Waiting… and Fuming

Sarah 2005Have you ever wondered what a speaker does in the hour or so before she gives her presentation? I don’t know about Pat Gohn or Lisa Hendey or Kelly Wahlquist . . . but I can tell you what I was doing last night.

Fuming. Because I couldn’t find a lipstick. Real spiritual, right?

I wear makeup about 12 times a year, usually a swipe of mascara and a dab of lipstick. My husband thinks I’m a natural beauty, so why mess with it? But like any gal, when it’s time to stand and deliver, I like to get a bit gussied up.

Only this time, my child-who-shall-be-nameless had swiped all THREE of my lipsticks along with a few other items. And frankly, it was the last boundary-related straw that week. I’ll draw a veil of privacy over the discussion that ensued (for both our sakes), but suffice it to say that I arrived at church feeling rather depleted. What made me think that I had anything worth sharing with these women, when I could barely get myself to the church without strangling my daughter?

I was happy to see another writer friend, Jeannie Ewing, in the audience. Several other special-needs moms as well. And as I shared my Lipstick Story with them, I heard warm and appreciative laughter. I guess I wasn’t the only mom in the room who ever had to put her makeup under lock and key.

Later, one of the women took me aside and told me the story of her struggles with her own teenager. She spoke of her anxiety in waiting, in wondering what the future would look like for her daughter. This, I understood. All of it. And in that moment, I was reminded of something: That being a speaker or teacher — or a parent — is not about handing out dazzling perfection from a pedestal on high. It’s about bearing witness to the mercy of God in my own life, despite (and sometimes because of) its imperfections, and helping others to see that same Providence at work in theirs.

Where is God calling you to witness?

Are you waiting and fuming, or waiting and worrying, this Advent? “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you,” said St. Teresa of Avila. “All things pass away, but God never changes. Patience obtains all things, and those who possess God want for nothing. God alone suffices.”

It’s not too late to pick up a copy ofAdvent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta on Franciscan Media or Amazon.com.  Happy Advent!

The Liebster Award — thanks C.M. Crabtree!

liebsterAfter taking up blogging again (after a two-year hiatus), I was delighted to hear from a new reader, C.M.Crabtree, who said she was nominating me for “The Liebster Award” for bloggers who have less than 200 followers.

The way it’s set up, it feels a bit like a meme, but still it’s a nice way to connect with some BlogHer writers and others I’ve encountered in my “31 Days to De-Stress Your Life” project. (If you happen to have more than 200 followers, chalk it up to my enthusiasm for your writing, rather than my lack of technical savvy.)

So here goes. I am nominating for the Liebster Award the following four bloggers:

4 Mothers

A Lovely Life Indeed

My Purple Dreams: 365 Days of Giving Thanks

Bee Home Soon

And here are my answers to Ms. Crabtree’s questions (which are the same I’d like my nominees to take):

1. What is your favorite city in the world? So far, Rome. But I haven’t been to Jerusalem or Sydney yet.

2. What is your favorite thing to do in the morning? Sleep in after a night of watching old movies.

3. If you could spend the day with one person (deceased), who would it be and why? Teresa of Avila. I’d love to kick back with a good bottle of wine and a plate of tapas.

4. What would you do for a living if money wasn’t an issue? Anything that would let me travel to the countries I haven’t been to yet.

5. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? Put God in the White House (or at least let him take over for Jay Leno). The rest of the problems would take care of themselves.

6. If you had to choose, would you prefer the white-picket-fence life or absolute success at your dream job? I do like picket fences … could I work from home at my dream job?

7. If you could go back in time at any point during your life, would you change anything and if so, what? I’d tell myself to lighten up. Faith should draw people together, not divide them.

8. What is your favorite TV show or movie? Enjoying “Downton Abbey.”

9. What is your favorite book? A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. It’ll put a smile on my face any day.

10. What is your favorite quote? Some luck lies not in getting what you thought you wanted, but in wanting what you have. Which, once you have it, you might be smart enough to find it is what you would have wanted all along, had you only known. Garrison Keillor, “Lake Woebegon Days.”

The Adventures of Sister Scream

sister scream

“Sister Scream” made an appearance at Ave Maria Press today …. Well, she was there in spirit (Skype wasn’t working.) I had tried to find my “old hag” mask, and it must have been mis-sorted during the move (my “Fall” container had nothing but my wok and a fruit juicer). So . . . “skeletor” mask was all they had left at K-Mart, and I went with it.

