations of inherited ignorance, perpetuates many false ideas about the Catholic Church’s teachings about women.  You can find the caricatures in almost any television series or movie with so-called Catholic characters: the crotchety ruler-wielding nun, the kilted Catholic high school student who is secretly a “bad girl,” the denim-jumper-clad homeschooling mother of a dozen who lacks personality and purpose, and the forward-thinking “cultural Catholic” who ignores almost all Catholic moral and social teaching. Modern Catholic women, at least those who genuinely believe and follow the teachings of the Church, are portrayed as backward, oppressed, or both.  While converting to Catholicism, I was astounded to realize what a grave misconception this is!  The Catholic Church’s teachings, rightly understood, uphold the inherent and singular dignity of woman’s place in creation, creating and the re-creative work of salvation history.

Probably the most popularly misunderstood Catholic teaching about women has to do with the Church’s conceptions of human sexuality.  There’s a slew of cliched misinterpretations. For instance, a certain brand of feminist claims that without recourse to birth control or abortion, women are victims of sexual repression or countless pregnancies.  Another one is that “Catholic guilt” makes it impossible for women to feel attraction, dress attractively, or enjoy a healthy sexual relationship. In reality, it is quite the opposite – it is the woman who buys into the doctrine of “sexual freedom” who is repressed, used, and trapped.

The Catholic Church teaches that every person, regardless of sex, nationality, race, or creed, has dignity because she is made in the image of God. She is created by Him and for Him and, from the moment of her conception, her life has value. A woman has a miraculous and unique role in making and nurturing life.  God made sex for this very purpose, procreation, that is, to join with Him in forming a human, body and soul.  That is why the marriage bed is the appropriate place for the most intimate union two human beings can share. That unique love is meant to overflow from the two becoming one.  Sex is not meant for one human person to use another for physical pleasure, but that is what it becomes when separated from the self-giving and creative love of marriage.

The controversial teachings of the Church on sex, including those on marriage, birth control, and abortion, respect the natural way a woman’s body works and the miracle of life which a woman is capable of carrying within her. They protect women, born and unborn, and work to prevent the sexual objectification that runs rampant when sex is “free” and “without consequence”. Furthermore, the Church teaches that sex within marriage is meant to be for the mutual happiness and enjoyment of both men and women. A woman is not the slave of her husband’s whims; she is meant to be his beloved companion and respected partner in responsibly creating and raising a family. A woman’s sexuality and  physical beauty are gifts from God, gifts which she then can choose to give to another in the sacrament of marriage or to consecrate to God.

This brings us to another unique teaching of the Church concerning women: her unique role in the Church through a vocation to motherhood, either physically or spiritually.  Perhaps when the outside world thinks of Catholic vocations or callings, they seem a particularly masculine thing. After all, only men can be priests and in many places nuns seem an antiquated, endangered species. But every Catholic, and, for that matter, every human, has a calling from God, a role to play in His Kingdom. All women are especially called and equipped to be mothers, whether they ever carry or give birth to a child or not. Catholic women may not be priests, but that is not because they are unworthy or have a lesser place. They are not created to be spiritual fathers, any more than men are created to be mothers.

The vocation to physical and/or spiritual motherhood is based in woman’s natural tendencies toward tenderness, empathy, nurturing, emotional strength, teaching, and protecting.  Whether they are married, living the consecrated religious life, or single, women have a special calling and ability to care for others, to teach them, and to help them to grow.  Women help to birth souls into eternal life, grow disciples, and walk with another toward God. This motherhood does not in any way exclude women from other pursuits, passions, or positions of leadership. A woman’s talents do not hinder her ability to mother souls, nor does being a mother prevent her from having a personality or a craft.  Devoting her life to the service of God, whether that plays out in the context of a family or a religious order, does not eliminate her identity as a woman, but enhances it by strengthening her character and purifying her soul.

The most obvious challenge to the idea that the Catholic Church does not value women lies in the person and doctrines of the Virgin Mary.  Certainly Christ is a man, but when God became man He chose a human mother. Often the world points to the story of the Fall and sees woman disgraced, but misses the story of the Annunciation and woman redeemed. Although the first woman Eve said “no” to God, chose sin, and brought heartbreak to man and womankind alike, Mary, the second Eve, said “yes” to God, chose grace, and continues to participate in God’s plan for the salvation of the human race. The Church over and over again acknowledges Mary’s role in re-creating humanity: she gives her human nature to, carries in her body, and raises to manhood the Son of God. For this, she receives titles unique among the human race: “blessed among women”, “Mother of God”, and “Queen of Heaven”.

