Voices in the Night

Craig is gone this week on business, and Chris and I have been spending some quality time in the evenings. Around midnight last night we were watching Medium (the Hulu reruns are his new favorite program) when we heard a slow thump … thump … thump coming up the stairs.

(Now, this is exactly NOT the program you want to be watching at midnight when there is a thump, thump, thumping going on).

“I think it’s Mammy,” said Chris, peering over his blanket and not moving a muscle to investigate. (Man of the house, indeed.)

So I got up to check and, sure enough, my dear mother had crawled halfway up the staircase, pushing her box fan ahead of her. “Mom! What are you doing?” I chided.

fan“You told me to bring the fan up here,” she insisted. “I heard you.”

Now, of course I had done no such thing. But I have learned over the past two years not to argue with the voices. Gently I extracted the fan from her grip and put my arms around her, helping her up the last few steps. “Mom, let’s get you back in bed. It’s not safe for you to be climbing these stairs without your chair. Let me get it for you.”  And that is what we did.

Later that night, I got to thinking of the story of Samuel (1 Sam 3:1-11), who heard God’s voice and thought it was that of his guardian, Eli. The elderly priest was blind and had failed as a father with his own two godless sons, but he saw in this young, impressionable boy a chance at redemption. After Samuel awakened Eli twice, insisting that he had heard the priest call him twice in the night, the old man wisely advised the boy, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'” (vs. 9).

And the boy did. And God spoke again. And when young Samuel heard what the Lord had to say, he was afraid to give his mentor the message: that the Lord had turned against the house of Eli, and was utterly condemning them. And yet, Eli’s unexpected response must have reassured him: “It is the Lord. What is pleasing in the Lord’s sight, the Lord will do” (vs. 18). And Samuel became a great prophet.

Now, I’m not sure exactly what it is God is trying to say to me through this incident with the fan. Maybe it’s something as simple as, “Make better media choices, both for yourself and as an example to your kids.” Maybe it’s a warning that Mom is going to need closer supervision at night (the progression of dementia can cause nighttime hazards). Or maybe it’s just a simple invitation to spend less time watching television and more time listening for that still, small voice in the night.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

Unhand the Cheerios…

cereals in basket

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Both kids were scheduled to work this morning, so we went as a family to the five o’clock Mass at St. Pius. It was the first time we’d gone there together — gorgeous church, lovely organ music, and the homily was short, sweet, and … a little crunchy.

The priest observed that every parish in America sweeps up at least a pound of Cheerios each weekend — a kind of divine detritus (my words) left behind by parents of small children who just want to be able to pray for five minutes. Then one day as he was watching his two-year-old nephew grow frustrated over trying to play with a truck with two fistfuls of Cheerios, he said, it made him realize that Cheerios are the perfect metaphor for human desire. “God holds out the truck, and we won’t let go of the Cheerios long enough to take it. But that’s what God is asking … he wants you to let go of the Cheerios,” he explained.

I looked at my mother, sitting so intently next to me. It has been only about three weeks since our priest gave her the anointing of the sick while she was in the hospital with pneumonia — for her, it was a sacramental windfall that included first confession, first Eucharist, confirmation, and last rights. Thank God, she recovered … and has been eager to go forward to receive Jesus each week. Her eyes just light up with so much joy, you never would have guessed what a miracle it is that she was standing there at all.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that I was brought up believing Catholics aren’t “really” Christians. So to see God work it out so that my mother goes forward to receive Jesus each week is a little … strange. I’d had two aunts (one on either side of the family) who had married Catholic boys, and it didn’t end well.  (Interestingly enough, one of them — my namesake — wound up tending to my grandmother in her later years. I so admire her.)

All I know is that, for the past two years, mom has been going to church with us each week … and remaining in the pew as the rest of us went up. She would say all the prayers, and sing along to all the hymns, and listen intently as our Nigerian priest would break open the Gospel. At night I would tuck mom in and read to her from some of the books I’m currently working on, and one day she pulled out one called Catholic and Christian by Dr. Alan Schreck … and we started reading THAT.

Next thing I know, she’s telling Fr. John that she wants to be a Catholic. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s because her Catholic daughter rescued her from memory care prison. Maybe it’s because I refused to give up praying with her for her marriage. Maybe it’s because … well, maybe it’s because we were both ready to let go of the Cheerios, and hold out our hands for whatever God wanted to give us.

And so we did. And you know what? It was even better than we thought.

When Mothers Arise

IMG_4465Each year on this day Catholics all over the world remember the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the day she was taken body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. In years past, some families feasted on raspberry shortcake and adorn their statues with rose garlands. Others decorated balloons with images of the Blessed Mother, and launched them heavenward.

Sadly, this isn’t a year for such celebrations. The most recent news reports outlining the depravity of some very bad men at the highest level of the Church has traumatized the Catholic community. The outraged responses are wholly understandable and natural. Sadly, all the outrage in the world is not going to fix this problem.

