Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Wrestling Match With God

(The post in which I explain why I love going to the movies in times of trouble and why I'm grateful that my children spend so many hours playing video games).

I took a mental break from my awful moving experience last week and went to see the premier of Exodus, a Hollywood epic about the story of Moses. In the movie, I learned that the name "Israel" means "wrestled with God." A character in the movie comments about how strange it is that the Jewish people see themselves as a people who "wrestle with God" and see that active struggle as a positive thing. In my head, I took so much comfort from that bit of dialogue. In my life as a Christian, its an active struggle to get a blessing from God. It's not this easy mental journey where "Oh, I decide to live life for Christ" at an Easter Vigil twelve years ago. It is a daily wrestling match to get through the challenges of life, the same struggles that everyone else has, with peace and dignity and love. Loving God feels like a wrestling match on the hard days.

On Friday, 72 hours before the scheduled closing date for my home sale, my buyer back out due to a lack of financing. Lots of poor people have this happen to them. Here is where my experience is slightly odd. My buyer got fired for cause 72 hours before she was supposed to sign for a new home loan. "For cause" is a my ex-lawyer legalize term which means "for a darn good reason." My buyer lied to her employer. She lied to her bank on her mortgage application. She also said a lot of lies to us and everyone around us.

When the Truth finally showed up, I had 90% of my belongings packed in neatly labeled cardboard boxes. I had turned off the power and water to my home.

The Truth is always good. However, sometimes it feels like God's timing sucks and I end up crying about Truth's arrival in my shower.

At 5 PM Friday night, I had another house showing for a new prospective buyer. There was a stack of moving boxes in my living room. There was no light in that area of the house because my beautiful sea horse lamps for that room where still packed in our storage locker. I put my six kids and the dog in our car and started driving around town, counting down the minutes before the home showing would be over.

At 5:01, I got a ring on my cellphone. I pulled over to a safe spot in the road and shifted into park. I picked up my cellphone and called my husband back. He told me "The showing got pushed back until 5:30!'

"Are you kidding me?" I answered.

"The guy got hung up at work. What do you expect?"

"I'm in a car with six kids and a dog. Our 10 week old newborn is currently wailing in his car seat. Can you hear him? Do you know where we can go in the middle of a cold winter night with a crying newborn and a dog? No where! We're driving around town together waiting for this showing to be over already!"

I hung up the phone.

The only way I'm getting through the emotions of this move is by practicing honesty with my kids. I started speaking my feelings out loud. I said "I know what I'm supposed to to do. I'm supposed to let God handle revenge. "Vengeance is mine says the Lord." But I'm really having trouble in this moment not wanting to kill someone."

In a moment of brutal moment of humility I told my kids the truth. I felt so mad. I knew what I was feeling was not good, but I had no idea how to get myself to where God wanted me to be.

My kid spoke up from the back of the car, "Mom, it's legal to kill someone in Minecraft!"

There was this beautiful chorus of support from my four gamer children. "Yeah Mom! You should join us on the Xbox. You can hack and stab and kill as many people as you want. It's all legal and you won't go to jail!"

My kids handed me a golden key out of my resentment. I was cold. I was exhausted. I was sore and frustrated. But in the dark winter night, I could picture a time when I could get out of the car. I could take a hot shower. I could drink a glass of wine. I could go upstairs and play a video game with some of the four people I love best in the world. It was a prescription for self-soothing that seemed to take the sting out of a bad day.

I'm so grateful for my imperfectly perfect children and my imperfectly perfect spouse and my imperfectly perfect life.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hearing God's Word In Times of Trouble

This is what my parish priest said in his homily last Sunday:

"We want what God wants, when and how God wants it!"

A few minutes later, during the consecration, I found myself talking to God inside my church's bathroom. I was so confused by our move, that I went to church without a baby blanket. At 10 weeks old, Baby John isn't the smoothest nurser. So rather than fuss with the whole re-latching process in front of strangers, I opted to take him and my two year old into the bathroom right at the most important moment of the Mass.

I shut the bathroom door and locked it behind me. I sank down on the floor and started to nurse John. My two year old took this moment to reassert her interest in potty training. "You're in a diaper. You don't have to use the potty right now," I explained gently. Logic goes almost no where with two year olds. So rather than continue to disagree, I found myself helping her while balancing a newborn on my chest.

