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

Thursday, April 28, 2016

On the Benefit of Guidelines

When I came out of Carmel, I was overwhelmed-- by everything. At the infinite amount of choices to be made for daily functioning that I had become unaccustomed to having to make for myself in religious community life. In fact, taking the burden of a million little time-, energy-, and thought-sucking concerns off one's shoulders is one of the major benefits that religious life provides in allowing the religious to be all about the Father's business. Of course, the burden must be assumed by somebody: the "Mother," but not the "children." The children are free to be children-- to grow and develop by being wholly present to their being-in-the-world, to things in themselves, as they experience them. This freedom is so liberating-- because religious know what they're about; they know in what their mission consists.

"In the world," as the outside of a cloister is commonly referred to within cloister walls, I experienced my new-found freedom in making personal autonomous choices as overwhelming. I couldn't decide what to order-- anywhere-- at a restaurant, at a coffee shop, etc. Even what to purchase at a gas station if I wanted a drink or a snack. I forgot how to WANT specific things. How to entertain natural preferences and inclinations for licit pleasures.

Four months post-Carmel, I was living in Ave Maria, FL, and had developed pneumonia. I was *cloistered* in a hospital for days and didn't know what to do with my ill self except watch movies, including The Great Gatsby. The line that struck me as completely applicable to my current state was: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

When people have infinite possibilities, it can be experienced as stifling, in so far as one does not know which option to choose. In Carmel, I always longed for more freedom. When the Lord gave it back to me, I didn't want it. An example is when I offered to help with Religious Education at a parish in Naples. They asked if I would be the Catechist for second graders on Sunday mornings, and prepare them for the Sacraments of First Reconciliation and Communion. Great, I thought, I have such a devotion to the Eucharist and (an ambivalent) love for Confession, only to find out I'd be on my own and receiving no instruction on how to be a Catechist, what to do, how to structure a class, even what to teach (although I was given materials.) That would be a lot of people's dream-- to be given free reign. In normal circumstances it would probably be mine too. But not at that time-- it was simply too overwhelming. In that scenario, guidelines were deeply desirable.
When it comes to granting freedom, the key to creativity is giving people autonomy concerning the means—that is, concerning process—but not necessarily the ends. People will be more creative, in other words, if you give them freedom to decide how to climb a particular mountain. You needn’t let them choose which mountain to climb. In fact, clearly specified strategic goals often enhance people’s creativity.
Life gives us plenty of guidelines without us really needing to ask for them. But in certain cases, and for free-spirited, spontaneous people like myself, it can be very helpful to create some self-imposed guidelines, not to  limit yourself, but in order to truly let yourself free-- free to move and take action in a creative way-- to really live, creatively, instead of making sure no one ever puts constraints on your ability to live. G.K. Chesterton put it this way:
Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. [...] We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
I can apply this to my current state: engaged to be married. Getting engaged-- committing to marry one person for life-- was not constricting, but liberating for Ryan and I. We finally felt free to really be in relationship with each other, now that we knew which mountain we were climbing-- the vocation of marriage, and with whom we'll be climbing.

Preparation for Marriage has been an opportunity for us to consider some priorities and goals for our life together. We don't really like planning and decisions and carving things in stone-- we prefer the seat-of-our pants style openness to whatever God throws at us kind of existence. But in claiming to be free for Divine Providence in this laissez-faire way, we may actually be stifling our ability to enter into the specific tasks that the Lord is asking of us. If I may quote a certain musician who I sort of hate to love: "Everything happens for a reason, is no reason not to ask yourself if you are living it right."


So, let's remember to pray for each other-- that we are given the grace of discernment and courage to make decisions that may seem to be constrictive in the short term, but actually set us free to live out creatively and productively the plan the God has for our lives.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

This is an adventure


When Ryan and I first started dating, we experienced a phenomenon that often accompanies euphoria: a desire for the moment to endure. It's like asking time to stand still that you may revel in your happiness forever. Following the lead of C.S. Lewis, we call this the encore. In his book of Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis talks about the necessity of not grasping onto the golden moments in a way that prevents us from being open to receiving the new blessings that God wants to give us. In this respect, a grateful bravo full of wonder and awe is a more appropriate value response than demanding an encore. Lewis asks: "How should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once." But what a challenge it is for us to trust.

