Fragments

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There is a mindfulness exercise that I learned during my psychology training. It involves sitting comfortably in a chair and imagining that all of the thoughts that come into your head are riding along a conveyor belt and you just observe them as the belt takes them in and then out of your consciousness. You are not supposed to judge them in anyway. No bad thoughts, no good thoughts. You just observe them, acknowledge they exist and let them go. I hated that exercise, it is too hard for me to just observe my thoughts and let them go. I have to mull over them, know them inside out, judge them, change them and shape them. I have to embrace them fully or send them into exile forever. I have to process and make sense of them, to fit them into my understanding of the world, and life, and God. In short, I am a terrible mindfulness patient.

In a lot of ways, my life right now feels like it has turned into that mindfulness exercise. As I respond to the dramatic changes that are happening in my life, sometimes on an hourly basis, my reactions are too big and powerful to process right now. I can’t let myself dwell on any of them because when one knocks me down, I have to right myself before the next wave crashes over me and I get knocked over again. Someday, I will process them and make sense of them. Someday, I will understand how they fit into my life story, my salvation story. I will do this because that is what we all must do to survive traumatic experiences without lasting psychological damage. I will do this because that is what allows us to ultimately move on. However, right now, the only way I can keep going is to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings and let them drift by me, to be revisited on another day. Consequently, it is difficult to write anything cohesive, so I will instead offer a few of my reflections that, while I have only partially absorbed them, have been meaningful to me.

Hansen’s Disease

Several years ago, my daughter was the kid who told the whole Sunday School class what leprosy was. Not unexpectedly, it horrified her classmates. However, I am realizing recently that we have all lost sight of some of the power behind the Biblical stories about leprosy. Since the discovery of a cure, leprosy is no longer a feared disease. In fact, it is such a non-issue that I didn’t even know that the current name for leprosy is Hansen’s Disease. However, in Biblical times, symptoms of leprosy not only meant often life-long health issues, but they also meant mandatory social distancing. Extreme, mandatory social distancing. In fact, this social distancing is actually codified in the Levitical Law which clearly lays out the way for the priest to determine if a person was “clean” or if he or she had leprosy and was, therefore, “unclean.” In some cases, this determination alone required weeks of isolation. When a priest made the determination that a person was unclean, the following was required to occur:

“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!” As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” – Leviticus 13:45-46

Clearly, this law would have huge implications for the lives of lepers. Implementing it would completely upend their lives. It would put them at risk by forcing them to live outside of the camp. However, over the past few weeks, as we have practiced social distancing, I have been struck by the social implications of this law. A person with leprosy would be socially distanced, even to the point of being seperated from his or her immediate family, for what could well be the rest of their life. That would be the worst part of leprosy.

In Father Damien and the Bells, Arthur and Elizabeth Sheehan described the fear of leprosy among the Hawaiian people in the 1800s thus, “It meant the most terrible doom they knew. ‘Separating Sickness’ they called it, for it was not so much the lingering death, the ugly disfigurement it could bring, or even the fact that it could not be cured that alarmed the people so much. It was because to be a victim (of leprosy) meant to be perpetually exiled. It meant never to see one’s family and friends again.”

Perpetually exiled. The most terrible doom. Yet, Jesus, when confronted by a man with leprosy, did not just say a word and heal him. He reached down and touched the one who had longed for human contact for so long, then he healed him (Matthew 8:1-4). And his followers were told to do the same (Matthew 10:8). Many did, among them St. Damien, who sacrificed his life serving the lepers quarantined on the Island of Molokai. What great love and compassion they had!

Gratitude

The Bible relates another encounter that Jesus had with lepers. At one point in His ministry, ten lepers came to Jesus and, standing at a distance, asked Him to heal them. Jesus sent them to see the priest and, as they went, they were healed. However, of the ten lepers who were healed, only one came back to thank Jesus (Luke 17:11-19).

