Friday, May 12, 2017

St. Tom's Mom & The Way of Motherhood

I am a mother, but not like others. My child never lived in this world outside of my womb. I don’t see my child, and his whereabouts are obscure to me. I never raised my child, he was not physically entrusted to me long enough for that. But his mother, I remain. 

And I think my motherhood in relation to this child will be a process, one that parallels the journey of all mothers. This dynamic process of which I speak seems to have two major components: 1) the spiritual dimension of motherhood, even for physical mothers, and 2) maternal growth in tandem with the mother’s relationship to God.

Here at Ave Maria University, where I have the pleasure of taking a summer course while my husband writes his dissertation, there is a great emphasis on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. So what does the Master say about Motherhood? I’m not sure whether he has any pious or pithy quotes about the beauty or purpose of the vocation, but what I did find, is a little information about his own mother.

Theodora Carraciola was a Countess of Teano and mother of nine, the youngest of whom is Thomas.


Theodora appears to be docile to God’s will for her child. However, in any situation there are challenges to seeing the hand of God and discerning His will. The question isn’t “To act, or not to act?,” but rather “What is the right thing for me to do for my child in this situation?” I can appreciate that while the role of a mother changes as the child becomes an adult, the ongoing nature of this question remains.

Despite giving her “fiat” to the prediction according to the above account, we know that it was not so easy in reality. Theodora, if we give her the benefit of the doubt, still wants what’s best for her child, hence God’s will, when she tries to prevent him from becoming a Dominican. In actions reminiscent of St. Monica’s pursuit of Augustine, Theodora travels to Naples, then Rome, in hopes of apprehending her son, but she had just missed him in both locations.

I know many instances of parents trying to thwart their children’s plans in what they perceive as attempts to save them from bad decisions. The sentiment is noble, and the desire to protect your children is necessary. But so is the notion that they, in the end, do not belong to you— they belong to God. This is where our relationship with our children intersects with our relationship to God. Both relationships require a great deal of trust in God’s providence, and the trust that develops in our own relationship with God is essential in the role of motherhood.

As my husband and I prepare our hearts and our lives for the gift of another child one day, if God wills it, we too are called upon to increase our faith— our trust that God will provide.

The temptation to make ourselves gods in parenthood is real. And while parents do hold great responsibility towards and authority over their children, their power is not infinite. Even the omnipotent God grants free will to his children. This acknowledgement of the limits of parental control could be a consolation— my child’s good is not merely dependent upon my parenting. But it is also a source of great suffering— I am powerless to “fix” or “save” my children.

Thus, parenthood continually provides an opportunity for suffering born out of love for our children. Opportunities to lay down our obscurity, not understanding the ways in which the Lord is working in their lives, at His feet. To trust that the One who loves them more than we ever could, has the power to save them.  

This is the way of motherhood. 



Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Obedient unto death

Death is a strange thing. It's inevitable, yet no one wants to dwell on it-- that'd be morose. You aren't supposed to mention it in casual conversation, or talk about it lightly-- especially in the presence of children.

Ryan learned this on Christmas Day when he was trying to get his little niece to go see her granddad in the hospital. "He might not be around much longer," he added. Everyone in the room grew silent. His sister quietly reprimanded, "That's not the way to talk."

Ryan was right-- his father didn't live much longer. But so was his sister-- death is a grave matter, not to be flung around flippantly.

Here's why it's such a sacred time. When confronted with death:

a) one revisits their history
b) one takes stock of their relationships
c) one comes to grips with their existential situation
d) one even exercises their will, hopefully in abandonment to His

We have to respect this process, both for the one who is dying, and those who love him. It is a process of making sense out of suffering, death, and life.

THE BEREAVEMENT PROCESS

Last weekend Ryan and I were listening to audio lectures on St. Augustine's Confessions. The presenters came to the part in the text where Augustine recalls the death of his friend. Augustine's reaction of grief was very dramatic, but he says it was more about him than it was his friend. In fact, the commentators found it noteworthy that Augustine doesn't even mention the name of the deceased-- only that it was his friend.

This led me to reflect on the distinction between one's external, visible, reactions and their internal disposition. One cannot tell the latter from the former. We consider a person cold and aloof should they not shed a tear at the death of a loved one. But as Augustine shows us, sadness is not necessarily nobler.

Each person will grieve differently. God alone knows the heart.

THE DYING PROCESS

Ryan's father, John, had heart problems. He we was going to have surgery, but changed his mind. "I thought [surgery] was my only option if I wanted to live" he told me. "Well," I reluctantly replied, "I think it kind of is."

John wanted to live. He also wanted to live without unnecessary complications and hardships. I think, somehow, over the course of those next two weeks, he came to terms with what his decision not to have surgery meant for him.

