Saturday, February 4, 2023

Lessons from The King's Achievement

 The assault was not going to stop at matters of discipline; it was dogma that was aimed at, and, worse even than that, the foundation on which dogma rested. It was not an affair of Religious Houses, or even of morality; there was concerned the very Rock itself on which Christendom based all faith and morals.


To whom are you faithful? 


This was perhaps one of the most critical questions facing the English people in the years of King Henry VIII’s reign—the period of the English Reformation. When remaining faithful to the Catholic Church could cost you your head, should you pledge your allegiance to the King’s new church? 


In 1904 Father Robert Hugh Benson wrote The King’s Achievement, a historical novel that follows the lives of the Torridon family. Two brothers, Ralph and Chris, represent two contrasting paths. Ralph—of the world—works for Lord Cromwell. Meanwhile, Chris—of the spirit—enters a monastery and becomes a priest. As the persecution against the Catholic Church heightens and monasteries are attacked, Ralph becomes the antagonist who leads an attack against Chris’s monastery.


A family grieves the brother whose soul seems lost. Ralph pursues worldly success while courting the lovely Beatrice, who is a fervent Catholic, but will devotion to Lord Cromwell sabotage his burgeoning love? Can Ralph continue to justify his actions, even as he befriends and comes to respect the great Thomas More? Chris’s turbulent emotions toward his wayward brother threaten his own spiritual peace—can he learn to be in the world but not of it? And can he save his brother even while Chris’s resistance to the King’s orders places his own life in danger? 


Benson does a remarkable job of bringing this era of English history to life, especially in illuminating the horrific, completely destructive persecution against the Catholic monasteries. Many monks gave their lives as martyrs. Many monasteries were looted, robbed, and destroyed. Peaceable religious men and women who had quietly carried on valuable spiritual work within the walls of these monasteries and convents suddenly found themselves on the street, nearly penniless and, objectively speaking, vocationless. 


Peterborough Abbey, Benedictine monastery dissolved November 29, 1539


The methodical tearing apart of the Catholic Church in England is concerning in its familiarity to some of the tendencies one could observe in our own world today. The Catholic faithful of the 1530s, many of whom were not fully catechized, did not know what to believe. King Henry and his clergy expressed persuasive arguments that quickly led people astray. Then these same men criticized, condemned, and silenced those who dared defend the truth of the Catholic Church. 


King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

There are so many excellent aspects to this historical novel. Benson brings alive the personalities of St. Thomas More, King Henry VIII, and Lord Cromwell. Also, I truly enjoyed the family dynamics of the Torridon family. It’s sobering how two brothers, raised by the same parents in the same household, could veer along such completely opposite paths. At one point in the novel, Benson describes Ralph and Chris walking along with their father, just feet apart from each other, but an impassable gulf exists between them. Anyone who has experienced conflict within one’s familial relationships can relate to that sensation of heartbreaking distance among people of shared blood. 


Chris’s spiritual journey is very fulfilling, especially as he overcomes his inner struggles. Within his monastery, Chris detaches himself from everything and everyone in the outside world. As the plot progresses though, Chris begins to realize that, while leaving the world behind, he still needs to be mystically one with that same world. 


“Neither a life in the world would have done it, nor one in the peace of the cloister; but an alternation of the two. He had been melted by the fire of the inner life, and braced by the external bitterness of adversity.”


I will say that there are a few aspects of the plot that I found disappointing. While Benson does a superb job creating suspenseful scenes, sometimes those moments lose their punch: in two specific instances, when Chris finds himself in particularly dangerous circumstances and the stakes are high, the resolution to the conflict is quite anticlimactic. As for the romantic plot of the book, I questioned why the highly intelligent and deeply faithful Beatrice would be attracted to Ralph. However, I became most concerned by one of the major take-aways of the novel, namely that one should practice loyalty for loyalty’s sake. Faithfulness to something—or someone—bad is not a virtue and I cannot understand why it was lauded as such. 


Where does your loyalty lie? Are you a faithful son or daughter to the King of Kings? The King’s Achievement reminds us that sometimes faithfulness carries a steep price. Yet, Benson depicts Saint Thomas More reminding the other characters—and us—that we are all God’s prisoners. May we serve Him loyally every day of our lives.


