Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lessons from Kristin (Part II)

"That's why marriage and the wedding mass were created--so that man and woman would be given help in their lives: married folk and parents and children and house servants as loyal and helpful companions on the journey toward the house of peace."

When we last left Kristin at the conclusion of the first novel in Sigrid Undset's Nobel-winning trilogy, things were not looking so good for her.

Her parents had finally succumbed to her stubborn insistence on marrying Erlend, a handsome and charming man, but one prone to irresponsibility and possessing little self-control.  

Their courtship, tainted by sexual sin, did not prepare them well for marriage and they find themselves struggling in their relationship to communicate, understand, and empathize with the other.

But the struggle is not hopeless, nor is it bereft of joy.  Kristin undergoes a tremendous conversion during a pilgrimage she embarks upon and experiences great remorse for her transgressions.  Erlend, too, regrets his former actions and the ways in which he dishonored the woman he loves.  

Through their shared tribulations and triumphs, the theme of the second book, The Wife, is one that demonstrates the purpose and beauty of family.  

There are many families presented in the novel, of varying sizes and contending with different circumstances.  And each individual family member has his or her own flaws and interior struggles.

Out of the myriad of characters presented, not one of them is perfect.  And it is within the family that these flaws are most evident. 

Take, for example, the pivotal relationship between Kristin and her father, Lavrans.  

So close is this familial bond and, indeed, so definitional that, in 14th century Norway, a child's last name was formed from that of his or her father.  Thus, Kristin is "Kristin Lavransdatter" (datter meaning "daughter").  She is Kristin, Lavrans' daughter.  Her self-definition is intimately connected to her father.  

Though she and her father enjoyed a very close relationship, Kristin's insistence on marrying Erlend (and her promiscuity with him prior to their actual marriage) wounded her father--a pious, honorable man--greatly.  

She remembered her father's face when she was about to ride off with Erlend and he lifted her onto her horse.  Lavrans had put on a happy expression because there were so many people around them, but Kristin saw his eyes.  He stroked her arm and took her hand to say farewell.  At that time her main thought had been that she was glad to be leaving.  Now she thought that for as long as she lived, she would feel a sting in her soul whenever she remembered her father's eyes on that day.

Yet, despite her reckless behavior and disobedience, the love Lavrans has for her does not end.  It is his daughter who wounds his heart the most, but who simultaneously has brought him the most joy.  Mirroring the perfect forgiveness of the Eternal Father, Lavrans forgives Kristin and loves her, despite her errors.

Kristin herself experiences the pains and difficulties that arise in parenthood.  She and Erlend eventually have seven sons.  She welcomes each gladly and gratefully and gives of herself untiringly to ensure their well-being: caring for them through the night when they are ill with serious fever, singing them to sleep, bringing order and prosperity to her husband's great estate to provide for her sons' future.

Her self-giving motherhood is beautiful and exemplarily.  She realizes that the fate of her children is bound up with her own.  

Wherever they ended up in the world, wherever they journeyed, forgetting their mother--she thought that for her, their lives would be like a currant in her own life; they would be one with her, just as they had been when she alone on this earth knew about the new hidden life inside, drinking from her blood and making her cheeks pale.

These parent-child relationships shape and change each person.  

It is within this family dynamic that one finds a training ground of virtue or breeding ground of vice.  It is indeed within the family unit itself that one's salvation (or damnation) is largely, though not exclusively, worked out.

And at the crux of this family structure is the relationship between husband and wife.  The spouses' love is the bedrock on which the family is built and the happiness, holiness, and health of the family is significantly influenced by the strength or weakness of that husband-wife relationship.

As Kristin progresses through her marriage, she can clearly see Erlend's defects and errors.  But she begins to recognize her own contribution to the problems of their marriage:

In spite of all the tenderness that welled up inside her when she saw her husband's despair, she didn't have the will to silence the inner voice that asked, hurt and embittered: How can you speak that way to me?  Have you forgotten when I gave you my faith and my honor? Have you forgotten when I was your beloved friend?  And yet she understood that as long as this voice spoke within her, she would continue to speak to him as if she had forgotten.

When Erlend finds himself into a life-threatening situation where he is accused of treason, Kristin realizes that, whatever the circumstances, she is bound to him, and he to her.  The particular times he has failed or hurt her and vice-versa are ultimately not primary.  First  is her duty to love him and to honor him.

