Monday, 18 February 2013

little lenten lessons

With four children age five and under, I find it challenging to strike a balance between a Lenten atmosphere in the home that is "too much" with one that is "not enough".  Last year's "Lent Report" sort of gives an idea of how hard it is for me to find (and stick with) a plan given all the variables at play!

One new element we're going to give a whirl this year involves this guy......

He's got some buddies too.

My girls' group in New Zealand crafted some fabulous little Biblical hand puppets. We didn't even sew them - we used glue guns (with old clothes, yarn & google-y eyes). It took no time at all. The little critters debuted in a puppet show in Mt Maunganui, illustrating parables during Children's Liturgy - and then a few of them came home to America with me. They've been untouched in a box for over a year. Until.....

I'd been thinking about how to embed Scripture verses in my children's hearts. This process has led me to consider both what and how. I thought a lot about what verses are important, simple and brief enough to be accessible to very young children. Which verses did I most want to plant in their minds and souls, to strengthen and bless them in the years to come? Which would be most valuable given the temperaments of my children and the areas that we are most working on together as a family? And how should I approach this? Drilling for straight memorization didn't appeal to me, but I was having a hard time thinking creatively. Then I suddenly remembered the little puppets and I knew!

I used several resources to begin selecting verses. My Google searches were disappointing and did not fit my purpose well, but they were a good start. Then I "googled" my own heart and jotted down some of the verses that have been important in my own life. I've begun reading my nightly Scripture with an eye for pithy & powerful verses. I'm also paying careful attention when I hear or see Scripture verses in conversation, homilies, books, music & prayer. Anything that's a good fit for what I'm trying to do here gets jotted down on an index card. Some of my "possibilities" so far include:

God is love.      ~1 John 4:8

The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.       ~Psalm 23:1

Speak the truth in love.     ~Ephesians 4:15

Even children are known by their acts, by whether what they do is pure and right.  ~Proverbs 20:11

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.      ~Philippians 4:13

My child, if sinners entice you, turn your back on them.     ~Proverbs 1:10

Since I am starting this as a Lenten experiment, and using one verse per week, just seven verses or so will be sufficient for my purposes at present. If this is a huge hit, I hope to keep it going, but for now it is a "Lent thing". 

After dinner tonight, my little puppet introduced himself to my children as St Paul. He got to know them a little and then announced that he wanted to share with them something that he wrote to the Hebrews. [He didn't get into the debate that surrounds the authorship of said Epistle, he just claimed authorship (silly puppet).]

 He told them that what he was about to share with them was going to help them love Jesus and love others. After much dramatic throat clearing, he finally read off the index card - enunciating as clearly as any muppet would-  "Encourage - one - another - daily." He asked them if they knew what "encourage" and "daily" meant. Their faces were priceless. Wide-eyed, open-mouthed smiles, staring directly into his google-ing eyes, they silently shook their heads "no".  Even Joseph was beaming at the puppet and struggling to repeat the word "daily". The puppet asked Papa if he knew what those big words meant. He did. After everyone was clear on the terminology, Puppet Paul cleared his throat a few more times and re-read his quote. He pointed out one piece of encouragement that each child (& parent!) had either given or received that day. Then he asked us all to try to practice being an encourager this week (daily) and promised to come back tomorrow night after dinner to talk more about giving encouragement. 

For a week we will reread this one verse and focus on it. Next week, we will move on to a new puppet and a new verse. And I do say "we". I caught myself tonight as I tucked the girls in - usually with a bedtime kiss, I say to each child, "I love you so much. You are such a good little girl (or boy, as the case may be)." Tonight, in lieu of the blanket "good girl" affirmation, I whispered to each girl one particularly good thing I'd observed her do that day. I could see in their eyes how much more that meant to them. I feel excited that this is a Lenten activity that can meet each person in the family on their own level. At the very least, we're all learning Scripture by heart. At best, we'll be living it. 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

same old, same ancient

Yesterday I took the kids to Mass for Ash Wednesday - that "NOT Holy-Day-of-Obligation" (but nobody believes you) celebration in the liturgical calendar. People go to Mass on Ash Wednesday who  may not go to Mass even for Easter or Christmas. It's that kind of a day. Exciting. Fraught with possibilities.

