Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I Can Help You Better From Down Here

My daughter says the funniest things.  One day I was on my knees and elbows, cleaning the floor. I do this a few times a day in the area where the kids eat.  She said sadly, "Mom, I hate to see you doing work on your knees.  You shouldn't have to do that."  I explained to her that it was my pleasure and my privilege to parent  her and her brother, and to clean up after her Dad as well.  As far as the physical position, well, it's just easier to clean the floor from . . . the floor.  I didn't want her to see housework as menial, didn't want her to somehow interpret the physical positions she sees me in, head half in the dryer, wearing gloves while cleaning toilets, carrying three bags of groceries on each arm while holding a kid in each hand, as demeaning or undesirable.  How I hope I have communicated the great dignity of marriage and motherhood to her!  And if I have not, Lord, teach me how to do so!  

I cannot think of a life better spent than one spent in service to others.  There is, paradoxically, a selfish reason for this.  When I'm thinking and acting outwardly, doing for someone else, I am not focusing on the care and feeding of ME.  I am only so interesting, and then let's face it, it's time to stop tending to my physical appearance, worrying about my health, and futzing around in my memory or imagination for things to worry about or re-enact.  In my observation, a life spent dedicated only to self is a life that becomes exhausting in its infinite nature. I have a closet full of clothes that attest to this.  After the tenth pair of jeans, what's left to discover?  After the fifteenth pair of shoes, a feeling of burden emerges.  All this stuff is mine to maintain and keep track of and clean and select from.  There's a heaviness to possession.  The addiction to buying and acquiring is SO American, and so pervasive . . . we're all guilty of it, and I unfortunately still fall into the sin of overindulging my kids with small toys and pieces of nonsense.  Then I have to figure out where to keep it all, and keep it there neatly, and I've created a need to serve the stuff instead of serving the people in my home.  Or (ouch!) serving God.

I was praying the other night and something hit me out of nowhere.  That in His misery, at His lowest point, Jesus did two amazing things: one, He actually fulfilled His highest purpose, one that only the Son of God, only a King could fulfill, and two, He managed to forgive the good thief and welcome him into Paradise.  That thought really got lodged in my heart and mind.  I meditated on that for a while.  Jesus is up there, feeling physical and mental anguish beyond anything I can imagine, and He is being humiliated beyond what any human being (no less God!) should ever endure, and He pulls it together long enough to turn to this criminal, this sinner, and grant him absolution.  And promise Him instant eternal life!  I laugh at myself that Jesus still amazes me anew after all these years.  I'm so silly sometimes.  Like there is anything Jesus CAN'T do?  Of course he served, and taught us to serve.  Of course he exemplified humility.  Of course He took on flesh, and became small.  It is His example that drives me on to my goal: to become invisible in those moments when I'm evangelizing or witnessing, invisible so that all people see, all my children see, is Jesus.  Because there really is not much more to me that is interesting.  I'm skin and bones, and a voice, and a lot of stuff that I've collected over the years. Everything good in those physical elements, and coming through those earthly characteristics and powers is Jesus.  Plain and simple.  

When I think about the "highs" of my life, they are not the times I've been on the receiving end of glory.  I accelerated relatively quickly in my teaching career, and in the teachers' union as well.  I graduated Summa Cum Laude, a perfect 4.0, from college.  I had a beautiful wedding gown and matching headpiece that my mother spent extra for so I could look perfect.  Recently, my husband took me to a concert, our first date night in I can't tell you how many years, and I was transported back to my youth as I danced in my seat and sang every single lyric.  But you know who had more fun?   My husband, watching ME have fun.  Because HE knows the secret as well.  And as great as that night was, it was not as great as some simpler, quieter nights I recall, when I was pregnant with my son, barely able to bathe my daughter with my big belly in my way.  Or when I stood backstage watching my daughter step out and dance with the Moscow Ballet, watched her perform the steps she had rehearsed so many times, with my heart in my throat.  What if she made a mistake, fell, got scared?!  But she didn't.  I forgot myself entirely in these moments.  I was not really there; I only existed in the service and support of my children, and that is the most freeing and liberating feeling I can recollect.  To not sit and stew about myself is a gift, and an ongoing goal of mine.  