The Catholic Church respects Mary above all other created beings and teaches that she is the pinnacle of God’s creation.  Through God’s grace, she helps bring salvation to all men, both through her work on Earth and her prayers in heaven. While the head of the Catholic Church on Earth is a man, the Mother of the Church is a woman, eternally carrying mankind to God.  The honor and devotion Catholics give to the Blessed Mother is not separate from her womanhood, but entirely wrapped up in it. Only a woman could be the mother and virgin who bore Christ, only a woman could undo the pride of Eden with the humility of Nazareth, and only a woman could become the Mother of all Mankind. She alone, Virgin and Mother, teaches us the dignity of all mankind: to participate with God in the salvation of souls and the restoration of Creation.

In addition to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy women whom the Church venerates and holds up as examples for all Catholics are a diverse group of heroines.  Among the saints there are scholars and servants, mothers and virgins, warriors and princesses, courageous martyrs and quiet voices of love that echo down the centuries. Like these saints, real women do not fit into an easy mold, but the Catholic Church acknowledges that they are all precious human beings, instilled with dignity, strength, and purpose by their Creator who fiercely loves His daughters.

Created to Be You

“So they’re both napping?” asked my husband, incredulous, “Can you nap?” Quiet time has been pretty rare around my house since my eldest abandoned naps a year ago. Nevertheless, I cheerfully replied, “Nope, I’m going to bake some cookies,” because I knew that doing something I loved and making something for others was the best way for me to recharge.

Now the me of three and a half years ago would never have been able to confidently decide what to do with an hour or two of freedom. As a new mom, I was so worried about following the right advice and doing what moms should do, that I didn’t stop to consider what would help me to be the best version of myself. So, of course, I often wasted nap-time doing neither what I was told to do, “sleep when the baby sleeps,” or what I wanted to do, but generally stressing myself out no matter what I chose.

I have spent a lot of time trying to be the perfect wife and mother. I have pored over blogs and articles outlining the best way to run this or that aspect of a household. There are a thousand different “perfect methods” for every part of parenting, marriage, and spirituality. Trying to follow them all can be exhausting, disheartening, and downright impossible. After time and again failing to be “the perfect mom,” I finally realized that the right mom for my children was the one God had give them: me.

God did not create me to be someone else, whether it is the crafty mom on Pinterest or the fit movie star mom or St. Joan of Arc, if I spend my time worrying about why I am not her, I am wasting it. He has given me vocation, my family, and my personality. I have been created, as Queen Esther said, “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). When I work with my natural temperament and in my personal situation, instead of measuring myself up to another’s, I can begin to become the wife, the mother, and the woman my Creator meant me to be.

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I recently took one of the Myers-Briggs personality tests that are all the rage and disappointingly found the result different from what I would have guessed. You see, I wanted to be the “fun” person, the spontaneous one that treats life like a musical. Sometimes I am! But I am also a list-maker, a rule follower, and a protective little mama. I enjoy creating order in my little home and taking care of everyone. Even though a simple description of a personality type could never embrace everything that I am, the sooner I accept the personality that I actually have, the sooner I can navigate its positive and negative aspects to become the best possible me.

This is not to say that “just being you” will solve your problems or stand in for morality; every personality type and every person has unique challenges, faults, and attachments to sin. Knowing what they are is part of knowing yourself and beginning the work of becoming the saint God made you to be. Ultimately, God does demand perfection. Conformity to holiness, however, does not look like a dull uniformity, but rather a dazzling rainbow of distinctive souls serving Him in their fullness.

God created you to be you, the perfect addition to His Heavenly family. The next time you feel like a poor imitation of someone else, the perfect whatever-they-are, hear the voice of your Father saying, “You are enough” and when you are not, “His grace is sufficient.”

Spiritual Deep Cleaning

I am not a natural deep cleaner. Extensive projects that involve organizing minutiae, inordinate scrubbing, and rubber gloves are just not my thing.  Now I’m the first person to be stressed when my house looks a mess. In fits of cleaning, I tear through the house like a hurricane tidying stray toys, wiping down counters, and shepherding dirty laundry into the hamper.  I will pull out the vacuum minutes before guests arrive or re-arrange the shoes by the back door for the hundredth time. Yet, when it comes to making sure things are really and truly spotless, inside and out, I often shirk. I can honestly count the number of times I’ve cleaned the outside of my windows on one hand. I recently cleaned the inside of my fridge in a moment of Lenten intensity, and, let me tell you, it had gotten pretty bad. It’s easy to ignore the dirt and mess that few see and focus on creating a tidy appearance to passersby.

