Friday, April 30, 2010

First Communion -Part 1

Twelve Hours before First Communion!!!

Hannah and her Daddy came back glowing from their Spiritual Retreat today! I highly recommend having your husband take off of work, for even a few hours, to spend some special time in prayer the day before your child's First Communion. Since I do most of the religious ed training for the kids by default because I'm the main homeschool teacher, Jon was so happy to spend some extra time preparing Hannah to receive the Sacrament of Communion.

So far, so good on Communion Day prep. I managed to avert the crisis of completely misplaced bobby pins by borrowing some from my Indian neighbor. I stood at the door for a long time talking to her son and staring at odd statues of Hindi gods in their china cabinet, as my neighbor searched for something to secure Hannah's First Communion Veil. As I walked away so grateful that my neighbor's charity spared me an emergency late-night run to Target, I thought this must count as a big deal in heaven right? A Hindi lends a future Spouse of Christ bobby pins to secure her veil before she receives the Body of Christ for the first time? Maybe God made all of my absent-mindness on purpose, just to let more non-Catholics get a Crown in heaven for helping out my Catholic family.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Living the Broken Body of Christ

It's almost time for my eldest daughter's First Communion. We're excited around here! Jon is taking the whole day off tomorrow to offer Hannah a special time to pray and attend Confession at the National Basilica.

We've got the white dress and the veil and the white gloves. We bought a new "Mommy Mary" Statue and a special Communion Day locket. We've said lots of prayers and lit her baptismal candle. I ordered a cake and bought blue and white party supplies.

Everything is so beautiful and amazing . . .

And yet today I'm sad. My Protestant parents are coming to see Hannah get her First Communion this week. The inter-family dynamics are the complete opposite of their calm visit for Hannah's Birthday last month. For this visit, my parents are acting skiddish and sacred.

The Eucharist is the big divide between the Catholics and the Protestants. For us Catholics, the Eucharist is the summit of Christian Life. We get to stand with Jesus at Calvery. We get to experience the glory of his Resurrection. We eat his Body receive the promise of our eternal life.

Yet this great mystery is "hidden" in plain sight. To the outsider, First Communion is nothing more than a pretty ceremony, similar to how 3rd Graders get handed out a red leather Bible in my old Methodist Church.

As I revive my tired vacuum cleaner to clean the carpets for this weekends guests, I have a hurt heart. My parents don't get this mystery. Moreover, they are hostile to it.

The thing that consoles me is that it must have been SO heartbreaking for my ancestors in 16th Century Germany to suddenly lose their son, Joseph Rupp, to the Protestant Movement. "But this is the EUCHARIST!" an ancient mother must have cried.

On Saturday morning, I'm sure I'll cry. I'll cry because my little baby is now a Communicant in the Catholic Church.

I'll cry because I'm so happy for my girl who so in love with Jesus that she keeps reminding me "You better give lots of hugs to me this week because I could be like St. Imelda and feel so much joy that I go directly to heaven after my First Communion on Saturday!"

I'll cry because it's a remarkable gift that my journey to the Catholic Church led to Hannah's day of perfect joy.

And I'll cry with the hope that someday my parents will share my love and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Leap of Faith- My Commitment to the Family Dinner Hour

Sometimes God asks me to do to radical, counter-cultural acts. I limp along, following this vague whisper in my heart. There is no clear evidence to support following "Action X". In fact, I find tons of articles in the Washington Post which state my new course will end in death, destruction and despair. I try not to notice that "Action X" runs directly opposite to every one else that I know. However, once I've shown my obedience, God will open up the flood gates wisdom and rain down understanding upon my formerly clouded mind.

This process happened recently with "The Benjamin Family Dinner Debate".

Last year, Hannah attended Ballet Lessons and CCD class. Since our D.C. Suburb is filled with dual income families, it is impossible to find an extra-curricular activity for elementary students that begin before 5:30 PM. In fact, most lessons go from 6-7 PM or 7-8 PM on a School Night!

For Hannah's Kindergarten year we had lessons two days a week that started at 5:30 PM. Hannah is a social butterfly who adores activities and new friends. However, her lessons left everyone else miserable. I dragged two tired siblings through rush hour traffic to pick up Hannah. We missed having a family dinner two nights a week. The disturbed bath and bedtime routine never found a firm footing. My famished husband snacked on peanut butter and jelly on lesson nights, while a half finished dinner boiled over on the stove.

This year we decide to protect the family dinner hour. That required a radical shift for three members of the Benjamin family. Hannah had to give up activities that she loved. Jon had to make a concerted effort to leave the office at 5:30 PM. I had to make sure that dinner was completely finished by 6:00 and not 6:25 or 6:44.

In the beginning it was hard. I missed the easy fail-safe assurance outside lessons gave to homeschooling. As a convert, I was nervous about taking on sole responsibility to prepping my daughter for her First Communion. Every time a fellow Mother rattled off all of her elementary student's outside activities, I got nervous. Was I unfairly depriving my athletic, social daughter of something important?