Please do not confuse, my friends, an interior spiritual life with the self-absorption I am talking about.  You better believe I take my time for my religious reading, my prayer, my fellowship, and my worship.  That, too, must be about the other, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about thanking God the Father.  About getting to know Mary after all of those years I ignored her. About learning wisdom from the saints.  About becoming fortified by what my Church has to feed me so that I can continue to get on the floor and clean up crumbs, and get on the phone and comfort a friend, and get on Facebook and disabuse someone of a misconception about Catholicism, and get down next to the bed, look squarely into the faces of my children, and pray with them.  I fulfill my highest purpose from these low places, and I thank God for it. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Excuse Me, Ma'am, But Your Ducks Aren't All In A Row

Human beings have certain responsibilities to each other, at least they do if they want to rightly and accurately call themselves civil, or religious, or kind.  In my last blog post, I talked about how Catholic Christians in particular need to "get Amish" so to speak.  By that I do not mean we should isolate ourselves from others; rather, that we need to man up and make certain that our words and actions match what we claim to believe, what we vow to live by in the creeds we speak and the Sacraments in which we participate.   The topic expanded for me this week . . . I saw two phenomena occurring around me, orbiting my little planet, and they made me shake my head, and they brought me to tears at Mass.  I was hit by Christian coldness and Christian competition. Now to be honest, my crying at Mass is really not an occasion for alarm.  I choke up every time the Gospel is lifted!  But this was different -- I was crying out of my heart and my hurt feelings. Feelings hurt by Catholics and other Christians.  And if you're claiming the title of practicing Catholic you have to practice kindness, or you simply do not have your ducks in a row no matter how many morning prayers you say or committees you join.

Catholics and other Christians should not engage in Schadenfreude, competitiveness, nor should they enjoy the heck out of public one-upsmanship under the guise of fraternal correction.  Catholics and other Christians should not engage in ad hominem attack, wish death or pain on others, nor should they refer to entire groups of people of any stripe or inclination as being less human and less worthy of respect than they themselves are.  We are a people called to peace and love.  The second command Jesus gave us was to love each other so much that it equaled the way we loved and attended to OURSELVES.  This did not come with a clause that exempted people of other religions, colors, sin stylings, or people whose only sin is that they have MORE or BETTER stuff than we do.  We cannot and should not feel free and comfortable name calling people simply because they are in the public eye.  We cannot and should not feel free and comfortable name calling people simply because they are of a religion that we do not understand, living a lifestyle the Church considers sinful, or even daily committing mortal sin.  Fraternal correction, prayer for conversion, evangelization = good.  Wishing people off the face of the earth = bad.

Competitiveness is a trait I have never possessed, so to be fair, I don't know what it's like to be given to the sin of feeling hateful or acting cruelly toward another person because of jealousy or a sense that someone has taken a piece of a pie I wanted.  I have many sins to count, but that's not my category.  I have been the victim of it, however, and I can tell you it cuts to the bone.  Sometimes I want to hand out a little flyer to every new female acquaintance that says: "This document acknowledges that now and forever you are prettier, smarter, nicer, funnier, more devout, and generally of a higher caliber of humanity than I am.  Your kids are more athletic, better in school, cleaner, better fed, and more attractive.  Your house is the perfect size, not so big as to be sinful but not so small as to be  cramped and make you anything less than an amazing interior decorator.  Your hair is never floopy in humidity.  Your husband loves you more than my husband loves me.  Your skin looks younger than mine, and you smell fresher.  You are more well-read, better at all sports (and your body shows it!) but you are not obsessed with your physical appearance to the point of being vain.  Your parents were superior to mine, unless of course you wear as a badge of honor that you survived a rough childhood, in which case, you had a harder childhood than I did.  Your pets do not shed or emit an odor or make any annoying sounds, unless of course they do, and you want to talk about how that pet owning life is a sacrifice you are making, in which case, wow, I'm not even a pet owner, so I again fall short.  In summary, you rock and I stink.  You win.  I lose.  Please do not pretend to be my friend and then pull your friendship away because you somehow perceive that I have started gaining on you in any category because I hereby legally declare without qualification or reservation that the aforementioned state will NEVER OCCUR."  I will, of course, have this notarized.

