Saturday, May 31, 2008

Happy Birthday Maria!

Last year, I celebrated my first Feast of the Visitation Mass at Holy Cross Hospital with a HUGE Baby in my Huge Tummy.

This year my "newborn" turned into a one year old who can now eat chocolate cake.

Thanks Our Lady for a safe delivery and countless graces from a happy, healthy year with little Maria Elizabeth.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Invited to the Party-Corpus Christi

I had a rough time at my first Corpus Christi procession. I had high expectations for Sunday’s march. Most of my life, I spent as Protestant, with a mere slip of the true grander of the "Last Supper" to hang on to each Sunday. I had no idea that Jesus was patiently sitting in the real Eucharist, waiting for me to show up for adoration.

After falling in love with Adoration this year, I had high hopes for the joy of singing in my first Corpus Christi procession. This Verse from St. Thomas Aquinas's "Pange Lingua Gloriosi" (1227-1274) jumped out at me during choir practice:

"Word made flesh, the bread of nature
By his word to flesh he turns;
Wine into his blood he changes,
What though sense no change discerns?
Only be the heart in earnest.
Faith it's lesson quickly learns."

"Ah, that line 'What though sense no change discerns? really captures my new feelings towards the Eucharist," I thought during our practice. "I can't wait to belt that question out loudly during the Procession next Sunday!"

Of course, the reality of trying to sing a 13th Century medieval chant while helping my husband shepard three children across a highway proved challenging. Since there were only ten choir members and my family crew is understandably a little slow, I quickly lost my place in the alto section. Surrounded by non-singing a 100 non-singing parishioners, I kept losing the thread of the melody and pitch became a huge problem.

Then, Hannah accidentally stepped on my left foot drawing blood.
Now I had to limp across a major-highway while trying to stay in time and in tune. A kind Legion of Mary member noticed our distress and took over the stroller with the sleeping Maria from my husband. That gave Jon two hands to hold a wiggly 3 year old who kept trying to dart into traffic.

In the midst of verse number four of Pange Lingua, Maria wakes up. The baby sees an unfamiliar face above her, and starts wailing. Nothing will stop her cries. That left me to hold the wailing baby, hold the hand of tired 5 year old and jiggle the photocopied packet of hymns.

When we finally arrive to the open field to kneel reverently in front of the monstrance, I feel anything but reverent. My knees hurt in the uneven ground. The baby is heavy to hold and fussy. She won’t let me put her down in the grass. I’ve forgotten to pack her sun-hat. I keep repositioning her baby blanket to shield her tender Irish skin from the sun as I vigorously jiggle her up and down.

About the time that I apologize mentally to Jesus and reposition myself from a reverent kneel into an awkward squat, I hear my husband call out “You need to sit still Hannah. That is the really Jesus sitting up on that porch. This is not pretend!”
That comment sort of slices through me. This is really Jesus, and I know it. I’m still having to sit down, instead of kneeling, I’m still saying “sh, sh!” to a baby instead of reverently singing the closing part of Pangis Angelius. Even if Jesus in his full glory sat on the parish rectorary porch, I’d still be lost!

I get this depressing mental image of being one of the blessed one sitting at Jesus feet while he shared the Sermon on the Mount. I’d be the one worried about my scratchy tunic and worried about my fussy baby. I’d miss most of his words completely.

I go home and fall in bed completely depressed. “I stunk today!” I told my husband. “I didn’t get to praise Jesus at all.”

Then my loving spouse, with the full wisdom of the Holy Spirit gives me a tender chat. “Abby, that Corpus Christi Procession, was for the rest of the world. The world that DOESN'T know that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. You and I have a standing invitation to come visit him any time.”

“In fact, let’s go see Him right now.” With that, my husband pulls me out of bed and takes me back to Adoration. This time, it’s just me and Jesus in the Adoration chapel. No fussy baby’s to hold. No painful places to kneel. I’m not much better at dropping deep into contemplative prayer this second time, but I get some graces never the less.

That’s my Jesus. Always willing to meet me where I am, and lending me the graces necessary to run towards His Holy Presence.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Real Miracle

Father Francisco at Daily Mass at St. Martins of Tours:

"The miracle of the gospels is not that Christ said to the blind--"see"
or to the lame, "walk"

The miracle is that Christ tells us "love", and we love

He says "forgive", and we forgive.

We are called to love our enemies, we pray for those who persecute us . . .

By doing these actions we call others to Christ."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Doing It Mary's Way

This weekend marked my first visit with my in-laws since my consecration to Mary. We drove to New York State to attend a SUNY graduation ceremony of my niece. As all long car trips go with a family of young children, the trip itself was both an act of charity and serious penance. All along the way, however, we were showered with graces.

Our first accidental stop brought us to the truly beautiful, National Shrine of the Lourdes Grotto. A seventy foot Mary statute marks the spot where our first American Saint, Mother Seton attended church. I saw the rock where Mother Seton sat to teach her children catechism.

I have a special place for Mother Seton in my heart. She started the Daughters of Charity, which is the order of my RICA instructor, Sister Rita. I started RICA two weeks before September 11th. All during that numb aftermath, Sister Rita strengthened our faith by describing the heroic works of Saint Peter's chapel, the closest Catholic parish to Ground Zero. (Saint Peter's is the oldest Catholic parish in New York City and was were Mother Seton was formally received into the Catholic faith as an adult.)

