Monday, July 8, 2013

Just the Two...Three...Four of Us

It seems like most individuals and families have a special summer spot.

As a child, my favorite summer location was our grandmother's camp, located on a lake in the Berkshires.  

Later childhood, when our family bought a pool, it was our backyard where I spent hours swimming and balancing on top of our whale float.  

In college and afterward, it was the elementary school playground down the road where I would watch the sunset dip past the rolling hills--the spot where Chris would later propose to me.

Summer has always been my favorite season, by far, and perhaps it was because of these meaningful locations.  

The past couple of years, since our Mary entered our lives, we didn't really have a summer destination of choice...until this year!  Our special family summer spot is the local town beach.

Though I grew up five minutes from here, I never actually visited this particular beach (perhaps because my parents live in a different town from us, despite the close proximity).  So when Chris, Mary, and I visited Snyder's Lake, it was a new experience for all three of us.  And all three of us absolutely loved it.

Only ten minutes from our house, it's the perfect spot to go right after Sunday morning Mass.  At that time, the beach is just about empty.  The water is pristinely clear, the picnic tables where we have our lunch perfectly shaded by tall pine trees, and the slides at the playground wonderfully fast for a toddler.

That was my destination yesterday.  Chris was occupied that morning, so it was just the girls.  Mary and I packed our bags, donned our swimsuits, lathered on the sunscreen, and hit the beach.

The two of us couldn't have asked for a better morning.

I took Mary into the deep water where we swam together, her arms clasped around my neck.  The water was wonderfully cool in the hot sunshine.  Then we worked diligently with our shovels and pails to create a sand "birthday cake," complete with stick candles.  After one more dip in the water, we walked hand-in-hand to our usual picnic table, where we shared some leftover pizza and split a banana.

It was such a special morning for us, mother and daughter.  I always spend a good amount of time with Mary, but most of it is occupied with things to do--chores, cooking, gardening, errands.  But yesterday was just being together: laughing, playing, chatting.  

I think it hit me when I was holding her in the water, encouraging her to kick: things won't be like this next summer.  Even more: things won't be like this come October.

I immediately felt guilty for thinking this.  Of course, of course, of course I am supremely grateful and excited and happy for our baby boy on the way.  I cannot wait to see his face and to know which features of his come from Chris or from me.  I want to smell that singular newborn baby scent, to touch those little fingers and toes, to baby-wear and nurse once again.

But amidst all these desires and emotions was the realization that a big change is coming to our household and the relationships we know now will indeed be altered: changed for the good, but changed nevertheless.

It's so easy for me to give Mary my full attention now--to take her places we can explore together, to read her a story at her request, to have her cuddle in my arms each night and each morning before leaving bed.  And we've enjoyed so many precious times together, such as yesterday morning at Snyder's Lake, times in which we have developed such a beautiful, loving bond.

As much as I sincerely welcome the change in the form of a new family member, part of me was feeling the loss of a family of three.  

It brought to my mind the time before Mary's birth.  

I knew that the "honeymoon" phase of our marriage was going to come to a grinding halt with her entrance into the world.  I similarly felt the loss of what Chris and I had enjoyed, just the two of us.  I was concerned that the closeness and special moments we had shared as newlyweds would soon disappear.  No longer could we walk hand-in-hand as we always had: now there was a diaper bag and carseat to carry.

As I reflected upon all of this, I realized that, yes indeed, Chris and my relationship was changed by Mary's birth; it was changed for the better.  

Could we spend peaceful, uninterrupted hours gazing into each other's eyes?  Talk whenever one of us needed to?  Plan a romantic evening at a moment's notice?

No.  But when we did gaze into each other's eyes, it was with a deeper understanding of the other.  When we did talk, it was to share the excitement of our child, the incarnation of our married love.  And those moments of conversation were so much more treasured and valued, never taken for granted as they once were before Mary's birth.  As for the spark of romance, seeing Chris not only as my husband, but as the father of our child, only increased my esteem for him and deepened my love and attraction.

Our Lord says, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12: 24).