By the grace of God, we two unworthy souls were joined together in holy marriage.  Branded by the flames of sin, bowed by the burden of sin, we came together at the portals of God's house; together we received the Savior's host from the hand of the priest.  Should I now complain if God is testing my faith?  Should I now think about anything else but that I am his wife and he is my husband for as long as we both shall live?

And so we see these families of imperfect people--children, parents, spouses--struggling together, sometimes victorious, sometimes miserably defeated.  But it is in these relationships that one is presented with the best and greatest opportunity to become the person he or she is created to be.  

It is in patiently bearing family members' faults, lovingly encouraging the other in virtue, humbly creating an example of charity, bearing offenses forgivingly & graciously, that the family has the ability to become a domestic church: a place where God's presence is felt and His name is honored.  

Indicatively, there is a moving conversation between Kristin's parents, Ragnfrid and Lavrans, that best exemplifies this purpose of family.  They, like most married couples, did not have a perfect marriage. Their union had been arranged and Lavrans was still quite young when they were joined in matrimony.  Their marriage had faced many sorrows and crosses.  Yet, at the end of their lives, their faith and struggle to live virtuously bonded them together in love.

Perhaps you may think, wife, that you've had more sorrow than joy with me; things did go wrong for us in some ways.  And yet I think we have been faithful friends.  And this is what I have thought: that afterwards we will meet again in such a manner that all the wrongs will not longer separate us; and the friendship that we had, God will build even stronger.

Aside from the glaring exception of the Holy Family, no family on earth is perfect.  

But it is exactly through these imperfections that we can practice virtue and sacrificial love and thus grow in perfection to eventually reach the heavenly family of God.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Simeon Bernadette

Usually when I meet someone for the first time, he or she will ask, "How many children to you have?"

And, of course, I reply, "One."

But that's not really true.  Chris and I have two children.

"Simeon the Righteous," by Alexey Yegorov, 1830s 
Before we were married--indeed, before we were even engaged--Chris and I had picked out around eight different names for the future children we hoped to have one day.  

From the beginning of our marriage, we hoped and prayed for the gift of a child.  In fact, when we moved to Virginia immediately after our wedding, I didn't even try looking for a job at first, since we thought there might be a baby on the way.

I naively assumed that when a couple is open to the gift of life, that gift will automatically come.  But that's not always the case.  The act of creating a new life is one that is not done exclusively by husband and wife.  No matter how much they will it to happen, it is God's Will that creates a precious new soul.  And this happens in His time, not ours.

So we waited and prayed.  Some couples wait much longer than we did, but for me, it still felt like a very long time.

You can only imagine, then, our excitement when, nine months after our wedding, the pregnancy test was positive.  I remember that February morning so clearly.  I quite literally ran around our apartment, shouting at the top of my lungs.

All day I kept thinking to myself: we have a baby.  There is a baby inside of me.  We are parents.

We decided to wait to tell my family in person.  We had already planned a visit to New York that weekend anyway, so it was perfect timing.  The entire drive Chris and I talked about the baby and began to plan for him or her.  

Needless to say, my family was likewise thrilled.  

But then, three days following the discovery of our pregnancy, we knew something was very wrong.  Chris and I went to the emergency room and I had my first ultrasound, in order to discover if they could see anything.  

Our little one was so little, however, that there was nothing to be seen.

So there followed a very long time of waiting and praying.  We left New York early and I had my blood tested to determine the level of pregnancy hormones.  Those were long days indeed, wondering if our baby were still alive.  

On February 19 I received a call from my OBGYN: the blood results were in and there was no baby any longer.  Commonly referred to as a miscarriage, the medical term for what happened is spontaneous abortion.

St. Bernadette Soubirous
We were only conscious of our first child for three days.  Though the time was short, that baby was so, so loved.  And continues to be loved.

We named our first child.  As I sat, somewhat stunned by the definitive news that our baby had passed away, I glanced at the calendar hanging by our computer desk.  There were two saints assigned to February 18 (one according to the old Church calendar, the other for the new): Saints Simeon and Bernadette.  Since we had no way of knowing our baby's sex, we decided to use both names.  

So we have two children: Simeon Bernadette and Mary.  And we love both of them.