Turns out that Mother Seton's official shrine is only forty minutes from my house. I look forward to exploring more of Maryland's fascinating Catholic past this summer.

Monday, May 12, 2008

"What Sarah Said"

I had an incredible Mass experience yesterday. I prayed next to my best friend, Theresa, whose husband had become paralyzed since her last Eucharist. On May 4, Theresa was her usual sunny self; she led my choir’s alto section, she helped me flip to the right page in my hymnal. Her husband, Pat, sat in his usual place in the second row from the front.

This Sunday, Theresa showed up early to sing for the crowning of Our Blessed Mother. She wore a red suit in honor of the Pentecost. She had her special yellow collection envelope for the convent our parish is building for our Dominican Sisters. She still knew the order of the hymns better than me, even though she had to miss Wednesday choir practice because her whole life had flipped upside down.

At 3 AM on Wednesday, May 7, Theresa's husband got up at night to use the bathroom. In the dark, he leaned a little to close to the stairwell. He fell down six stairs with such force that his head broke into the wall by six inches. Theresa told me before church that the sound was so horrible that she rushed out of bed. Her husband asked her to “take his head out of the wall.” As she helped him, she realized that she couldn’t put his head down on the floor. The pain that he had was overwhelming. She said simply, “I held his head in my hands and he said, “I can’t feel anything.” We both knew things were very bad.”

That feeling of celebrating the Mass with a friend whose spouse is currently undergoing massive spinal surgery, who is uncertain if he’ll be “one of the lucky ones who gets to push his own wheelchair someday,” or if he’ll remain completely paralyzed from the neck down, was overwhelming.

There was so many “practical things” I wanted to do for my friend. I wanted to get her some tea and honey because her throat was horse from talking so much on the phone about Pat’s condition. I started thinking about when I could drop by some meals. Each time I sort of drifted off into the ‘problem-solving” realm, I jerked myself back. What my friend need most, was God. And she was here, in her red suit and holding the proper collection envelope to get him. The best thing that I could do for her and for her husband was to pray with her and for her.

My friend took the Eucharist at daily Mass on Tuesday before the fall. The grace from that sacrament sustained her for four harrowing days. On Sunday, she ate the bread and body of Jesus. She gained the strength she needs to sustain her during the next week. It was humbling to realize that celebrating Mass with friends who are hurting “is all we can do,” at the same time “it’s all we need to do.”

And because my friend is such a devote Catholic, she was already able to see graces from such a challenging family crisis. Her three adult children, who had all drifted away from the faith, came to celebrate Mass with her on Mother’s Day. As my eloquent friend said, “this crisis is allowing my kids to exert spiritual muscle they never knew they had.”

Please pray for my friend’s husband that he makes a full recovery and that he fights off depression during this marathon of a recovery process.

And please keep the Pope’s intentions to pray for all Catholic artists this month.

Today, I started messing around with music and found this haunting lullaby by a husband in the I.C.U. I played it a lot on my computer as I prayed for my friend Theresa. The lyrics are powerful:

"And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time
As I stared at my shoes in the ICU that reeked of --- and 409
And I rationed my breaths as I said to myself that I'd already taken too much today
As each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther away from me
Away from me

Amongst the vending machines and year-old magazines in a place where we only say goodbye
It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds
But I knew that you were a truth I would rather lose than to have never lain beside at all
And I looked around at all the eyes on the ground as the TV entertained itself

'Cause there's no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news
And then the nurse comes round and everyone will lift their heads
But I'm thinking of what Sarah said that "Love is watching someone die"

So who's going to watch you die?.."

So clear. So true. And yet not true. "There's no comfort in the waiting room." That line is written by a guy without hope and without Christ. My friend found hope in the I.C.U. I watched her vividly renew and sustain that hope during Mass.

The song ends with the line “who is going to watch you die?” That’s a real problem for my generation who makes it through life without marriage and without children. Their worried about who will be beside them unconditionally at the end. Even though my life is already filled with a loving family, I’m not even worried about dying alone in an I.C.U. For me the question isn’t, “who is going to watch me die?’ it’s ‘who is going to meet me at my death.” My hope is that it is Christ. The same Christ who faithfully sustains my friend through Eucharist. The same Christ who doles out grace after grace as I stumble after him in my daily life.

We need better Christian art, the art that reflects reality but also transcends present pain to give hope. If you’re a Catholic writer, please write. The world is fill of I.C.U. patients and brooding secular artists who need the light of Christ. And I need some better music to listen to while I pray.

Death Cab For Cutie: What Sarah Said

Friday, May 9, 2008

Mary's Blessings

I almost didn’t live to see my 27th birthday.

On December 26, 2001 (five days before turning 27), I woke up with my husband in my childhood bed. We had spent the weekend celebrating Christmas with my family. Now, at 4 AM we had to rush back to my law office before it opened. I was the lowest lawyer on the seniority totem pole. That meant my request for extra vacation time was denied. “Boxing Day,” would find me and my boss manning the office phones alone while everyone else enjoyed a few extra days with friends and family.

After work, I came home at five o’clock and crawled into bed. At around 6:30, my husband gently shook me awake. “If you keep sleeping now, you won’t be able sleep tonight,” he said.

I remember that my husband sat down next to me on the bed. Every time I slipped back into sleep, my husband gently tugged on my right shoulder. “I know that you’re tired, but you’ll really regret it if you go back to sleep. You’ve got to trust me on this one!”

