Catholic Exchange: On Being Human and the Need to Wonder

I stood on a cold, frosty afternoon looking out the window at my daughter playing in the snow. She was bedecked head to toe with winter gear to protect her from the bitter wind, a wind she hardly noticed. Her fuchsia snow pants insulated her knees from the icy snow and she sat contentedly eating snow. She examined each handful before placing it in her mouth. She was struck by the uniqueness of each new handful. As I watched her, I was drawn into her wonder. I was struck by the obvious joy of that moment for her.  I realized in that moment, children often have their priorities in order, while we adults grasp at all the wrong things.

A pile of dishes was awaiting my attention, textbooks for my graduate courses sat opened, reminding me of work to be done. My elliptical machine, cold and mechanical, stood in the living room corner as an oppressive force of health and fitness. My mind was running with an endless list of things that must get done. And yet, I stopped to see what my daughter was doing in our backyard on a bitter cold winter afternoon. She had been begging me all morning to go outside and I made her wait until it hit 25 degrees. I have grown soft living in Southwestern Virginia; away from the arctic subzero temperatures of my upbringing in Montana.

I couldn’t help, but stop. There she sat, engrossed in wonder and serene contentedness. The very same serenity that alludes so many of us in adulthood with our deadlines, duties, and responsibilities. I realized that my daughter’s work was probably much more important than what I felt bound to complete in a begrudging sort of way. She was examining the secondary causes of God’s free and self-emptying Creation. I stood watching her examine each snow crystal before she placed it in her mouth. I entered into her wonder, her total giving of self to the moment. How could I not be drawn in along with her?

She did not feel the cold or complain about the weather the way we adults often gripe. Instead it was an opportunity for joy, play, discovery, imagination, and love. It was a moment for her to experience God through the beauty of His creation. She was living the good, the true, and the beautiful. How often do we brush off our child’s excitement over something seemingly mundane? How often do we miss out on the opportunity to enter into their wonder and joy of discovering something new for the very first time, or even the twentieth? How much do we ignore that God calls us to fully live in the present? Our children teach us the presence of God, but we pay little attention.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

The Wisdom of Children and Hope in Suffering

My daughter is my greatest teacher. This seems strange in a world where children are reduced to a means to an end or even viewed primarily as accessories. In the West, children are something we have on our own terms. They do not exist for their own sake; they only exist if we will it. This is of course bunk. Any mother or father who has truly embraced parenthood knows that the entire meaning of our lives is to love and be loved in return. We love imperfectly, but it is why we are here.

Children teach us to love. They remind us of how selfish we are, which is the main reason so many in the West have abandoned parenthood. Parenthood comes with sacrifice and hard work. We don’t like having to look in the mirror, and children have a penchant for lifting up the mirror to our faces each day in order to reveal our failings. Parenthood is also the intermingling of joy and sorrow.

Our children take on our worst traits first, and then some of the good. It is one of the great struggles of parenthood. It is something that takes most of us by surprise and causes great disappointment within us. The last thing we want is for them to take on our bad traits. Our child will mutter some expression or respond in a manner that reveals our worst selves and how these little ones have absorbed exactly what we wish them to avoid. It should leave us stunned and humbled; pushing us to do better. Parenthood is to go on a journey. It is to walk along with a person who can reveal the good and the evil inside of our own hearts. The hope is in the end we will both have attained holiness, by God’s grace, and our perseverance.

Lately I have been contemplating the nature of suffering. I myself have entered a period of intense suffering. It has been a month since my fourth miscarriage. The original grief started with frenetic energy, an attempt to avoid the inevitable spiritual and emotional pain, and it has now lulled into the numbness that inevitably surfaces after a loss. I am also not one of those women who bounces back quickly physically. My body is a complete mess right now and all I can do is wait for it to reset. It took a year with my third miscarriage. Hormone deficiencies are exacerbated through miscarriage and the intensity of grief adds great emotional and spiritual weight.

My daughter has responded as well as a 5-year-old can be expected to respond in the face of my recent miscarriage. She only knows what it is to be an only child and she does not have the ability to comprehend the depths of grief at this point. I am thankful for this because no 5-year-old is mentally prepared for such gulfs. That does not mean she does not suffer. In fact, she suffers deeply through loneliness.

If ever there was a child who should not be an only child it is my daughter. Since a very early age, she has demonstrated a deep and open love towards other people. She is social, kind, and greets everyone she meets. She is an extrovert to the core, which she gets from her daddy. She accepts every child she comes across as a new friend and she is deeply hurt when that friendship is not reciprocated. She engages adults and children in conversation wherever we go and she is wholly unaware of her place as a child in society. She functions as a human person among other human persons.

