Song of the Beloved (The Love Project, Day 19)

RED-TULIP_From Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen, in which he explains the love of God to a secular Jewish journalist.

The greatest gift my friendship can give to you is the gift of your Belovedness. I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself. Isn’t that what friendship is all about: giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness?

Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody — unless you can demonstrate the opposite.”

These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the great trap. It is the trap of self-rejection. Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity and power can, indeed, present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection….”

He goes on to say that self-rejection most commonly comes in two forms: arrogance or low self-image. If he had been a woman, perhaps he would have recognized a third way: In the compulsion to base our worth on what we are doing, rather than in our identity as beloved daughters of God.

Today’s Love in Action: Do you ever experience self-rejection? When do those feelings most commonly surface? Tape this note to your bathroom mirror or over the kitchen sink: “I am a Beloved Daughter of God.”

Love Among the Poor, from “Ruthless Trust” (The Love Project, Day 18)

ruthless trustToday’s “Love Story” comes from Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust. Quoting Christian statistician George Barna Jr. in The Saints Among Us, Manning reminds us all that the trusting heart is, first and foremost, a thankful — and that those thankful hearts are often found in unexpected places, including the poor and marginalized. Barna writes:

In many cases there are people who have known dire economic straits, yet their trust has enabled them to step outside their grim conditions and to find jooy in life, so they run against the grain. The fact they are downscale suggests that though they are burdened by economic problems, they are not overcome by them. they are more forgiving, more grateful and more likely to be unprejudiced, as well as twice as likely to be involved in outreach to neighbors, as persons at the lower end of the spiritual commitment scale. In other studies we have done, such as financial giving, we found that the poor give a larger proportion of their income to charity than the rich. being surrounded by misery, they see opportunities to help on every side. The rich, especially now, with the widening gap between rich and poor, hae a tendency to cordon themselves off and therefore don’t see much of the grimness of life.

Manning concludes the chapter with this memorable line: “To be grateful for an unanswered prayer, to give thanks in a state of interior desolation, to trust in the love of God in the face of marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces of life is to whispoer a doxology in the darkness.”

Today’s Love in Action: Find a way to be a source of unexpected blessing to someone else today.

When a Loved One Dies: “Say His Name” (The Love Project, Day 14)

ol sorrowsToday at HuffPosts Parents I came across this poignant article by Jackie Moore, on how she survived the death of her 19-year-old son, by following the example and advice of her father. She writes:

Daddy’s words to me were simple and direct: “Don’t stop talking about him. You say his name everyday.” I’m not sure if I would have taken such direct advice from just anyone, but I knew my father’s experiences with loss. Daddy’s advice was him speaking what he had lived. The way I knew about my aunts, uncles and paternal grandparents was because Daddy didn’t stop talking about them. He said their names and his eyes lit up with the memories they invoked.

Every time I called him in the weeks and months after Jordan died, sometimes barely able to speak because I couldn’t catch my breath from crying, he would calm me, soothe me, always telling me he wished he could take some of the pain away. He never failed to remind me of his feeling that holding in my grief would make me sick. Then he would ask, “Are you talking about Jordan? You make sure you keep talking about him.” I always told him, “Yes, we talk about him everyday.”

To read the whole article, click here.

Today’s Love in Action: Do you know someone who has lost a loved one? Encourage that person to tell you a story of her loved one’s life. In that way, you will walk alongside your friend and share her burden, if only momentarily.

“You are mine…” (The Love Project, Day 13)

catholic crossDo you ever wonder if God is taking a day off, or tending to someone’s needs on the far side of the universe?

Ever feel as though your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling?

The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about this, and she suggested I read Isaiah 42.

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit . . .

She reminded me that this week’s Gospel, the story of the baptism of Jesus, is primarily about Jesus’ identity. Before he could go off and begin his public ministry, he had to be established in that identity as God’s Son.

It’s the same with us. Before we can do anything, we must first be. In particular, we must be secure in our identity as a child of God.

But what do you do when the circumstances of your life have conspired against you, and you feel as far from God as you could possibly be?

What do you do when … you feel angry with God? What then?

First, you tell him how you feel. If you don’t, the distance increases.
Next, you acknowledge the mystery of suffering: God has not caused your pain — rather, he identifies with it.
Then, you wait with expectation.

“When we are angry with God, he comes to us not in great and mighty ways — that would be too scary. Instead, he comes to us in the still, small voice. In small ways.”

For me, it was in the gleeful chortle of a twelve-month-old baby, a little bundle of love that met me at the door each day when I came to pick up my daughter. Oh, how I came to love that little kid, who showed me the great affection God has for us.

Then, finally, until the smoke clears . . . you just keep finding reasons to thank him. Because thanksgiving is the surest way to trust.

