“Peace Within” (The Love Project, Day 38)

teresa_avila_bernini

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received,
And pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones
And allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.

Teresa of Avila

Today’s Love in Action: What gift has God given you to use today?

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“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!

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!

Signs and Sacraments: When a Dress (or a Heart) Is Something More…

Parachute Wedding DressThe other day I came across this heart-warming story about a young Jewish couple, interred in one of the work camps during World War II. She wanted to be married in a white dress, and he wanted to make her dreams come true. Sixty years and dozens of brides later, the dress was showcased in the Holocaust Museum. Made from a parachute, the well-worn dress became a symbol of love and hope in a time when hatred and despair prevailed.

Like many of the signs and symbols of our lives, the worth of this sacramental of love far exceeded its monetary value. I recently broke down and replaced my three medallions — tiny silver likenesses of St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and St. Scholastica (Benedict’s twin sister). One was actually irreplaceable — I had purchased the original in Avila when my husband and I were in Spain eight years ago. I lost them in the move a year ago, and only now have reconciled myself with the idea that they are never going to materialize . . . So I got a new set when I decided to start blogging again. This time, I added a tiny St. Christopher medal. Somehow, he is never far from my thoughts these days.

The sacramental worldview — informed by the belief that God gives us extraordinary graces through the tangible universe — is an intrinsically “Catholic” one. The God who reached through time and space to relate to us through the Incarnation, by enfleshing himself as one of us forever altered the way the physical universe interacted with the metaphysical one — including the communion of the saints.

One of the most important ways we can lead our children to God is by making the family of God  more “touchable” — engaging all the senses in order to better understand who God is, and what he wants from us. These points of connection, like my faith medals and the heirloom wedding dress, are important signs of life and faith, pointing us not only to where we have been but to our ultimate destiny.

So, moms, what are you going to do this week to make signs of God’s presence come alive in your children’s lives?

Spiritual Fitness: Setting the Pace

Today, the feast day of my favorite saint Teresa of Avila, I got a letter from Joanna Davis, a grad student and SPO missionary from my church. Joanna is living and working with a group of college students to help them grow strong in the faith. Although she is not married and has no children, in a sense she too is an “Extraordinary Mom,” for she is using her spiritual gifts to raise up spiritual children.

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“Don’t Be Weird, Mom!”

(This is a continuation of the series of articles reflecting on Come Be My Light and the spiritual motherhood of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, patron of adoptive and foster families, which I began earlier this year. For the original post, click the title.)

Sarah is an extraordinary walking paradox. She will parade around the house (and in public as often as I let her) with a mind-blowing array of fashion statements:
I applaud her budding confidence (insofar as it does not exceed the bounds of propriety). What puzzles me is that if I do anything the least bit unconventional … breaking into an impromptu chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset” and a little softshoe while I’m washing dishes, say, Sarah will invariably give me her stock response:
“Don’t be weird, Mom! People will think you’re weird!”

To which I respond, “Let them! The only thing that really matters is what God thinks of me, what I think of myself … and, to a different degree, what my family thinks about me.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who typically flouts social convention on a whim. I love high teas and ballroom dancing and all manner of things traditional (it’s part of why I’m Catholic!). But when it comes to deciding standards of personal conduct, I learned a long time ago that “going with the crowd” is not always the wisest course of action.

This has a particular application to foster and adoptive parents. More than most parents, our children are going to have special emotional and other challenges that are going to make other people’s eyebrows go up with alarming frequency, especially in the beginning.

It happened the time my son punched the priest in the breadbasket for reaching out to bless him at Mass. And the following week, when my son (who had been hearing about his friend “Father Will” all week) greeted the elderly priest by patting the front of the man’s vestments as high as his two-year-old hands could reach. Come to think of it, it was right around the time of the scandals, too…

It happened the time my daughter drew a picture of her daddy in bed with her for the counselor (Craig has a nightly ritual of laying down next to her to read a bedtime story; the book was strangely absent in the picture). The next time it was a picture of mommy and daddy brandishing a L-O-O-N-G a whip (I still don’t know where that one came from, except maybe a horse scene in “Beauty and the Beast”).