Jon was watching a History Channel documentary on the “Gold Rush” on our bedroom TV. I laid in bed for about ten minutes listening to random facts about California in 1848. No matter how hard I tried to concentrate, the words and images slipped right off my mind. I found myself slipping back into sleep again and again. It was physically difficult to keep my eyes open. “I must be coming down with the flu,” I said in a daze.

My husband agreed and thought that we must have caught some sort of flu bug during our recent visit with my family. Then my husband, Jon, started rubbing his temples. “I have a terrible headache. I can barely see. It must be some type of migraine from lack of sleep or something.”

At this point, my inner radar went off. My husband never, ever gets headaches. Something was seriously wrong. “Let me go get you some Tylenol,” I said. I made the heroic effort to get out of bed.

This is where things start to get weird. I walked into a wall! I got out of bed, turned the three steps towards the hallway door and then walked straight into a wall. I collapsed in a heap of pain and bruises. I’d missed the door by at least two feet. I ened up with serious bruises on my head, my arm, and my toe. When I hit the wall, I just crumbled onto the floor.

Jon rushed to my side and started checking me out in his med-tech way. I tried to wave him away. I was so embarrassed. What a silly mistake to make! “Just let me go get us both some Tylenol,” I said. When I tried to stand up, I couldn’t even figure out which was up. Everything was disoriented and confusing.

Jon got me back into bed. He started running through my physical symptoms, trying to find out a medical answer. I wasn’t worried about myself, I had decided it was the flu. “The flu would never make you crumble to the floor like that,” Jon said. “I’ve never seen anything so weird in my life.”

I lay on the bed, confused and scared. Jon was pacing back and forth in our bedroom saying things like “food poisoning? Salmonella?” My brain couldn’t follow the thread of his conversation enough to help him.

I decided to pray a Hail Mary. I was only halfway through RICA at that point and couldn’t remember the words well on a normal day. I remember I said “Hail Mary, Full . . . ,” and then my brain went all fuzzy. I “saw” a blue ball, like a balloon, float above my head and rise to the ceiling. “That’s my prayer on the way to heaven, “ I thought. I remember thinking that it completely logical that my few words had created a blue balloon. “Blue is Mary’s color. She’ll get the message,” I thought. Comforted, I put my head down on my pillow and went back to sleep.

At that moment this image “popped” into my mind. I had this clear picture of my old roommates Carbon Dioxide Monitor. I had not thought of this roommate in five years. I don’t think I ever even knew what her monitor was called at the time. Yet there was a clear image of this bulky white monitor plugged into the blue wall next to my old kitchen sink with the words “CO2 Levels.”

“Jon, do you think it could be something about that weird gas called CO2?” I mumbled.

What happened next was a second grace of our marriage. If my husband had said “phish pash” or any other negative comment, I would have dismissed the thought from my mind. After all, as a former army medic, he was the medical expert. I wasn’t even sure why I had this crazy mental picture in the first place.

Yet my husband, the kind, only married six months newlywed that he was, took my crazy thought extremely seriously. “Carbon Monoxide poisoning. That might explain our symptoms.” He opened up our bedroom window and leaned outside.

Those few gulps of fresh air, cleared his head enough to save us. He called his Dad, a retired State Trooper. On my father-in-law’s advice, my husband opened all the doors and windows and called the Fire Department.

This whole time, I lay semi-unconscious on the bed and refused to get up. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” I kept saying. “Why are you bothering all these people? Why make such a big deal out of the flu?” It wasn’t until I watched my dog’s reaction to the newly opened front door, that I changed my mind. Our dog, Sara, is a serious run-away who bolts at the slightest opportunity. I watched Sara raise her head, notice the open door, and then lay her tired head back down on her feet. “Even the dog is sick. Something is seriously wrong!” I finally consented to being helped into the car to wait for the arrival of the Fire Truck.

Long story short, the Fire Department found incredibly high readings of Carbon Monoxide in our house. When we called back my father-in-law from our new hotel room, he flipped out! He had been very calm during the initial call. When he heard how high the actual readings were, he became so agitated. “You guys were seven to ten minutes from completely passing out all together,” he shouted. “That means you would have died.” My father-in-law told us grim stories about finding CO2 victims in his work as a New York State Trooper.

Our rescue made it on the front page of the Portsmouth Newspaper. I have the clipping of Jon and I holding our two dogs and smiling next to our Christmas tree. It turns out that the poisoning came from a faulty furnace pipe. Our landlord never checked out the furnace during his 15 years of renting the property and overtime soot had backed up the pipes. When we left to visit my parents, we turned down the heat. On his return on December 26, Jon turned up the heat to warm a cold house. That action caused the blocked pipe to break completely, sending the odor-less, poison gas throughout our home.

The incident freaked me out for a number of reasons. During this time period, I basically lived alone while my husband attended graduate school in another state. If the pipe had broken during any other weekend, I would never have noticed. I would have come home after work, gone to bed early and never woke up.

Our experience also gave tangible proof to the grace of “togetherness” in marriage. Our individual experiences with CO2 didn’t alert us to its dangers. I simply thought that I was coming down with the flu and “stupid” for running into a wall. My husband dismissed his migraine as a symptom of lack of sleep. It was our concern for the other spouse that made us realize the dangers of the situation. I knew that Jon never got headaches. He could see that my crash into a wall was no mere accident. Together we pieced together the danger and executed an escape plan.

