Saturday, June 28, 2008

Exotic Travel Close to Home

The Smithsonian Folk Life Festival brought a close peep into the reclusive country of Bhutan. Here's the National Dish which Jon and I found highly addictive.

Ema Datse (Chillies in Cheese Sauce)

This traditional Bhutanese dish comprises large green (medium hot) chilies, prepared as a vegetable, not as a seasoning, in a cheese sauce. Warning – this dish is hot! You can make it milder by choosing a milder chili.

2 cups large green chilies (medium hot)
1 onion, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
3/4 cup of cheese (Feta or Farmer's cheese)
5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup of water

Cut each chili lengthwise and combine with the chopped onions in a pot with the water, oil, and garlic, and boil for about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and boil for 2 minutes. Add the cheese and simmer for another 2 minutes. Let sit for a few minutes and serve with rice. (Preferably Bhutanese red rice, which is available in some markets and can be ordered online at places such as Lotus Food.)

Pope Benedict is Quoted in the NY Times Today!

"To many, “lowest low” is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions. “The ability to plan the decision to have a child is of course a big success for society, and for women in particular,” Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Turin, told me. “But if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago, you would see that nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s, the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3, and for some towns in Italy it is less than 1. This is considered pathological.”

There is no shortage of popular explanations to account for the drop in fertility. In Athens, it’s common to blame the city’s infamous air pollution; several years ago a radio commercial promoted air-conditioners as a way to bring back Greek lust and Greek babies. More broadly and significant, social conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control, they feel statistically vindicated. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future,” Pope Benedict proclaimed in 2006. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” In Germany, where the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s family minister (and a mother of seven), declared two years ago that if her country didn’t reverse its plummeting birthrate, “We will have to turn out the light.” Last March, AndrĂ© Rouvoet, the leader of the Christian Union Party in the Netherlands (and a father of five), urged the government to get proactive and spur Dutch women to have more babies. The Canadian conservative Mark Steyn, author of the 2006 best seller “America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It,” has warned his fellow North Americans, whose birthrates are relatively high, that, regarding their European allies, “These countries are going out of business,” and that while at the end of the 21st century there may “still be a geographical area on the map marked as Italy or the Netherlands,” these will “merely be designations for real estate.”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Praise of Bankers

On Friday,my friend's husband died. Pat's death came as a shock to my husband and myself. Just last week, I'd carefully copied out the Scripture reading from Elijah, the one where he prayed hard on Mount Carmel for rain to end a 3 year drought. Elijah sent his servant seven times to the top of the mountain to look for a rain cloud. Finally the servant sees a tiny cloud the size of a human fist. That is enough of a sigh for Elijah- "the rain is coming," he said.

I told my friend in an email to have hope. "Keep looking for those tiny fist size rain clouds," I wrote. "The entire church is praying so hard for your husband."

I promised to pray a rosary every day for a year for Pat, to sustain him during a long and difficult recovery process. Instead, I got to pray that prayer for only seven weeks.

What happened to our prayers? "Is death somehow different?" as my husband Jon suggested? Can we ask St. Joseph to find our lost car keys, or Mother Mary to heal our quick tempers, but asking for a death to be delayed is somehow too closely tied to God's elaborate plan?

My entire parish was rattled by Pat's accident. Pat fell down the stairs in the middle of the night on his way to the bathroom at 3 AM. He suffered a severe spinal injury as a result. As fellow choir member, Yomi, said, "Pat was just being considerate. He didn't turn on the light because he didn't want to wake his sleeping wife. Who turns on the light on the way to bathroom in the middle of the night? I don't." As my priest said at Pat's funeral, "we've all tripped in the night. We've all misstepped in our homes. No one else has fallen and suffered a spinal injury that meant death. No one, but Pat."

Friday night, my husband and I felt humbled and depressed. By Saturday night we felt completely rattled. Death comes like a thief in the night. Were we ready? We clutched at the catecism and spent hours studying it with the intensity of preparing for a final.

On Sunday, I felt so emotional at the 8:30 AM Mass. I hated hearing Pat's name moved from the "sick list" to the "recently deceased list" during the prayers of the faithful. I hated thinking about singing in an hour next to a new widow. My poor friend, who loved her husband so much.

As is always the case whenever I'm having a rough time, my three kids were beyond awful at church. This past Sunday was one of our priest's, Father John, last Sunday service before getting transfered next week to a new Parish. We went down to the reception in the parish hall to say goodbye.

