Big M/Little m

 

When I was a kid, I wanted to be two things: a virgin martyr and a nun.

(I was a weird kid.)

For most people I’ve asked, to fulfill their childhood dreams, all they need to do is be successful in careers that they have college degrees in, hit a big break, or complete what they’ve spent hundreds of hours working at a skill for.  To fulfill mine, all I have to do is wait until my husband dies, join a convent, have reconstructive hymen surgery, and preach Jesus nonstop to whoever it is that eventually won’t be able to take it anymore and will just quiet me down, already.

At least, I used to think that way.

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Today is the feast of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, who were martyred in about the year 203 in Carthage.  They were both young women (St. Perpetua was a new mother and was a noblewoman; St. Felicity was pregnant until just before she was martyred, and she was a slave) who fell in love with Jesus and sacrificed their entire lives in order to be public believers.

I think about this a lot more than I did when I was a little girl, because when I was younger I was just full of zeal.  If God wanted me to be a martyr, I would, no question. But it was all zeal, no reality.  These days, I think more and more about martyrdom, and about how it just really flies so flagrantly in the face of reason.  People, for the most part, who are mentally well, do not want to die.  We are built to survive; it is in our DNA to thrive and want to live.  It is a sickness when we do not.

And yet, they exist: men and women, scores of them, who have died (and who continue to die) for a God they have encountered so deeply – they must have! – with an experience that is strong enough as to override that immensely deep desire to just survive.  “Big M” martyrs.

But back to Perpetua and Felicity.

A few things: they were both mothers.  Perpetua’s baby was an infant and she was still nursing; Felicity had just given birth when they went to their deaths to be gored at the games.  No mother I know (and I am a mother, too, so I include myself here) would willingly leave her child – especially her brand new, days old child  – for a reason like this.  Their whole selves, any shred of reason they would have had in their bodies must have been calling out to them to stop, for the sake of their children, and take back their belief.  And yet, they kept on.

They entrusted their children to those who would carry on their faith for them, when they could not survive on the Earth to do so.  And that is another death for them, too – to have to die to their desire to be with their children.

Jesus knew this.  He said it when He spoke,

“Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers or children or lands for My sake and the Gospel’s sake, will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age…and to receive eternal life in the age to come.” (Mark 10:29-30)

In short, it has to be God, above all.  Above all.

In the end, the women were beaten, scourged in front of a crowd and gorged by a wild cow.  When they didn’t die from that, they were killed by the sword.  Perpetua’s executioner was new at it, and couldn’t stop shaking enough to get a good angle, and so Perpetua took his hand and guided him through it.

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So I ask myself, would I still be willing to die for Him? I hope so.  (Yep, still weird.)  But even if most of us are not called to be martyred for Him the way many people still are, paying with their entire lives to believe, we are called to continue to hold God above all we have in our lives.

And so we are called to a different kind of martyrdom, “Little m” martyrdom: that kind of non-bodily dying that is still incredibly painful.  Lost friendships because of faith.  Exclusion.  Marriages torn apart.  People who don’t understand you, who no longer want to talk to you, associate with you, think about you. It happens, and it’s painful.  Is it on the same level of those in so many countries around the world who are being decimated for being Christian? No.

But it will be rewarded, too.  The last part of the Mark quote: “…[none of these] will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age, and to receive eternal life in the age to come.”

God is not the kind to take everything and keep it selfishly, requiring every exact ounce and returning nothing.  He gives back.  Immeasurably.  More than we could ever give Him.

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About That Chair.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, which sounds pretty silly.  A whole feast day for a chair?

I mean, it is pretty magnificent.

But the feast day isn’t about the chair itself, it’s about what it represents- essentially, the Papacy: Jesus handing over the responsibility of building the Church on Earth to Peter and all those who will follow in his footsteps (along with the ever-essential guidance of the Holy Spirit).