It took two of us to escape from danger. Suddenly living separate lives in separate states didn’t seem so hip and modern anymore. It seemed downright dangerous.

In a few weeks, I’ll celebrate seven years of marriage with my husband and seven years of saying the rosary. I’m blessed to have Our Mother’s Maternal Protection in all matters great and small.

Mother's Day Essays

Speaking of "Conversion Diary Jen," she has written a beautiful Motherhood post today.

Are there any other Mother's Day posts on the internet which have touched your heart?

Missing Jesus By Inches

I've had the pleasure to chatting with Et Tu Jen? (who is now Conversion Diary Jen) about the difference growing up atheist versus growing up Protestant. When I first started reading her wonderfully written posts two years ago, I arrogantly assumed that I was so far ahead in our mutual faith journey. I grew up going to church on Sunday. I memorized the words to the "Our Father" in third grade. I knew the names to the Old Testament bible stories.

Struggling mightily with full belief in the Eucharist has flipped this around. I realized that all the time I spent in the pew, I got fed "misinformation" about Jesus. Jesus was there in name, but his message was subtly shifted around. WIthout a firm grasp on the truth, "anything goes" is the rule for preaching on the pulpit.

There was the Christmas sermon where my minister carefully explained that in Jesus' time, it was common for animals and people to sleep together under the same roof. So saying that Jesus was born in the stable, wasn't really a message about poverty or isolation. Jesus was really born with his relatives house in the warmest place they could find, next to the cattle. I remember sitting on the red velvet lined pew in my parents church in college during that sermon thinking, "Hmm, I must have had this lonely stable image all wrong in my head. I'm so glad Jesus didn't really suffer on the night of his birth."

Can you imagine that? That line of thinking inverts the entire mystery of Navitity. It's completely incompatible with basic Scripture. But that's how things went all the time in my old Protestant church. Everyone had their own opinion on "faith." As long as the faith fell into some broad outlines (Jesus was the son of God, etc.) -- it was valid. Questions were encouraged. Debate was healthy. Preachers were free to use modern day biblical scholarship or snippets from the Sunday paper to "update" the message of Jesus to better fit our modern times.

My church taught that Jesus was the divine Son of God. Yet their own sermons constantly struggled with this image.
Jesus didn't really multiple the loaves of bread. That miracle was accomplished by everyone sharing their private lunch boxes which they had hiddened under their cloaks. Jesus didn't know that he was supposed to save the non-Jews until the Gentile woman who used the "even the dogs get feed from the scraps that fall from the table" opened his eyes. These examples of "misinterpretation" which ultimately lead to the conclusion about Jesus' basic divinity.

Was Jesus really divine? Did he mean what he said? About everything? Did he mean what he said about the hard stuff? Did he really mean "No Divorce?" And if your skirting the line by approving remarriage and birth control and the "Eucharist is just a symbol" how can you really hold a strong belief that Jesus said what he meant about inheriting enternal life?

I found this year as a Catholic, that I've had to painfully relearn everything from scratch. I realized that all that time sitting in a Protestant pew meant that I was missing Jesus by inches. Somehow, that was even more dangerous than missing him by miles.

In a month, the Anglican Church (which is my faith tradition) will send leaders from all over the world to the Canterbury Cathedral in England. The Vatican officials have said that this conclave is critical. The Anglican Church faces a serious crisis over it's approval of gay marriage and the ordination of gay bishops. There is no head of the Anglican Church, no Pope. So there is no firm leadership on this issue. The Church in America has ordinated gay bishops. The Church in England and Africa has refused. In nearby Virginia, the debate has gotten so intense that fifteen Episcopal churches have withdrawn from the American oversight and requested to be overseen by a bishop in Africa. The Vatican has said that it is time for the Anglican Church to decide if it has more in common with the Roman Catholics and Orthodox Church, or the modern day Protestants of the 16th Century.

Let us pray this month for a complete conversion of hearts. Let us pray that everyone, the secular athetists and the Protestants, stop their spiritual blindness. May we have true unity of one flock under one shepard soon!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Prayer Request

Our Mother of Perpetual Help

The husband of a dear friend in my parish choir suffered a severe spinal injury on Tuesday night. Patrick B. fell down the stairs in his house in the dark and now is completely paralyzed. Yesterday, he underwent 8 hours of spinal surgery. The doctors hope that when the swelling goes down that he will regain the use of his legs. Please pray for him, for his wife Theresa and their three children.

Our Mother of Perpetual Help, please ask your son to grant full healing to Partick B. Please give him and his family the graces they need to cope during this uncertain time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Motherhood, the best job in the world!

(For Jennifer)

It’s almost Mother’s Day, which means the gushy Hallmark sentiments are hanging over the aisles at Target. “Treasure these moments, the kids grow up in a flash!” “Motherhood, the ‘best’ job in the world!”

I’m in the midst of my own “survival” mode yet again. Two kids are coming down with some sort of sweaty, clammy virus that makes them horribly irritable. This morning found me brokering a fragile peace between them while ignoring an upset stomach of my own. (The flu? Allergies? Morning sickness?)

Does Condi Rice have such trials?

In the midst of struggle, my own mantra on motherhood has become terrible simple. Motherhood is no longer “the best job in the world.” Better than what? Condi Rice negotiating a lasting peace between Israel and a new Palestian state? A priest calling down the blood and body of Jesus in the Eucharist? A Sister of Charity lavishing loving care on deprived, orphan children who don’t share half her DNA?