Not a day passes that I don't think about Simeon Bernadette.  Chris and I entrust our little child to God's mercy and we believe that he or she is now with God in heaven.  I like to imagine our Blessed Mother holding Simeon Bernadette in her arms, keeping our baby close to her until the day we (hopefully) can reach heaven, too.  It is comforting to know we already have a family member there, waiting for us.

Every time we end a prayer, Chris and I invoke our child.  Simeon Bernadette, pray for us!  

I always tell Mary I love her before she goes to sleep.  As I lay my head on my pillow at night, I tell Simeon Bernadette that I love him or her, too.

While I think of Simeon Bernadette every day, my thoughts and prayers turn to him or her especially on this day, January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

I had a spontaneous abortion.  For whatever reason, something went wrong in the process of growing our child and nature automatically ceased the development.  

But I think about those women who have a deliberate abortion.  And my heart breaks for them because this is the truth: they have killed their own children.

Whether a week, a month, or six months old in the womb, abortion takes a life.  At the moment of conception everything is there that will develop into a fully grown baby.  And even more important than that genetic material is the soul.  At conception, God bestows a unique, eternal soul.  It is this union--body and soul--that creates life, creates a new human person.

And that is what it is: a person.  Just as alive and real as you and me.

Chris and I cried over the death of our Simeon Bernadette.  And today I cry for the millions of children who have died from abortion: more than all the casualties of all the wars the United States has ever fought.  

How many of those were never mourned, because they were entirely unknown?  Many oral contraceptives act as abortifacients: if an egg is released and fertilized (thus creating a new life), the oral contraceptive dries the lining of the woman's uterus, making it impossible for the new baby to implant him or herself.  Then the baby is swept away during the woman's period.  

How many women taking oral contraceptives are actually  mothers...and have no idea?  How many babies have been aborted due to oral contraceptives, their lives unrecognized and deaths unmourned?

I cry for the mothers who have abortions.  I can only believe that, in their heart of hearts, they do not realize what they are doing.  If they really, truly knew that they were killing their child--their own flesh and blood--then they wouldn't participate in an act of murder.

So this is our job, then: to help people realize that that little dot smaller than a grain of sugar is a baby...the smallest, most vulnerable, and precious gift of life at its incipient stage.  

Chris and I were in the position to welcome a gift of life.  I realize that there are many women who aren't able to have a child, for a myriad of reasons.  But that doesn't necessitate their killing that child.  

It is a day of mourning today.  It is also a realization we have our work cut out for us, especially in light of the fact that we have the most pro-abortion president in history.

For us in New York State, Gov. Cuomo introduced a radical abortion bill, which would allow more late-term abortions on fully formed infants, permit non-doctors to perform abortions, would remove reasonable restrictions such as parental notification, and could force Catholic institutions to both refer & even allow abortions onsite.  Considering that New York is the #1 state for abortions in the nation, it is reduction that is needed, not expansion.  (To send Gov. Cuomo a message opposing this bill, please see here.)

So, on this 40th anniversary marking Roe v. Wade, we grieve and we pray.  And we work to touch people's hearts and to enlighten their minds, to help them see.

A baby, 7 weeks after conception

Simeon Bernadette, pray for us!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lessons from Kristin (Part I)

"But for you it won't be the same as if you had never possessed me."

For as long as I could remember, in those final few moments of consciousness before drifting off to sleep, I would envision the day I longed for and imagined: my wedding day.

I shared this once with someone, who then questioned why this particular dream would be the one that captivated my imagination on a daily basis.  

It seemed so clear to me.  To have found that someone who I loved with all of my heart and to become one with him in every way possible--as long as we both should live--was the hope that kept me searching for my true love...all the way until May 23, 2009 when we became husband and wife.

The trials and angst of searching and finding love are timeless.  

Perhaps that is why I haven't been able to put down the trilogy by Sigrid Undset, a Nobel Prize winner in literature.  Kristin Lavransdatter is set in fourteenth century Norway, a time so very different from our own: a culture absolutely imbued with the Catholic faith, where one is bound by strict social rules, and daily life revolves around the manor.

"Arnolfini Portrait," Van Eyck, 1434

Kristin is the adored daughter of her upright father, Lavrans, who has arranged for her marriage to a very respectable young man named Simon.  While the marriage makes sense in just about every way, Kristin does not love him.  A willful and passionate woman, Kristin's decision not to marry Simon is solidified when she becomes acquainted with dark-haired, alluring Erlend.

