Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The new ascesis of marriage

Three years ago, I left my beloved Carmel. I've now been post-Carmel for longer than I was in Carmel. They were very different journeys. From my current vantage point, I would categorize my journey in Carmel as one of insatiable seeking: spiritually, intellectually, ascetically and aesthetically. I was looking for the perfect environment, the perfect behavior, and the perfect mindset, to perfect my being and thus enter into perfect union with God. I knew love was a part of this picture, but I couldn't exactly figure out how-- there wasn't a lot of room for it in my idealistic obsession with creating structure, discipline, and perfection. I knew that the active role a soul takes in preparing itself to be transformed by God was not the end but the means, and I tried to beware of Pelagianism-- making myself into my own Savior. But there's still some latent control issues there. Even my notion of passivity was somewhat forced.

I thought I was going through a dark night in Carmel, and maybe I was. But the dark night post-Carmel was even more obscure. I left thinking I would be transitioning to another religious order. But the desire never came. I didn't know what was happening to me, and it seemed a lot like apathy. Forgive me Lord if it was. But I think in that state, devoid of desire-- the feeling of being far from God, though still believing in Him-- the Holy Spirit was working in me in a new way. I was open, really open, to what came next. And He sent me my husband. And I'm happy, really happy. It's strange that I didn't have to work so hard for it, like I'm used to. I didn't have to try to negate my nature and mold myself into the caricature of what I imagined my desired vocation would look like. I could just be me-- who God created me to be. How truly liberating.

In this state, finally, I've experienced a love like I never have before. Different from that which my parents have for me, and I didn't think any mere mortal could love me more than them. More intimate than my dearest friends, and I never knew I could feel more affection than with them. And herein lies one of the unique aspects of this fearfully awesome vocation of marriage: You get to be you, and this love is poured upon you like none that you've ever experienced before, and it teaches you, and transforms you. A resulting ascesis occurs that you didn't have to force. It's just part of the design. I question our Creator a lot when it comes to how he designed us-- I would have done a lot of things differently. But this marriage thing, I think He got right ;) What a gift.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

"Hey Dominic, your mom wants you!"

We lost our baby in September. His gestational age was eight weeks. So teeny tiny. But we chose his (or her) name(s) pretty soon after finding out we were pregnant. I talked to him a lot. We blamed all my stomach aches and things of that nature on him. We joked around a lot with him. And we referred to him almost always by the male name we had chosen, Dominic-- so we're sticking with it.

My husband and I didn't mourn that much. Maybe because we fell back on the fact that he is perfectly happy, wherever he is: limbo or heaven, and I'm banking on God's mercy and the latter. But regardless, he's completely happy.

As November, the month dedicated to the faithful departed, rolled around, and we were sitting in church, the priest mentioned the name for whom that particular mass was being offered. Just to make sure we weren't missing any grand opportunities, I double-checked with my husband that our son did not, in fact, need prayers. That's right, says Ryan. There's no chance he's in purgatory because the little guy never committed a sin.

Okay, so if he's not a poor soul, and I doubt this whole limbo thing, he must be a saint! So I pray to him. Or rather for his intercession. But when I do this, it seems strange. He was so young. He had no experience with the world outside my womb. His brain wasn't very developed. Does he even know I'm his mom? "Yes," says my husband. But how does he know? And how does he know I'm talking to him-- he's not omniscient. "God has to tell him, but he knows," replies my husband.

So I imagine the Lord like "Hey Dominic, your mom wants you!" And then just look at that little face.

Image result for 8 week embryo

I don't know if that's what his resurrected body looks like, or whether he has it yet-- I suppose he's gotta wait like the rest of the saints except Mary. But he still has a look-- and I bet the look says "I know you, mom. You were the only home I had in the world. I heard you and dad laughing. I know you were nervous about having me. But you're doing a good job. And I know you'll be a good mom to my future siblings. I'll pray for you-- don't worry."

Thanks, Dom. See you soon(?) I can only hope.

Ave crux, spes unica.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fiat Voluntas Tua

Now you're pregnant. Now you're not. I can't keep up, God! Could you make up your mind?

Okay, Stop! Collaborate and listen, Vanilla Ice tells us. And maybe his exhortation has value in this case, and any case where one feels they are being thrown curve balls in life.

I can nurse my frustration, or I can step back, remember that the Lord and I are on the same team, and listen for His voice in the midst of obscurity.

The only problem is that He's not in the thunder or the storm, but in the still small voice, the tiny whispering wind.

So silence your rebellion, dear Bexx, and return to Him with all your heart. For surely he knows the plans he has for me, "says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."

Thy will be done.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Life as Gift and Task

My husband and I have great news to share: we're pregnant! As wonderful as this is, I've received a few reactions that have caused me to become a little embarrassed to admit that this happened so soon-- we've only been married for a few weeks. But what are we supposed to be waiting for? Life happens-- try to control it too much, and you may be missing huge gifts that the Lord wants to bestow. In light of the potential for regret and the experience of hardships that accompany this reality, allow me to reflect upon the benefit of pregnancy as I've experienced it thus far. 