Peter was this really rough-and-tumble guy whom Jesus chose to run the Church after He ascended – and it’s amazing, when you think about it: Jesus handing the keys over to a man who a very short time earlier denied that he even knew Jesus, much associated with Him in any way.  I admittedly don’t know as much as I should about the early church (it had become known in a Bible study that Acts of the Apostles was my least favorite book of the Bible), but I can imagine that when any human is in charge of anything, mistakes happen.  Big mistakes happen. Scandalous, tremendous mistakes happen.  Peter did very well, but there’s been evidence through the centuries of the massive difficulties of steering the Church through the extremely rough ocean of the world.  And I think of myself, nowhere near ever being Pope (thankfully), helping to steer my own family’s tiny little ship and being terrified, just hoping we make it to dry land all in one piece.  How much more difficult is it when your ship holds billions of people?

And yet, the Church endures.  Because of Grace.

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Today’s feast also got me thinking of why we celebrate them the way we do.  My mother died on January 31st, and my parents’ wedding anniversary was just before then, on the 27th.  I thought of my Dad on the 27th this year, and called him to wish him a happy anniversary, and knew by the sadness he still had in his voice that that particular day was incredibly hard for him.  Although I miss her so much, I don’t miss her as a wife; I miss her as a mother.  My father missed her as his wife that day, specific to their relationship; and so he thinks of her in that way, on that day.

And so it is with the Church, too, and these feasts.  We remember the Pope all the time; we learn about the Papacy and how it continues its lineage still through all of the hundreds of years.  But today we remember in a special way what it all means: that God, knowing in His mercy that just as we have a Father in Heaven we need a Mother on Earth, and for Catholics, that Mother is our Church.  We need someone to lead it.  St. Peter was the first; Francis is the current shepherd. We do well to pray for him as much as we can!

 

Thoughts on #ThoughtsandPrayers.

I understand.

I completely understand.

You’re angry.  Furious.  You have children, and can only imagine the horror – the absolute, insane horror – of sending them off to a place of learning, where they are meant to be nurtured, and formed, and instead they are killed, the thread of their lives cut, just like that.  Or you don’t have children, but remember when you were one, and can’t wrap your mind around the incongruous reality that someone could actually go into a school and shoot with wild abandon, their consciences so charred beyond recognition that they just had no desire to think, they just shot and shot and shot.

And you are so angry.  You’re angry because it was Ash Wednesday just yesterday, and here are all of the politicians, those men who were sworn in but who you could swear were bought in, displaying their cross-smears of ashes on their foreheads.  They’re on TV, and they’re not talking about anything, they’re trying to make sense of it but trying to keep their constituents, too — trying to walk this sick, impossible line that is really only an illusion because surely you can’t be one thing (smeared with ashes, a Christian!) and be something else — you can’t be someone who does nothing!

And they offer their thoughts and their prayers and just hearing that is like a food grater rubbed inside your mind, scrubbing your brain and you feel like you’re going to break in half with anger, because NOT AGAIN DO NOT SAY THAT JUST DON’T, JUST ANYTHING BUT THAT BUT OF COURSE THAT’S WHAT YOU SAY.

I am not them, I do not speak for them.

I speak as someone who prays.

I understand you.  I know exactly where you are, because it makes me angry, too.  It infuriates me that in the public mind, prayer is now equivalent to inaction.  Indifference.

But prayer is not those things.  It was never meant to be.  What prayer was originally designed to be, before it became shorthand for “we’re thinking a lot about it until we forget about it”, was communication between man and God.  Man, in his humanity and desire for knowledge, communicates to his Creator in order to make sense of the world around him.  He desires to know how to live, how to be successful, how to build relationships.  He desires to know the origins of things, to learn.  He desires unity with the One who built him, the One who knows him better than anyone else ever could, because He has the blueprint.

And because prayer is communication, God answers Man back.  He teaches him how to live, how to serve.  How to open his mind to learn new things, like science and medicine and what makes things work.  How to observe the seasons so he can raise crops.  How to move and live and breathe through a world that was once a wonderful place, but had become a shadow of what it used to be because Man takes a long time to learn his lessons.  How to seek peace, real, lasting Peace.

It was always meant to be an open line of communication.  Man asks of God, God answers in the best interest of Man, because He created Man, and He loves him.  But Man doesn’t always like God’s answers, because they’re hard, and Man is selfish, and because it involves pain and sacrifice and the best things for Man involve things that are difficult.

