What Little Boys Are Made Of

My husband are I are raising six lively children; two-thirds of which are boys. (Come March, one will be a man…but let’s not think about that just yet.  Oy vey.)  And the boys are bookends of the bunch.

Which means that for almost eighteen years now, I’ve been buying, stepping on, picking up, sorting, containerizing, carrying, hot-gluing, and looking frantically for, an ever-growing collection of “guys.”  That is what they all are called: guys.  Whether they are Jedis, Lord of the Rings or Narnia figures, army men, knights, or comic-book style superheroes, they are cherished “guys” and we cart them around everywhere.  There are always some in the car, the bottom of my purse (covered in crumbs), scattered in the bottom of the bathtub or kitchen sink, in pockets, puddles, sofa cushions, strollers – for a while my youngest took to carting guys around in an empty cereal box.  Guys appear out of nowhere in church, and even – true story – were spotted this Christmas in the crèche on our table “protecting the baby Jesus.”  My daughters were never much inclined to carry dolls around outside of the home, but my sons all clasped ever-so-tightly to miniture men with gigantic powers.12377679_1041101309255511_2580522357998219090_o

Their eyes would shine as they studied their guys in quiet contemplation.  Then, silently, their lips would move as they began an imaginary scene.  More guys would be gathered, and epic stories unfolded on the carpet, in the car, even the shopping cart.  And always, the everyday would fade away and scenes I would never fully see were played out in imaginations filled with boyish wonder.  Bad guys would be thrown, smashed, tossed, hit, flung.  And good guys would be lifted, victorious in the end.  And it would repeat, day after day, hour after hour. Continue reading

Everyday Mercies

“The theme is Mercy,” she said.  “Our scripture is, ‘He crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.’  But what you want to talk about is up to you; just keep it to about 25 or 35 minutes.”

I thanked the organizer of the woman’s conference and hung up the phone.  I was delighted to have been asked to be one of the local speakers at the dynamic, well-attended diocesan conference.  But as I stood there in the kitchen, feelings of doubt began to well up and I thought, Why couldn’t I have an amazing story to share in this talk?  A miraculous healing, maybe.  If only I could have been brought back to life – after a tête-à-tête with Jesus in heaven – by the touch of a relic flown in from Rome.  Or a conversion.  Yes, a conversion – a breathtaking story of how God appeared to me and broke through the years of hardened cynicism and unbelief.  But, alas.  I was just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill cradle Catholic and I didn’t much to say about Mercy.  This was going to be awfully dull, I decided.  Maybe I should back out.

Have I not shown you Mercy every single day of your life?  The words, unspoken, were unmistakable.

“Yes, Lord,” I admitted.

Then tell them that. Continue reading

“The 33”: Of Men and Miracles

Last weekend my husband and I sneaked out for a rare evening to ourselves.  I had been waiting for “The 33” to come to theaters; it was a familiar storyline to me – and to many – and I was anxious to see it dramatized.

My Dad had providentially been working on pro-life projects in Chile five years ago at the time of the 33 mine workers unbelievable rescue, and had enthusiastically shared with us the immense relief felt by an entire country as they were pulled from what seemed like the center of the earth.  It was an answer to prayers echoing around the world, and a there was a sense that God may have a message in it for those who would take the time to hear it.  Certainly, the 33 men of the miracle thought so. Continue reading

For the Woman Who Wasn’t There: To All the Moms who Watched Philly From Afar

When we welcomed Pope Francis into our country,  I’m sure many of you moms, like me, dreamt of traveling to be with the crowds who were there to celebrate, listen, and pray with the pontiff.  Of course, for most of us, it never got further than a fleeting, wishful thought.

But we watched from home.  Calling our kids into the room when the Pope appeared on the screen.  Straining to hear his broken English as we listened from the kitchen.  Stopping in our tracks while carrying laundry baskets to listen to snippets of commentary from the exuberant reporters.  Catching an interview with a weeping bystander between the dentist appointment and the basketball game.

Thanks to my gloriously Catholic college, my husband and I have a blessedly big collection of friends, now scattered throughout the country, who made the trek to be there.  Families, priests, nuns, all posting photos and updates and selfies from the heart of the action.  Some actually sang for the Papal Mass.  One family we know was blessed by his hands as he lingered near their spot in line.