Today’s Love in Action: What passage of Scripture do you turn to most often, when you feel as though your prayers are bouncing off the ceiling?

“What Does It Mean?” Teach your kids the four senses of Scripture

This week at CatholicMom.com, I write an article about parish VBS programs and parish renewal, and reference a song I wrote to teach children the four senses of Scripture (set to the tune of “The Adam’s Family Theme”). I thought I’d share the lyrics here.

What does it mean? (clap, clap)
What does it mean? (clap, clap)
When we take a look in God’s Holy Book?
What does it mean? (clap, clap)

God showed his love in Jesus,
Who made the Church to lead us,
God’s Word, the Scriptures, show us,
That we’re God’s family.

The Church gives us for reading,
Four lights that show the meaning,
These Scripture senses leading,
They guide us as we read.

What does it say? (That’s the literal)
Who wrote it, what way?
Historical prose? Story or poem?
What does it mean?

Three senses categorical
Anagogical, allegorical
And don’t forget the moral
The spiritual senses, three.

What does it say? (That’s the literal)
For my life today? (The moral)
Does it point to Christ?
Or the end of our life?
What does it mean?

What does it mean? What does it mean?
Four senses we need
When God’s Word we read,
To know what it means!

Four senses we find,
Will light up our minds,
That’s what it means!

Four senses we’ll use
To find all the clues,
And know what it means!
(shout) THAT’S WHAT IT MEANS!

©2010 Heidi Hess Saxton. All rights reserved.

NOTE: These words may NOT be reprinted or used without permission of the author. Reprint requests should be sent to me at heidi.hess.saxton@gmail.com.

Advent Begins: A season of tiny lights

advent wreath 2Happy Advent!

“Blogger Mom” Sherry Antonetti, suffered a miscarriage this week. This energetic mother of ten is walking a “valley of shadow” that is unknown to me. A car accident when I was eighteen caused such extensive internal damage, my doctor informed me I would not be able to have children. (The only silver lining to this was that my then-boyfriend, an Argentinian jackass, dumped me the minute I came out of I.C.U. because “You’re not a real woman anymore.”)

In a way, the knowledge that pregnancy was not in the cards for me made it a bit easier when I got married. As much as I would have liked to have a child, knowing it was not possible gave me the freedom to check that particular dream off my “wish list” and find a new dream with my husband, which we could envision together.

And yet, I’ve come to realize that the pain of the not-quite-realized dream has a special place in the spiritual life. Those of us who never buy a lottery ticket, do not experience the let-down of those who splurge on $20 in tickets without a single hit. That tantalizing possibility causes us to hope in God’s goodness . . . the excruciating aftermath leads us to trust in his mercy.

As we enter the season of Advent, we recall the most extraordinary of all of divine interventions: the Incarnation, the moment in history when God definitively intervened in human history, to remake a future infinitely better than we’d imagined for ourselves. “O felix culpa …” O happy fault, that won for us so great a Savior.

This year, as we enter the Church’s new year, let’s take a moment to reflect upon those moments when we experienced a tiny point of light, a brief moment when possibility turned into disappointment. The angst of childish choices. The agony of free will turned on end. The inexplicable shadow of nature at its worst.

Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts,

Which even now, we receive from Thy bounty,

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health,

As long as I shall live. Amen.

“Room for One More”: Tale of an Unlikely Thanksgiving

This year I was determined to have a table full for Thanksgiving. With Christopher away, the prospect of cooking a turkey dinner for three was . . . unthinkable.

Long story short, we had two special families join us, families that have extended themselves to us in friendship in a special way this year, journeying beside us for what has been the bumpiest mile of the journey of our lives. Thank God we are getting through it . . . together. Not just us, of course. In reality, we have been constantly surrounded by “family of our own choosing.”  Katy and Todd, Christopher’s godparents; Laura Sanders and Helen Ercolino, who provided therapeutic services; and dozens of others who let us know over and over that they were praying for us. So much to be thankful for.

There have been unpleasant surprises, too. Strained and broken relationships. Injustices inflicted, seemingly without recourse. While many prayers have been answered with small miracles . . . others received nothing more than a simple, “My grace is sufficient for thee…” And with each step, in each moment, we’ve discovered the truth of Teresa of Avila’s classic prayer: “Let nothing trouble thee . . . God alone suffices.”

Tonight Craig and I were watching a little-known (at least to us) movie starring Cary Grant, “Room for One More,” a true story circa 1952 about George and Anna Rose. This Lynnwood NJ couple with three children began taking foster children, including several with emotional special needs. Like many adoption or foster care movies (Martian Child, The Blind Side, Matilda) the conclusion is a bit idealized. On the other hand, the experiences of the past year allows me to see these movies with a new perspective: sometimes, when you’re mid-struggle, it helps to be reminded that the struggle can be worth it in the end. The pain is real . . . but then, so can be the joy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

stuck for good

“If I had any other choice, I’d leave.” It’s funny, really, how many times I’ve heard that phrase recently. It’s been spoken in several contexts, but always with the same conclusion: Circumstances beyond their control were keeping them in situations that were otherwise . . . just short of intolerable.