It was one of those "I don't have enough hands" moments of motherhood. I surprised myself by not feeling overwhelmed or resentful. I've been praying for a reader to have a healthy baby after an infant loss. In that second, I prayed urgently that she too would have a moment within a few weeks of having "too many kids to comfortably handle during Mass."

After I got my two year old settled, I sat down again on the floor to nurse John again. I started having an imaginary conversation with God and this reader in my mind. "We want what God wants, when and how God wants it."

I figured out, inside the unromantic setting of my church bathroom, that as I grow in formation I have started to want "what God wants" in my life. However, I am still struggling with the concept of "when and how God wants it." I wanted to have another baby after Leo's loss last year. But I wanted my pregnancy to go super smoothly. I didn't want lots of trips to the hospital and an emergency preterm birth. I also wanted to sell my house and move back to Maryland. However, I want that process to happen either before or after John's birth. I also wanted it to go super smoothly without any hiccups.

In Carmelite terminology "uniformity with God's will" doesn't mean chopping off parts of ourselves. It's good for me to want a healthy baby and want to live on a calm street in a safe community. Detachment is a tricky process of giving up control over how and when God works in my life. I've got to let go of the outcome. I can only control my small part in the puzzle (pretty much simply my own attitude) and trust in God.

Those words are even hard for me to type. Of course, I want to control the outcome. As an ex-lawyer, I want to foresee problems and solve them in advance. I want to control my own life!

My parish priest reminds me that when I want what God wants, I'm only 90% there as a Christian. I still have to step back and work "when and how" he wants to work. As always, none of these concepts make any sense to me unless I think about them in the context of death. Someday, I'm going to die. I'll get cancer and the last round of chemo doesn't take. It's going to be really hard to accept that its God's will for me to leave the earth now unless I've practiced it first. The things that seem the most hard to practice detachment with--my need for shelter, my pregnancies, are exactly the situations I'm going to be most thankful facing beforehand when the big death news comes.

This week when I prayed with Scripture I got more instructions on this concept. John  12: 27-28 says "I am troubled now.  Yet what should I say? "Father, save me from this hour?" But it was for this purpose, that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name."

As a Christian woman, I've spent 40 years praying, "Father, save me from this hour!" prayers. I wanted my baby to be fine. I wanted to get out of the hospital quickly. I wanted to sell my house. I want to move out smoothly and quickly. Those "save me" prayers are fine prayers of Faith.

There is a more grown-up method of Christian prayer that I want to practice more after my 40th birthday. In times of trouble, I want to pray more of "Father, glorify your name!" That prayer is always answered, regardless of the outcome. The last thing I wanted after losing a son in a late miscarriage was to have a scary drive to the hospital with a new baby in preterm labor. Yet God's name was glorified in that moment. I had supernatural calm during my emergency surgery. There were dozens of strangers who helped us. My son is so beautiful and awesome and fun the fact that he made such a surprise entrance into the world only fits his personality.

Christian prayer is not magic. I can't sit there and say a certain type of novena and expect that the world with transform into my will. Christian prayer is a conversation with God. I'm changed by my talks with him. I'm lifted up. I'm consoled. I'm also told to "grow up and start praying my age!"

I'm so grateful to have Mass and Scripture and prayer in times of great stress. I learn so much more about my Faith in hard times, rather than in easy ones.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Me and My Carmel Vocation


This picture is of me (metaphorically) and my vocation to Carmel. My sister has spent years working in the desert in Africa with the Peace Corps. She taught me how to carry a large number of things on my head. We're both amazed at the dexterity that allows some women to easily balance 10 gallon water jugs on their head for miles.

In many cultures, women still gather water for their families. I'm starting to think that St. Teresa's metaphor comparing prayer to a fountain of water is a practical theory for me.

I'm guilty of taking my Carmel vocation extremely lightly. I'm a recovering codependent. It's hard for me to ask my family to make time in their schedule for me to go to doctors appointments. (For years, I'd only go see the OB because I had to for the baby. When it came to myself, I spent four years feeling like it was "stealing time" to go to my regular check-up or get my eye glass prescription updated.) If it's hard for me to ask for time to go to the doctor--it's even harder to ask for time off from family life to spend time in prayer.

Prayer felt invisible. Prayer felt selfish. Going to a monthly Carmelite Meeting or spending time in Adoration--that was fine if life was easy and I had free time. Asking people to rearrange their schedules so that I could attend a full day Carmelite Retreat in Advent during a move felt almost irresponsible.