Now, some might find this a bit tasteless: mixing the costume of a nun (my original costume is based on the Carmelite habit, because Teresa of Avila is one of my heroes) and a skeleton. And perhaps they would be right. And yet, I think you could also argue that it could be regarded as a kind of … “secular sacramental.” (The sacramental principle, the cornerstone of the Catholic life, is that God reaches out to us through the “stuff” of the physical world.) 

“Memento mori” (remember death) was one of the themes of the early Church. During those first four centuries, martyrdom was commonplace, and there were times when “Christian” was a truly dangerous association. And yet, the Church continued to grow because, in the words of 2nd century Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

On All-Saints and All-Souls Day, we remember that life and death are inextricably entwined. For the Christian, to experience life to the full, is to die to self; to die is to experience life in its sweetest perfection. Not because life isn’t a beautiful gift — it is. But because it is a prelude to something infinitely better.

And so, I think Sister Scream … is a comic figure. She reminds me to live with heaven in view, but not to be afraid of death. It has no lasting power over us, for Christ has already conquered …

And that is something to scream about!

 

The Enemies Near at Hand

stepping-stonesThe hallmark of the Christian is not one who has no enemies, but one whose enemies cannot disturb their inner peace. In his famous Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6), Jesus taught us that pathway to peace.

Like Teresa of Avila’s famous “interior castle,” this pathway is not linear, from point “A” to “B.” It is a maze of steppingstones through a series of rooms that lead to an innermost destination, which is God alone.

The first stepping stone is reconciliation how we choose to regard those who are no longer in relationship with us:

“But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

For most of us, our true enemies are not the nameless faceless on the other side of the ocean. Not even the anonymous, obnoxious commentators who troll our blogs and belittle our beliefs. By this definition, our enemies are those known to us. Therefore, if we are to follow Christ, we must begin by loving those who cause us pain by their proximity.

  • The child whose choices cost us dearly.
  • The associate whose whispered, underhanded machinations are difficult to confront.
  • The “friend” who betrays out of her own self-interest.

For all these “enemies,” dear Lord, we pray for peace without and within.

Next, the stepping stone of detachment. We express our loving detachment not just in our thoughts, but in our very actions.

“To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.”

 For most of us, relinquishing our “rights,” up to and including our physical comforts, is one of the hardest forms of fasting. But it is the true path of humility and detachment, the place God can hear our petitions most clearly.

  • The one who blindly ignores a mess or problem, leaving it for others to handle.
  • Those who take credit for the ideas or efforts of others.
  • Those who take advantage when we have the fewest resources to spare.

Lord, for all these “enemies,” we pray for your blessed abundance. And for our own willingness to let go.

With the next stepping stone, we take detachment to a whole new level . . . to generosity.

“Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Why would Jesus give this advice? Why would he want us to leave ourselves open to be taken advantage of like this? Recently, I’ll admit, when I read the story of Pope Francis who offered to baptize the infant of the woman who had committed adultery, my first thought was: Why didn’t he, like Christ, tell her to “Go and sin no more?”

The answer is the next stepping stone: Imitate the mercy of Christ with those who know only too well their failings. They don’t need to be reminded of their weaknesses, but of the reason for their hope.

Lord, we pray for those who take without giving thought to what it costs us. Help us to find joy in the giving.

The final stepping stone is at the heart of all authentic love, which pours itself out  not just in giving our possessions, but of our very selves in total self-giving, knowing that the more we give, the more we are emptied. And the more we are emptied, the more we will receive from God’s abundance.

“For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit [is] that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount.”

Lord, we are grateful for the opportunity to give as you gave, to love as you loved. Empty us of every last ounce of our own effort, so you can fill us more completely out of your abundance. 

“But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.”

STEPPING STONES FOR PEACE

And so, dear Lord, we offer our prayer for mercy.

Mercy without and mercy within.

Mercy near and mercy far, mercy deep and wide.

Mercy for those who know their need for it,

And mercy for those who will understand only in eternity.

Send your Spirit over these troubled waters and burning nations.

Do not let us destroy ourselves through our own pride and ignorance,

But enlighten and heal, and raise us up,

Illuminated by the Light of the World shining within us.

Have mercy on us, and on the whole world. Amen. 

“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?

“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!

Girlfriends . . . from Heaven

My friend Anne Marie poked her head in my office the other day. “Did you lose a medal, Heidi? Corinne [a mutual friend and coworker] found one in the parking lot, and thought of you.”

