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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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!

 

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.

The True Adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle

I won a contest, guys! It was for an essay detailing the misadventures of my first car, a beautiful, bright red Volkswagen Beetle.  I loved that car so much.

Like most things that happen to me, these stories are 100% true.

“It took me five tries to get my driver’s license.  It was mostly due to parallel parking – well, that and K-turns, those three-point turns you have to make to make a U-turn out of wherever you are.  It was pretty embarrassing, having to go through the test five times, but my brother took the cake for worst license test-taker in our family when he mixed up the gas and brake pedals and nearly hit a DMV worker who was walking into the building.”

Read the rest at Lumos!, the newsletter for Pittsburgh-area nonprofit Luminari.

Shawshanking It

I didn’t want to go.

I had other plans; I meant to run a few errands before the upcoming festivities of my daughter’s Baptism this weekend, and the logistics of rushing to meet anyone anywhere seemed impossible.  But I wanted to see my friend and when she suggested spending some time walking around K-Mart and letting the kids loose (this K-Mart doesn’t pull in a lot of foot traffic), I agreed.

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It’s not easy, rounding two kids up to go places.

I’d known that before I had the second one, but it’s really not easy when one of the kids is being potty trained and we have to sit him on the potty before we go anywhere.  Because it’s not really ever an easy sit.  There’s the bribery, the whining, the carrying, the tears, the biting, scratching and pinching, and even if he successfully goes on the potty, there’s the inevitable fight over the pulling up of the undies.  All of this while the baby is crying to be held in the other room.  Trying to get anywhere on time is a nightmare; and we were a few minutes late when we pulled into the parking lot.

I was frazzled.  I have been, lately.  My mom’s not well.  We found out in April, and the little time I had to really think about it before the baby arrived was stuffed with hysterical crying and the thought that it would just be too hard.  It is hard, but I can do hard things.  With the baby here in all of her newness, it’s easy to push the thoughts of my mom’s inevitable passing aside, but up they bubble, here and there.

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My friend asked how my mom was doing as we cruised the store, walking past the too-early aisles of Halloween candy set up facing the on-clearance rows of poolside plastic lawnchairs.  I told her how she’d had her PET scan to determine if she’d continue treatment, about how short her breath was getting, about how she slept all the time and barely could eat.  By the time we’d gotten to the toy aisles, the stomachache I’ve acquired when thinking about my mom for extended periods of time had set in, but we kept talking about her.  I wanted to talk about her.

“She wants to be cremated, I know that,” I said.  “Wants the ashes buried in the park near where she grew up.  In Manhattan.”

“You going to do it?”

I shook my head.  “My brother will, probably.  I don’t think it’s legal.  It’s human remains.”

“Why doesn’t he Shawshank it?” my friend asked.  I was confused.  Like, did she mean dig a tunnel, or…

And she mimicked Tim Robbins’ character walking through the prison yard, hands in his opened pockets, letting out the pieces of concrete wall he’d hammer-rocked through onto the ground.  “You know,” she said, “Putting the ashes in your pockets.  Shawshanking it.”

It was what I needed to hear.  I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time, and my eyes brimmed with the kind of tears I was pretty sure from the laughing and not just the intensity of what was going to come sooner rather than later.

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Knowing someone with terminal cancer – especially a family member – propels you into a vortex of grief early.  You get familiar with the idea of “first times” after the person passes (the first Christmas after, the first Thanksgiving after), but you also get pushed into an awareness of the “last times” you will have.

I don’t know how long she has left.  My birthday was two days ago; was it the last birthday I’ll have with my mother still alive?

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It helps that my faith dictates that there’s a Heaven and a time we’ll see each other again, but statements of faith like that have to be made for real.  Do I really believe this? Do I really believe in God and Heaven and Jesus dying for us on the Cross?

It’s strange that I have to ask myself that – it surprises me that I do, but it’s so near now.  These were just ideas before, and the reality is that I have to decide whether or not I think it’s true.

And yet I do believe it.  I do believe in all those things; I believe that it’s true.  And in those moments I have in between shoving my son towards the bathroom or strapping my screaming daughter in the car seat, I find myself believing and being comforted, even if it’s just for now.

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?

Momnipotent

My parish is running a monthly gathering for Moms beginning in October, and I just signed up.  It’s called “Momnipotent,” and is a discussion group focused specifically around motherhood and finding God through the challenges and joys it brings.

Here’s the trailer for the study:

I’m excited to check it out! I’ll let you know how it goes when it starts next month.

🙂