As time went on this year, our Dinner Hour became amazing. My kids still rock in their chairs and spill water glasses at almost every meal. But now we have a gentle time to reconnect with each other before the mad rush of bedtime. We eat real meals. We read Sacred Scripture together. Table manners for my son are gradually coming out of the Viking Era.

I looked around and realized that this poor Carmelite family is rich with a vibrant family life. In an era when most people are giving up family dinner due to the rush of baseball practice and Ballet class. We Benjamins eat 3 meals together as a family; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. There are three times a day when we gather around the family table to eat nourishing food and to nourish each other with our presence.

After falling in love with Family Dinner, I started to understand how critical meal time is to family life. If we are the domestic church, than the dinner hour is our Eucharist. Eating a meal prepared from scratch by your Mom, having your Dad remind you to eat a bite of broccoli, laughing over ice-cream cones with your Sisters--this is the real texture of family life.

How can a young Catholic understand the importance of Jesus giving up his body in the Eucharist, or the necessity of attending Mass with your family in Christ on Sundays, if he never had the experience of eating a regular meal with the natural family?

After making these internal discoveries my heart broke after reading the following passages from my Sister's copy of Michael Pollan's, "In Defense of Food." The family dinner situation in America is so much bleaker than I realized.

"If you install video cameras in the kitchen and dining-room ceilings above typical American families, as marketers form the major food companies have done, you'll quickly discover that the reality of the family dinner has diverged substantially from our image of it. Mom might still cook something for herself and sit at the table for a while, but she'll be alone for much of that time. That's because dad and each of the kids are likely to prepare an entirely different entree for themselves, 'preparing" in this case being a synonym for microwaving a package. Each family member might then join mom at the table for as long as it takes to eat, but not necessarily all at the same time. Technically, this kind of feeding counts as a family dinner in the survey results, though it's hard to believe that it performs all the customary functions of a shared meal. . .

Of course, people tend to eat more when they can have exactly what they want-which is why the major food companies approve of this modernized family meal and have done everything in their power to foster it. So they market different kinds of entrees to each member of the family (low-carb for the dieting teenager, low cholesterol for dad, high fat for the eight-year-old, and so on), and engineer these "home meal replacements," as they're known in the trade, so that even the eight-year-old can safely microwave them. (pgs. 189-190.)

This whole passage hurt my heart. As a wife of nine years, I can't imagine nodding to my tired, hungry, husband at 6 PM over my SOLO microwaved meal and saying"Hi Honey! Welcome home from work! There's some low cholesterol frozen dinners in the freezer for you to heat up whenever your ready." Much less, can I imagine saying "fend for yourself kids," as I prepare and eat a solo meal at our dining room table. How hard can it be for a mother to zap 4 extra portions when she microwaves her own frozen dish?

I'm not as militant against microwave meals as is the author Michael Pollen. As the Benjamins settle into the happy chaos of welcoming a newborn in August, we might be eating a series of frozen pizza dinners. No matter if the cuisine is fresh or frozen, however, we've made a pact to dine together as a family.

Hurrah for the family dinner hour! I'm happy to be a Mother from the dinosaur age for Jesus!

Hannah's Talent for Visual Metaphors

Last night at dinner, we talked about how the Eucharist unites us to others, as well as to God. Hannah had beautiful comparison for us.

"Each of us are pretty beads on a necklace. We get made a bead when we are babies through our Baptism. Every time someone gets their First Communion they get sewed onto the necklace. The Eucharist is the thread of love that binds us together.

Then Devil gets mad and tries to cut of off the necklace with some sharp scissors. Our job is stay aways from the scissors and keep getting sewed more and more into the necklace.

At the end of time, God will close the necklace and take the whole necklace to Heaven."

Another Hannah image about sin and Confession.

"When you are born, you have a slide set in front of you that last as long as your life. At the top of the slide is heaven. Your job is to climb up the slippery part of the side. Every time you sin, you slip down your slide. When you go to Confession your Guardian Angel gives you a boost up the slide. When you reach the top, (that's when you die) there is Jesus waiting for you!"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Carmelite Obituary

One of the most healing things I can do to help myself "cast off the old self" is to read the obituary column of our Carmelite Magazine. For 35 years, I've read countless obituaries of famous and important people in the New York Times. These obituaries are filled with notable achievements, long lists of Corporate Boards Run, Public Service Awards received, and Academic Degrees Awarded from prestigious colleges.

Since a Carmelite's primary purpose is to despise wealth and worldly honors, the loving tributes of dear friends from the convents and monasteries are quite shocking to me, a barely formed Catholic still marked by the world's definition of "success." I find myself constantly surprised and reassured that the first thing mentioned by a deceased prioress is not her term length or her "accomplishments" but instead "the beautiful smile" she gave to everyone she met.

A recent Carmel Clarion features the obituary of Brother Antonine, a former cook at the Washington D.C. Carmel Monastery. Brother Antonine's prior described his main virtues as "affability, hospitality and faithfulness."