For me, motherhood is simply “the job God is asking me to perform right now.”

Service to God comes in many forms. You can be called to run for President of the United States and serve God by negotiating an end to the nuclear arms race and embryonic stem-cell research. You can be called to be a Carmelite Nun. (In my own, limited imagination, I sort of think that following in the mighty footsteps of Teresa of Avila might get greater results for world peace and protection of the dignity of life than running for office).

Or God can call you to be a mother. Right now. In the midst of a 60 percent divorce rate. In the midst of a contraceptive culture. In the midst of much head shaking by your parents, your siblings, your friends, and the alumna of your college who wish they hadn’t wasted a partial college scholarship on you.

Motherhood is a privledged way to serve God. Not because it’s easy. Because it’s sometimes impossibly hard. We all know the negatives: physical pain, sleepless night, “lost earning potential,” never not worrying that crazy three year old who currently enjoys leaning off of balconies & sticking pliers into light sockets is one day going to turn into a 23 year old who does some equally stupid stunt that lands him in the hospital, jail or the morgue.

Motherhood is privileged because it takes us beyond our frailties, our limitations, and our sinful natures. Motherhood places us squarely upon the concept of “grace.” You need grace to get through pregnancy, you need grace to get through night-time nursing sessions, you need grace to survive the upset stomachs and the teething and the trips to the ER.

That grace, that feeling the breath of the Holy Spirit move over you and transform you—those are the golden moments of Motherhood.

I have a feeling that in the movie review of my life, God isn’t going to pick out the times when all the kids were laughing together in the swimming pool. Those happy moments, pasted on the scrapbook of my mind, have already given me their thank you notes. Instead, God is going to show me the hidden, hard moments of grace.

Two nights ago, I got up at 4 AM. I had to change the sheets of a nameless child who insists on sleeping in manly power-ranger underwear despite failing to master to fine-art of potty training. I got up for the first time and I didn’t sigh. I didn’t stare enviously at my sleeping spouse. I simply got up, plodded through the dark hallway and gave a nod to the Visiting Pilgrim Virgin Mary Statute. “You had these nights too,” I thought.

If Motherhood was simply one job out of many, I would never pick it. Motherhood is “my way”, however little, however hard. It’s the one thing that only I can do for myself, for my husband for my children—those children who are here and those who have yet to arrive. If I don’t do my motherhood job, there is a gap in the world—there is a gap in myself.

God doesn’t need my motherhood to save the world. God gave me motherhood so that I could find Him, serve Him and love Him. Thank you!

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

"Mount Carmel, in what is today northern Israel, has always been a place rich in mystical tradition. The word hakkarmel means "the garden" in Hebrew, and true to its title, there is a remarkable profusion of plants and wildflowers on this mountain. It is considered a natural paradise and a sacred place, and in biblical times it was forbidden to disturb any of the natural life on it. Those who wanted to ascend the mountain for meditation lived in caves so as not to intrude on the landscape with unnatural structures.

In about 860 B.C., the prophet Elijah (also known as Elias) arrived on this holy mountain to begin a life of contemplation and prayer. The First Book of Kings is filled with tales of wonders he performed and prophesies he gave. In his prophetic visions on Mount Carmel, Elijah became aware of the coming of the mother of the Messiah. He and his followers mystically dedicated themselves to her, setting an example as the first monks. The descendants of these ancient contemplatives were among the first to accept the teachigns of Christ and to be baptized by His apostles. Upon meeting Mary after Christ's Ascension, they were so overcome by her sanctity that they returned to the mountain to build a chapel in her honor. For the next thousand years, Mount Carmel continued to be a place where hermits devoted themselves to prayer. By the twelfth century, pilgrims from Europe who had followed teh Crusades to the Holy Land settled with the ascetics on Carmel and started a religious holy order known as the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. Their rule, which was given by in 1209 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, says that all converges towards the contemplation of God. The Rule of Mysticism exhorts those who follow it to live a life of continual prayer, obedience to a superior, perpetual abstinence and fasting, manual work, and total silence.

Simon Stock, an English pilgrim, had joined the group on a visit to Jerusalem. At this time, Saracen invaders forced the monks out of their spiritual home on Mount Carmel. All those who would not leave were murdered. Simon Stock was instrumental in getting the order to move to Aylesford, England, where the Baron de Grey gave them a manor house. The Carmelite lifestyle of contemplation, poverty, and silent prayer was not easily accepted in Europe, particularly among the clergy who enjoyed almost the same status as royalty. Reading into the life of Mary, Simon Stock was inspired by her unquestioning acceptance of all that befell her; her virgin pregnancy, her raising and loving a child doomed to be executed; and her staying at the foot of the Cross while others ran away. It was through his insistence that the Carmelites evolved from a band of hermit ascetics who regretted the loss of their home on Mount Carmel into a traveling society of mendicant friars, opening schools and mission houes in the major capitals of Europe. Still it was difficult for many monks to accept the alteration of the rule fo the order to adapt to European conditions. Their presence was also shunned and not easily tolerated by other religious orders. The peopel thought the hermits strange and did not accept that they chose to live in such absolute poverty and isolation. In order to preserve what was left of their order, teh Carmelites invoked their patroness, the Virgin Mary, for help in establishing their new life.

