When Mom Prays…

prayerTonight, I’ll be honest, felt like a big, fat fail in the parenting department. I’ll spare you the details (or perhaps it’s me I’m sparing), but at one point I looked into the snarky face of one of my children (ha) and thought (very loudly): “I don’t know if I can hold on another day.” Then I made the horrific mistake of opening my mouth and telling her exactly what I thought of her and her behavior. (Woops. Kind of gave it away there.)

My mother was sitting in the next room, and there is no way she couldn’t have heard what was going on. But she didn’t say a word. All through dinner she was quiet. Then I took the kids to youth group (“Yes, you DO still have to go even though you are 18, young man”) and came back just in time to hear of another complication that will be re-entering my life in two more weeks. *sigh*

Even after icing and heating it, my arm was throbbing like someone had set it on fire. But I made my way downstairs to put mom to bed and read to her. When we finished our devotional read, I asked her if there was anything she wanted to pray for. Her reply was immediate and simple: “I’d like to pray for you.”

My eyes were full of tears before she said the first word. I was a little afraid, truth be told, because there was no hiding the fact that I had been short, and mean, and cranky all day. Apart from the hour or so we spent in the Japanese garden in Mishawaka, and the hour I spent unconscious in my room afterwards. But you’d never know it as I heard the words fall from her lips, kind and gentle like rainfall.

“Lord, thank you for my daughter. Thank her for everything she has done for me, and how hard she works every day. Help her to listen to her body, and to be gentle with herself. Help her to know how much she is loved. Help us both to know which way to go in the days ahead, so we will be doing just what you want us to do.”

It’s been a long time since someone prayed for me like that. It kind of took my breath away. And suddenly I saw myself as my mother sees me — someone who is just doing her best with the hand she has. And someone who wants to do the right thing.

Later, as I sat there thinking about her prayer, I realized that this is probably what my daughter needs from me, too. Someone who will be gentle and kind. Someone who knows she is just doing her best.

“Lord Jesus, thank you for my daughter….”

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“What Dreams May Come”: when feelings are bigger than life

what dreams may comeOne of my favorite “Hollywood” treatments of the afterlife is What Dreams May Come, with Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding. Williams plays a doctor, his wife an artist. When their two children are killed in a car accident, he and his wife are barely able to come to terms with their death before another tragedy occurs that separates the two of them. The rest of the movie, reminiscent of Ghost, is about love that transcends even death.

Years ago, I had an author friend Charlie Shedd. I would sit on the glider on the back porch with him and he would regale me with stories of his Martha, how even after she died he would catch a memory of her that was so strong, it was like she was still there, coming out of the bathroom in her favorite robe, or sitting on the glider in her natty yellow sweater. I never knew Martha, but somehow when he described her to me, it was as if I’d known her all my life.

Today on Facebook, I came across countless wedding pictures of couples celebrating their anniversaries — ten years, fifteen, twenty or more. Each looks so young and vibrant, so hopeful. Each a moment frozen in time, before “real life” sets in — for better or worse.

And as I looked at those pictures, and again as I watch this movie, I am reminded of one of the greatest gifts of marriage; how in the boat of family life, one is the anchor, the other the sails. And when that boat is rocked by waves of uncertainty, they provide for each other that safe haven.

This is the self-gift of marriage; not simply the unbridled joy, but the unbridled pain as well.

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.

 

True Confessions for the Year of Faith

Drumroll, please.

Tomorrow begins the “Year of Faith,” the 50th anniversary of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Pope Benedict XVI has uttered a call to all Catholics to renew and rejuvenate their faith, reading and putting into practice the rich treasury of wisdom that the Church has safeguarded for two thousand years.

To be perfectly honest, I’m in a much better place now to begin the year — having completed four days of my TOB retreat. My faith, which has taken something of a beating these past few months, is feeling less tenuous. Tomorrow night Craig and Sarah will come and join me for the last-night marshmallow roast — Sarah’s reward for being a good girl for Craig while I was gone. And in no time at all, it will be back to the salt mines.