I was shocked to see the virtue of affability so eloquently described by Prior Marc Foley. "Affability is the duty of justice, it is a kind of debt of decency, writes Thomas Aquinas. Affability is the virtue of maturity and not of youth. It requires the discipline and strength of character to be even-keeled in one's demeanor, regardless of how one is feeling. It is that reare species of charity, the heroic strength that does not inflict one's fluctuating moods upon others.

Br. Antonine had the virtue of affability to a high degree. Regardless of how he was feeling, in spite of the fact that he often dragged himself through the day, Br. Antonine was always patient, gracious and courteous to those he met. Thomas Hardy once said that people are like planets. In their orbits, they carry around their own atmosphere. The atmosphere that everyone breathed in Br. Antonine's presence can be described in one word-welcome. St. Therese once said that when a request is made of you, you should respond in such a manner that the person who has made the request "believes that they are doing you a favor in accepting your services." In this regard, Br. Antonine was a true devotee of St. Therese." (Clarion, November 2009 pg. 15.)

Before reading this illuminating obituary, the virtue of affability wasn't even on my radar screen. Whenever I got tired or discouraged (something that happens often in my pregnant state) I'd pray to God to quickly solve the problem. For example, I wanted my sciatic nerve pain to disappear so that I could clean the kitchen floor. I never thought to pray for the grace to be "affable" while experiencing back pain. Yet "affability" will make all the difference in my vocation as a wife and a mother.

With God's grace, can I too develop the "heroic strength to not inflict my fluctuating moods upon others?" The virtue affability will be a great one to pray for during my next four months of pregnancy.

Thank you Brother Antonine! May the Angels and Martyrs greet you and lead you to heaven!

Let's also remember to pray hard for an increase of vocations to the religious life. Those chaste Brothers in their hidden lives leave many valuable teachings to us, their spiritual daughters in Christ!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Southern Living- Catholic Family Edition

For my friend Hallie, who believes that our poverty, our multitude of small children, and our status a renters will automatically disqualify our homes from earning a feature spread in the real Southern Living Magazine!

Our May Issue of Southern Living features the humble Carmelite Home of Mrs. Abigail Benjamin
(note: due to the writer's technical ineptitude the viewer will need to rotate her head to the left 90 degrees to view all vertical pictures in this feature)

On a peaceful suburban street in Washington D.C.,

With glamorous views of the Corporate Marriott Headquarters...

... lies a humble Carmelite cottage, whose vibrant interior life is hidden from the outside world.

Please enter our front door,

and ignore the clutter of children's bicycles outside. . .

Once inside this charming domestic church, the Holy Father will send you a happy wave. This cheerful photo by the front door was blessed at the Papal Mass in April 2008. The Papal Mass is a treasured memory of many Catholic families in the D. C. Area.

Notice a detail of the charming wedding photographs elegantly arranged on the front entry way. Doesn't this swell couple look deeply in love?

Once you enter this charming cottage you are immediately greeted with an image of Jesus and his Most Sacred Heart. This antique engraving features the words "Sacred Heart" in four languages. In the 1890s, Irish and Italian immigrants fresh off the boat would rush to replace the clunky Holy Pictures left behind in their home country with this cheap print from Currer and Ives.

The green shamrock to the left is hand designed by the artist in residence, Miss. Hannah. The fact that a St. Patrick's Day decoration is still hanging in the living room after Easter is a sign of Mrs. Benjamin's lack of energy, mobility and focus during the difficult days of her latest pregnancy.

The convenient layout of a joint living room/dining room area offers plenty of play space for young children.

Ms. Benjamin has hit upon a unique technique for furnishing a home with four small children on a tight budget. She simply refuses to buy furniture. These green velvet armchairs came from her grandmother's home. Mrs. Benjamin has a photo of herself as an infant sitting in these chairs in her baptismal gown.

After hoarding these chairs inside her master bedroom for three years, fearful of the effects of peanut butter hands on velvet, Mrs. Benjamin has recently brought them into the living room at Mr. Benjamin's suggestion that guests require place to sit. Mrs. Benjamin expects her grandmother's chairs to last another week in their present condition.

The torn IKEA couch in the middle of her living room, is another nod to Mrs. Benjamin's Catholic faith.

"If I had real furniture," Mrs. Benjamin cheerfully asserts, "I would spend so many extra years in purgatory whenever my five year old son decides to cut up the couch cover just to see what lies underneath!"

The remaining living room furniture is salvaged from the trash heap. This lovely blue chair is one of the children's favorite indoor jungle gyms.

For a decorative finish, Mrs. Benjamin's china cabinet show cases her grandmother's antique wedding china. Mrs. Benjamin inherited this china easily after her grandmother's death, since neither her Mother or her Sister enjoy cooking or entertaining.

One of the show-stopping features contained in this china cabinet, is a antique statue of Our Blessed Mother. Mrs. Benjamin reports that she enjoys contemplating the lovely serenity of this statue on particularly awful homeschooling days.

The steady St. Joseph also finds a place of honor in this Catholic household.

Across from the china cabinet, you'll find a delightful Alter. As two Third Order Carmelites, Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin pray underneath this alter on a daily basis.

A copy of the first Hail Mary, Mrs. Benjamin every prayed at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is a showcase of this unique collection of holy items.