When Chris and I welcomed Mary into our family, something did die: there was no longer two.  "Two" alone had died; we were now three.  

But that death brought forth so much life, so much love--much more than Chris and I ever could have produced on our own, without Mary.  Mary helped us to love in ways we never knew before.  And while there are times I miss those newlywed moments, I would never exchange them for even a moment spent with Mary.

And so last night this is how I reassured myself.  Yes, something in my relationship with Mary will die when our baby boy arrives on the scene.  No longer can I give her my undivided attention and the times when we can spend together--just mother and daughter--will be much fewer.  And that will be sad and an adjustment, to be certain.

But our baby boy will give her something I never, ever could give her, as hard as I might try.  He will teach her even more how to love: that love isn't receiving, but giving of oneself.  That there is someone beside her who needs our attention and care.  He will teach her selflessness and responsibility; no longer is she the neediest member of the family.  Now she, with us, will need to care for our little boy.

This is what love does.  Love is never content to be as is--it must always grow.  

So the love of husband and wife doesn't rest between the two of them, gazing upon each other.  That love shifts from each other to the new life produced from their self-giving union of one flesh. 

And then love isn't content simply to gaze upon the eldest child as he or she grows from newborn to baby to toddler to child.  It brings forth another incarnation of marital love, another little soul to raise and to care for.  

Together, these relationships of giving and receiving, teach the family about the deepest meaning of love, revealing He who is Love itself.

When our little boy arrives outside the womb, he will change our family.  He will help each one of us give a little more selflessly, to love a little more generously.  In that way, we will sanctify each other and bring each other closer to our true homeland that is heaven.  

It will be a challenge, as is all change.  And I will have to be very cognizant about passing the newborn off to Chris to still give Mary some special mother-daughter time--time I will be in need of, too.  

But, as Blessed (soon-to-be Saint!) Pope John Paul II said, the greatest thing that parents can give their child is another sibling.  I thank God for giving this gift--the gift of our baby-in-the-womb--to our family, and to Mary.

Last night, as I kissed her goodnight, Mary said, "I had fun playing at the beach with you."  It will always be a precious memory to me, too...and--God-willing--how many more memories lie ahead for the four of us!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Lessons from the Scarlet Pimpernel

This week we celebrate our nation's independence, which was secured through the American Revolution.

But not all revolutions are cause to celebrate and not all have such happy endings.

"...that seething, bloody Revolution which was overthrowing a monarchy, attacking a religion, destroying a society, in order to try and rebuild upon the ashes of tradition a new Utopia, of which a few men dreamed, but which none had the power to establish."

It's France in 1792.  The French Revolution is in full-swing and will soon develop into the Reign of Terror, a period from 1793-1794 in which the radical, secular republic became more and more militaristic and authoritarian.  

In an effort to rid France of all traces of traditional aristocracy, anyone with relation to an aristocratic family of old was subject to the guillotine.  Bloodline alone made one guilty of a deadly crime.

In the name of "liberty, equality, and fraternity," somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000 people were killed, including as many as 2,000 priests--in an effort to de-Christianize the nation.

This is the setting of the fast-paced page-turner The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy.  

A scarlet pimpernel is a small flower native to Britain.  It is also the alias adopted by a daring, crafty, and courageous Brit who, with his small comrade of devoted followers, helps those condemned to the guillotine to escape.

The central question of the novel is: Who is the Scarlet Pimpernel?  Who is this brave hero?  As one of the main characters quaintly puts it:

"We seek him here, we seek him there.  Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.  Is he in heaven?--Is he in hell?  That demmed, elusive Pimpernel."

A scarlet pimpernel
I will be very careful not to disclose the big reveal.  But it seems the shadowy figure of this gallant man and his enigmatic identity point to one of the main themes running through the novel: blindness.

It is indeed a blindness that leads a nation to condemn thousands of citizens--"guilty" only of their birth name--to death in the name of freedom.  But the blindness is even deeper: this bloodbath became a kind of sport and a crowd gathered daily for the great fun of watching the aristocrats sent to death.