Last night, surrounded by all five of his daughters, John took his last breath. It was the day the Church celebrates the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  

OBEDIENCE TO THE FATHER’S WILL

Yesterday I read an Angelus address for this feast in which Pope Benedict asked: "What is the meaning of this act that Jesus wishes to fulfill - overcoming the Baptist's resistance - in order to obey the Father's will (cf. Mt 3: 14-15)?" He continues:

The profound sense emerges only at the end of Christ's earthly existence, in his death and Resurrection. Being baptized by John together with sinners, Jesus began to take upon himself the weight of all of humanity's sin, like the Lamb of God who "takes away" the sin of the world (cf. Jn 1: 29): an act which he brought to fulfillment on the Cross when he also received his "baptism" (cf. Lk 12: 50). In fact, by dying he is "immersed" in the Father's love and the Holy Spirit comes forth, so that those who believe in him could be reborn by that inexhaustible font of new and eternal life. Christ's entire mission is summed up in this: to baptize us in the Holy Spirit, to free us from the slavery of death and "to open heaven to us", that is, access to the true and full life that will be "a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy" (Spe Salvi, n. 12).

The baptism of the Lord is about obedience to God's will. I find it fitting that my father-in-law went to God on this feast day, in obedience to the Father's will. 

Our Lord took on John Brady's sins, and died for him, so as to open heaven for him. John gave his assent, coaxed by his daughters who encouraged him in his final moments to "go to God," in fulfillment of God's plan. This is a victory of humility: accepting even death[1], that God may grant eternal life.

THE CHURCH & HER LITURGY

And so I rejoice today in John's participation in the victory of Christ over sin and death.[2] 

And we pray for the repose of his soul, for that is what Scripture asks of us.[3] 

We will pray in trusting supplication: "Out of the depths, I cry to you, O LORD."[4] 

We will remember in what consists John's viaticum, his food for the journey, as we celebrate the Eucharist. "Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day."[5]

And we'll follow John's example of humble and persevering faith, with thanksgiving for his life, prayers for his salvation, and hope for the resurrection- when "we will all be changed."[6]




In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

"May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once (a) poor (man), may you have eternal rest."




[1] Cf Philippians 2:8
[2] Cf 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, the New Testament reading at the Funeral Mass
[3] Cf 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, the Old Testament Reading at the Funeral Mass
[5] Cf John 6:51-58, the Gospel at the Funeral Mass
[6] 1 Corinthians 15:51

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2016: Best. Year. Ever.

I am very nostalgic about this year, already, and it's not even over. I don't want it to end. You see, this is the year that I started text flirting with a wonderful man. I let him take me out for a beer, and come over to watch Breaking Bad, and kiss me.

This is the year that man held my hand and asked me to be his girlfriend. This is the year that man took me out to the movies, and dinner. This is the year that man asked me to help him study for his comprehensive exams, which he passed with distinction.

This is the year he asked me to marry him. BEST. YEAR. EVER. Right? No, it doesn't end there-- I've only gotten to February.

This is the year that man met my parents and my family, the year he got to see the land of Lincoln, where I come from. This is the year I got to meet his family in Deleware.

This is the year we got to plan a wedding, a Maronite Mystery of Crowning.

This is the year we bought a house! Our own little love nest.

This is the year I was accepted into a Master's in Social Work program, where I could enroll part-time with tuition remission.

This is the year we exchanged vows, in the company of our family and friends. The happiest day of my life, when I entrusted my life and my love to this man, who became my husband.



This is the year he took me to the most beautiful places on our honeymoon, when I got to ride shot gun with him through the winding mountain roads of Colorado.

This is the year I got to soak up all his love, as his wife. This is the year when I'd come home from work to dine with him at lunch and dinner. This is the year I'd try to clean and cook and do his laundry, when he was so good and gracious and did most of the work when I couldn't.

This is the year we got pregnant. This is the year my husband comforted me through the transition to motherhood, and then mourning. This is the year we became parents to our first child in heaven, Dominic.

This is the year I got a 4.0, and my husband was so proud of me.

This is the year I watched him prepare to teach his first class, and interact with his students, and I got to see what a wonderful professor he will be.

This is the year my husband showed me what it's like to have him as the leader of our family, as partner, as lover, and best friend.

This is the year that I became the happiest I have ever been in my whole entire life, because I am loved by him. And in this way, it teaches me something more about what it means to be loved by Him, the One I have to thank for all of this.

So thank you, dear Lord, for the best year of my life. I don't want this year to end. But if it's any indicator of what's yet to come, here's to many more!

God is love, 
and he who abides in love 
abides in God, 
and God abides in him.
- 1 John 4:16

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 late 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.