The answer came in a vision to Saint Simon Stock on July 16, 1251, when he was alone in his cell. Mary appeared to him holding the scapular of his order. She told him, "Receive my beloved son, this habit of thy order; this shall be to thee and to all Carmelites a privilege, that whosoever dies clothed in this shall never suffer eternal fire. . . It shall be a sign of slavation, a protection in danger, and a pledge of peace."

The scapular, two pieces of brown wool joined at the shoulders and hanging down the back and breast, was not new to the Carmelite order. For hundreds of years before Saint Simon Stock's vision, monks in Europe had worn scapulars. But it is thought that the brown scapular that Mary delivered was referencing Elijah's camel-hair garment on Mount Carmel. Eventually, the brown scapular became reduced in size for laypeople to wear under their clothing. This is a special devotion to Mary worn as a sign to commemorate her faith in both God and humankind.

This gift from Mary helped the Carmelites explain the historical significance of their order to the laypeople; it served as a reminder that belief in Mary as the Mother of God extended back to the Old Testament with the prophet Elijah. After Pope John XXII (r.1313-1334) had a vision of Mary where she promised those wearing the brown scapular, "I, the Mother of Grace, shall descend on the Saturday after their death and whomsoever I find in Purgatory, I shall free, so that I may lead them to the holy mountain of everlasting life," the scapular became extremely popular among the common people By the end of the sixteenth centurey it had become smaller in size and very similar to the one that is worn today. Admiration for the Carmelite Order spread as their adherence to teh rules of solitude and prayer produced some of the greatest mystical saints in Catholicism, all of whom had visions of or openhearted communications with Mary. Among them are Saint Simon Stock, Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Therese of Lisieux.

Wearing the scapular is a form of prayer and is considered a visible sign of consecrating oneself to Mary and to accepting her maternal protection."

(Visions of Mary, pg 27-29).

Our Lady of Czestochowa

Black Madonna of the Polish Nation

"Historical legand says that St. Luke painted this icon from life. The Virgin Mary sat for while she was living in the house of Saint John the Evangelist. The cedar wood the icon was paointed on was from a table made by Jesus Christ when he was a carpenter. During the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the early Christians hid the painting. It was rediscovered in 326, when Saint Helena, the elderly mother of Constantine made her trip to the Holy Land in search of the True Cross." This painting was revered by the citizens of Constantinople for five centuries. It escaped destruction by the Iconoclasts (746-843). "This movement of the Eastern Church strictly forbade the existence of religious images."

After Constantinople fell, the painting was moved first to a castle in Belz, Russia, and later to the Church of the Assumption, in Czestochowa (Poland) on August 26, 1382.

"The followers of a heretic priest John Hus of Prague stormed the church in 1430. In an attempt to rob the jewels embedded in the icon, one of the men started slashing at the icon's face. [He took out his sword and slashed the Madonna's face once and then twice.] As he was about to slash it a third time, he fell dead. This terrified the invaders into leaving."

The icon was restored and in 1434, completely repainted. "however, the two slashes in the face have continually reappeared despite repeated attempts to repair them." (Calamari, Barbara, "Visions of Mary," pg 121-22)

Last night, we had two members of our parish's Legion of Mary come and enthrone our home to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary. The prayer service was so touching, despite the antics from three grouchy, tired kids. Afterwards, Brother Noel brought me a picture of "Our Lady of Czestochowa." I had just read about this venerated Polish image, a favorite of JPII, in my new "visions of Mary" book. Seeing the three sword slashes on her face remind me to continually offer up reperations for those who slight our Lady's heart and her image. Let us offer up many "I lOVE YOU" during the month of May to make up for our Blessed Mother's many sorrows.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Merry, Mary Month of May

This month marks the first May that I've celebrated as a consecrated daughter of Mary.

I became a Catholic in 2002, yet I've always had a "block" when it came to Marian devotion. I remember clearly my first Holy Day Celebration in 2001. As a new RICA member I slid into a pew at the evening service of the Immaculate Conception. "This feels pretty weird, what am I getting myself into?" as I struggled to understand why I needed to be in church at night to celebrate an "invented" doctrine from 1950 which I'd never heard before in my 25 years of being a Christian.

May 2005 brought the heart attack which signaled the imminent death of my grandmother. Mother's Day 2005, was the first time I could bring myself to sing any of the beautiful Marian hymns with any sense of interior devotion. I sang from the heart for my dying grandmother and for our Blessed Mother in Heaven.

This year, I formally consecrated myself to Marian, through the method of St. Louis de Montfort on the feast of the annunciation. It's been a slow-a pathetically slow- process. I stumble along in darkness, groping through the nightly rosary, staring a devotional pictures, trying on unfamiliar concepts like "Mediatrix" and "Assumption."

This year is the 150 anniversary of Our Lady of Lourdes. I feel a special kinship with Saint Bernadette. Her "dullness" at the her catechism consoles me. Just as her trust and faithfulness in suffering inspires me. I've gradually gone from viewing Mary as this strange, fearful BVM, to my Blessed Virgin Mother too.

Through this journey, I've always felt this "Mary block" must be mine alone. "I must have some weird mother issues" I thought. I could figure out why so many other Catholics leaped confidentially into the lap of Mary, why I always felt shy and uneasy.

Our Blessed Mother has grace my home these past two weeks with a special presence. Our parish has a "visiting Pilgrim Statute program" where a lovely 32 inch statute of Our Lady of Fatima comes to your home. The Legion of Mary teaches the entire family how to say the rosary and leaves lots of inspirational videos.