So many times over the past few weeks, I have wondered why I was not more grateful for things that this pandemic has stripped away. Why did I get so frustrated and stressed every Sunday morning before Church, rather than thanking God for the amazing blessing of being able to actually go to Church? Why didn’t I thank God for the walk to my daughter’s school? Why did I forget to thank Him for playgrounds, playdates, friends and family? Why didn’t I thank Him for being able to get a book from the library or for being able to go to the doctors office to treat something that wasn’t emergent? Why didn’t I thank Him for hand sanitizer, lysol wipes, or toilet paper? Why didn’t I thank Him for the masks that my doctor wore during surgery to keep me healthy? Why didn’t I thank Him for flour or same day grocery deliveries? Why did I not give thanks each day that my husband, mother and father returned from the hospital healthy?

Why did I think of all these things as things that I was entitled to? Why did I think of them as rights? Why did I not think about them at all?

Whenever this pandemic ends and life becomes whatever our new normal will be, I don’t want to forget to thank God for all of these things. I don’t want to be like the other nine lepers.

Dependence

In addition to realizing how grateful I am for the things I used to have, I have realized how fragile everything I built my life on really is. Living in a wealthy, developed country with a good education and stable income, it was easy to imagine that my needs were pretty much covered. While I knew that these things were gifts from God, it was more in an abstract sense. I had no way to imagine what the widow who had nothing but a little flour and a little oil left to feed her son must have felt (1 Kings 17:7-16). If I am honest, I still can’t imagine it, but I do know the pangs of fear brought on by the thought of not being able to find flour so I can make bread for my food allergic children. I know what it feels like to pray that God will actually give my children daily bread to eat. Infact, I know more now about how dependent we really are on God for every aspect of our lives and I can understand a little bit more about how difficult it must have been for that widow to share what little she had with the prophet Elijah. I can begin to sense how terrified she must have been as she chose to trust God’s promise that, “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.” (1Kings 17:14). As a very human mother, I don’t want to understand this story any better than I already do, but I absolutely want my faith to grow to be more like this poor widows.

This brings me to my final thought from recent days which also has to do with dependence. In many ways, the needs that I am trusting God for are physical needs, however, the past few weeks have taught me more about how dependent I am upon God for my spiritual needs, as well. If my faith is to grow, it will not be because of anything I can do – I am just holding onto life with a white knuckle grip. As all of the external things that I do to nurture my soul (the Mass, Church, fellowship, Holy Week) have been stripped away and as the Church has recognized that even those things we do individually to worship and revere God (fasting, etc.) may be impossible for some of us to do right now, I am realizing that, in the end, we really do stand before God as unworthy sinners, unable to do anything to change our fallen state. Yet, more importantly, I am reminded that God has given His son to deal with our sin and that He is at work in our lives. I am recognizing that He alone is forming everything that is good about us, about what we do, and even about what we offer Him. Without God, we are nothing. We are dust. Yet, because of God, to dust we will not return.

Why I Hesitate to Say I am Pro-Life

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I was a child the first time I heard 2nd Chapter of Acts sing “My God, they’re killing thousands. Killing thousands, without blinking an eye.” I remember my horror when my mother explained what the lyrics referred to: sometimes people kill babies before they are even born.

That was my introduction to abortion and, as I grew, my lessons continued. Raised an evangelical Christian, I could have been the poster child for the pro-life movement. I helped gather items for pregnancy care center baby showers and organized pro-life walks at my public high school. I had lengthy debates with my grandmother, whose nursing career had shown her the horrors of botched abortions and had influenced her politics. In my spare time, I read books about abortion survivors and mothers like Karen Santorum, who chose to fight for their sick children’s lives at great cost to their own. My carefully crafted, homeschool sexual education curriculum even involved a meeting with the director of our local pregnancy care center.