Often I find myself falling into the same trap spiritually: ignoring the real deep problems in my soul and concentrating on keeping myself looking spiritually clean. Jesus pointed out this problem in the Pharisees; in fact, He called them “whited spelchures” for following the exterior law while neglecting to have charity in their hearts (cf. Matthew 23:27). That is a very serious accusation: to be rotten at the core while appearing morally upright.  I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of spiritual sloth, but all of us can suffer from it, even those who are honestly seeking holiness.

It took me almost all forty days to realize that I had taken the easy spiritual road this Lent. Instead of really examining what in my life was keeping me from getting closer to Christ, I made a few resolutions and sacrifices that would be easy to identify. I did not earnestly search my soul for the areas of selfishness and sin that were hindering my spiritual life. Then, I wondered why I didn’t seem to be making any spiritual progress.

The thing about Lent is that when we remove things from our life, we are meant to replace them with Christ. We sacrifice things that in our suffering we are brought closer to the suffering Christ, but also that we may find that the things of this world for which we hold affection are poor substitutes for spiritual things.

I forgot that this Lent. I gave up sweets and mostly replaced it with…whining about needing more sweets. I found several weeks in that, had I really done some serious examination, there was something else with a hold on me.  I had been using social media as more than an occasional outlet for connecting with world. Whenever I found myself with a free or quiet minute, I was checking, scrolling, and reading every post I came across. With access to a smart phone, I was trying to escape the things I didn’t want to face in my life. When I found myself impatient with my kids for interrupting an article I was reading or wasting valuable time with my husband on the computer, I knew that a fun tool had become a problem.

Thankfully, Lent is not the only time we can make changes in our spiritual life and it is never too late to turn to Christ.  I took a long look at my behavior and headed to confession as soon as I could. The sacrament of confession is the perfect opportunity to start on that spiritual deep cleaning we often ignore.

There’s a reason the Church requires yearly confession and encourages it much more often: it forces us to examine our consciences thoroughly, to admit out loud the things that keep us from God, and to turn toward Christ for spiritual rebuilding.  A good confession can put us back on track and remind us not to settle for the appearance of holiness.  When we peer deep into our souls and search out the things that are keeping us from pursuing Christ, we can begin the difficult but worthwhile task of working with the Holy Spirit to put our souls in order.

The condition of your soul is project that will take more than a weekend and more than a liturgical season, it is a lifetime pursuit. The Saints have told us that the road to perfection isn’t easy and that it looks different for every soul.  Some are purified by great trials and others, like St. Therese, take a little way of daily sacrifice.  Whatever our spiritual journey, we are all called to examine our souls, to root out sin, and seek after Christ with all we have.  When we pursue true holiness, it will require everything of us , but our Savior deserves nothing less.

Catholicism Vs. The Cult of Choice

This week, I was called upon to exercise my civic duty and present myself at the federal court for jury selection. While I was there, a woman said what many seemed to feel: “Democracy is about choice. I should get to choose if I want to be called for jury duty or not.” Now, I grumbled with all the rest about being expected to wake up early, drive downtown, and leave my life behind to sit all day in a court room. Her words, however, did not sit right with me. I know enough about the foundation of our country to realize that this kind of “democracy” was a far cry from what the founders had in mind. I also know enough about our culture to know how innocuous, and even commendable they sound to ears accustomed to modern American rhetoric.  Americans have become obsessed with choice, and anything that requires the submission of the will to another is viewed with suspicion and even disgust.

We have come to the point in American culture where the ability to choose, regardless of the effect on our own or others physical,  spiritual, and emotional health, is seen as a sacred right.  How often we hear “just do it,” “it’s my choice,” “do what makes you happy,” “march to the beat of your own drum,” and other such platitudes?  Even soda machines trumpet 140 flavor options.  But a glut of options does not guarantee happiness or health.  They may simply be 140 ways to fill your body with high fructose corn syrup and empty calories, for example.  The love of choice extends into American religion as well.  If one does not like the music, preaching, people, or doctrines at a particular church, they simply find a new one that speaks to them.  The individual, the ultimate arbiter or, at least, interpreter of truth chooses the teachings that align with their own.