On Sunday, we had finally tracked down a neighbor's VCR and started watching the video on "First Saturday's making reparations to our Blessed Mother's Heart." The premise behind this devotion is beautiful. The faithful devote the first Saturday of five consecutive months to going to Confession, Daily Mass, saying the rosary and my favorite "keeping our Mother company for fifteen minutes."

The reason for choosing the number five, has to do with the five major ways the world hurts our Blessed Mother's heart. First, we deny the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Second, we deny the perpetual virginity of Mary. Third, we deny Mary the title of "Mother of God." Fourth, we desecrate the holy images and statutes of Mary. Fifth, we "uprooted the devotion of Mary, particularly among the young."

The priests on the video carefully explained how each of these "hurts" harm our relationship with God. The Immaculate Conception was God's first gift of redemptive grace. Mary is "the dawn of Christ's perfect day." Her quiet, hidden sanctification was God's signal to the world that we will able be saved through Christ.The perpetual virginity of Mary, was Mary's gift back to God. He accepted that gift and insured that she remained forever a virgin, even through the birth of Jesus.

At this point, I gasped openly. I felt this sting in my heart. My Methodist faith, which I'd always seen as sort of sweet and harmless, was actively promoting four of the five harms to Mary. The Methodists (and most other Protestants) recognized Mary as "the Mother of God" and trotted her out in nativity scenes at Christmas. Otherwise, my religion was actively seeking to destroy devotion to Mary as "incompatible with the true worship of Jesus Christ alone."

We denied that Mary remained a virgin and taught that she had other children beside Jesus. We denied that she was special or above us, through the special circumstances of her conception. We tore down her "idolatrous" shrines and built crisp white churches with plain walls. We "uprooted" Marian devotion, particularly among the young, particularly among ME.

This month I'm renewing my Marian devotions with fervor. I'm taking joy in sharing her prayers with my children. It's been 350 years since my ancestors traded devotion to Our Blessed Mother, for the pale, pasty imitation of devotion to Queen Elizabeth, "The Virgin Queen." I'm proud to have moved both literally and figuratively from "Virgina" to "Maryland."

What are you doing to make your domestic churches a Mary land this May?

Lord, Protect the Unwanted & the Unloved

"Lord, Creator of Life, You have blessed us with the privilege of bringing new life into the world. Open our hearts and minds to recognize Your special gift of children and Your great love for each of us created in Your image and likeness.

Through love You sent your Son Jesus to redeem us and through love He entered our world as an unborn child in the womb of Mary, His mother.

We now turn to Mary for her prayers and intercession as we struggle to protect innocent unborn children from decisions that seek to destroy them. Following Mary's example as mother and disciple, let us proclaim the truth of our faith, assist those in crisis and protect those most vulnerable, unwanted and unloved. Amen."

Prayer of the Roman Catholic Bishops of Maryland

(We say this prayer everyday at the end of Daily Mass at my parish church.)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Tea With Papa Benedict

To console my heart from missing our Holy Father, I reading little snippets from "The Essential Pope Benedict XVI" during my morning coffee break.

Today I found a great nugget of wisdom about original sin:

"It must once again be stressed that no human being is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live of or for himself of herself alone. We receive our life not only at the moment of birth but every day from without-from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless somehow pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves; they live in those whom they love an in those who love them and to whom they are present. Human beings are relational, and they posses their lives-themselves-only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for.

But sin means the damaging or destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationships, a disturbance of relationship, and , therefore, it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event-sin-touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationship is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment when a person beings human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought." (Scripture, page 265)

Our beloved Holy Father does have a way with words! I feel like I'm starting to grasp the mystery of original sin at last (and only after being the parent witness of three baptisms).

Reading these words make the social "sin" of slavery so obvious to me. When a little child to a slave, his experiences in life are already horribly damaged as a result of the "sin" that let his mother be owned. The little newborn did nothing to "cause" this sin. Innocent or not, the sin of slavery will continue to haunt his relationships with all people (slave or free, black or white) for the rest of his life.

Taking a step into more abstract territory, each of us is equally marked by the slavery of sin, since we are "daughters of Eve." It may be less obvious to see at first, but not if we look at our life and family relationships through our spiritual eyes.

A beloved reader once posted a question about child abuse on her blog. With a kind Catholic heart, she is considering adopting a little boy who was removed into foster care after his father punched him in the jaw. "What makes a parent punch a child so hard to break a jaw?" she asked. "How can such evil exist? Why do innocent children have to suffer?"

I felt uncomfortable reading that post. Unfortunately, I've come across even worse details of child abuse in my former life as a lawyer. However, this was the first time I'd considered such questions as a parent. A parent who falls into sin, A LOT. Granted, I'm blessed not to be physically violent with my kids (and I'm sure this reader would say that line not being crossed means everything) but sin is sin is sin, it's just a matter of degrees. Screaming hysterically at my kids in one of my fits of anger might not get my kids removed from my home, but it still scars them. My sin, which comes out of my damaged, impure heart and then actively hurts the hearts of my children, makes Jesus very, very sad.

Thankfully, the cure is Christ. As Pope Benedict explains, "Only being loved is being saved, and only God's love can purify damaged human love and radically reestablish the network of relationship that have suffered from alienation."(pg. 266). My "love work" with Christ through prayer and the Eucharist is helping me, step by step, heal into the loving mother that our Creator originally meant me to be. In the adoption situation, the parent maybe be so closed off to Christ that his saving power isn't allowed to transform a life. Yet God never leaves one of us orphaned! The saving power meant to heal a harmed child will still break through the pain, maybe through the loving hands of an adopted parent herself.