"And daily, hourly, the hideous instrument of torture claimed its many victims--old men, young women, tiny children, even until the day when it would finally demand the head of a King and of a beautiful young Queen.  But this was as it should be: were not the people now the rulers of France?"

It is a blindness, too, to believe that man can be perfectly free by eliminating traditional authority.  In this world, man will never be fully free--man's freedom is naturally limited due to original sin and no amount of revolution or bloodshed will be able to overthrow those bonds.  

As Pope Pius VI wrote at the time of the French Revolution, "...what could be more insane than to establish among men this unbridled reason..."

It is the blindness that we are all prone to, due to our pride and prejudices, that allows the Scarlet Pimpernel to be successful.  Often his disguises are so unassuming and disparate to the popular notion of "hero," that he goes undetected by the authorities of the French Revolution...and even to those closest to him.

I highly recommend this book!  It was a short read and has history, romance, suspense, and action, all packed into one.

In recognizing the blindness rampant in the leaders of the French Revolution, as well as the main characters who fail to see the Scarlet Pimpernel right before them, one is compelled to examine the areas and relationships in one's own life that might need the light of truth.

...And it is a sobering reminder that, while our dear United States was founded on principles of inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must always safeguard and protect the precious freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights--especially in the current times when certain, pivotal freedoms are in danger: the right to life for all, especially the unborn and the elderly, and religious freedom.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Essence of God

This past Saturday I was blessed to attend two talks by the prominent Catholic theologian Dr. Scott Hahn, professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and well-known convert to Catholicism.

I'd like to share with you my notes from these two talks, as I have some friends who were unable to attend in person...and because it helps me process what he presented when I review my notes once again!

So just to reiterate: I am simply reiterating!  The below theological insights belong exclusively to the gifted Dr. Hahn; I am merely passing them along for your benefit!

Dr. Hahn's talk focused on the very nature of God.  What is the essence of God?  Who is God?  How do you even begin to define or explain God's nature?

The answer is the highest of all the mysteries of faith: the mystery of the Trinity--one God in three divine persons.  The Trinity is a mystery that goes beyond human logic and reason. However, it is not opposed to logic and reason.

Consider the natural world.  There are natural mysteries.  Take, for example, light.  What is light?  What is the essence or nature of light?  It's a mystery!

So as there are natural mysteries, so there are supernatural mysteries--the greatest of these being the mystery of the Trinity.

Blessed Pope John Paul II told the faithful that we must discover God for who He is.  Instead of always asking God for things (something I need to work on!), we should be praying: God, help me to know you!

The dogma of the Blessed Trinity sheds some light on this and helps us understand a little clearer who God is.  

Because God is one in three, we know that the essence of God is not solitude.  

Given that, what could we say is the very essence of God?  Any guesses?

Dr. Hahn's response: family.  The essence of God, of the Holy Trinity, is family.

God has fatherhood.  God has sonship.  And God has the central part of the family, which is interpersonal love--so much so, in fact, that it is the third divine person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit.

God is a family.  God is definitional family.

All earthly families, by contrast, are shadows or figures of the true, perfect family that is God.  Chris, Mary, and I are like a family; God is a family.

"But wait," some might protest.  Fatherhood is earthly and finite.  Same with sonship.  Isn't it blasphemous to attribute to God these human titles and relationships?

Well, consider this, Dr. Hahn encourages.  God is omniscient, or all-knowing.  We humans know, too, just not perfectly.  God is omnipotent, or all-powerful.  God delegates some of this power, to a much lesser extent, to us humans.  God is also omnibenevolent, or all-loving.  We love, just not perfectly.  So, working analogously, God's fatherhood is perfect and we humans share in this fatherhood, though imperfectly.

It's amazing to think how radical and extreme a change Jesus launched in world religion when He called God, "Abba" or, "Daddy."  And yet, God is the perfect Father.  He is "our Father."

Dr. Hahn then related an experience he had while at Mass one Sunday morning.  There was a religious sister who began Mass (right there you know there's trouble brewing) by praying the Sign of the Cross.  However, instead of praying in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, she said, "In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier."

