The “Prayer of Agony”

This week I’m writing from the beautiful Black Rock Retreat Center in south central PA, attending the week-long “Head and Heart” Immersion Course offered by the Theology of the Body Institute, to seep in the teachings of Blessed John Paul II on the sacramental view of the human body, and in particular through our sexuality.

I won’t kid you, it has also been an excellent opportunity for me to catch up on some much-needed rest. No television or email in the room (I was warned there would be no Diet Coke machines, either, so I came fortified).

For the past two days I’ve been listening to Christopher talk about God’s plan for the human race from the beginning  (“original man”), the restoration of what was lost in the Fall (“historical man”) and our ultimate destiny as the Bride of Christ in the marriage feast of the Lamb (“eschatological man”). All this was helpful in the way of professional development . . . but what helped me most, personally speaking, was something he said Sunday night about the role of suffering in the Christian life: that the “prayer of ecstasy” (think “The Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila by Bernini,” pictured here) is always preceded by the “prayer of agony.”

Christopher explained that, because of sin, the human heart becomes so hard (he called it “full of vinegar,”) it cannot receive the honey of God’s abundant love. In order to prepare us to receive this abundant grace, God has to empty the vinegar and soften our hearts — something that takes place only through suffering. He was quoting from St. Benedict’s “Spe Salvi,” p. 33:

Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil 3:13). He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined[26]. Even if Augustine speaks directly only of our capacity for God, it is nevertheless clear that through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others. It is only by becoming children of God, that we can be with our common Father.

As a Catholic, I believe in the concept of “redemptive suffering,” that the pain we bear in this life can be applied in effective intercession for our own intentions and on behalf of those for whom we pray. This “prayer of agony” is aptly named . . . of course none of us would choose it. But in accepting it, even embracing it, we allow God to bring something good out of it. That is my hope. That is my prayer: that at the end of the pain, comes the joy.

Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us!

Advertisements

The Warrior Is . . . a Mom

Lately I’ve been winning battles left and right.

But even winners can get wounded in the fight.

People say that i’m amazing, never face retreat.

But they don’t see the enemies that lay me at your feet.

They don’t know that I go running home when I fall down.

They don’t know who picks me up when no one is around.

I drop my sword and cry for just awhile.

‘Cuz deep inside this armor, the warrior is a child.

This ballad by Twyla Paris is part of my childhood soundtrack. Perhaps you have a song like that tinkling in the back of your mind, pushing its way to the front in times of stress, anxiety or utter weariness.

When God created women, he made our strength primarily interior and constant (as opposed to the exterior, brute force more commonly associated with men because of their greater strength and size. That strength is most clearly seen in adversity: that catastrophic illness, that financial blow, that unrelenting burden. We pick up that sword (or dishcloth or bedpan or syringe) long enough to beat back the darkness . . . and then, when the need to be strong is over, even momentarily, we collapse.

We cry for just awhile. And then we take it up that sword again. Because that is the source of our strength; knowing when to let go. Even for a while.

Thanks, Twyla.

Tell me . . . what’s YOUR song?

Not-Quite-Silent Motherhood: A Miracle in Our Midst

One of my favorite ways to engage the Gospel is to imagine that I am a peripheral character in the story. In this week’s Gospel, for example,  we encounter a man who is both deaf and has a speech impediment, who is brought to Jesus for healing. We read:

He [Jesus] took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man’s ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
Ephphatha!”– that is, “Be opened!” —
And immediately the man’s ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.

Listening to the story, I imagined what it would have been like to be this man’s mother. Imagine raising a child who could not hear her–but whose attempts to engage the world  were loud, unintelligible . . . and never-ending. Imagine what it would be like when that child grew into manhood. As his mother, she would have tended to his needs long beyond the time most children need their mothers. Well into the time when most children begin to contemplate tending to their elderly parents’ needs.

What must it have been like for her, to have been suddenly released from her role of caregiver? Did she feel a rush of relief? Unmitigated joy? Or was just a part of her a little worried about what her life was going to be like, now that her role (and her identity) was no longer so neatly defined. What were her son’s first words to her, once could express all the thoughts that had been bottled up in his heart?

All the healing miracles of Jesus were, strictly speaking, not primarily ordered toward the restoration of the human body. The healings were genuine, of course . . . and yet, the primary purpose of each healing was to point us toward something eternal. Often it was to reveal his divine power and authority toward a particular group of people, to liberate their bodies as a means to direct their attention toward their need for inner healing. This was as true for those who brought the man to Jesus as it was for the man himself.