Listening to the sad stories, I was struck by how much they had in common:  In every case, the pain of the present was caused by an injustice of one kind or another. And in each case, their reason for not rebelling absolutely against said injustice was the same:

In a word, love.

For love we hunker down for all kinds of reasons: to provide, to protect, a promise kept. For a spouse, a parent, a child. We endure the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unjust. All because love compels us to stay.

Here’s the thing: There comes a certain point in life when you realize that running away only delays the inevitable. Because sooner or later, everyone takes a place under the celestial microscope of suffering. In truth, it’s the only way for the really important virtues to take root and grow: humility, detachment, and faith. Plodding through the valley of shadow, we glimpse a sliver of light on the horizon and allow ourselves to hope, however faintly, that better times are in store.

We are stuck, to be sure. But it’s only a matter of time before we find our way back for good. In the meanwhile, we dive, knowing that even in this awful, uncomfortable, frustrating place, there are lessons to learn. There are people to love. There are infinitesimal fragments of grace.

Thank you, God.

 

Christmas 2011: A Year in Review

Despite my best intentions, Christmas cards did NOT make it in the mail this year. For the record, I also did not manage to bake a single batch of Christmas cookies. Which is why it’s a good thing that there are TWELVE days of Christmas. But I digress.

This year has been a year unlike any other. It all started, appropriately enough, last Christmas, when in an unguarded moment, brought on by tremendous career and family upheaval, Craig turned to me and said, “If you find a job you like, we’ll move.”

I didn’t need to be told twice. (I’ll spare you the details, except to say that as far as I’m concerned, “family business” is an oxymoron.) In fact, I had already been looking locally, and had applied to a number of church jobs for which I was reasonably qualified. The highlight was showing up for one interview, only to be told, “We knew we weren’t going to hire you – but we just had to meet you after reading your resume.”

Have you ever been in a place where you were desperately seeking God’s will for your life, and nothing – nothing at all – was happening? I knew God had heard my prayers for deliverance; I also knew he had a plan for our lives, and that he understood the stress my husband was under.  I knew all these things . . . and yet, it grew harder and harder to trust as one job interview after another resulted in . . . nothing. After six months, including a few tenuous inquiries at a couple of publishing houses in the area, I was still jobless. “What does God WANT from me?” I asked my pastor, who had been praying for me as well. “I know exactly what you mean, Heidi,” he replied. “I often feel that way myself.”

Then, as if on cue, God threw our lives into hyperdrive. One day a friend mentioned to me that Ascension Press was looking for an editorial director. And next thing I knew, I had a job offer. Ten days later, I packed my car and moved to West Chester, PA. Within weeks, the kids and dog had joined me (Craig, it was decided, needed to stay until Christmas to give his work adequate time to transition to the new IT guy). Also with us was Andrew, the kids’ favorite sitter, who at nineteen was ready for an adventure away from home. (The kids alternately refer to him as “our new brother” and “the manny.” Andrew is an aspiring chef who spends his days while the kids are at school riding the train and checking out local eating establishments, and his nights dreaming up new taste treats for us.) This job has been such a great fit for me; I tell people I won the “job lottery.” In reality, it was simply a matter of waiting patiently for God to orchestrate all the details in his perfect time.

Of course, a few pieces still need to fall into place. We are still in something of a holding pattern, thanks to Craig’s boss, who convinced Craig it was his duty to stay on until they were good and ready to let him go. As I’m sure you can imagine, this has been hard on the kids (hasn’t done great things for our marriage, either). But I’ve come to realize that sometimes love means taking a step back, finding one’s own center, and letting the other person work things out for himself. (Or herself.) I also understand, for the first time in my life, why some seemingly successful marriages appear to suddenly unravel at the seams.  Finally, I’ve come to understand that marriage can be a lot like a warm woolen security blanket: Sometimes all you can do is hold on, and pray for the storm to pass. As the skies grow darker and the wind blows stronger, you keep holding, knowing that if you grope with both hands, the wind may soon carry it way.

I am grateful beyond words for all the people who have extended themselves for us this year: my parents, who have made several visits from Georgia just to make sure we got packed and settled, as well as friends in Michigan (especially the Phelps, Hook, and Tucker families and good friends Denise and Lilian) and here in PA (especially my new coworkers) who have reached out to us again and again. On our last weekend in Michigan, we had a little barbecue at a local park, with close to 50 people in attendance. As I looked over all their faces, I was so thankful for the wonderful people God had brought into our lives over the past eighteen years. It was hard to think of starting over . . . especially for Christopher and Sarah, who were leaving behind not only good friends but a brother and sister as well. Even so, we knew God was leading us to a new adventure. And that one day, we would get to enjoy it together.