In the middle of the dining room, you'll find the remains of a happy family lunch. One of the main benefits of paying an exorbitant amount of rent, is that Mr. Benjamin is able to join his family each day at the noon hour.

In the spacious open air kitchen, you'll find the all important bread maker. After Mr. Benjamin watched a disturbing documentary on the ingredients of corn syrup on PBS, he urgently requested that all the family's bread be made from scratch in the future. Mrs. Benjamin cheerfully complies with his request. Now, the Benjamin family feasts on fresh bread each day-- unless Mrs. Benjamin forgets, has morning sickness or sciatic nerve pain- on those days her family simply eats peanut butter straight out of the jar.

Mrs. Benjamin reports that this "feast or famine" in the bread department is an excellent tool for building up her children's future tolerance for the hardships of Mission life. "If Hannah is ever stuck caring for orphans after another earthquake in Haiti," Mrs. Benjamin states "she'll know just what to do! A large jar of peanut butter, some plastic spoons, and several water purification tablets will keep all the children in her charge alive for at least 3 weeks."

Another charming detail of City Life are the bus passes for the Benjamin family. This Discalsced Carmelite family chooses to go carless, instead of shoeless, as a sign of their pledge to poverty in the modern era.

Did someone forget to load the dishwasher again last night? Are there no clean glasses left? No matter, those resourceful Benjamin kids will simply use Mama's fine wine glasses as water gobbles for their afternoon snack!

The Benjamin kitchen also shows signs of an Almost First Communicant in the house! This detailed Chalice was painted by Miss Hannah during her recent First Communion retreat.

Down the hall is the parent's bedroom. Miss Mimi is showcasing the spacious double bed which can barely fit 1 regular adult, 1 pregnant adult and 1 toddler.

On the dresser is stacks of Holy Pictures which Mr. Benjamin has yet to hang up on the wall after a recent bedroom transfer.

Here is the rest of the family. Hannah and Alex on their favorite computer games. This is why Mrs. Benjamin is rarely able to blog during daylight hours.

Next to the living room, is the former master bedroom which was recently transferred into "Kids World." Inside, you'll see that there is plenty of space for a fourth crib. "How can you fit four children into one bedroom," the neighbors often wonder? Mrs. Benjamin just smiles mysteriously and states "we don't even use bunk beds!"

On a child's night table, St. Michael the Archangel keeps all the bad dreams away.

The former walk-in closet has been turned into a snug school room. The "jump ropes" on the top shelves were installed by the children themselves as a part of "swinging on jungle vines" game. Nothing quite refreshes a child's brain after a rigorous learning activity like swinging upside down from a high space.

Telltale life of childhood is all around the Benjamin household Here is a picture of Hiccip the Viking by Alex, age 5.

Thank you for touring Southern Living- Catholic Edition! We hope your inspired to do "beauty on a budget" in your domestic church also! God Bless You!

P.S. If you need an easy way to whittle down your "Honey Do List", simply post some pictures of your home on a public blog. I took these pictures on Friday. By 10 AM on Saturday, my husband had (1) fixed a screen that had been broken for the past four months, (2) washed our couch cover, (3) cleaned my kitchen counters, (4) vacuumed the living room rug, and (5) requested I buy him more carpet shampoo at my next shopping trip to Target. All of these "home improvements" were made without a word from me!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thanks For the Prayers

Thank you so much for all of your prayers about my sciatic nerve pain. My nerve pain is much better.

The best thing about the pain is that it forces me to completely reorganize my life. My first project is to teach myself on how to move without further injuring my back. I'm so uncoordinated. In my life as a stay-at-home mom, I basically have the same physical demands as field hand. There is so much bending over to pick up legos off the the floor and a constant lifting of of a 30 pound 3 year old and a 55 pound 5 year old. Every time I unload the dishwasher, I've got to coach myself through the motions, "Bend at the knee, keep your back straight, no sudden twists or turns." It feels totally foreign to me, but I'm so glad to be learning this at 35 instead of 55.

Then there is this great emotional task called "letting the house go." I literally can't pick up all the blocks, and the train sets and the legos that get on the living room floor everyday. The constant up and down motion that "picking up" requires is murder on my sore back. For the past two weeks, either someone else (my husband or my kids) pick up things up or the toys just stay there for days. Every morning I sit at breakfast and am amazed that all of Mimi's wooden blocks are still under the coffee table! There is almost no spots of uncluttered carpet left in my apartment.

This type of "letting things go" is so good for me. Dinner and clean clothes come ahead of an immaculate living room. Its so good that before my newborn comes I'm forced to see that the family can totally survive on what I consider to be "bare-bones" housework. Hopefully, this will help me not get so overwhelmed in the Fall.

Thanks to my back pain, my revised plan for September is "breastfeeding and crock pot dinners." Everything else, home-schooling, house cleaning and laundry is going to wait for Daddy's Domestic Time on Saturday Morning. Glad to get a head start on life with "four" before the baby's arrival.

Why I Love Catholic Friends!

