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.

Advertisements

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.

Do you avoid confession?

confessionIf you don’t mind, I’d like to take a bit of a break from #40DayChallenge to share a special announcement.

Today over at “Reconciled to You” Allison Gingras is hosting the monthly BLOG HOP.

If you have ever dreaded heading into the sacrament, you might join the hop and meet some kindred souls.

At Extraordinary Moms Network, I recall my first experience with confession in which I argue with the priest.

At her blog “Single Mom Smiling,” Strahlen says:

I may never be as pure as Saint Faustina, as sacrificing as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, as selfless as Saint Maximilian Kolbe, as strong as Saint Joseph, or as unstained as Mary, but that’s not who I am called to be. I am called to be me … but closer to God than I thought I could be.

Meanwhile, at “Reconciled to You,” Allison posted this lighthearted moment at “Confession of a Confession Chicken.” She writes:

I blessed myself and jumped right in. “Forgive me Father for I have sinned. It has been about 6 months since my last confession and here are my sins.”  Only a few into my list when the priest interjected, “excuse me are you the woman who has come to start the new youth group.”   Um, crap. I was. Now what?

I felt like I had 2 options –YES options. One, I could lie. Then start back my confession with, “I lied one time just now to you,” or I could go the more sensible route, own up to the fact I have a very recognizable voice (I refuse to believe those screens don’t actually hide my identity), and get on with it.

That one made me chuckle … and was pretty consoling. No matter how bad my “laundry list,” I have yet to have a priest call me out by name!

Do you have a favorite confession story? Share it here!

Rest in God

sleeping-dogsYesterday the W.I.N.E. blog posted a short article called “Shepherd of My Heart,” about the need every soul has to rest in the mercy of God. (It’s a short, easy read – a slice of life from the Saxton household featuring Maddie, our Aussie shepherd.)

Like any good parent, God is relentless in his love and care for us — perhaps especially when we are struggling. Today’s first reading reminds us of another side of God, the disciplinarian who loves us too much to let us remain ensnared by sin.

Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin.

Say not: “Great is his mercy;…

My many sins he will forgive.”

For mercy and anger alike are with him;

Upon the wicked alights his wrath.

Delay not your conversion to the LORD,

Put it not off from day to day.

Sirach 5:1-8

None of us knows for sure how much time she has on the  hourglass of life. Life is fleeting and fragile, and eternity is forever. The good news is that God has provided a way for us to rid ourselves of the toxic habits and unwanted burdens we carry, cleansing us in the sacrament of reconciliation and strengthening us in the Eucharist. Those who are sick and suffering can also avail themselves of the graces of the sacrament of anointing, to give them strength for the journey.

We need not fear death. Something greater is in store for each of us if we spend our lifetime following Christ. So rest in God . . . and keep short accounts.

God bless you! Pray for me as I head to Minneapolis for the W.I.N.E. conference on Saturday!

Blessed Imperfection

confirmationTonight we celebrated our daughter’s confirmation — an event that, until fairly recently, I wasn’t sure would take place. The small details — who would be the sponsor, when we didn’t know many people at this parish was near the top of the list — were overwhelming, not to mention the thought that the bishop would actually be looking at her. It was all too much.

But we found the perfect dress, and we pierced her ears, and we worked on her workbook, and her brother agreed to be her sponsor … and somehow, miracle of miracles, it all came together. She chose Mary, wanting the Blessed Mother herself to be her friend for life. What’s not to love about that?

There were still a few blips. At the last minute her best friend couldn’t come, and her favorite sitter didn’t remember, and all our family lives far away. And so it was just me and Craig sitting in the pew, beaming proudly as our kids walked up the aisle. And just as we got to the front of the line where we were going to have our picture taken with the bishop, we were told that he had taken his last family picture – only confirmandi and sponsors. I’ll admit, it stung a little. But as we watched the picture snap, and Sarah’s eyes lit up, I realized these little bits of imperfection really don’t matter that much. The point is, those confirmation graces could start flowing in earnest.

A bit later, a friend of mine and I were talking about our “bucket list,” and when I said I always wanted to walk the Camino, she heartily agreed. That is, until I told her that I’d do it on a moped, if necessary. “Oh, no!” she was horrified. “Do it right, or not at all!”

I had to chuckle. If I’ve learned nothing else as a parent, it’s that life is filled with blessed imperfections. That if you wait for everything to be perfect, you miss it. Sometimes, in fact, the blessedness is IN the tiny, little flaws that wear away the patina of perfection. It’s what we remember, what we celebrate.

Because in our hearts, we know we are imperfect, too.

Happy Confirmation, dear Mary. We love you!

 

31 Days of De-Stressed Living, Day 30: Zebra Girl!

az_zebrasWhen I think of zebras, I immediately think “black-and-white.” Black-and-white thinking can be extremely stress-inducing. (Unless we’re talking about cookies, fresh from the Reading Terminal Market or Zabars Bakery. Those are stress-lifting, served with a proper cup of tea to cut the sweetness.)

But on zebras, those black-and-white stripes serve a purpose that is most fully realized when the zebras stick together. While no two sets of stripes are exactly alike (stripes on zebras are a bit like fingerprints on humans), when a herd of zebras stand close together, their stripes camouflage the individuals, making it harder for predators to attack.

What’s more, when predators do attack, the injured zebra is surrounded by the others, who band together to drive off the predator. For that reason, zebras do not sleep away from the herd; they depend on the safety of the group.

Are we really so different? When God said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” he was pointing to the simple truth that one of the ways we reflect his image and likeness is that we are intrinsically social, designed to be in community with others. For women, it’s especially important to find the society of other women.

We are Zebra Girls: Individually, our stripes make us beautiful … yet we are strongest with the support of those whose stripes are like our own.

Recently I received a note from an old friend, whose absence from my life has been particularly difficult this past year. I had tried to reach out, tried to reconnect, but something had come between us. In time, I realized I needed to let go — I had to focus my energies on more immediate needs. But seeing her familiar handwriting in the mail, the pang hit again, and I realized just how much I had missed her.

Not every friendship is meant to last a lifetime. Some friends pass through our lives like gentle breezes, momentary gifts from the hand of God to fill a pressing need. What my friend taught me, though, is that even lifelong friendships have chapters. Sometimes the zebra steps away — or gets separated — from the herd. But our strength is in our stripes. And our stripes work best when we travel together.

Who do you need to call this week, Zebra Girl?

Photo Credit: “One Kind” webpage on the Zebra