Sunday, January 1, 2023

Resolutions: A Family Tradition

In the top drawer of my desk, which is located in our dining room, sits a couple of sheets. They are worn and crumbled from much use. One reads at the top: RESOLUTIONS 2021. The next: RESOLUTIONS 2022. And we have just added a new sheet with the words—I’m sure you’ve guessed it—RESOLUTIONS 2023. 

It’s become a tradition in our family at the end of every year, certainly not an uncommon practice. Many people make New Year’s resolutions … in a way, so did Our Lord! 

We read in the Gospel of Luke,

When the days for His being taken up were fulfilled, He resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

Our Lord made a resolution, which is a word the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “a firm decision to do something.” It contains a sense of urgency, purpose, and intention. A goal, in contrast, is an end, which one may or may not feel a strong desire to reach. 

To make a resolution for 2023 means more than just hoping to accomplish something; it means you will set out with a firm purpose to do it!

In our family, each person makes one or more resolutions. My husband and I try to encourage the children (as much as ourselves!) to focus on three different areas: physical, mental, and spiritual. Physical resolutions span the gamut from learning to walk (our 1-year-old) to learning to ride a bike without training wheels to running a 5K in 25 minutes. Mental resolutions involve things such as setting a goal for how many books one will read or learning a new language or achieving a certain grade in school.

As for the spiritual resolutions, we try to focus on the areas where we each struggle the most: for me, it’s patience, so I’m resolving not to lose my temper around the kids (wish me luck!). Our oldest daughter is resolving to read the Bible each day, setting aside quality time for prayer. 

We also make a “family resolution,” which is something everyone contributes to and benefits from. Last year this was quite practical: get the kids to bed on time! This year, we made it more enjoyable: have quarterly “family days” where we spend the majority of the day together doing something fun, whether it’s something simple like taking a walk and playing board games or going on a day trip. 

We keep the list of our resolutions nearby because we review them as a family at least quarterly. As the summer rolls around, we pull out the resolutions and check in with each person: “We’re halfway through the year! How are we doing on our resolutions? Have we made progress?”

There is something in human nature that appreciates a new beginning and a fresh start. Similarly, setting one’s sight on a certain objective brings purpose and intention to what we are doing. For the competitive among us, it gives incentive to “keep the streak alive” by accomplishing the resolutions of each year—or to improve upon last year’s efforts. Dr. Kevin Majeres of OptimalWork refers to the “deadline benefit:” by the end of the year, I resolve to X (for example, forgive my friend, spend more time with my spouse, publish my book, and so on). By setting a deadline, we have a parameter to work within; the goal becomes specific and, indeed, moves from a goal to a resolution. Some positive pressure is helpful! 

When we look at the Gospels, we find a model of intentionality within the spiritual life. The shepherds went to look for the newborn Infant with haste. This doesn’t mean they were chaotically running hither and thither. It means they acted with resolution! How will you seek the Lord in 2023? Will you do so with haste? Is there something you can do or sacrifice that will help you set your sight resolutely upon the Lord as we move through the year? 

Of course, sometimes we don’t reach our resolutions. That’s why, however, our family holds onto the resolutions of prior years. Maybe we didn’t achieve what we set out to do … yet. We have one family member who has carried over the same resolutions for the past three years, albeit with some modifications. And that’s okay! The point is that we are moving forward, improving and continually striving upward. As Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati said, “We must never exist but live.”

A New Year’s resolution affords us a whole year to move forward, improving ourselves in every area. Will New Year’s Eve 2023 find you and your family closer to Our Lord? Let’s resolve to make it so! 

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Thursday, December 15, 2022

A Perfectly Imperfect Christmas

 As a wife, mother, and hostess, there is so much to do this Advent in order to prepare for Christmas. I want everything to be just perfect at Christmas time. Christmas lights, Christmas cookies, Christmas cards, Christmas tree, Christmas clothes for the kids, Christmas presents—I feel this pressure sometimes to make everything the best that it can be, to create a “magical” kind of Christmas day.

Much of this comes from my own struggle with pride, but our surrounding culture plays its own role too. After all, aren’t we told that this is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year?” There are a lot of expectations to meet!