God doesn’t like pain, either.  He hates that we have to die.  He calls us back to Himself, but He hates that we suffer.  He hates the evil that befalls us, that we are constantly drawn to and that we choose.  When we lose someone, when we hear constantly of people dying and of their terror, our sorrow is His sorrow.

But God is not a genie.  Prayer was always meant to be a channel by which God gives us the ability to carry out His will and live a good, decent life because people can’t do it well on their own.  You can be a good, decent human being without believing, in God, sure.  You can be a good person and a nice person and help others because it is in your nature and in your best interest to do so.  But the difference is that people of faith generally believe that deep down, they’re inadequate – that they lack the ability to love others more than themselves, that they are more selfish than selfless- and so they pray to God, the creator of all good things, for that gift to be more selfless.  For the gift to be more giving.  For the gift to put themselves aside and put others first more than they do.

To be perfectly honest with you, I need to pray very hard to do those things.  I wish it would come naturally to me, but it does not.  If I don’t pray, if I don’t keep those lines of communication open and get that grace, that gift, then I am way more selfish.  I am so much more callous, so much less decent.  I am less good.  And I know I’m not alone.

Prayer is communication.  It is communication that leads to action.  It is something that should be honored as a tradition of people of faith and it should be respected, not denigrated, just because you are angry.  Even if you are righteously, rightfully angry.

But make no mistake: there is a difference between prayer and #thoughtsandprayers.  #Thoughtsandprayers are just people buying their own hype.  Do not listen to it.  In the book of James, it says “Faith without works is dead.”  We need works.

We need works.

I know you know this.

But for millions of people, prayer is not doing nothing.  Prayer is communicating.  Prayer is trying to listen – in all of the noise, God! – trying to listen.  To know what to do next.

But something needs to happen next.

What We Really See: A Response

A friend of mine published an article the other day in Mommy Nearest, and I wanted to write about it.

[First of all, a disclaimer: I know Priscilla in real life.  She and one of my cousins were in a longtime relationship, she was a guest at my wedding, and I consider her a friend.  As a writer, she inspires me with her moxie, and although she and I approach issues differently (sometimes very differently), I respect her very, very much.]

So when she published her latest article, “Why I Became Even More Pro-Choice After Becoming a Mother,” I felt a few things: sadness, understanding, and the surprising emotion of what it would feel like to have a lightbulb go off in your head the way they do in comic strips.  The sadness because I never like to hear about anyone having an abortion; the understanding because as a mother myself, I understand the physical and mental toll pregnancy exacts.  I can understand the financial strain children put on a marriage and on a family, and I can understand the terror of having to face the trauma of the possibility that a pregnancy might not end with a baby you can take home with you, especially when you have already gone through that trial not only once, but nearly twice, as Priscilla did.  I felt the lightbulb because her article really illuminated for me the reasoning so many women have when they have abortions after already having children, a demographic I have to admit I had the most difficult time understanding.

So thank you, Priscilla, for walking me through your thought process.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I know that, as a pro-lifer and someone completely on the other side of the street, so to speak, I have met a lot of people on ‘my side’ who are immediately dismissive of articles like hers.  And I know that, as a reader of the Internet, there are just as many women who are as dismissive of people like me, too.  

And I felt compelled to respond to this, even though it would probably immediately be dismissed out of hand, out of a spirit of dialogue, for people to understand why we think the way we do.  I think sharing our experiences online is a powerful thing, and for people who have more than one point of view.

Here’s what I can tell you: I’m not pro-life because I hate women.  I’m not pro-life because people tell me to be. I’m not pro-life because I hate poor people and feel the need to step on them to get ahead; I’m not pro-life because my religion commands me to be.  I’m not pro-life because I want women to always be secondary to men.

Here it is, simply.  I am pro-life because I believe that as a scientific fact, human life begins at conception.  

That’s it.  

So Priscilla and I are at odds pretty much fundamentally, because philosophically, we have different definitions of what personhood is and where it begins.  She believes that it is we who decide when a baby is a baby, or that our circumstances dictate when a baby is a baby.  I believe in an objective truths that are certain whether or not I believe in them.  If human life is human life at conception, it follows that it is own entity, separate from myself, even when it’s physically inside me.  If I believe that, then I believe any termination of that pregnancy is definitively ending a human life.