I ran into a Jane Marie, a homeschooling mother of five who attends my parish, at Target tonight. We chatted about Hannah's upcoming First Communion and promised to set up a play date soon for our sons.

"A new boy pal for Alex will be so great!"I said enthusiastically. We just found out the new baby is a girl . . ."

I took a break from speaking to rub my tummy with affection "so that means that Alex will be the only boy in our family."

Jane Marie said, "For Now!"

I love Catholics!

My fifth pregnancy has been met with so much negativity. It's so sweet to run into a new friend who reminds me that a) it's totally possible that someday Alex will get the little brother he's wanted since our son Francisco died and b) that this teeny baby girl might not be our last.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It's All In My Head

Yesterday, I had a terrible, awful, no good, very bad day.

It started with a mad scramble to get my family to the bus stop in time for my early morning sonogram appointment. Since pregnancy, stuffy allergy symptoms, and an 800 yard dash go so well together, I no sooner grabbed a seat on the bus then I launched into a major coughing attack. My coughs were so forceful that I split my right contact in half! The rest of the 25 minute bus ride, I spent holding my spasming eye in a make shift pirate patch.

When we got to the doctors office, I could only fish out one half of my contact in dim lighting of the public restroom. The other half remained stubbornly lost somewhere behind my upper eyelid.

In the sonogram room, I looked at the pretty, emotional pictures of my youngest daughter with one eye winced closed. I felt like "pirate" mommy.

By the end of the hour and half sonogram appointment, a second bus ride, and my still painful right eye, I returned home at 10:30 AM completely exhausted. Of course, since my husband took off for my morning appointment, his boss now required him to work until 8 PM. (I affectionately call my husband, "my Bob Cratchett"). I watched my husband walk out of our front door with a mixture of sadness and dread.

The next ten hours were totally awful. I read every crazy suggestion on the internet for how to remove a stuck contact. I only succeeded in making my eye super irritated and possibly infected. My poor kids were left alone to watch hours of junk TV.

My husband was over the moon with our new daughter news. Jon kept calling me from work with sweet phone calls. I said all the right words back, but inside I had a hard time connecting the fluttering in my stomach with the motions of a real, live human being. Every time I tried to talk to the baby my attention kept getting redirected to the screaming toddler, the "I'm so bored" son, my aching back and my throbbing right eye.

Finally, at 2 PM, I yanked myself out of bed. I took the kids on a mile bike ride to eat Chocolate Chip Cookies at the Corner Bakery, find Book 2 of "How to Train Your Dragon" and buy a new lamp at Target.

Somewhere in Target, Alex managed to loose his bike helmet. We spent an hour retracing our steps and checking the "Lost and Found" box, before I spent an extra $26.99 to get him a new one.

My husband came home at 8:08 PM and we all ate some of my burnt chicken casserole. Then, I fell asleep at 8:35.

This morning, I woke up at 3:00 AM, when a toddler climbed into my bed. I tried to go back to sleep on our bedroom floor. My eye hurt and I went into the bathroom to try again to fish out the broken pieces of my contact lens. My frantic prayers to St. Jude and St. Lucy yield no results.

Finally, I staggered into my living room under my make-shift prayer alter. I reminded myself that when I can't sleep, I should try to pray my Carmelite half and hour of quiet prayer immediately, rather than waiting for my regular prayer time at 6 AM. I set the kitchen timer for 32 minutes with a feeling of quiet dread.

For me, praying is similar to swimming. There are times when my prayer is an effortless as a smooth back stroke. There is a frantic dog-paddling when I can barely get my head above water. Last night's 4 AM prayer session was definitely "dog paddle" prayer.

My intense anxiety felt like a form of spiritual asthma. I couldn't catch my breathe. Everything seemed wrong and overwhelming. I didn't know how I'd get to an urgent care appointment for my eye with three young kids in tow. I had no idea how I was going to get through the next 18 weeks of pregnancy . . . and another c-section recovery . . . the overwhelming newborn stage afterwards.

In the middle of this attack, I kept trying to redirect my thoughts to God. I tried to focus on something higher than all this muck I was currently feeling. I tried to give thanks for my beautiful new baby and my beautiful, overwhelming life.

My prayer session at 4:00-4:30 AM this morning stunk. God didn't care.

At 5:00 AM, on the way back to bed, I stopped by the bathroom. After 21 hours, my lost contact finally appeared. I removed it from my eye with relief.

My husband woke me up at 6:00 AM to say my Daily Office. Dispute my lack of sleep, I was cheerful at the breakfast table.

Since that time, I've been on fire. For the first time in two weeks, my sciatic nerve pain is gone. This morning, I put a simple dinner together in our crockpot. It was so wonderful to be up and about in the kitchen again that I felt like Julie Child. Since then, I've worked steadily on my long to do list. It's amazing but the stuff that seemed totally overwhelming at 4 AM this morning is slowly getting finished.

I hope I remember in the future, that whenever I hate my life, it's all in my head.

My work load stays the same everyday as a mother. The kids stay the same. No matter how long my to do list is, by God's grace it does eventually get finished.

My job most important job in life is to keep an level head and keep praying so matter how high the waves seem to crash over my head.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's A Girl!

