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.

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Mama T.

So Mother Teresa will be canonized this week.  I don’t know an incredible amount about her, but one of my favorite stories came from a seminarian I once met who went to volunteer with her order when she was still alive.  He described the horrible conditions of where he went to work, and what it was like to live and work for Mother Teresa.  He had brought along a mirror with him, I guess to check his reflection or whatever, and the story went that she caught him checking his look one day before volunteering.  She walked over to him, took the mirror and broke it, and gave him one shard to use instead — anything bigger would be the height of vanity.

I have no idea if that story is true or not, but I love it.  I love the single-mindedness of helping God’s people.  What a role model to have at this time in our history.

I was thinking recently about being a Catholic and what it means to be a Catholic voter in America these days, and I thought about what actually needs to be done to affect change in our country.  Think about the one issue (or two, or however many) you feel in your life is the most important thing, and if it needs changing, how would you change it? How would you change racism, or poverty? Indifference? Ignorance? Whatever the issue is, pray about how God wants you particularly to do something about it, and let’s do what Mother Teresa did — pray for courage and strength, break our mirrors, take the focus off ourselves, and go to work.

In the news today was a story about an FSU wide receiver, Travis Rudolph, who did an astounding act: while visiting a middle school, he sat with a kid during lunch.  The young boy has autism, and would normally not have anyone to sit with during mealtime — the other kids leave him out.  The player didn’t know about the disability – he just saw a boy sitting alone – and decided to keep him company.  The act blew the boy’s mother away, and on social media, she announced the good deed he did that made such a difference to her family.  The story blew up and became such big news because it highlighted that to which we are so attracted: stepping outside of ourselves to help others.

Mother Teresa did that.  Did she solve the problem of poverty? No.  But she showed us how we can start.  Travis Rudolph did that.  Did he solve the problem of ostracizing others because of fearing a disability? No.  But he showed us how we can start.  You and I can do it, too.  We’re all called to it, no matter how large problems might seem.  It will make a difference, I promise you.

So That Happened.

My Mom passed away in January.  It’s nearly five months later and while I’m still trying to process things, there are so many things I’m grateful for.

I’m grateful I was there as close to the end as I was.  I wasn’t there when she died, but I was able to spend time with her in her last days.  I never wanted that – I wanted to be far away and “get the call” and have that be that, but it was such a grace that I was able to see her again, even if she couldn’t see me.

There is so much that we fear in death – and not only death, but the things that go along with it: getting sick, growing older, losing the things we once had (or even the physical possessions we have now).  And being there for my mom wasn’t fun, or anything – it was incredibly difficult, at times – but it was a real privilege to see and understand how things work – how the body works to shut itself down, how things progress physically – and also to see what comes out in relief against all that darkness.

It was very similar to me to the process of having a baby.  Labor and death can really mimic each other, I’ve found — it’s a singular process that must be gone through alone – although support is needed, at the end of the day, it’s the person’s process alone – and it’s an experience that requires the double helix of work and of release, of moving towards a goal while letting go of everything else.  It was pretty humbling to witness, as I imagine many births are, too.  I’m happy that my labors with my kids all went beautifully.  I hope my own death is as great an experience, too.

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I was honored to give the eulogy at my mother’s funeral.  Here it is.

Eulogy:

My mother could make friends with a bag of rocks.  

She had the ability to befriend absolutely anyone, no matter how standoffish or introverted, and within a matter of moments, make them feel comfortable. She made others feel important, and it’s a sure thing to say that if she knew you, she loved you.  Her joy came from those in her life, and where she came from.  

Growing up in Florida, my brothers and I heard stories about Inwood, and it seemed almost like Neverland to us: a place where that was more family than community, and every day brought a new adventure.  To my mom (and I know she was not the only one), Inwood was not only a place on a map; it was a source of life, a spring where she drew love that sustained her.  No wonder she had to be close to it, even if it was across the Hudson River from her home.  She could feel that love emanating from it even then, the love that made her tough enough to endure years of surgeries and procedures and chemotherapies that scarred her body, took her energy, and dimmed her light.

But through it all, she never complained.  Through the overwhelmingness of it all, each time I’d ask her how she was doing, she’d say “good.”  I knew it was a bad day on the days she’d say “I’m doing okay.”  Like Saint Paul wrote in the Epistles, she was constantly beaten down, but not broken; constantly wrapped in flame of pain, but never consumed.

What was she really consumed by? The love she felt for her husband; a love that had been tested and tried and found to be stronger than the greatest steel.  She was propelled by the love and pride she had for her children and her grandchildren, her nieces and nephews and their children.  She was energized by the love she had for her sisters. She was uplifted by the joy she found in the presence of her friends.

She loved her life, as hard as it was; and as joyful as we are that her suffering is gone, the most pain lies in the hard reality that the world doesn’t get another Janie Guerra.