But here’s the thing: a lot of people think that pro-lifers assume it’s all easy.  Just keep it, keep your head down, and work.  Too bad for you, they think.  You made your bed, right? Sleep in it.  But a lot of us pro-lifers understand how hard it is.  It’s an incredibly hard thing to be pregnant when you do not want to be.  It is incredibly hard to be pregnant and have to worry about where your food is coming from and how bills are going to be paid, because those are very real things that need to be addressed.    It’s incredibly hard to be pregnant having lost a child, or even more than one child.  It’s incredibly hard to be pregnant when your body hates it, when you have HG and you are so sick you can’t physically function, especially if you have other children to take care of.  When you’re told your child has no chance of survival outside the womb.  When you want to keep your babies so, so badly, more than anything, but the circumstances say no.

Physical and psychological strain is also a very, very real thing.  Pro-lifers see that.  I don’t know if you know that, but we see it.  Those are all very hard realities to face, and these are realities that women face every single day in every country in the world.

Speaking for myself as a pro-lifer, it’s my job to work to make sure those outside conditions are met so that women can feel more empowered to have their babies and see their pregnancies through.  There are so many responsibilities that we all share here.

But I also know that some choices aren’t up to us.  I have seen the power of women helping each other, of supporting each other when circumstances seem insanely dire.  I have seen what can happen when we reach out our hands to one another and give each other hope.  

It is so, so hard.  But it is not impossible.

In the Middle of the Night.

I had a lot of anxiety as a kid, particularly on Sunday nights.  I can’t remember very clearly why I had trouble just then, but every Sunday evening after dinner when I was in middle school, I would completely freak out and have trouble calming myself down enough to go to sleep.

The thing that would calm me down the most, interestingly, was the theme song to the TV show “The Critic.”  It was a fun, jazzy little song, but the part that comforted me the most was at the end, when main character Jay Sherman burrows down in his NYC apartment to go to sleep and the camera pans out, showing the entire skyline.  There were lights on in his apartment building, and lights on all over the city.

And it gave me such a great comfort, at that young age, to know that in my anxiety and in my worry, I wasn’t alone.  Other people were up, too, in cities like New York that never slept.

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At night, every night – in the smack dead of night, no less – there are men and women who wake from their sleep far too early for normal people and dress and go to another room where they pray for the rest of the world.  That is a reality.  People whom you have never met, and will, in all likelihood, never meet, leave their comfortable beds and their dreams and they walk – willingly, mind you – and ask God to hear their prayers for and incredibly broken world.  They pray for addicts, and for abused children.  For victims of war, for people wrapped in hatred, for people in pain.  They chant and pray and ask God for His mercy on those whom He has created but have gone so far from Him.  They ask Him to see them, to heal them, to empower them, to sustain them.

They pray, in short, for you.  For me, too.

Why do they pray in the middle of the night? Maybe it’s partly sacrifice – it is so meaningful that they would give up their sleep for others – but maybe it’s because it is in that incredible time of silence that God’s voice is the loudest.  Maybe they know that God surely hears them all hours of the day and night, but it is in the darkest night that they can be assured of the best chance of hearing Him back.

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There are many things I admire about monks and cloistered women religious.  I respect their silence, their quiet confidence, their seemingly easy sense of abandonment to God and His desires.  I myself am not a silent person, nor confident, and my sense of abandonment is anything but easy, although it’s a skill I am trying to practice daily.  Does that make me any more or any less? I don’t think so.  But there is so, so much I can learn from them.

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This morning, I was awakened in the night by one of my children, who has a fever.  My first thoughts were, admittedly, not of helping and of comforting; it was of my own bed and the dream I was in the middle in, and how cold it would be to go downstairs.  I immediately began to think of the anxieties of the day: what would my children be like? Would my son get more sick throughout the day? What things did I have to get done? So many things.

It wasn’t until hours later, sufficiently caffeinated and my now both awake children quietly playing in the other room that I remembered that in my time of anxiety, there were others praying.  There was another city that never sleeps, lighted only by candles and little lights that illumine pages of musical notes.

And the prayers of that night were, in their own way, sustaining me and were there for me to lean on, even in the daytime.