Last night I attended the vigil Mass at Queen of Peace, delighted to see both my children singing in the choir — something they had reluctantly agreed to after I told them it was the only birthday present I wanted this year. Even so, they grumbled … but they went. As I watched them that night, I was reminded again of the great influence women hold in the lives of their families to inspire goodness in their children.

I also thought about the redemptive power of a mother’s love to make wrongs right, and to guide her children to repentance. While we were in Rwanda, attending an open-air Mass, during communion the religious sisters in front of us left their seats to distribute the consecrated hosts. During that time, a man came and swiped this sister’s purse (pictured above) and tried to make off with it … and was promptly taken into custody by vigilant security. At first he glared about him, defiant. Then, when the sister returned and learned what had happened, she said not a word. She just turned and looked at the man full in the face. He crumbled into a chair and covered his face. Then she sat beside him and began speaking gently to him. (I don’t know what was said — she was speaking in Kinyarwanda). As he was being led away, I thought about the way her mother’s heart had touched him and inspired him to recognize and regret the wrong he had done.

I don’t know exactly how this applies to our current crisis, except to say that a mother’s heart is a powerful force for change. Frankly, I don’t know if it is even possible to exact true justice through the judicial system we have today … I sincerely doubt it, based on our own experiences with the juvenile justice system (ironically, in Pennsylvania). What I do know is that true repentance and conversion is possible only in hearts that are open and unguarded, who love God more than they love themselves. Men who love their Mother enough to be willing to endure any trial in service to her. If there is going to be true change in the hearts of those who lead our Church, it will come only as they are drawn once more to fall in love with God, and with their Blessed Mother. That is where they will find the strength to do what must be done … and to stay the course.

My friends, as we continue to pray for God’s will in this ongoing battle for the souls of both perpetrators and their victims, on this day of the Assumption I will be praying that the love of Our Blessed Mother will arise and blanket the earth afresh, and that we will all find the courage and humility to seek not simply justice, but true healing and reconciliation. Our Lord promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church. We must remember that those gates swing both ways — and that the forces of destruction can come from without as well as from within. Lord willing, so will the forces of healing and reconciliation.

Our Lady of the Assumption, Arise! Spread your mantle of love over us, and pray for us, that we will soon be able to proclaim the Good News with pure and loving hearts. Amen.

Life Juggles: Multigenerational Family Edition

When you’re living in a multigenerational household, sometimes it helps to know where those teenage “aces” are kept … especially on business trips. (Please pray they’ll hold on till Wednesday!)

Extraordinary Moms Network

3gen.jpgWhat do you do when your husband calls in the middle of a work-related event, in Chicago, and says that your mother needs help getting on her jammies, in South Bend?

Why, you ask to speak to your daughter, of course. “But she’s already gone to bed,” he hedges nervously. I can’t see his face, but I can read the subtext clear as day: “PLEASE don’t make me go in there!” (*sigh*)

“Put her on the phone, honey.” Noises and loud protestations ensue in the background. True to form, said teenager comes to the phone snarling. “WHAT?!”

“Sweetie,” I say through clenched teeth. “Do you remember the talk we had before I left that you needed to help get Mammie ready for bed while I’m gone?”

“I’m sleeping.”

Time for the big guns. “So… You want DAD to go down there and help her get dressed? How do you think Mammie…

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Gladys Aylward: A Heart for China

Last week I had the chance to speak to a group of local women — and my mother, who had never heard me speak in public until then — about a group of women I’ve come to regard as my spiritual mothers: Women whose example led me, as surely as Moses led the Chosen People to the Promised Land, to where I am today. They (clockwise from upper left): My confirmation namesake, Amy Carmichael; Gertrude “Biddy” Chambers, widow of Oswald Chambers; Gladys Aylward; Mother Teresa; Elisabeth Elliot; and Corrie. ten Boom. (I’ve linked each of their names to my favorite books by or about them, in case you’d like to learn more.)

Like Moses, most of them did not “cross over,” as I did, into the Catholic Church (Mother Teresa is the only professed Catholic among them). And yet, each of them left an indelible stamp upon my spirit through their lives and writings.

Tonight mom and I finished reading the book about Gladys Aylward, the British missionary to China (1902-1970), whose story was retold (with great liberties) in the movie The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. After twenty years preaching the Gospel to teems of people suffering under Communist oppression, she felt the Lord call her back home. At first she was incredulous — she had by that time become a Chinese citizen, dressing like them, eating like them, even thinking like them. And yet, she said,

“England, seemingly so prosperous while other countries passed through terrible suffering at the hands of Communist domination, had forgotten what was all-important — the realization that God mattered in the life of a nation no less than in that of an individual…. I knew that I must go back to the land of my birth. I must return to do what I could to dispel the spiritual lethargy that had overtaken so many. I must testify to the great faith of the Chinese church. I must let people know what great things God has done for me” (The Little Woman, 136).