May brings lots of graduations and lots of opportunities for visits with extended family. This time, when the fur starts flying, I'm going to tuck along Pope Benedict's words into my pocket. The question isn't "why aren't we getting along?" anymore. If all relationships are damaged by sin, the simple fact that most of our beloved extended family are vocally "on the outs with Christ" explains everything. My new task from Pope Benedict is simply to "have hope." My job is to stand in love, hold Christ's hand and let his love heal my heart.

I have hope for myself. I have hope for the little boy with the hurt jaw, and hope for his frustratingly imperfect dad. I have hope for my parents, and their parents, and the great-grandparents who are probably still struggling in purgatory. "Christ is our Hope!"

May you all have a blessed day!

In Praise of My Husband's Hands

(In Honor of the Feast of Saint Joseph the worker)

Last September, my husband came home and complained of pain in his right index finger. The tendon was so inflamed the pain shot all the way down his arm into his elbow. His workload had tripled after his firm took on two new clients. Now, my husband couldn't bend his knuckle or hold a knife.

Since all of my medical knowledge comes from worker compensation hearings, I immediately started freaking out about carpal tunnel syndrome. I looked up the facts in our little "do it yourself" health care manual from Kaiser Permenente.

"You need to ice your tendon for a half hour after work each day. You also need to take five minute stretch breaks at work. And you should do some finger strengthening exercises. And if that doesn't work we need to call your doctor-- otherwise you might need surgery!"

"I don't need to call my doctor," my husband said as he attempted to cut his pork chop with the knife in his left hand and held his fork in his right hand in a grip more awkward than our newborn's fist.

I stared at him in horror. "Everyone at this table depends upon that one hand to eat!" I exclaimed. The force of that statement hit both of us at once. "I'll ask my boss to order a better mouse pad tomorrow," my husband said with a nod. (Happily some minor changes on his computer desk have cured the problem.)

My husband is a graphic designer. He is the skilled laborer of our modern day. He loves to draw, but sadly handles pencil and paper all to rarely at work. Most of his day is spent doing click after click on his mouse. He moves type and photographs from web browser to spread sheet and then back again. Click. Click. Click. His right index finger moves up and down all day for nine to ten hours a day with only a modest break for lunch.

The steady paycheck from such humble work feeds a family of five, keeps a roof over our heads, and buys us netflix rentals and coffee grounds.

I'm so, so grateful to my husband for being a model of Saint Joseph for our family. Humble & Devout. Strong & Gentle. Diligent & Loving.

Saint Joseph pray for us, that we may always appreciate our spouses and their hard working hands.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Water Moment

Lately, whenever I've been having a stressful moment in my marriage, I've drawn on the image of the Wedding of Cana. Instead of getting upset, I sort of withdraw into myself. I place myself at that lavish wedding banquet, where the worse crisis of hospitality has occurred- the bride and groom have run out of wine.

"This is a water moment," I'll tell myself. It's a sort of shorthand to my soul that says, "yes, your agitation is real, yes your feelings are proportionate-- but we are doing something deeper now than trying to validate fears and hurt feelings. We are going to wait expectantly for Jesus to turn this 'water moment' into a 'wine moment'."

I'm a visual girl, so this sort of mental prayer helps me. Placing myself at the Wedding of Cana helps me transition from the Protestant girl who expected the formula was a) find the right guy, b) get married in a church c) don't do anything seriously sinful and BAM! this formula is guaranteed to equal happiness with your spouse for all your time on earth.

There's still this part of me that expects to be drinking the fragrant wine of domestic happiness every second of my marriage feast. When the wine runs dry because of the agitation that accompanies seasonal allergies, or due to sleepless babies, etc., it used to common for me to freak out. Why isn't this working?

My inner conversation used to go "Why isn't this working when I'm such a good person?" Now, that I'm Catholic that former conceit is comical. No the conversation (which is still prideful) goes something like "Why isn't my marriage 'working' when I'm following NFP, hitting daily Mass, consecrated to our Blessed Mother-- or any of the other of my latest spiritual practice additions." Last night it went, "Why didn't my husband empty the overflowing recyclables while I was at choir practice. I'm a choir member, why is this happening to me?"

That's the moment when I try to catch myself and place myself internally at the Wedding of Cana. "This is a water moment. Wait for the wine moment."

When I practice this prayer, it always, always works for me. I get showered with graces. The deal is that, I actually have to wait patiently for the wine moment to come, and then gratefully take a gulp. Sometimes it's as easy as spending the four minutes emptying the recyclable bin myself rather than making a scene. (Yes, more pettiness to wince at during the movie rewind of my life at the end of time!) Sometimes, its a little longer in coming but even more dramatic-- as when my husband's expensive allergy medicine suddenly went over-the-counter and became available for me and the kids as well.

Anyways, many thanks to the dear friend who encouraged me to transfer this "water moment, wine moment" prayer into my life with my children, who after all are simply the fruit of my union. The sacramental graces that I draw upon to make me a better wife are equally available to make me a better mother.

Pray for me, (it's allergy season, I need it!) and I will pray for each of you. May we all one day toast our glasses in the one, eternal banquet where the wine never runs out!