In the meantime, we have settled in for the long haul. Christopher, 11, is in middle school this year, and for the first time ever is on the honor roll. His science project this year will be to prove which brand of deodorant is most flammable. (His idea, not mine.) He will be confirmed at our new parish, St. Joseph Parish in Downingtown, on March 1, 2012. His new passion this year is Beyblades. He misses his friends, but has picked up a couple of good friends here and was recently asked to his first dance (yikes).

Sarah, 9 going on 16, is in fourth grade. She and I went to see her friend Grace perform in the “Nutcracker 1776” at her friend’s school. I think we need to get Sarah back in a tutu. She continues to love to draw and change her clothes a dozen times a day. I suspect she has a future in fashion design.

This year Craig and the kids spent 10 days over Christmas break in West Palm Beach with Craig’s parents (I didn’t have vacation time, but I flew down for the weekend). Craig’s dad has stage-four lung cancer (he’s a non-smoker), so we wanted to make a few more memories with and for Craig’s parents. We then spent Christmas weekend with my parents in Georgia, who opened their home to three out of four daughters and their families for the holiday. We decorated gingerbread houses, tried to stay out of the way of the four dogs, and had a lovely time. Craig and I are home now, and he will be with us until January 7. My Christmas wish is that this time next year, the transition to our new life here will be complete.

Wishing you and yours the brightest and best of Christmas blessings this year.

Thoughts on Fathers

My Dad with his five girls

My own Dad has never been one to waste words, very likely the direct result of living with five women for at least two decades.  His closed-mouth ways worked in his favor: whatever did come out of his mouth tended to get our attention. 

We loved Dad fiercely not for what he said, but for who he had demonstrated himself to be time and time again. “Salt of the earth.”  Someone who could be counted on when it really counted.  Supremely loyal and unassuming — always a little surprised to discover just how much he is loved. (The same is true of Craig, come to think of it.)

Now, some children aren’t that fortunate. Some fathers (including both the physical and spiritual variety) are so flawed and broken, they overburden those around them with demands of unquestioning trust and endless admiration.  They never quite let down the image, which only reinforces the feelings of isolation and self-doubt.

This kind of devotion isn’t love. It’s idolatry.

Now, some fathers possess such amazing abilities, it’s hard not to be a little star-struck. God bestows all manner of gifts on people with breathtaking generosity, and not always in proportion to their faithfulness.  As an Evangelical Christian, I witnessed horrifying examples of individuals in public ministry who used their God-given gifts to manipulate and control others for their own benefit. (Frankly, these experiences made me a tad skittish about getting too close to charismatic Catholics.)

Over time, however, I came to understand the difference between authentic charisms and the sham variety. In particular through reading Msgr. Raniero Cantalamessa’s Sober Intoxication of the Spirit, I came to understand how the virtues of humility and detachment liberate a person to put himself fully in the service of God, and how the twin virtues of submission and obedience provide a necessary hedge of protection around the one who has been entrusted with extraordinary gifts.

Padre Pio. Catherine of Siena. Teresa of Avila. Faustina Kowalska. All of them were criticized and censured during their lifetimes. All submitted fully and freely, allowing themselves to be silenced and hidden away without counting the cost to themselves. And in time, all were not only exonorated but elevated to sainthood because of their wisdom and holiness.

Some of the most important lessons we will ever learn, can only be grasped while hidden away in the dark, humbled and stilled (whether by our own doing or through outside forces).  Only then can the Father strip away the mask, and begin the process of pruning and healing.

For those who are in the public eye, this stripping process must be doubly painful and humiliating . . . and yet, there is really no getting around it, not if we truly want to grow in perfect love.  “If you are going to be used by God,” wrote 19th century Scotch-Presbyterian minister Oswald Chambers, “He is going to take you through a myriad of experiences that are not meant for you at all. They are meant to make you useful in His hands.”

And so, in the words of another great Christian contemplative, Amy Carmichael (to the tune “Faith of Our Fathers”) in her classic hymn “From Prayer That Asks”:

“From prayer that asks that I may be sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fainting when I should aspire, from faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self, O Captain, free Thy soldier who would follow Thee.

From subtle love of softening things, from easy choices, weakenings,
Not thus are spirits fortified, not this way went Thy Crucified.
From all that dims Thy Calvary, O Lamb of God, deliver me!

Give me the love that leads the way, the faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire, the passion that would burn like fire!
Let me not sink to be a clod; make me Thy fuel, O Flame of God!”

Copyright (c) 2011 Heidi Hess Saxton