She greatly desires a sibling. Yes, much of it has to do with the desire for a playmate, but she also wants a sibling to love, take care of, and lead. Mommy can only fill that void to a very limited extent. She reveals the ontological reality that all people are made for communion with God and with other people. We are social creatures by nature. She intuitively knows that she doesn’t belong alone. She knows that she is made to commune, to be in deep relationship with other people. She feels her status as an only child at a profound level. As her mother, I share in this Cross with her. The Crosses I face on my own are nothing compared the level of pain I endure in watching my daughter suffer. I would take all of her Crosses on if I could, but I know that is impossible and not even what is best for her.

It is a mother’s greatest desire to relieve their child’s suffering. One of the great battles I wage right now is in realizing that my daughter’s suffering comes from the fact that I cannot seem to have any more children. I cannot will my body to carry a pregnancy to term. I could not keep the four babies I have lost alive. My grief is exacerbated by my daughter’s loneliness. I can’t take her loneliness away. For reasons that are largely mysterious to me, God has willed only one child for us. No matter how much I yell at Him or my own body, I cannot change that fact.

My daughter is very good friends with our neighbors who have four children. She plays with them frequently, but she does not understand why she can’t play there whenever she is available. She doesn’t understand their need for family time. There are many times I have stood watching her, shoulders drooped, tears streaming down her face, and wails coming from her throat, because she is not welcome to participate in whatever is happening next door. She wants to commune and come to the party. She sees that community is a part of her deepest self and that Heaven is the realization of this reality as we enter into communion with the Most Holy Trinity.

No my daughter does not understand this at a theological level. She understands it at the deepest level of experience and I see it every single day. I walk it with her as I watch her struggle with loneliness. I long to take her loneliness from her. She isn’t a play-by-herself kind of person. She doesn’t cut herself off from her neighbor. Instead, she invites others in and she wants others to invite her into relationship. She waits for others to play and then she embraces everyone she meets.

My only hope is to trust that God will use her loneliness for some good. I must trust that He gave her the heart that he did because of the mission He will give her later in life and so she can touch lives now in true charity. I have to find some comfort, no matter how difficult right now, that all of this intense grief and suffering will come to some glorious end in God’s infinite wisdom and plan. Right now, I can’t see it, and chances are, I will never understand why my body is the way it is or why my husband and I have lost four children. It is as Bishop Barron points out in his Catholicism series: I am staring at a pointillist painting from an inch away and all I can see are dots. All I see is my pain and my daughter’s suffering. I am unable to stand back to see the whole masterpiece until I stand before the Glory of God, and based on past writings of the saints, the answers probably won’t even matter. Pax Christi.

 

Society’s Disconnect from the Joy of Children

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For reasons that I am not going to discuss explicitly, I have been contemplating our culture’s hostility towards children. We live in a culture that views children largely as a nuisance or accessory. Unfortunately this view has pervaded the culture including within the Catholic Church and other Christian communities. My husband and I have been asked multiple times if we will try for a boy since we have a girl, after all, children are like salt and pepper shakers. The irony of that question is that those types of things are in no one’s control unless they use the horrific evil of sex selection abortion. In my mind, the perfect family is the one God gives us through our openness and discernment of His will.

My husband and I realized that we view the world differently and through a thoroughly faithful Catholic lens when we had our daughter. Our parish offers daycare during Mass, something which we are greatly opposed to. We used it a couple of times when my husband was recovering from a severe migraine, but our daughter does not miss Mass. She is a baptized member of the Mystical Body and she needs to learn how to sit still and pray the Liturgy. That also means she does not run around in the narthex if she starts acting up during Mass. Our daughter also accompanies us to church functions. I have had run-ins with people who didn’t like it and I made clear that our daughter comes with us unless it was a professional event that required babysitting. She’s a member of the Church and an equal member of our family. My husband and I will not relegate our child to the corner.

What disturbs me about this trend is there is a great desire to push children to the fringes. It is to view the outbursts or cries of a child with disdain, rather than as a reality that comes with the growing of a human being. It is to separate our children from our family unit within the Church. The Church should be the celebrator of life and support the Culture of Life. That means children whether a family has one or 12 is a great gift. It is more souls for Christ and we should be joyful to see children present. It is a sign of a living parish, not a dying one, and it is our sign to the world that human beings are a great gift who have been given a unique dignity by God.