I had my 20 week sonogram today. Turns out the baby that we'd nicknamed "Baby Max" for three months is actually a GIRL! Hannah is over the moon! Little Mimi was so sweet. She kept saying "Baby is so CUTE" over and over, even when the picture on the sonogram machine showed a foot or a leg bone.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Perfect House- That Wasn't

Last weekend, my husband and I experienced a house-hunting fiasco. Thank heavens, God has granted us the protective shield of poverty!

Just in time for Holy Week this year, we received notice that the rent for our two bedroom apartment will increase by 10% in June. We prayed about it for days. We finally decided to renew our lease for another year. (We're expecting baby number four in August and it seemed like a good idea to keep things on an even kneel next year.) We called the rental office and told them to send over a new lease for us to sign.

Last Wednesday, for no clear reason, my husband and I started shopping for houses online. We found a townhouse that seemed perfect; three bedrooms, on three floors, next door to a twenty-six acre State Park. Since we're city people, finding a home for sale were you could actually hunt deer in the backyard while still remaining less than four miles from a Subway Station seemed incredible.

The next day, my husband spoke to the bank and found out that we qualify for a conventional mortgage with a decent interest rate. For two poor Carmelites with massive student loans and a spotty credit rating, qualifying for a mortgage in this economy seemed like a miracle. We had no doubt that God wanted us to buy this house in time for the new baby! We emailed all of our Catholic friends and asked them to start praying to St. Joseph to help us find a new house.

On Thursday night, my husband and I couldn't sleep. We added up all the housing costs associated with the "perfect house." The difference between renting our apartment and owning this house was $1,000 a month! My husband and I were giddy with excitement. All the things we could do with that money! We go to the dentist. We could get haircuts. We could buy a real dining room table. We could pay off those pesky student loans. We could finally buy a car!

Yet, I still had a nagging feeling. A new house meant attending a new Catholic Church that wasn't accessible by public transportation. Until we saved enough money to buy ourselves a car, our family couldn't attend Daily Mass. It didn't seem right that after a year of patiently attending 7 AM Mass with her Daddy on the bus, my daughter suddenly couldn't go to Daily Mass days after her First Communion.

In addition, my husband's 10 minute bike commute to work would suddenly turn into a 2 hour commute on the bus. Every time, I got excited about the new house, I'd get an image of holding a fussy newborn in my arms while anxiously waiting for my husband to walk through our new front door at 7:35 PM.

I shared these problems with my husband. Jon solved them quickly. We'd take our immediate tax refund from the new house and buy him a moped. He could be home from work in 20 minutes. He'd get a child's helmet for Hannah and on weekday mornings Daddy and daughter could keep up their Daily Mass routine.

The moped. The $8,000 April Tax Break. Our surprising mortgage. Everything seemed to be falling into place. I pridefully told a girlfiend "See, God takes care of all of our needs! This is how Carmelites shop for houses!"

On Saturday, Jon voted to send me and Hannah to look at the new house first with our real estate agent. "You go pick out the house. You're the one who has to live in it all day. I'm totally comfortable with your decision," my husband said, supremely confident of our online research.

My house shopping trip was supposed to be a one stop, straight up or down vote. Either we'd put an offer on this perfect house that comfortably fit our budget or we'd sign our lease for another year. There was no sense shopping for prettier, more expensive homes nearby. Or budget didn't leave room for a "slightly more expensive" home. Besides, we didn't need to look around. We were doing process easily with God's help!

Armed with a digital camera, a notebook, and a booster seat, Hannah and happily jumped into our real estate agent's car at 10:45 AM on Saturday morning.

When we got to our destination, I had a shock. The "perfect house" was a newly renovated townhouse in a rough neighborhood. The neighbors had torn sheets in their windows. There was loud music with raunchy lyrics blasting through the yard. Broken glass and beer bottles were scattered over the parking lot. A mangy, angry dog paced the sidewalk nearby without a leash or an owner in sight.

I opened the car door and hesitated. It was 11 AM on a Saturday morning and I was afraid to get out of the car.

Inside, the "perfect" townhouse was better than advertised. There were granite counter tops in the kitchen and freshly laid carpet on the floor. Upstairs, I couldn't hear the thumping, suggestive music of the neighbor next door. I stood in the sunny master bedroom with the perfect sized nursery next door and had a crazy thought:

"We could do this! We can buy this house. I'll simply never go outside unless Jon is with me!"

Thankfully, God gave me a husband to keep me grounded in reality. Once I got home and described the house, Jon made a firm decision. "Don't even tell me anymore about the home's good points. We're NOT going to buy a house where you'll be scared to sit on our front patio at 11 AM on a Saturday Morning!"

So we didn't put an offer on the "perfect house". We didn't try to bid on the house nearby in a nicer neighborhood that cost $30,000 more. Instead, we stayed still. We ate humble pie. We licked our wounds.

Many days later, I told my husband that our hysterical excitement over the "perfect" house smelled a little like an evil. "There are only two things that are going to keep me sane and centered when our new baby arrives in August," I said, "Jesus and Jon."