Jon had flubbed and put most of the money we had intended to "buy donuts" after Mass into the collection plate. This left money for only one post-Mass donut. Ideally, Hannah and Alex, as two Christian siblings should be able to share donut peacefully between themselves. That "share" message is the main bulletin point on our home-education program so far. But that would require that they first compromise and select a donut flavor which they both like. Despite my maternal presence at the Boy Scout donut table, this didn't happen. Hannah chose "chocolate sprinkles" and paid for the purchase herself. Meanwhile, Alex had not budged from wanting a "pink icing" donut. This denial of a "pink donut", while not covered in the Geneva Anti-Torture Statute, nevertheless, brought out massive amounts of hysterical crying from Alex. He would not stop.

So several minutes later, we we finally reached our time to say a personal goodbye to one my favorite, favorite priests- Jon and I were only able to mutter incoherent "Thank you SOOOO much" over a loudly sniffling boy who kept muttering "I want my donut." Things were so bad, Father Jon made a special inquiry into the reason behind Alex's sadness and said "I hope you get your donut Buddy".

Meanwhile, after such an exhausting venture to get a hysterical three year old into his car seat, I turn to Jon and said "I feel miserable." He came over to give me a huge hug outside of our car. I started to cry. "I can't imagine how I'm going to sit next to Theresa in a few minutes. I'm so spent already. I can't believe Pat's dead and we're Here--at church, a place of such peace yet we feel miserable."

At this exact moment, this joyful voice rings out. "That's what I like to see. A husband and wife hugging each other! You never know how much time you have together, so hug each other often."

We turn and there is my friend Theresa. The New Widow. The one who's husband died after a horrible struggle in a Baltimore hospital room not 48 hours before.

AND SHE LOOKS INCREDIBLE! You will think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. She looked beautiful! Happy. Radiant. She wore a beautiful floral print suit. She had a full tooth smile. She radiated joy and happiness.

She says "Can I join you." And suddenly there is my friend, joining my husband and I in a grand three person hug. I looked at her. "I love you!", I said.

"I know," she said. "I got your emails. I loved that one about Elijah and the little black rain cloud."

My husband took off with the kids, while I turned back with Theresa to head into the 10 AM Mass to sing in the choir.

That brief 5 minute walk from the parking lot into the church building was incredible. I can only tell you that I thought "This is what the friends of Mary Magdelene thought after she came home from Jesus's empty tomb."

There I was drenched in mourning and sadness. I thought God had said a firm "no" to our prayers for healing. I was shocked and sad about it, but also okay that at the very least a "no" keeps us humble and in our place as "servants of God" --firmly not in charge of his master plan.

Then my friend shows up radiant in grace. She tells me that Pat had a beautiful death, surrounded by her and all three of his adult children. "It felt like we were moved along on waves of prayer," she said. "All of your prayers got redirected. And it was amazing. It was beautiful. Pat had no idea that God would love him this much. Pat saw God as he died."

Pat saw God? What?

I don't know, I'm just reporting the facts. I know that my friend looked radiant on Sunday. She looked radiant at the funeral home on Monday. She looked happy and radiant at Pat's funeral yesterday.

I know that I got to sign glorious hymns of invitation to the Eucharist and "The Wonders of the Promises" of Heaven to many, many depressed bankers at the funeral. I know now that this quiet man who sat in the section row on the right hand side each Sunday, quietly saved my parish. A former priest came back to speech in the memorial part of the Mass. He said when he came to St. Martin's in 1991 the parish had a debt of 1.2 million dollars. The priest who founded our church in the 1920s, would go to bed so nervous about the building cost of 106,000 dollars that his bed would actually shake at night. This priest said, he didn't worry so much about a 1.2 million dollar debt. And Pat, this quiet man who happened to be one of the best bankers in D.C., showed him how to pay it off! We, this humble parish of recent immigrants, paid off our debt! Pat handled the budgets for our parish school. He was chairmen of our church finance committee until the day he died. He showed my parish how to afford to build our convent! The first new convent in D.C. in a decade.

The most amazing part, is that because I know Theresa, I know another part. Pat lived a life of simplicity. They just bought their first house two years ago. All of the family's money went into affording Catholic school for their three children. They bought their first home at age 60. And Pat was a real estate banker!