Well, these titles are okay.  They are accurate.  But these names describe what God does, not who God is.  The purpose of Mass is to worship God and we worship Him for who He is--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The word "Father" is more than just a noun; it is a verb.  The Father is eternally generating.  The Son is eternally begotten and is forever returning everything back that the Father has bestowed upon Him.  The Son images the Father by returning the same gift of life and love given to Him--the gift of life and love, which is the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Hahn then spent some time reflecting on those names that describe what God does: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Let's take "Creator" first.  In Genesis 1:26 God says, "Let us make man in our image."  (Note the plural use of "us" and "our"!)  And how was it that God made man in "our image?"  As male and female.

Remember: God is not solitude.  So when He made man in the image and likeness of God, He made man as a family--as man and woman, husband and wife.

The primordial image of God is this marital convenant.  Just as God is one in three, in marriage two become one.  And that one flesh union of husband and wife brings forth a third person, a child, who is the incarnation of their marital love.  

It's amazing to consider that the essence of God as family unveils the mystery of marital love.  This one line was perhaps what struck me most during Dr. Hahn's talk: "There is nothing I can do with my body that makes me more like God than by renewing the covenant of marital love."  

In other words, every time husband and wife join together as one flesh, they are doing with their bodies the act that makes them most like God.  

And if that's true, if the sexual act is the act that makes husband and wife most like God, then it's clear how holy and sacred that physical action truly is.  By extension, we can sadly state in all honesty that this holy act is frequently desecrated in our culture and society.

So what about "Redeemer?"

Dr. Hahn made a striking contrast that illuminated a frequent misunderstanding about Christ's redemption (one, I must admit, I have fallen to as well).  He stated that Christ didn't just "buy us back."  It was something more than just broken laws and forgiving the sin committed from those transgressions.

Here are two short examples revealing the difference, excellently narrated by Dr. Hahn.

Let's say we have a prisoner in jail.  He is suffering from a severe illness, sentenced to a life-term, and is millions of dollars in debt.  One day the mayor of town approaches him and says that he is pardoned of his crime and is set free.  

This is good, of course, but doesn't change the fact that the gentleman is still sick and is hardly free due to his crippling debt.  The man is technically forgiven and he is released from prison, but this isn't necessarily the best-case scenario for him.

On the other hand, let's say the mayor comes to the prisoner with this announcement: the man is pardoned of his crime and when he leaves the prison, there will be a doctor waiting for him who has a healing remedy that will cure his illness.  Furthermore, the mayor has paid all his outstanding debts.  Lastly, there will be a limo awaiting the prisoner, which will transport him to the mayor's own house where the prisoner will now live, as the mayor has adopted him as his very son.

Jesus indeed paid our debt, a debt He did not owe.  But He did more than this: He gave us a spirit of love to heal us and to bring us home.  He made us part of His family.  We weren't merely brought out of hell, the eternal prison; we were brought home.

Finally, the Sanctifier.  How does the Holy Spirit sanctify, or make holy?  Through the Catholic Church.  To be apart from the Church is to apart from the family of God.  

This family is most evident at Mass.  Every time we gather for Mass as a family, heaven comes to earth.  The Holy Spirit unites us as one in the Eucharist, which is a share in Christ's own sonship.  Through Baptism and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of the Father.

When we call a priest "father," we are reminded that fatherhood isn't--at its core--earthly.  Fatherhood is spiritual, is heavenly.  The priests who give their life in service to the Church are truly "breadwinners": they give us the supersubstantial bread that is the Eucharist.

Dr. Hahn concluded his talk on the Trinity by relating an experience with one of his newborn children and how, one night while rocking his son, he was overwhelmed with the love he had for this child of his.  

It's a feeling to which, if you are a parent, I'm sure you can relate.  I, too, remember nursing and rocking Mary and being astounded by the depth and power of love I had for this child, who was so powerless and so needy.

Analogously, that's what we are in the arms of our Father.  The love that we can have, as parents for our children, is just a mere shadow of the love the perfect Father has for His children.  

It's humbling and astounding.  And it's the kind of thought that makes a prayer rise out from one's soul: "God, help me to know who you are."