That "perfect" new house would have taken away both supports in one move.

Last week, I was ready to trade off easy access to Jesus in the Eucharist at Daily Mass and four hours of extra time with Jon a day in order to have a cheap three bedroom house filled with lots of pretty things from Target.

This week I'm thankful that God sometimes protects me from myself.

Poverty is a great blessing. It's a shield that keeps us from harm. It's like a thick rut that keeps us firmly planted inside God's Will for our lives. I don't have the money to run out and buy a more expensive house in a better neighborhood this week. Instead, I've got to stay put and keep trusting that God will bring us a new home at the right time and the right price.

Meanwhile, I'll spend next year with luxury of many extra hours with Jesus and Jon. My two pearls of great price. Even as a poor Carmelite, I'm a rich and pampered girl, after all.

St. Theresa of Avila, pray for us materialistic Americans to better appreciate the virtue of poverty.

The Importance of Keeping Your Memory Clear

When you pray, you engage the three faculties of your soul; the intellect, the memory and the will.

The most important part for us is our "will." God greatly rewards our desire for prayer and holiness. Before each prayer session try a simple prayer for purity of intention. "God I want to pray right now. Help me to pray better."

The intellect is that "thinking" part of our soul that is easy distracted during prayer. It's the part that mentally composes a grocery list during our set-aside prayer time. St. Theresa of Avila describes the intellect as "the mad woman in the house!" While calming the intellect gets easier with practice, God has assured St. Theresa that we will all struggle with a distracted intellect until we die.

That leaves "memory." Memory is the "gunk" in our brains, the residue from everything that we've seen, heard and or tasted in the past. Everything from our senses gets imprinted into our memory. Often times this gunk can distract us during prayer.

If we're trying to pray better, one of the most important things we can do is strive to keep our memory 'clean'. We can avoid negative images that distract us from God and instead court holy, positive images that lift our minds and hearts to heaven.

The good news is that to strive to keep a clean memory, doesn't require a massive effort to shut off every TV channel except for EWTN. If we spend regular time in prayer, God will take care of the rest.

For example, a couple in my Carmel community loved to watch comedy routines together. This was a major part of each evenings entertainment for them. The wife told my husband that after four months in Carmel, she and her husband could no longer watch some of their favorite comedians. They had to turn off the TV in the middle of a formerly beloved comedy hours because the jokes had become too painful to listen to anymore.

My husband told her that this was a healthy sign of a growing prayer life. Formerly, mean spirited jokes and the constant misuse use of Lord's name didn't bother this couple. Now that this couple prayed more, they became more "sensitive" and could easily decide to tune out things that negatively impacted their memory.

St. James tells us to keep our thoughts on heaven and not on earth.

Happy Praying this Easter Season!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Attempts to Better Discern People

A dear friend introduced me to St. Ignatius of Loyola's concept of "discerning spirits." In a nutshell, things that incite fear and depress our desire for God are from "bad spirits" and things that incite love of God and raise our hearts to heaven are from "good spirits." This litmus test works great for discerning reading material, TV programs and movies.

Lately, I've thought about applying this concept more consciously to the friends in my life.

I had a funny moment last Wednesday. An old co-worker from Ohio called, she said she was planning to visit D.C. and hoped to meet up me and my kids at the National Zoo early next Thursday.

As any local knows, a trip to the zoo is a difficult task on a good day. Our National Zoo is built on a steep incline, more like a mini-mountain, in the middle of Woodley Park. A visit to the zoo with a toddler means pushing a heavy stroller up a 70 degree angle for hours.

When my friend called I was in bed, hunched in a fetal position with an ice pack on my spinal cord. Pregnancy has caused my bad sciatic nerve problem to flair up. I've literally spent three days lying prostrate on the floor or hobbling around my apartment, trying to avoid taking serious pain medication in order to shield my wee baby from any unknown side effects.

There I lay, a cripple, a pregnant woman doubled over in pain taking to a girl who I haven't seen in six years and cheerfully agreeing "Sure, no problem! We'd love to meet you at the zoo next week!"

I didn't fully realize the absurdity of a pregnant woman pushing a double stroller up "the zoo hill" alone with a sciatic nerve problem until the next day.

As I mused about other options for meeting up in the city during her visit, I started having cold chills. I recognized that there other aspects of our phone call were disquieting my spirit. My old friend was shocked to discover that I'm now pregnant with a fourth child. Our tense phone conversation didn't signal a comfortable and relaxed reunion after six years.

I now think that my back pain is a sign from God that I'm not supposed to be a cheerful tutor guide to an old friend from my pre-conversion life next week.

I realize now that I'm now longer a lady who is available for leisurely Saturday brunches. I'm no longer, the "no problem girl." I now have five people's needs to consider before saying "yes", the youngest of which is entirely dependent upon me for air, moisture and food. It's time to trim the friendship tree to refocus on my family

There are other negative influences from "friends" that I need to avoid. The hardest ones to spot are fellow Catholics.