I think the throw away culture is greatly hurting our children. They sense that we are pushing them to the side, using them as an accessory, or blaming them for some perceived loss of independence. They know when they are not welcome, trust me, they know. It is no wonder that children are lonely, depressed, hurting, and at times, violent. Our culture has taught them that they are a bother, not a great gift. They are repeatedly told, especially through the evil of abortion, that their lives were merely a matter of their mother’s choice, not out of love. Whether explicit or implicit, the children of our culture know that they missed death narrowly as 1/6th of their generation has been murdered. They also know when their parents spend little time with them due to their other engagements or they allow their children to be too busy for family time, or to be glued to their cell phones. They also know it when people complain about them.

Our culture is becoming disconnected from its children. Pope Francis has warned about the attacks on the young and the old alike. I see what it is doing and I have been the recipient of such ideals, whether intentional or not. It is deeply hurtful to watch and it is painful to experience in my own child. We are drifting more and more away from the real meaning of marriage and family. Marriage is no longer grounded in an understanding of children and sanctification of spouses. It is now about a disordered notion of love and often children are absent from the realm of possibility. It is about me and not living out God’s great call for marriage and family.

This view of the world is greatly anti-Catholic. Children and families are a great sign to the world of the love and beauty of the Blessed Trinity. As Catholics we cannot get sucked into this type of thinking and try to charitably (tough I know, but necessary), but with conviction, live out the Catholic worldview of the family. There are times when it will be counter-cultural and other people will not understand, but we view children as a treasure of the Church and there may be times that we have to remind others in the pews of that fact when our child talks a bit too much at Mass. We should also be encouraging others to bring their children to Mass instead of daycare. Daycare is actually a rarity in the Catholic Church for that very reason. Children are baptized members of the Church and they belong at Mass offering the Holy Sacrifice with Christ the High Priest. They are united with us in the one body that is in Christ by power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s encourage one another to be courageous even if people grumble about our children. Children are a joyful noise in the Church and it was Christ Himself who said for the little children to come to Him. Who are we to stop our children from being in His Presence? Who are we to separate them from our family unit when it truly matters?

My Daughter Knows How to Love Big

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My 3 year old, soon to be 4, daughter has the biggest and kindest heart of anyone I have ever met. Those of you who read my blog regularly, or who know me in person, know that she is my only child. She is our blessing and gift and she may end up being the only child we have due to the Cross we have been asked to carry. My daughter Michaela, named for my dad and St. Michael the Archangel, loves deeply and loves big. She talks to everyone and she truly wants to know the names of and about the people she encounters. No matter where we are, she says “hello” to people passing by and asks for their name. When I take her to a playground she knows the names of all of the kids and the moms who are out that day. Everyone is her friend. Everyone should get a hug.

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Sure, she has her moments of fits, tantrums, pouting, and lack of sharing. There are days she is the perfect definition of “threenager”, but for the most part she is a peaceful and happy child. She is sensitive and kind and tries to take care of others, including me. There is a joy and wonder that radiates from her face on most days and it blows me away. She continues to challenge me to abandon my selfishness, live in each moment, and wonder at the universe around me. She helps me to step into her childish world that I too may have peace. There are many days that she reminds me to pray and she tells others, even strangers, that she will pray for them. This child keeps me on the path on so many days when I am falling and would rather take a nap on the path.

In a world marred by pain and brokenness my daughter can be overwhelming to people. We don’t know how to respond to such open and unabashed love and affection. It stuns us and our pain can make us push back against it. It is through her that I see more clearly why many cannot stand the light of God’s love. It is piercing, all-consuming, and foreign. We who are hurt by family members, friends, lovers, illness, wars, loss, and pain. We cannot fathom a God who reaches down to us and binds our wounds without an agenda other than to make us the best person we can possibly be. I see it every day when I watch my daughter reach out to people. They are shocked and do not know how to respond to this beautiful, out-spoken, princess-clad, young girl who wants to know all about them.  She then shares a bit about herself and is so filled with joy as she converses with kids and adults alike. I need to be more like her, which is probably why God entrusted her to me as her mother.

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Knowing this about her means that I must also guard her heart. People reject her now and they will do the same in the future. I have to teach her to persevere in love, even when it is not reciprocated. I also have to teach her how to miss people. She cried all of the way home from the airport today when we dropped of my sister and her family for their return flight to Montana. She is the extrovert only child and I have to help her channel her desire to be with and love others. I have to help her bind her wounds when her heart is hurt or wounded. This is motherhood and this is my vocation as her mom. In the end we help each other to Heaven. She helps my heart grow bigger and my love deeper towards her, her daddy, and others. I help her continue to love no matter what happens.  What an amazing and terrifying gift. I am truly thankful for this amazing little girl.