When, as an adult, I became Catholic, I guess most people assumed that I would become even more unapologetically pro-life, but that is not what happened. Instead, I began to be uneasy about some of the tactics that the pro-life community was using to fight their battle against abortion. At first it was theoretical. I reasoned that screaming at a pregnant mom as she entered an abortion clinic probably did not have the desired effect in most cases. I mean, I am a believing Christian and how often do I let a ranting street preacher have any kind of impact on my actions? Then I started to see my friends, who had previously been open to Christianity, turning away from it because of the loveless way conservative Christians were acting and the hypocrisy they perceived in people who were pro-life in regards to an unborn baby but simultaneously devalued so many other lives (immigrant lives, black lives, criminals’ lives, and the lives of those living in poverty, for example). I too felt their frustration about this political dichotomy. More importantly, I began to grieve as they moved further and further from a saving faith, pushed away by the very people who claimed to speak for that faith.

In the midst of my growing unease about the pro-life movement’s methods, I lost a daughter at birth and then another at 10 weeks gestation. I found myself journeying alongside countless bereaved parents, some of whom had made the heart-wrenching decision to terminate a wanted pregnancy in order to save their child from unimaginable suffering.

I looked at these parents, desperately grieving the loss of their babies, and remembered my own daughters’ deaths. I reflected on the moments when I worried about my older daughter’s suffering. “How long would it have taken for her to lose consciousness without oxygen?” I had desperately asked my doctor. “Would she have known to panic when she couldn’t breathe, even though she had never taken a breath before? Did she have pain as her lungs became so eaten by bacteria that they broke apart and adhered together in all the wrong places? Did she suffer all alone while the NICU team broke her tiny ribs and stuck tubes in her sides to release the air escaping from her ruptured lungs?” Then I remembered the peaceful death that my 10-week-old had, passing away silently in the warmth of my womb, never knowing cold or panic.

With these memories crowding my mind, I look at the parents who chose to try to give their sick babies a more peaceful death and I can’t blame them. If I did not believe that God alone holds our lives in His hands, then I would make the same choice they did. If I did not believe that God would redeem even our most terrible suffering, then I would do anything to limit my child’s pain. I understand these parents, I share their grief from losing a child, and I am angry that Christians, the very people who should be walking with them through their pain, are compounding it by vilifying them as “murderers.”

So all of this is why I hesitate when I am asked if I am pro-life. The question being asked cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or a “no”. It requires nuance and explanation. Yes, I believe life begins at conception. Yes, I believe only God should chose when that life will end and I know that, as difficult as it is, we must speak the truth in love about this. Yes, I am committed to working towards a society in which mothers do not feel the need to abort their babies, where they can be confident that they can meet their children’s needs, where all life is valued. Yes, I am working towards figuring out ways to get kids out of the foster care system and into loving homes. Yes, I am teaching my own children to cherish life and to fight for it.

But, no, I do not believe that the mothers who seek abortions are any greater sinners than I am or that murderer is an appropriate name for them. No, I do not agree with the often hate-filled and judgmental stances taken by many in the pro-life movement – abortion needs to be fought, but it is just one of many battles being waged on humanity and we can’t try to fight it in isolation. We will fail if we keep usinf tactics that might advance us on this one front, but will destroy us on others. No, I do not think that saving an unborn life justifies damning countless other souls by repulsing them with propaganda that is often loveless and aggressive. No, I do not believe that my entire political view can be determined by the single issue of abortion, while I turn a blind eye to the starving, the persecuted and the sick.

Am I pro-life? I suppose some will say I am, some will say I am not. I will say that I am a Christian who is trying to love my God and my neighbor (born and unborn) and whose ultimate hope is that my actions help all of God’s created ones to know His tender love and to one day be united with Him in paradise.

Divine Mercy

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I haven’t had much energy this month for writing. Its been one of those “everyone is fed, everyone’s clothes are clean, we did school today, everything else can wait” kind of months. However, I led a small group of women in a discussion of Divine Mercy today and I thought that I might share something that I learned as I prepared for that talk: God is love and His Divine Mercy is the outpouring of that love in response to our needs.