Anyway, I was trying to turn down the "excitement & possibilities" amongst my tribe of short people when a young-ish guy popped through the doors and glanced to the left, to the right, and then straight at me. He frowned and said with a slight tease in his voice, "Don't you do holy water anymore?" I realize that in writing that may sound rather cryptic, so I'll explain. First, by "you," I  can only assume he meant, "you people, here at this parish," because had "done" holy water as I entered the church. Our parish has a large baptismal font filled with holy water in the foyer/narthex - there are no little fonts near the doors once you come through and approach the pews. Unwittingly, my friend had walked past the baptismal font and entered the nave, expecting to bless himself inside. He was jarred by the absence of the expected little bowls. So I told him where the holy water could be found, we smiled at each other, and he went his merry way. He returned a few minutes later and, this time a little sheepishly, said, "Thanks. (pause) ...I haven't done this in a while." More smiles all around. That's a cool thing about "Ash Wednesday Not a Holy Day of Obligation But People Who Don't Normally Do This Come".

But it also reminded me of one of the most profoundly essential parts about being Catholic. People expect to know what to expect when they come to "do this" (in memory of Him). This guy, despite however long it had been since he'd been inside a Catholic church, knew there is SUPPOSED to be HOLY WATER when you first walk in. He knew it with enough certitude to be a tiny bit sarcastic when he found it missing. Everybody knows just what to expect from the Catholic Church - the same old, same old. 

And so it was for me fifteen years ago, when I was poised on the brink of making a sloppy exit from the Catholic Church....bored to tears with the same old, same old. I say it was shaping up to be a "sloppy exit" because it was so entirely other than a "clean break". My attendance at Mass was spotty and listless. My intellect and emotions thrashed against a great deal of Church teaching. I was (lukewarmly and distractedly) thirsty for something spiritual, and the Catholic Church felt as dry and flat as the desert. Sometimes the music or the preaching fed that part of me that was lazily hungry, but didn't. So I was fading off - but not seeking anything new. That kind of sloppy.

Until, an ancient cliche: one devastating event, followed by several smaller aftershocks, left me lonelier and more turbulent than I'd ever imagined possible. I was completely broken, with more raw pain and anger than I could handle on my own. I had no one that could possibly help me bear it. I didn't even have enough friends at hand to simply distract me. So, I did the perfectly cliche thing and remembered God, made time for God, clung - desperately - to God. I was still wholly uninterested in anything the Catholic Church (or any other church) had to offer, but I wanted everything God might have for me.

At that time I had so many roommates, I found that my best chance for a quiet and private place to pray was in a church - so I began dropping in to a small, pretty church quite regularly. It was always empty, silent, beautiful - a balm and a salve to the soul. I had found a place of peace. I began looking forward to that daily time of quiet prayer with the ardor of an addict. I needed that peace and I was sometimes frantic to get to my quiet church.

Thus, I was not pleased to pop my nose inside one Tuesday and find other people there. Many other people. There were not simply other people present, but there was a Mass going on. I was irritated by and resentful of the intrusion. What the heck were people doing at Mass on a TUESDAY?  I was barely conscious of the existence of weekday Masses. (And why should I know about them? I'd only attended Catholic schools since kindergarten.....)

I don't know why I stayed, but I did.

I do know why I stayed. It was sheer grace.

"Taste it again for the first time." That old ad is the only way I can articulate what happened next. I limped grudgingly through the Mass, but when it was over, something inside me was - different. I went to Mass again the next day. And every single day that week. And the next week. And the one after that. Because it was the same old, same old. BECAUSE of that fact, not IN SPITE of it. But by "old," I now meant ancient...... stable......a rock upon which to rebuild my life. That which had previously been the object of boredom and contempt was becoming the source of consolation and order. And it wasn't inspiring preaching or heart-wrenching music I was falling in love with. There was no music or preaching at these daily Masses - it was simply The Mass, stripped naked of the Accessories that had formerly distracted me from The Face. The Mass became the one part of my day in which I could know exactly what to expect. And that was (and is) profoundly comforting. It is more "home" than home is. I've had a lot of homes. Any of them could be destroyed tomorrow. All of them can and have been dramatically changed. They simply don't have the permanency of two thousand years of undestroyable "sameness".