It happened when my son’s first preschool teacher informed me that I was obviously neglecting my 4-year-old son’s needs because he didn’t use a napkin properly, and because he kept using words like “dead” and “kill.” (I wondered if the word his classmates had taught him — stupid — was so much better.)

It happens. And other people — those who don’t know your family — ARE going to judge you for it. Get ready for it … the disapproving looks, the heavy sighs, the hesitance to accept playdates. Get ready for the tons of unsolicited advice from grandparents, social workers, and total strangers about how you need to be “controlling” your children better.

I’m not saying don’t take the advice. Some veteran parents might give you some truly useful information with regard to managing stress, or potty training. But don’t expect them to understand, and don’t try to live up to someone else’s idea of perfect parenting. As a foster parent (or adoptive parent of an older child), there are going to be times when you need to march to another tune. Make a different choice. Try an unconventional method.

Don’t worry. If it’s a mistake, you can usually correct it mid-course. If the advice givers are real friends or if they truly love you, they will still be around years from now when the fruit of your labor ripens, and that wild little creatures is transformed into the radiant young man or woman who loves God and does what is right.

It’s OK to be weird when God takes you along a different path. Trust Him to give you the wisdom you need, exactly when you need it.
Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away,
but God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
She who possesses God, has everything.
For God alone suffices.
Teresa of Avila

A Dangerous Prayer

Today I received a letter from a writer friend who had just finished my book Behold Your Mother and found herself being drawn toward the Church. I understand completely her struggle: It is an unsettling, even embarrassing to realize that the one you once regarded as the “Whore of Babylon” is actually your spiritual mother.

Even so, the Church continues to draw her children out of their self-made rafts of subjective religious experience and selective Scripture study, and into the Barque of Peter. Christians are “crossing the Tiber” into the fullness of the faith all the time, from every possible tradition: Baptists, Pentecostals, Vineyard, Methodists, Presbyterians (I was baptized Presbyterian, but because of my music background I’ve been involved in all of them at one time or another).

Perhaps you find yourself standing on the edge of your raft, gazing serreptitiously (yet longingly) at those who have already taken the leap of faith, and entered into the fullness of the faith through the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church founded by Christ. Yet you are afraid of being tricked, afraid of being deceived … just afraid.

In the words of the late, great Pope John Paul II: “Be not afraid! Open the gates to Christ!” His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, echoes, “Christ is our hope!” It is Christ, who alone atones for the sins of the world, and who offers Himself — Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity — in the Holy Eucharist.

Take your Bible and spend a holy hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Open to the sixth chapter of John, and read each verse very slowly. Let it sink into your heart. Ask God to speak to you through these verses, to reveal to you what HE wants you to understand. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.”

Once you get your heart around the Eucharist, what a gift Our Lord gives to us in that Holy Sacrament, you will not be content until you receive Him. However, please remember that St. Paul urges us not to take the sacrament “unworthily.” To be ready to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, you must enter the Church. There’s no way around this. It will take time … but by God’s grace, your hunger will be satisfied in His perfect time.

Finally, a gentle warning. Jesus warned that unless we become like little children, we cannot see the Kingdom of God. It took God many years and quite a number of strippings and humblings before I was willing to say,

“I don’t have the answers, Lord. Only questions. You are God, and I am not … You are pure mystery, and my mind is blinded by prejudice, ignorance, and error. Help me. Guide me each step of the way, and take these blinders from my eyes and help me to truly see.”

This is a dangerous prayer, but a necessary one. It’s not enough to read the Bible … one must interpret it correctly as well. We do this not in isolation, but in union with Christians going all the way back to the first apostles. We must not “proof text” isolated Scriptures to harden our hearts and minds, but invite the Holy Spirit to open us to ALL the truth God wants us to understand. Almost inevitably, He does this through the treasury of wisdom that is available to us through the teaching authority of the Church (the Magisterium) and the saints.

I suggest you start with Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle and move on to her Way of Perfection. St. Teresa was a sixteenth-century Carmelite mystic who taught that the Lord (she called him “His Majesty”) dwells in the center of our hearts, but that we must strip ourselves of everything — even good things — in order to reach that inner chamber.

If you find yourself embarking on this journey alone, and need someone to pray for you … I’m here. Drop me a note at hsaxton(at)christianword(dot)com. God bless you!