John 4:8 tells us that “God is love.” As incomprehensible as it is, His very being is love. When that Love encounters our many needs, He acts in mercy because that is what love does when it is confronted with need. Our needs are many, so we can see His mercy manifested in countless ways throughout or lives: comfort for our sorrow, peace for our fear, satisfaction of our hunger, justice when we are wronged, the presence of His Spirit to teach and grow us, and so many others.  In all these ways God’s Divine Mercy is manifest in our lives.

Yet, the most pressing of all of our needs, the one that threatens to separate us from God and even to destroy us is our sin. That is why, the most profound way that God demonstrated his Divine Mercy was by sending his Son to suffer and die and then to conquer death and rise again. Because God is love and His love for us is unchanging, He responded to the great need that our sin created by offering this incredible gift of love and mercy.

As we approach Divine Mercy Sunday, I pray that we will all have the time and the energy to spend quiet moments reflecting on God’s great love and Divine Mercy as they were revealed to us on the cross at Calvary and in the empty tomb. And I invite you to pray with me that each person on this earth will be filled with a deep, heartfelt knowledge of God’s mercy, for to be loved so deeply and not know it must be the greatest tragedy of all.

Deliberately Unfulfilled

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“Uh-oh!” cried the teenage girl who was bagging my groceries. Curious, I looked up to see her holding a box of pregnancy tests above her head.

“Is this going to be good or bad?” she asked.

The cashier and the woman behind me froze as if they were holding their breath to see what I did. But, what could I say? I couldn’t tell this girl that I had been trying to hold a living baby in my arms for over two years. I didn’t want her to feel terrible when I told her that, during those two years of trying, I had lost one child at birth, one baby in a ten week miscarriage, and four more little souls before they were big enough to be seen on an ultrasound. I didn’t want to mention that the last box of tests I had purchased at her store had been used to make sure my HCG levels had returned to non-pregnant levels after a loss. Besides that, even if I had been willing to horrify her with the reality of recurrent pregnancy loss, I honestly didn’t know the true answer to her question.

Would it be good if, once again, the test was faintly positive and then faded after several days to nothing? There would be another little soul waiting for me in Heaven but still none in my arms.  And what if it was a clearer positive and I spent weeks gripped in panic and consumed by anxiety about the little life I was carrying but helpless to protect? My husband and I had tabled the question of whether or not I was even ready to endure such fear again because I couldn’t imagine ever being ready again. The reality was that, despite my doctor’s reassurances that it was probably just really bad luck, it seemed like the odds of a happy outcome were terribly low. Still, if the test was negative and I had to deal with yet another month of waiting for something I doubted would ever come and was beginning to lose the strength to try for, would that be any better?

I looked at the teenage girl holding up my box of tests and mustered the best smile that I could. Forcing myself not to think too much, I shrugged and replied, “Hopefully good.” Thankfully, whether she saw the tears sneaking into my eyes or she lost interest, she found something else to talk about.

Of course, while the girl had moved on, I had not. This interaction was not easily forgotten and, when a few days later I had the opportunity to listen to Amena Brown’s Bible Study about Hannah,* I thought, “I feel a lot like Hannah. I might as well listen to it.”

I was very glad that I did. While I have read the story of Hannah many times, I was surprised to hear six little words in the Biblical account of Hannah’s story that I had never noticed before: “the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb.” (1 Samuel 1:6)It wasn’t that God hadn’t gotten around to giving Hannah a child yet or that He hadn’t heard her prayers.  Instead, He had deliberately prevented her from having children. In fact, other translations of the same verse made this abundantly clear. The Holman Christian Standard Bible, for example, translates it as, “The Lord had kept Hannah from conceiving.” Clearly, God deliberately chose to prevent Hannah from having a baby and, by doing so, He chose for her to struggle through a season of wrestling with heartbreak and unfulfilled desire. He actively brought her to a point of sadness that was so deep that her pleading for deliverance was mistaken for drunkenness. This dark stage of Hannah’s life was not a mistake or even a side-effect of something else that God was doing. Instead, it was precisely what God wanted for her at that time.