Then the bottom fell out of my world last week. I had days when I woke up that I had no idea what was going to happen, only that I was expecting more oceans of bad news. The only thing I knew for certain was that I could still do my Carmel prayers every morning. I cling to that schedule like a life raft.

Suddenly, Carmel didn't seem like a luxury. Carmel seemed like a necessity.

I need to do my Carmel prayer. I need to go to meetings. I need to do retreats because I can't handle my life without Carmel.

What I learned in Carmel at my meeting last Sunday, is that while prayer is done in solitude but its not private! I always thought my relationship with God was very private. (Of course, my current American culture screams all the time that religion is a private matter that doesn't belong in the public space). In Carmel, I'm learning something different.

We address God as our Father.

God belongs to everyone!

That means that whatever insights I have in prayer, are pretty applicable to everyone--especially my spouse and the children I have in my care. That concept still shocks me!

On Sunday I came home on fire after watching a St. Teresa of Avila movie. She's my bff. Nearly everything she says out loud is golden to me. In the movie she said the phrase "silence and work." "All speaking and all writing is nothing but confusion. What is necessary is only silence and work."

I shared my excitement about the phrase "silence and work" to my husband. I meant to talk only about myself. During this chaotic, scary time of a move, it's good for me to remember to keep my head down and practice Silence and Work.

I just got an email back from my husband talking about how much that phrase means to him, while he's at work, with six things on his plate and a dozen emails waiting in his inbox about our move.

I was shocked that what I thought was a selfish act (Going to a 4 hour Carmel Meeting on Sunday instead of packing for a move) was actually a loving, spiritually nourishing act for my spouse.

Today, I thought about all the women in the world who still walk to a well daily to gather water for their families. I realize that every time I go to prayer, I'm gathering spiritual water for my family. They might only feel it indirectly, a Mom who has a smile instead of a frown whenever the 2 year old acts out her age. Yet sometimes I find that I can give my spouse and my kids answers that I didn't even know that I knew. Those are hidden insights from prayer that St. Teresa calls "spiritual water."

I can only do that if our spiritual well is full. For me, going to Carmel, is the most effective way I can make sure that my family has lots of Spiritual Water to drink, especially in the middle of a desert of Stress like Advent and around Moving Day. I'm starting to feel like going to Carmel meeting is less about getting "me time" and more about fetching spiritual water for both myself and my whole family.

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us!


Friday, December 12, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings



Grab a loved one and see Exodus: Gods and Kings this opening weekend.  Exodus is an old fashioned epic about Moses that deserves to be seen on a real movie screen. An opening scene with a fierce chariot battle highlights the grander of the Egyptian Empire. All of those expansive widescreen shots underscore how ridiculously difficult it was for the Hebrew people to beat a Pharaoh.

This movie has a gritty realism that makes the familiar Bible story more intense. All the Hebrew slaves are so identically dirty that it was hard for me to pick out Moses' brother Aaron for a while. The plagues of flies, frogs, and boils are each truly gross. It's a guy's movie with lots of battle scenes and gory death shots. It also has some tender love scenes and creative ways to illustrate a man in prayer.

As someone familiar with the Bible Story, I had some moments of confusion and disagreement with the plot. For a few moments, I wondered why Moses was starting acts of guerrilla warfare with his cousin the Pharaoh instead of negotiating with the familiar refrain "Let My People Go!" However, the visual poetry of the Burning Bush scene really won over my heart. I relaxed and let the filmmakers take me on the movie journey they wanted to explore. I ended up thinking deeply about parts of the Moses story that were brand new to me.

I loved the part where Moses' wife thinks that all this talk about God's plan for him is simply a hallucination after Moses hit his head on a rock. Moses' moments of doubt and humility are clearly shown by actor Christian Bale. This Bible story happened to real people. This film highlights all the reactions of people around Moses, as well as the internal struggles he faces within.

I loved this movie because it made me think. There is a Jewish tradition called the "Midrash" where writers talk about "what could have happened in the Torah." Exodus the movie is not Exodus the book. However, the differences only highlight the amazingly awesome power contained in our Scripture.

I think this movie is best attended with friends. The conversation afterwards about "What did you like?" or "What didn't you like about it? " is lively and intense. (My daughter Hannah wanted me to post that she did not like how the parting of the Red Sea was shown in this movie. "The ocean didn't open up!  What the heck?") I love a movie that can inspire this much debate on the car ride home. I'm inspired to reread the book of Exodus with my family today. I'm more thoughtful about who Moses was and how his epic journey with God is similar to my own.