The thing is, each time we approach Jesus, whether in his Word or in his eucharistic presence, we are reminded of that need for healing again. And I can tell you this with certainty: Nothing in forty-plus decades of human existence has reminded me of just how much I need that healing like parenting. Each fault and failing is magnified, until there is nothing to do but cast myself on the mercy of God, in full view of anyone who cares to watch.

As I thought about this, there in church, a loud moan rang out from the back of the sanctuary. A teenager, developmentally disabled and possibly deaf, was quickly led by her mother out of the church. Minutes later, they tried to slip back into the service . . . and quickly had to leave again when another eruption occurred. There was no miracle for this family, no possible way to remain silent and hidden in the pew. As a mom who has had to leave quickly from her share of services, I wanted to hug both of them and say, “Thank you for being here today. Your presence was a gift — you helped me to enter in to the story with all my senses, and see in a fresh way the miracle of Christ.”

NOTE: Would you like to learn more about lectio divine, the ancient spiritual practice of putting yourself in the Gospel scene in order to meditate on the story? Ascension Press recently released Walking Toward Eternity (and is in the process of developing a new faith formation program, Oremus), based on the ancient Catholic tradition of lectio divina. If you enjoyed Jeff Cavin’s The Bible Timeline or Quick Journey studies, check this one out!

Photo Credit: Original source unknown, entitled “Ephphatha” and linked from “Jonelliff.posterous.com” Ephphatha

Happy Mother’s Day!

“Becoming a mother makes you the mother of all children. From now on each wounded, abandoned, frightened child is yours. You live in the suffering mothers of every race and creed and weep with them. You long to comfort all who are desolate.”

— Charlotte Gray

“Giving kids clothes and food is one of thing, but it’s much more important to teach them that other people besides themselves are important and that the best thing they can do with their lives is to use them in the service of other people.” — Dolores Huerta

“Everybody knows that a good mother gives her children a feeling of trust and stability. She is their earth. She is the one they can count on for the things that matter most of all. She is their food and their bed and the extra blanket when it grows cold in the night; she is their warmth and their health and their shelter; she is the one they want to be near when they cry. She is the only person in the whole world in a whole lifetime who can be these things to her children. There is no substitute for her. Somehow even her clothes feel different to her children’s hands from anybody else’s clothes. Only to touch her skirt or her sleeve makes a troubled child feel better.”  -Katharine Butler Hathaway


“Every mother is like Moses. She does not enter the promised land. She prepares a world she will not see.”

-Pope Paul VI


St. Gianna Molla … Inspiration for “Working Moms”

My friend Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur asked me to help spread the word about a new video entitled “St. Gianna Beretta Molla: A Modern-Day Hero of Divine Love,” recently released and now available on Amazon.  St. Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962), herself a doctor, made the courageous choice to give birth to her child — against medical advice. 

What I love about St. Gianna is that she was a strong, intelligent woman who worked for the welfare of her community and her family … but never forgot that she was, first and foremost, a child of God. This enabled her to trust Him for the outcome of her courageous choice to give her child life. 

I have a prayer card of St. Gianna sitting on my desk upstairs, reminding me to make each day count. Because of her example, I am reminded that my vocation as a wife and mother is an important part of who I am, and what I do — though it is indeed only a part of the work God calls us to do. Not all of us are able to save lives, like St. Gianna, but with the particular gifts God has given us we can touch our world for the better nonetheless.

If you’re a “working mom” (aren’t we all?) and looking for a little added inspiration, why not order a copy of this DVD and share it with your family. What a great way to celebrate All Souls/All Saints Day, with a special tribute to this amazing mother!

A Prayer for Motherly Courage

Karen at “Be Still My Soul” shares this touching account of a young woman, Myah, whose preborn daughter was diagnosed with anencephaly — a congenital and fatal birth defect.

The story itself is bittersweet. Instead of “terminating the pregnancy,” this young woman decided to share whatever time they had together out of simple love for her daughter. (I also appreciated Karen’s advice to all women of childbearing years to make sure they have enough folic acid in their diet, to prevent this kind of tragedy.)

Today I’d like to offer this prayer for frightened mothers (including those whose children are not yet born), that God would give them the courage to hold on to their children with faith, hope, and love … for as long as they are together.

St. Elizabeth Seton, patronness of dying children, observed:

“We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life. We know that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.”

St. Elizabeth Seton, pray for us!

Mother’s Helper: Guest Post by Allie O. Williams


“Look what we found!” exclaimed our son, Rob. As the oldest & tallest he was the default spokesman, thrusting a muddy mitt in my face, his fist clutching a clay encrusted hunk of plastic. “It’s Mary and I found it,” cried our littlest neighbor Maggie firmly asserting her role. “But it was in our yard,” hollered our daughter, Elizabeth.

Continue reading