A Very Brief Reflection on Motherhood

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There are moments, and they are fleeting, when my daughter places her hand on my face and looks into my eyes with her deep, beautiful eyes and asks me if I am ok, or she tells me she loves me, or she looks at me knowingly with a slight smile across her lips and says nothing. It is those moments when I am struck with awe. It is then that she appears, and is, wiser than I am. She reaches deep into the moment and pulls me into it with her. My hurried, busy, angst ridden self and then I am swimming deep in a pool that is deeper than her. I see the love of the Blessed Trinity in her eyes. And so it is, the little children who have it figured out, while I flounder and fall. Constantly trying to get back up again. She knows. I see it in her eyes.

Down Shifting: Properly Ordering Family and Study

This semester has been a bit of a challenge for me. The challenge is balancing family and full-time studies. Being a full-time graduate student is a lot like working full-time. Not to mention that my entire program is online. I seldom interact with my professors. I am essentially teaching myself theology and philosophy with the school keeping track of my progress. I get feedback on papers, but none on tests. Our online discussions are not live and many professors are very hands off. That means the only piece I get from them is their lecture, which I read each week. This is not an attack on the school or my professors. That is the idea behind online studies. We are to be largely independent and it takes a certain type of student who can learn this way. I enjoy it and it gives me the freedom that I need for my vocation in life.

What started to get to me this semester is that my family is suffering by the rate at which I am doing the program. My goal was to finish all studies in 2 years and then the comprehensive exams and thesis within 6 months. I feel like I barely see my husband right now. He works 11 hours a day and then takes over for me so that I can study until bed time. Our weekends are based on my workload.  For instance, I have a term paper to write tomorrow and an essay on Sunday.  All due by Monday. I have to do it this way because we schedule my big projects and tests for the weekend. I am not a night owl and I stop retaining information if I try to study too late.

I really dislike missing out on family activities on Saturday. My husband has taken our daughter to the museum, park, library, on errands and I miss them. I love my studies and I knew they would come with sacrifice for all of us. I just started to wonder if my breakneck pace is necessary. It is through the summer. I go full-time to make the most use out of my VA benefits. They expire in September, but the whole program will be paid for with all of the benefits I receive by August. The VA has a set amount based on my enlistment contract that they pay me. All the extra money is going to a savings account for use on future tuition bills.

I sat down with my husband last night and asked him what he thought about the pace. I had seen a mother from my church at the store and she mentioned her surprise that I was full-time with a 3 year old. She didn’t know how I was doing it. And I started to think, neither do I. Is this necessary? I can have both worlds, but it doesn’t have to be in such a hurry. I am studying for the pure enjoyment of studying, not because I need my Master’s degree in two years. It loses its enjoyment when it turns into superficial memorization for tests and papers. I know how to play the game and get good grades, but that isn’t the goal. I want to learn this material.  Some of it is extremely complex. I am still wrapping my head around the Thomistic idea of required perfect contrition in the Sacrament of Penance or the theology of sin. It’s amazing to study and I really enjoy it, but in my rush, I don’t have the time to truly understand it in the depth that I desire.

My husband said I should go part-time starting in the fall. We can sacrifice 1/2 of my last VA check so that we can balance things better. He is exhausted. I am exhausted and our daughter is struggling with me being so busy. Reading Chesterton last night really helped me too. He pointed out how the culture does not order things properly. I am not a utilitarian means to an end. I am a unique human being with dignity and my daughter is the most important job God has given me. That does not mean that God doesn’t want me to study. He gave me these intellectual gifts for a reason. It just means that He wants me to slow down and so does my husband.

I have a tendency to race forward with things. This is one of those areas where I am still learning prudence. When I was in high school, I took Geometry freshman year even though my parents encouraged me to take Algebra again. I didn’t want to be “behind” in the Math requirements. But, I am not good at Geometry or Trigonometry. It was a miserable battle that stemmed from my own pride. I honestly didn’t start understanding Math until I was in undergrad in my mid-Twenties.

The point is that I don’t want to take something that I love, namely, theological studies and turn it into a rushed torment. I don’t want my family to become a burden to me as I poorly balance everything. Regardless of what our culture tells us, sacrifices occur when a mom divides her attention. This is not a judgment on people’s choices. It is a reality that we need to be aware of. Once we are aware, then we can make educated decisions that are best for our family and our goals. But, our family comes first. My husband and daughter are more important than my Master’s degree. I am going to say it again: My husband and daughter are more important than my Master’s degree. That is not what our culture tells us, but we need to be strong and ignore the lies. It doesn’t mean that my studies are unimportant, it just means that they are lower on the list. They are rightly ordered, but below my family.