This fascination with choice is natural to the human condition. Even my three-year-old loves to list the choices of what he can have for breakfast or which movie he can watch.  Free will is a gift from God, something that sets us apart from animals driven by instinct.  Without free will, we are little more than pawns in a cosmic game.  In fact, Catholicism celebrates our ability to choose to participate in our own salvation — to work with God. We make a choice to baptize our children and raise them in the faith, and they themselves choose again that faith at confirmation.  Yet, choice in itself is not seen as a positive good, something to be pursued for its own sake.

When those who do love choice for choice’s sake come into contact with Catholicism, they simply cannot imagine what would possess someone to give up their autonomy of choice to the Church’s authority.   The difference is particularly stark during the season of Lent.  When the world says, “it’s my body,” the Church says “Fast, abstain, be chaste, and respect the temple of God.”   When the world says, “It’s my time,” the Church says, “Attend mass when required, confess your sins often, give to the Church and the poor, and spend time each day in prayer.”  The Church insists on helping her members get to heaven, by making good choices a requirement and labeling bad choices what they truly are — sins.

On matters of faith and morals, members of the Catholic Church cannot simply decide what to believe. Despite what so-called “cafeteria Catholics” feel, Catholics are not allowed to pick and choose from the doctrines of the Church.  They cannot make the Church into a democracy that will change with times.  The Catholic submits not only his soul and his body, but also his mind to the Church.  It baffles outsiders that extremely intelligent people could forfeit their choice in this way. But those who accept the Church as the vehicle of God’s truth on Earth, guided by the Holy Spirit, and entrusted with the salvation of men, have already made their decision. As St. Peter said, “Lord, to whom else should we go? You have to words of eternal life.”

To those who belong to the cult of choice, Catholicism seems stuffy and stifling.  The narrow road doesn’t attract many who want to go their own way.  Yet, to those who have experienced the freedom of following Christ in His Church, the possibilities for loving and serving the Lord are as many and varied as the saints in Heaven.  In sacrificing our ego, our desire to control our lives and decide our own right and wrong, we discover the joy of choosing Christ daily.

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Love Calls Us to Empathy

There is a stereotype, probably justified, of the angst-ridden teenager who cries, “No one understands me.” No matter are age, we all feel this adolescent attitude from time to time.  But if we let that feeling fester, it can turn from self-pity into the sin of self-absorption. Like all sin, it not only separates us from God, but from each other. It clouds our judgement, turns our hearts, and gives us an attitude of selfishness. When we are hurt, our sinful nature tells us to lash out, to nurse our anger, and to refuse comfort. It is that original sin of pride which causes us to say “they wouldn’t understand” and “no one else has been hurt like I have.”

When we learn to look around with open eyes, however, we begin to see that no matter how real our own pain, it is not unique among humanity. All around us people are misunderstood, betrayed, heart-broken, and experiencing loss. It is part of the human condition, whether the pain we suffer is brought about by our own sin or brought about by living in a sinful world full of death and fallible human beings.  There’s a reason Catholics call this world “the vale of tears.”  The Catholic response to a world hurt by sin, however, should be neither to ignore pain nor to despair on account of it.

God has given us the ability to make something beautiful out of suffering. Not only can we “offer up” our own suffering for others, but we can reach into the world of those who are suffering with God’s love and grace. One of the spiritual works of mercy is to “comfort the afflicted.” This doesn’t mean dismissing their pain, candy-coating it, or telling them to “just cheer up.” We are told to “mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).” We are meant to get right down into what they are going through, and feel their sadness.  This is empathy, to feel what another feels, and it is how charity deals with suffering.

We are often so caught up in differences today — in flaunting what separates us from others and makes us unique — that we lose the ability to empathize with those not exactly like us.  Even as adults, we can isolate ourselves in cliques and get embroiled in so many “wars” that we forget that those outside and those who disagree with us are coming from similar places. We need to be willing to discover the human connections with those who think, believe, and act differently from us if we truly want to mourn with those who mourn.  When we pull off the labels and look underneath at their raw humanity, we find that we are all driven by the desire to be loved, the fear of loss, the hope of salvation, and the need to protect those close to us and ourselves.  Of course, we are all complex mixtures of all these things. No two people think or feel exactly the same, but we all have human feelings and the dignity of a human soul.