Art provokes. It's a joy to attend a movie that made me reflect more deeply about the Bible on the way out of the theater than on my way in!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Scott Hahn's Joy To The World--A Book Review



Christmas is a hard Feast Day for me to celebrate reverently. There is so much outside noise and agitation leading up to this holiday. I can't get my kids to whittle down their Christmas wish list to something below the Gross National Product of Denmark. I'm stumped by the simple download process for Christmas Cards on Shutterfly. My sugar cookies fall apart. I've lost the box where I stored our Advent wreath.

Christmas is about absorbing the Mystery of the Incarnation. Dr. Scott Hahn's new book, Joy to the World: How Christ's Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does) is a great Advent read. It's such a grace to find a calm, encouraging, and scholarly work written by a lay person, instead of a priest.

Dr. Hahn lives my life! He travels in long lines at the airport during Christmas. His daughter was not thrilled to witness the scene of the Nativity firsthand. Dr. Hahn's moments of grace around the Advent wreath are rudely shattered by his children's fights over who gets to blow out all the Advent candles first.

Joy to the World is a sympathetic read about the challenges of celebrating the mystery of Christmas within the context of modern life. Yet Dr. Hahn encourages me to peer deeper into the familiar Christmas Story. I learned enough historical facts about the paranoid King Herod to satisfy almost all of the curious questions asked by my 10 year old son. I gained new appreciation for the socially snubbed shepherds and the wandering Magi.

Dr. Hahn is at his best with a brilliant chapter on St. Joseph. Dr. Hahn reminds us that even though St. Joseph "had no biological role to play in the conception of Jesus... this does not make Joseph any less of a father." Some Christians describe St. Joseph as the foster father of Jesus in order to protect an understanding of "Mary's virginity and God's fatherhood." However, Dr. Hahn convincingly argues that "the simple fact is that an adoptive father is as much a father as a natural father is."

Joy to the World ends with the shocking statement, "Salvation arrives by way of the family--the Holy Family." This book didn't nag me about all the extra things I should do this Advent. This book encourages me to reflect on who I am this Advent.  The Church is the family of God! Christmas is our chance to reflect on all the wonderful and diverse people who helped welcome the Infant Jesus into the world.

I'm thankful to Dr. Hahn for helping me sing the hymn of Joy to the World with extra gusto this year!
Many thanks to all the bloggers who participated in the Image Books Joy to the World Blog Tour from Dec 1 to Dec 11. To read all the reviews click here. To buy your copy of Joy to the World click here.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Happy Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception!


Happy Feast Day of the United States of America! Special props to St. Bernadette for helping us to better receive this miraculous teaching.

Help for My Advent

On Saturday, I attended my Carmelite Community's first Advent Retreat. It was glorious! I joked that I got to accompany the Baby Jesus to that retreat. It was sleeting that morning.  I dressed Baby Johnny in his new Teddy Bear snow suit and tucked him into his older sister's pink and grey car seat. There were 85 Catholics at the retreat and he was the only child in attendance. All these strangers stopped in front of John's sleeping face and metaphorically drooled all over him.

I heard three beautiful lectures on my friends St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of Lisieux. I also got to attend Adoration and go to Confession. Here is a brief "bonus" talk on how to keep Advent calm and holy from one of our Carmelite priests, Father Jack Lombardi.

'The four horsemen of the Advent Apocalypse are Anxiety, Busyness, Consumerism, and Complexity. We need to fight them to have a holy Advent.

To fight Anxiety, meditate on Philippians 4:8-- "Whatever is true... think about these things"

To fight Busyness, meditate on Psalm 46:10--"Be still and know that I am God." Physical stillness and silence in our brain, helps our minds to be still.

To fight Consumerism--meditate on St. John of the Cross' "Nada, Nada, Nada" (Nothing, nothing, nothing in Spanish).

To fight Complexity--seek simplicity

Fight the 4 horsemen of Advent with the 3 S's of Silence, Stillness, and Simplicity."

I love Carmel! Here's a photo of Father Jack. His wide smile always seems to say "You can do this!" to me whenever we meet. I love encouragement, especially in the spiritual life. He gave me brown scapular four years ago with the personal advice "Don't stop praying now!" Of course, what have I done multiple times but give up almost completely on my prayer life because my life is so crazy. Yet I constantly "Begin Again!" Persistence is a trait that needs lots of practice to be learned well.