I examined my “medal pin” and discovered the clasp for St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was broken, and the medal gone. “Yes! I’m missing Edith Stein.”  The next day, Corinne returned my “girlfriend” to me. “I found it in the parking lot, and thought of you right away. I didn’t know it was yours … but something told me to pray for you right then.”

I smiled and thanked her. My girls were at work again.

Since January, I have carried over my heart five religious medals: My favorite saint is St. Scholastica, St. Benedict’s lesser-known twin sister, who used her powers of intercession to move the stubborn heart of her brother. St. Teresa Benedicta, the Jewish convert and philosopher who died at Auschwitz, understands what it is to be forced apart from loved ones. St. Teresa of Avila, patroness of migraines and strong-willed women, I had recently replaced when the original medal (I had picked it up at her childhood home in Avila, Spain) disappeared during my move. No sooner did I  replace it, I found the original – and so had a spare to give a young woman who has been taking care of Sarah. She recently decided to being RCIA – and is also a migraine sufferer.

These three “heavenly girlfriends” have always been close to my heart, and in the past I’ve worn them – along with a Miraculous Medal of the Blessed Mother – anytime I’ve done any serious writing, asking for their intercession. But since Christopher left us in January, I’ve taken to wearing them over my heart, along with a fifth medal, St. Christopher’s. It seems only appropriate to add him to the group.

Now, not all Christians – not even all Catholics – wear religious medals. To some, this kind of thing borders on superstition.  In reality, these kinds of tangible faith signs are at the very heart of the Catholic sacramental worldview: because we are by nature embodied souls, God reveals the hidden mysteries of our faith through the “stuff” of the physical world. These small bits of precious medal remind me in a powerful way of my faithful intercessors in heaven, who radiate the kind of perfect love that is at the very heart of the most blessed Trinity.

At the end of this month we will be celebrating All Saints Day, when we remember the communion of saints that is all around us, interceding on our behalf.  How do you keep the saints close to your heart?

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?

Weekend Ponderings: “I ate the ham. Do I need to confess it?”

It was careless, I know. The Jimmy Johns sandwiches beckoned, and I grabbed one without thinking. The last bite was just disappearing down my throat when someone observed that there were a lot of vegetarian sandwiches left over … And then it hit me.

“Oh, RATS!” Eating meat. On a Lenten Friday. In public, yet.

One mom cocked an eyebrow at me. “Oh, do you think God will FORGIVE YOU?! I’m so glad that I’m a Christian and don’t have to worry about things like that!”

Great. Now I have TWO sins to mention at confession on Saturday. Eating ham and throttling a dear “sister in Christ.”

While (as this article by Jimmy Aikin indicates) deliberately choosing to eat meat on a day of abstainence is grave matter (that is, it satisfies one of three conditions of mortal sin), it must be done freely and deliberately to qualify as a mortal sin. I had not done it deliberately — if I had remembered it was Friday, I would have happily chosen the vegetarian option. Even so, hearing Father Chas’ teaching last night made me realize that it might be good for me not to let myself off the hook too quickly.

Last night Father Chas put the whole “why eat fish on Fridays” in a useful context of family obligation. He pointed out that in the “feasts, fasts, and pilgrimages” of the Church, there are mandatory and optional observances. Just as in the human family there are certain things we do simply because we belong (attendance at Sunday dinner, family fun night, birthday celebrations, etc.), so there are certain things — certain disciplines, and obligations, we take up within a spiritual community simply because we belong to the family, and respect the spiritual authority of those who have placed these obligations upon us. 

In a word, we do it “because Father says so.” (“Father” being the teaching office of the Church, the Magisterium, passed down to us from bishop to individual parishioners through the normal channels of authority.)

Confess a couple mouthsful of ham? Why?  Certainly not because ham is intrinsically evil, but because it may help me to be more mindful of slowing down and being more deliberate about my Lenten journey.

Lent is, at its heart, a time of penitence and preparation for the greatest of all feast on the Church calendar. The desert calm of the season encourages us to detach from non-essentials — even those that, in and of themselves, are not bad for us. In her classic spiritual work, The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila spoke of the need to pass from the outer courtyards of sin and temptation, through to the inner chambers where attachments to even good things — including personal relationships — can distract us from putting our full attention on “His Majesty.”

And so, the disciplines of Lent provide an opportunity to make little choices, small offerings of obedience to our heavenly Father. Like my daughter’s scribbled love notes, they are valuable not because of their intrinsic worth … but because fulfilling these “family obligations” are precious reminders of the love between us.