Friends, I use humor and hyperbole here, but the point I am attempting to drive home is such an important one.  I can't stress enough how the secular world is watching us.  How lukewarms, on-the-verges, fallen aways, and nones are watching us.  They are waiting for us to screw up, to behave in such a way that they can call us out for being hypocrites.  It's bad enough that they will accuse us of what we don't do, but don't give them ammunition.  Our children are watching us.  Moms, don't teach your daughters to be competitive, to snipe, to envy, to gossip, to wisecrack, to hate those in sin instead of having mercy on them and praying for their conversion.  God is watching us.  Guess who else is watching?  The foe.  He loves discord, competition, pride, arguing, Schadenfreude, stereotyping, hatred and contempt of the poor, shunning of other races and religions, disgust at homosexuals, and sneering at post-abortive women.  He laps it up like Nutella.  Why? Because it's a BOGO for the devil!  He buys one, and gets one free.  They sin, we react sinfully to their sin, and he collects twice on his bet.  

The foe loves when Christian men and women are competitive with each other, too.  We who are supposed to be wanting as much for others as for ourselves?  How much win is there for ole' fault face if we actually want our acquaintances and even "friends" to have LESS than we do!?  What a victory for him.  Stop handing the devil victories.  These are habits of mind we can break.  Think with your heart and your Catholic-formed conscience before you speak or type.  Before you give a dirty look.  Before you spread a tale.  Think, and I blatantly rob here from Peter Kreeft, do I want to be doing this or saying this when Jesus comes back?  If Jesus returned right now, this instant, would he find my heart full of envy?  Full of judgment?  Would he find me NOT fraternally correcting with love, but one upping for the feeling of rightness and security it gave me?  

Tonight in our examinations of conscience, let's all search ourselves for these things.  The tongue is a weapon, as is the stare, the keyboard, the pen, the phone . . . please operate these things as you would if you were the very hands and feet of Jesus on earth, because as St. Teresa of Avila reminded us, you are. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Catholic Up

The challenges facing all people of faith today have been written about by thinkers and theologians far more capable than I.  I have heard our current American and indeed Western first world society called Sodom and Gomorrah, and not by hysterical voices.  I have my standard arsenal of prayers and I have my standard advice: be an example and keep praying for conversions, because if the Lord can knock Saul on his rear and convert him he can knock these Christophobic bullies off of their horses as well.  What I'd like to focus on here, though, are the personal challenges we face, the ones in our own homes and our own heads.  These are the places over which we should be exercising the most control, but sometimes they suffer and crumble while we go on complaining bitterly about the state of everyone else's souls.  Time to remove some planks.

Forgiveness is a beautiful concept.  It's the centerpiece of our religion -- the very reason Jesus suffered torment and humiliation.  We are told in very clear and easy to understand terms in both Scripture and Tradition that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven.  When we pray the Lord's prayer, we are reminded weekly (or daily!) that we need to forgive others.  Yet only a few moments can pass after prayer or Mass and we are thinking about a favorite grudge, or explaining away a pet resentment.  I know you think forgiveness is beautiful, BUT your story is different.  What has been done to YOU is so unspeakable, so wrong, that surely it qualifies for a hall pass from The Church and from Jesus Himself. The person who did it to you isn't even sorry!  I'm here to tell you, my friend, that it is irrelevant what tale you spin, how long or how sordid.  You are called to forgive all, as you want all to be forgiven of YOU.  Now of course you see YOUR sins as bad but not BAD.  The sin committed against you was ongoing, is ongoing, stinks to high Heaven.  Your own sins are venial, teeny, and smell like gardenias.  Stop kidding thyself.  Forgive if you have aught against any.  Jesus said it.  You think Jesus didn't mean it?  He meant everything; He is God, and God is Truth itself.  