I realized that the same was true of me. I wasn’t losing my children because God had forgotten me or because He had some other great plan that made us collateral damage. The fact that my arms were still empty wasn’t a mistake and it wasn’t punishment. I was exactly where God wanted me to be – constantly wrestling with heartbreak and unfulfilled desire. I don’t know why God put me in such a dark place, since unlike Hannah, I haven’t yet held the answer to my prayers. Nonetheless, I know that God is deliberately orchestrating my life and, because of that, my answer to the girl bagging my groceries was the truth: I have hope that whether the tests are positive or negative, it will be good.

 

 

* You can listen to Amena Brown’s talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1moOAN6UJZQ

More

 

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“God, I know, its all of this and so much more, but God right now this is what I’m longing for…Heaven in the face of my little girl.” – Steven Curtis Chapman

I was thinking about the day Mary got to Heaven the other day. In my limited understanding of what reaching Heaven is, all I could think of was the incredible joy she must have felt to see her Son again. I just can’t imagine how it must have felt for her to touch Him and hold Him. Her rejoicing must have been beyond anything we have experienced in this life.

As I was thinking these thoughts, I realized that all of my thoughts about Mary’s assumption into Heaven centered on the very earthly delight of seeing her Son again, not on finding herself in the presence of the Living God or seeing His face which would also have been very really aspects of her joy. This focus on seeing her Son made me consider my own dreams of what it will be like to reach Heaven and I realized they were also completely focused on one thing: reuniting with my daughter.

Its silly, really how I can cognitively know that being brought into the presence of the Creator will be a much bigger deal than wrapping my arms around my dark haired child, but honestly, that act of holding my living little girl would be the most amazing and heavenly thing that I can imagine in this life on earth. Everything else is too far beyond my imaging to even begin to comprehend it because I just can’t imagine anything more wonderful than embracing my daughter in God’s eternal kingdom.

Yet, I thank God that He is far beyond the confines of my simple imagination and that He has prepared wonders for me that I simply cannot fathom – the greatest of which is Himself.

A Lament for the Church

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There is a serious problem in Christianity. It is not isolated to a single denomination. It may not be a global problem, but it is certainly ravaging Western society. It is being magnified by the unchristian behaviors of our world leaders, media news stories, and the heroes of pop culture; however, each of us is ultimately responsible for it and we cannot shirk our responsibility. It is resulting in the loss of souls and new generations who are growing up to reject Christ. It is undermining the legitimacy of the Gospel message and earning us every charge of hypocrisy we have ever received. It is so urgent that we should be sounding alarms and rallying troops, charging into battle against the evil that has infiltrated us.

The problem that we face is that, through our lack of love, we have become resounding gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). Backed into a corner by our increasingly secular and permissive society, we have responded with anger instead of turning the other cheek and speaking the truth in love (Matthew 5:39 and Ephesians 4:15). Rather than seeking to meet our neighbors where they are, rather than cleaning and bandaging their gaping wounds, rather than saying,”Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34), we mock them, belittle them, hate and vilify them.

The absence of love colors our approach to homosexuality, end-of-life issues, contraception, denominational differences, racial discord, and countless other pressing topics that litter our social and political landscapes. Ironically, unlike many mothers who become more enraged by abortion after infant loss, since Noemi’s death, I have come to see our lack of love most poignantly in the way we address abortion.

Within a week of my daughter’s death, some dear friends gave me the book Sunshine after the Storm – A Survival Guide for The Grieving Mother, which contains a chapter about grief after medically recommended abortions. One of the stories in that chapter really struck me. While I absolutely believe that a new life is formed at the moment of conception and while I believe that abortion is, therefore, wrong, I also could not help but feel the agony of the mother in this story who was told,”Your child will be incapable of living without significant medical assistance. She will most likely seize to death upon delivery.” When that mother explained her choice to abort her baby by saying, “We did not want our daughter to exist solely because of machines…as much as we loved and wanted our daughter, we didn’t want her existence to be one of constant suffering,” I got it, I totally got it.