When we allow ourselves to identify with others, to say “I understand you are suffering and I am here suffering with you,” we do more than comfort them, we open ourselves up to comfort. We admit that we too can be understood and consoled. This is one way of looking at the beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Not only will God wipe away our tears at the last day, but He has given us the gift of bearing one another’s burdens. This is what we are meant for: to hold each other up, to walk each other forward, and find our way together back to God. This is one great purpose of the Body of Christ. Of course, we are to spread the gospel of Christ, but we are also to spread His great love for mankind by loving individuals.

Sorrow and suffering are the inheritance from our first parents, but love which suffers for another is the gift of Christ. It is Christ who first came down into our pain, became human like us, and suffered for our sin. We are now His community, called to go and do likewise: reach into sin, hold the hurting, and bring good news to the suffering.

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Mary and the Love that Casts out Fear

Standing in line for confession recently, waiting to pour out to Christ all my mothering failures, I wondered for the hundredth time how the Blessed Mother did it. How did she raise a toddler without sinning? The constant demands of my children on my time, love, energies, and patience often wears me to the breaking point. How did Mary avoid dissolving into selfishness?

The cynical part of me points out that having a sinless child certainly helped, but that’s not really the secret. I know Mary was preserved from original sin, but she also had free will to say “yes” to God . So how did Mary remain calm, collected, obedient, loving, and humble? I want so badly her serene composure, her constant mercy, her unfailing trust, and her love perfected by grace. I have begged her intercession often as a I find myself failing again and again.

As I went into the confessional, I asked her to pray  that I would make a good confession; truly sorry and resolved to do better. After some good advice from my priest, surely inspired by Our Lady of Good Counsel, I finally realized something critical about Our Lady, something I need to emulate: Our Lady never gave in to fear, and thus, never gave in to anger.

There was much for Mary to fear: judgment for her pregnancy, rejection by the man she loved, a life different than the one she had planned, and the eventual sacrifice of what she loved most, her Son. In the Annunciation text Scripture tells us Mary was troubled at first, uncertain what Gabriel could mean. I’m certain that Satan whispered these fears in her ear, desperate to stop God’s chosen mother from accepting her vocation.  Yet she chose to listened instead to the voice of the angel, the voice that said, “Do not fear.”

When presented with both a great honor and a terrifyingly great task, Mary was able to accept both with humbleness and trust.  Mary knew, without a doubt, her place in the universe, “the handmaiden of the Lord.” If her Lord required her to do something unprecedented in the history of world, carrying and raising His only Son, so be it. Who was she to second-guess the designs of the Almighty One?  She was ready to do as He wished, because she had already placed her life  in His Hands.

Mary knew and trusted the one perfect love — that of God for His Beloved — and that love cast out all her fears. When she accepted God’s will for her , with all its troubles and responsibilities and heartaches, it was because she truly believed in God’s love and providence. Her fiat was the seal on her heart that thrust out all her possible doubts. Mary opened herself up to the “great things” God was going to do in her, and closed the door on the fears of all that it would require of her.

As Mary gave birth in a stable, surrounded not by friends and family, but by strangers and animals, she held on to that love. When it was prophesied that a sword would pierce her heart, she treasured that trust.  When she raised the miracle that was entrusted to her, she remained worthy of her vocation by accepting it daily.  As she sent her Son into a world that would reject Him and watched him sacrifice Himself, she joined the Father in offering up her best gift out of love for sinners.  The strength of Mary’s fiat held even through the death of her Son, and she was rewarded with the witness of His Resurrection and her place at His Side in Heaven: all love’s promises come true.

I am not like Mary. I have not yet mastered the complete surrender of myself to Providence. I still struggle with fully trusting in my God, even though I know He orchestrates all things for my good. I find myself too often a slave to  anxiety, the ship of my soul tossed in the winds of fear. How often I hold back from the peace that is offered to those, like Mary, who give their ego away. My will is weak,  my trust is feeble, and my selfishness and fears so strong.

But that’s why Christ has given us His Mother, not just as an example, but also as a constant companion, intercessor, and help. Mary’s will, now and forever, is to carry us to her Son, if only we will commit ourselves to her motherly arms.

“Remember, O Most Gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence I fly unto thee, Oh Virgin of Virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. Oh Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.”

 

Waking Up to Your Vocation

“Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing…”

As a mom to a toddler and a preschooler, I spend a lot of time listening to “kids’ songs.” So it isn’t surprising that I was thinking about the words to “Frere Jacques” the other day.  In the English translation most of us sing about how “morning bells are ringing” to wake up the sleepy brother.  If you remember the original French, however, it’s the “matines” that are sounding, the bells for Matins, the morning office.  This got me thinking about what life would be like if every day I was awakened by mass bells, if my days were punctuated by the call to prayer.