The funeral mass was incredible. Such a moving experience. It was incredible to sing the Mass with the body of my friend's husband beside the choir. It was incredible to sing about the Eucharist to a group of Pat's co-workers who were not Catholic. And at the end, it was incredible to realize how diverse the talents contained in the body of Christ.

I am an artist. Bankers have to be about as far removed from my creative, non-practical, math-impaired mind. Yet here were the priests in such high praise for the work of this humble banker. And I realized how important the work of a banker is for a church. The priests and the nuns have to be about as impaired with money as my husband and I. Yet they didn't need to worry. God gave them a "Patrick" in the midst of a financially troubled parish. Three priests, listened carefully to what he said, and our tiny parish can support ministry for 2,000 active families!

I gave a lot thanks to Catholic bankers yesterday. And I gave such thanks for my own humble ability to sing. It is such a beautiful gift to give some one in mourning. My husband has started saying that "song is ornament for the air." And that's what happened. The air inside that church changed with all the beautiful hymns selected by my friend and fellow choir member, Theresa.

My prayers are for Patrick Burke to rest in peace with our Lord Jesus. I pray for Theresa and for their three children. I pray for all of us to become worthy servants of God, to bear our cross well and hear "Welcome my faithful servant" at the end of our lives.

Converts of Old

Today's Mass Reading:

2 Kings 22: 8 - 13

And Hilki'ah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the book of the law in the house of the LORD." And Hilki'ah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, "Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD." Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, "Hilki'ah the priest has given me a book." And Shaphan read it before the king.And when the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes.

And the king commanded Hilki'ah the priest, and Ahi'kam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micai'ah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asai'ah the king's servant, saying,"Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us."

I sat in the pew with my squirmy toddler and felt a wave of comfort after the Lecture read this reading. What a story! They found a last book of "the Law." How could it be missing? How could the people forget? The King is struck with such horror that an entire book of holy rules have been "lost" and ignored that he tears up his clothes.

That's how I feel as a convert to Catholicism. How could my ancestors, the pious Protestants who sent their children to Vacation Bible School, and Wednesday Night Prayer services, and double church services on Sunday forget Mary? How could we forget to pray for the constant intercession of the Saints? How could we forget the crucifix, and confession, and the Sacrament of the Sick? How could we forget the real presence in the Eucharist?

The Protestant Reformation is nothing new. This is an old struggle that goes back to ancient Judaism. The struggle I have as a convert- who has to constantly navigate between duty to God and duty to honor my parents-- that ancient Jewish King and I could have a long chat about that issue. He'd tell me that while it seems impossible to turn your religion around on dime, the conversion process is fairly straight forward. First repent. Then study the "real" rules. Then pledge to live my life differently. He'd remind me that "God's mercy is shown to every generation who fears the Lord." That King would say, run your race and pray hard for your family. The change they see in your life, might be the very thing that gets them curious enough to read "that lost book of Laws" for themselves.

Today, I broke through 32 years of morning sleepiness to attend 6:30 AM Mass with my family. This is the gift our Pope gave our family. We started attending Mass together back in April as preparation for the Papal Mass. Now we can't image starting our day without the Eucharist. It's transformed, broken me open and rearranged so many settled, sinful parts of myself.

May we all have a blessed, holy day as fellow servants of the Lord!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Best Post I've Read All Year

All those prayers for the Pope's intentions for Christian artists last month, must be paying off. I had one of the sweetest confessions ever with our beloved Father John this Saturday. I'm telling him about this vivid La Salette dream I had while the Our Lady of Fatima parish statute was visiting our house and how I think that means I'm supposed to start working on that art project I've got rattling around in my head for three years. Instead of calling me crazy, Father bellows out this memoriable line "You don't have to be another Chesterton! Just write what Our Lady wants you to write with simplicity and sincerity. WRITE FROM YOUR HEART! "(That last line was said with so much conviction and love that the screen that seperated us started to shake.)

Which is one of the the 1,000 thousand things that I love about being Catholic. Where else do you go for an encouraging writing workshop, but the nearest confessional with your local parish priest!

So coming home, I told my husband that I need to find some steady time to write during the week. Filled with the Holy Spirit my husband suggested that I stop doing all laundry and meal prep for the next three months. Only kidding! No, he wisely suggested that I channel the time and energy that I put into writing blog posts and surfing the internet, and start exclusively use my screen time to work on this big, scary art project--which of course, Father has already assured me isn't so scary, because I'm simply writing from MY HEART!"