There have been a number of Christmas days in the past, filled with all kinds of festivities, when, at the end of the day, I faced a strange realization: amidst all the celebrating, I didn’t really pray. The busyness of my Christmas day consumed my normal times of prayer.

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I think the devil can take many of our good intentions and twist them into snares for us. Wanting to celebrate Christ’s birth is a wonderful desire. But celebrating in such a way that distracts us from what we are actually celebrating is to our own detriment. 

The first Christmas was—by many standards—far from perfect. Our beautiful Nativity scenes may, in some ways, disguise for us the severe reality of that night. It must have been down-right harrowing as St. Joseph desperately sought a place for Mary to give birth. Our Lord’s crib was a rough feeding trough for animals. Meanwhile a tyrant loomed in the background, making preparations to kill the newborn child. None of this was comfortable or convenient. 

Yet, God designed the way He wanted to enter our world. He could have done it in any number of ways. This is the way He chose. And if God chose it, it is perfect.

 

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Maybe Christmas cookies with burnt bottoms, Christmas cards with children who aren’t all smiling, Christmas clothes that are wrinkled, Christmas lights that flicker because one bulb burnt out, a Christmas tree that is too skinny—maybe all these imperfections that I’ve worked so hard to eliminate, actually in a strange way contribute to the perfection of Christmas. The imperfections remind us that we aren’t perfect. We’re not going to get it all right. We need a Savior. 

I once had a conversation with my mother that has remained with me. My mom was reminiscing about Christmas a few years ago. My brother had been sick in the hospital in the days leading up to Christmas day. We weren’t sure if he would be home with us for Christmas or not. Then, at the last possible moment on Christmas Eve, the hospital discharged him. My mom described, “I was driving to CVS that Christmas Eve night, going to pick up a prescription the hospital ordered. And I thought to myself, ‘This is one of my favorite Christmases.’” It had nothing to do with the perfect gift, the perfectly cooked meal, the perfect home decor. My brother coming home to us was the perfect gift. 

Since then my dear brother passed away. I wondered, after his death, how Christmas would feel. How could it ever feel “perfect?” Well, it wasn’t. Something was missing that Christmas; something is always missing without him. Bing Crosby sang, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dream.” Through the grace of God, my brother is home for Christmas. Christ didn’t come to make this Earth His homeland; neither is it ours. That longing I now have in my heart, when I miss my brother’s stocking on the mantle, reminds me that there is a heavenly celebration that far exceeds anything I can do here. The perfect Christmas celebration is in heaven.

So if I can let go of some of my controlling desire to make things “perfect” this coming Christmas, I will probably have more time to focus on Christ who is Perfection.

Interestingly, my favorite part of Christmas day (aside from Christmas Mass, of course) is something incredibly simple. On Christmas morning, before we gather around to open presents, we place the infant Jesus in the manger. Then we all sing “Happy Birthday” to Him. Each year it never fails to make me feel a little teary-eyed. When we strip aside all the festivities, that’s what it all comes down to: the birthday of Our Lord. We are celebrating Him.

I pray that the imperfections of your Christmas celebrations will draw you closer to the Perfect Infant, whose birth we celebrate.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Detachment Parenthood

On October 4 we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, who is well-known for his love of poverty. Many of us associate poverty with those of meager possession, such as the homeless. Yet, a homeless man may still cling to his few “riches.” In contrast, a rich man—though very affluent—may not place his trust in his possessions and, if he lost that great wealth, he, like Job, would not become despondent.


So, to live the spirit of poverty, it’s not just about how little someone owns. It’s more about living a spirit of detachment. I have found that being a mother has afforded me many opportunities to grow in this important Christian virtue.



Physical Detachment


When I was pregnant with our first baby, I realized for the first time that my body is not really my own. As a pregnant mother, that literally meant physically sharing my body with another body: nourishing, growing, and supporting a whole new life, even if it meant feeling nauseous, achy, and exhausted. Then, after birth, physical detachment meant something else: breastfeeding that hungry newborn, morning and night, on demand. 