Local leaders took our intentions with them and journeyed to represent our desert diocese.  They met up with our beloved bishop and shared his words with us back home.  Pictures of their pilgrimage were sprinkled in my newsfeed each day.  And I loved it all. I loved hearing, seeing, thinking, praying from afar.

If you were like me, you teared up watching John Boehner cry, got all warm inside when the Pope hugged prisoners, laughed seeing his delight at a baby wearing a Pope ensemble.  And still, there may have been a tinge of melancholy and wistfulness.  Because, in the end, you weren’t there.

Ahhh.  But you were. Continue reading

Our Lady of Sorrows is the Cause of Our Joy

This week we’ll celebrate two important feasts: the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, on September 14, and the following day, September 15, we’ll remember Our Lady of Sorrows.  Two days linked forever in meaning, inseparable, poignant.

September 15 also happens to be my birthday.  And for a long time, as long as I was old enough to realize who I shared the day with, I felt a little – cheated. I mean, it’s a bit of a downer to liturgically “celebrate” all the bitterness in Mary’s life on a day for celebrating your own.  Not that I ever thought it should be all about me, but as a child, it just didn’t seem quite fair.  To enter the world as Mary grieved at the Cross.

Eventually I made peace with it.  And then I considered it an honor to be born on a Marian day, whichever one it may be.  Forever I’ll be tucked into that title, a little footnote on her calendar.  And as I got older, the meaning of suffering, hers and my own, took on its own strange beauty and could be appreciated.  At least, I reasoned, I have a patroness in all the little crosses I drag reluctantly as I shuffle along, hopefully heavenward.

But today I came to love it. Continue reading

A Pope Nails Parenthood: “The Kingdom of Irrationality”

“Nooooooo!” I couldn’t help but cry out as the three year old began to pour the container of salt – the giant Costco container of salt, moreover – all over the kitchen floor.  He smiled gleefully despite my dismay, then scurried off as his older brother and sister chased each other through the kitchen, knocking the four-dollar cup of coffee off the counter to spread its sticky sweetness into the dunes of salt on the tile.

There went my plans of sipping coffee while reading and preparing for my upcoming women’s study.  I was supposed to be delving into St. Edith Stein’s contributions to Pope St. John Paul’s genius of women.  Instead, I was on my knees mopping up this mess. And I was tired, to top it off.  The tears tumbled out, mingling with the mixture on the floor.

I sat back on my knees, brushed the hair out of my eyes, and caught my breath.  That’s when the words pressed upon me.  A phrase that had struck me like a bolt of lightning when I had first read it, months ago.  “The kingdom of irrationality.”  It referred to a life of a mom with littles.  How perfectly it captured these moments of craziness, of days of dizzying activity yet seemingly devoid of any rhyme or reason.  Of coffee-stained to-do lists I can’t find.  Of laundry that mysteriously seems to multiply on its own.  Of pantry cupboards that have the opposite problem.  Of tears and tantrums and teenagers.  Of afternoons carefully orchestrated around naps that never happen.  Of days and nights that blur together sometimes into one long stretch of weary.

“The kingdom of irrationality.”  Thought up by a mom, right?  Probably one with a bunch of kids.  Wrong.  That phrase was coined by our own Pope John Paul II, written before his rise to the papacy, to a young mother, a long-time friend of his who was struggling to get enough sleep after giving birth to twins.  It is reproduced in George Weigel’s Witness to Hope:

Dear Teresa:

You were afraid that I wouldn’t be able to read your letter to the end.  Well, I not only finished it but I carried its meaning within me for several days, thinking about what to reply.  Today, these thoughts crystallized when I was receiving the vows of some sisters. I sense tiredness in your letter, which is easy to understand…On top of this, you always wanted to plan and do everything rationally.  And here is the kingdom of irrationality, where normal activity and energy aren’t enough; you need to wait things out, some time to do nothing, and simply, patience – especially since there are two.  I realized that, on the one hand, there is always a price we pay for love.  On the other, thanks to God, love is returned in that price.  What I mean is, the concrete challenge of love cannot be separated from Him; it is always in Him. (215)

JohannesPaul2-portraitI mean, wow.  How did he GET it?  I really couldn’t have said it better if I spent a lifetime trying.  How many books and articles on time management, rules of life, and make-ahead meal planning had I read eagerly?  How many plastic bins and labelled containers littered our home from long-ago efforts at organizing?  How many schedules had been adopted and abandoned?  How many books waited to be read, how many plans filled my head, how many hopes in my heart?  And yet here I was, sweeping salt.  I want rationality, but I live with kids.  I live in a kingdom called “Irrationality.”  And this saint, who lived in the palace of Peter, seemed to know it so well that he named it.  He nailed it.  HOW?