Having worked with profoundly disabled individuals who suffered years of intense pain and were constantly subjected to medical procedures that sustained their limitted existence, I was happy for Noemi when she died after 30 minutes of failed resuscitation. Had she lived, she would have sustained incredible brain damage and the choice to maintain her life would have been a way to avoid my own loss, rather than an opportunity for her to experience life. I am not saying that, had God granted her life, it would not have had value, nor that I would ever have deliberately ended it. Instead, I am saying that I would rather my daughter be in Heaven than be subjected to such a painful existence. Having experienced these thoughts about my own daughter, I understood the reason that this grieving mother chose to abort her child. Far from a “murderer,” she was a mother who, because she did not share my beliefs about abortion, did what she believed was the most loving thing that she could do for her baby.

How would Christ have responded to this mother if He met her leaving the abortion clinic? Would He shame her and condemn her or would He wrap her in His arms and allow her to sob on His shoulder? For that matter, how would He respond to a frightened teenager who gave her body away in an effort to feel the love and acceptance that she never recieved at home? Or to the young woman whose life was so incredibly painful that she preferred drug induced feelings of numbness and dissociation and then came out of her stupor and found herself “great with child?” Or to the mother who can’t feed the five children she already has or who fears that carrying a child to term will leave her children without their mother? Or to the young professional who has no relationship with God and has never understood how a bunch of cells can be considered a human but knows that those cells will ruin her career if she lets them grow?

He would never have compromised the truth or overlooked their sins, but, given the way He responded to the woman at the well (John 4), I suspect that He would have been more concerned about their salvation than about their sins. Afterall, He has already dealt with their sins, but He longs for a relationship with these women. I would venture to guess that He would have been careful to treat them with dignity and love.

What would our Christian witness be like if, instead of responding to these mothers with rage, disdain and condemnation, we responded like Jesus and we offered love? What would the world be like if, rather than resounding gongs and clanging cymbals, we were doves of peace and ambassadors of God’s love? The possibilities are endless because “love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Grief’s a Stinker

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If you have a young girl at home, you’ve probably had plenty of opportunities to watch Disney’s Frozen and to accumulate some favorite (and not so favorite) lines that run through your head at odd moments. Tonight, Princess Anna’s line about her volatile and reclusive sister keeps running through my head (“She’s a stinker!”) because it so aptly describes grief.

Just when I’m feeling pretty good and start to think that I have mastered being a grieving parent, the sorrow pummels me again and I am filled with sadness. Sadness because I miss my child. Sadness because I love the age from eight months to two years and I don’t get to enjoy that time with my second daughter. Sadness because my family will never be all together in this world. Sadness for my friend who is grieving her son’s death. Sadness for all the little ones who we don’t get to know on this side of Heaven. Sadness because change happens before I have appreciated the things that change. Sadness for our world and all of the hatred it holds. Sadness because of evil and sin.

Its a deep, deep sorrow that leaves me standing, mute before God. I can’t offer Him my thoughts because I can’t hold onto a thought long enough to be truly aware of it. I can’t offer Him my words because I don’t have any – I just cling to His words. I can’t even offer Him my feelings because the sadness is so empty that it feels like a colossal hole full of nothingness.

But somewhere in the depths of my soul I hear the words of St Therese of Lisieux saying, “I wish to give all to Jesus, since He makes me understand that He alone is perfect happiness. All!–all shall be for Him! And even when I have nothing, as is the case to-night, I will give Him this nothing . . .”* and I know that, for right now, placing my nothingness in His hands is all that I need to do.

 

*From The Story of A Soul – The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux as quoted on https://www.ecatholic2000.com/therese/sos18.shtml