This was nearly fifty years ago, and yet not much has changed. The “underground” Church of faithful Christians continues to suffer and to struggle, and even to die.

Pray with me for the Holy Father, for the Christians in China … and for all those on the front lines, who seek to ease the suffering of the “least of these” who continue to suffer simply for naming the Blessed Name. Mother Gladys, pray for us, that we might not be afraid to stand with your beloved people.

Another much admired figure, from the Civil War era at Notre Dame, I’d like to write about one day: Sister Angela Gillespie.

When God’s Will Hurts

Today I am sitting at a desk that used to be my home-away-from-home three years ago, when I worked for this company full time. I’m here to attend a Christmas party before going to pick up my mom from her daycare facility.

nativity-447767About an hour ago, I was standing outside in the cold, unable to get into the building because — as a contract employee — I had no way to access the building. No keypad code. No card. For the first time, I felt the full weight of what it means to be a contract employee. This was reinforced when someone finally let me in — through the delivery door. (I should point out that this was doubtless not the intention — it was simply that everyone was gathered for the meeting. Most days, I really love the arrangement. It was just unfortunate timing!)

Sitting here at the desk, I ask myself why this bothers me so much. Last week when I found out my application to become an employee again had been passed over in favor of someone else, my immediate reaction (and my reaction for several days after that) was relief. This meant I could keep working from home, and could have a flexible schedule. I was confident that this was the hand of God, arranging everything in the best interest of all his children.

It was just today, standing out in the cold and waiting for someone to see me, that I felt another, darker side: as a contract worker, I don’t really belong, not like I used to. And in that moment, I realized something else: that sometimes following the will of God — even when you know in your head it is the right way — can sting. When Simeon saw Mary in the Temple, holding the infant Jesus, his words to her were a dire warning: “a sword shall pierce your heart.” She had surrendered unconditionally to the will of God.

Still, she had been warned, the way will not always be lined with palm branches and dancing shepherds. One day, that way will involve a cross. One day, she will feel like an outsider — out in the cold, people staring, judging, pitying. She will be the mother of a criminal executed in the most horrific way possible. She will be an outcast by association.

And so, my friends, will you. Because following God’s will always entails a cross. Jesus promised it: “If anyone comes after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me.”

That wood that once shaped a manger, is the same substance that shaped a cross. And the way that God calls us to follow from the moment of baptism, and again at confirmation … will entail the sufferings that are necessary for us to grow in perfect love.

Mary, Queen of Sorrows, pray for us.

 

 

 

Day 4: Blessed Abundance

Missionary life, like motherhood, is not a 9-5, M-F proposition. The tiny routines of our lives — the feeding and tending and being fully present — are part of each day’s experience. They are part of us.

For the past few days, my tiny routines have changed. As a mother of two teenagers, I’ve swapped out nagging and exasperation for the gentle rhythms of swaddling and rocking, of returning to a kind of childhood where I struggle to make myself understood, as the adults around me patiently try to figure out what it is I want. It’s humbling, yet a bit liberating — I’ve had more sleep these past four days than in the last four years.

marketToday we took a break from sorting clothing donations to go into the city to the farmer’s market. The stalls lined a city block (both sides), with multicolor produce of every imaginable shape and color. I counted six kinds of fruit I could not name (in English OR Spanish), plus one kind of green vegetation that looked a bit like collard greens and smelled exactly like cilantro. Locally made cheese and meats (the slaughter house is just down the street from the Center), and roasted coconut completed the shopping.

While it is possible to buy the chips and chocolates and fast food that is so freely available at home, somehow I just can’t bring myself to eat it — not when so much of this good stuff is readily available. It’s too hot to eat vast quantities of food — I just keep chugging the agua con limone. Oh, and today at lunch we had lemonade with ginger. Yum.

Back at the Center, it’s nearing naptime. I assemble a fruit salad and make a cheese plate – the perfect lunch after a day on the town. No sooner have I had the last bite, I hear the cries of an infant who does NOT want to sleep, thank you very much. Tia Heidi to the rescue. Runny nose and teary eyes, the little one smiles through his tears as he looks up at me. He, too, has discovered the joy of simple abundance … of the new lady with the ample bosom who never tires of taking him in her arms and rocking him to sleep. Once I have him finally settled, the next one decides it’s his turn … and a third smacks himself in the head and starts wailing at my feet, determined not to be left out of the besos.

adorationNow, I’m not saying that life at the Center isn’t without its challenges – the on again, off again plumbing; the lack of electrical outlets to charge my cell phone, the language barriers, the stifling heat and mosquitos. But there is blessed abundance as well — the new friends, the delicious sleep under the mosquito netting, the daily Rosary (a ten-year-old girl named Lola is teaching me), the early mornings when I venture by bus to the center of town to offer prayers for the work of the Mission, and watch as local Christians gently stroke the tabernacle like the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment. Above all, the opportunity to slow down enough to breathe and sleep and revel in the gentle simplicity of life. And I thank God for the blessings of such blessed abundance.