I've ran into a couple of church friends who subtly attack my vocation as a wife and mother. "Oh, you need to get away from all those kids!" "You can't stay locked up in your house forever!" These false friends come with offers of a free lunch or demands that I volunteer for a church project with a large time commitment. The bitter taste comes from their insistence that they are doing me a "favor" that the demands of motherhood are awful and unreasonable and that "I deserve a break."

Oh course, the breaks that these false friends offer are not ones that truly refresh to my soul. For example, these friends don't offer to babysit so that I can spend an hour of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, or take a walk in among cherry blossoms, or sip a cup of decaf coffee with my beloved husband. Instead, God is the one who sprinkles these little "refreshment" stops throughout my week.

Instead, false friends will attempt to "rescue me from my life" in ways that are self-serving and stressful. Their conversations disquiet my soul and make me doubt the wisdom of committing myself fully to my vocation.

Our work as mothers is hard. Yet it is also good. Our vocation is a form of cement that holds the church together. The small things we do; cook meals, clean clothes, make sure our loved ones can walk on the kitchen floor most days without gross things crunching under their feet- is humble work. Yet our work is no way boring or intellectually unstimulating.

When we do our mothering in union with GOD- the universe is open to our contemplation. We find rest for our weary spirits and our hurting backs.

The next time someone pats me patronizingly on the shoulder and offers to take me away from my awful life for a "free lunch" or "stimulating worldly conversation at the zoo," I hope I say no.

I'm too busy to dance with the Devil voluntarily anymore. My dance card is filled with G-O-D.

How to Teach A Reluctant Boy Subtraction

Our Kindergarten Word Problem of the Day:

"If there were 10 people on an airplane that landed on Jurassic Park Island and a mean Dino ate 3, how many people are left?"

To figure out the answer to 10-3=7, Alex drew a picture of 10 people running from a fierce Dino and then drew a bloody red x on three of the victims. I'm not sure how thrilled our home school reviewer will be with this teaching method, but it works! My son got the tricky conception of subtraction mastered in one day. Hurrah for our new invention of "Dino Math!"

Thursday, April 8, 2010

My Artistic Life

Somewhere in Brighton, England, exists a woman who spends hours of her life and thousands of dollars from her household budget recreating the "the gritty reality,"of family life in the City inside her dollhouse.

As the New York Times," states today: "Annina Günther, a graphic designer in Brighton, England. . . has four dollhouses, which she stages for photographs that she posts on her blog, Miniatures by Annina, and on Flickr. The pictures are remarkably evocative and artistic: with rain boots and trash bags left by the door and notes taped to the mirror, the rooms have a lived-in quality and urban melancholy reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.

“I am not creating dream places,” she said. “I want to show the reality, the grit and the mess of living in the city.”

Meanwhile in Washington D.C., this tired, pregnant Mom spends hours of her life futility cleaning up "the grit and the mess of living in the city"inside her real life apartment.

You've got to love the irony of the situation.

After looking at Ms. Günther's amazing photos, I'm inspired to stop cleaning and start charging admission to the modern art exhibit inside my house. I'd call it "Real Life Mess: So Much Less Appealing On A True Scale."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Slight Difference in Penance

I mentioned yesterday that our lovely Washington Post published a dramatic insult to the Roman Catholic priesthood on Monday.

Abby's protest: Wrote a letter to the Editor. Vowed to Abstain from reading the Post for one week

Jon's Protest: Vowed to never read the the paper again in his lifetime!

At dinner tonight, Jon said "After that insult, never again will the Post cross my doorstep."

My husband is a temperate man who means what he says. I laughed so hard at his comment that I started to choke. What a difference in penance! I thought I was doing good by refusing to buy the Post when I took the kids to Burger King. Meanwhile, my husband responds to an attack on the priesthood by making a lifetime vow to never subscribe to our city's one major newspaper again.

I'm so blessed that God yoked me together with this man. If it was up to me and my easy going nature, I'd think that a stubbed toe was a big enough cross to merit heaven.

Holy Thursday

Today is the great celebration of the priesthood and the sacraments (Eucharist and Confession) which they give to us, the faithful.

If you haven't heard about "spiritual motherhood" or "adoption of a priest", it's a neat concept. Basically, every act we do as Catholics in a state of grace can be offered up to help a priest.

What's on your to do list today? Making lunch? Picking up legos? Washing yucky smelling children's underwear? Make an act of consecration offering your whole day to Mary for the benefit of the priesthood. Or pick a few chores that you hate, then do them with extra love today, to help a priest carry his cross.

Let us pray for all priests, today. Pray for the holy priest to burn with more zeal, pray for the tired priests to find rest, pray for the persecuted priest to find courage, pray for the lukewarm priests to reignite their faith, and pray for the scandal-causing priest to feel repentance.

Our dear Fathers in Christ have a hard task. Their job is to save souls for Christ. They have all the same concerns as our dear husbands; lack of time, financial pressures, disobedient children and difficult co-workers. In addition, our priests are under relentless attacks from the Devil. For example, my hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, just "happened" to publish a scathing cartoon which attack the priesthood just in time for Holy Week.

Our prayers and our smiles at Mass make a huge difference! St. John Vianney pray for us!