Sometimes physical detachment has meant making more space in my crowded bed for the toddler who needs some extra cuddles or offering a peacemaking hug to a child who is having a disagreement with me. It entails cleaning up messy diapers, mud-caked jeans, or the aftermath of a stomach bug. 


Physical detachment can look like letting go of always having a perfectly clean home or pristine furniture. I still try to keep an orderly home, but I’ve made peace with the fact that I will likely find crumbs under the couch or a pile of dishes next to the sink. Similarly, sometimes (often) in the morning I run out of time to do my hair and makeup in the mad rush to get kids to school on time. And that’s okay.


God gave me my body so I could use it for others. 


Emotional Detachment


Before motherhood, I considered myself entitled to certain things—personal space, yes, but also personal time and dreams. I don’t suggest that, now as a mother, I should have no free time or aspirations. Instead, these other things that bring me happiness are subservient to the happiness of my family. It’s not primarily about me and my enjoyment. “Me time” is not some inalienable right or good for its own sake, but a gift. It’s an opportunity for me to rest and recharge, in order that I can better serve my family.


Emotional detachment means that it’s not about what I feel like doing or what makes me happy. Some days, I have to sacrifice my free time to help a child study for a spelling test or read a book to a sick toddler. It’s a sacrifice, but one that frequently brings joy. I find a different kind of happiness in knowing that I’ve put clean sheets on their beds, laundered their clothing, and prepared them wholesome food to eat. 


My children bring me deep joy, but they cannot be my ultimate source of joy; I cannot become emotionally dependent on them. In that sense, while loving them with a fierce and ardent love, I have to lovingly detach.


My children are not my all. I find my joy first and foremost in God. With my love centered on Him, I can love my children better: I can be fully present, anchored in my faith, when my children experience turbulent emotions. That’s the goal at least … It's not always easy.


Spiritual Detachment


Every mom has hopes and dreams for her children—maybe to find their special someone or take over the family business. Ultimately though, my children are not really my children; they belong to God. God has a plan for my children … wondrous plans, better than any I could ever design or fashion. So spiritual detachment means stepping back and allowing God to show them His Will. I don’t want to block the path God wishes them to take, the path, therefore, that will lead them toward salvation.


Maybe this means my children will end up moving away or choosing a celibate vocation or marrying someone I didn’t envision for him or her. Am I willing to support my child, even if it’s not the personal plan I wished or desired?


Let Go, Let God


This desire to foster a spirit of detachment has grown within me as our family has grown. With each successive child I sense more and more that so much is outside of my control. I can’t determine if the stomach bug will spread to every child. I can’t control if my kids wake up in a good mood or bad. I can’t arrange a marriage for them with a spouse I pre-selected. 


But there is still much I can do. I can center my soul on God, the anchor that holds me still through the whirlwind that sometimes is life. I can trust that God will take care of and shepherd my children: He loves them even more than I. I can remember that I am also a child of the Father, bumbling around sometimes and making mistakes … I can offer forgiveness and mercy because I need those in return too. 


Most of all, I can detach because detachment is about faith. It’s detaching in a sense from everything so I can be attached ultimately to only one thing: God. With detachment, the storm can rage around me, but I can sleep beside Jesus on that boat in the middle of the sea. Jesus will be the one to rebuke the wind and waves; all I need to do is close my eyes and feel Him right here beside me. He will bring our boat, our little domestic church, to shore.


Friday, August 19, 2022

Lessons from East of Eden

 “Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning,” Samuel said. “We carry them along with us like invisible tails—the story of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel. And I don’t understand either of them. I don’t understand them at all but I feel them.”

Recently I’ve been thinking about the decisions my husband and I make as parents. Then I reflect back on my own childhood and the various choices my parents made. I love my parents, I am grateful for everything they have done for me, and I admire their many virtues. At the same time, however, when I take a broad view of my childhood, I see the times they’ve made choices that had negative effects on me or my siblings. I think, given the opportunity to go back in time, my parents would have chosen quite differently. I don’t hold a grudge against them for these choices; they are, after all, only trying to do their best. I have made mistakes in my parenting. We’re not perfect. We’re only human, right?


There’s the statement that begs consideration: “we’re only human.” What does that mean … we’re only human. As humans, are we destined to fall? Despite my awareness of my parents’ shortcomings, regardless of my efforts not to make the same mistakes … will I repeat those same bad decisions anyway? Are we destined to repeat the sins of the past?