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Prayer strengthens.  Your prayers strengthen others.  Their prayer strengthens you.  You have my prayers for a happy, holy, calm Sunday day of rest.

Getting to Work.

One of the things I love best about the saints is how hardworking they were, even if some of them were too sick to do much else than lie in a convalescent’s bed and stare out the window.  Prayer is really hard work, even if it doesn’t look like it is.

I mean, think about it.  Mother Teresa didn’t bum around the convent all day.  Don Bosco was too busy getting his pupils the spiritual and mental education they needed to turn them into upstanding men to just do nothing.  St. Francis nearly walked his wealthy-born feet down to the nubs in order to proclaim the Gospels and minister to the poor.  St. Benedict’s motto, “Ora et Labora” translates to “Pray and Work.”  And so on and so forth, all the way down the Sainthood line.  No matter what charism you embrace, what spirituality fits you best, you’re going to find that the men and women that pursued holiness were the ones who got to work.

Today is the Feast Day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, foundress of the Sisters of Charity and of Catholic education in America.  She was the first American-born saint, she had five children, and she faced a lot of discrimination for converting to Catholicism at a time when women who had money and position (which she did) just plain didn’t risk all of that social standing to enter into the Church.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a worker.  (And even if she didn’t do any of the founding of things, even if she was just a mom of five, she would have been a worker.  I have a few friends who have at least five children, and I was at Aldi once when a mom with five kids was there, and all of their examples showed me that five kids at once anywhere is the textbook definition of work.)

So we honor St. Elizabeth for her steadfastness and her willingness to roll up her sleeves and do what needed to be done.  If I think about what I would have done in her position, widowed with five children, I don’t know that I’d convert to Catholicism.  I like to think I would, but I’d probably just mostly spend my days making sure I looked pretty while searching around for new rich husbands, because hello five children.  I pray for her intercession to want to work hard on days like today, when the weather is crazy cold and all I want to do is plant my children in front of the TV and read online celebrity gossip articles all day long.

But I know that God’s plan for us is not laziness, it’s work.  God put Adam to work right out of the gate, naming all the animals and figuring out what went where in Eden.  He made our bodies to work, He gave us an innate desire to produce things.  Don’t believe me? Try not having a job for more than a week (with no idea where the next job will come from), and get back to me.

What is God’s work for us? I don’t know what He wants you to do, specifically.  I do know that He wants you to do something, though.  We’re all called to bring God’s message of love to each other and He wants us to serve our neighbors and those in need.  And there are plenty of people in need.

When I worked at a coffee shop some years ago a favorite saying among the supervisors was “If you got time to lean, you got time to clean.”  Which, in our tradition of faith, might sound something like, “If you got time to Netflix, you got time to help your neighbor who doesn’t have any food to eat although you have plenty, so…no Netflix.  Or at the very least, rummage through your pantry for food to donate while Netflix is on in the background.”

Or something like that.  I don’t know what He wants for you, personally.  Shoot, I barely know what He wants for me, most days.  BUT! I do know that if you ask Him, He’ll tell you.  So if you want to know what He wants, ask Him.  (My favorite thing to do is to ask God what He wants from me, then to remind Him about thirty times in that prayer that I am more obtuse than most people and really need VERY LARGE HINTS about what I should be doing.)

But here’s the other thing.  You probably know people like this, who confuse doing God’s work with doing God’s job…which are two different things.  Doing God’s work: helping people, righting wrongs, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick and dying, being available to those in prison – those are all good for us to do, and we should do those things as often as we can.  But when you think about trying to save people, or change them, or make them do what we want them to do, no matter how good our intentions are…well, that’s not for us to do.  That’s not God’s work.  God has the ability to change those people, but that’s between them and God.  We’re supposed to pray for them, lift them up to God, and pretty much leave it alone.

All of that is incredibly hard to do, of course.  Being a saint is also an incredibly hard thing to be.

But it’s a gift that we — all of us — are given the grace to achieve, if we want it.

So today, pray for us, Elizabeth Ann Seton! Pray that we’ll be given the insight from God to know what we should do, and the patience, energy, and desire to do it.  Help us get to work!

 

The Sacred Heart.