Summer will be busy with my final full-time semester, but at least we will all know that things will slow down in the fall. I am looking forward to it. I can spend time with my family and enjoy my theological studies. That’s the whole point. I am the one who decides whether or not to stress out my family and myself in this whole process. I can rush, or I can down shift and take it slow. I can walk out of my MA having mastered the material, or I can walk out having passed a bunch of tests and papers. The choice is mine and I choose my family and my love of study. My daughter turns 4 this year and I will blink and she will be 18. These years are a gift and I need to be present during them and not focused elsewhere all of the time. So my choice is merely one of balance and proper ordering and in doing so, I get to enjoy all of the gifts that God has given me. Have a blessed weekend! It’s Laetare Sunday this weekend. Easter is so near!

Recommended Reading:
The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism by David Fagerberg (if you are new to Chesterton this is a great place to start)
Orthodoxy-GK Chesterton
The Everlasting Man-GK Chesterton

Gardening: Playing in God’s Creation

You care for the earth, give it water;
you fill it with riches.
Your river in heaven brims over
to provide its grain.

And thus you provide for the earth;
you drench its furrows;
you level it, soften it with showers;
you bless its growth.

Psalm 65

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This morning I was out in the morning sunshine picking kale with my daughter in our garden. I then blanched it and prepared it for freezing, so that when I need it, I can use it for soups. We are avid gardeners, my husband and I. He loads the manure, tills it into our garden, and prepares the earth each spring for our bounty. We plant from spring to fall. It is a real blessing to be able to walk into our backyard and pick fresh produce. It is also a great joy for me to find new flowers and ideas to turn our yard into a reminder of God’s love.

Working the earth is something that unites my husband and me with God. After all, he gave us the ground and seed that it might produce an abundant harvest. Working out in God’s creation gives a real sense of Christ’s presence in the world. I can hear Him whisper to each plant: grow. I can also see His Glory in each flower that I plant in our various gardens. I recently added a rose garden. Each rose bush I planted represents one of the three babies that I have lost in miscarriage. I could not place their little bodies in the earth and have a funeral Mass, so this is my earthen memorial to each of them. A beautiful rose bush to remind me of how I love and miss each on of them, but also a reminder of God’s love and beauty as each rose opens up to sunlight. A foretaste of Heaven.

My husband and I both work the earth with our bare hands. We dig into the dirt and spread it around underneath our hands. The feel of the earth increases the sense of God’s wonder and magnificance. The cool promise of prepared soil. There is also such a deep sense of childhood in planting flowers and vegetables. Our daughter loves to play in the dirt, and it appears, so do my husband and I. To me it is a reminder of innocence and it brings tremendous peace and joy. Our fearless daughter will search the newly tilled garden for worms. She likes to watch them wriggle and will pick them up and squeal with delight. Being outside and working in our suburban garden truly helps me to hear God. I may not have been consciously focused on Him the whole time, but afterwards I know that He is with me as I play in His creation.

Gardening not only brings me closer to the One who created me, but also, gives my husband, daughter, and me a closer bond. Our daughter has already helped us plant the spring and summer gardens this year. She is already cultivating a love for things that grow. She wants to be a part of our work and the rewards that come. It can be a challenge for a three year old to be patient enough to wait for each seed to go in the ground. We may get some peas in our potatoes this year. She has already experienced our harvests of kale and bok choy. Somewhere she remembers the sweetness of summer ripe tomatoes growing on the vine. Since she could walk, she has gone out to the garden each summer and feasted on deep red tomatoes while standing, juice driving down her face and arms, while her feet feel cool dirt.

Not everyone enjoys gardening, as a few of my friends have joked in horror at my love of dirt. But, for us, it deepens our Catholic Faith to be working in God’s earth. To help in His creation. To pray for our crops and rain through the intercession of St. Isidore the Farmer and St. Francis of Assisi. It is a reminder that all comes from Him. We got that reminder when we lost every single one of our 48 broccoli plants this spring because of a very cold April. He gives and takes away, always showing us the path to holiness. We don’t always understand the work he is doing in us, but we continue moving on. We plant again in faith. I pray that this summer Our Lord may grant you abundant harvests and beautiful flowers to marvel at each day.