I have always been enthralled by the idea of a life sculpted by the liturgy.  As a student of history, I imagined living during a time when the community’s year was inescapably enmeshed in the cycle of the Church’s fasts and feasts. The book of hours,the monastic rule, the medieval parish, seen through the rosy glow of a fresh convert, seemed like magical paths to holiness.  It seemed almost unfair that others could have everything they needed to do laid out for them, literally spelled out on the page.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, romanticizing other times and situations.  To think: “If only a lived then or there, I would be holy. If only I had that vocation, I could live it with ease.”  A married mother envies the sister praying hourly in the adoration chapel. A single man thinks he could live a better life if he could just find a good Catholic girl, or be sure he was meant for the priesthood. The grass is always greener on the other side of the vocational fence.

The thing about vocations is that they are personal — tailored for us. Our vocation is the path set out for us to lead us to Heaven.  There are no accidents in how God has laid out that path, just as there no mistakes about the time and place we are born. Even finding your vocation is no guarantee of holiness.  I used to think that once I figured out my vocation, everything would fall in to place, but knowing and living are two very different things.

Hearing the bells every morning does not guarantee you will rise  to pray with joy in your heart.

We are each of us given a vocation, but whether we have found it or not, we have to choose intentionally to live it the best we can, with the grace of God, and to start now.  Being a good wife and mother starts before your marriage and continues after your last child is born.  Living as a godly priest or brother begins before you take your vows, and even before you darken the door of a seminary or monastery.  If a Christian is meant to live singly in the world then they are, unawares, already on the right path.

Every vocation comes with its own unique challenges, thus its own tools and rewards.  Rather than focusing on the challenges of our vocation, we need to start using the tools and cherishing the rewards. Envy, complaining, and discontent never bring us closer to God.  There are no easy ways to holiness, but there is a way, uniquely created for us.  There are as many journeys to holiness as there are saints. Let us not envy our brothers and sisters their journey, but embrace our own, and thus our cross.

So the next time we wake– to the sound of ringing bells, a buzzing alarm, or a baby’s cries–let’s pray that we each rise ready to take on our own singularly great task.

 

The Attack on the Natural Woman

There has been a general trend in the air for a few years now, one that calls for a return to what is “natural:” natural foods, natural materials, natural cleaning products, you name it. Although advertisers have, as usual, taken great advantage of the trend and made some laughable “natural” products, it seems, in general, a good sign. After all, it is probably time we remembered God is better at engineering what is healthy and good than we are.

This tendency toward what is natural, however, has not extended to embracing the way God has made human beings, particularly women. Our culture, especially through the mass media, is waging a constant warfare on natural womanhood. As a woman and mother to a young daughter, this is extremely disturbing to me.

There are three figures common in folktales, fairy tales, and hagiography representative of the best of women in their natural stages, which we seem to have lost respect for in this modern culture: the maiden, the mother, and the wise old woman. Now I am no neo-pagan, but I still feel like these stereotypical figures were a valuable reflection of womanhood and I want to know why I do not see them in my culture. Instead, I am constantly barraged with images of women as objects: a depository for lust, a heartless machine, or a valueless shell.

There was once great respect for the rare beauty of a maiden, a girl in the first blush of innocence. The purity of mind, body, and spirit was the maiden’s strength. It drew others to her and won their devotion. No longer do we see maidenhood as something to be treasured or purity as something to be retained. We have traded in the maiden for the fashion model.

Girls begin dieting, dressing like teenagers, and becoming “educated” about sexuality at a younger and younger age every year. Models and pop singers, the new idols, teach them to flaunt their sexuality.Confusing innocence with naivety, the modern girl refuses to cling to her valuable purity and discards it as childish. Their bodies are not precious, to be taken care of and protected. Instead, they are seen as never tall enough, skinny enough, voluptuous enough, ultimately they will never be “good enough.”

From television to magazines, the message is clear: if you want to be loved, you have to have the perfect body and you have to be willing to give that body away. This is not the message I want young girls to hear. I want to tell them that their purity, not their “sexiness” is their power. Their natural innocence is a gift from God, not a weakness.  Their young bodies are beautiful the way they are, without unnatural preening, prodding, and starving. To change themselves is to steal the blush from the rose.