In the decade and a half that followed, I came to understand and appreciate so many things about the Mass - and the Catholic Church - things that twenty one years of Catholic education had failed to communicate to me. (I'm sure that others had tried to explain and teach me some of these things, but for the most part, all I had heard was blah, blah, blah.) No one can understand or explain the Church except by loving her first - just as no one can truly understand or explain any woman except by loving her first! In pain I learned to love the Mass, and from that, all else followed.

All of this was brought back to me yesterday, by the man who had not "done this" in a long time, and by his shock that possibly something might have changed during his absence. For better and for worse, the Catholic Church is not known for change, or novelty, or trends, or....surprise. Which is, I think, at the heart of the absolutely shocked reaction to Pope Benedict's announcement this week. Or else, why on earth would it surprise anyone when a frail and elderly man retires? But whether you are a non-Catholic, an "orthodox" Catholic, or a "liberal" Catholic, you just don't expect something other than the same old, same old from the Catholic Church. We expect an elderly, white-haired pope - and we expect him to keep pope-ing along until he eventually dies and another elderly, white-haired pope is elected. The whole world expects a certain stability from Rome, whether we realize it or not and whether we like it or not! We hear that the Church should change this, or change that, or get with the times....but then there is such shock when the Pope "retires" (or the holy water is moved). We live in an age of rapid and prolific change, of much instability and uncertainty, with loss and pain always hovering over us -  I think that deep down, we need to know that there is something tangible in this world that will always be there.....the same.  I think that something is the Church. And I surmise, from the relief on the face of Mr. "Haven't Done This in A Long Time" - as well as from his hasty retreat to the Holy Water font - that the same is true for him.

this video is absolutely HI-LA-RI-OUS! click below to view.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

ready, set, ASH WEDNESDAY!

Not too long ago a friend asked me if the idea of having so many more years of fertility left ever scared me. A hilariously frank question it was - especially coming from a woman with just as many children but more years of potential fertility. After a good laugh, I paused to think about what was the most honest answer to that question. There was no single answer.

I love babies. I love having babies. I love labor (seriously!) and the six precious "newborn" weeks that follow. I love having four amazingly different children. I love large families. I desperately want more children.

I hate being pregnant. I get depression during pregnancies. I feel overwhelmed daily by the relentless needs (and demands) that four children place on my time, patience and energy. I wonder how on earth we are going to afford to put even one child through college. And some days I just want my body back in the worst way.

Now, to clarify, when I say I want my body back, it has nothing to do with weight or stretch marks or varicose veins, because the kids have been very, very gentle with me in that regard. But I am often jealous for a little physical break from the four little hijackers who have taken over all my bodily capacities. There is hardly ever a point in the day where either sweet baby James (kind of still a newborn) or wee Joseph (not quite two) isn't in my arms. Those guys get heavy after 783 minutes and counting. While holding either one of them (or, often, both of them) I can't fold laundry or mop floors or pick up the endless, endless debris off the floors. Did I mention there is endless debris on my floors? When I melt into bed at night, ever square inch of my back absolutely aches from all the holding. And no one can fathom what it is like to bundle four children (age five and under) against the cold, get them all snapped and buckled into car seats, drive to a destination, unsnap the three helpless ones, strap the baby to your chest, carry the toddler in your arms, try to hold onto the hand of the (unbelievably accident prone) three year old and try to keep hands, or at least eyes, on the (irrepressibly exuberant) five year old while accomplishing errands - and then have to repeat the whole process to get back home. "Is this safe?... or rational?"  I often wonder. Truly, no one can understand how very, very physically draining it is - except the woman who has done it with five very young children.

It's news to nobody that very young children need their mothers' body in so many ways. I'm not surprised by the idea of being so physically necessary - I'm shocked at the living reality of it. And then there is the reality of being physically necessary to a husband as well.....but I am so not going to get into that because, like, I have parents and in-laws who read this stuff.

