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.

Governor_Wolf_and_First_Lady_Wolf_Bid_Farewell_to_Pope_Francis_-_21784241811

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

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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

Missionaries into the Hearts of Our Families

A recent Friday morning found me at the funeral Mass for a friend’s mother, and I had to take the two youngest with me.  We lasted only a few minutes in the main church.  My three year old, his toddler voice echoing during the quiet and solemn service, sent us into the vestible.  I could hear the readings from the speakers back there, and listened while the kids sprawled at my feet. It was Matthew’s Gospel of the final judgement, where Christ tells of separating the sheep from the goats.  I felt my stomach knotting up as I listened.

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Ugh.  I worried that I was going to be a goat.  After all, I never visited anyone in prison.  I racked my brain.  I wrote a letter to someone in jail once, did that count?  And it had been a long, long time since I had shadowed the entrance to a soup kitchen.  Although, hey – there was that Gatorade I gave to a guy looking for change in the Costco parking lot.  Hmmm….I delivered some outgrown clothes to the parish rummage sale last month.  Not quite the same as clothing the naked, though.  This wasn’t looking good.  I hung my head.

And then, as if on cue, I felt a sticky hand tugging on my black skirt.  “Mommy, can I have some water?  I’m thirsty.” Continue reading

Nesting near the tabernacle

This spring saw our backyard filled with new life: families of quail scurrying across the grass, baby doves peeking out from the eaves of our patio, and a special surprise: a little killdeer mother, nesting on the ground in a shallow depression in the gravel out near the children’s basketball hoop.  They were the first to find her, running in breathless one day to report that we had a new tenant.  Sure enough, there she sat, seeming both a bit smug and suspicious on her small speckled eggs.  My heart sank a bit, worried about her safety so near the children’s play area.

Her curious choice of a nest was instinctive, I had recently learned.  Only weeks before, another killdeer had made a nest recently on our neighbors property – in the rocks right next to their busy driveway.  My neighbor, concerned, had researched the birds and told me about these indignant little mothers.  We were both amazed at their unusual habits.  They always nest on the ground, sometimes taking turns on the eggs with the father.  So slight an indentation do they make on the desert ground, and so like stones are the eggs, that they blend into gravel perfectly.  It’s good camouflage, but still…this one had no idea what she was in for. Continue reading

Running to the Banquet: Communions and Communism

It’s May!  And parishes around the world are a flurry of sacraments.  First   Holy Communions and Confirmations testify to God’s continuing presence among us and leave us filled with that lasting Easter joy and bursting hearts.  It’s that time of the liturgical year when God dishes out graces and gifts with generous hands and more places are set at the banquet table.  Our own son Daniel received his first Holy Communion and the sacrament of Confirmation this spring, and although this was our fourth child to be so blessed, I still felt awed at witnessing the young life that’s been entrusted to us be saturated with and transformed by God’s own life.

Before the mass began that evening, as my husband snapped photos of Daniel and his friends leaving flowers at the foot of Our Lady’s statue, I looked around at the young girls, little “brides”, bustling and beaming in their veils and white dresses.  And I was reminded of a story my friend Kasia told me about her First Holy Communion in Poland, back in 1970. Continue reading