In a way, that’s what has happened since the beginning of creation. It’s part of our family history to fall: it’s written in our nature. Original sin very quickly manifested itself in actual sin: the fratricide of Abel, man’s first purposeful shedding of another man’s blood. The first sin of Adam and Eve and the fallen nature that came as consequence led to the first murder. And ever since, we’ve repeated these sins of our first parents. 


Even those who aren’t familiar with the actual story of Cain and Abel still understand and feel its message. Even the holiest and most devout of us is capable of great evil. Is there any way out? Are we destined to repeat the sins of our parents?


That is one of the main themes explored in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which he published in 1952. He considered it his greatest work, describing it to a friend as, “ … the longest and surely the most difficult work I have ever done... I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is 'the book.' … Always I had this book waiting to be written."



East of Eden follows three generations of the Trask family. That history demonstrates the generational sins of the family members, starting with lies. The devil was the first liar and it’s only fitting that, in a book loosely following the opening chapters of Genesis, lying should feature prominently. The father of the Trask family is named Cyrus and he builds his entire life on a life. Though he only fought in the Civil War for less than thirty minutes—receiving an injury shortly after his first battle began—Cyrus fabricates an entire other war history, spinning a tale that becomes true even in his own mind. Cyrus receives recognition, a position of power, and financial gain through the lies he creates about his war experiences. 


No one could call him a liar. And this was mainly because the lie was in his head, and any truth coming from his mouth carried the color of the lie.


Cyrus has two sons, Charles and Adam (the first set of brothers who represent Cain and Abel—notice, for example, how their names both start with the letters C and A). Adam, though quite different from his father due to his kind-hearted, gentle demeanor, struggles with truth as well. His wife abandons him and their newborn twin boys (the second set of brothers, Cal and Aron). Adam struggles with what he should tell his sons about their mother. His wise servant, Lee, encourages him to tell the twins the truth:


“It’s the lie I’m thinking of. It might infect everything. If they ever found out you’d lied to them about this, the true things would suffer. They wouldn’t believe anything then.”


Despite Lee’s advice, Adam decides to tell his sons that their mother died in childbirth … a falsehood that later has disastrous consequences. Adam’s son, Aron, can’t conceive of a world where his father would lie to him, and the idea that his mother may be alive threatens the stability of his existence.


Aron felt that something had to die—his mother or his world.

 

Another parental error that continues through the generations is the tendency to create and pursue an idealized version of reality. Adam fell in love with Cathy when she appeared on his porch step, brutally injured and barely alive. Adam created a vision in his mind of who Cathy was, a vision so far from the truth of her character: he saw an angel where there was only a devil. Adam married Cathy and then traveled to the Salinas Valley in northern California, determined to build himself an Eden. He wanted to create a perfect family in a perfect home: an idealized reality. Adam couldn’t see the great danger of this ambition, even when his neighbor—-prophetic Samuel Hamilton—tried to make it clear to him.


“I’m going to make a garden so good, so beautiful, that it will be a proper place for her to live and a fitting place for her light to shine on.”


Samuel said satirically, “It’s my duty to take this thing of yours and kick it in the face, then raise it up and spread slime on it thick enough to blot out its dangerous light.”


Adam’s son, Aron, falls into the same error. As a young boy, he meets Abra and immediately falls in love with her, determined to make her his wife one day. When Aron becomes a teenager he yearns for purity and goodness, virtues he pours on Abra, desiring them in her so much that he begins to lose sight of her true nature–her fallen nature. He is more in love with an idea than with a person. Abra, who is keenly aware of her own transgressions, can’t reciprocate a love based on such an unreality.


“He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t even want to know me. He wants that—white—ghost.”


The fathers in East of Eden also fail in forcing their children to fit a certain mold. Cyrus, a veteran, insists on Adam enlisting in the army despite Adam’s repulsion of violence.


He tested me and hurt me and punished me and finally he sent me out like a sacrifice, maybe to make up for something.