What are you doing, to celebrate the Year of Faith? Ascension Press is offering a free email service of weekly reflections from authors like Danielle Bean, Jeff Cavins, Teresa Tomeo, and Dr. Edward Sri. You can sign up here.

In the meantime, I thought I’d kick off the year with a little story.

My Aunt Rosemary was in her early thirties when she was diagnosed with ALS. She was a faithful Christian woman with three small children — the youngest only about four. Her weekly women’s Bible study prayed for her every week, that God would take the disease away from her so she could see her children grow up. Prayed earnestly, with tears and great conviction.

Long story short, their prayers weren’t answered the way they’d hoped. Gradually, as Aunt Rosemary lost the use of her ability to stand, then to talk, the prayers got a little more frantic. Some actually accused her of “secret sin,” certain that God would have healed her if only she had enough faith. One by one, people stopped coming to her house. My mom would go to visit, communicating her with a shorthand alphabet system whereby she’d divide the alphabet into four parts (“apple” – a through e; “girl” – g through l; “manner” – m through r; and “stay” – s through z) and Rosemary would blink as Mom guessed the right letter for each word she wanted to say. She stayed in that medical limbo for almost eight years before she finally succumbed to the disease.

It wasn’t until years later, I asked one of my seminary professors about the sacrament of anointing, how often he’d seen actual healing take place as a result of ministering the sacrament. “It does happen,” Father told me. “But more often, it’s about strengthening the soul for what’s ahead.”

And so it is with the Year of Faith. None of us have any way of knowing what is in store for us in the coming year, shadow or glory. Rocky roads or smooth pavement. Feast or famine.

What we can say for sure is that, either way, how we respond to these circumstances depends to a great extent how willing we are to offer it back to God and trust him to make something beautiful out of it.

So join me, won’t you, in offering this year — whatever it holds — to the loving benevolence of God?

Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you. Amen.

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!

Weekend Ponderings: Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted

Today I’m up to my ears in basement. We have a professional organizer turning a heavily packed and useless living space into a downstairs office and play area for us! (This will come in handy in the summertime!) Special bonus — got part of the garage cleared out, too!

As divine Providence would have it, Sarah Reinhard posted a lovely reflection today at CE on waiting with her suffering child in the emergency room, on her helplessness to relieve little Babb’s suffering … and her realization that the Blessed Mother could especially relate to her suffering, from her own experiences during the final week in the life of Christ.

The Suffering Christ

groeschel-bookToday at ZENIT, Father Benedict Groeschel talks about his new book “The Tears of God” in this homily for the Legionares of Christ. I think it has relevance to all of us. Here is an excerpt from the homily…

If you look at the religions of the world, there are unique qualities about each of them, that were founded by sincere people, far away from Christianity, and perhaps with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in those cultures: Buddhism, for instance. And in those religions, God never suffers. In the Jewish religion, from which we come, God gets mad. He gets annoyed. He also gets happy; he rejoices when things are going well. But in Christianity, God suffers. An incredible, impossible thought. The absolute, infinite, divine being, eternal, unchangeable… That he could weep: This is the mystery of the Incarnation. Christ comes and weeps with us. He suffers with us. We have the unthinkable reality of a God who dies. Incomprehensible. Theologically, we have explanations through the Councils of how it could happen, but it’s a mystery of mysteries. And the devotions of the centuries, especially of the Sacred Heart, reveal that Christ in a mysterious way suffers with us today.

Pope John Paul quoted the French writer Léon Bloy that “Christ is on his cross till the end of the world in his Mystical Body.” And so Christ suffers with you in a very special way.

Years from now, you’ll think back on these difficult days, and I hope you’ll remember that Christ suffered with you. Let the cross be your guide. St. Augustine says, “When the cross was first preached to the few who believed, it was mocked by the multitudes. But by the power of the cross, the blind saw, the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, and even the dead rose so that even among the powers of this world, men would come to believe that there is, in fact, nothing more powerful than the humility of God.” Nothing more powerful than the humility of God.