Despite her betrothal to Simon and Erlend's promiscuous past, Kristin falls in love with Erlend--a love that is intensely passionate and much so that, while still betrothed to another man, Kristin gives herself completely to Erlend.

They are physically intimate on several occasions and, after finally securing Lavran's approval for their marriage (a very difficult feat), Kristin discovers she is pregnant--months before their marriage is to take place.

There is a powerful scene shortly after Kristin's realization about her pregnancy where a bolt of lightning strikes their parish church, which at that time was the very center of medieval society.  The church is destroyed in flames and Erlend suffers facial burns in the process.

It's a perfect representation of a major theme and lesson from the first part of this trilogy.

Kristin and Erlend are consumed with love each one another, but their love is misdirected.  It overpowers Kristin's ties to her family and even her moral code.  As they give in to their passion, they receive pleasure from the other, but simultaneously they cause misery to their family and friends...and to themselves as well.

Fire contained is useful, enjoyable, and purposeful.  Unquenchable fire is destructive and deadly.

Erlend often spoke to Kristin about the day they would one day marry, once they were able to straighten things out with her family.  Yet, Kristin knew his vision of how things would be was not compatible with the reality he was creating through his actions.  

"Erlend would be ridiculed too, just as much as she would be, or more [once their pregnancy was realized]...But he was the one who wanted this wedding, he wanted to see her as a bride wearing silk and velvet and a high golden crown; he wanted that, but he also wanted to possess her during all those sweet, secret hours.  She had acquiesced to everything...And in the end, no doubt, he would realize that no one could have both."

No, no one can have both--neither in the 14th nor the 21st century.  One cannot give oneself physically to another before they are joined at the altar and expect the wedding day of one's dreams because, as Undset weaves throughout her novel, one's wrongful actions have consequences.

Kristin and Erlend's transgression of fornication wrought devastation on their family and on the very love that prompted their misdeeds.  

As Undset describes their wedding banquet, 

"She [Kristin] sat there, unable to get warm.  Her cheeks began to burn and shivers of cold ran down her spine...Every time the bridegroom drank a toast to her, she had to look at the red blotches and patches that were so evident on his face now that he was warming up after the ride in the cold air.  They were the marks of the burns from the summer."

Kristin and Erlend were married in the Church, but they were married when in a state of severe sin.  The wedding day both of them had hoped for, they had made impossible.  Erlend's face was marked by burns from the fire, but even worse was the mark of sin upon his soul.

When thinking of their upcoming wedding, Kristin at one point remarks to Erlend, "But for you it won't be the same as if you had never possessed me."

The wedding night is intended to be the consummation of the vows of husband and wife, a definitive joining of two becoming one.  

But when that intimacy has already happened before marriage...the meaning of the physical union has been diluted and sin has tainted the couple's ability to truly love each other.

It calls to my mind a quote by St. Josemaria Escriva:

"'Purity?' they ask.  And they smile.  They are the ones who go on to marriage with worn-out bodies and disillusioned souls."

So often I found myself exasperated with Kristin.  Oh, I could understand her feelings.  I, too, remember what it was like to be madly in love, where the mere mention of your beloved's name brings a warmth to your soul and a flutter to your heart.  

But as I read on and watched Kristin sink further and further into sin--grasping for love, but compromising for pleasure--I felt such sorrow for her.  Regardless of culture, time, or place, sin always works the same way: it is a downward spiral.  Yielding once will lead to another moral dismissal and then to another.  

"What do you think of this ruse?" he [Erlend] asked quickly, in a low voice.  "Do you think I've done wrong? But I had to talk to you."  

"It won't do much good for us to think about what's right and what's wrong," said Kristin.

It isn't until she is kneeling before God, exchanging her wedding vows, that Kristin realizes the gravity of her actions.

Kristin and Erlend's relationship tells the truth that, despite all one's efforts, the wedding of one's dreams cannot take place with worn-out bodies and disillusioned souls.

Fortunately, this is only the first book in the trilogy.  There is always hope for Kristin and Erlend--and us, too--for repentance, conversion, and redemption.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Smells, Bells, and What They Tell: Holy Water

For earlier posts in this series on sacramentals, please see here, here, here, and here!

While it seems far away now that we are in the deep freeze that is winter, imagine, if you will, a blistering, scorching hot summer day.  Those were always my favorite summer days, because it set the perfect condition for swimming.  