So I'm announcing a blog fast for at least three weeks. Maybe longer. My husband wants me to try for three months. At this point, I'm not sure if I can fast for a full three days. I would appreciate all of your prayers. If you pray for me to getting into a good writing groove, then I can be back earlier to post on topics other than "how I had to confess that I was dodging a writing assignment given by Our Lady."

In the meantime, I'm happy to redirect you to what promises to be a very exciting blog in the next few weeks. After eighteen years of battling the twin heartbreaks of multiple miscarriages and infertility, Anne Marie just got called "Mom" this weekend by her newly adopted son! Go read the best God is Good post I've read all year. Drop her a line and send her a few prayers. Then go hug your beloved spouse and your kids!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Feeling Sorrow for the Kennedys

The news about Ted Kennedy's health has the D.C. beltway a buzz with political speculation, but my thoughts run into a deeper nature.

As the daughter of a Poly Sci Professor, I grew up with mythic Kennedy family. A poster of JFK on a Sail Boat with the word's "Ask Not What Your Country Can Do .. ." hangs in my parent's living room and a soft photograph of JFK Hugging Caroline Kennedy with the line "It's Okay to Dream" hung in my little brother's bedroom. More than a symbol of 1960s idealism, as a Protestant, the Kennedy's were my one insight into the Roman Catholic faith. I remember so clearly a photograph of Rose Kennedy praying the rosary in church after the murder of her son. I didn't know what the rosary was at the time. Yet I remember being impressed with her strong fingers gripping the tiny beads and the way her mantilla covered head bowed with a quiet resignation. I knew just from her body position that those "Mary prayers" were important. "There must be something to that rosary thing", I thought at the age of eight.

After my conversion to Catholicism, I hung onto the Kennedy's example as the political ground shifted beneath my feet. During the Democratic Convention in 2004, I found myself in Boston with a husband, a one year old and a huge pregnant belly in the house of a still single college friend who couldn't believe a former staunch Democrat was now avidly Pro-Life. I didn't yet know how to square my political beliefs with my newly found religion. I remember feeling shaken and stirred after yet another "look how much you've changed" discussion with my friend and turning on the News Coverage to see the reassurring sight of Ted Kennedy. "The Kennedy's are Catholics and Democrats. They've carefully studied the issues," I thought to myself. "There must be some loophole in the catecism that I don't know about yet." With that thought, I happily clicked off the remote, rubbed my enlarged tummy, and fell asleep."

"There must be some loophole," that thought fills me with chargin these days. There are no loopholes of course, as I spend my day desperately trying to throw off my many, many habits of venial sin (gossip, a quick temper, stubborness, impatience, just to name a few) in order to put on the new robe of Christ.

And some where along the way, the Kennedy's have gone from heros of the Roman Catholic faith to me, to people that need my prayers every day. I don't get "mad", I just feel sad. Because the sin of scandal is real. I was one of those "in transition" people who put off dealing with the political ramifications of the pro-life issue until the last weeks of the 2004 campaign. I wanted to believe that if John Kerry and Ted Kennedy thought that there was no conflict, then it didn't really exist. That doesn't excuse my behavior, it just highlights the extra burden of responsibility that Catholic leaders carry into the political arena.

That's the background for why I had such strong, sad feelings when I read this passage about RFK by his daughter Kerry Kennedy in the New York Times today:

"As an adult, I recognize that the lessons my father taught us children mirrored the beliefs he wanted the nation to embrace — that we must build a system of justice which enjoys the confidence of all sides; that peace is not something to pray for, but something everyone has the responsibility to create every day; "

That line "peace is not something to pray for" hurts my heart again. I pray the rosary everyday for Peace, just as Our Lady of Fatima asked us Catholics to do. And on days when the Iraq death toll continues to mount, sometimes it seems like prayer doesn't accomplish anything. Yet I know praying works. Peace is something beyond us humans. Peace isn't something we can create out of our own handiwork. Peace is a gift that we have to receive from the Holy Spirit. Peace is a conversion of the interior heart which then pours out into the world.