I've tried many times to quit smoking-- and here all I needed was to get pregnant. That was easy. No, really: I can't imagine wanting a cigarette now. (I can't exactly say the same thing about alcohol... but I stopped that too!) There's a little life in me now that is counting on me to protect him or her. I think this is an example of some words of wisdom I heard once from a Carmelite priest regarding getting rid of vices: "Let these things die natural deaths." I guess this desire to smoke just needed the presence and gift of new life in order to die out naturally. 

What is the overarching theme from which comes this concern for my little one and the resulting change in my state of mind and behavior? In addition to recognizing life as a gift, I believe it also has to do with recognizing life as a task. Now hear me out lest you peg me for a duty-loving Kantian. 

I blame many existential crises in our young people today on a lack of responsibility. Why would your life not feel arbitrary if no one is depending on you in a real and tangible way? Having too many options, too much freedom, and too much time on your hands leads to an idleness and ennui. I'm not saying don't lead a reflective life-- yes, please do this. But not in the form of belly-gazing. You must know your purpose and worth and the tangible application of what that means for everyday life in order to be a functional human person. 

No matter what else I connect with my identity, there's no denying that I am now a physical, biological, mother-- and that comes with real responsibilities. I don't have the choice to throw in the towel when life is literally on the line. 

In our transient society that seems to promote individualism over family, community, and commitment, an un-married person may feel like they have to manufacture responsibility. Their families' survival is no longer dependent on them waking up and milking the cows. They have to "do them"-- find themselves and choose a life. In Emilio Estevez's film The Way (2010) in which he plays the son, there is a line where he says to Martin Sheen: "You don't choose a life, dad, you live one." 

In the absence of real tasks that must be done by you, a sort of incessant search for the perfect life, on one hand, or a sense of disillusionment and ennui, on the other hand, may ensue. The Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl suggests that for those who cannot figure out what to do with their life, "we can only reply that his primary task is just this: to find his way to his own proper task, to advance toward the uniqueness and singularity of his own meaning in life." Frankl goes on to quote Goethe: 
"How can we learn to know ourselves? Never by reflection, but by action. Try to do your duty and you will soon find out what you are. But what is your duty? The demands of each day."[1] 

The task-quality of life, in this sense, teaches us who we are, and the result is the peace of knowing we're doing the will of God. 

Saint Teresa of Avila put it this way to her sisters who wanted to go out and convert the whole world:
"the devil sometimes puts ambitious desires into our hearts, so that, instead of setting our hand to the work which lies nearest to us, and thus serving Our Lord in ways within our power, we may rest content with having desired the impossible. Apart from praying for people, by which you can do a great deal for them, do not try to help everybody, but limit yourselves to your own companions; your work will then be all the more effective because you have the greater obligation to do it."[2]

Ambition can be a gift, but not when it undermines what's being asked of us in the here and now according to our state in life. Discernment is key-- the faith isn't trying to hold anyone back, it's the lens by which we see everything in a new way, and imbue even the simplest of tasks with the greatest of love, thereby drawing out eternal benefit, meaning, and purpose. This is not having our heads in the clouds-- quite the opposite. It's countering a dichotomy between heaven and earth by showing that time is never separate from eternity. There's a real task to be done now, which happens to have very real implications for eternity.

This is how pregnancy has opened up my mind and changed me to the core. 

This is the gift and task quality of life. 

This is our mission should we choose to accept it:
If we accomplish what we can, His Majesty will see to it that we become able to do more each day. We must not begin by growing weary; but during the whole of this short life, which for any one of you may be shorter than you think, we must offer the Lord whatever interior and exterior sacrifice we are able to give Him, and His Majesty will unite it with that which He offered to the Father for us upon the Cross, so that it may have the value won for it by our will, even though our actions in themselves may be trivial.[3]

Saints Thérèse and Dominic, pray for us!

[1] Viktor Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, 3rd ed., (New York: Random House, 1986), 56.
[2] St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, trans. and edited by E. Allison Peers, Critical Edition of P. Silverio de Stanta Teresa, C.D., online version: https://www.ewtn.com/library/SPIRIT/CASTLE.TXT, accessed 1 September 2016; Ch IV.
[3] Ibid.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

"to love and to cherish"

What gives us the audacity to promise to love each other forever? (Or even until death do us part?)

Ryan and I witnessed a wedding on the beach this past Saturday. In between the waves and the wind, we could make out bits and pieces of the couple's declarations of love, their presumably self-drafted vows being pronounced in the presence of the guests seated before them. We heard concepts such as "best friend" and promising to love each other forever. This was beautiful, but I found myself wondering what their guests were thinking. "Suckers;" "Yeah, right-- talk to us in five years;" "Naive young lovers." Why did these patronizing and doubtful thoughts come into my mind in response to the promises of this new husband and wife? Because marriage is difficult. And I would never presume to take that vocation upon myself without the aid of grace.