Saint Paul writes in the second letter to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” My mother’s race was filled with hardship on a road paved with the sharpness of suffering, of uncertainty, doubt, and fear.  She was, like all of us, just a human being.  But her ability to run it – and to run it so well – said so much not only about her, but about the God she so fervently believed in and loved so much: a God who knew suffering, who knew the value it holds.  There truly is no crown without the cross.  Her suffering had redemptive meaning; it was the manner through which she obtained her glory.  Her last days were flooded with palpable grace.  Death looks so ugly from the outside, but there is such beauty to be found in it.  There is so much about our world today that is ugly, but you and I – and my mother certainly knew – the awe and wonder that is in it as well.  How lucky we are to have known her, to have loved her.

So where does that leave us? She is in a place where we can know she is with God; where her beauty has been restored to her.  In a place where her smile is no longer crooked, where her face is full again, where her voice is once again strong and clear, and sitting on a stoop that looks suspiciously like the one on Park Terrace West.

Her life here is over, but ours continues.  Our responsibilities have not gone away; we still have jobs to go to and bills to pay and hard things to endure.  But we can draw strength from the knowledge that the love of God that sustained her belongs to us, too.  We can spend our days remembering it and living in it; and living our lives to their fullest is what will honor her best.

In the words of Mother Teresa, “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not yet here.  Let us begin.”

 

St. Therese is My Homegirl

Catholics celebrated the feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux, known as The Little Flower, a few days ago, but I only today got a chance to finish reading up on her life.

Trusting God With St. Therese is a wonderful book by Connie Rossini, and it focuses on the model St. Therese provided for having a complete and utter trust in God.  The way Therese saw it, if God was her Heavenly Father who loved her, He would provide the means for her to have a joyful life and to reach Heaven.  (Her life was indeed joyful, but it was also full of suffering.)

If you are anything like me and have trouble trusting that God will provide for us, try to figure out where the problem comes from.  Think about it.  If you believe that God indeed is our Father, and wants to provide good things to His children, why wouldn’t He do so for you?  Is it our history? Maybe you’ve had trouble with your own earthly father providing for you, and it’s hard to not see God in the same way.

Or maybe you don’t feel worthy of God’s love, so you don’t trust that He can give any to you.  God’s love is for perfect people, you might think.  He only wants the folks who follow all the rules and do everything He wants.  If you think this way, remember those whom Jesus visited in the Bible: all the sinners.  He was frustrated with those who followed the rules, because that’s all they did – they didn’t see God’s love and mercy happening right in front of them.

Or maybe you’re scared of what will happen when we do trust in God.  A few months ago on that TV show “The Voice” (well, the Italian version of it), a nun auditioned to be on the show.  She sang a respectable version of Alicia Keys’ “No One,” and shocked all of the judges when they turned around to see her.  One of the judges asked if Pope Francis knew what she was up to, and she just kind of laughed and said that people think that if you follow God, He’ll take everything good away from you – and she wanted to show the world that it wasn’t true.  Do you think that if you trust in God, He’ll leave you holding the bag, completely miserable, and just drained of all happiness until you die? Because that most definitely will not happen.

It’s not easy to place our trust in God.  It’s probably one of the hardest things we’ll have to do in our lifetimes. How have you tried to trust God? What has He done in your life to prove His worthiness to you?

Raising a Child in Faith

The chapel is tiny, but beautiful. Two sets of four stained-glass windows line the walls, and the wooden pews are freshly polished and gleaming. Only two other people are here. One is a middle-aged woman who sits and stares straight ahead of her. Her hands are folded in her lap, and her lips move to a prayer only she can hear. Another is a white-haired man who kneels and holds an open prayer book. In front of us, on the white cloth-draped altar, stands a golden sunburst of a statuette, holding in its center a perfect white circle.

It is so quiet – at least, for the few seconds it takes my two-year-old son to clamor loudly onto the pew we’ve decided on. He takes a few seconds to cock his head back and look around, mouth agape, as if seeing it for the first time, although we have been here many times before.

We’re here for Eucharistic Adoration, a practice in the Roman Catholic Church in which the Blessed Sacrament (the consecrated altar bread Catholics consume) is displayed in a monstrance and venerated. Because Catholics believe that, through Transubstantiation, the Eucharist is the true Body of Christ, it is treated as though Jesus Himself is present, because to us, He is.

And so we go to adore Him there. We come before Him and offer our minds and our prayers to Him, sharing our deepest thoughts and desires. We come to worship Him. People stay for as long as they like, or are able to. Sometimes they stay for an hour, or more. But me? I stay until my son gets restless – which, these days, isn’t more than a quick hello.

Just checking in, Lord. Thank You so much for this day. Thank You for Your grace. Thank You for Your mercy, and for your love.

Thank You for my son.