Even after his own negative experience of needing to follow his father’s career aspirations for him, Adam repeats the same dynamic with his own son, Aron. Adam wants his son to attend college. Aron gives college a try, but is disappointed and finds the experience not what he expected. Aron would like to quit and return to working on the family farm, but Adam won’t hear of it.


He felt let down and helpless, packed like a bird’s egg in the cotton of his father’s ambition for him.


Part of the reason these fathers insist on a certain path for their sons is due to the fact that they don’t truly know their sons: their hopes, dreams, and personalities. As a boy, Adam yearned for warmth, affection, attention, and understanding—things he never received from his stearn, imposing father. Yet, as a father, Adam repeats this style of parenting. For a long period of time he barely looks at his twin boys or even names them. As they grow, he wonders to himself that he barely knows them. His son, Cal, hungers for his father’s love, which feels distant and unretrievable:


When he was quite small Cal had discovered a secret. If he moved very quietly to where his father was sitting and if he leaned very lightly against his father’s knee, Adam’s hand would rise automatically and his fingers would caress Cal’s shoulder. It is probable that Adam did not even know he did it, but the caress brought such a raging flood of emotion to the boy that he saved this special joy and used it only when he needed it. 


Mirroring the book of Genesis most closely is the way these fathers seem to favor one child over another. It is Adam who Cyrus chooses for military life, not Adam’s brother Charles. Charles seethes with jealousy, desperate for the crumbs of Cyrus’s affection. Then, as a father, Adam boasts of Aron’s ambition and academic success in going to college–never acknowledging Cal’s ingenuity and hardwork. 


There are parallel gift-giving scenes too. Adam gave his father a puppy for his birthday, which he had found in the woods. Meanwhile Charles labored hard to earn enough money to buy Cyrus a new knife. Cyrus loved the puppy, training him and allowing him to sleep in the bedroom. The knife from Charles, however, remained discarded in a dresser drawer. In the next generation, Cal works to earn money for his father, a gift that is similarly unappreciated:


“I don’t want the money, Cal. … I would have been so happy if you could have given me—well, what your brother has—pride in the thing he’s doing, gladness in his progress. Money, even clean money, doesn’t stack up with that.”


Adam doesn’t seem to learn from the experiences of his childhood, but instead repeats the same mistakes his father made while raising him. Adam’s son, Cal, struggles with doing the right thing, praying to be good but feeling an inner battle to choose evil. 


“Dear Lord,” he said, “let me be like Aron. Don’t make me mean. I don’t want to be. If you will let everybody like me, why, I’ll give you anything in the world, and if I haven’t got it, why, I’ll go for to get it. I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be lonely. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.”


Is Cal, like Cain before him, always going to choose what is evil? Can he—and we—ever become good or will we repeat the sins of before?


Cain slaying Abel, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1600


Steinbeck seems to offer his readers hope. He suggests that those who are aware of their evil—precisely because of that awareness—can try to become good. Those who only see their goodness are blind to their fallen nature and, therefore, can never actually work at overcoming their shortcomings. True, we are all capable of great evil … yet, the other side of that coin is that we are also all capable of great good. We have a fallen nature; we are also free .. free to choose the good. 


Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil.


In one critical scene, Adam, his servant Lee, and Samuel talk about the story of Cain and Abel. Lee points to something God says to Cain: “Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door: its urge is for you, yet you can rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7). Lee explains that the Hebrew translation of the verse uses the word timshel, which means “thou mayest.” It means God gives Cain a choice, the way is open for Cain to choose what is good. 


But “Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.


So will I repeat the mistakes of my parents as I raise my children? I have a fallen nature. I am going to make bad choices—maybe the same as my parents, but perhaps other ones. I will fail at times. But those errors don’t have to stand as the prominent moments of my parenthood. Through God’s grace, I can choose to keep trying. Then maybe my children will remember me most for my love, not my faults … as I remember my parents.


Monday, August 8, 2022

Not 'Goodbye' but 'See You Later'

 This summer I have spent time contemplating God’s call to Abraham: 

"Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

Instead of lazy days by the poolside or weekends camping, our family has spent these summer weeks packing. Like Abraham, my husband and I discerned a call from God to move our family, leave this place we’ve called home for twelve years (the area where I grew up), and venture to an unknown place. 