How do you forgive the apparently unforgivable of the perpetrator who is unrepentant or even an ongoing violator?  You put on your big Catholic pants and just do it, and by that I mean, you use what helps you have been given: the Sacraments, the Saints, prayer, Scripture, the Catechism, sacramentals.  Go to the Confessional and talk about YOUR sin of unforgiveness.  If you have a soft priest who tells you it's okay to hold a grudge, quietly walk out, do your penance, but know that it is NOT okay to hold a grudge.  Your priest is making a pastoral decision and trying to be kind, but you know in your heart that forgiveness is not optional.  You know the ugly nasties you are wishing on your enemy.  Strive to have no enemies!  It can be done!  This does  not mean you stick around and let people continue to hurt you.  Sometimes it is giving another human being an occasion to sin by staying in a toxic relationship.  Get away!  But forgive, pray for the person, and sincerely wish conversion, peace, and yes, even Heaven for this person, as if you were begging for yourself or your own child.

Along with forgiveness, the second area I see Catholics and other Christians taking short cuts is obedience.  That's understandable.  Everything our senses take in tells us that obedience is for suckers, idiots, medievals, provincials, dopes, and rubes.  Yet we know better.  Obedience is glorious.  It is the key to peace.  To do that which Christ commands us, without complaint, without anger, without rebellion, without pride, without qualification, is the sweetest gift we can offer Him.  Here again you will flood the page with "Yes, buts."  Yes, I am called to obey, but The Church really needs to get with the times on contraception, so I don't really have to obey to the letter there, do I?  YES.  Yes, I am called to obey, but the death penalty is still permitted by The Church, so I think it's a great idea and a great deterrent, and I will fight, fight, fight for the right to have people executed despite our Catechism's statement on it and our last three Popes urging us to rethink it.  Yes, I am called to obey, but Mass at my parish is BORING and the homilist should be doing better and the music is tripe.  Yes, I am called to obey but I think Pope Francis is too plain.  Yes, I am called to obey, but the old rules about masturbation, pornography, and gossip are really very 1950's and let's face it, NOBODY can really follow them.  Yes, I am called to obey, but I will not let my husband lead our family if he's going to try to boss me around in the year 2013.  Yes, I am called to obey, but Confession is more of an optional thing, not something that most Catholics really DO anymore.  Yes, I am called to obey, but I can't welcome the immigrant because he might take away more of my money and stuff.  

We could do this all day, couldn't we?  Why don't you think of yours right now?  Or write them down?  Or reread your Catechism to see where you're falling short, where you're putting your own "yes, buts."  

You know, my friends, Catholicism is not supposed to look like anything else.  We should be standing out like the Amish at this point.  That's how crazy and sin-soaked the "world" is.  We should be saying no to things, getting raised eyebrows because of our choices, looking for alternative forms of entertainment, speaking differently from the average American, even dressing differently from the average American.  If you look at this life as a burden, then I'm not sure what you thought your signed up for: we are to be little Christs.  That doesn't mean we snark all week, watch provocative television, follow a political party line that's rife with grave sin, show our cleavage, tell racist jokes, cheat on our taxes, cheer rah rah for same sex marriage so everyone at the office likes us, and then go to Mass on Sunday and hope it all gets rinsed away like Jesus is running a big ole' car wash.  

I'm not asking anyone to wear a hair shirt.  Or give up electricity.  And these words do not imply that the writer of said words is in an ivory tower, looking down at you all squeaky clean.  We all have planks. Start pulling them out.  In summary: Catholic up.  People at your office, your schools, your clubs, the stores you regularly patronize, your Facebook page, your Twitter, your carpool, your hair salon, your racquetball team, your PTA, should know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are a practicing, adherent Catholic.  If you are a non-Catholic reader of this blog, these words still apply to you: the people with whom you have regular contact should know beyond question that you are an orthodox and adherent Christian.  What they should not see you as is someone who it's super comfy to be around because you will endorse every sin and laugh at every off color joke.  Nor should they see you as self-righteous and condescending.  The middle ground is the formula laid out by our faith: forgive, obey, and thus be fishers of men.  Maybe your life will be the thing that knocks some Saul off of his ride and creates the opportunity for him to be transformed into a Paul.  You will never know if you are too busy grousing about the state of the world, marinating in resentments and pettiness, or acting out yourself to the point of passively aggressively persecuting your own Church.