The point is, my body is tired. My body is the center of this home, of this family. I remember early in Maria's life meditating on how beautiful it is that, as the heart of the home, it's my body that provides life, love and complete nurturing to a whole family. And it is beautiful. A very, very exhausting beautiful. I used to congratulate my friends on new motherhood with the words, "Welcome to the most complicated, beautiful, exhausting years of your life!" (I've since stopped. They don't believe me. They aren't tired enough yet.)

Nothing prepared me. My friends never needed my body. True, some of my friends are kind of the hug-gy types, but I am totally not. I'm that awful friend whose whole body goes a bit stiff when you hug her.....who squirms awkwardly in a tender friendship embrace....who plots my goodbyes so that I escape sans physical contact...whose husband has to hiss "HUG HER" when he watches me console a teary friend. I'm totally not into phycial affection. But - and this is true - I am great about it with my kids. I'm a very snuggly mama. (However, that one child I have who likes to mouth my arms and shoulders while I read books aloud....I really have to give it my all to not run screaming from the room....I keep trying to subtly shrug away until finally I burst out, "Honey, couldyoustopthat, please, love, darling?")

These are not "beautiful thoughts". This is not the stuff of an uplifting blog post. But I share them because most of the young mothers I know - even the really really holy ones - are thinking them almost as much as I am. Maybe more. But recently I was given a book called Parenting with Grace by the Popcaks. It's based on the principles of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body and it has completely changed the way I relate my children. Years ago a friend shared with me how, when a nursing baby awoke her for the sixth time in the night, she would pray in Jesus' words "This is my body, given up for you." It sounded so beautiful that I was rather put out I hadn't thought of it myself. But I struggled to really live it. And beyond that one phrase and one situation, I would never have thought to apply TOB to parenting, but I've experienced a profound paradigm shift from reading this book. Because the book has re-ordered my priorities as a parent & changed the way I perceive my vocation as a mother - as well as altering the way I see my children themselves - it has been easy to be more generous to them in ways both physical and emotional. It has been more joyful to give - not just my body, but my time and my attention and my whole life, given up for them. I should not be amazed to find torrents of grace issuing forth from the life and labors of John Paul the Great, even if it comes from him only indirectly. Either way, the grace originates in God and I don't think either the Popcaks or the Pope would argue with that. And what else can you call it but "grace" when you find it easier to imitate Christ? The book is aptly named.

This book is a major component of my plan for Lent 2013. I somehow can't manage to read a book slowly, so right now I am tearing through it, devouring it, racing rapidly from page to page. Over Lent I will re-read it.      s.l.o.w.l.y.      Over Lent I will read and reread, write in the margins, study it, take notes, deeply absorb it and attempt to conform my life to the points that the Lord chooses to plant in my (thorny, thorny) heart. I've learned (from the Fr Philippe treatise on peace that I have been rereading daily for two years) that this is a far more fruitful way to do spiritual reading.

If Lent is a time to take stock of how well we are responding to God's relentless love, His reckless generosity, then nothing seems more appropriate to me than to make a huge effort to live our vocation, our everyday mission field, our Big Gift from God, in a more generous capacity. After being tested to the very limits during our overseas mission, Richard and I are relishing the graces that have followed since; it's been a lovely season of almost constant joy and tenderness in our marriage since returning home. I don't think the Lord is challenging me (right now!) to live my vocation as a wife with more generosity, gentleness or patience. A little more submission probably wouldn't hurt.... but all things in time.

I know for certain this Lent is my season for growing as a mother. I do not think that the grace contained in this Popcak book is going to take away the tiredness. I think it is going to add to the joy.

That's almost as good.

No - it's better.

The joy of the Lord is my strength. 
-Nehemiah 8:10

For those who wish to use Lent as a time to grow in their marriage and are interested in inspiring book on marriage: I've not read it, but in addition to their amazing parenting tome, the Popcaks have a book on marriage called For Better....Forever. 

For those not married, there is Emily Stimpson's The Catholic Girl's Survival Guide for the Single Years.

 I offer no book suggestions for priests, religious or young men because I am completely ignorant
 concerning appropriate titles 
and because I suspect I have very few readers
 who fit into the aforementioned categories.

If any wish to suggest other excellent titles for parents, married couples, singles 
(or priests, religious and young men!)
please feel free to leave a comment with recommendations!