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!

 

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.

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.

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?