This seems to parallel Peter's experience on Mount Tabor. When Jesus was transfigured and Moses and Elijah appeared, the glory of the moment drew from Peter a bravo: "It is good that we are here." He also said he'd be happy to make accommodations for the prolongation of this event. I think it's safe to say that this is an understandable desire for an encore. But what came next? The voice of the Father exhorting the disciples to obey His Son, and they fell on their faces in wonder and awe. When Jesus told them to “Rise, and have no fear” a new task lay ahead of them: to come down from the mountain. 



The glory that they experienced-- what transpired on that mountain-- was real, and they'll take that with them and live from that reality in the nitty gritty of their daily lives. We too need to be docile to the will of God in whatever way it is made manifest to us-- not pitting the valley and the heights against each other, but embracing the challenge to live integrally-- always ready to listen for His voice and obey as best we can. 

On my first day working for Ave Maria University, Dr. Catherine Pakaluk quoted a line from the Russian film The Island. The plot includes a young monk who is antagonistic towards the strange ways of his brother monk, Father Anatoli. But when Father Anatoli was near death and his sanctity had become more evident, the young monk asked him "How should I live?" To which the holy fool replied with the wise words that life is hard; live the way you can. Far from being a license for mediocrity, this speaks to the inescapable reality of the cross, and to the unique manner in which it is to be carried by each one of us. Every person is unique and unrepeatable, and our stories can't be copied from the lives of others, but only lived by us in authenticity. This is a life-long process of continual discernment.

Mr. Brady and I began this week with Sunday Mass where we heard the Gospel story of the Transfiguration. During the homily the priest exhorted us to transfigure our desires. I asked my genius and linguistically gifted fiancé what the difference between transfigure and transform is: they're essentially the same. So I began rethinking transformation, the aspiration so near and dear to my heart while I was discerning a religious vocation.

Our desires are transfigured with every Mount Tabor experience. And we pray for the grace to keep growing in love. The heights are awesome, and left to ourselves we'd want to stay there forever. But love must remain in motion-- it can't be held on to, only given away. And only through a sincere gift of self do we truly find ourselves. The hermeneutics of the gift-- understanding life as a gift to be given-- and living according to that law, does not negate our nature but ennobles it. 

The universal call to holiness and the demands it puts upon us does not require a diminishment of personal identity and all of the hopes and desires that go along with it, but demands a robust subjectivity which is open to transcendence. Realizing your vocation will not alienate you from yourself or draw you away from God or others. Your personal subjectivity is intrinsically connected to others due to your contingency as a creature and our nature as persons made in the image and likeness of God. But your desires will become most true to who you are if you allow them to be penetrated and transformed. Our prayers don't change things, prayer changes us. By means of communion we become most fully ourselves. This is scary and exciting. Life is an adventure, but one that we don't walk alone. 

Mr. Brady and I will be joined in the sacrament of marriage on August 6th, 2016, which providentially is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It's true, we'd be thrilled with any day, and know it would be the occasion of a golden moment. But we look for meaning, and find it everywhere. We can't help but experience this as a confirmation of our desire to embark on this mountain scaling adventure together, as husband and wife. And we pray for the blessing of little ones with whom to share our love. 

On what was to be the night of our engagement, Mr. Brady wanted to take me to Naples, but I told him there was a Humanae Vitae conference which I'd like to attend. My beloved graciously acquiesced. His favorite take-away from the talks was an idea of the family to which we can aspire: that our domestic church may be a creative minority from which the Light shines as a witness to all. Whereas formerly this ideal took the form of justified PDA-- because they'll know we're Christians by our love ;) Now our witness is manifested in a public engagement-- revealing our intention to commit ourselves in marriage. 