My only tangible proof that my prayers for peace are working may be too small for Kerry Kennedy's comfort. I only know that daily reception of the Eucharist and frequent recetation of the rosary has caused my quick temper to cool. Yesterday I handled the loss of electricity in our house for over twelve hours with grace and humor. I cooked dinner, washed the dishes, and cleaned the house in the dark. I entertained two anxious pre-schoolers. I nursed a fussy baby who had no milk to drink. I joked with my husband and cared for two elderly neighbors. Yesterday, our little corner of our apartment building was a haven of peace, even though the threat of Tornados loomed over us until 1 AM.

Prayer and Action for Peace and Social Justice isn't a either/or dichotomy, Ms. Kennedy. I pray so that I know what to do. I pray so that my actions contain great love. I pray so that the Holy Spirit will bless these puny, human size endeavors and turn them into great fruits for Jesus.

In Him, With Him, Through Him. May I do a better job of being a contemplative this week. My little town of D.C. is certainly in need of greater numbers of faithful laity.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kissing My Scapular

At this point, it’s a pretty fair bet that any Catholic devotion that I turned my nose up during RICA as being “too weird”, is now on my “must have-- can’t live without it” list. NFP, Daily Mass, the Rosary, First Saturday devotions, Our Lady of Fatima, all of these have won their way into my heart. My latest, “How did I live without it” item is my Brown Scapular.

I cannot tell you how much this small piece of brown wool has changed my prayer life. I love that the back feels scratchy, like the camel hair clothes of John the Baptist. I love that mine comes with a St. Benedict medal that reminds me to pray for the pope. I love that it’s unfashionable and sticks out of my hip black tee shirts. I love that I can kiss it every time that I sin as a concrete act of penance. When I’m going into a tense situation (especially when I have to make difficult phone calls), I clutch a cloth picture of Our Lady in my hand. I love that wearing Our Lady of Mount Carmel makes me feel so close to St. Theresa of Avila (my patron saint) and her namesake St. Theresa of the Child Jesus.

Wearing a scapular is a reminder of the maternal hug that Our Lady extends to each of us. I’m so grateful that Our Lady extended this kindness to St. Simon Stock.

PS: Don’t forget to read about the Ugandan Martyrs Feast Day today and discover an inspiring example of male chastity.

Monday, June 2, 2008

You may be raising a nun, if...

So Maria's Birthday celebration has caused alot of talk among her oldest siblings about their choices of themes for their own future birthday parties.

Here's Alex's list:

"First I want a Space Birthday, then I want Speed-Racer Birthday, then I want Dinos & Volcanoes Birthday- with a real volcano that explodes in the air and pours red stuff all over the dinos!"

Here's Hannah's list:

"First I want an Easter Birthday, Then I want a Twisty Balloon Birthday, because they are really fun, Then I want Jesus died on the Cross Birthday, with a little Jesus on the Cross on my birthday cake made out of plastic, not made out of candy Mom, because eating Jesus directly might hurt his feelings , Then I want a Mary Birthday, because I love her so much, then I want Little Flower Theresa Birthday with little pink roses on my Birthday Cake."

Wedding Anniversary

Today is my seventh wedding anniversary! We celebrated by getting a special blessing for our marriage during the 9 AM Daily Mass. Many thanks for Our Lady for sneaking into my sedate Methodist wedding and injecting some true Wedding of Cana Wine.

I daily reap all the blessings of having a sacramental marriage to my loving husband as a result of my one simple act of obedience. During the crazy period of wedding planning, my dream of a joint Catholic/Protestant wedding service suddenly seemed like to much trouble. "Let's just use my minister and get the marriage blessed in the Catholic church afterwards," I suggested after a tiring discussion of how to coordinate Catholic wedding prep plans between Ohio (my home), New York (his home) and West Virginia (the place of our wedding.) "I can't explain why, but I really think it's important now to have the wedding recognized by my church from the start," my nervous groom suggested. (This was a complete flip from the hands-off, "whatever you want", & "don't bother with that stuffy Catholic stuff" which had dominated Jon's speech during the countless hours of pervious discussion we had on this subject.) "Okay, If it's important to you, then I'll come" I answered. So I drove through three hours of heavy snow in Cleveland and Buffalo to hit a pre-cana retreat session with my then barely Catholic fiance.

That simple sacrifice made our "mixed marriage" blessed by Jesus Himself, and over-flowing with graces. Today as we stood for our anniversary blessed with three noisy children (and one saint in heaven), we were a "mixed" marriage no longer. Now we share one heart, one fleash, and one Faith.