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He was named after a saint. When he was born he received numerous holy cards with St. Dominic on them, a robed man standing in religious ecstasy, his eyes gazing heavenward, a scapular dangling from his fingers. They are beautiful cards, but he wasn’t named after that St. Dominic. The one he was named after, St. Dominic Savio, was just a boy when he died. He was a firecracker of a holy child who strode into his school office and demanded that his headmaster, Don Bosco, teach him how to become a saint. If he couldn’t, little Dominic said, he’d go somewhere else until he found out how. That incredible love for God, that insatiable desire for sainthood – those were the traits I wanted my son to be graced with.

That’s all I want for him, even today.

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Sometimes, my prayers for him are little shouts of desperation thrown toward God: “Oh Lord, give me strength. Give me patience and strength.” “Lord, let him sleep just a little while longer, just an hour longer, Lord.” “Lord, help him to be well-liked by the other kids. Help him find friends. Help him be accepted.”

Other times, they’re wordless bursts of joy my heart feels when he lies in my arms on the recliner in our family room, sleep-heavy and lightly snoring. He’ll turn over, his face rubbery with exhaustion, and all I can think of is how full of gratitude I am for his little life.

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He hasn’t started to ask “why?” yet, but I’m getting ready for the answers: “Because of chloraphyll.” “Because it’s raining.” “Because that’s how long it takes for the Earth to move around the sun.” One day he’ll ask me why Mommy and Daddy believe in Jesus. He’ll ask us who God is, and why we go to Mass. And I’m getting my answers ready. I’m lining up my reasons – there are so many reasons, all having to do with peace and faithfulness and sacrifice and love – but mostly, it’s so simple. “Do you feel love? I know you do, little one. We love each other because God is love. He showed us how.”

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Our plan is to send him to Catholic school. He’ll learn about our faith from my husband and I and from his teachers; he’ll attend Mass with his classmates on certain days during the school year and with us every Sunday. These meetings with God and the community he’ll share with our parish will be the slow process by which he’ll be able to fit into the armor of God we’re all called to wear.

But it happens, even so in the Catholic Church in America: Catholic children who go to public school are required to attend weekly catechism classes at their parish in order to receive their Sacraments with their peers. And when they receive the last of the Sacraments they’ll receive as young adults, Confirmation, they are often not seen in church for a very long time. I don’t want my son to “graduate” from Catholicism – to show up on the day of his Confirmation and not see the inside of a church again until he’s married; and after that not until his own children are baptized. I don’t want his faith in God to be reduced to items on a checklist; a “Go” he must pass in order to receive a prize.

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To tell you the truth, I get worried when I think about the life of faith my son will experience. As is so often the case these days, those who are religious and who seek holiness are on one side – while those who do not are starkly on another. Their religious tendencies are so closely intertwined with their political ideologies, and people are quicker to argue about faith than to discuss it. I wonder if it’ll cause him to become disillusioned. Will he shut others out if what they believe is different than what he believes? Will he remember that Jesus came to us as a poor, Suffering Servant? And if he does, and decides to serve Him, will he realize that the poor and marginalized, the ones crying out for justice – exist where there is no black or white, but only gray?

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It’s in a mother’s very nature that she would desire the best for her children; and for a religious mother, that best is nothing short of God. St. Monica wanted her wayward son to feel God’s love burning in his heart. (Eventually, he – St. Augustine – did.) St. Rita wanted her vengeful sons to understand that a life of peace was attainable through God’s mercy and goodness alone. (They did, too.)

I pray so fervently that my prayers will be answered, but I know that my son’s relationship with God is his alone. I can tell him about Jesus and about the fervent and fantastic love of God; but in the end, it’s not my armor that Dominic has to somehow squeeze into. His walk with His creator will be his own.

And it will be my privilege to accompany him on his journey as far as I can.

*

Dominic is restless now; we’ve stayed at the chapel too long. We get up to leave and as we exit the chapel doors and walk down the stone pathway to the parking lot, the man who was inside with us catches up to me. He talks with a slight accent, although I can’t place it. He smiless.

“Jesus was once as he was,” he says, pointing to Dominic.  “The challenge now is for your son to become like Him.”

“That’s the goal,” I say with a smile, reaching for Dominic’s hand.

The man smiles back at us and turns to walk away.

 

The Challenge

It’s been a long week and a half for so many people, and instead of trying to figure out how I can best help others, I just feel like running straight to God and hiding in Him.  I don’t want to remember that although the proverbial smoke has cleared from the Boston bombing and the West, Texas explosion there are still lives left behind that have been changed.

I can’t even pretend that I don’t know what to do, because I know what Jesus would want all of us to do.  To remember that even though the news has mostly moved on to other things, there are still people that need help.  People who have less limbs than they once did.  People who have less family members than they once did.  And those are just folks from those two incidents.  There are plenty more people who, in this last week alone, have less food than they once did; less friendship; less empathy.

And although I’m sure God likes the idea of me turning to Him, but He’d like it a lot more if I turned towards others, too.  When my son wants to be held instead of doing what he needs to do to help him practice a new skill, I love it, but I also know when it’s time to get him to let go and to challenge him to get moving.  I know that’s what God is doing with me at the moment.

Maybe He’s doing that with you, too?