“Stick to the sides,” my husband told me.  We were going to a child’s birthday party, one of the little ones my son has grown up with.

“It’s a barbecue, right? So hamburgers and hot dogs.  We’ll have to stick to the sides.”

Oh, right.  It’s Friday.

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“So why don’t you eat meat on Fridays?” A friend asked, as we began to prepare dinner on our camping trip – meatless — not impossible at all, just…inconvenient.

“Because Jesus died on a Friday,” I explained.  “So we sacrifice something on Fridays in a memorial of that.  Traditionally it’s been meat, so…we do meat.”

It makes sense to me, but it sounds so silly, and I can understand why people would think it’s strange.

“So when was the last time you had meat on a Friday?”

I squint.  “Um…just before Lent, maybe?”

I shrug, and the conversation ends there – we both are fine with where we are.

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It was my husband who came up with the idea of doing the Sacred Heart Devotion – attending Mass every first Friday of the month for nine consecutive months.  (A much better explanation of the devotion can be found here and here.)  But I had found the Sacred Heart much earlier than that.

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My mother died in the middle of the night.  My husband and children and I were staying at my in-laws’ house in New Jersey, close enough to the hospice center where my mother was.  We had been waiting – making calls to nurse friends – Is this the end, is this the end? – and trying to make plans.  My husband and I had decided to return to Pittsburgh with our kids and return after she had passed, because we didn’t know how long it would take, and there was precious little to do outside of sitting – sometimes in different places, like a hallway or a cafeteria or a hospice room – and waiting.

But she passed away in the middle of the night, so there was no returning to Pittsburgh when we’d thought.

I was asleep in my sister-in-law’s childhood bedroom, my seven month old daughter shifting in the pack-n-play on the floor next to the bed.  A small light gently illuminated the room.

My phone rang.  It was my father.

“Mom passed away,” he told me.  He sounded so tired.

“Okay,” I said.  “Thank you for letting me know.”

Later he’d say he was confused by my reaction, he wasn’t sure it was even me he was talking to.  But I was half-asleep, and in reality had no idea what to say or to think.  I had been so tired, we all were, of waiting.  And the moment had come, and I was still so tired.

It was still dark.  I left the room and quietly made my way down the hall to the other room where my husband and son were.  I wanted to wake my husband up to tell him, but decided he should sleep.  No point to waking him up.  (And there’s never, in my opinion, a good reason to wake up a sleeping child.  I am very against that.)  They both lay there, completely asleep, and I turned and walked back to where I’d been.

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The first thing I did when I returned to bed was thank God over and over that it was over, and felt this enormous sense of relief completely wash over me.  She had been so sick, and for so long.  And she wasn’t any longer; and for that I was so, so grateful.

I turned back to my phone and messaged a bunch of my friends who had been praying for us and my mom, and told them she had passed.  I put my phone back on the little table and rolled over again.

I started to drift off, and in those moments, caught between wakefulness and dreaming, I saw it: a heart.  A large, anatomical-looking heart, completely suspended in black space.  It was a completely still heart, not moving, but I understood it was alive.  I knew, in my limited dream-understanding, that it was the Sacred Heart, and it understood suffering and was at peace with it.  It knew my personal suffering, and did not turn away.

It didn’t do anything, just hung in suspension, but a great peace radiated from it.  I knew, somehow, that my suffering and my mother’s suffering and the suffering of all those who knew her was absorbed by that suffering heart; and all I knew was that it understood.  It got it.  And that was enough.

I fell asleep soon after that and woke up when my daughter did.

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We have two months to go until our First Friday devotions are complete.  We’ve had to attend Mass with both kids this summer as school is out, and it’s not exactly what I would call a fun time, bringing two small children to a very early morning Mass – they make a lot of noise.

I hadn’t had any particular interest or understanding of the Sacred Heart prior to my experience with my mother’s death, but I can’t accurately tell you – nor put into words – the comfort and consolation I experienced from my encounter with it.

And it’s a comfort to me that even after the First Friday Masses are over, we’ll still be sacrificing something on Fridays as a reminder to us that we remember Jesus’ sacrifice, too.  That we can share both suffering and consolation with Him.  Because He understands both.