Moving a whole family is no small task. The stakes are high: a new school, new community, and new neighborhood. Like Abraham, I feel that we are walking by faith in this matter. My husband and I have spent the past two years discerning whether we should move and, now that the time has come, it feels almost unreal that we are actually doing it. We aren’t adventurous people by nature, but faith has emboldened us to take the leap and begin again anew. 

I’m comforted by the example of Abraham, who had to abandon the familiar and comfortable, setting out to a foreign place with his massive household. I also reflect on the Holy Family who had to move as well–under duress, no less. 

Still, the transition challenges us, both emotionally and pragmatically. As the piles of boxes around our house grow, I wonder to myself how we ever accumulated so much stuff, much of which we rarely use or even realized that we own! It creates a longing inside of me to live with less. Why not pass these items onto someone who could actually use and enjoy them? Combing through our belongings has challenged our family to grow in a spirit of detachment. “Do we really need this? We can’t take it all with us.” We can’t take it all on our move; we can’t take it onward to heaven either. 

 

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We’ve decided to sell many items instead of paying to move them. Our house grows emptier by the day: the patch of faded grass where the swing set once stood, the open space in our kitchen where we once had our table. We feel a sadness to part with the swings our children happily swung on and the table that was the site of many family dinners. Yet, there is freedom in it as well. I think of St. Francis of Assisi, clad in his simple robe and sandals, venturing forth with nothing, but filled with the abundant grace of God and the power of the Gospel. 

I walk around this building we have called home for the past few years. It has served us well: sheltered us and fostered our family’s growth. Two baby boys have come home here. I can become sentimental and then I must remind myself: home is wherever we are together. We made this building into our home; we can make a new home too. Our domestic church isn’t crumbling, but in making this move—a move that we hope will benefit our family in many ways, especially spiritually—our domestic church will strengthen. 

 

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 Plus, we always have a home, wherever we may journey. That is the beauty of the catholicity of the Catholic Church. The Church is our family. Where there is a tabernacle, there is our true home. Where there is a priest, we have a spiritual father. Even if we travel or move hundreds of miles, the parish we enter will celebrate the same sacrifice of the Mass as every parish in every country throughout the world. What comfort and familiarity that gives to each one of us! We have brothers and sisters wherever we go.

 As we make our rounds visiting friends we have known for many years, our hearts feel sad saying goodbye. We know many other families who are relocating at this time, some of whom belong to our current parish. As we assisted at Mass this Sunday, I gazed at the empty pews where those families once sat, now moved to other locations. 

I prayed for them and I prayed about our own upcoming move. I reflected on all the various goodbyes I’ve made throughout my life: goodbye to my brother who died, goodbye to my fiancĂ© who at that time lived states away, goodbye to teachers at the end of a school year. After Holy Communion, I continued my prayer and felt God reminding me that there are no “goodbyes” in heaven. In heaven, the saints are always together, with no parting, forever united in the perfect love of God. 

But even while here on earth, we have a taste of that togetherness, precisely at Mass, where the Communion of Saints are united in the perfect sacrifice of Christ. I felt it at that moment: the friends who have moved already … they were still there, in a different way, but there with us in spirit and prayer. My brother who died three years ago? Yes, he was there too, celebrating at the Wedding Feast in heaven. And when we move to a new place … we will still be here in prayer. 

 

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Maybe you aren’t moving this summer, but perhaps you face your own “goodbyes”: a college student leaving home for the first time, a family member on hospice care, children leaving a summer camp where they’ve formed close friendships, an employee leaving a job he or she has worked at for many years. Whatever the circumstance, the unifying thread of God’s unending presence and perfect love that transcends all time and space removes the permanence of any “goodbye.” 

And if you are moving, God will show your family a new land–just as He did with Abraham. We will go forth, in trust and faith, knowing that God will provide in His goodness and we will find family wherever we journey. To those we leave behind … “See you later” if not in this world, then in the next.


Monday, July 11, 2022

Are We There Yet?

 Do the words “family vacation” strike fear into your heart like they do mine? 

