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.
Thursday, December 15, 2022
Wednesday, October 12, 2022
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.
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.
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.
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
“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?
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
Monday, July 11, 2022
Friday, June 3, 2022
Do I believe this enough to die for it?
In the future world of I Am Margaret by Corinna Turner, every citizen is Sorted at the age of eighteen. All young men and women must take a series of standardized tests. Those who pass are labeled New Adults; those who do not achieve a high enough score are “reAssigned.”
Margaret Verrall’s fate seems sealed: with numeric dyslexia, she can’t expect to score high enough on the math exam, despite her excellent results in the other subjects. As suspected, Margo is sent as a reAssignee to the Facility where she will spend the rest of her days exercising and getting her body into peak form. After that, those in charge will march her into the Lab where she will be dismantled, her organs harvested for use for someone more worthy of them. This world of the future takes our current society’s disrespect for life and carries it to its natural end.
To know there is nothing more to it. That a dead body is made up of only two things—useful parts and useless parts. That the human race is made up of the same—useful people and useless people.
Margo summons her Catholic faith to comfort and sustain her. She and her family belong to the Underground, the secret community of believers; in this dystopian world, Christianity and religious practice are forbidden, since their moral tenets obviously oppose the culture of death around them. Margo prays her rosary and her fiance, Bane, even manages to catapult a consecrated Host over the Facility’s wall so she can receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday (a nice gesture, but troubling as it seems disrespectful to handle the Eucharist in that way).
Still, after being forced to watch a family friend, Father Peter, undergo the cruelest punishment of all (Conscious Dismantlement), Margo struggles with one of her daily prayers. She has a hard time telling God that she will accept death, in whatever form He Wills it.
O Lord, I now, at this moment, accept whatever kind of death it may please You to send me, with all its pains and sorrows.
This is Margo’s internal conflict throughout the novel while the outer conflict involves forming a plan to escape the Facility. Escape becomes especially critical when Margo secretly enters the government’s annual contest: this year, a creative writing challenge. Margo sees this as an opportunity to tell the truth of her story, to help the people of her world understand that she has value and worth beyond her physical organs.
And this is the simple truth. I am Margaret. I am just like you. If I were not, you would not be going to kill me.
But when she wins the contest and the truth is in print, her life hangs in the balance. Can her fiance help her and the others escape before Margo faces Dismantlement herself? And if she finds herself strapped down to a bed, the Doctor at hand to cut her open and remove her organs, does she have the moral courage to stay true to her faith or will she deny her beliefs in order to preserve her earthly life?
I Am Margaret is a heart-pounding read, especially the final third of the book, which I found particularly gripping and suspenseful. I admired Margo’s fortitude, selflessness, and leadership. I also appreciate how Turner aptly and poignantly incorporates other-abled characters, especially Jonathan, a blind young man, and Sarah, who has a mental disability. Turner does a good job pacing the narrative, too, placing dramatic events right where they are needed to jolt the reader’s sense of security.
That said, I found aspects of the book disagreeable—both on a pragmatic as well as moral level. The book would have profited from professional editing because the grammatical and punctuation errors distracted from the story (strange sentence structures, incorrect use of semicolons and commas, words missing, fragments functioning as sentences). I also felt annoyed by the overuse of character names (when you are having a conversation with someone, you don’t usually use their name to their face repeatedly) and the abundant italicizations.
On a more serious note, parts of the plot puzzled me. Why would the government not actually read Margo’s book before it went to publication? Additionally, Margo’s fiance is not Catholic; he doesn’t belong to any religion actually and even aggressively tried to persuade Margo not to be Confirmed. Here is just one exchange between the two:
“You know, sometimes I get very jealous of those bits of crisp bread,” Bane would say, if I lamented too strenuously the missing of a Sunday Mass due to lack of priest. “It’s not bread, Bane, it’s Our Lord, you know that.”
Yet, Margo never addresses this throughout the novel. Wouldn’t she express concern about the salvation of his soul? Or wouldn’t this create more conflict between the two?
The narrative bordered on gory at parts—perhaps it has too vivid imagery and description for some more sensitive readers. Other times the writing was downright crass. Consider this sentence just as one example:
And to give the fear the finger, I decided I would say the Act of Acceptance.
To me, this reads like a kind of desecration. How can a person pray while simultaneously profaning?
Also troubling are the many times that Margo places herself in situations of near occasion of sin. Jonathan, the blind boy, is moved to the girl’s room since the boys are too violent (which seems to be another plot hole—why are all the boys like this?). In order to disguise the fact that he is Catholic (and thus, avoid explaining why he won’t fornicate with any of the girls), Jonathan and Margo share the same bed at night. Although nothing seriously wrong happens between them, things are not entirely chaste either and the farce becomes more than just pretend as attraction between them escalates.
My body felt oddly hot as his bulk hovered over me in the dark. “I would have you safe…” he murmured, and his fingers moved to caress my tingling lips…
Margo’s thoughts are not chaste either:
What’d it said in that latest EuroGov pamphlet on spotting dangerous Underground members? ‘A freakish disinterest in sexual intercourse’? Hah, in their dreams! If I got out of here, Bane and a bed were pretty high on my list of priorities. Via a priest, of course.
When my children are teenagers, this is not the kind of thing I would like them to read.
So, while I appreciated and enjoyed the premise of I Am Margaret, I found serious problems with several aspects of the writing and the plot.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on martyrdom. I’ve often wondered if I would have the fortitude to stand firm in my faith, even if doing so meant a gruesome death. I find comfort in Our Lord’s words that the Holy Spirit will come to our aid in such an instance.
I’ve also thought about the kinds of martyrdom. Not many of us are called to capital “M” Martyrdom: the actual sacrificing of our life for the faith. Yet all of us are called to lower case “m” martyrdom: the daily witness of denying ourselves, resisting temptation, and choosing the right (often harder) path … the picking up of our cross. The truth is that we should die to self every day, in all the small inconveniences, pinpricks, and annoyances. It’s this little martyrdom that trains the soul for the greatest Martyrdom to which any of us might be called.