Women have an amazing natural gift: they can bear life. They also are given the emotional and physical ability to take care of that life afterwards, as mothers. Yet the natural way a woman’s body is made, to accommodate bearing children, is scorned. Women’s natural curves are seen as a hurdle to overcome, a personal handicap, rather than the best, healthiest way to have children. After you do have children, you are urged to exercise and diet right away and get back your “pre-baby body,” often by means of plastic surgery.

Modern women are told to hide not only the physical attributes having to do with motherhood, but also their natural feminine qualities which make them such good mothers. Patience, gentleness, compassion, self-sacrifice, and the desire to nurture are seen as weakness in a world where women are supposed to “get ahead,” that is, seek wealth and power for their fulfillment. These traits are valuable not only in mothers, but in all people, single and married, male and female.

Finally, women who do choose to dedicate their lives to motherhood– something you can do as both a working or stay-at-home mom– are often looked down upon. They are seen as either stupid, spoiled, or unfulfilled. Women seem to have two options before them: powerful career woman or “desperate housewife.” Whether they bear children or not, women should not be ashamed of their ability to do so or their desire for motherhood, physical or spiritual.

When a people values its traditions and its ancestors, it recognizes the wisdom women acquire over a long lifetime. Grey hairs and wrinkles are a sign of strength to endure and the experience of many years. The grandmother of folklore is often the source of guidance to the young hero or heroine, setting them off on their journey with secrets garnered over time; perhaps, she might also be the matriarch of a great family, ruling with knowledge. The love of the elderly shows a true respect for life. Yet if I look around at my culture, the “culture of death,” I see one which has little use for grandmothers and old maiden aunts.

Is it any wonder women are afraid to age gracefully? They artificially cling to their youth through any means possible, because they see how little respect there is for older women. They are seen, at best, as comedic relief and often just as tragically lonely. So many old women have their nursing home paid for, but no company to hear the story of a life well lived.

While our culture is in some ways enamored with death, quick to deal out mercy killings, it is also terrified of death; so, it protects itself by marginalizing those close to death. We have lost the natural closeness of death and so fear the natural aging process, especially the loss of physical beauty. This is a great loss for the aging and for us. We lose all that older women remember, the weaving stories of generations, the skills of time gone past. Women do not lose their value or their true beauty when they lose their youth, though our culture propagates this lie.

Natural products, from shampoo to produce, often warn their customers not to be alarmed by variances in each individual product, because nature does not make identical carbon copies. This is the truth women have to accept about their nature: they are different. They are different from men, different from each other, different at different stages of their life, and different from the stereotypes the media feeds them. I know I cannot live in a world of folklore, but I can pray for one that recognizes natural beauty in all its shades, textures, ages, and stages.

mary
Maiden and Mother, Seat of Wisdom, pray for your daughters.

A version of this article first appeared at Becoming Mama Twomey.

A Living, Changing Love

I remember taking our frozen wedding cake out on our first anniversary, only to discover it was not the same cake we had put in the day after our wedding. The light, fluffy cream, the fresh fruit, and the delicate cake had not held up under the strain of twelve months in the seventh circle of my freezer. It was, in a word, inedible. We were hardly surprised, because pastry, although it is able to sustain life and provide enjoyment, doesn’t last forever.

Yet, people are shocked when they cannot freeze, like a sheet cake, the emotional state of their wedding. That sweet, delicate rush of feeling and excitement cannot be sustained forever. Time will eventually catch up with the heady infatuation that those newly in love feel. As others respond jadedly, with wagging fingers, “the honeymoon is over,” our first response may be to mourn it. When we want to cling to that first blush of romance, however, we forget that to stay forever in the first stages of love is to stunt its growth. It can only be harmful to freeze a living thing.

Love looks different after time, because, love, like people, is meant to grow. We all know that we aren’t meant to be children forever, but to grow into physically, emotionally, and intellectually mature adults. We often forget, though, that as adults there are so many ways in which we can and must grow. We aren’t meant to be the same people at 40 that we were at 20 or 30.

In certain kinds of melodrama you will hear the cliche, “You aren’t the man (or woman) I married.” It’s often used as an excuse for unhappiness, unfaithfulness, and divorce. Yet, the complaint, which seems so valid to many, is founded on faulty logic. It assumes that people are meant to stay the same and that love is constrained by time. Love which only encompasses one version, one age, or one emotional state of the beloved is false. It defines love as “I like the way I feel around you,” rather than “I would do anything for your eternal happiness.”