Mr. Brady has tried to explain the role of nature to me and the desirability of marriage even on this most primal level. I get that. But why deny yourself supernatural aid should it be offered freely? Why not elevate your natural union to the level of a sacrament? Why not employ your natural desire to give of yourself fully and belong completely to another as an opportunity to make present in this world the reality of the mystery of creation and the eternal love between the persons of the Holy Trinity? Why not sanctify your union and let it point to the union of God and man? Why, if you had the opportunity to protect, fortify, and deepen this bond, would you leave it so vulnerable, subject to the constant ebb and flow of emotions, to the curve balls that life throws at you, to changing circumstances and environment?

There but for the grace of God go I.

Christ, in His Church and in His Sacraments, the means by which he offers us a share of His Divine Life, an invitation to communion and beatitude, with the Father and Spirit through Him-- this is WHO gives us the audacity to make these vows to each other, knowing well that we have not the power within us alone to fulfill them. But we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us. He gives us the very love with which we will love one another, which will provide the witness to all our brothers and sisters that the God who is Love, created us out of love, and for love, not just here in time and space, but FOREVER.

This is why we dare to marry. For hope does not disappoint, because of the love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Of this, we are not worthy. This is His mercy. It is with this understanding that we approach the altar of the Lord to become one flesh, in reverence, wonder and awe. Deo gratias!

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Victory of Mercy

"But Mercy first and last shall brightest shine."
--Paradise Lost
Our engagement, these last two weeks leading up to the wedding, "is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah." 

I wanted to come to the altar all shining, a perfect little princess-- all dazzling white like her Lord on the feast of his transfiguration. I wanted to be crowned victorious with my king. But this crowning, it's not us-- or our doing. It's God's. The crowning will be His victory; a victory of MERCY. 

I don't think I'm alone in struggling to figure out just what Pope Francis wants from this Holy Year-- why he called it, what it should look like in our daily lives, and what fruits should come from it. Maybe this is what the year of mercy means for me. I have received the call and given my fiat to the vocation of marriage, sinner that I am. The gift I received in Ryan-- his love, falling in love with him and the voice of God speaking to me through his proposal-- is less like the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and more like her visitation to Elizabeth: "Who am I" that this gift of grace and mercy "should come to me?" 

To begin this year of mercy, Pope Francis prayed:
Looking at you, Our Immaculate Mother, we see the victory of divine mercy over sin and all its consequences; and hope for a better life is reignited within us, free from slavery, rancor and fear.
 Here, today, in the heart of Rome, we hear your motherly voice calling all of us to walk towards that door, which represents Christ. You say to everyone: “Come, come closer, faithful ones; enter and receive the gift of mercy; do not be afraid, do not be ashamed: the Father awaits you with open arms. He will forgive and welcome you into his house. Come, all those in search of peace and joy.” 
We thank you, Immaculate Mother, because you do not make us walk along this path alone; you guide us, you are near us and help us through every difficulty. May God bless you, now and forever. Amen.

Our celebrant will offer the sacrament of reconciliation the day before the wedding, for the Bride and Groom and any of their loved ones who would like to partake. Our Lord will forgive us and make all things new. He will assist us with His grace and transform us, as husband and wife, through the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the Mystery of Crowning. We still won't be perfect, and never will be, although he calls us to such lofty heights of holiness. We'll be like soldiers fighting this battle over sin and begging for the grace of humility so as to always be receptive to his mercies, which are new every morning. 

So marry me, Ryan, on that day and everyday thereafter. And never give up the fight. I want to fight alongside you, on the same team, in love and solidarity, no longer as two but one flesh, for the rest of our lives. And receive our eternal crowns in heaven. Two more weeks-- St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

In defense of Sadness

"Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering."

I finally watched Disney's Inside Out, a film with anthropomorphized emotions and concretized representations of the human psyche. At the beginning of the movie, I was nervous that the character called Sadness was getting a bad rap. It seemed like her companion Joy was trying to make sure Sadness had no place in the life of the child in whose mind they dwelt. But as the movie progressed, Joy realized how important Sadness was, and they had to try to work together to make it back into the child's consciousness. The movie only covered a few days of this child's life, and showed how much was happening with her emotions during that time. At one point the child almost became emotionally flat. Sadness ends up reappearing and saving the day. In this way, I see her as vindicated. What followed was the beautiful miracle of intertwined sadness and joy.

I was very impressed with this ending, but I wonder how the movie was received by what I presume to be the intended audience: children. Before I had seen it, my cousin remarked that she didn't like that movie because it made her cry. It made me cry too! But apparently the message that I gleaned from it was lost on her. If crying and sadness are seen as the enemy, I don't think it makes room for joy but rather a flat affect-- a deficit rather than the presence and experience of something positive. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater and encourage superficial joy devoid of meaning, but a true joy that is born from suffering. Let us look to the cross for our example of love, not fearing the sadness and pain, but always trusting that joy can be granted in the midst of it, and look with hope to the resurrection.

"we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." - Romans 5:3-5