There are few things as wonderfully refreshing as jumping into a cool body of water on a 90-degree July afternoon.  My Mom would always say that a good swim would make you feel like a new person.

Water certainly has a healing effect on us.  Whether it is a hot morning shower, a good scrubbing after soiling one's hands, or a quenching drink of ice water, we all value the gift that is water.  

For us in the United States, it's a gift that is easily taken for granted.  Just a simple turn of the tap produces clean, cool water for our use, whereas in other countries, citizens must walk for miles to wells, where the water they obtain is unsanitary to consume unless boiled first.

Water is absolutely necessary for our very survival.  But it's easy to forget that and, as I said, we can take water for granted.

Well, the same holds true--even more so, actually--in the spiritual realm.  Water (holy water) is necessary for our spiritual survival.  For, it is with water that we are baptized into the Church and become children of God.

"Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God'" (John 3:5).

So important is Baptism that Christ Himself was baptized.  Though He had no need for Baptism (Christ had no sin to wash away), He submitted to this to demonstrate to each one of us how critical it is.  

Furthermore, as Christ was ascending into heaven, He gave one final command to the apostles: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..." (Matthew 28:19).

The gift of Baptism and its abundant, life-saving effects is something we should thank God for each and every day.  

However, the value of holy water doesn't end after our Baptism day.  Holy water is a precious sacramental and one which we should avail ourselves of at every opportune moment.

A little background: holy water has very ancient roots.  For example, the Jewish people had a ceremony of purification before entering the temple.  

Holy water is a combination of water and blessed salt.  Consider the symbolism of these two united elements:

Water cleanses.  The Church wishes this sacramental to wash away sin from her children.  We think first and foremost of Baptism, in which original sin is removed from the child's soul.  However, holy water is also effective for removing venial sin!  Each time you bless yourself with holy water in a spirit of faith, God acts through that sacramental to wipe away any venial sins from your soul.  If our bodies need to be washed daily, why should not our souls as well?

Salt preserves.  The Church intermingles the salt with the water, so that the holy water will thus preserve believers from a relapse into sin.

Water quenches fire and fosters growth.  This sacramental quenches the fire of the passions and, like plants that rely upon water to grow, holy water promotes the growth of virtues.

Salt is a symbol of wisdom.  As such, it typifies Eternal Wisdom, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  Meanwhile, the water represents human nature.  Thus, the mingling of the salt and water is symbolic of the Incarnation: the Eternal Word assuming a human nature.

Whenever you enter a Catholic Church, you will find a baptismal font or holy water fonts greeting you in the vestibule.  This is very purposeful.  It teaches those who enter that they must be clean of hand and cleaner of thought and affection in order to stand in the midst of the angels who gather around the altar of the Mass...and even more so to stand amidst the Real Presence of Christ in the Tabernacle.

As you bless yourself entering the Church, you can remember with faith and devotion that this sacramental removes venial sins from your soul, thus readying you to assist at Holy Mass. You can always call to mind your Baptism, which made you a child of God and member of the Church.

Holy water isn't just for churches, however.  It is also made for your domestic church: your home!  No family should be without holy water!

We have two holy water fonts in our home.  One is placed in our bedroom.  Before going to bed at night, each family member blesses him or herself.  Upon awakening, we begin our day with a blessing.  It's readying the soul for the day's work.

Our second holy water font is stationed by the door we use to leave the house.  We bless ourselves upon exiting, asking the holy angels to watch over us, wherever we may go.  

There have been so many times we have had recourse to holy water.  

As a student, I would dip my pens or pencils in holy water before I woud leave for a big exam.  

Before handing in a paper, I would put some holy water discreetly in the corner.  

When I mailed in my applications for graduate school, I sealed the envelopes with holy water.  

When we had a long journey to take or needed to drive in a major snowstorm, we would bless our car.

In times of sickness, labor, before job interviews--we have blessed one another with holy water.

I often smile to myself when I recall my mother bringing an empty liter of soda to Easter morning Mass and filling it to the top with holy water.  But God bless her for doing so, because we always had a supply on hand.

We also keep a bottle of holy water in our car in case of emergencies.  Recalling the necessity of baptism for salvation, the Church teaches that--in a case of emergency--anyone can baptize, as long as you have water and use the proper words ("I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit").  

So, if your domestic church is missing some holy water, make a point of acquiring some and using it frequently!  Don't allow your soul to experience a draught.