Real love recognizes that we will change, because we are alive, and it adapts with that life. Having a family guarantees that opportunity for growth will arise. Just the daily challenges of living with someone every day will mold the character, for better or worse, of a husband or wife. Self-sacrifice, the very stuff of love, cannot help but refine us.

Over time, as we grow, our perception of love develops as well. It starts to look less like romantic notes and more like bringing home dinner after a rough day with the kids. It starts to sound less like “you make me giddy” and more like “you keep me sane.” It starts to feel less like butterflies in your stomach and more like a strong pillar holding you up.

It’s not that marriage stops being fun, romantic, or happy. It’s not that you are no longer “in love.” Love is not fickle, it’s dynamic. What happens is that you begin to really understand how love means wanting the good of the other. The joy and sorrow you share begin to deepen and steady the love you shared as newlyweds, and the commitment, promises, and grace of the sacrament of marriage help maintain and mature it.

Human relationships based on true love, that is, the selfless, sacrificing love of God, are not stagnant. They are not meant to be frozen, but to sustain us through life and help us to grow.

My husband and I are not the same people who were married four years ago. The challenges of taking care of our family through good times and bad have begun the process of  refining us and making us who we are meant to be.  My hope for us is that we will not only grow old together, but also grow in love for God and, so, each other.

Embracing My Inner Hobbit

Today, a cashier told me that I seemed “really down-to-Earth,” and I decided to take it as a compliment.  A few years ago, however, that would not have been the case. I used to think that caring about the “higher things” meant yearning for a sort of grand existence, feeling destined for greatness.  Recently, I have come to learn the beauty and importance of a simple life, and to accept that there is more than one way to defend what is good and true.

When I was a girl, my role-models were often feisty heroines: monster-slayers, woman warriors, renegade princesses, and enchantresses. As a Tolkien fan, I considered myself a kindred spirit with Eowyn, ready to shake off the confines of what was expected for me, avenge my kinfolk, and kill myself a witch king.   I thought that in order to be a powerful woman, I had to change the world in some big way.  There was evil in the world, and I was going to conquer it head-on. And everyone was going to know about it (and preferably write me into a ballad.)

In reality, my life has taken a path which few would call heroic or great. I spend three hundred and sixty-five days a year changing diapers, wiping noses, cleaning, and cooking. I have found no demons to conquer but my own, and have made no visible difference in the world. And yet, I have also changed my perspective both on myself and on greatness.

It has not been a matter of settling, but rather of seeing myself clearly. I find that I am, deep down, more of hobbit than a warrior princess. Hobbits are creatures who take pleasure in a simple life and simple work. Unlike men, dwarves, or elves, they seldom fight epic battles, hoard untold treasures, make great art, or rule vast kingdoms. Although they may be common in comparison, hobbits are no strangers to beauty. They cultivate beauty in home and hearth, in family and friendship, and in story and song.

The heroes of Middle-Earth fought to defend the lifestyle the hobbits fostered.  Hobbits, if nothing else, are the homiest of creatures.  They belong to each other and are rooted in a place.  A hobbit, male or female, is a home maker.  Theirs is the good life to which every wanderer wishes to return, but does not begrudge; because as long as the Shire is safe, there is goodness worth defending.

tolkien

As I let go of my need to be the heroine and my insistence that I dramatically change the world, I find that my role as a mother, to cultivate beauty in a simple life through the care of souls and bodies, is, in itself, a great task.  While I have not lost my respect for world-shakers and dragon-slayers, I have come to understand that home-maker is a worthy title as well.

Like the hobbits, I am trying to create a culture of merry laughter, good company, simplicity, and peace.  I want to give my family a sense of belonging, both to an earthly and heavenly home. While tending to their bodies, I am also daily working the soil of their minds and spirits. I am instilling in them an understanding and love of the true, the good, and the beautiful.  In this, my own small way, I am taking my part in the story and am content.

And if, one day, I am called to a grander part, asked to participate in uncomfortable adventures, I pray I will be ready to give up the simple, joyful, homey life I have come to love so well.  For although it is beautiful, it is only a reflection of the perfect simplicity and joy of that eternal home, for which we may be asked to give up everything.

We are each called to make a difference in the lives of others. Some of us are called to great, visible sacrifice, to the loud, outward defense of faith and the tearing down of terrifying evil.  Others are called to live a life of small sacrifices, of quieter courage, and of Mother Teresa’s “small things done with great love.” Whatever our life may look like to others, none of us is too small to change the world for Christ.