Because he loved people, and he shared their life.  What I have read about Pope John Paul II is that, beginning as a young priest, he practiced something called “accompaniment.”  He believed a priest’s presence “couldn’t be limited to the sanctuary and the confessional”  (Weigel, 100).  He wanted to journey through life with those entrusted to him, and he did.  He studied with them, prayed with them, attended their parties.  He camped, hiked, sang, laughed with them.  He celebrated masses, weddings, baptisms.  I love this: for those expectant mothers in his circle of friends, he would give her a day of recollection before she delivered.  Not to mention, he heard their confessions, which could last an hour or longer.  In other words, he knew them, and he knew their lives, even the life of marriage and family that he had given up in order to serve them, to serve Christ.  And he walked that life with them. “The duty of a priest,” he wrote in 1957, “is to live with the people, everywhere they are, to be with them in everything but sin.” (Weigel 104)  “‘Accompaniment’ was a way of ‘walking with’ young adults, of helping them unveil their humanity by living through their problems with them.” (106)  The earliest group of friends sought out and formed by the young Fr. Wojyla called itself Rodzinka, which translates as “little family.”

And even when his life was transformed by the papacy and his friends had to share him with the world, I’m sure he took their intentions with him, and ours as well.  Until finally he not only walked with us, he carried us.  I think for all his worldly and spiritual accomplishments I’ll like this one best: that he managed as a busy priest to enter into the life of a mother, to ponder her words and worries “for several days” and that he took the time to write to her, encourage her, understand her, perhaps better than she understood herself.  So gently, he managed to remind her, without the faintest hint of “preachiness,” that of course love comes with suffering, but joined to God, it is given weight and meaning and is finally returned back to us.  As if to say, “I know this is really, really hard.  But it’s your vocation now.  And if you can hang in there, and hang onto God, He’ll wrap you up in Himself and make it beautiful.”

If Pope John Paul II longed to accompany his friends then, how much more urgent and perfect must be that desire now.  How much more real must be his longing to share our life, for the sake of drawing us with him into Christ, from that side of heaven.  With his humor, wit, wisdom, warm and pressing affection, now he is ours more than ever.  If there is a word that can best sum up our understanding of devotion to the saints, maybe it is “accompaniment.”  For although they have completed this part of life, we know they have no desire to leave us behind.  Indeed, as we profess, we are part of a communion.  Padre Pio said, “I will stand at the gates of heaven until all my spiritual children have entered.”  St Therese the Little Flower declared, ” I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.”

Sometimes we want a saint for a cause, an intention, a miracle.  But maybe we just need one for the journey.  Maybe we should allow them to accompany us, so see and share our little glimmering joys and stabs of sorrow.  To sense our tiredness, as Pope John Paul did with Teresa, and to understand it.  To enter into our everyday.  Isn’t there a beauty in that?  Today in his homily, our priest suggested that we don’t find the saints.  They find us.  They adopt us.  I guess you could think of it as bringing us into their own…Rodzinka.  A family that always shares in the everyday, the hum-drum, the sticky side of things.

Let’s gather them up then, this vast, varied collection of friends, more numerous than the stars.  A Catholic galaxy.  They may not always be able to make our lives more “rational,” but they offer us their unseen presence, sympathy, prayers, love.  They understand us and our wayward lives better than we realize and want to accompany us through them.  Let’s sweep them into our day, our prayer, our little spills and spoiled plans.  Like so many grains of…salt.

Who are some of your favorite saints – and how did they “adopt” you?

Memoirs of a Happy Failure: A Conversation with Alice von Hildebrand

IMG_0926Last fall I picked up a book in our parish bookstore – and couldn’t put it down.  Alice von Hildebrand’s Memoirs of a Happy Failure captured me with it’s title.  You see, it promised a glimpse into the life of a woman I had admired since encountering her work as a theology undergrad writing a thesis on spiritual maternity. Continue reading