Like my friend C.S. Lewis, we too have be surprised by joy. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Cheers!

Monday, December 14, 2015

For unto us aZélie is born!

Saint John of the Cross used the story of Tobias and Sarah as an analogy in the Ascent of Mount Carmel. He describes three ways in which faith is experienced as a dark night, and compares them to the three nights of prayer that Tobias had to undergo before consummating his marriage to Sarah (an aspect of the story found in Saint Jerome's version of the book of Tobit.)

We can offer three reasons for calling this journey toward union with God a night. The first has to do with the point of departure, because individuals must deprive themselves of their appetites for worldly possessions. This denial and privation is like a night for all one's senses. The second reason refers to the means or the road along which a person travels to this union. Now this road is faith, and for the intellect faith is also like a dark night. The third reason pertains to the point of arrival, namely God. And God is also a dark night to the soul in this life. These three nights pass through a soul, or better, the soul passes through them in order to reach union with God. 
They are represented in the Book of Tobias [Tb. 6:18-22], where we read that the angel ordered the young Tobias to wait three nights before any union with his bride. On the first night he was to burn the fish heart in the fire. That heart signified the human heart that is attached to worldly things. To undertake the journey to God the heart must be burned with the fire of divine love and purified of all creatures. Such a purgation puts the devil to flight, for he has power over people through their attachment to temporal and bodily things. Tobias, on the second night, as the angel told him, was to be admitted into the society of the holy patriarchs, the fathers of the faith. After passing through the first night (the privation of all sensible objects), a person enters the second night by living in faith alone; not in a faith that is exclusive of charity but a faith that excludes other intellectual knowledge, as we shall explain later, for faith does not fall into the province of the senses. The angel told Tobias that on the third night he would obtain the blessing, which is God. God, by means of faith, which is the second night, communicates himself so secretly and intimately that he becomes another night for the soul. This communication of God is a night much darker than those other two nights, as we will soon point out. When this third night (God's communication to the spirit, which usually occurs in extreme darkness of soul) has passed, a union with the bride, who is the Wisdom of God, then follows. Tobias was also told by the angel that, after the third night had come to an end, he would be joined to his bride in the fear of the Lord. Now when the fear of God is perfect, love is also perfect, which means that the transformation of the soul in God through love is accomplished.

Saint John of the Cross was the Co-Founder of the Discalced Nuns of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. One of his most famous spiritual daughters and heir to his spirituality was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse Martin was born of holy parents, the recently canonized Saints Louis and Zélie Martin.




As a souvenir of their marriage (at midnight between July 12 and July 13, 1858), Louis Martin designed a medallion as a gift for Zélie.  At the moment they exchanged their vows, the priest blessed the medallion.  Louis slipped the wedding ring on the finger of Zélie's right hand, and then placed the medallion in her left hand, saying "Receive the symbol of our wedding promises."  Louis chose the Biblical figures of Sarah and Tobias for this souvenir. Below are photographs of both sides of the original medallion, now located at the bishopric of the diocese of Sees, in which Zélie was born.





Last year my dear friends got married.



In their beautiful Wedding Mass, the reading they chose was from the Book of Tobit:

Tobias arose from bed and said to his wife, “My love, get up. Let us pray and beg our Lord to have mercy on us and to grant us deliverance.” She got up, and they started to pray and beg that deliverance might be theirs. He began with these words:
“Blessed are you, O God of our fathers; praised be your name forever and ever. Let the heavens and all your creation praise you forever. You made Adam and you gave him his wife Eve to be his help and support; and from these two the human race descended. You said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make him a partner like himself.’ Now, Lord, you know that I take this wife of mine not because of lust, but for a noble purpose. Call down your mercy on me and on her, and allow us to live together to a happy old age.” They said together, “Amen, amen,” and went to bed for the night.



And today, on the Feast of Saint John of the Cross, to this dear couple a child was born, and they named her Zélie.



When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. -John 16:21
All my prayers and love today go out to my dear friends and their new bundle of JOY.