I enjoy the idea of a family vacation. Yet when the hypothetical becomes tangible, reality is far from my imaginings. Vacationing with little ones becomes exhausting and stressful for me. People don’t sleep as well in unfamiliar beds; long rides become risky business for a potty-training toddler; new environments challenge anxious kids, leading to meltdowns—automatic flush toilets, for example, became a potent nemesis a few years ago. Hotels or rental rooms are rarely baby-proofed, adding to the difficulty. 

Often I spend my vacation counting down the days until we can pull back into the driveway of our home! 

A friend once suggested using the term “family trip” instead of “family vacation” for this exact reason: vacationing with young kids is not relaxing! That doesn’t mean, of course, we shouldn’t vacation as a family. But maybe I need to adjust my mindset.

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If I enter the vacation expecting ease, constant smiles and laughter, and well-planned itineraries going off without a hitch … I’m going to meet with disappointment. However, if I view our trip supernaturally, the stresses can become sanctifying. I reflect on the Holy Family and their “family trips” from Bethlehem to Egypt, and then from Egypt to Nazareth. I’m sure they faced obstacles, but met them with joy, patience, and courage. 

This became my goal on a recent day trip our family took. Our toddler fittingly chose to wear a t-shirt that read: “Live for adventure”—certainly not a motto I naturally live by! But for the day, I would try. I gave a pep talk to the kids (as much as to myself) explaining that today was indeed an “adventure.” Maybe we would encounter annoyances or a change of plans, but we would meet them together as a family and work through them with the grace of God. We pulled out of the driveway, praying for safe travels and God’s blessing, especially for the virtue of patience! 

Prudent planning beforehand can remove some of the stress of traveling with little ones. This involves good scheduling: avoiding times of high traffic, for example, or taking advantage of nap times to drive. It helps to break up long drives with rest stops. Packing healthy snacks keeps little ones from getting hungry (sugar highs are not advisable within the confines of a vehicle!). We also have a bag of special “travel” toys we only use on family trips. Some of our favorites are Crayola’s travel easel, Melissa and Doug’s Water Wow books, a mini Lite Brite (for older kids), and maze books.


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So practical considerations help to facilitate an enjoyable family trip, but a supernatural mindset is likewise critical. As the day progressed, I worked to see God’s hand in our interactions. During the drive, the children barraged me with a steady request for books, markers, snacks, and quiet toys. My irritation grew: are they ever content? Then I reflected: am I ever content? How often am I the child, incessantly pouring out requests to my Father? Am I ever quiet enough to stop asking and just enjoy His presence? 

At one point, our 7-month-old began a steady wail from his car seat. We had recently stopped so I could nurse him and change his diaper; I knew he didn’t cry for those reasons. No, he had another need: he wanted me to hold him. It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it … the agonized infant who can’t understand why Mom can’t just pick him up, the little cries increasing in a heart-wrenching crescendo. From his car seat in the middle row of the van, our baby couldn’t even see me. I felt helpless knowing we couldn’t stop on the highway.


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I prayed for him. As I prayed, I called to him, “Joseph, I’m right here!” 

I also thought: maybe God is saying that to us, too. Sometimes we’re upset and crying. We look and can’t see God—it feels like He has abandoned us. But the truth is that God is right here, driving and directing our life to its best possible course, even if it’s one we don’t understand or see. God wants to pick me up, kiss and comfort me, even more than I desired to cuddle and console Joseph.

Of course, my husband and I heard the predictable, “Are we there yet?” multiple times throughout our travels. A family trip has a goal of reaching a destination. Traveling is part of the experience, but it’s a means to an end. We are going somewhere. Children have a natural impatience to reach the destination. 

I wonder if God put that desire in our hearts for a reason. On a family trip or not, we all constantly journey, passing through this life to our real homeland in heaven. We should enkindle that fire of desire for heaven. 

At the end of each day, as you close your eyes to go to sleep, think of your heavenly home. “Are we there yet?” No, not yet. But are we getting ready? Are we headed in the right direction? And how many people are we helping along on the journey? 

I struggle with the unpredictability of family trips. However, life itself is unpredictable! I have to always remind myself: our plans are not our own. We all experience delays, detours, and roadblocks sometimes on the journey. We work through them together as a family, with God guiding us. Press on! “Live for adventure”—God’s adventure.


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